Best known for his hit singles, We Found Love, This Is What You Came For, Summer, and Feel So Close, Calvin Harris recently completed his six-week DJ residency at Ushuaia in Ibiza, flying out for each of his tour dates in-between. FOH engineer, Nathan Lettus, was brought on to the tour last minute, specifically requesting that an SSL console was used to support Harris mixing songs on the fly.
Having been with American rock band, Chicago, for ten years, FOH engineer Nathan Lettus is very much used to working on rock and pop music. During that entire run with the band, he was happily using a console of his choosing, until he met up with a good friend – FOH engineer for The Killers, who was using SSL.
“I’d seen one of the SSL Live consoles before, but I hadn’t had a chance to play with it much; I ended up mixing most of the opening acts on the console, and just really enjoyed it,” he says.
Following this, Lettus immediately switched to an SSL L200 console, using it on Jessie J’s entire run in 2018, and on The Bizarre World Of Frank Zappa hologram tour.
“Across the platform, the SSL consoles all sound alike – it’s just a matter of layout,” Lettus explains. “The L200 has three banks of faders side by side, so the console is quite wide, but it’s laid out so that all of the faders are at your fingertips. That’s why I opted for the L200 and ran with that for a bit.”
Harris’ usual FOH engineer left the tour at the last minute, which was when Lettus was asked to join. Rental company, Major Tom, was able to find an L100 to use on the Calvin Harris tour, and Lettus hasn’t looked back since, favouring the console’s 12 + 2 fader configuration frame, fast access layer/bank switching, and Super-Q technology to ensure no channel, group, aux, VCA or master is ever far away.
“I’d been eyeballing the L100 since it came out,” he admits. “At one point, it looked like from a logistical standpoint it was easier to go with another console, but SSL and Major Tom worked it out, and I’m way happier having L100 with us. Calvin’s live gigs get quite loud, but he’s a really good producer and engineer in his own right, so he is doing stuff live – it’s not like he’s just playing tracks. He is up there mixing songs on the fly. All of the tracks he has sound really good, so the quality is always very good.”
Lettus says that he is running more channels than you might expect with Harris: the primary channel is the stereo digital at 96kHz which comes direct from Harris’ DJ rig, plus a backup, and then two further analogue backups.
“We’re backed up multiple times, just in case anything were to happen. There’s a split-off of his mic, so I have individual control over his vocal from the booth, and there are four RF mics in case we have any guests pop in.”
Almost everything for the show is on one layer:
“I can fit everything in on 12 faders – that’s all channels, and also any reverbs for the guest mics – and on a secondary layer, I’ll have outputs for the PA.”
Due to his Ibiza residency, Harris flies in a few hours before every show before heading back. Lettus, however, arrives approximately five hours before a gig.
“So I’m actually not really hearing the system. I go to these shows and hear one note from Calvin when he starts. Yet I find that we are very consistent in the booth for the entire rig – the only thing that changes is the PA, and then it’s just the empty house verses the full house. I have to fine tune the PA on the fly due to the nature of flying in on the day of the show for the festivals.”
What’s really caught the FOH engineer’s attention is the L100’s transparency.
“Other consoles are almost surgical-sounding and have no warmth, but with SSL there is a natural warmth; it has a musical characteristic which I find that the other console manufacturers across the board just don’t have. It might be due to SSL being around for as long as they have,” Lettus says. “The other thing is, when you put your hands on the desk it just feels very well made. I’ve been using these consoles for a while and haven’t had any issue with any of them. I’ve also taken a tour at SSL’s HQ, and it was really nice to see where they came from, and the care they take in building these things from the ground up – that process of selecting every piece that goes into a build. You can tell when you put your hands on it that it is a really well-made product that is not going to have a problem on the road – being put up and taken down nightly.”
Another highlight for Lettus is the quality of the console’s EQ.
“You can easily hear a 1-2dB change, as opposed to another console, where you’re pushing 4 or 5dB to get the same audible difference. It speaks volumes about the quality,” he insists. “Hearing this subtle change in a studio or using headphones is normal, but in a live environment, it’s really not – and to me that shows the transparency of these consoles.”
In terms of stems, the only thing coming from Harris is straight stereo, although the artist has four decks that he mixes with on the fly.
“It’s a very visual show, so lighting and video are cueing off of him, and we have a set of fibre optics that run from the booth to the DJ deck, so we can see what he is cueing up and what is coming,” Lettus says, adding that Harris’ source material is so polished that adjustments at his end are minimal. “The tracks that come from him are very well produced; rarely do they ever go through more than 2dB of compression ever. The challenge more than anything is getting the PA sounding right on a daily basis. It’s really nice to have stuff coming in sounding that good!”
However, Lettus does use SSL’s inbuilt sub-harmonic FX rack synthesiser here and there, running that as a mono stem, which he sends Harris’ stereo to via an FX return. This is mostly called upon for live effects to get that extra layer that doesn’t sit in the content.
“On other shows with full bands I am using the SSL channel compressors on everything, and I think they sound great,” he says. “With those shows, I’m reaching for about three or four of the bus compressors; and if I have a band with multiple vocals and harmonies, I’ll take that and send it to a global stem – I use this on pretty much every vocal channel and it always sound so great. I genuinely can’t speak highly enough about the console.”
In terms of the desk’s onboard effects, Lettus is a big fan of the verbs and delays.
“I don’t like having to go to a plugin company,” he says. “SSL is plug and play, and I can get along with everything ‘in the box’. Being able to have as many compressors as I want is a huge selling point, but the verbs and the delays all sound so good. It’s nice to not have to go and make things more complicated than they need to be!”
And because he’s using an SSL SB 16.12 Dante Stagebox, his workflow becomes easier still:
“I have multiple AES and analogue inputs right there at the stage, and then it runs fibre optic out to the front for one box on stage, so we get both the digital and the analogue inputs in the same box; and it comes straight to the console from there,” Lettus explains. “It’s been nice, and it’s the first time I’ve played with that particular box. All the other shows I’ve done have been on the regular analogue MADI stageboxes, which are also great, but because the SB 16.12 has digital inputs where the MADI stage boxes do not, this worked perfectly for this show as we needed four digital inputs plus eight analogue inputs. The primary source from Calvin is coming out digitally with analogue backup, so the fact that SSL has that box makes everything so much easier than trying to get AES to go to front of house somehow. It would have been really challenging, had we not had that SB 16.12 stage box.”