Tour Profile: Black Eyed Peas + N.E.R.D.Hip Hop Ensemble Goes Off the Deep End 5/01/2004 8:00 AM Eastern
As if it wasn't difficult enough to mix the Black Eyed Peas —a quartet of rapper/vocalists and a four-piece band who are living upto the reputation that a Grammy-nominated song (“Where Is theLove”) demands — front-of-house engineer David Haines getsto his console and reports, “I just heard Robin Williams is here.That makes me want to mix the show even better.”
The Black Eyed Peas (vocalists will.i.am, apl.de.ap, Taboo andFergie, along with guitarist George Pajon Jr., drummer Keith Harris andmulti-instrumentalists Tim Izo and Printz Board) have had a steadyclimb since their 1998 major-label debut. The collective's latest,Elephunk, has pushed them into the spotlight, and they spentmuch of this spring co-headlining a tour with this year's“it” band, N.E.R.D.
At the end of March, Black Eyed Peas and N.E.R.D. pulled into theWarfield Theater in San Francisco, two weeks into the six-week tour.Haines is understandably a bit worn out, because any scheduled day offgets filled with another date. They've been gigging almost constantlysince May 2003.
Haines has been with the Black Eyed Peas for the past seven years,meeting them when he was a senior in college. “My two bestfriends — the guitarist and keyboard player — joined thembefore they got signed,” Haines recalls. “When I graduated,I got a job at Paramount Recording Studios in L.A. They got signed thesame month that I started there and they came to Paramount to recordthat first album with me. Then they asked me to be their live soundengineer.” While the band first did a number of club dates, theirmajor tour debut was Smokin' Grooves in the summer of '98, whichincluded a list of hip hop greats such as Public Enemy, Cypress Hilland Busta Rhymes.
During the seven years that Haines has manned the FOH position,things have certainly changed for the band. “It's been a slowgrowth, and every time I think we've hit a plateau, it's gone to thenext level. It just hasn't stopped and I'm amazed at what'shappening.” The band has played mid-sized theater venues before,opening for OutKast and No Doubt. “It feels good to beco-headlining, though,” he says. “Now we're drawing crowdsfor us. That's different.”
This is monitor engineer Shaun Sebastian's first run with Black EyedPeas and N.E.R.D., although he's worked steadily as a FOH engineer forthe past 12 years, plying his trade with Bad Religion, Lifehouse andSoul Asylum, and touring Ozzfest last year with Jason Newsted andVoivod.
Sebastian's monitor gig changed dramatically when a DiGiCo D5console was rented from High Tech Audio in San Francisco. “I wasusing house consoles every day and it was quite a struggle,” hesays. “We've got 60 inputs between the two bands and 26 mixes,mostly to in-ears. So it was pretty tough to make things happen on adaily basis with the console du jour.” Rather than carry anyoutboard gear, Sebastian makes use of the D5's onboard tools.
The main difference between the two bands, Sebastian explains, isthat the Black Eyed Peas still use wedges. “Four of the eightmembers are on in-ears; the others use the wedges,” he says.“So it's not as clean of a mix. The N.E.R.D. guys are all onin-ears, so it's much easier and much cleaner-sounding.” Bothbands are using Ultimate Ears UE-10s, while the wedges are all housemodels.
According to Haines, each of the four front wedges get the same mix.“The four vocalists are such a whirlwind up there, it's silly todivide them out. They're running everywhere and they're not even infront of the wedges half of the show.”
Both bands are fairly low maintenance for Sebastian. “Now thatI have the D5 out here, I don't really do much,” he admits with alaugh. “I really shouldn't be saying that, but everything isprogrammed now. There might be a move here or a move there, but for themost part, it's all consistent.” For Black Eyed Peas, he'll moveguitarist Pajon's wedges up during a solo, and at various times, he'llboost vocalist Fergie's in-ears.
Just as Sebastian was relieved to pick up the D5, Haines is lookingforward to getting his for this tour. “We're about to get onebecause the patching is a little bit of a nightmare between these twobands,” he says. “We're both somewhat input- andoutboard-intensive. I like a challenge, but this is getting to be alittle much.”
For the Warfield show, Haines used a Yamaha PM3500 desk and rentedan L-Acoustics V-DOSC line array system. “I like how they work,as long as it's set up right,” Haines says of the system. He'llput vocals through the whole array, but he'll pump more vocals throughthe central cluster. “This is a loud band, so a lot of times, Ineed everything I can get to get the vocals over them. I like Yamahastuff a lot. This is not necessarily top-of-the-line, but it's flexibleand I can usually get what I want out of it.”
Haines takes full advantage of the VCAs on the board: “VCAsare what makes life easy,” he admits with a laugh. “I'd bechasing things around all night if I didn't use them. I justreorganized how I group things. I used to separate the kick and snareout on their own VCA, but I just started using a separate band VCA so Icould change the whole band dynamics: drums on one, bass on two, guitaron three, keys on four, all the computer stuff on five, horns on six,vocals on seven and the entire band — everything but vocals— on eight. I can mix a lot of the show just riding seven andeight. If I needed to change the mix of the band within that band VCA,I can do that with the other VCAs. It makes it so I don't have to touchthe actual faders that much during the show.”
The computer “stuff” he refers to includes an Akai MPCthat Izo uses during the show, and an Apple iBook that's set up onHarris' drum kit. Until recently, the iBook was running Digidesign'sPro Tools with an 002 mixer, but the system has been crashing.“There's something up with the interface between the two,”Haines reports. “We're not sure what it is, but we've blown upthree 002 mixers in the past few months. Normally, we have a separatedclick track and separated-out strings multitracked off of Pro Tools.Right now, we've condensed it into iTunes, and there's a stereo out ofthe iBook. It doesn't give us much flexibility, but it's moredependable.”
Because the Warfield features spacious floor and balcony sections,Haines had to do a lot of EQ and driver tweaking. “We've got acouple front-fills that are dialed in just right,” he says.“That's important, especially for vocal mics, because you don'twant them feeding back. I EQ things differently for the balcony; thereis definitely a lot of 125 floating around up here.”
As he's polishing the mix at the beginning of the set, the subs havealready been handled. “I just crank them up until theythump,” he reports. “This band has a lot of tricks up theirsleeve onstage to give me the low end that I need.” Although hewon't cough up all of his tricks, he does point out that the bass partsbeing played on the Korg MS2000 by keyboardist Board and the soundsfrom the Moog Voyager are getting sent through the subs.
Haines has 33 inputs going into the board and about eight channelsof outboard gear, which includes a TC-Helicon VoiceWorks, EventideEclipse, Yamaha SPX-990 and TC Electronics D2 and M1. The VoiceWorks isused for Fergie's vocals. “It helps round her sound out and makesher sound smoother. I also like it because it helps differentiate hervoice from the guys; it gives a different characteristic to hervoice,” he explains. “I do some pitch correction with it.When you're singing and dancing that much, you get out of breath by theend of the show, which is when the hits are, and she needs to be intune for them. Sometimes it's more critical than others, but I like tohave it just so it's there.”
As for microphones, Haines uses a combination of a Beyer M88 TG witha Shure Beta 91 on the kick. “I really like that combination, butthe problem is that the 88 is a ribbon microphone so it gets thrashedreally quickly. It's just really flexible with those two kick mics; youcan get the broad range of tones.” On toms, he'll use ShureSM98s; the top and bottom of the snare get Shure Beta 57s; bongos aremiked with Sennheiser MD 421s; and for overheads, he uses a pair ofShure KSM44s. Shure Beta 57s are used on the guitars, a Shure SM58 isused on Izo's flute and saxophone, and a Sennheiser 421 on Board'strumpet.
On vocals, Haines has been using wireless Shure Beta 58s, but he's“thinking about switching to the Beta 87s because I like the EQcurve on those better,” he explains. “We've been havingsome trouble with wireless recently. Not so much RF, but with micscutting out and batteries coming loose. The mics are overloading, too,when they scream into them.”
A Moog Voyager, Rhodes keyboard and the MPC get the DI treatment.Typically, Haines will use a Behringer Quad DI, but they are beingrepaired. So for tonight's show, they are using house DI — aWhirlwind Director — for those instruments. On thecompression/limiter front, a rack of dbx 166s gets the call. Haines hashis eye on an Aphex Dominator multiband compressor, which might justchange the way he handles the live mix. “I'm interested in doingsomething like what DJs do: some filter effects on the fly with theband and doing some mix-minus stuff where you have the vocalsuntouched, but on the rest of the mix, you have filter effects.”Ah, does the band know this yet? “No,” he admits with alaugh. “I've talked to a few of the guys about it, but it's justsomething I'm toying with.”
Beyond technology, Haines is consistently challenged by the band'smusical ability and their tendency to play beyond what's been recorded.From musician to emcee, the band likes to stretch during a live set.“The way they are playing [live] is not like the album, so I tryto create something new with what they are doing,” Hainesexplains. “It's hard to create a studio sound with what they'redoing onstage and they are not aiming for that — if they were, Iwould try to re-create it, but they are trying to go someplacedifferent.
“I think that's what's always been really dynamic about a liveBlack Eyed Peas show: They don't just go up there and play theblueprint; they go up there and go off the deep end with it. So a lotof what I do is try to follow their lead or see where they'regoing.”
David John Farinella is a writer based in San Francisco.