The Lighting, Video & Sound of Thunder
Thunder tours the UK with an L-Acoustics sound system
It wasn’t the longest of tours, but as the old adage goes: leave them hungry and they’ll come back for more. Thunderare a classic UK hard rock band in the mould ofa Whitesnake or a Deep Purple, yet they have always hadsomething a little different about them. How so? Well,witness the entirely partisan crowd that assembled at the Leeds First Direct Arena. As a colleague said to me when he heard I was to review the show: “They may not be cool, butthey’re still a solid crowd pleaser - just never quite got the bigger break I felt they deserved. A case of always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”
Officially they retired in 2009, but like any band with a hardcore faithful, they have inevitably been tempted back into some one-off appearances - festivals and the like. But this was a full production tour, however brief - sound, lights and video. And if ever a band threw down a gauntlet to the promoters, this was it.
It is entirely the responsibility of Pete Russell that I attended this show. As a project manager for SSE he spends most of his life these days behind a desk in Redditch arranging crews and equipment for tours. But Russell made his name behind an altogether different desk and, like a vintage motor car, it’s always a pleasure to see those old skills taken out for a run. He appears as a hardcore rock and roller, with a Harley in the garage and a pair of pirate rings in his left ear, but put that image to one side, watch and listen, and you’ll see he is a most fastidious sound engineer.
“I always do Thunder, even now,” he began. “Since they officially split in 2009 we’ve done shows like the High Voltage Festival in Victoria Park (London) and other one-off festival appearances. Last year they toured with Whitesnake and Journey as third on the bill. They went on at 6:45pm - not very rock and roll, and decidedly early for a rock audience, but they got such a good reaction and lots of fan mail afterwards. So it’s easy for me to see why they decided to do this tour. They’ve also released their first album in six years [Wonder Days, released in February], and they will be at Download this year. The fact is, they put bums on seats. I wouldn’t be surprised if we do more shows here and in the EU.”
What about your day job with SSE? “I can do my office work on the road in hotels and here and there in the production office. It’s also good for me to get out and push the faders from time to time. It’s certainly not an issue for SSE.”
Considering the era when Thunder made their name, I asked Russell if he was using an analogue desk, as befits the genre? “No, I’m using a Soundcraft Vi6. That’s my problem, of course: when I have long spells working in the office it’s difficult remembering how it works! But I’ve been using the Vi6 for some years now; there’s just so much on the screens, it’s almost like using an analogue desk. And to me it sounds really good - easily up there with the best of them, and the Studer technology is just great. I remember when the board first came out, it was in our demo room and one evening when everyone had left I had a play. I found I could easily put a mix together with no instruction: you can’t do that with most other desks. And look what’s coming now: the Soundcraft Realtime rack is very interesting, there are some unusual plug-ins. It has a very intuitive touchscreen control, and you can use the Realtime with other boards thanks to a MADI I/O - you just need a mini Mac and a screen. We [SSE] bought one immediately when they came out and we already we have two. Off-board, here I’m using an original Teletronix LA-2A on Danny Bowes’ voice - a very smooth compressor, it’s also available as a plug-in on the Realtime.”
Russell demonstrated this device during soundcheck. Bowes has a very powerful voice, quite effortless in delivery. He’s deceptive in that way, and the compressor is a valuable tool. An old-school unit, what I heard was just as smooth as Russell described. “I also have a Roland SDE 3000: it’s an old Mono Delay, very simple to use and has long delays up to three seconds which I like to use. Frankly, I don’t know why they don’t still make them - it’s like using an old tape echo, only better. Otherwise, I use all the on-board controls - the gates and compressors of the Vi6 are fine for my purposes and there’s an on-board Lexicon for reverb. What more do you need?”
With five people in the band, what’s the main demand of the mix? “We have two guitarists (one of whom, Ben Matthews, plays keyboards as well), bass and drums, and Danny on vocals. Not only is Danny’s voice very powerful, it also has a big, dynamic range.
What about your choice of PA system? “It’s a simple combination of L-Acoustics K1 and K2 for mains, with KARA for the sides; Soundvision is so good it rarely gets into difficulty. Yes, that means the system is predictable, but not in a bad way. I find I rarely have to do much EQ for any given room. This venue is a bit tricky because the grid is lower than the top seat rows, and you can’t get enough angle on the up-tilt of a K1 rig. But we haven’t sold those seats so it’s not a problem. I like this venue - loading docks with plenty of space; overall the facilities are good.”
Is there anything you would like to change about the setup for this show? “If anything, I would like them to add a brass section and maybe some female backing vocalists. We’ve done some Christmas shows where they do covers and then we get extra musos. They’re always good fun.” Why a brass section? “Back in ‘92 I did a show with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra - it was massive, and the dynamics were staggering. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Just these massive stops, and then down to nothing, maybe just a solitary cornet. Fantastic.”
For once, I didn’t get the chance to walk through the venue, but the standing area was fine. Russell uses a most gentle touch with the subs, you just feel a light puff from the kick drum, but never does the low-end swamp the mix. I can’t vouch for how it sounded upstairs as my ticket was restricted to the floor area. I left before the encores and asked security at the door if anyone had complained? “Just one Scotsman,” they told me. What more can you say?
System technician Willie Klein comments: “There are just two K1s at the top of the main line arrays: we just need those 15” drivers for a bit more low-end ‘oomph’ and throw to the most distant upper seats. Everything else is covered by the K2 beneath them. The KARA to the sides are aimed just off the walls but not so far as to deny the extreme side seats a good, loud experience. On the floor we have 12 SB28s each side - four-wide, three-high in cardioid mode. I have the cardioid bubble facing slightly off each side to minimise the central power alley, making it smoother across the audience.”
Will Thunder succeed in tempting a promoter into booking them for a full tour? Well, they certainly roused this crowd. I suspect in their natural habitat - the UK theatre circuit - they can prosper, so why not? As my colleague said, a real crowd pleaser.
• Monitor engineer Kevin Moran on the Yamaha PM5D: “I’ve been using the PM5D years, every engineer knows them, and we can all get a result. For most monitor men it’s an easy board - the file saving is so easy - just press and you’re done.”
• Lighting designer Ian ‘Scampi’ Bintliff: “I did my first show with this band on 18 May 2003 at Glasgow Academy. It was my birthday, that’s why I remember it so clearly, and it was the best birthday present you could wish for. On Uriah Heap I’m tour manager and LD. I don’t know how tour managers can do it full- time; sit back in the office during the show doing stuff and missing the buzz of live performance. I couldn’t still do this and not have that live experience and all the audience excitement that goes with it. It’s what drives you along.”