India.Arie performing live
Photos: Paul Natkin
Promoting her latest chart-topping album, Testimony: Vol. 2, Love and Politics, India.Arie keeps it real with powerful performances that are infused with inspired narrative, woven gracefully through her “neo-soul” R&B/jazz music. Setting the stage for the songstress' Soulbird tour with a smooth house mix, front-of-house engineer Ollie Cotton Jr. is right in sync with the artist, having toured with her since her double-Platinum 2001 release, Acoustic Soul. “I've had years of experience and I've seen a lot,” says Cotton, referring to decades of work with top producers, engineers and artists, including Quincy Jones, Bruce Swedien, Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin, GRP Records, Dougie E. Fresh, Najee and Take 6. When he's not on the road, he's at home behind the console at the Apollo Theater in New York and dedicates some of his time to jazz record label OCDK Records, which he co-owns.
India.Arie's crew travels light, renting backline at all venues. “The setups will be totally different,” says Cotton, “and we don't carry production, so one day it will be a Midas, PM5D or VENUE, and one day it will be a Soundcraft, but in India's mind it's all the same because we make it the same.” At the House of Blues in Chicago, he's working almost 40 inputs on the venue's Midas 48-channel Heritage 2000. He'll leave the remaining channels for opening act Laura Izibor.
FOH engineer Ollie Cotton Jr. (left) and stage tech Vik Goel at the House of Blues’ Midas board.
India.Arie‘s fans hang on every word, and it's paramount that her vocals come through clearly in the mix, which means holding back on effects and using a gentle touch with whatever effects package is in the rack for her vocals. India.Arie and her engineer are like-minded, preferring very natural sounds from all instruments, so Cotton doesn't go heavy on the EQ, either. He'll lightly adjust EQ on vocals and guitarist “Blue” Mueller's acoustic so they pop out in the mix, but he mostly leaves everything else alone.
“India has a really nice low end to her voice, and lately I've been working on making more room for that,” he says. India.Arie prefers a sound that's not too bottom-heavy anyway, and keeping the low end in check starts onstage. Cotton mikes keyboardist/music director Shannon Sanders' Leslie speakers with a pair of Sennheiser 421s, directing them only at the top rotary speakers to capture the tremolo vibe on the B3 without blowing out the bottom end of the mix. Back on the drum riser, James Barrett wears headphones to hear his mix through a Mackie 1202 mixer; to avoid using a subwoofer to deliver him his kick sound, he mounts a ButtKicker to the drum throne.
Using Shure wireless Beta 58s allows for easily passing mics and for India.Arie's flowing movements when she sings sans guitar. Most of the mics Cotton requests on his input list are Shures: SM98s for toms, SM81s for hi-hat and toms and SM57s for guitar amps. He pairs an SM91 with an Audix D6 for kick, and likes to use AKG 414s as overheads on the kit.
Stage tech Vik Goel takes care of monitor setup, as well as guiding the monitor mix. None of the bandmembers has taken a liking to in-ear monitoring, except Barrett, so the stage is strewn with a dozen Electro-Voice X-Array XW12 wedges flanked by Xi-1183A sidefills, requiring as many mixes, including two pairs of wedges for India.Arie. Her center pair carries mostly her vocals, with some guitar and kick, and an outer pair brings in the rest of the band. India.Arie's schedule often has her arriving at the venue after soundcheck, so Goel is her eyes and ears. As a very dynamic singer, she needs a lot of monitor level to get the vibe of the quieter moments.
Cotton works with Goel and the house monitor crew to keep stage volume under control, often muting the P.A. at soundcheck to listen to the stage from the FOH desk, picking up on what instruments or frequencies are too far up and guiding Goel and the band to tighten up the sonic footprint of the stage. Sanders, Barrett, Mueller and bassist André Bowman enjoy a stage that is uncluttered by overpowering amp levels, and that is key to Cotton's approach to a crystal-clear house mix. This group of seasoned musicians works with an almost familial connection to India.Arie and her musical vision, and according to Cotton, he can rely on them to be as tight sonically as they are rhythmically.
Carolyn Maniaci is a Chicago-based freelance writer.