It was the end of the world as we know it, according to the Aztec calendar, R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe announced. But Stipe and the rest of the crowd seemed to feel just fine on a cool summer night at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., a few dates into the North American leg of a summer tour.
R.E.M. were back in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they recorded their latest album, Up. It was the band’s first large tour of Europe, the U.S. and Canada since 1995. Drummer Bill Berry’s departure still haunted their past, and the Y2K and its much-hyped turmoil loomed in the near future. None of that could stop the band that once scoffed in the face of apocalypse.
All the material on their 12-record repertoire was fair game for Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills and their touring bandmates, drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, Smashing Pumpkins) and multi-instrumentalists Ken Stringfellow (Posies, Big Star) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Robyn Hitchcock). The set list included recent material such as “Lotus,” “Suspicion” and “The Apologist” as well as earlier hits like “The One I Love,” “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon.” And R.E.M. turned in an energetic and intense performance, riddled with wisecracks and off-the-cuff commentary from Stipe (“My middle name is ‘Groove-crusher,’ according to Peter, Mike and the rest of the guys in the band,” he said at one point, apropos of nothing), to an audience dominated by ’80s college- rock alums with picnics and young children in tow.
BACK WITH CLAIR BROTHERSIt was also a college-rock reunion of sorts for R.E.M. and their Clair Brothers Audio crew. Monster Tour veterans Joe O’Herlihy (front of house) and Jo Ravitch (systems engineer) were joined by R.E.M. newcomer, monitor engineer Don Garber.
Longtime engineer for U2 and audio design consultant for Woodstock ’95, O’Herlihy first met R.E.M. when the band played occasional festival dates with U2. When U2 decided to take a sabbatical in 1993, O’Herlihy had time to take the helm as FOH engineer on the Monster Tour. He returned to work with U2 on the Pop record and toured with the band from 1997 through 1998. When plans for a large summer Up tour coalesced, O’Herlihy joined R.E.M. once more. “They are really a fabulous bunch of people to work with. I find them very similar to the U2 camp in the philosophies, the way that they believe in what they do,” he says.
The Up tour-which included Portugal, Spain, the U.K., Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, France, Austria, Hungary and Slovenia-was smaller and shorter than the Monster Tour, O’Herlihy says, but the band, ironically, had grown larger after Berry’s departure. “When Bill left they got three other people to replace him,” he says with a laugh, “which is a tribute, pretty much, to him.”
The addition of Stringfellow and McCaughey brought a new, ever-shifting element to O’Herlihy’s work. “For me it’s quite difficult because you’ll have three or four different musicians picking up the bass guitar, for instance, and they’ll play it quite differently from each other, and everyone swaps and changes. The only people who don’t swap and change are the drummer and Michael,” he explains. “So you’re kept on your toes because everyone plays with a different kind of velocity and tenacity, and you have to watch it all the time because it changes all the time.”
SONIC BACKBONE OF THE TOURThe tour also gave O’Herlihy a chance to try Clair Brothers’ new I4 line array system, which he and Ravitch worked on for the past two years during its R&D phase. The system comprises two columns of 12 speaker boxes that resemble human spines and are directly hung from the top of the stage on the left and right. Each box includes one 18-inch, four 10-inch and four 2-inch transducers, plus 12 supertweeters.
“It’s quite different from the normal, conventional method of doing stuff where you set speaker after speaker after speaker on top of each other. It’s hung like this,” says O’Herlihy, curving his arm. “The curvature of the spine is the best description of it. The reason it’s hung like that is the top speakers are pointed up to give it a really long, natural dispersion. They go right up into the lawn area here, for instance. When it comes down to the bottom, the bottom speakers are racked to such an extent that the speaker system points directly down onto the floor and the audience that is immediately in front of the stage.”
Clair Brothers has had a few of the I4 systems out with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, Roger Waters and Backstreet Boys, but hasn’t publicized it because of the limited number manufactured, O’Herlihy says. “It’s definitely futuristic technology that’s going to take the industry right into the year 2000,” he raves. “The audio industry has been looking to find something like this for a long, long time. There are many companies that have come up with various systems, but I think that they’ll find this one particularly difficult to match.”
Ravitch agrees: “We wanted to come up with a system that would fit in less truck space but sounded better and looked better than what was going on now. S4s have been designed and updated continuously over the years, but it’s still basically the same rectangular box that it was in the ’70s when it was first designed. So it was time for a change, time for something new, and I think so far people have been impressed by it.”
IT’S ALL IN THE PRE-PRODUCTIONO’Herlihy’s work on the Up tour began this spring in the band’s hometown of Athens, Ga., during two weeks of rehearsals. He familiarized himself with more than 50 songs and programmed them into a Midas XL4 console. “An awful lot of work I do is preparatory, it’s put in beforehand,” he says. “We rehearsed the best part of 60 songs for this particular show, and at any given time, the set will change quite dramatically from night to night. I had to program those 60 songs into the desk beforehand, and they select a particular set list on a night. They might say we will play these 24 or 25 songs tonight, and there is no particular set order or format to it.
“They play whatever they want to play. No two sets are the same. You might get maybe eight songs of the 25 songs that might have a pattern, every other night, which are guaranteed, and at least a good 12 of them will be completely different,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s good to know beforehand because I’ll do my recall notes, my computer will recall a particular song, and once I get a set list, I can put it in that particular order so at least I get a chance to reset everything, and you just hit the go button, and the console will set itself up for ‘Losing My Religion,’ and the faders for each individual instrument will go into a starting position for me. That night, I change it to adapt it if, for instance, Joey isn’t hitting the drums as hard as he was the night before.”
In “Losing My Religion,” for example, O’Herlihy might turn on the backing vocals for Mills or highlight the lead instrument, Buck’s mandolin, but otherwise, he says, automation has made his job considerably easier. “I can remember vividly from previous U2 tours and the previous R.E.M. tour, where you would be scrambling left, right and center, and my systems engineer and assistant FOH Jo Ravitch and I would be pushing faders all the time, just to try and keep up with what was happening up there,” he says. “The technology has introduced itself quite well. It’s very much user-friendly now. Rather than computer-driven, it’s computer-assisted, which means that ultimately you make the final decision. It hasn’t taken over, and I don’t think it will, because by the end of the day, the computer will do things scientifically whereas you have to hear what you hear and make it sound as good as you can.”
When the band spontaneously launches into a song that wasn’t preprogrammed into the desk, O’Herlihy has to scramble. That happened in Slovenia at the end of this summer’s European tour when the crowd burst into a chant for “Stand.” “The band just played it. They hadn’t rehearsed it, and everyone was kind of looking at everyone else and off they went,” O’Herlihy says. “The character of that is fantastic because everything is so processed these days. It’s good to see a band can do something like that-just grab a song by the scruff of the neck and play it.”
MIKING STIPE (AND BUCK, AND MILLS, ETC.)Stipe is used to taking things in stride-particularly when it comes to microphones. Introducing “Sad Professor” at the Shoreline show, he joked, “We’re trying to get a sad professor somewhere to write about how the relationship between me and my mic stand represents destructive elements of my personality. It’s a bit of a stretch but…” And after the first of five encores, he revealed that he bashed his lip on his mic earlier in the performance but managed to hide the blood. “This-I do for you,” he said in a tone dripping with irony.
The offending mic was a Shure SM58 with a regular wire. On the drum kit, O’Herlihy used a Shure SM91 and beyerdynamic M88 on the kick, with Shure Beta 98s on the toms, Beta 56s on the snare, and two Audio-Technica 4050s and one 4051 on the cymbals. Buck’s five Vox SA30 amplifiers got SM57s. The keyboards, a Wurlitzer and a Hammond B-3, were captured with Countryman DIs; O’Herlihy used a Beyer M88 (bottom) and a Beta 56 (top) for the Leslie RB122 cabinet.
O’Herlihy’s FOH effects included Yamaha SPX1000s, Lexicon PCM70s and a 480L, and an Eventide H3000. He used a dbx Blue Series 160S for compression and dbx XL166s for gating.
The signal chain for Stipe included the Blue Series 160S compressor, the Eventide H3000SC as the vocal treatment, the Lexicon 480L for reverb and the SPX1000 for a chorusing effect. Waronker’s drums were treated with two PCM70s and various reverbs that change from one song to the next. The acoustic instruments received the 480L, the B machine for reverbs and the PCM70 for a few chorusing programs.
WHAT’S THE FREQUENCY, DON?The majority of the band is on Clair Brothers 12AM Series 1 wedge monitors, says monitor engineer Garber, who works on an ATI Paragon 2 console. Mills and Waronker, however, used Future Sonics earmolds (with Garwood Radio Station transceivers) and Stipe also had in-ear monitors when he was concerned about his pitch on particular songs.
The wedges were placed in stereo pairs at each mic position with no side-fills. “Nothing big and noisy,” Garber says. “Just a nice hi-fi sounding monitor rig. It’s a pleasure to do, actually. You don’t have to make things sound ugly to get heard. It’s a nice, smooth sound.”
The reason for the simple approach? “R.E.M. is such a vocal-oriented band,” Garber explains. “Guitars and bass are as important, but it’s more of an arrangement-oriented band, not a loudness-of-volume kind of band. The emphasis is on balancing everything properly instead of trying to blast everybody as loud as you can blast them.”
Garber uses compression on the kick, snare and some of the vocal channels, while the ear monitor mixes have Aphex Dominator protection limiting on them “so we’re not blasting anything into their ears by accident,” he says. Additional equipment included Crest amps and TC Electronic equalizers.
SOUND CHOICESThe biggest sonic challenge at Shoreline is the roof, O’Herlihy says. “The tent structure causes quite a bit of reflection,” he says. “Particularly at soundcheck you will notice it will bounce around a lot, because you have reflection from the roof, and you’ve also got reflection from the concrete and the plastic seats. The combination of both of those usually gives you quite a difficult and hard soundcheck. But as a seasoned professional, you will know that when the audience comes in a lot of that reflection will be dissipated. So you won’t remove a huge amount of the frequencies from the system. The offending frequencies at soundcheck time will be needed and quite necessary by the time the show happens. You’re between the devil and the deep blue sea deciding which way to go with it, of course.”
O’Herlihy’s main concern was to go beyond replicating the more ambient, electronic sounds of the band’s new material-or the lo-fi aspects of the older material.
“I just find that once you create something and capture it and have it on record-that has a life and existence all of its own,” he says. “But when you come to a concert you want to be taken somewhere else. The band will play the material, and I will do the best I possibly can to create it as close and as decent to the record as I can possibly make it. But I also have to introduce an adrenaline to the proceedings that basically takes you to another place. That’s what it’s all about: the performance, the connection between the band and the audience. That’s what my sole objective is out there-to nurture that energy and introduce the adrenaline aspect so that when somebody goes away from the show they go, ‘Wow, that was amazing.'”