Live Sound

Tour Profile: Seal

What makes a sound engineer happy? Near the top of most engineers' wish lists are good equipment, a sensible itinerary, a comfortable tour bus and cooperative 8/01/1999 8:00 AM Eastern

What makes a sound engineer happy? Near the top of most engineers' wish lists are good equipment, a sensible itinerary, a comfortable tour bus and cooperative musicians, but perhaps the most smile-inducing factor is the opportunity to mix for a favorite artist. For Stewart Bennett, system engineer and FOH mixer for Showco (Dallas), lightning has struck twice. Last year Bennett was out with John Fogerty, mixing FOH for the Blue Moon Swamp tour, and now he is mixing for another of his favorite artists, British soul sensation Seal. Absent from the touring scene for over a year while completing his latest album for Warner Bros., 1998's Human Being, the 6-foot-4 singer/ songwriter joined the summer touring parade in May with a series of concerts in theaters, interspersed with indoor/outdoor sheds. Mix attended the Concord Pavilion show in the San Francisco Bay Area on May 21.

"I've been a fan since the first record, back when I was still hanging speakers for the Bee Gees," says Bennett, referring to Seal's eponymous 1991 release, which included the dance hit "Killer" and the radio-friendly "Crazy." As anyone familiar with Seal's three Trevor Horn-produced albums is aware, the artist's sound is distinctive and highly polished, often featuring rhythm-driven grooves overlaid with multiple vocal tracks, techno flourishes and an extensive catalog of studio effects. "With a producer as inventive and complex as Trevor Horn, it ends up being really difficult to try to reproduce all of the textures and nuances of the album, but I've really tried to keep the spirit," says Bennett. "I constantly go back and listen to the recordings, and I definitely try to keep [my mix] at least in the spirit of the record. That's what I strive for."

HOT MUSICIANSBennett's task is made somewhat easier by the fact that Seal has put together a crack touring band that includes some of the world's most respected and in-demand musicians: David Sancious, musical director and keyboardist, drummer/percussionist Brian Blade, bassist Tony Levin and guitarist Michael Landau, with backing vocals provided by Mike Harvey and Paul Mabin. Not surprisingly, this band of pros reproduces Seal's catalog of delicate ballads and up-tempo dance numbers with discipline and aplomb.

For FOH, Bennett has selected a 52-input Yamaha PM4000, though he admits he would have preferred a Midas XL-4 had one been available. The board's first 32 inputs are taken up with band and vocal inputs, the remainder functioning as return faders for various reverbs and effects. Bennett's mixing philosophy is straightforward-he selects all inputs direct to the 4000's stereo bus and mixes on the VCA subgroups, using only a pair of mute groups for between-song patter and specials. Though Bennett has a pair of Meyer Sound HM-1s positioned on the meter bridge, they are not delayed for use as cue speakers. "I use them as a reference when I'm setting up the system," explains Bennett, pointing to the Showco Prism(r) control rack that forms the back wall of his FOH compound.

At Concord, a 12,500-capacity shed with a covered seating section and a horseshoe-shaped lawn, Bennett and assistant system engineer Dave Lagodzinski rigged the Prism system in two 12-cabinet arrays. Hung three across and four deep, and supplemented by four sub-bass cabinets per side, the Prism system looked less than imposing, though it certainly provided enough SPL for the audience under the Pavilion's roof. (House engineer Skip Spragens supplemented the touring production with a four-position delay system made up of JBL Concert System components, all fed from an FOH matrix mix.) The surprisingly slim profile of the Prism system draws approval from production designer and LD Butch Allen, who likes the fact that "the Prism system hangs out of the look."

CHOICE EFFECTSBennett nailed down his effects choices during a week of pre-tour production rehearsals in early May. Seal's vocal mic is a Shure wireless with a Beta 87 capsule, which is routed through a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor and a dbx FS900 card cage containing dual 902 de-essers (a spare vocal mic is patched to a Summit TLA 100A and the second 902). "I picked the Tube-Tech as the primary vocal compressor because of the sound, and also because Showco had one available," comments Bennett. "As it turns out, I've since discovered that Trevor Horn won't record Seal without a Tube-Tech. It was a nice coincidence."

For most of the vocal delay effects, Bennett is using a TC Electronic 2290, with one side of a Lexicon 224X providing additional vocal reverb. Backing vocals (a pair of hard-wired Beta 87s) are routed through a Summit DCL 200 dual compressor/limiter and two dbx 902 de-essers. "The primary background vocal effects are stock programs on the Ultraharmonizer. The SPX990 is for a second background vocal effect," says Bennett. Completing Bennett's effects rack are two Yamaha SPX1000s, which he uses as drum reverbs, and the remaining side of the Lexicon 224X, which finds use as a general instrument reverb.

Bennett's second rack is mainly dedicated to dynamics. Four dbx 160A compressor/limiters are distributed among the two kick drum channels and Tony Levin's two bass direct channels. (Levin plays several basses, including an electric stand-up and an electric cello, and also doubles on synthesizers, but mixes all his inputs to two outputs. For more details on Levin's gear, see his touring diary at www.papabear.com.)

TRIGGERING THE GATESThree Drawmer 201 dual gates are patched into the kick, snare and toms channels. Rather than rely on the drum mics themselves to trigger the gates, Bennett has mounted piezo-electric triggers inside the drums. "Using triggers to open the gates via the key inputs extends the dynamic range," explains Bennett. "Because the triggers are fairly well isolated from the other drums and general stage noise, you can lower the threshold, which makes the gates more useful." Bennett uses two Klark Teknik DN504 quad compressors on the six guitar channels (guitarist Landau plays both electric and acoustic instruments, as does Seal on some songs) and on the two drum overhead mics. "I compress the overheads because I use them both for cymbals and for the overall drum sound," explains Bennett. "I find that the compressors effectively 'automix' the balance between the overheads and the toms."

Completing the dynamics package, Bennett points out a UREI 1178 stereo limiter that keeps David Sancious' stereo keyboard outputs within bounds, and a Behringer Ultrabass subharmonic synthesizer, which Bennett uses as an effect for some of the more dance-oriented tunes. "As far as special effects go, we only reproduce one item from the record, which is a funky-sounding drum loop," says Bennett. "Some of the things [on the records] you just can't reproduce live." Nevertheless, Bennett relies on a small loose-leaf binder (actually a snapshot photo album) that holds cue cards for each song; he reorders the cards to match each show's set list. "Seal is in the habit of working up multiple arrangements of certain songs, so not all my notes are completely accurate, but at least I can remind myself of the essential cues," says Bennett.

In order to be able to review his own mixes, Bennett has set up a comprehensive recording rack that includes a Tascam D1000 digital mixer, a Tascam DA-88 recorder, a Panasonic SV-3700 DAT recorder and a Tascam CD-RW5000 rewritable CD recorder/player. Typically, Bennett records a "dry" CD direct from the board mix for musical director Sancious, and he sends the stereo mix to the DA-88, along with a stereo audience "mix" picked up via a Crown SASS-P stereo PZM mic positioned at FOH. "If I need to make a more representative board mix for somebody, I can dub the multitrack down to stereo, using the D1000 to delay the board mix to time align with the audience mics," he explains.

The setup also allows Bennett to rehearse cues by playing back recordings of the band. Using the PM4000's subgroups as recording buses, he breaks the mix down to eight discrete instrument and vocal tracks and records them on the DA-88. "I used the system quite a bit in production rehearsals and I can still set it up when I need to," Bennett says. "If the band works up a new song at soundcheck, I can record it and then rehearse aux send cues after they've left the stage."

FEW MICS ONSTAGEWith the exception of the guitar amps and the drums, all the instruments onstage are picked up through Countryman DIs. Drum mics are mainly from Shure: an SM91 and a Beta 52 on kick; SM57s on snare (top and bottom); and SM98s on toms and doumbek, a timbale-like percussion instrument. Overheads are AKG 414s, hi-hat is an AKG 460, and, even though the mics have been out of production for years, guitar amps are miked with AKG D-12s. "They're big, they're fat," says Bennett. "They don't necessarily work for every guitar rig, but Showco happened to have some available."

John "Roscoe" Protsko has been Seal's monitor mixer since 1995, though the artist's less-than-grueling road schedule has left Protsko with time to get involved in other pursuits. "It was Scott Peets of the Design FX recording truck who turned me on to these," says Protsko, pointing at eight API 3124 preamps in the rack next to his PM4000M in stage-left monitorworld. "We had to work without these for the first gig of the tour because we were using the house system, and half the band turned around and said, 'What's happening?' All but two of the band are using in-ear monitors, so they could really hear the difference." The API preamps are used on all four vocal channels, bass and acoustic guitars. "Seal is really sensitive to compression in his monitor mix," says Protsko, "but these preamps almost make it unnecessary."

Protsko sets up wedges for guitarist Landau, drummer Blade and band leader Sancious, though the keyboardist also has ear monitors available if he wants them. Everyone else is using the Shure PSM 600 Personal Stereo Monitor ear monitor system, with a wireless setup for Seal and hard-wired beltpacks for the other musicians. Both backing singers control their own in-ear mixes via Mackie submixers, which Protsko feeds with a stereo band mix and splits of the vocal channels. Protsko also creates stereo reverb return mixes for the vocals, which the singers can mix in to taste.

Seal's ear molds are UE-5s from Ultimate Ears, manufactured by Westone Labs. "They have the best definition of all the models I've heard," says Protsko. "I've been fortunate that Seal has been through just about all of them, so I've heard quite a few different ones. He's happiest with UE-5s and I agree with him on that." Protsko has an Aphex Dominator in the signal chain but admits that "it's there because Seal owned it when I started working with him-I never see it work. I have it set to kick in when you start hitting the limit on the Shure system, but we never get that loud. I keep it really quiet most of the time."

However, Protsko does have compressor inserts on the hi-hat and overhead channels. "Brian Blade keeps time on the quiet sections, and for the musicians to hear them, the cymbal channels have to be quite loud," explains Protsko. "If there was a cymbal crash, it could be quite painful, hence the compressors." Other outboard gear that Protsko makes use of includes a Lexicon 480L reverb for both lead and backing vocals, plus Seal's occasional acoustic guitar. "I also have a Yamaha REV5 for Michael Landau's acoustic guitar," concludes Protsko.

WEARING TWO HATSAs chief system engineer, Bennett is responsible for flying and tuning the P.A., in addition to setting up and operating the FOH mix position. Without intending to slight Bennett's mixing abilities in any way, Mix asked if it wasn't a little unusual for an artist of Seal's stature to tour without a "name" independent FOH mixer. "The climate of the industry is such that artists are increasingly looking to their sound companies to provide the engineers," responded Bennett. "I would agree that having someone who is completely dedicated to the artistic side of mixing and can give it his complete attention might produce better results sometimes, but it's becoming a luxury. Not everyone wants to pay the extra salary and travel expenses, and there are also benefits to having a system engineer mixing at FOH. For example, I really know the nuts and bolts of the Prism system and can make adjustments for the venue more easily, whereas a guest engineer might make demands on the system that are physically impossible to satisfy."

In fact, Bennett was tapped for the gig by Seal's production manager, Mark Spring. "Mark was production manager on the John Fogerty tour," explains Bennett. "Fogerty has historically used his sound company's engineers, and I've worked with Showco for ten years, so I was a candidate. Mark offered me the Seal gig based on the relationship we developed during the Fogerty tour."

Though the Concord Pavilion was far from sold out, the audience was enthusiastic and greeted the opening bars of Seal's more familiar songs with roars of appreciation. The 18-song set, evenly divided among songs from all three albums, featured enough up-tempo tunes to prompt continuous dancing in the aisles and female admirers thronged to the lip of the stage, eager for Seal's attention. And, whether or not he could reproduce every effect "just like the record," Stewart Bennett was happy mixing FOH for an artist whose music he admires.