My Morning Jacket Tour ProfileBIG SOUNDS, BIGGER VENUES 2/01/2009 7:00 AM Eastern
My Morning Jacket can really fill a room with sound, and as they've graduated to larger venues, their sound has evolved. Touring the U.S., the crew brings the same audio equipment to every gig, whether they're rocking a 3,000-seat theater or an 8,000-seat shed, so adaptability is the name of the game.
The band ended their summer/fall 2008 U.S. tour a few days early: After lead singer/guitarist Jim James injured himself during an Iowa City gig, MMJ's two Chicago shows had to be canceled, as well as their October/November European leg. However, they came through for Chicago fans, and Mix caught up with them at the rescheduled shows at the Chicago Theater. The band is currently in Japan, finishing up its Asian schedule, which followed a busy January in Australia opening for Neil Young and playing the Big Day Out 2009 shows.
For their U.S. tours, the band carries almost everything, using local sources to rent just front-of-house racks and stacks. MMJ travels with a Clair Global package that includes an i3 line array, two pairs of R4s for sidefills and SRM wedges, all running with Crown power amps. Although the tour had already ended, tour/production manager Eric Mayers was able to get together the exact same package for this mini-tour, which combines the Chicago shows with a New Year's Eve blowout at Madison Square Garden in New York City. “With the holidays and the weather in the last few days,” Mayers says, “Clair's really put its logistical systems to the test and made this thing work for us.” At the Chicago Theater, local rentals supplied left and right hangs comprising 12 mains per side and six L-Acoustics dV-DOSC cabinets with dV-SUB subwoofers.
Front-of-house engineer Ryan Pickett is running 40 tracks through a Midas H3000 board with Summit DCL-200 compressor/limiter applied on the mix bus stereo out. For compression, he likes to keep things in the analog realm for the most natural sound. He uses a dual pair of Summit TLA50 compressors on the drum sub-groups and background vocals and the TL Audio 5021 on the bass DI and lead vocals. Pickett sub-groups each of the guitarists' (Jim James and Carl Broemel) double Mesa Boogie Tremoverb 2×12 rigs and applies a Volare tube compressor to both. A Dr. Z Amplification Z Air Brake onstage limits the signal to the guitar cabinets without altering their tone. James' acoustic guitar goes direct but also gets the Volare treatment, which sweetens up its tone nicely. On bass, Pickett uses Radial's Phazer instead of delay, fattening up the sound by tweaking phase alignment between the DI and the mic on the bass amp.
Pickett dials in a stereo-heavy house mix to re-create the studio sound. Heavy reverb is also a big part of the band's sound. The engineer likes the Eventide 2016 for reverb, applying it pre-fader on the aux send to supply more mix return.
Having worked with MMJ for six years, Pickett remembers the days before he had the luxury of picking and choosing his gear. “What has changed most has been them becoming a bigger band,” he recalls. “It's given me more freedom to think about things in more depth, whereas the first few years I was with them it was always an opening-slot situation, where you just do the best you can with what you have. Now it's nice to be able to stretch out.”
Added to the FOH system, the band's touring gear now includes a 48-channel recording rig. Pickett sets up a pair of Alesis HD24s tandem to the board, loading them up with about 40 GB of mix-ready music every night. This has proven to be a user-friendly way to archive all of the band's performances, and it's far better than a straight-up board mix. “It's similar to analog in that you hit Play and Record, and you don't have to nurse it all night,” he says. “On the same rack as the HD24s, we've got Klark Teknik splitters that have pre's built into them, so you can set the levels to the recorders, but it's the front end of the sound-out line. The splitter stage feeds out to me, I run it into the Klarks, they feed both recorders and the other loop comes back into the desk. So you get a separate set of gain structures.” Pickett backs up the show each night to clear the decks for the next performance, and they're good to go.
Besides just satisfying the archiving penchant, Mayers says the live recordings have proven useful for radio spots and other promotions. The band can appear “live” on the radio in any city on short notice.
The band has an endorsement from Shure, which provides almost all of their mics. James sings through an SM58, and for backing vocals, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster are on Beta 58s. Pickett uses an AKG D-112 alongside a Shure Beta 91 to double-mike the kick drum. Whereas most engineers use one mic inside and one outside the kick, Pickett says, “I've gotten to the point where I do a double inside because they're so loud onstage. The bass guitar would end up feeding into the front-head mic, so it's best to just keep it all inside the drum.”
The band's huge onstage sound impacts a lot of sound decisions, especially for Dave Kissner, the band's monitor engineer since 2004. The bandmembers have made attempts at moving into the in-ear-monitor world, but so far only Broemel and bassist Two-Tone Tommy have gotten comfortable using ears. The others like it loud and protect their hearing with -9dB Ultimate Ears earplugs, which presents a little bit of a challenge for monitoring. Past attempts to get the band to dial back their stage volume fell flat, says Kissner. “That's like trying to stop a freight train with a feather pillow. We just let them do what they do, and they appreciate what I can do to let them get as loud as they want onstage. Once you find that sweet spot in the mix, everything falls into place.”
Koster gets one wedge behind him and one on the front corner of his keyboard riser. James hovers over his three wedges, which Kissner mixes with heavily reverbed vocals on the sides and clean in the center. He keeps the vocals out of the sidefills, because otherwise James has a tendency to blow himself out, except in the two songs where he sings falsetto, in which he needs the extra boost from the sidefills to feel his vocals over the band. Drummer Patrick Hallahan, with his long hair backlit like a flaming halo, is flanked by two Clair 12-inch subs along with his two wedges. He likes a “wall of sound” out of his monitors: “Patrick's a powerhouse,” says Kissner. “He gets a full stereo mix behind him because he wants to hear everything, even over his own drums. He gets enough to rock his seat, but not enough to rock him off the riser.”
Broemel and Tommy are both on Sennheiser IEM300 in-ears, but each still gets a full mix in their wedges, both for a better feel and as a backup in case anything happens to the in-ears. Kissner feeds Broemel a little Yamaha SPX-990 reverb on all the vocals in his ears, with a long hall setting dialed up faintly to give him more presence. On a song called “Dondante,” Broemel plays sax, and that trail from the 990 gets him in the mood with a more romantic feel.
Every monitor engineer has to learn to pick up various cues from the band during a performance. Each bandmember has his own special signals for Kissner: “Jim does what I call the ‘pout and point,’ where he pouts his lips and points up or down. Carl moves his fingers like they're a mouth. Mostly, I've gotten very good at reading lips.”
Kissner is using a TC Electronics M1 reverb onstage, where he runs the monitors “like I'm breaking out of jail” through a Midas H3000 console. He believes there's some advantage to the continuity of using the same board as FOH, but more importantly, he and Pickett are both big fans of working in the analog world as much as possible. In overseas situations, where the band doesn't carry any audio equipment except mics, ears, backline amps and effects, they have to take what they can get and often work with digital boards. In that case, Kissner prefers the Yamaha PM5D, but he's much happier with an analog setup. “I like having the controls of analog and being able to tweak something minute without having to make 10,000 moves to accomplish one thing. It takes thought to run sound, but [in digital] it really takes a lot of concentration on the board and not so much on the feel of the music. Analog gives you the freedom to get into the soul of the song.”
This winter takes My Morning Jacket to New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Instead of the full FOH setup they've been using Stateside, they'll be carrying only some outboard gear. Says Mayers, “This is going to be a much different scenario for us. We're going to be on every kind of console imaginable — from 5Ds to Digidesign Profiles — so it will be ‘festival-style’ the whole way. The band plays a lot of festivals, so we're all well-versed in this kind of routine.”
Carolyn Maniaci (nee Engelmann), formerly an assistant editor for Electronic Musician magazine, is now based in Chicago.