Oysterhead GREAT SOUND FROM SMALL PACKAGESWhen Phish, the most popular jam band in the country, announced in 2000 that they were going on an indefinite hiatus, many fans didn't believe them, or 2/01/2002 7:00 AM Eastern
When Phish, the most popular jam band in the country, announced in 2000 that they were going on an indefinite hiatus, many fans didn't believe them, or assumed that the band would be back on the road by the summer of 2001. But the various members have studiously avoided each other, and have given no indication of when they might start playing together again. However, they have not been idle; all four have taken on various side projects. By far the busiest has been guitarist Trey Anastasio, who played large venues like the Berkeley Greek Theatre and Colorado's Red Rocks during a summer solo tour. Anastasio then took off on a fall mini-tour with former Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Primus bassist Les Claypool.
The Anastasio/Copeland/Claypool trio first got together as Oysterhead for a one-off show at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in May 2000. It was generally assumed that the trio would not play together again, especially because Anastasio and Claypool were dissatisfied with the results. However, Copeland took a tape of the show, edited it down to 45 minutes of solid material and sent it to the other two. Intrigued, they made plans to get together again. The result was a new record, The Grand Pecking Order, and a tour that brought them to the Fillmore in Denver for two nights over Halloween.
When Oysterhead decided to do a full-on tour, one of their first problems was choosing a sound engineer. They eventually settled on Tim “Quake” Mark, an engineer with 24 years' experience who works with ProMedia/UltraSound out of San Francisco. Says Quake of the selection process, “Les and Trey both had engineers that they had worked with for long periods of time, at least 15 years. When this project came up, each wanted to use their own guy, and someone — perhaps Stewart — suggested that they look at a third person. I used to be the FOH engineer for Jane's Addiction. On one tour, they allowed everyone on the tour to pick an opening band, and I picked Primus. I became friends with Les at that time. That was about 11 years ago. Four months ago, I started talking with these guys again, and my name floated to the top of their list.”
For three musicians, Oysterhead makes quite a large sound. At FOH, everything starts with the desk. “I use a Gamble EX56,” says Quake. “I get a lot of grief from younger engineers for using it, actually. I've tried all the automated desks, but I really love this one. The signal path is clean, it has the best mic preamps I've used and it has great EQ. If you A/B'd the Gamble pre's to the Grace pre's that we are using for recording, you'd be amazed how many people would choose the Gamble's. The Gamble's are all handmade and all a little different. I've been using this desk for over seven years now, and I know what I am going to get every time.”
Quake doesn't find the need to use many effects, and likes Oysterhead's approach to sound. “It's been pretty easy, because they are virtuosos and a three-piece — it fits very well with my ideas about mixing,” says Quake. “I approach it as sound reinforcement. After that part of it is done, they play as a band onstage, and it comes over out front that way. It's also been very interesting watching their use of dynamics. They go from doing a quiet acoustic tune like ‘Birthday Boys’ to doing ‘Pseudo Suicide,’ the loudest tune of the show. You can also tell how educated the audience is because they get the swings in the dynamics; their audience is very attentive compared to a lot of ones that I have worked on. With the amount of compression I use, the challenge is to use compression to gain control of the mix without destroying the band's ability to be dynamic.”
For effects, Quake carries two Yamaha SPX900 reverbs for vocal effects, a Lexicon PCM 70 reverb, a TC 2290 delay and a TC M5000 dual-engine reverb. The main vocals (Anastasio and Claypool) get Summit DCL-200 compressors, and Quake assigns Aphex 661 compressors to the remaining vocal channels. Six Aphex Expressors are patched to “everything from kick and snare to bass guitar” and a Drawmer 441 Quad compressor is on the guitar channels. Seven channels of Aphex noise gates are used on the drum kit, and Copeland controls an Echotron delay unit on the timbale/snare inputs, which he uses for one song, “Wield the Spade.”
Choosing microphones proved to be an interesting task for Quake. “One of the weird things of coming into this group is you have three different visions of how things should be miked, and then you have a fourth entity, me, who then says, ‘This is how we are doing it today,’” he laughs. “Stewart has a Beta 52 on the kick drum. On the snare drums, I have two SM57s, one on top and one on bottom, and then I have nine SM98s for toms and percussion toms; he has two different setups. I am using Beta 56s for a timbale and a second snare on the percussion rig, and a Beta 52 on the gong drum. For hi-hat, cymbal and percussion tables, I use Shure KSM 27s; they are a brand-new mic, and as far as I know I am the first to use them. Finally, I use a KSM 32 on the overheads on the drums. That's 24 inputs total.”
Compared to Copeland's setup, Quake has it fairly easy with Claypool and uses just three Countryman DIs for Claypool's bass pedals and two bass guitar channels. “One minute, Les plays a regular bass, then a banjo bass, then an upright,” explains Quake. “He has an Ampeg bass setup, but everything for the P.A. comes from the DI.”
Anastasio's guitar setup is more complicated. “Here's the thing for Trey,” explains Quake. “He plays an acoustic guitar on ‘Birthday Boys.’ I mike the guitar itself with an Audix CX111; he also is plugging the acoustic into a California Blonde amplifier, and I take a direct signal out of the back of that amp. For the electrics, he has total of six channels. I use an Audix D4 in the back of the cabinet, out of phase; in the front of the cabinet, I have an Audix CX-111 in the front of the speaker and a second CX-111 about eight inches back, just to give a little bit more depth to the sound. He also plays through a Leslie — we mike the high end with Sennheiser 409s, and the bottom end with an Electro-Voice RE38.”
The vocal setup is also less than straightforward. “Les has three different vocal channels and three different vocal mics,” says Quake. “His main mic is an SM57 with a windscreen on it, which he has been singing into for as long as I've known him. The second channel is a Shure Green Bullet, set up next to his main vocal, that is used as an effect mic to make it sound weird, like a megaphone. For one song, Les has an Army helicopter helmet with a Radio Shack Motorcycle Communications mic, one that bikers use to talk to each other. He uses it to sound different. It works real well in the context of the song.” Anastasio sings into either of two Audix VX-10s, and Stewart also has two Audix VX-10 vocal mics, one on his main drum kit and one on his percussion rig.
Despite the fact that Oysterhead is only playing mid-sized venues, they are carrying their own all-Meyer P.A., provided by ProMedia/UltraSound. “I have up to 12 MSL-4s, 16 MSL-3s, 12 650s, four MSL-2s and two UPAs,” says Quake. “Here at the Fillmore, I am running three MSL-4s a side, on top of six MSL-3s, and four of the 650 subs per side. We have different bumpers to fly the P.A. off of depending on how much P.A. I can fit in the room.”
The system is powered by Crest amplifiers, except for the MSL-4s, which are self-powered. All system control is done on a laptop with BSS's Soundweb software, which Quake uses to set EQ, delay and the output levels for each speaker zone. “The whole Soundweb idea makes everything so much more quiet and efficient,” notes Quake. “I can use less P.A. to fill the room, as opposed to bringing in everything you've got and turning it to ‘10.’” Quake uses an XTA SIDD inserted across the FOH console output to add a little compression to the overall mix and uses Smart Live Version 4.5, controlled via Soundweb, for analysis.
Oysterhead has been recording every show on five Tascam DA-78s. Quake uses 40 Grace preamps for recording purposes and monitors via a Mackie 32-channel console. “Everything is done at FOH, if we have the room,” explains Quake. “However, the recording setup was created so that Tom Lyon [monitor engineer] can do it onstage if needed. Jeff Child is the third tech guy we have; he's the systems engineer. He slaps my hand when I get too loud. He also puts together the recording rig with the drum tech, Pete Carini.”
Lyon, who is also affiliated with Pro-Media/UltraSound, has been doing sound work since 1992. “I got into it when I was in college, where I was studying to be an engineer, but not an audio engineer,” he explains. “I had done the Snow Core Icicle Ball tour with Les' other band, the Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, this past January.”
Though in-ear monitors have gained increasing popularity in recent years, Oysterhead's monitoring setup is a bit more old-school. “In-ears wouldn't be appropriate because they are just getting their communication going,” notes Lyon. “The stage volume isn't too loud right now so it doesn't affect it too much.” Onstage wedges include two Meyer USM-1s for Anastasio at his main position and one at his acoustic position. Claypool's two wedges are supplemented with a Meyer MSW subwoofer cabinet, while drummer Copeland listens to two MSL-2s and a single 650 subwoofer at his primary kit and a single MSL-2 at the percussion setup. Lyon mixes on a 48-input Gamble EX48 monitor board.
The monitor mix concentrates mostly on vocals. “The mix is really simple,” says Lyon. “Trey gets his vocal, and under that is a mixture of everyone else's vocals and a tiny bit of drums, but no guitar. He also has, luckily for me, his own Gallien Kruger bass amp, which he uses to get some of Les' signal, and he sets his own levels on it. Stewart gets a lot of kick and snare, a lot of bass and guitar, and all the vocals; he gets as much of the front-of-house mix as I can give him. Les gets his voice, a little bit of bass and guitar, and kick drum.”
Candace Horgan is a freelance writer based in the Denver area.