From left: Holly Brook (piano, vocals), Gerry Leonard (guitar), Sheik, Lauren Pritchard (background vocals), Kevin Garcia (drums), George Farmer (bass) and Nick Gallas (clarinet).
Photos: Ben Laing
Duncan Sheik's shows are always about the vocals, and Sheik's singing style ranges from whisper-quiet songs such as “For You” or “Touch Me” (from his Broadway musical Spring Awakening), to powerhouse tracks like “Barely Breathing,” or “We Don't Believe in You” from his latest album, Whisper House. Complementing Sheik onstage is a stellar eight-piece ensemble that helps take his sound beyond typical singer/songwriter fare. The responsibility of delivering Sheik's production to the audience belongs to front-of-house mixer/tour manager Adam Robinson, who often mixes monitors as well, as the tour does not have a monitor engineer.
The tour is hitting medium-sized venues, so Robinson is relying on house gear (including P.A.) at each stop, although he carries an FOH effects rack and a pair of EAW MicroWedges for Sheik's mix. “Typically, we're 25 inputs, with our opener taking up another six inputs and then sharing some inputs from our list,” Robinson says of the house boards. “As for outboard gear, I bring a few pieces but try to keep it to a minimum as I'm also tour and production-managing. I have a BSS DPR404 quad compressor because it's really the nicest compressor I could get a hold of that fits in one rackspace. I'm using them on my three vocals and my cello channel. They're also a great choice of compressor because of the built-in de-esser on each channel. [Vocalist] Holly Brook's singing style is light, pure and angelic, but leads to very pronounced sibilance, so it works great for her. [Vocalist] Lauren Pritchard has a very strong voice, but also a pronounced peak around 2k that's really hard to EQ out; the de-esser works great here. I'll use house compression on a few extra inputs, when available.”
Duncan Sheik sings into a KMS104.
Also in Robinson's outboard rack is a TC Electronic M3000, which he uses as a dual send/stereo return unit for two different effects. “Its excellent-sounding, clean reverbs allow me to create a little more atmosphere for the Whisper House ghost-story songs without crowding the mix,” he says. “Even when using a digital console at FOH, I'll use the TC for my reverbs.” Added to his rack is a Lake Mesa EQ that sits between the board and as many outputs as he can manage to connect it to. “In several years of touring with the Lake, I've found that it's my ‘Swiss army knife’ when it comes to bringing life back into an ailing house rig or making a spectacular system sound even better.”
Invisible Monitor Engineer
According to Robinson, most of the venues supply a monitor console and engineer, although there were times when he had to take the reins. The nine musicians onstage require eight wedge mixes, one of which is the EAW MicroWedge (developed with Dave Rat of Rat Sound), which Robinson calls his “ace in the hole.” “Any engineer who has worked with the Neumann [KM 104] in front of stage monitors will tell you that it really lends itself more to the artist using in-ears. The focused sound of the MicroWedge, along with its small form factor, really allowed me to tuck it tightly inside the null of the mic, helping to minimize feedback.
“We also did a bit of work on the input side of the processor, EQ'ing out the typical frequencies that would feed back. Having this gear each night saved me a lot of time in setting up Duncan's vocal mix as I didn't have to spend extra time notching out feedback. Typically, each day I'd just EQ out any room/stage anomalies and just turn the mix way up! Duncan likes to have a ton of gain-before-feedback, as he'll go from almost whispering to strong, loud vocals. The MicroWedge guaranteed that each night he would get what he needed out of his floor mix.”
Mike It Up
Engineer Adam Robinson
The tour is carrying an assortment of Sennheiser and Neumann mics, including the KMS104 for Sheik's vocals. “He's got a great ear and really knows how to work the mic well,” Robinson says. “We both agree that the Neumann is probably the best-sounding vocal mic you can put onstage. Lauren sings into the new Sennheiser e 965 switchable-pattern condenser. It exhibits a similarly flat response to the Neumann but is a bit tamer in stage monitors. We had been through so many different mics with Lauren trying to find the right sound for her. The moment I got my hands on the 965, I knew it was the right fit and she took to it quite well.” Brook sings through an e 945, while drummer Kevin Garcia's kit takes mostly Sennheiser 900 Series. Gerry Leonard's guitar amp is miked with a Sennheiser e 906.
“I'm using a Helpinstill system on the piano combined with a Neumann KM184 to bring some ‘wood’ back into the sound,” Robinson adds. “The orchestral instruments — clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn — are also Sennheisers. The cello utilizes a pickup.”
As most of Sheik's songs tell a story, the mic selections are an essential consideration in Robinson's overall mix style — everything must remain clean so that the vocals are intelligible. “Really when it comes down to it, though,” he says, “I just bring my usual style of mixing clean, clear and punchy to this show and it translates well. As he's proven over and over again, Duncan can write a hit song, but beyond that, every single one of the musicians playing with him is amazing, so it's a true pleasure to have such great source material to mix.”
Sarah Benzuly is the group managing editor for Mix, EM and Remix.