Photos: Steve Jennings
It's a circus! It's a concert! It's a multimedia extravaganza! Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics world tour is all these and more. The chart-topping, ever-evolving vocalist blends hits from each of her releases — including “What a Girl Wants,” “Lady Marmalade,” “Dirrty,” “Hurt,” “Beautiful” and “Candyman” — with a handful of videos and, yes, a circus into a rollicking 90-minute set that sends her fans over the top.
The challenge to bring it to audible life falls on front-of-house engineer Tony Blanc, monitor mixer Bill Chrysler and a handful of audio technicians. Aguilera, band and crew have been working in sold-out arenas across the States, including a stop at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., at the beginning of March. Blanc, who's been working this tour since September 2006, has found an easy trick to make these rooms work for him: “It's the same in any environment — you look at the stage and you should be able to hear what you're looking at,” he says.
But in the slightly boomy Oracle, which hasn't been sonically retrofitted like some of the newer arenas, Blanc keeps an eye on the acoustics. “I won't overdrive this room,” he says. “Once you get into its reverberant field, it's just too loud for this type of music. In the heavy metal days, you would have driven the room back into the car park and no one would have cared because it's all part of the great experience. But at our age and the audience that we've got, that's not the approach. If a room has a reverberant issue in the high end, I will go up to the point where that starts, sit below it and try to keep it clear.”
A bird’s eye view of the “circus” to come.
Blanc says that Showco's Prism system helps him during this show. “It helps having a directional P.A.,” he reports. “You're not putting up a whole wall of direct radiators that you're pointing everywhere around the room, hoping you're going to hit something. You're putting up something that has direction built into it, be it a line array system or a Prism. It's aimed at the people and not at the roof and floor, so you stand a better chance. But you cannot defeat acoustics; you can only work with them.”
So does Blanc turn to analyzers to check his balances? “I'm old,” he begins to answer with a laugh, “and I tend to use old things — my ears and my voice. I tune so the room has intelligibility and definition, and then I'll look at the analyzers. After I tune it like that, I'll put the pink noise back up after we soundcheck and it's dead-flat from 100 to 8k with my voice. The Smaart tells me that the conversion is pretty close. So hopefully we're in the ballpark.”
Miking the band — and Aguilera — is straightforward. All but one of the microphones used onstage are from Shure, the company the singer endorses. The team also relies on Shure's wireless system, which comes in handy as it uses 28 channels of wireless, not including all of the personal monitor transmitters. “It's like a traveling radio station,” Chrysler jokes. “We use that software every day and it's always clean.”
Blanc uses a DiGiCo D5 console at FOH with an assortment of outboard gear that includes a TC Electronic 6000 reverb unit, a Klark Teknik DN6000, four dbx 160 compressors and a pair of dbx 900s, a Waves MaxxBass, a Brooke Siren 4-band compressor and a pair of Empirical Labs Distressors.
Although Blanc uses the D5's snapshot function, this is hardly a show that he just sets up and then watches. Along with everything else, Blanc must also work with a handful of tracks running off of a Pro Tools system triggered by one of the keyboard players, so he constantly listens to what's happening. “When the keyboard player is playing a part, there is a string patch running underneath,” he says. “They are locked together and you've got to have the tracks balanced. Sometimes it doubles, so you've got to thin it out or else the sound gets too fat. It's the same on the backing vocals on the choruses. There are things going on and you've got to make a choice of which bit you feature and which bit is allowed to speak. This is a very deep show with 80 inputs.”
MONITOR WORLD, SAME AS THE FIRST
At FOH (from left) are Showco’s Wade Crawford, Tony Blanc, Bill Chrysler and opener Danity Kane’s FOH engineer, Tim Miller.
Things are equally complex at the monitor position, considering that Chrysler is shepherding 46 outputs through a Yamaha PM1D. Aguilera and 12 musicians receive personal stereo monitor mixes, and a pair of stereo sidefills are flown above the stage. In addition, there are a pair of wedges downstage-center for Aguilera that include her vocal, piano, kick drum and bass; a wedge for the musical director; a wedge for Chrysler; and 14 wedges that span the stage for the dancers. There are also a number of subs onstage for the dancers and musicians to hear and feel during the show.
The sidefill mixes are like an FOH mix, Chrysler reports, with a little less of Aguilera's vocals. “Her vocal is loud out front, so it's coming on the stage. The mix down-center has her vocal in it and that's a real sweet spot for her. Rather than flood everywhere with her vocal, it's pretty comfortable, and with the combination you can hear everything.”
Chrysler uses an Avalon 737 tube preamp on Aguilera's vocal, a trick he's been employing since her Genie in a Bottle tour. “That signal doesn't go to front of house,” he continues. “We split the signal coming out of her receiver with one going straight to Tony and the other goes to the Avalon and then into the monitors.”
Monitor engineer Bill Chrysler oversees 46 outputs through the Yamaha PM1D for Aguilera, backup vocalists, the 12-piece band and dancers.
This is Aguilera's first tour using personal monitors, but it's a move she's been working toward since the Stripped tour. “She used just one [personal monitor] because she thought it might help her pitch,” Chrysler explains. “She felt real good about it and the music director pointed her in that direction, so this time we've gone to two ears. It's not that she sings any different, but she feels better about her pitch.”
Most of Chrysler's mixes are straightforward, except for one of the background singers' mixes, in which drums and keyboards are on one side, the other two background singers are on the other side and her vocal is in the middle. “It's a real strange mix for me to go to, but she set herself up that way and that's her comfort zone,” Chrysler says.
The only challenge that Blanc faces with all of that volume coming off the stage results from the liberal use of the subs. “So all I get from the stage is ‘oomph,’ ‘oomph,’” he says. “You'd be amazed at how much volume eight to 10 18s can make on the low end!”
Of course, the subs onstage are just part of the club presence. “This is a dance show,” Blanc says. “The audience needs to feel like they are in a club. The kids that watch MTV are the ones that buy the tickets down in that area and they are used to hearing the music in that environment.”
David John Farinella is a San Francisco-based writer.