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Mumford & Sons on the Road with UAD-2 Live Rack and Engineer Chris Pollard

Mumford & Sons on the Road with UAD-2 Live Rack

Engineer Chris Pollard on using UAD Plug‑Ins, Live

In just a decade, British folk-pop band Mumford & Sons have achieved a kind of universality previously reserved for titans like U2, with chart-topping songs such as “I Will Wait,” “Little Lion Man,” and “Ghosts That We Knew” becoming anthems for a generation. The band’s longtime front-of-house engineer, Chris Pollard, has been there since the beginning, growing alongside the band from small clubs to giant arenas.

Over the years, Pollard has seen his input list expand from a few acoustic guitars and a weathered, upstage kick drum to a sophisticated blending of brass, keys, violins, triggers, multiple vocal sources, and more. Using a pair of Universal Audio UAD‑2 Live Rack units — centered around the versatile SSL L-500 console — Pollard has the powerful tools for sculpting a variety of dynamic inputs, and also the vintage-inspired color palette to recreate studio sounds from the band’s increasingly rich and nuanced recordings.

"You could have an entire live mix loaded up with UAD Neve® 1073s® and EL8 Distressors and you’d be in pretty good shape."

How does UAD-2 Live Rack and UAD plug-ins integrate with your SSL board?

Seamlessly, via MADI. I use a Mac Mini, which connects to the Live Rack interface via Thunderbolt — I control the plug-ins in the Live Rack app on its own dedicated display monitor, which is mounted off the console. I use two Live Rack units in order to double my DSP, allowing me to use the UAD plug-ins anywhere I really need them.

With such a feature-rich board, what does UAD-2 Live Rack offer?

Basically, using two Live Racks gives me 32-channels of the same UAD plug-ins that the band use in the studio for use in a live front-of-house mix — that’s amazing.

Plus, increasingly bands are pretty knowledgeable about the studio, and they’ll ask if you’ve got a given UAD plug-in available, because that’s what they used on their record, and with Live Rack, I can immediately dial that up.

It’s also incredibly stable. I’ve never had a drop-out the entire time I’ve been using UAD-2 Live Rack. That kind of stability is crucial for FOH engineering.

What are the challenges of a Mumford & Sons FOH mix?

It’s a very dynamic mix, so I need to use all the tools that help keep some particular source from suddenly taking your head off!

"The dynamic shaping of the lead vocal is very important, so I rely on UAD plug-ins to get that right."

Even an acoustic guitar can kind of destroy the balance of a live mix just from how hard it gets strummed.

Absolutely — Marcus Mumford plays his acoustic guitar quite hard. He attacks it, almost playing it like a snare drum; and of course, he’s well known for having a kick drum up front of the stage which he beats while he plays guitar.

But a lot of their big songs are built around that, and so the acoustic is really played in the rhythm of a snare drum: kick and snare, if you will, but with the acoustic taking the role of the snare.

So I use the UAD Precision De-Esser and the UAD Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ to help control the dynamics of the mix, along with plug-ins like the 1176 Classic Limiter Collection, UAD Manley Variable Mu Limiter Compressor, Pultec Passive EQ Collection, Maag EQ4, the Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor, all those types of plug-ins that allow me to not have to travel with a rack-load of vintage hardware.

"I’ve never had a drop-out the entire time I’ve been using UAD-2 Live Rack. That kind of stability is crucial for FOH engineering."

Are these generally being used on aux channels or sub groups, or as channel inserts?

I tend to use them directly on inputs like vocals, and especially the acoustic instruments, and then of course on sub-mix groups for things like drums and electric guitars I’ll add compression. I use the UAD EL8 Distressor a lot. I tend to think right away about the UAD Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ and the UAD EL8 Distressor on so many things, as just a great way to set up an input to get started for bass, guitars, um…drums [Laughs.]

I mean, you could just have an entire Live Rack loaded up with 1073s and Distressors and you’d be in pretty good shape! The UAD EL8 Distressor is truly awesome, and it sounds just like the real thing.

Drums are vital to Mumford & Sons' sound. What kind of processing do you use?

I use the EL8 Distressor and Neve 1081® to shape individual drum channels, and then I use either the Fairchild 670 Compressor or, these days, mostly the Manley Variable Mu on the drum bus. It has a tonal quality to it that just sounds great on the drum group, and it breathes nicely with the overall kit. It’s very subtle, but it just smooths out that whole drum bus.

Pollard in action mixing FOH for Mumford & Sons — a gig he's had for over 10 years.

What do you use to shape electric guitars?

The UAD Brainworx bx_saturator V2 plug-in is great for creating more space and width around the sounds — especially for guitar solos and when you want really big moments. It helps the guitar to be both a focal point, while also spreading out the sound — it’s a pretty amazing tool.

With a sound as organic as Mumford & Sons, I’m curious about how you use reverb.

The EMT 140 Plate Reverberator was one of the first UAD plug-ins I really got into, even before I started using Live Rack. It’s so simple, you can just put it on a source, tweak a little bit, and there you go. I still love to use a short EMT plate on acoustic guitars, for a bit more sparkle, as well as other acoustic instruments, like the violin and even the brass instruments.

Whereas, the UAD Dreamverb Room Modeler is the exact opposite, right? There are so many parameters to play with, and I have mixed that into drums, backing vocals, keyboards, lots of stuff. I also use the UAD Ocean Way Studios plug-in often on electric guitar, just subtly, to add that depth and sense of space, to sit it back a little bit and help it find its own place in the mix.

"The UAD EL8 Distressor plug-in is truly awesome, and it sounds just like the real thing."

How do you capture the lead vocal?

The dynamic shaping of the lead vocal is very important, so I rely on UAD plug-ins to get that right. For Marcus’s vocal chain, I typically use the Neve 1073 for a bit of EQ shaping, the Precision De-Esser, and the UAD Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ, along with the Maag EQ4 for some "air."

With the vocal it really is all about managing the dynamics in a natural but controlled way, something that works well with the PA. Marcus is a very powerful singer with a lot of volume, so you don’t struggle to get gain — he really digs in. So I’m just controlling those moments when he really goes for it, and that’s very much a "live" thing.

What aspect of your gig do you find the most rewarding?

I’ve always felt that Mumford & Sons’ show is very emotionally driven; it’s not a phone-it-in sort of show at all, not simply a live spectacle. So while we’ve really tried to step up the production, including a performing-in-the-round approach, we’re still trying to keep it as a kind of open experience that people can really connect to, so that it’s not all about the artifice of it, y’know what I mean?

For example, we do part of the show where the entire band is gathered all around one microphone, and all of it, the vocals and the acoustic guitar, are all going through that one mic — and I never know exactly where on the stage — or in the crowd — they’re going to do it. So I have to EQ on the fly just for that little section of the show, to make sure it doesn’t start feeding back like crazy. But that’s a way of stepping aside for a minute from the big production aspect, and connect to the audience in a very simple, direct way.

That combination of a very simple approach to playing and engineering, and the more elaborate processing, production and mixing, is a big part of why, after a good decade doing this job, and seeing the band go from small venues to where they are today, I’m still very excited by what we’re doing.

— James Rotondi

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