Veteran prog-metal band Dream Theater—John Petrucci (guitar), John Myung (bass), James LaBrie (vocals), Jordan Rudess (keyboards and Haken Continuum) and Mike Mangini (drums)—began 2016 by releasing a daring and ambitious concept album. The Astonishing (Roadrunner Records) is a fantastical sci-fi rock opera that comprises 34 tracks featuring characters (all but one voiced by LaBrie), locales and a storyline envisioned by Petrucci. For the album, the band joined musical forces with the Prague Symphony Orchestra and three choirs conducted by composer/orchestrator David Campbell, who is Beck’s father. It was recorded at Cove City Sound Studios in Glen Cove, N.Y., with Petrucci producing and Richard Chycki engineering and mixing.
The band toured behind this double-album in Europe and the U.S. this spring by performing it in its entirety each night as an immersive experience complete with visual elements including video projection and lighting synchronized to the music. “We wanted it to be the closest thing to watching a movie while the band is playing a live score, basically,” Petrucci told Rolling Stone magazine. They perform as a self-contained unit, locking in with playback of the album’s orchestra and choir tracks.
Because of these interdependencies, front-of-house engineer Nigel Paul notes the importance of “system redundancy and fallback strategies in the event of human error or hardware failure. Everyone needed to be on the same page and crystal clear as to how they would need to respond in the event of a, b, c, x, y or z occurring.”
For the spring dates, VER Tour sound provided equipment packages, service, support and touring personnel. Paul has worked with Dream Theater since the band’s 2002 Six Degrees tour, and mixed all but two of the band’s tours since then. On this tour, Paul worked alongside monitor engineer Stew Wilson, systems engineer Clark Thomas, monitor and RF tech Ed Hammond, and Pro Tools playback tech “Jimmy T” Meslin.
Paul selected a DiGiCo SD5 specifically for this tour. “All of the vocal effects on the album were to be reproduced as accurately as possible, particularly as these would aid in differentiating between the story’s characters,” Paul says. “For James [LaBrie], I’m using an onboard delay, an onboard harmonizer, an external TC4000 reverb and a second channel adjacent to his main vocal channel that has been double-assigned from the preamp and that is set up for a telephonic effect, and punched in and out as needed.
FOH engineer Nigel Paul, at right, pictured with Systems Engineer Clark Thomas. Photo: Todd Berkowitz
“For Mike’s drums I’m using one onboard reverb for the main and utility snare drums, and a second onboard reverb for the toms and [TAMA] Octobans,” Paul adds. “All of the effects on John’s electric guitars are generated within his onstage rig, with the exception of the touch of reverb on the solo piezo parts. A second external TC4000 reverb is used exclusively for the six- and 12-string acoustic guitars, and solo piezo parts.”
Paul notes that he begins each night’s mix with Mangini’s drums “because I find that they give me the most useful initial frame of reference. With this band, our line-check order is drums, bass, keyboards, playback, guitars, vocals, video/audio. As long as the P.A.—our touring system [a d&b audiotechnik rig] or ‘du jour’—is well set up and tuned, we’re already at a viable starting point.”
Wilson mixes monitors on an Avid Venue Profile and employs a Shure PSM 1000 wireless system. “I am using every input and output and almost all of the FX returns, matrixes and PQ mixes, as well,” Wilson explains. “The set list contains a lot of time changes, and a lot of times they work off of each other. The video is a big part of the show so there are count-offs and clicks that keep everything on the same page. It’s more like a GPS system than a click track, as each band member has their own channel for counts, clicks and cues. Even the LD has a personal channel.
“They are all amazing musicians, have meticulous rigs and spend a lot of time on their own sound, so I use compression in a very limited manner,” Wilson adds. “There are no ambient mics or anything like that. So the mixes for the most part are fairly insular.”
Dream Theater’s The Astonishing Live returns to the road with dates in the Eastern U.S. beginning October 5.