Britney Spears performing in the round
Photo: Jeremy Cowart
Welcome to Club Britney — where the music and mix re-create a dance environment with the vibe of her latest release, Circus. The in-the-round world tour showcases the pop singer performing alongside a highly energetic dance troupe, a superlative band (drums, bass, guitar, two keyboard players and two background singers arranged in four small pods on the side of the stage) and a gaggle of circus acts — all to the screaming pleasure of sold-out crowds.
Front-of-house engineer Blake Suib: “The way I mix is more of a feel; I want you to feel the music.”
Tending to all of this activity is front-of-house engineer Blake Suib, who is taking the FOH reins, having spent countless hours behind a monitor board for Spears, as well as for such artists as Seal, Destiny's Child, Janet Jackson, Annie Lennox and many more. One would think that making the transition from the side of the stage to FOH would be a bit difficult, but Suib has seamlessly made the change, pointing out that the tour's Meyer Sound P.A. has been instrumental in switching positions. As the tour is in the round, Suib and company employ 64 MILOs, split up into four hangs (16 per hang) and 32 MICAs split up into two hangs (16 per hang). In addition, there are 12 M'elodies in the center rig (four hangs) and HP-700 subs with some M'elodies on top “to kind of fill in the floor,” Suib says. Rounding out the substantial and clear-sounding system are hanging MSL4s and C1s for Spears' stage monitors.
“There are a lot of zones,” Suib says. “We're in a 360 scenario, so we have to cover every area of the arena. So instead of a traditional left/right P.A., we're more of a multizone P.A.” In this situation, having system control and tuning components from the same P.A. manufacturer is key, Suib points out. “I think the one thing that separates Meyer Sound from a lot of other companies is they not only build the speakers, they also build the amplifiers and the design software. MAPP Online, helps you work with the architectural design of the building and accurately point the speakers where they need to be, and Meyer's SIM [Source Independent Measurement] system helps us tune the P.A. properly. Instead of just one microphone feeding an analyzer from one position in the arena, we have multiple mics placed in the seats where the speakers are actually pointing, providing accurate readings from the speakers, telling us exactly what the frequency response is at the place where the speakers are pointing. SIM — in addition to Galileo — helps us properly time-align all the different zones so the pattern of one zone into a different zone is seamless. The end result is even frequency response coverage everywhere in the building.”
This is especially crucial in the sold-out arenas, where the goal is that customers in the “nose-bleed” seats hear the same tonality as the VIPs.
“That's one thing the P.A. helps deliver, so people in the upper tiers are dancing, too,” Suib says. “I can produce the same quality I get at the mix position to the floor and those in the upper sections. John Meyer has been designing and building P.A. systems for a long time. He understands this is an entertainment industry. We're there to entertain people, and part of that is being able to bring the same quality to every person in the audience. This has a lot to do with the fact that all the elements — speaker system, amplifiers, tuning software and mapping software — are all designed by the same company to work together in a seamless fashion, as opposed to choosing a speaker system and then going out and figuring out amplifiers, third-party software and so on.
“Every room has its own characteristics, but we start with a flat-response P.A.,” he continues. “A lot of engineers play a particular piece of music they know as their reference point. And on any given day, would say, ‘Okay, I know what this is supposed to sound like and I can make adjustments.’ Well, in the end, you're one person with one set of ears standing in one place, making those adjustments based on one place.
“The Meyer software can help accurately tune the P.A. Then, in the end, I still listen, but when I listen at the end of the tuning process, I find I don't really have to make any adjustments to the EQ. I might decide to make it a little bit brighter. But those changes are minimal compared to 10 or 12 years ago when I had one analyzing microphone, a CD player and I was playing music and EQ'ing the system by ear.”
In addition to the SIM and MAPP Online, two system engineers from sound company Solotech use wireless tablets to control every aspect of the P.A. remotely during the performance so that Suib can focus on the mix.
In the Mix
Working on a Digidesign Venue, using all onboard plug-ins (Bomb Factory compressors on vocals, gates on toms, a bit of reverb for the ballads), Suib strives for a “dance club” mix as most of Spears' songs are dance-oriented. “With the Venue console, I have presets for every song because a lot of them are drastically different in styles and arrangements,” says Suib. “I use a copy of the CD as a reference, indicating where specific sounds need to be at certain places in the mix — whether it's a handclap or a vocal part or something that is important to the blend of the song. We're doing a live show, so we don't want it to be the record, but the songs need to have the same elements of the record and the same balance.
“There's a lot of dancing going on during the show, and that's what we want the audience to experience,” Suib elaborates. “For Britney's vocals, I just try to reproduce — from listening to the sound on the record — and don't stray too far from that. It's Britney Spears; it's not like a band with five musicians of equal status. These audiences have been listening to her music for a long time and they want to hear all the words and hear what she says in between songs, and having the vocal sit on top is a big priority.”
Spears continues to use the same mic she favored when she first started performing — a Crown 311 headset. “It sounds good, it works; it's actually the same one. Anyone who is a fan of Britney can see it's actually the same mic — we have a few of them,” Suib says. When a song calls for a handheld, Suib pulls out a Sennheiser wireless. The two background singers use Shure SM58s.
While the majority of her fans might not be pre-teens and teens anymore — many of them having stayed fans during Spears' 10-year career thus far — Suib strives to keep stage volume fairly low. “Some nights, the audience is really loud. I adjust my volume depending on the situation. If the room is really ambient and the audience is really loud, I might turn it down, but I don't fluctuate more than two or three dB. Our show sits at around 100 dB — maybe peaks at 102 — but I make it a point to stay in that realm. It's entertainment; we're not here to damage anyone's ears. But the way I mix is more of a feel; I want you to feel the music, as well as hear it. It's dance music, it's made to make you feel it.”
Sarah Benzuly is the managing editor of Mix and EM magazines.
Monitor engineer Lawrence “Filet” Mignogna
Monitor World, At a Glance
Monitor engineer Lawrence “Filet” Mignogna (right) mixes on a DiGiCo D5 for both ear monitors (band) and wedges (Spears). “Britney doesn't like ear monitors because she wants to feel the music as opposed to just hear it,” Suib says. “She is all over the stage and she wants to get an accurate representation of what the audience is hearing. She's traditionally used loudspeaker monitors — it just gives her more of a live feel. We have 12 Meyer CQs positioned all around and we send mainly a full mix of everything with her live voice on top. [Mignogna] has his hands full, as the band is spread out over a vast area; everyone can't see each other. We depend on talkback systems and video monitoring to see each other. Everyone's been really happy on this tour. He does a great job.”