- by George Petersen
in Production Profile
Like so many rock bands, the Switchfoot story started off as guitarist Jon Foreman, his bassist brother Tim Foreman and drummer Chad Butler began rocking out in their San Diego garage. Armed with surfboards and cheap electric guitars, the plan was to finish college at the University of California San Diego, but tempted with an indie record deal from RE:Think records, they set out on the road — and never looked back.
After three successful albums, they brought on keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Jerome Fontamillas and guitar master Drew Shirley and a winning formula took shape that continues to this day.
Ten studio albums later, the band is currently on the second leg of a North American tour supporting its Looking for America album, which has been delighting fans in a seemingly unceasing string of theater and large club venue performances.
We recently caught up with FOH engineer Ryan Nichols, who has been at the helm for the band for an astonishing 14 years. He spoke candidly and at length about the tour, and his approach to mixing.
The Early Days
Nichols did not attend audio school, but began in the late-80’s at the then-fledgling music business program at Virginia’s James Madison University in Virginia. His French horn chops weren’t quite at symphony standards, so he began working in the college’s small ADAT and reel-to-reel equipped studio.
“The French horn professor was looking for students interested in live audio, so I started running sound for jazz band and show choir gigs,” Nichols recalls. “I got a crash course in live sound. About the same time, my roommate starts a group, which went on to become the band ‘Everything,’ which had a hit with the song ‘Hooch’ (Who Got the Hooch). I did sound for them, stayed with that for about 10 years, learning as I went.”
As it turns out, the Dave Matthews Band started in 1989 about the time (and area) as Everything. “We’d even do shows like frat gigs together in the days when the Dave Mathews Band was a five-piece group with an audio guy, a van and a trailer. When they did their first real bus tour, they called Everything — who I was doing sound for — to open for ‘Under the Table and Dreaming’ — their first national tour. This solidified my relationship with the Dave Mathews Band and its FOH engineer Jeff Thomas.”
Nichols continued doing live sound gigs, but living in Mouth of Wilson, VA proved difficult, as the better gigs were Charlottesville and Washington D.C., which made for one- to two-hour commutes — a tough drive home after a 2 a.m. show wrap.
“I needed to get back out on the road, and Jeff asked me to go out with the Dave Matthews band as their live recording engineer and occasionally mix opening acts. About the same time, I also started working for Ultrasound as one of their P.A. techs. I learned a lot from their audio crew, and production manager Hank McHugh was incredibly helpful. I also learned from all the lighting guys at TMS [Theatrical Media Services, of Omaha] and I still use them on Switchfoot tours. It was a little bit of ‘being in the right place at the right time’ and plenty of ‘work your ass off to get the job done.’”
The Switchfoot Connection
The Dave Matthews Band mostly tours during the summer and towards the end of Nichol’s four-year tenure with the group, he moved to California from the mountains of Virginia. “This substantially increased my cost of living” Nichols explains, “so while the Dave Matthews Band was off, I started doing pickup gigs for other artists. A couple months later, Switchfoot called me to do some dates. I dug their music and it perfectly fit in with my breaks from the Dave Matthews band. I started with a little two month West Coast tour and I’ve been with them ever since.”
For most of Switchfoot outings, the band travels with a small crew, consoles and monitors, and relies on the venue P.A. Sound company Clair Global is supplying the FOH console and mics on the “Looking for America” tour.
However, the “different P.A. every night” concept doesn’t seem to bother Nichols, who points out the advantages of the approach. “With Switchfoot, I can arrive at a venue about 10 or 11 a.m. If we were carrying full P.A., I would be loading in at 7 or 8 a.m. every day, which can be brutal, especially as we’re usually doing six or seven shows a week. Days off are few and far between,” he explains.
“After doing it this way for so long, I’m at the point where I know what a P.A. needs to sound like and how to successfully mix Switchfoot on it. The ability to mix my band and make it sound great night after night on different P.A.’s challenges me.”
The FOH Position
Nichols’ console of choice is an Avid SC-48 or VENUE Profile. “I’m comfortable on those and can seamless record to Pro Tools. I don’t really use a lot of plug-ins, so DSP power isn’t an issue. Also the patching on it is fast and I can do it 20 seconds, such as when my monitor guy calls and tells me we are going to have a last-minute guest artist he’s patched on input 30. I put him on a channel and we’re ready to go. I like things simple and easy. Stuff happens to me on the fly all the time and I can’t have it take five minutes for me to get something patched and set up.”
Although Nichols doesn’t go overboard on the plug-in lineup, he does have a few favorites. “I have Smack! [compressor/limiters] on a couple things; Waves C6 and C4 multiband compressors on my lead singer and acoustic guitar, which they really enhance. My bass player is really into his tone and has a Fractal with everything dialed up exactly the way it is in the studio, so I don’t feel the need to doctor that.”
And these days, he tries to try to keep things simple. “For a while I was really into using a lot of plug-ins. Once, when we were overseas, something happened to my dongle and I had to do a week of shows without plug-ins,” Nichols recalls. “First I thought ‘this is gonna suck,’ and then it sounded okay and I wasn’t sure if it sounded worse or better. Back at home, I A/B’d everything, went back to focusing on old-school fundamentals like mic placement and gain structure — and I found I didn’t need all those plug-ins.”
Nichols also found that an old-school trick can be useful in a modern rock mix. “On Jon, my lead singer, I use quite a bit of ‘verb and a bit of the Voice Doubler effect from the Yamaha SPX990 — factory preset #35. It’s a stereo pitch shift (+2/-2) hard-panned right and left with a slight delay of 14 to 18 ms on one side and 21 to 27 ms on the other. I’ve been using it on John’s vocal since day one and can bring it in and out, but it makes his vocal just sit above the guitars and keys.”
He definitely uses longer delays as occasional echo effects on certain songs, but along the way discovered another useful delay application. “I was once working with Grateful Dead engineer Dan Healy back in my Dave Matthews Band days and he suggested using delays — rather than reverbs — to create reverb effects. If you keep some delays down fairly quiet to give the vocal some space and mix that with some reverb, you can create a really nice sonic feel that really opens up vocals, and that also works with guitars.”
Miking the Band
When it comes to microphones, Nichols has a solid philosophy. “In the studio, you might be using a mic to create the tone,” he says, “but live, I just want to reinforce my guys’ sound without coloring it. I am a die-hard fan of the SM58 on Jon [Foreman’s] vocals. It is extremely musical and I can get male vocals to sound good with it and I can make any bleed to sound musical, so I am not fighting it the whole time. For female vocals, I try about six different mics — it’s never the same one.”
The Shure theme continues with the SM57, which he depends on for guitar amps and snare bottom. “On the snare top, I have a Heil PR20, which I love.” Nichols uses Sennheiser 604’s on toms and “I use just a single Shure Beta 91a inside the kick and it sounds great. I have tried dual in-and-out-of-kick miking with an SM52, but the band jumps all over the drum riser, the stand always gets in the way and they kept knocking the mic out. Chad (drummer Chad Butler) uses an Evans EQ Pad [kick pillow] that touches both heads and the 91 sits right in there perfectly. The overheads are Shure KSM-32s and under the ride is a KSM-137. Chad also uses a Roland SPD-S drum pad with a kick trigger pedal with kits he’s designed in it, so there are no tracks. Any sampling is played live and no one is hitting ‘play’ on anything.”
As both the Fractal bass rig and Jon Foreman’s Taylor acoustic both have XLR outputs, DI use is mostly for electronic keyboards and here, Nichols prefers the all-passive ProDI units from Radial Engineering.
Keeping it Simple
Engineer Mark DiCicco’s setup in monitorworld is also kept simple, but effective. The entire band is on in-ears, using Ultimate Ears UE-11s earpieces with Sennheiser G3 wireless packs. The monitor console is a Behringer X-32 Rack, which is compact enough to travel as a carry-on bag.
“The theme here is that people have multiple jobs,” Nichols notes. “I am also the drum tech and have been doing Chad’s drums forever. Mark DiCicco doubles as both monitor engineer and tour manager; stage tech/guitar tech Josh Phiffer and his wife also handle merch.”
Throughout it all, Nichols sticks to a straightforward — and highly effective — approach to mixing. “My mixing comes from the orchestral world, blending ensembles from placing instruments on stage in the right place,” he notes. “If I had one thing to offer to help people mix, it would be to close your eyes while you’re standing there and listen. Don’t look at the screens or meters, and if there’s something wrong with the mix, it will jump out at you.”
But ultimately, it’s all about the band and the music. “I mix with the idea that I am not there to have anyone notice what I am doing. I’m from the school of sound reinforcement. My job is to take what the band is doing and make it louder — in a pleasing and successful way for the audience to enjoy and not make my mark on it.” Seems like sound advice to me.
Switchfoot’s “Looking for America” Tour
- Sound Company: Clair Global (FOH console and front-end)
- FOH Engineer: Ryan Nichols
- Monitor Engineer/Tour Manager: Mark DiCicco
- Stage Tech/Guitar Tech: Josh Phiffer
- Lighting/Video Designer: Travis Stoker
- System: Supplied by venue
- Console: Avid MC-48
- Direct Boxes: Radial ProDI’s.
- Console: Behringer X-32 Rack
- IEMs: Ultimate Ears UE-11s; Sennheiser G3 transmitters
- Mics: Shure SM58s, SM57s, Beta 91a, KSM-32s, KSM-137; Sennheiser MD-409; Heil PR20
The Bose Difference
Nichols is definitely interested in anything he can use to improve the band’s sound, so when he was approached with the idea of trying out Bose Professional’s ShowMatch DeltaQ Line Array (spotlighted in the December 2016 issue of FRONT of HOUSE, page 37), he was willing to give it a try.
Designed to overcome the limitations of installed conventional line-array and point-source speakers, the ShowMatch DeltaQ system is comprised of compact, high-SPL (up to 145 dB) modules with dual 8-inch neodymium woofers flanking a central manifold fed by four neodymium EMB2S compression drivers and interchangeable, field-replaceable waveguide plates that can be mixed/matched to form symmetric or asymmetrical dispersion from 50° to 120°.
“I was really stoked about that Bose P.A.,” says Nichols. ‘It almost didn’t hit me until towards the end of the [first leg of the] tour. I was reflecting on my favorite shows on the tour and 90% of those we when we were using the Bose system. It’s an easy rig to mix on — ‘easy’ being that I know what I’m looking for in terms of the sound. We did five shows on the ShowMatch rig [including Dallas; Boston; Silver Springs, Maryland; and two shows in Chicago] on the first leg, and there are at least two — including one this week at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver [Feb. 3]. There are a lot of great sounding P.A.’s out there, but this is a great sounding P.A.”