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Live Sound Showcase: Weird Al Yankovic on Tour

By Clive Young. If Barbra Streisand and The Who could do it this summer, so could Weird Al—so he did. The prince of parodies played with 41-piece orchestras every night on his recent Strings Attached tour, carrying audio gear from Sound Image for the journey.

[media-credit name=”Monitor engineer Dana Beaudin (left) and FOH engineer “Big Al” Rettich (right) behind the DiGiCo SD5 monitor console provided by Sound Image.” align=”aligncenter” width=”726″][/media-credit]

Sacramento, CA—Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” That might be the case, but it seems impossible that it’s been 40 years since Weird Al Yankovic turned pro, recording a parody of The Knack (“My Bologna”) in a college bathroom. The track became a hit and today, revered for his clever original tunes as well as his trademark parodies, Yankovic has sold more than 12 million albums, netted five Grammy Awards in the process and become a consummate performer, touring the country regularly. Following 2018’s The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, which focused solely on his original songs in a low-key, often acoustic setting, this year saw the comedian violently hurl himself 180 degrees in the opposite direction, hitting the road for the Strings Attached Tour, where he and his band performed with orchestras at all 67 shows across 64 venues.

Along for the ride were longtime FOH engineer Albert “Big Al” Rettich and monitor engineer Dana Beaudin, using monitors and control gear provided by Sound Image (Escondido, CA). Using locally supplied or house P.A.s at every stop helped simplify setting up each day—a necessity as there was little downtime after load-in was done.

“Every afternoon, it’s a new orchestra and we have a three-hour rehearsal with them,” said Beaudin backstage at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento. “I use a previous show and play it back through virtual soundcheck for the rehearsals; that way, Al and the band don’t have to come in every day.”

Complicating the rehearsal process was the fact that while there was a new 41-piece orchestra at nearly every show, the musician count occasionally ballooned past 70 pieces when the tour teamed up with larger ensembles like the Nashville Symphony, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Keeping everyone in line were father and son team Arnie and Eric Roth, who alternated conducting duties throughout the tour, with the lone exception of a show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, where arranger Scott O’Neil filled in.

Some orchestral concerts are staid affairs, but on the Strings Attached tour, it wasn’t uncommon for Weird Al Yankovic to tear through the crowd, wireless Shure SM87A mic in hand.
Some orchestral concerts are staid affairs, but on the Strings Attached tour, it wasn’t uncommon for Weird Al Yankovic to tear through the crowd, wireless Shure SM87A mic in hand.

Related: Live Sound Showcase: Barbra Streisand Returns to Her NYC Roots, by Linda Romanello, Aug. 26, 2019

Manning a DiGiCo SD5 at stage-side, Beaudin provided a wired click system for all the orchestras’ principals; otherwise, the musicians heard Yankovic and the band through a pair of basic Yamaha speakers on sticks used as side fills to provide some reference for the songs. “A lot of the principals bring their own earbuds,” said Beaudin, “and I discovered early on in the tour that depending on the quality of what they had, trying to send them an actual mix with the click was really difficult. Everyone was, ‘Oh, can I get some of this? Can I get some of this?’ It’s just easier to send them straight click down the earbuds.”

The band, however—Jim West (guitar), Steve Jay (bass), Ruben Valtierra (keys) and Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz (drums), touring for the first time with backing vocalists (Lisa Popeil, Monique Donnelly and Scottie Haskell)—received full mixes via in-ear monitors. “Everybody’s on JH Audio,” said Beaudin. “Most of the guys are on JH 16s, the bass player’s on the Ambient FRs, and then the singers are on JH11s. They all get a general mix with themselves in front; the drummer’s the exception when it’s songs that have a click track. It’s pretty much just his drums on one side, click on the other, and then a bit of Al for timing.”

With large numbers of musicians comes large numbers of inputs. “I was on an SD5 last year with Al as well, so it’s more inputs this time, going from 40-something to 134. It’s just a bit more time to set up every day, and space is obviously more of an issue.”

DiGiCo SD5s were used at both front of house and monitors; in addition to two 56-input SD-Racks on stage, a pair of SD-MiNi Racks—primary and backup—handled the video lines, and videos were triggered manually via QLab. Meanwhile, another SD-MiNi resided at front of house for Lake system processor inserts.

A stage plot for a typical 41-piece orchestra performance on the tour.
A stage plot for a typical 41-piece orchestra performance on the tour.

Despite the enormous number of musicians on stage, miking was relatively simple, according to Beaudin. “The nice thing with the band is the only acoustic thing on stage is the drum set; everything else is direct. The guitar player’s on a Fractal [Audio amp modeler], the bass player’s direct, and same with the keyboard player.” While the bass went through a Whirlwind DI, the acoustic and slide guitars went through Radial JD6s, and all keyboards and a drum sampler passed through Radial Pro D2s. Meanwhile, the strings and most of the brass were captured using DPA d:vote 4099 instrument mics, a handful of Audio-Technica AE3000 cardioid condenser instrument mics and a number of Shure Beta56s for percussion.

Related: Rhapsodizing on the Road with Queen + Adam Lambert, by Clive Young, Sep. 26, 2019

Vocals are crucial in any live performance, but when you’re dealing with comedy, where every word has to be clear and distinct in order for the jokes to land, it’s even more crucial. All band vocals were captured via Shure Beta56 mics, with the exception of Yankovic, who used a wireless UHF-R pack with a SM87A microphone.

Much in the same way that everyone wants to know how, say, Brian May or Eddie Van Halen’s guitar amps get miked on tour, the big money question for a Weird Al Yankovic production has to do with how his instrument of choice is captured. “His main accordion has a pickup inside and it’s on a wireless UHF-R pack,” said Beaudin. “His backup accordion, which we haven’t had to use, has a pair of Shure Beta98s inside with a wireless pack that phantom powers the mics.”

Just as the number of musicians on stage ranged from 49 to more than 70, the venue capacities for Yankovic’s tour were all over the map as well, underlining the production’s wise decision to use locally sourced P.A.s to ensure flexibility. “We’re literally going from 2,500 one night to 14,000 people the next,” said tour manager Melissa King of 3 Phase Production. “Our average-sized venue is around 6,000 seats, but then again, we’re playing the Minnesota State Fair soon—that’s sold-out at 12,800. His fanbase is multi-generational, so we get kids, their parents and their grandparents—it’s anywhere from 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds in our crowd.”

Those fans will have to wait a while to see Yankovic and company again, as he’ll be off the concert trail in 2020. As he readily admitted on his website, “This was our biggest and most elaborate tour ever, and frankly, I’m not sure how we’d ever top it.” Nonetheless, it’s a safe bet that it won’t be long before the court jester of pop is back on stage, getting weird once again.

Sound Image •

DiGiCo •

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