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Gold Standard – Cliff says ‘Thank you’ with Yamaha consoles on 50th anniversary tour

Feb,2009

With 50 years in the industry under his belt, the professionalism and attention to detail that Cliff Richard pays to his live shows are well-known. In November he did a three-week UK arena tour to celebrate the anniversary, with a pair of Yamaha PM5D consoles wired for sound at the front of house and monitor positions.

The professionalism is very apparent as the show is set up, where an air of quiet efficiency surrounds the installation of what is a complex live event. Everything works like a well-oiled machine, with everyone knowing exactly what is required without having to ask. This is achieved by Cliff building long-term relationships with the people that work with him. Monitor engineer John ‘JJ’ James has been there for a remarkable 29 years, with front of house man Mike ‘Bunny’ Warren still a bit like the new boy with a mere 12 years under his belt!

And, despite it being just a three week, 14 show tour playing in seven UK arenas, the 50th Anniversary Time Machine tour was in production rehearsals for a surprising five weeks.

“That’s why he’s always good, he’s a perfectionist,” says Bunny Warren. “The most important thing to him is that everyone has a good show and he doesn’t mind paying and putting the time in to achieve that. It also means that there isn’t the period of ‘warming up’ on tour that you get with many acts - the first show of a Cliff Richard tour is always amazing because we’ve spent so much time doing it.”

The complexity of the live show is such that both Bunny and JJ have the entire show set up as scenes on their respective PM5Ds supplied, along with the rest of the audio rig, by Britannia Row Productions.

“The set list is set in stone,” smiles JJ. “Everything is done to a time coded click track, because there are parts where what is happening onstage interacts with playback on the video screens and there are also video inserts between songs which are precisely timed.

“I’m mixing Cliff and the other live performers manually, but the scenes are critical because of the show’s complexity. In addition, different musicians play different instruments, there are eight tracks of playback - a few loops, just bits of percussion and the odd orchestra fills.

“I feel I should be an old dinosaur saying that analogue is wonderful, but this is fantastic. I’ve used the PM5D pretty much since its introduction, there’s no racks and outboard to worry about. It’s just all there in the console, it all makes a lot of sense and it sounds great. I love it.”

The six piece band, four backing vocalists and Cliff are all on in-ears, with two small side fills, primarily for the tour’s dancers to have a direct audio reference for their routines, rather than relying on the sound coming back from the house a split second later.

“Cliff has been on in-ears since the very first VHF ones came out, he’d absolutely loved them since the first time he put them in,” says JJ. “I believe he was the first in this country to use them - Stevie Wonder had the first lot and Cliff had the second. He’s never looked back since.

“I do have a few wedges dotted around as a backup, but they’re muted. Nothing’s ever gone wrong yet, but I know the day I don’t put them out something will!”

All apart from Cliff use Aviom units to do their own monitor mixes, freeing JJ to concentrate on the star performer.

“It’s quite a task because he doesn’t use set lists or autocue. I call the show to him on his in-ears,” JJ continues. “I run a laptop on the console with a Word document which has sheets of cues . I tell him the next song, where he chats and so on. It really helps to make the show run smoothly and it means he doesn’t have to worry, he can just concentrate on delivering a great performance.

“There’s an awful lot to remember, it’s a long show, he’s got dancing to do and all sorts. It also helps with things like him avoiding saying ‘Hello Belfast’ when he’s in Beijing. It all adds up to making the show as good as possible.”

All effects JJ uses are from within the PM5D, including inserted reverbs on the brass, flutes and saxes, with the usual use of EQ, gating and compression which all monitor engineers apply.

“Depending on the hall, Cliff uses quite a lot of reverb. He likes a bit of the Symphonic effect as well. And of course he has 68 year old ears, so he needs the high frequencies boosting,” JJ continues.

“As long as you have the right number of ins and outs you’re away. You don’t have to worry if any particular outboard will work on that show, it’s all in there.

“To me it’s like the SM58 of digital boards. You know exactly what you’re getting and it just works. I’ve never known one of these not to do exactly what it says on the tin. I’ve also never had a PM5D fail. Not once.”

At front of house, Bunny Warren is using 47 of the PM5D’s 48 channels, the only outboard being an Avalon compressor on Cliff’s vocals, an Al Smart compressor on the female backing vocalists and a pair of Yamaha SPX990 multi-effects.

“I use a lot of one-off effects in the show, so I use the SPX units on drums and stuff, just to help free up the internal processor for other things,” says Bunny.

His job is a tough one, because Cliff Richard fans are notoriously dedicated. And their expectations of live sound are high.

“With Cliff fans, everyone has to hear it,” he continues. “They’re a very demanding audience. They all want to hear absolutely everything and if we don’t deliver that we’ll get people complaining ‘I couldn’t hear what he said to me a moment ago.’

“That’s one of the most important things we have to deal with, but the emphasis is on both quality and power. We’re running at around 98-102dBA at the mix position. People are quite surprised at we’re running at those sort of levels at a Cliff show. But then I’ll bring it down a bit for the ballads. The critical thing is that everyone has to hear every note.”

He continues, “I like the sound to be punchy but not over-loud. I don’t want to see anyone with their fingers in their ears. What I do want to see is people going ‘Yeah that’s great’. I want them to feel like they’ve been to a concert, not listened to a CD.”

To achieve this, the PM5D’s equalisers get a lot of use. Bunny has a unique method of EQing Cliff shows, where he takes some of the low frequencies out so there is still the required punch, but the mix is not hiding frequencies which means he has to push everything else right up.

“It’s a great show to do, because you have to be really thinking all night. You need to be really on your toes,“ he says.

This tour has naturally seen Cliff playing songs from his entire 50 year career. That half century has seen vast changes in both musical styles and audio technology, so Bunny takes advantage of the PM5D’s scenes to mix each song in a way appropriate to its age.

“The early, Shadows-style stuff like Move It and The Young Ones are a more old-fashioned sound than the 1970s and 80s songs like We Don’t Talk Anymore and Wired For Sound, which are again different to his recent material,” says Bunny.

“The early stuff is basically guitar, bass drums and him, then the keyboards come in with the later songs and so on. I try and emphasise that in the way I mix each song, I try and keep the Fifties songs a Fifties-ish sound and so on. It’s not a chronological set list - he starts with the earliest songs and finishes with the latest, but in between he is switching from the 1980s to the 1960s, then the 2000s, then back to the 70s - so the scenes facility allows me to give each song the appropriate style of mix much more easily.”

The PM5D’s combination of audio quality and ease of use is key here, allowing programming to be done quickly and easily, but always delivering exactly the sound required.

“For me the console just makes sense. It’s very logical, intuitive and I have nothing but admiration for it,” says Bunny. “It’s so flexible, you can use it any way you want. And it’s a small footprint so, from a production manager’s point of view, it’s great.”

“Yamaha really got it right. I’ve used a lot of other digital boards and you can’t go wrong with this one,” adds JJ. “I was doing a show with Il Divo in Venezuela and the airfreight company dropped the monitor console. Things were running late and the board was O/S, but they had a PM5D in the building. We got the show done. I don’t think you could achieve that, in such a short timescale, on anything else. The PM5D is the tops, really.”

“As far as I’m concerned its an industry standard,” Bunny concludes. “I used it on Girls Aloud earlier in the year, Mick Hucknall’s tour and other things. It’s something that I ask for wherever possible. I just love it. I very rarely use anything else.”

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