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Janet Jackson’s Tour an Unbreakable Hit

By Steve Harvey. Janet Jackson is back on the road after a four-year hiatus, jumping straight into the Top-10 fall 2015 concert tours

LOS ANGELES, CAJanet Jackson is back on the road after a four-year hiatus, jumping straight into the Top-10 fall 2015 concert tours, according to ticket marketplace StubHub’s sales figures. The initial North American leg of the tour began in Canada on August 31 and ended in Hawaii on November 12, but the second leg kicks off in January, with more dates in the U.S. and Canada, plus Europe, currently scheduled through June.

Janet Jackson’s current Unbreakable tour marks the second time that Kyle Hamilton, seen here with his DiGiCo SD7, has tackled FOH duties for the artist. Jackson’s seventh tour since her Rhythm Nation headlining debut in 1990 is in support of her new album, Unbreakable, which has put her into the record books with its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Among women artists, Jackson now ranks third in chart topping album releases, behind Barbra Streisand and Madonna. She also claims another record: Alongside Streisand and Bruce Springsteen, Jackson is one of only three artists to top the album charts in each decade since the 1980s.

Simplicity is the watchword for this tour’s audio engineers: Kyle Hamilton at FOH, monitor engineer Jim Roach and system tech Andre “Dre” St. Pierre. “I keep it simple,” states Hamilton. “I see people make their situation convoluted for job security. My security is in my mix—you push my faders up and it’s there.”

He elaborates, “My goal is to mix to make it sound like the record with a live feel. That particular method has kept me working for the last 22 years; I’ve had a great run.” Hamilton’s resume includes working with Pharrell Williams, Rihanna, Demi Lovato, Prince, Toni Braxton and Nicki Minaj, to name but a few from an impressive list of artists.

“It’s not by accident; I put in the work,” he says. “I walk away at night and go study. We’re six weeks into this run, and I’m five years in with her as a client, but I’m never happy. A mix is never final—this is what it is for today.”

The Unbreakable Tour’s lighting and visual elements dictate that no side seats are sold beyond the stage lip, so the audio production, provided by VER Tour Sound, includes just two speaker hangs per side. “The P.A. spec is 16 d&b audiotechnik J8s over four J12s on the mains with 12 J12s over four J8s on the sides. We have eight flown J-SUBs per side,” says St. Pierre. “That’s the full system. In the morning, I come in and draw the room with ArrayCalc [d &b’s simulation software] and scale the rig to meet what the room requires, to keep it in balance for the artist and the engineer.”

Then Hamilton, who typically records the show in two formats, listens to playback through the system. “I do a two-mix to my Tascam SS-R200s, and multitrack,” Hamilton reports. “Most of the time, I use Logic, but if I need something quick, input-for-input, across the board, [Waves] Tracks Live is great to use.”

There are five band members on this tour: drums, bass, guitar, keys and a DJ, and three background vocalists. Jackson alternates between a head-worn Sennheiser HSP4 with 5000 Series wireless and a Neumann KK105 on a 5000 Series handheld. “The drums are all Lewitt microphones,” Roach reports. “The background vocals are Heil RC35 capsules on Shure wireless. All the talkback microphones are Heil PR35s. And there are Sennheiser shotguns for audience.”

Jim Roach provides monitor mixes for the production via Sennheiser 2000 Series ears for the musicians, and small d&b audiotechnik sidefills for the nine dancers. Roach, who has toured with Maxwell, Guns N’ Roses, Jill Scott, Brian McKnight, Joe Cocker and Keysha Cole, among others, generates 44 outputs from the show’s 109 inputs on his SD7. He has been using DiGiCo desks since 2010, after initially using a D5 in 2007. “The sound quality is stellar, and it’s the most flexible console I’ve ever used. On a show like this, that changed and evolved over the course of 10 weeks of rehearsals, it was great to be able to change the console around every other day to meet the new configurations.”

He’s happy with using just the onboard DiGiCo DSP: “I have nothing outside the desk. I usually carry some outboard reverbs, but on this tour, I didn’t feel they were necessary.”

All of the musicians are on Sennheiser 2000 Series ears, with some small d&b sidefills for the nine dancers. On the upstage riser, the drummer, keyboard player and DJ are all using Albatros Audio headphone amplifiers: “It’s probably the best-sounding headphone amp I have ever heard,” says Roach.

Many of the show’s production elements are automated. “We’re sending timecode to lights and video and for automation for the moving trusses,” says Roach. “Neither of us has timecode into our desks; we’re all manual.”

Hundreds of tracks may have gone into the final mix of a Janet Jackson record, Hamilton comments, and reproducing that on stage is a challenge. “Pro Tools is the sixth band member. If you break it down to a five-piece band, it sounds empty if you don’t have all the elements there. The meat of everything comes from our band; the sweetness comes from Pro Tools.”

As he notes, “I have a high-powered desk—the SD7—and the desk itself sounds great; what I’m getting from the band sounds great; our Pro Tools is incredible; and the stems are all amazing, because we take time to go through all of that meticulously—so I don’t need to add extra [processing].”

Hamilton is using Antelope Audio’s Isochrone Trinity/10M clock combination to marry playback with the musicians. “I make those worlds merge. They’re in pretty much every mastering studio—why not have those clocking my desk?”

The only other outboard gear at FOH is a rack of Avalon Design processors, a VT-737sp tube channel strip for Jackson’s handheld mic with a second for her headset, a third 737 for bass guitar, and a VT-747sp stereo unit for keybass. “The SD7 mic pre sounds amazing, but why not take it up a notch?” he says.

Returning to the theme of simplicity, Hamilton says, “I just add the stuff that makes the mix cohesive for the environment that we’re in.” For example, there is little need for reverbs. “Reverbs are for when you’re in a sterile environment, to create atmosphere and ambience. We already have that.”

St. Pierre, too, keeps things simple, applying processing to the entire array rather than taking a more granular approach. “Once in a while, you get into a situation where you’re limited by trim height or there are some extenuating circumstances and there’s really no other option. But for the most part, I don’t do any gain shading, and nothing individually in the array. I treat it as an entire source instead of trying to split it up,” he says.

“I do most of my system EQing in the R1 control software,” he adds, noting that the racked Lake LM44 rarely gets used. “It’s really just there for if Kyle were to want to do something, and the days when we don’t have our P.A.—which is rare—so we have some system processing EQ to be able to deal with everything.”

For Hamilton, the biggest challenge is the audience. “When we’re cruising, we stay within 98 to 100 dB. That’s where the show feels right to me. We have peaks where we may hit 105, but consistently the audience floats around 107, 108, and I’m not going to fight the audience. It’s a nice, solid, punchy, in-your-face mix,” he says.

Clearly, everyone is enjoying this tour. “She gives you 200 percent, day in and day out,” says Hamilton. “She’s in a great space; she’s having fun. And we’re having a great time.”

VER Tour Sound