Q&A with Robert Scovill

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in FOH Interview
Robert Scovill on tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 2017
Robert Scovill on tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 2017

Robert Scovill mostly got off the road a few years back to lend his skills and experience to Avid in developing their emerging line of VENUE digital consoles, most recently the SL6. But the road still calls, and when it’s Tom Petty on the other end, he tends to say “Yes.” He came through my town, St. Louis, and he and the band put on a sonically superb show. Apparently, it was not a fluke. As the 40th Anniversary Tour sees the light at the end of the tunnel, I made this extremely busy engineer (and recipient of multiple Parnelli awards for FOH Engineer of the Year) sit down with me.

2017 tour photo by Steve Jennings

FRONT of HOUSE: Robert, congrats on what sure seems like a successful tour…

Robert Scovill: Yeah, I think this tour has surpassed nearly everyone’s expectations, and in the world of Tom Petty, expectations are high to begin with. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this kind of ticket sale energy in my 24 years in the organization.

FOH covered the 2016 Mudcrutch tour last year, where FOH engineer Robert Scovill toured with systems engineer Andrew Dowling. Photo by Steve Jennings

Talk about evolution. This tour is different. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers tend to be low key, and before this, you did the Mudcrutch tour, which was a completely different animal — seems like this 40th tour, all the stops were pulled out.

You know, I’m going to refine your statement of “low key” here. In actuality, it’s simply a lack of pretense in the way they go about things. For example, in my opinion, the recent Mudcrutch albums and subsequent tours were the direct result of that lack of pretense. Here you have Tom on bass along with [guitarist] Mike [Campbell] and [keyboardist] Benmont [Tench] from the Heartbreakers — all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I might add — just simply reconnecting with their band mates from a much earlier and more innocent time in their lives and careers and saying “hey, let’s record some new music and go out and play it in front of people.” And the fans responded wonderfully to that! Especially when you consider that the set was entirely Mudcrutch songs. Not a single Tom Petty or Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers song in the entire set. The tour? Uh yeah, sold out — clean. That’s called credibility, my friends.

From left, the 2017 tour crew - Marcus Douglas, crew chief; Robert Scovill, concert sound engineer; and P.A. techs Matt McQuaid and Vic Wagner.

That’s interesting perspective — the Mudcrutch tour was a big success for sure. But this tour is bigger in many ways. Did you feel extra pressure?

In short, the answer is yes. But it’s just a function of who I am and how I work. By that I mean, Tom, the band or even his management, do not put that pressure on me. I do. I fully expect every time I leave the barn for a tour, that I’m going to move the pile forward. I fully expect to improve on what I did last tour, last year, last month, last week, hell in the last ten minutes and on and on. That pressure comes directly from me.

With Tom, he understands that about me now after working together for so long and cuts me loose with that approach because I’ve built a history of exceeding expectations over time. In so doing, you have a group of musicians and songs that are certainly maturing over the years, but that are also very consistent and reliable tour over tour. But the quality of the presentation of those songs and those band members to their audience must be a continually “in bloom” and that’s what I work toward.

The 2017 TPHB tour is the second to use an EAW Anya system supplied by Sound Image.

I got to see you and the band when you came through St. Louis. I was impressed at how hard you worked. You seemed to really be tuning the room, spending hours that afternoon. Is that typical or was it that particular hockey arena that needed the attention?

Well, I would say that was probably typical. We take the job deadly serious. Some rooms do require more work for certain, but we now have incredible tools in PA technology to achieve previously unheard of quality in the farthest reaches of the room. Using the Adaptive Systems approach from EAW with Anya is just the tip of the spear for how well we are going to be able to do this going forward.

I stand by my statement at AES a couple of years back now, and that we are entering the “Adaptive era” of PA deployment, and everyone should get ready for a really fun ride. A lot of previously difficult work just got a whole lot easier regarding system deployment. That, coupled with virtual sound check capabilities of today’s digital consoles, is going to be the centerpiece of pushing sound quality significantly forward for concert sound, if for no other reason than we now have the time to focus more on mixes than system deployment.

2017 tour photo courtesy K-array

‡‡         Those Drums

Speaking of the St. Louis show, I just have to ask you specifically about the drums. I go to a LOT of shows in that arena, and those drums in particular sounded like they were in some small intimate listening room…how?

Well, that’s a fantastic compliment. So first off, thank you. There’s a lot of things in play that are responsible for it, it’s not just one thing. Firstly, as the mixer you have to “hear” drums a certain way, and then do the things technically necessary to arrive at that sound that exists in your head. That’s job one. Without that part, you don’t make the rest of the journey. After that it’s a matter of picking the source drums and sizes and getting them tuned and then of course miked correctly. Drum tech Steve Rinkov is exceptional at this.

Next, I have some very specific techniques at the console level that I’ve developed over many years of studio work that I’ve transitioned in to live work. Avid S6L provides me the means to do this unlike any console I’ve ever used. After that it’s vitally important to have a PA system that can properly handle, and just as importantly distribute a drum impulse to all targeted locations in the room. Anya is incredible at this seemingly easy, but actually very difficult task. And then the most important component of all, you have to have a great drummer. So I must give my dear friend Steve Ferrone his due here, his choice of drums and his playing has never been better in the Heartbreakers than on this tour. He is a huge part of why the tour is sounding so good this year.

Photo by Andy Tennile

So let’s talk about the Avid S6L…

Honestly, I absolutely love the S6L. I mean, I had better, because I had such a significant hand in its development. But I do truly love it. The sound quality we’re achieving with it is nothing short of remarkable. Now that said, it, like every piece of digital technology in our world today, is in a constant state of development. And in so being there are going to be hiccups and unforeseen challenges along the way.

But I would willingly accept those challenges to achieve what I’m achieving on the console. Those challenges are simply a function of the world we have been thrust in to with digital technologies. If we’re going to survive and thrive, both of us, manufacturers and users alike, are going to need to adapt and find the best way to move forward cause here’s the newsflash folks: as an industry the manufacturing sector is not going back to making large frame analog consoles. It’s important to realize that all the digital console manufacturers are just now fully realizing their second generation of digital consoles and there is still a lot of refinement to be done by everyone involved.

2017 tour photo by Todd Kaplan courtesy Ayrton

Any outboard gear and/or processing in general?

No real outboard gear of note, other than a couple of Eventide pitch change units that are on static settings for lead and background vocals throughout the night. I have them because of the lack of quality pitch change choices in the AAX DSP format for VENUE.

As far as plug ins go, I’m using a considerable amount of Avid, McDSP, and Plug-In Alliance processors. Most of my plug-in work revolves around very specific analog emulation of some key signal paths and some recreated studio approaches on drums etc.

Robert Scovill in a rare moment of repose on the 2017 tour. Photo by Steve Jennings

‡‡         Having a Blast

And Sound Image is again the supplier, as they have been for other Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers tours?

This is our second tour with EAW Anya supplied by Sound Image. We’ve expanded our Anya cabinet count for the tour and replaced our previous front fill package with a customized Otto subwoofer and K-array coaxial front fill package. We learned a great deal in 2014 after being the first major tour to take the Anya system out on a tour. A lot of the lessons learned have been dealt with by EAW in that latest revisions of the software. Other elements are just experience taking over and refining already great concepts. Concepts like being to adjust air loss compensation and the latest equalization tool called
“Spatial EQ” which is an Adaptive EQ process have really taken and exceptional PA system and moved it to the next level. Sound Image has done an admirable job of refining the physical aspects of flying a completely networked audio system.

Let’s talk mics…

The only real change or addition in microphone choices this year was the addition of a Royer SF-24 Stereo Ribbon over the drum kit that replaced my long time choice the Rode NT-4 Stereo Field Mic. Just let me say, that Royer mic — Woooo! Do you remember earlier asking me about drums sounds? I’ll let you fill in the blanks... As for vocals, we’re still on Telefunken M80. Between it, the new console pre amps and the PA system, we are just getting sensational vocal sounds for the shows.

So is this the last tour?

[Chuckles] Well, “never” is a long time, and there’s a list a mile long of big bands who have done more “farewell” tours than you can count. That said, I don’t necessarily see Tom and the Heartbreakers as one of those bands that will do that. Just not his style. That said, he and the band are “lifers” and they’ll continue to make music and have the need to play it in front of anyone who will listen until they start shoveling dirt on top of them. It’s an admirable trait ... One I kind of identify with really.

Fair enough. Having fun?

Most definitely. I think because I’ve pulled back on my touring obligations over the past decade or so while developing consoles for Avid that, when I do tour, I very much appreciate every day and every single moment of it so much more. I’m more “focused” on this tour than maybe at any other time in my life. I’m having a blast — I wish it were going to last longer honestly. But hey that’s the hand we’re dealt so I’ll soak in every last minute of it while it’s here. 

The Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 40th Anniversary Tour runs through late September, with three shows planned at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 21, 22 and 25. For more information, visit www.tompetty.com.