Our old friend Chris Porter has an incredible list of Production and mixing credits including the likes of Wham!, George Michael, Sir Elton John, Sir Cliff Richard, Tina Turner, Chris de Burgh, Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie, Marti Pellow, Hall & Oates, Diana Ross and Alfie Boe. So it was something of a surprise when he phoned to invite us to review a gig for which he was doing front-of-house sound.
In 2018, the Royal Albert Hall started installing the world’s largest D&B Audiotechnik PA system, and the work was completed in the spring of 2019. King Crimson tour with a system from the German D&B PA company, so naturally Chris and the team were interested in using the new house system, hung and tuned precisely for the notoriously difficult acoustics in the Albert Hall. We met with Chris just before the second of King Crimson’s three shows in the venue in June 2019.
King Crimson’s complicted live band includes three drummers out front - surely a challenge to balance in any venue. The band shares much of the same crew as former client of mine Steven Wilson (I recorded all the guitars on Porcupine Tree’s Deadwing album), and having experienced the usual slightly disappointing Albert Hall sound quality attending one of Wilson’s 2015 Albert Hall gigs, I was intrigued to hear the King Crimson gig with Chris Porter manning the faders.
Chris told us about the PA: “Yesterday, we used it for the first time, and it’s absolutely brilliant. They finished the main install in September, but they were still adding peripherals because every Loggia has a speaker at the front and two speakers at the rear to reinforce. And honestly — you must have seen a lot of gigs here – I have, and over the years and you know you’ve got to make allowances. I’m not a front-of-house man normally, I’m a studio guy. So this is the first time I’ve ever mixed at the Royal Albert Hall, and I was thinking, I’ll just have to do my best. And honestly, it was so easy last night. And it was easy for the guys onstage — coming back to them from the hall. I don’t know how they managed to do it. The hall almost disappears. There’s still some blurring, because the hall’s a funny shape, and all the usual historic problems. The Royal Albert Hall has been a mess since it was first put up — the things they’ve had to do to try and make it good! And finally I think they’ve got it about as good as they’re going to get it, considering it’s a listed building.”
GS: How did you come to be doing Front of House for King Crimson?
CP: In 2016 I mixed a BluRay/DVD for King Crimson of their tour of Japan. So I spent quite a lot of time in the studio with Robert [Fripp] and we kind of got on. About the end of the summer, we’d finished the DVD, and he said, Our front-of-house engineer can’t make the last ten dates of our European tour, have you ever done anything like that? And I said, yeah I did, but I hated it! He said, You wouldn’t consider possibly doing it again? And I said, Well, let me think about it. And I thought, you know what, it might be a good kick-up-the-arse really!
Quite a challenge with three drummers…?
It was a real challenge, because the technology has changed so much since I last did it. The last time I mixed live was in 1981, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and I hated being out in the audience – I still do, if you’re in one of those places where you’re surrounded. So I went on a training course at Midas for three days to learn a bit about the equipment and new technology, and then I did these first ten shows in Europe. And I thought, that’s it, because their guy will be back. But as it happened, they said, Would you come back and do the rest? And it’s been, not life-changing, but it’s changed my whole attitude to mixing. Because especially over the last 20 years everything’s become so computerised and based on sitting in front of a screen. It’s not so much the technology, because I enjoy digital technology and the ease, but it’s this relentless focus. You have the opportunity to polish and refine and remake decisions endlessly. So suddenly being stuck up in front of a band like this; they’ve got huge sections of improvisations that you have to follow, and they’re flying by the seat of the pants, and you’re there flying with them. And you start to think, this is invigorating — this is music! I’d never been a King Crimson fan – I knew their old stuff back from the 60s, but the complete Crimson which I’ve been exposed to has been a real experience.
So how many shows have you done?
Probably about 110…! I’ve done two years of touring. We do about 25 shows in the summer, 25 in the autumn, so we’re half way through our summer schedule now, and we head off to Europe and we’re mostly doing festivals outdoors which is nice.
What’s on the horizon, are you going back into the studio?
I’ve got a couple of albums lined up for the autumn and January/February. I’m producing a new Chris de Burgh album, which I think will be my eleventh. And I’ve met a wonderful artist Liza Pulman, who I’m going to make an album with. It will be another departure, which I’m really excited about. When Hugh Padgham and I sold Stanley House at the end of 2014. I thought I’ll probably never work again – 60 year old record producer, who wants one? But I’ve got interested again, so I’m building a great space in the back garden. It’s being finished at the moment. When I get back from this summer leg of this tour I’ve got a month to put in the acoustics, absorption and diffusion — and the gear!
George’s Gig review
I was introduced to King Crimson when I was aged about 17 and a mate lent me his LP copy of In The Court Of The Crimson King. When Three Of A Perfect Pair was released I bought that LP too, so I grew to know their first and (at the time) last LPs. They have continued to release material in various line-ups in six decades, but that first album remains one of my all-time favourite albums to this day. So I was thrilled to be asked to attend this show.
The current live line-up is unique in rock with three drummers across the front of the stage. I’ve been lucky enough to work with two of them – I recorded Gavin Harrison (when he was with Porcupine Tree) and Jeremy Stacey on sessions with Irish musician Martin Okasili – so I was well aware of their talent. But this show is truly something astonishing to behold, with the three drummers sharing duties in myriad clever combinations and sequences, much of which involves them improvising through incredibly complex time-signatures and tempo changes. Stacey also takes on most of the keyboard duties.
With such detailed interplay and complex percussion, the incredible sound clarity achieved by Chris Porter (using the Midas Pro9 console) is all the more essential, and sitting about half way back and right up against the right edge of the Arena section of the hall, every little detail was audible, with a surprisingly punchy sound with enough overall level to make it exciting. You could still hear a little reflection bouncing back in an echo of a couple of hundred milliseconds or so, but this was relatively muted and I think Chris’s assessment that the hall is about as good as it can get is probably correct. But he did an astonishing job of matching up the drum kit balances to make all their interplay sound completely seamless. It was entertaining to watch them swap parts and share roles, particularly in the more modern Crimson tracks. Tony Levin sometimes switched to five string bass where low D’s and C’s underpinned things — even in the lowest rumbling notes the pitch could easily be determined. And his Chapman stick parts were clear and appropriately percussive.
Mel Collins’ sax and flute parts were dealt with using perspex screens, and Chris made his parts sound sweet and rich — the huge bass flute sounded as big as it looked! Fripp over on the opposite side sounded best making that fluid filtered and distorted lead guitar tone that is one of his trademarks. Helping him out with some of the more complicated arpeggio material was guitarist and singer (and latterly Crimson’s studio producer) Jakko Jakszyk whose vocals sounded smooth and clear over all the harmonically rich accompaniment.
But, stunning though the musicianship was on the clever stuff, for me the highlights were hearing the older material, especially tracks from the band’s first album. It’s quite something to hear 50 year old music performed by the original artists, even if Robert Fripp is the only original member still in the band. We were treated to movingly authentic performances of Epitaph and Moonchild.
Well, thankfully the latter wasn’t completely authentic, so instead of the bonkers avant-garde improv section we got fantastic solos by the band – Levin on upright bass, Stacey on piano and Fripp on guitar. After a triumphal performance of the epic Starless (from the Red album – ending with the band bathed in red light), the band left the stage before returning to perform a rip-roaring 21st Century Schizoid Man, complete with searing distorted vocals. It was a fantastic gig — hats off to Chris Porter who somehow pulled it all together to give us a truly remarkable sonic experience!
Special thanks to King Crimson for the tickets – and aftershow passes!