It's been one whirlwind of a year for Adele, the 20-year-old British singer/songwriter who caused a stir in the UK with her singles “Daydreamer” and “Chasing Pavements” before cracking the U.S. market wide open and winning two 2009 Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Upon learning of her four Grammy nominations (which also included Song of the Year and Record of the Year), the Adele camp added more U.S. appearances to her schedule.
Tour manager David “Zop” Yard explains that although Adele's sudden stardom called for higher-capacity houses than originally planned, they aimed to maintain an intimate feel. They achieved that sense of immediacy in San Francisco, where Mix caught Adele's sold-out performance at the 2,250-seat Warfield Theater, rescheduled to that venue because she had outgrown her originally scheduled slot at The Fillmore.
Front-of-house engineer David McDonald — a veteran studio and live sound engineer who has worked with Portishead for the past 10 years, as well as Air and many others — and Portland, Ore.-based monitor engineer Joe Zavaglia (who has spent the past decade working for such acts as Sub Pop's Gutter Twins, Ed Harcourt and Stars of Track & Field) have navigated the changes on this tour well, despite a few less-than-desirable console encounters.
“Fortunately, we're not carrying any production,” says McDonald. This allows them to travel more efficiently, but relying on house equipment, can present some unwelcome surprises. “We've been faced with some real horrors,” says McDonald. “Some of the boards we've encountered just shouldn't be used.”
“In some of these venues, the gear is fine for a loud rock band, but because this is such a quiet act and because there are so many in-ear mixes, you don't get the pristine clarity that you need for a girl, a voice and an acoustic guitar,” adds Zavaglia. “We spent a good portion of our days tracking down buzzes and hums coming from old boards.”
Luckily, The Warfield wasn't one of those venues; it contains a Yamaha PM5D in monitor world and a trusted Midas Heritage H3000 at FOH, an area that was relocated late last year from the venue's balcony area to the middle of the main floor. “The Midas is perfect for what we're doing,” says McDonald. “You hardly have to touch the preamps. It's just there. You subtract, if anything.”
FOH engineer David McDonald has a Zen-like personality when it comes to working with house-supplied gear.
For the San Francisco date, McDonald filled 44 of the Midas' 48 inputs. The engineer pairs the console's preamps and EQs with only basic outboard signal processing, including Aphex gates on the kick drum, and Summit and Drawmer compressors on the vocals, bass and acoustic guitar. For effects, McDonald uses the TC Electronic M2000 effects processor and 2290 digital delay, which are, he finds, “brilliant.” Strings and acoustic guitar get a touch of reverb.
Onstage, Adele and band use primarily a Sennheiser assortment, including 900 Series mics for Ben Thomas' electric guitar and Adele's Moon acoustic. “She's got a really light touch,” says Zavaglia. “So we're running both her acoustic guitar and acoustic bass through the LR Baggs Para Acoustic DI, which has a preamp section on it. I have to run the levels very hot to get a reasonable mix in her ears because of how lightly she plays.”
Drummer Derrick Wright's kit is miked with an e901 for the kick, e904s on the toms and e614s for the hi-hat and overheads. For lead and backing vocals, the engineers vary between the e935 and a Neumann KSM 105.
“The clarity is so pure on the vocals that on a small stage, the KSM 105 will pick up the drums, a conversation over in the corner. But on a big stage, it's a glorious mic,” says McDonald. “And Adele's voice is really well-matched to it.” For the Warfield show, McDonald pairs the condenser mic with a Summit Audio compressor. “Adele is well-trained with the microphone,” he adds. “She knows when to back off of the mic. Her voice is a very powerful; we don't have to worry about getting a level!”
Monitor engineer Joe Zavaglia keeps his outboard gear list slim and trim.
Photos: Steve Jennings
Variables aside, for this show Adele's engineers could rest easy knowing that the house would receive even coverage courtesy of the recently acquired Meyer Sound system, installed by Pro Media/UltraSound of Hercules, Calif. The Warfield's system comprises left and right arrays of 10 Meyer Sound MILOs and one MILO 120 line array loudspeaker each. Low frequency is covered by four 700-HP subwoofers per side under the stage, with an additional three 700-HP center-flown to cover the upper balcony. The under balcony is covered by six Meyer Sound M1D line array loudspeakers, with two CQ-1 loudspeakers per side providing front-fill. A Galileo loudspeaker-management system handles system drive and processing. “The room sounds a little muddy from the new mix position,” says McDonald. “But regardless, the MILO does the job with style.”
In the Moment In Monitor World
Zavaglia, admittedly a recent convert to digital consoles, navigated a total of 45 inputs on The Warfield's Yamaha PM5D. Like McDonald, he stuck to a short list of outboard equipment. “If it's dry in the ears, it can be a little disorienting and harsh, so I'll wet it up a little bit with a short plate reverb,” he says. “That definitely helps her feel more at home, not so closed in. I use some compression to keep her vocal level in a good place, because when she's in the moment she can peak out that transmitter if I don't keep an eye on it!”
Keyboardists Selan Learner and Miles Robertson, and drummer Wright all use Shure P4HW hardwire packs, while Adele listens through a Sennheiser wireless EW300G2 system. Guitarist Thomas and bass player Tom Driessler listen through wedges. Adele, however, also has a set of wedges nearby. “Adele has to take her ears in and out throughout the show,” says Zavaglia. “She listens to the house a lot, which is a great habit, especially for a young singer. You can watch her: Sometimes it's in, sometimes it's out. I also have a couple of ambient mics up for her in between songs so she can banter with the audience without taking her ears out too much.”
When Mix caught the show, Adele was bantering with the crowd, bubbling over with excitement and seeming genuinely ecstatic that more than 2,000 people would show up just to hear her sing. She even took a photo of the audience for her MySpace page. But when it came down to business, that youthful exuberance took a backseat to an ageless voice with a richness that's rarely found in young artists. And, apparently, she's got ears to match. “The thing about Adele, her hearing and attention to detail are really sharp,” says McDonald. Zavaglia adds that she can hear the difference between desks. “She knows exactly what she wants. For someone who hasn't been kicking around for years and years, she's a total professional.”
Heather Johnson is a San Francisco-based writer.