Photos: Steve Jennings
Front-of-house engineer and production manager Brian Joseph is no stranger to the sound behind Bon Iver—the Justin Vernon band. Having been part of the production process for his latest self-titled album, Joseph is fully aware of how to artfully re-create that record’s lush soundscapes (think Sigur Ros meets down-home Americana) when it came time to take it on the road. Accompanying Vernon is a stellar cast of musicians—including dual drummers, a scaled-back horn section and numerous guitars—all of whom collaborated on the record. While Joseph may be taking the same mix approach from the studio to the stage, he says it’s still a pretty large adjustment, as the tour doesn’t require as many tracks and performances on which to rely. Plus, having a complete control package courtesy of Eighth Day Sound (except P.A., which the tour specs for either an L-Acoustics K1 or V-DOSC system, or a d&B J Series) has helped in creating consistency from venue to venue.
“Having many of the studio musicians with us live is an absolute luxury,” Joseph says. “It wasn’t long into rehearsals when the musicians understood the supporting roles and harmonies necessary to balance each other in the live arrangements. It was at that point I was able to start building my mix with the width in imaging that exists on the record. Dynamic range is a massive player in the experience of a Bon Iver concert. We’re definitely not winning the loudness war, but I feel there is a real impact that comes with [making] their whisper to a roar dynamic. A quieter mix demands more of the audience’s attention and keeps their ears rested for the louder passages. There are moments I learned from the recorded music to be more aggressive in my live mix approach. With the absence of recorded playback in the show, I am able to use that real estate to push certain elements significantly harder in the mix.”
Front-of-house engineer Brian Joseph at the DiGiCo SD10
DIGICO DEBUT AT FOH
That extended real estate—as well as having clarity and fidelity high on his list of must-haves—is found within a DiGiCo SD10, the company’s latest live digital board. Joseph finds that the onboard dynamics package—especially multiband compression and dynamic equalization—were key factors in choosing the desk. “Channel count was also important, being that Bon Iver is up to 76 presently,” Joseph adds. He’s also employing the SD Racks and Waves SoundGrid bundle, saying that the gain tracking on the SD Racks was important as initially they were a two-bus/two-trailer tour. “I was looking to save every bit of trailer space possible. Now that we are in a truck, I see no need to go about it any other way. After some initial troubleshooting, the two SD10s [one at FOH, one at monitors] work seamlessly with one other. The sharing of effects and communication are made very simple in this format.”
Concurs monitor engineer Xandy Whitesel: “Quite handy on the SD10 is the ability to create virtual inputs and outputs between consoles on the Opticore network. This makes effects sharing and talkbacks between consoles very easy to route without eating up preamp and cabling capacity. It was cake to set up a stereo partial effects return from FOH so that I can pipe Brian’s effects mixes—minus ’verbs—back into IEM mixes as requested.”
Both FOH and monitor consoles run at 96 kHz and share SD Racks (head amp/converters) for all inputs from the stage. “The racks automatically compensate for gain changes made on the other desk through digital trim adjustments in your own session,” Joseph explains. “I use the Waves SoundGrid Server for my main effects rack and additional dynamics that Justin and I used on the record. The treatment of Justin’s voice is a particular thing, and having Waves in the live setting is something that makes my job possible. I’m using a pitch shift or octave below on Justin’s vocal in select moments to create a larger, more menacing character. I make a lot of small changes from song to song for the vocal to sound how I think it should. I use a short plate reverb for the drums and for brass instruments on certain songs. The rest of the effects are derived from the Waves SoundGrid Server: the H-Delay, R-Verb, Renaissance de-esser, R-Compressor and SSL G Series compressor from the SoundGrid Server.
“I find that less is more when adding plug-ins to my session,” he continues. “If I’m having to throw too many plug-ins or processing at my source material, I find having a chat with the bandmember and exploring the tone coming off the deck is a better place to correct the problem. We’re continually refining the tones coming of the stage.”
Monitor engineer Xandy Whitesel also mans a DiGiCo SD10 that communicates with the FOH board.
AUDIENCE VS. P.A. KEY TO MONITOR MIXES
Monitor engineer Whitesel has been with the band in a live setting since 2009, when Vernon added three touring musicians and all were transitioning to IEMs. With the addition of the studio musicians to the live act, Whitesel finds that the SD10 accommodates the necessary 72 inputs and achieves the best-quality sound for their budget. “The SD10 at 96 kHz and its floating-point DSP and 96 inputs fit very well,” he says. “The optical FOH snake run has been reliable and easy for hands to pull. Sharing stage racks—preamps and converters—has saved cost, and the sharing itself has not been a noticeable hindrance.”
Whitesel mans 94 channels, which includes effects returns, talkback, duplicated channels and audience mics (AKG 451Bs and Rode NTG3s); all guitar amps have iso boxes. Whitesel spends a good deal of his time dialing in frequencies for the IEMs. “It used to take quite a lot of hair-pulling,” he recalls, “but my current technique works very well and is relatively fast. The PWS combiners have been helpful, as have been the summing combiner outputs to a single helical antenna. I’m selecting initial frequencies using the PWS’ intermod analysis software and a local RF scan, combined with known local RF broadcasts. From there, selecting the best-quality frequencies involves roaming the stage, listening to the brutal low-frequency sweep.”
Each bandmember has a stereo mix through Sennheiser G3 wireless units and Ultimate Ears UE11 custom buds. A few members also have Clark Synthesis tactile transducers (“thumpers”) to expand their listening field. Each drummer has a “thumper” mounted on his throne. Vernon performs on a 6-by-8-foot short wooden platform with three thumpers underneath. Also, bassist Mike Lewis has a recently built platform with two thumpers.
“Several of the bandmembers are new to IEMs this year, and it has been a learning experience for them to decide what their ideal mixes are,” says Whitesel of the type of mixes he’s providing for each musician. “But everyone basically has a balanced mix of all inputs, with an extra modicum of their own. Spatial panning is crucial with this many inputs. There are a few songs where particular members have challenging and static parts, so they simplify their mix down to the bare essentials to perform the best. The general volume of each mix varies greatly according to the bandmember’s preference. Interestingly, the softer mixes are more challenging as they are more susceptible to room-to-room differences and bleed. Snapshots of each song’s mix have been critical because of the sometimes drastic difference between the feel and mix of each song, combined with the number of inputs and number of mixes to juggle.”
As for effects, Whitesel employs compressors and gates on drum channels; comps on bass, horn and vocal inputs; and a pile of reverbs and one delay. “I also have compressors on several of the IEM mix outs, mostly multibands to be more transparent as I’ve developed a distaste toward the artifacts of strapping single bands over a mix. The thumper mixes sometimes need severe limiting.
“As an IEM mixer,” he continues, “I’m kind of obsessed with audience and ambience mics and am currently running shotguns on either side of the stage with a stereo pair down stage-center. There is a particular song involving audience participation where I need as much audience and as little P.A. as possible going back into the guys’ ears. While it’s easy to get ambience or between-song audience responses, to isolate the audience when the P.A. is blasting away is pretty tricky. I still haven’t discovered the best method, but I’m getting closer.”
MICS AROUND THE STAGE
“Our mic package is pretty exquisite, with several ribbons and generally pretty high-end mics,” says monitor engineer Whitesel. “Most vocals mics are Sennheiser MD431s, which we’ve been generally pleased with. We don’t have any mic sponsorships, so the manufacturers are widely represented.”
And without further ado, here’s what’s miking what:
Sean Carey Drum Set #1: Shure Beta 91A (kick in), SM57 (snare top), Beta 57A (snare bottom); Sennheiser 602 (kick out, floor 18-inch), 604 (rack); Josephson C42 (hat); Audix D6 (floor 16-inch); AES 92s (overheads); Beyer M88 (auxiliary bass drum)
Matt McCaughan Drum Set #2: Shure Beta 91A (kick in), Beta 57A (snare bottom); Sennheiser 602 (kick out, floor 16-inch); Beyer M201 (snare top); Josephson C42 (hat); AKG C414B (overheads)
Nord: Radial JDI
Conga: Sennheiser e604
Mike Noyce Guitar: Josephson e22s on amp
Rob Moose Viola: DPA 4061, LR Baggs Paracoustic DI. Electric Guitar: Josephson e22s on amps, Radial DI
Mike Lewis Bass: Electro-Voice RE20, Radial JD48 DI; sings through Sennheiser 441
MicroKorg: Radial JDI
Colin Stetson Bass Sax: Beta 98, Radial J48; sings through a Shure Beta 98
C.J. Camerieri Trumpet: DPA 4099T (dry), Radial JDI (wet)
French Horn: Beyer M260
Synth: Radial J48
Reginald Pace Trombones: Beyer M88
Percussion: Josephson C42
Justin Vernon Keys: Radial SW8. Electric Guitar: Mohave 201, Royer 121, Radial JDV DI