Alastair McMillan Captures ‘Lightning in a Bottle’ U2 Performance for “Bono and the Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with Dave Letterman”

Alastair McMillan has lived an impressive double life in music. As a successful studio engineer, he helmed the boards for an impressive array of musical talent including Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Paul Brady, and Ronan Keating among others. Since 2009, McMillan has been manning the monitor mixes for Bono of U2 as their Recording Engineer for Touring and has brought his distinctive studio engineer’s sensibilities to the proceedings that has helped the charismatic front man capture the passion and magic of their celebrated studio albums onstage. Earlier this year, McMillan captured a more spontaneous kind of magic for “Bono and the Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with Dave Letterman” when the band staged an impromptu sing-along performance at McDaid’s Pub that brought together a gathering of guest artists for an intimate musical moment. 

Jumping into the deep end 

Starting his career in the late 1980s, McMillan worked his way up through the Irish recording studio system before becoming studio manager at Windmill Lane studios in Dublin, working alongside a veritable who’s-who of Irish talent, including U2. His transition to live monitor engineer grew organically out of this relationship and gave him an opportunity to bring his studio chops into an entirely new environment. “I was literally picked up and thrown into the deep end — and the rest is history.” he says with a chuckle. “Coming from a studio background makes working with them more creative. It’s about creating an atmosphere that the band can perform in and contributing to the live energy that they make onstage properly.” 

“I’m literally plugged into him, and we do the show together,” he continued. “When you work that way, you learn how the performer reacts and how to give them something to really jump off of.” 

Despite still being one of the biggest bands in the world, U2 thrive on a sense of spontaneity that keeps them connected to their punk rock origins. This mischievous spirit has kept McMillan on his toes and trained him to be on the lookout for moments where he needs to fall back on his studio engineer experience to these musical happenings as they happen. “They don’t do anything ordinary and much of the time the magic can come from this ‘seat-of-the-pants stuff,” he explains. “The fact that they allow an element of the unplanned helps them keep that energy and passion in what they do.” 

“This was really evident when they were filming the documentary and the performance at McDaid’s Pub.” 

Bono and the Edge
Bono and The Edge

Capturing magical moments in impromptu settings 

The pub singalong — which included appearances from several other high-profile Irish talents alongside Bono and the Edge— is a standout scene in ‘A Sort of Homecoming’ that encapsulates U2’s ability to generate a sense of musical community no matter how large the room is. The challenge presented to McMillan and sound recordists Karl Merren, Conor O’Toole, and Enda Callen was to preserve the intimacy of the moment without a lot of obvious microphone placements. “It was originally planned as a very off-the-cuff thing, but as more people turned up, we realized we ought to try and record this properly,” McMillan says. “The challenge was to find and hide as many mics as we could and get a proper multitrack of everything without disrupting what was to happen.” 

The Edge, Bono, and David Letterman
The Edge, Bono, and David Letterman

Alongside a collection of 18 microphones hidden throughout the pub, McMillan, Merren, Callen, and O’Toole utilized a trio of Sound Devices Scorpio mixer-recorders underneath the tables to get high-quality multi-track audio of the musicians. “I had started using Sound Devices from some local film jobs I’d done more recently — ‘Derry Girls,’ most notably, with a MixPre-10 which has become my go-to external mic preamp ever since,” he said. “The Scorpios are similarly plug-and-play which is exactly what we needed for a shoot like this where the plan was to just hit record and make it happen.” 

“Once we had the setup secure, we could ensure that the show went on. We were able to capture that incredible atmosphere without getting in the way.” 

Last-minute equipment issues aside, what McMillan ultimately remembers about that evening is how the music brought people together, and how something honest was captured for posterity. “They have a joke within the band — let’s not over-rehearse, and I think that’s a big part of what makes these magical moments happen,” he said. “When it came time to mix the audio down, we were mixing to suit that — to keep it feeling real and in-the-moment.” 

“We had to be resourceful to get that pub shoot together, but it went off brilliantly. It was one of the best nights of my life as a music fan.” 

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