Sennheiser’s Pro Talk Series on YouTube features interviews with the industry’s most respected audio professionals, including Brandon Blackwell, freelance front of house and monitor mixer, currently on the Injured Generation tour with A$AP Rocky. Blackwell was in elementary school when he first became interested in live sound. "I would be in church and would watch the [16-channel mixer] operator every Sunday and tell my mom that's [what] I wanted to do," he explains. "One day, I just got the courage and asked the guy [if he could teach me.] And, just like that, I fell in love with live sound. As I was completing high school, I found Full Sail University and it seemed like the perfect opportunity. While in school, I took full advantage of everything the professors and instructors [had to offer.]"
In addition to typical coursework, the professors at Full Sail provided Blackwell with gigging opportunities on the weekends. "The events made me super excited because [that] was the future that I wanted after [graduation]," he says. "While I was in school, I studied Show Production and Touring. The daily schedule was almost like touring. Lecture and lab times were scheduled around the clock. We would have four hours of lecture, [studying] how the professionals worked, and then four hours of lab where we got hands-on experience, putting on practice concerts. I have to say I owe a lot to Full Sail in the success of my career."
For Blackwell, there were two instructors who had the biggest impact during his time in school. "One was John Sheldon, a monitor engineer who mixed for many bands and artists including Axl Rose, R. Kelly and Marilyn Manson. The other was Vince Lepore, another amazing mixer who is involved in many houses of worship around the country,” he says. “Vince Lepore was very nurturing and gave me advice, while John was more about tough love. A couple of years later, I went back to Full Sail and talked with John about our relationship post-graduation and he let me know that the tough love was what I needed to make it as a freelancer. ‘Life is all about the journey. I had one planned [after graduation], and then had to make a sharp right and U-turn or two and to be honest, I'm still on that journey today.”
Blackwell has been with A$AP Rocky for the past four to five years, but initially mixed for him in 2012. “When I got a call to a come back for this tour, I was happy," he says. "When an artist trusts you with their show, it makes you feel really good. This current tour is very different; it's one man on-stage and he brings all the energy. My favorite part has to be just looking around at the crowd knowing that they can hear every single word that he's saying -- and vice versa, chanting it back to him. It's the most incredible feeling you can ever have. I'm a small part of it, but it's one of those feelings that [you can't] explain; you have to actually witness and feel it yourself."
With sold out stops across America, Blackwell says that every day on tour is a new adventure. But, "every city starts the same way: Our trucks pull up, doors open, gang of stage hands come and push all our gear in. Usually my stuff is the first to come off and it goes immediately to FOH. While they're building the stage, I'm tipping my console, getting my racks all together and [setting up] my interconnect between everything."
While the audio team flies the PA, they pay careful attention to making sure the main and side hangs give even coverage to the crowd area. "I think that's very key to getting a good sound for a show," he explains. "We want the system as a whole to move together. Once you start having speakers move at different times, it tends to cause havoc. While we're tuning the PA, we use pink noise from the console as our generator into a program called SMAART. As that comes out through the speakers, it's being compared through an Earthworks Audio M30 microphone, which gets the best reference to what's coming out of the PA, and more importantly what is happening in the room."
For this tour, the crew relies on d&b J-series speakers. At its largest, 16 boxes make up the main hangs and 12 are allotted for the side hangs. On the ground, there are nine d&b B22s per side, which Blackwell says "get you that real thump feeling that a lot of subs can't reproduce. To be honest, d&b is probably one of my top-three favorite speaker manufacturers.”
After the Systems Engineer, Bernarr Ferebee and PA and monitor techs Chris Smith and Noah Gary are done flying the PA, the stage crew rolls the stage in to place. "That's where my work starts," he continues. "I time align the PA, play a couple of reference tracks and walk the room to make sure the coverage is even. My goal is to always have his vocal in your face everywhere in the venue, because that's why you come to a show. I listen to each spot, making fine adjustments, especially on the side hangs. That's where I feel like it gets a little gnarly with two speakers covering the same listening area. After making those adjustments, I walk the listening area for the last time and we're pretty much good to go."
Though, typically, the next step would be sound check, Blackwell and his crew don’t do one that often. "I do what we call a virtual sound check, where I multi-track the previous night's show and play it back as if Rocky is onstage performing," he explains. "It's very key to how I mix the shows. For this tour, we have a playback operator in monitor world controlling Ableton, which spits out all our tracks and timecode, syncs lighting and video and also fires snapshots of my console. Snapshots are basically presets for each song. For me, most of my snapshots are the starting point of each song. When you combine the time code and snapshots, you don’t have to worry about hitting next or remembering mix changes."
Originally, while preparing for the Injured Generation tour, the team was going to have a band. "For whatever reason, the decision to not have one was made, which was cool with me," says Blackwell. "It's less inputs and we decided to go back to playback tracks only, which is cool because it's always consistent. There's nothing that can mess up hitting a space bar on the computer. Everything is in the box… drums, music, background vocals and click tracks for Rocky. We give a full CD mix to the audience every night. Even for the in-ear mix, our monitor engineer Moshe Davenport is doing the same thing for Rocky on stage. He must be doing a good job, because Rocky never complains about his monitor mix."
With previous clients that use a band, Blackwell says there are a couple of key microphones he relies on for his mixes. "One of them being the Neumann KM 184, that's almost always on my hi-hats," he says. "There's something about the high-end and the airiness; it's a perfect sound for me. Another one would have to be the Sennheiser e 904 on toms. The last microphone that I probably never do a performance without would be my talkback microphone, which is a Sennheiser e 835. I never leave home without it."
Fortunately for Blackwell and his team, this tour does not present many audio challenges. "The one minor challenge that we deal with on this tour is that Rocky spends most of his time in front of the PA," he explains. "One microphone is perfectly fine, we deal with it with some EQ tricks and it works. When there is more than just Rocky on stage, that is the challenge. We kind of dabbled into that issue for Yams Day, which is a very important day for the A$AP organization [as it honors its founder, A$AP Yams, who passed away a few years ago]. So one of the tricks that I use to get the microphone loud enough in front of the PA without feedback is simply gating. Most people use gates for drums or percussive instruments, but if you gate a vocal lightly and with a quick enough attack and a slow enough release, you can get a lot more gain before feedback. That's the key to it. Or at least the key for me."
Like every other engineer, Blackwell credits himself as being a gearhead. "This show is hip-hop, it's simple; track and vocal. But there are certain things that we can do to make it sound better," he says. "Signal flow for Rocky is a Sennheiser 9245 capsule being transmitted over a Sennheiser Digital 6000 wireless system. I'm a huge fan of the Digital 6000 Series, especially paired with the 9245 capsule. For the longest time I was a fan of the 9235, but I've gotten the opportunity to demo the 45 and, for him being out in front of the PA, it's perfect."
One of the songs that A$AP Rocky performs on this tour is a ballad called LSD, during which he lies down and the capsule is pointing directly at the PA. “When ‘cupping the microphone’ you almost always change not only the frequency response, but also the polar pattern," explains Blackwell. "Sometimes it works in your favor, but most of the time it doesn't. It's something that we as engineers do not like, and it's typically a difficult thing for a rapper not to do. At the beginning of the tour, I asked him to not cup the microphone during that song. Even though I can't really see him during the shows, I’ve seen videos of him up close, not cupping the microphone. That was when I knew he listens to me [and that] we are on the same page. I want the best for him, and I think he knows that. At the end of the day, I want to give him the best sound and I want the fans to love the show."
Out of the SD12, Blackwell's signal runs into Waves, which he uses to do a slight dynamic EQ. "If there is one piece of gear that I couldn't live without, it would probably be either the Waves C6 Dynamic Compressor or F6 Dynamic Equalizer," he says. "The C6 tends to go with me wherever I go. Instead of me chasing the EQ, I let the dynamic compressor do it for me. When Rocky decides to cup the microphone, or if he's feeling a little bit ill that day, it helps me not chase his EQ the whole time. After that, everything (the vocal and the music) busses down into my master which has a Neve Portico Master Buss processor on it. And then that leaves my console and hits the PA."
In monitor world, which Blackwell calls the "epicenter of everything audio on this tour," the team consists of Stefan Jacobs on playback and Davenport mixing monitors. "So, just like myself out in front of house, Moshe is on a DiGiCo SD10. It has the same power and sound with a bigger footprint… we like DiGiCo around here,” he continues. “On our RF rack, which has the Digital 6000 microphones that all of our artists use on stage, we also have the Sennheiser SR 2050 IEMs which the artists use to monitor while they perform."
As the show is coming to an end, Blackwell works with the systems engineer, Bernarr, to begin tearing things down, even while music is still playing. "Rocky walks off the stage with four minutes left in his show and, after I mute his microphone, I start to break down my nearfield speakers and un-patch a few cables. Once that's done, I play a little bit of house music and then it's time to fully pack up. I have [Bernarr] mute the PA before he goes to bring the PA down. I basically take the console off of the case and, after that's on its wheels, we begin to pack up everything else. Once it's all together, I leave it at FOH and, to their amazingness, my crew members put it on the truck on its way to the next stop."
The one piece of advice that Blackwell says he would give to someone getting started in the industry "or even just, you know, to [anyone], is to stay hungry. I was under the mindset that it would take years for me to become a front of house mixer. And I've reached that goal within five years because of being non-stop on the grind, hungry for what I want and what I aspire to be. Not to say that I've reached my goal and that I'm done, but I think that's what a lot of people need to know. You can literally be whatever you want to be. [In the end,] you just have to work hard at it and take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. It will help you be successful."