'N Sync - No Strings AttachedNot many acts can fill a stadium these days. It seems that unless the Rolling Stones or U2 head out, or three or more headliners share a bill, the summer stadium season is all but dried up. Until you happen to have the fastest-selling album of all time; then you can sell out a 30-city stadium/arena tour in 40 minutes.
Drop your preconceptions about boy bands and the ever-present rush to knock commercial success. 'N Sync is the real deal, and they put on a dynamite show, complete with the theatrics of Las Vegas, the pacing and staging of Broadway and the pure energy of bigger-than-life, vocal-driven pop 'N' roll. These guys can sing. These guys do sing. Every word.
Mix caught a June 11 show at the Oakland Coliseum in the midst of the first leg of their North American tour. After a September break, during which there were promotions overseas, the Video Music Awards, the Latin Grammys and countless other commitments, the group headed back out for a two-month run through December. It's a Showco tour, with a massive 144-box/72-sub Prism[R] system powered by Crown Macro-Tech 1200s, and it provided the best opportunity yet to test the digitally controlled ShowConsole, which was developed in conjunction with Harrison.
"I've been mixing live for 19 years now and have used almost every sound company out there," says Tim Miller, production manager and FOH mixer. "I just can't say enough about this Showco system and the support we've had from M.L. Procise and Leon `Bone' Hopkins at Showco. It sounds good every day, and it sounds the same every day. When we go into these domes, the local promoters say that it's the best-sounding show they've heard inside. I don't say that to boost me. You get compliments, and they're to be shared. This show is put together well musically, set up correctly by the guys who fly the P.A., designed magnificently by Steve Cohen and Jim Davis - everything just works. You can hear the vocals, you can hear what they're saying between songs. It's loud, it's clear, and we cut over the top of all these screaming kids."
Find a friend who actually saw the Beatles live, and you may get some sense of how loud the house can be for 'N Sync. According to Miller, the average crowd noise is about 116 dB SPL right before "the guys" take the stage, and it can peak at 122 dB, right in the 3kHz range. That doesn't make for an easy mix, but Miller's long road record, outside of his more than four years with 'N Sync, includes a stint with New Kids on the Block (hired by Dinky Dawson and Johnny Wright) in the late '80s and double-duty as director of production for Britney Spears.
"It's just another part of the equation," he says. "You set up with the room empty, and then you think about how it will sound when you add the people, then you take it the next step and ask how it will sound when it's filled and the kids are screaming. And they scream throughout the show."
While humbly stating that he knows how to cut through screams simply from experience, Miller did allow that he doesn't take things out of the EQ that he might normally want to. Essentially, he says, it's about establishing good gain staging and fundamentals. "You don't stray from your gain structure," he says. "You just do it differently, and you have to finesse it. I end up taking more from the output side of the gain staging, as opposed to the mic input, because there's a fine line between good gain and pushing too much of the audience noise through the P.A. when all the mics are open."
THE BANDMiller has been with 'N Sync since August 1997, beginning with the group in Europe before they came back to the States and made a splash with "I Want You Back." Soon after, he hired longtime colleague and friend David Brooks to mix monitors for the "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" tour. At the same time, pop impresario Johnny Wright called in Kevin Antunes, whom he had known since their days together on New Kids, to be musical director and band leader. For the past two-and-a-half years, the core crew, which includes "Bongo" Bob Longo on backline, hasn't changed.
While no one will dispute the appeal of the group's five-part harmonies and fluid choreography, a large chunk of their live energy comes from the first-rate band that moves in and out of conventional pop, funk and electronica with ease.
Around March of this year, while Miller was busy advancing the tour and working out production issues, and the principals were working on choreography, the band assembled in a small town outside of Orlando for rehearsals. Antunes, who also is musical director for Britney Spears and Enrique Iglesias, had started a month earlier, locating as many sounds and master recordings as he could, "to make these songs sound the way the producers envisioned them, but with a little more live edge and a little more twist to it."
"The band had been given the CDs from Jive Records," says Antunes, who co-wrote "I'll Be Good for You" with Justin Timberlake on the album. "So by the time we got to rehearsal, everybody knew the songs, and we could work on the sounds. That gave me the freedom to stretch with the sequencing. As the band was playing, I would be editing drum sounds, cool stereo sound effects, and I could focus on the arrangements. I'm very rhythm-section oriented, so I start everything with the drum sounds, the drummer, then the bass. That's where I find the edge. If you make the bass a little more active, that's what will push the song out live.
"For example, when we do `Makes Me Ill,' a song by She'kspere, that track has a nice keyboard bass patch. I was listening to the soundtrack for Romeo Must Die at the time, and I heard this cool sound that my cousin Troy [bassist] has been using for a while. It's a Q-Tron pedal, and we had him set the filters so that it maintained the resonance but had that Bootsy Collins feel, like the bass was chewing this big stick of bubble gum. We used that throughout the song instead of just in one part, and it gave it a whole new character onstage."
Antunes sequences and programs in a MOTU rig that he carried through rehearsals and takes with him everywhere on the road. He uses Digital Performer 2.7 religiously, with a 2408 and MIDI Timepiece A/V. For additional drumbeats and sounds, he uses his Akai MPC2000 and S6000. Onstage, he has a Yamaha EX5 and Korg Trinity to his right and a Roland JP-8000 to his right. A Yamaha DX100 is used specifically for his "voice box," a Bongo-designed processor used when Antunes sings into a plastic tube on "Digital Get Down." Also in his rack are a Roland JV-3080, a JV-2080 and a Novation Supernova module.
"When we had our full-on rehearsals with the stage, Tim [Miller] and I spent a lot of time going through my sequences to see how they translated to a big front-of-house system," Antunes says. "You have to make sure certain snare sounds that I set up as a trigger for Billy, the drummer, are really going to cut through. Then you have to make sure the keyboard patches, like bells and triangles that exist in drum loops, are not too loud, because high-end information will just blast through this system. We went through a four-day process, and I would go in and filter out a lot."
Antunes' sequences, seven tracks that include effects such as fingersnaps and knife-cuts, some shakers and a couple of percussion doodads, are split three ways - to the drummer, to monitors and to FOH.
SHOWTIMEBeing production manager as well as FOH mixer, Miller does not have a lot of time to himself during the day. Yes, he has to handle catering and tickets, but he walks the room each day, and he does line check and soundcheck. Right before the show, he tosses off his PM cap, walks up to the ShowConsole, plugs in the Rolling Stones' Still Life and enters mix mode.
The 80-input ShowConsole, one of only five in the world right now, was formatted according to Miller's input list by systems crew chief Dave Moncrief. (Miller has also developed three basic modes: arenas, domed stadiums, outdoor stadiums.) Because it can store up to 10,000 cues, Miller says, "the board automatically makes you a better engineer, because you're not reassigning all these cues and doing busy work, which takes up time and thoughts. You're able to use your two best tools, which are your ears, and you're able to let yourself go and be artistic, be a mixer."
Still, Miller wasn't sold strictly on automation. When he first got a chance to mix on the board down at Showco's Dallas headquarters, he says, he was blown away by the sound quality. "It's just the best-sounding EQ in the world," he raves, "and it's really easy to use for live sound, which was necessary on a show this size. I'm using the board EQ and the board dynamics. I'd always been a Midas XL4 guy, with Drawmer gates and dbx compression. Now I'm happier with the onboard dynamics on the ShowConsole than anything I could put in a rack."
That said, Miller does use outboard effects, though he's reticent to go into specifics. In his rack are six Empirical Labs Distressors, a couple of UltraHarmonizers, an SPX1000 and a Lexicon 480L. On vocals, he uses "a long and a short reverb, a chorus y-type of program and a couple of delays - about five different effects on vocals. For the band, I use a snare reverb, toms reverb, an instruments reverb, a couple of reverbs set for strings and piano and one that goes on the bass and acoustic guitar."
"I use the Distressors, because I love the sound of them," he continues. "I use them in compression mode, along with the compressors onboard. We use them in the studio with 'N Sync, and they're part of the sound. They give the vocals such an FM-quality broadcast sound. You know when you hear a really great voice on the radio, really rich. It just gives the vocals a richness."
The five members of 'N Sync - "the guys" as they're known on tour - sing through Shure UHF4 handhelds with Beta 87 capsules, switching to Crown CM-311s when they move over to headsets.
IN-EAR MONITORINGMonitor engineer David Brooks was hired by Miller nearly three years ago, and in his first year with the band, during a smaller theater tour, they used wedges. From there, he introduced the guys to ER Series ear filters in order to bring down the crowd noise and so they "would get used to something in their ears," and from there to in-ear molds. Now the only time you'll see wedges onstage is when two are brought out for the a cappella number in the middle of the show. Antunes, who has played a lot of dates, says that the in-ear system Brooks set up is the best he's come across.
"Consistency and reliability are key to monitor mixing," says Brooks, whose credits include George Benson, Al Jarreau, Blackstreet and Will Smith, among many others. "First, I had to find the molds themselves, and the most reliable and consistent I've found have been Future Sonics, Marty Garcia's company. Then we needed a wireless system, and we started out with the Shure PSM600 Series. They were great units, but the only problem was that they really only had 10 channels - two frequencies per unit, five units. There were some places where I couldn't get any of the frequencies to work, mostly when we were doing stadiums and there was a lot of steel. We could eventually make them work by moving antenna positions around, but it was very iffy. I needed a system with multiple frequencies.
"So they came out with the 700 system, and we were one of the first to get it thanks to Ryan Smith and Richard Stockton of Shure Bros," he continues. "You have 16 frequencies on group 1 and 16 on group 2 - 32 in all, as opposed to 10. Big difference. The only problem is that it's a broader band, and when you have a broader band, you have frequency loss. So we had to figure out some way of boosting the frequency output. Dave Lagodzinski, monitor tech for Showco, and I experimented with a bunch of systems, and then Future Sonics came up with an antenna distribution amplifier. It has worked marvelously, and all my problems have cleared up. I don't get dropouts, and the signal is a lot more consistent."
Filling out Brooks' wireless rack is a Conex switcher, which allows him to monitor each of the principal's mixes individually from his cue pack, and a Logitech Pre10, which allows for an instantaneous swap, identical mix, in case any mix goes down.
With five principals and six bandmembers monitoring in stereo, Brooks is sending out 24 mixes. He dances around a couple of Midas Heritage 3000s, with the band spread across both. Each song's settings are stored, naturally, and he's maxed the outputs - 48 on the primary desk, 24 on the second.
"I've taken all the drums and bass and put them on my second 3000," he explains. "That way, I can set up a drum mix and a bass mix with panning and everything else and send it through a stereo bus into the primary console. That's for the principals. I get a good drum sound, then all I have to do is bring up a left and a right, not each piece of the kit individually. The band is set up pre-fader, and the principals are set up post-fader. The bands' dynamics are such that they pretty much mix themselves."
Because the Midas doesn't include parametrics on the group outs, Brooks uses Behringer 2200 Series parametrics on the group outputs. He uses Yamaha SPX990s and 900s for effects and Drawmer DS-201 dual gates and K-T DN504s for compression.
TOUR OF THE YEARBefore even starting the second leg in October, "No Strings Attached" was already tops at the box office and was rated Number 1 on Pollstar. But it would be hard to match the punch and energy of the summer run, which culminated in a dynamic and hugely successful HBO broadcast live from Madison Square Garden. Miller mixed the show from the Effanel truck, at the Capricorn next to John Harris (Effanel) and Jay Vicari (Saturday Night Live).
"It was a huge moment for the guys," Miller recalls. "It wasn't just an HBO special; it was an HBO event. It was HBO's biggest production - there were 34 cameras. It's the biggest production they've ever had in MSG, rigging-wise - there were 217 rigging points. It was the biggest HBO viewership for a concert. It was just big, and it took a lot of time."
JC, Joey, Chris, Lance and Justin - they write much of their own material. They work out the choreography. They've begun mastering instruments. JC works in Logic Audio. The pacing, set lists, much of the staging - it's all them. And they sing in five-part harmonies. After the litigation they went through this year with the labels, they took it upon themselves to understand the business.
I went into the concert, with my daughters, hiding my skepticism. I came out of it raving about the show I got to see.