on American Idol playing with Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor—their involvement has been a bullet-point in every discussion about the show.
“Roger and Brian just want the music represented the way they want it represented,” said James.
And that means what?
“A little of the studio, a little of the live, the energy, some flamboyancy. And all that mixed into its own bag, its own thing and it becomes the Queen Extravaganza.”
“That’s My Bag.”
Directly before this gig, James was mixing Lucinda Williams—a very big change in vibe and feel. But before that it was three years with the re-formed INXS and before that a couple of years with Journey. “Classic rock bands that replaced their singers. That’s my bag,” he joked. “I was really hoping that AC/DC would replace their singer because I desperately wanted to mix that band.” James has the dry Brit humor thing totally going but, not to be outdone I asked, “Again you mean?” Much laughter ensued. You kind of had to be there. But it was a fun interview.
So on to the part you all want to know about—the gear. James is out on a DiGiCo SD10 wi. “I have been mixing on DiGiCo for a long time. The D5, the SD7, the D1 but this is my first time out on the SD10. There are some differences that i had to wrap my head around but overall it is very familiar and I really like it.”
Interview with James McCullagh Part 1.
Internal effects or Waves plugs? “All of the above,” James said. “I use some of the internal processing but I am a heavy user of the Waves plug-ins. I love them. They’re amazing. They sound fantastic.” He fires up the sends and runs us through the set-up. “I have an SSL Bus Comp, a C6 compressor, and L3 limiter across my mains. The multiband compression of the C6 allows him to better shape the show to the room. “Depending on the room, instead of pulling out a bunch of high end, I sometimes just squash the highs a bit more so it’s dynamic. That way when you have a slow song its still got that air and when you have a loud song it’s not tearing your face off.”
Interview Part 2: McCullagh talks DiGiCo and Waves Plugins.
One of the things he finds most attractive about the SD10 is the ability to truly A-B processing. “One of the great things about this console is that it has an A and a B insert. So if you’re really pedantic, you can take the hardware unit and the software unit and A-B between the two. I own a few of the hardware units…”
So has he done the A-B thing?
“I’ve done an A-B between the API 2500 hardware and software. They are very close. They’re not identical. The software is a clone, you know? The analog unit is always going to be better because it’s the original. The thing that the Waves plug-ins do really well is that they have the same feel, the same sound, the same vibe. When you’re choosing an API 2500 over an SSL Bus Comp over an 1176, you’re going for a certain style, a certain something that the compressor or EQ gives you. That is what the plug-ins do very well. I’m in a different room every day, with a different PA every day and no one is going to be able to tell the difference between the real API and the plug-in. Or the real SSl Bus Comp and the plug in because of the other variables.”
And those vocals are the biggest challenge of the gig. (The band boasts four lead singers and every one of the five players also sing. A lot.) “I have nine open vocal mics on that small stage,” he says. “And we have loud guitars and loud drums.” Indeed both Tristan Avakian and Brian Gresh, the two guitarists on the show are playing through a Vox AC30 opened up to about 80% That’s loud before you ever put a mic on it. Also note the the 80% number is what we were told by the guitar players. And you know guitar players. 80% means more like 90%+.
“There’s a lot of things going through those vocal mics and it’s my job to reign it all in.” Um, James? Big understatement.
Another understatement: The band is amazing
Yes, he has all the tech he needs available to recreate the signature vocal and guitar harmonies that even the real Queen was not able to do live. But he does not use all of those tools. Many in the live audio tribe these days are stuck with the job of “polishing a turd.” In other words, just because you client is a star does not mean he or she or they can play or sing. As a friend playing trumpet on a major, A-list tour some years ago told me after noting that there were four 8-channel record/playback units in the rack (this before the ubiquity of Pro Tools made it all easy), “I am playing the parts every night into a mic but i have no idea if what i am playing is even in the PA.” The hard (and sad) truth is that many shows may have a band onstage but there are more tracks running through the PA than actual parts being played by actual people holding (continued)