Former Supertramp frontman, Roger Hodgson, has been responsible for some of the catchiest, most uplifting numbers we can think of: Dreamer, Give A Little Bit, Breakfast in America. The list is long. The band was due to reform last year, but sadly, fellow bandmate and songwriting legend, Rick Davies, fell ill, and it wasn’t to be. However, Hodgson is still extremely active on the live circuit, and is still writing songs. Furthermore, he is always in search of the next great sound. With that in mind, we sit down with his long-time front of house mainstay, Howard Heckers, to talk multitasking, new technology, and how he almost missed getting this gig altogether!
Howard Heckers’ musical journey began behind a drum kit, and on the keyboards, but it was during some early band recording sessions that he realised audio was perhaps his one true love.
"We would go and make an album, and for some reason, I was never happy with my drum sound, so I sort of dived into that world there and then, really,” Heckers recalls, with a smile. “I then got into the live arena, and people began asking me to do sound in little bars. Gradually, I got better and better, worked in bigger venues with better systems, and more established artists.”
Heckers never worked with Supertramp – and if it wasn’t for his other half, he might never have worked with Hodgson, either.
“About 12 years ago, Roger asked me to do sound for him. It was funny, really, as I almost deleted the email; it was marked as spam,” Heckers laughs. “Thankfully, I told my girlfriend that this guy called Roger Hodgson – whoever he was – had asked me to do his live shows, and she said, ‘hold on, that’s the guy from Supertramp!’ So I was like, ‘oh, ok, I’d better reply!’ So he invited me to do four shows in Holland, Germany, France, and Spain; I did those, and he was happy, and I am still here, so I must be doing something right. In the first year I worked with him, we didn’t even do 20 shows; the next year we did 40, then the following year it was 60; and for the last five years it’s been between 80 and 100 each year, so it’s really grown, you could say!”
Loving how blasé Heckers is about almost never getting the job, the Supertramp fan in me comes to the surface and I begin asking what numbers Hodgson plays at one of his shows.
“Oh, all the big hits,” Heckers smiles. That’s what I wanted to hear! In my head, I’m already planning a route into Hodgon’s Royal Albert Hall show next April. Best not mention that yet. “There were two songwriters in the band: Rick Davies, and Roger. Supertramp were planning a tour in 2015, but Rick cancelled as he had cancer, so Roger was entirely devastated about that.”
Tragic. What a show that would have been. I ask Heckers about his front of house setup. “It’s kind of front of house and monitors, actually,” he says. Do divulge.
“Basically, Roger has a stereo house mix on his in-ears, so the first time we did this, I was a little scared, to say the least, and thought it wouldn’t work like this, but actually it works very well, and is probably the main reason I still have the job,” Heckers explains. “He likes to hear what I’m doing, and sometimes after a show, he’ll come up to me and tell me the bits he loved and the bits he perhaps didn’t like so much. [smiles] But it’s great that we can communicate like that, really.”
Heckers has two master busses on his console: one for Roger, and the other for the PA system.
“Because we fly a lot, we don’t take our own console everywhere, but it always has to be DiGiCo; that’s actually in the contract – seriously – we literally won’t do a show without one,” Heckers reveals, adding that they own one DiGiCo which stays in Europe, and in Canada, they either use an SD7, SD8, or SD10. So why DiGiCo, then? “The number one reason is always the sound. That is everything. We used to tour a [Yamaha] PM5D in the old days, as it was the only console available worldwide, but now that’s all changed. I decided to switch over to DiGiCo, and Roger was really amazed how much better the sound quality immediately was – this was five or six years ago. Another reason is that it’s pretty complicated what we do out there. I mean, I am literally doing in-ears and monitor mixing from the front of house console, so I am wearing a few hats! And it’s not so easy to switch over to another console. In fact, it would take two days to program another one, and I can tell you it wouldn’t sound the same.”
Another crucial element to the Roger Hodgson production is the RME inventory: UFX cards, and the new Babyface interface, which Heckers and Hodgson himself are big fans of.
“Roger was using a Motu soundcard, and Richard DeClemente at RME offered to change that to a UFX; and again, the quality was immediately so much better,” says Heckers. “Roger has three positions on stage - keys, guitar, and piano - and a lot of time we trigger the piano with MIDI. That’s now going to the UFX in his computer, which is running some plugins - and the same for his keyboards. I was already using the RME MADI face for recording, too, as we record every show to multitrack. That’s how we made [Hodgson’s] Classics Live album, which we recorded all over the world, so each song is recorded in a different venue. Roger likes every show recorded multitrack.”
“I carry Babyface in my suitcase, and I am very happy what RME has done with it, as I had the old version, which was a real hassle to use,” he admits. “But Babyface has XLRs in the unit itself, as well as the quarter-inch jacks and MIDI capabilities, and I am now using it mostly for two-track recording for front of house. But Roger uses it a lot, too, for recording in his hotel room to try out his rig. He thinks it’s awesome, as do I, because it’s solid, the sound quality is amazing, and you don’t need any cables, just a USB, and you’re hooked up to your computer. It’s a very easy to use piece of kit, and it’s so easy to transport, plus it does the job great.
“Roger is doing a lot of recording in his hotel room, and out on the road. He’s working on
a new song now, so is probably hooking up a piano or guitar and a vocal and using it to record. What’s nice about everything RME makes is you just download the driver, plug it in, and it works. I’ve had other gear in the past - especially with multitrack recordings - where I’ve been halfway into a two-hour show, and the whole thing has crashed! Now I’m recording 56 channels on a USB 2.0, and it’s never crashed. It’s just an awesome product.”
And the rest of the band think so, too:
“Kevin Adamson, who’s on keys, and Aaron Macdonald, who’s on keys and sax, are both using RME kit. Aaron has a Babyface, and Kevin has a UFX; then Roger has a UFX as well as his Babyface. So we’re all hooked on this gear, basically! Everyone has a computer and an RME soundcard, and all the sounds come from the computer, hooked up with MIDI, and triggered from the computer. Rig up any keyboard, and it works perfectly.”
But the show is still fully live, and there’s no playback, right?
“Oh yeah, completely. We use a lot of great technology, but it’s all live music, and there are no tracks running during the show,” Heckers confirms. “People say to me, ‘it sounds great, but it’s a shame it’s all playback’, because they see the computers. I am always explaining, ‘no it isn’t!’, as the band only ever use the computers for triggering sounds, so actually it’s just a phenomenal live show.”
And what next then? Any chance of coming to that show at the Royal Albert Hall?
“Most definitely,” smiles Heckers. Result. “Next year in production rehearsals, we are looking to do everything digital on MADI, so Roger will be sending a MADI stream to the DiGiCo rack, and the same for Kevin and Aaron, so we’ll have all the keyboards going digital into the DiGiCo. Roger is such a tech freak, and we don’t do normal sound checks: it’s 10 to 15 minutes at the most, and then the tweaking starts! [smiles] He tweaks his sounds the same way on stage as he does in his hotel room with his instruments and laptop, and is forever striving for a better sound. That’s why our stage is full of the latest technology.”