Britney Spears is currently dazzling her European fans with her all-American mix of dance, song and showmanship. But how are things backstage? I met up with her sound crew to ask how European touring differs from life on the U.S. circuit.
Monitor engineer Raza Sufi is the lone British member of the crew, though for the past 16 years he has been based in the U.S. and has worked for clients as varied as Billy Joel and Bush. “Touring in the States, you tend to get spoiled. Compared to Europe, the fan base is so huge—you can be out for three months solid filling arenas and sheds, knowing that there are another 20 tours doing the same thing. Over here, many things are more difficult—simple stuff like smaller trucks and poor access for load-ins really make a difference. I grew up working in these European venues years ago. They were terrible then, and in some cases are still no better!”
All is not bad, however, as FOH engineer Monty Lee Wilkes points out. “As new venues are built, people are becoming aware that it's not just sport that pays the rent, so venue acoustics are improving. There are a few European venues, including, strangely, a velodrome in Switzerland, where getting good sound is not too difficult.” Wilkes adds that the situation is far from ideal in his home country. “A lot of venue owners in the USA should be ashamed of themselves. New buildings are being constructed without a thought to live performance. And there is no excuse for the way they sound, other than greed and apathy. Sadly, at the end of the night, an audience doesn't go away saying the venue sounded terrible—they go away criticizing the sound system. We just need a fighting chance!”
Wilkes, who has toured extensively in Europe, recalls his first visit to London's Wembley Arena several years ago. “I was really excited when I heard we were going there—the place has a romantic ring to it for those who have never worked there. I got to the venue and thought, ‘Holy Crap—what is this place? For God's sake, put some money into it!’” Touring in Europe, he claims, has changed significantly in the last decade, especially in the area of creature comforts. “I mixed a club tour for a vicious U.S. punk band in 1985—in those days, it would cost you a week's per diem just to call home! Now you can see familiar programs on the hotel TV, and the tour buses are better—still smaller than ours, but if they weren't, they wouldn't get ’round the corners!” Wilkes still misses his AT&T phone, which, with the solely digital mobile networks now operating in Europe, cannot be used here. “On the other hand, I'm being paid very well to do a job I love, and I get to visit places that many Americans only ever dream of!”
As for the tour itself, the production has been shipped in its entirety from the States, a rare occurrence at this level where smaller venue sizes tend to force each department to scale down their equipment. Showco's PRISM® system, under the eagle eye of Jim Ragus, has proven to be very flexible, essential for dealing with the varying European venue dimensions and layouts. Ragus has also, astonishingly, managed to pack the contents of a standard 53-foot U.S. semi into a European-footprint, 44-foot truck. “That must be a hell of a pack,” exclaims Wilkes, “but Jim and the Showco crew (Jaimeson Hyatt and Eric Rizner) are great—they have all cut their teeth by doing some really bad gigs in awful places, which teaches you a thing or two. Jim does a great job of taking care of the system and me, and Showco's level of support on the tour has been great.”
The proprietary PRISM system, which uses a variety of cabinets loaded with different components angled to form a near-perfect point source, is adapted for each venue according to its height, width and the coverage required. In Sheffield, England, for example, Ragus flew the system in an 8-wide, 4-deep configuration, but with the outermost column of cabinets fed separately with a mono mix. “For people sitting right ’round at the sides, stereo would have no meaning,” explains Wilkes, adding that a further, vocal-heavy mix is used for the front fills to lift Spears' voice for those fans closest to her and to preserve the central image.
Wilkes is mixing the tour on a combination of Yamaha PM4000 and PM3000 consoles, an unusual choice, perhaps, for a show that is heavily choreographed and might benefit from some automation. “I did consider using the ShowConsole [Showco's digitally controlled flagship board, developed with Harrison], but the budget wouldn't allow it. And, in any case, I prefer to have dedicated outboard units and channels for each function, rather than using scene changes. I just assign my VCAs judiciously and mix like most live guys do.” Wilkes' effects racks are populated with industry-standard gear, but he still retains a few old favorites, including a number of dbx 903 compressors. “They're old, but I love the sound of them,” he enthuses. “The old dbx units have something that no one else can match, particularly for kick and snare drums.” Wilkes also uses the 903s on Spears' two vocal mics, a Shure Beta 58A handheld and a Crown CM-311AE headset-mounted capsule. “What I need for her is as much gain as possible, but then when she screams, it has to stop dead in its tracks,” Wilkes comments. To achieve this, he has daisy-chained each 903 to a dbx 160A, one providing the controlled lift and the other a much more dramatic limiting function.
Although the singer does sing the show live, she has a safety net in the form of an ADAT track running in the background. This is used for those moments when her dance routine becomes too energetic to allow her any voice control. As controversial as this may be, the transitions are seamless, and the only alternative would be to cut the dance numbers, which are an integral part of the Britney Spears experience.
Wilkes is acutely aware of the nature and age of Spears' audiences and is careful to protect young ears from excessive levels. “I can't understand why they always make so much noise,” he explains during a break, as the crowd's whistles and screams peaked. “But then, I'm 38. How do I know what goes on inside an 8-year-old's head? I've seen the crowd reach well over 120 dBA on their own—so it's a fight you can't win. I just try to mix the show at a reasonable level so that if Britney's fans do quiet down, they'll hear her sing!”
Onstage, Raza Sufi has instigated some sweeping stages since his arrival on the tour in August. The original Harrison consoles have been replaced by a pair of Midas Heritage 3000 boards, which not only cope with the in-ear and wedge monitor mixes, but also handle stage communications. Spears' band, the backline technicians and Sufi are all fitted with in-ear monitors (Shure PSM600s and 700s) and headset mics, enabling rapid and clear communications around the large stage area. “The comm mic feeds are basically mixed over the top of the existing IEM feeds, which works because no one in the band sings,” explains Sufi.
Spears does not use IEMs, preferring the ambient sound of a battery of eight Showco SRM wedges spread across the downstage area. These are augmented by Showco SS full-range sidefills and a pair of one-by-18-inch subs on each side of the stage. Like his FOH partner, Sufi uses a dbx 160A to limit Spears' louder moments, while backing vocalists are controlled by a duo of BSS DPR901 Dynamic Equalizers. Effects are limited to vocal and drum reverbs, while the output mixes are tweaked by either Klark Teknik or Showco graphic EQs. Amplification for the wedges and the FOH system are all Crown-based, with a pair of drum stool shakers completing the line-up.
One unusual aspect of audio production for this tour is that every last cable has been brought into Europe from the USA, a change from the more common practice of picking up racks ’n’ stacks in the UK or European mainland. This is partly a budgetary consideration affected by the current exchange rate between the pound and dollar, but is primarily a technical one. Without a significant European stock of PRISM® systems, Showco would have needed to source an alternative loudspeaker/amplifier combination for this leg of the tour, an idea that neither engineer relished. “This way, we could turn the consoles on at Wembley (the first date of the European sector) and pick up the show exactly where we left off. It's been wonderful,” notes Wilkes.
In Europe, as in the U.S., Britney Spears has her fair share of critics, as well as a loyal fan base. But even those who spotted the subtle use of vocal support could not fail to be impressed by the artist's energy, enthusiasm and stamina as she executed routine after routine for an intense two-hour period. And, according to her crew, Spears is the perfect boss. “There is a great vibe on the tour,” commented Wilkes. “Every single department gets on with every other, and it all comes down from the top. Britney is almost the anti-pop star—she's a very nice person to deal with and works harder than most. That's very rare, especially among younger artists.” And the fans? Of course, they love every minute, and shows are selling out all over Europe in record time. Which, at the end of the night, is what really matters.
Mike Mann is a freelance writer living in England.