When The Donnas appeared on the punk/rock/pop scene in 1998 with their indie-label release, American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine, they brought — along with their deft musicianship and tongue-in-cheek lyrics — a flurry of all-female power to the testosterone-fueled rock genre. A few more chart-topping albums followed, and the foursome (Donna A., vocalist Brett Anderson; Donna R., guitarist Allison Robertson; Donna F., bassist Maya Ford; and Donna C., drummer Torry Castellano) created an immense following, but then they seemed to disappear. Three years after their major-label debut (they jumped from indie Lookout to Atlantic), The Donnas are back full-steam-ahead, with their latest, Bitchin', released on their own record label, Purple Feather. Mix caught up with the nationwide tour supporting Bitchin' at New York City's Highline Ballroom.
Handling the monitor mix and managing production is Paris Lahr, who has been with the group for two and a half years, previously as their front-of-house engineer. Lahr uses the band's Sensaphonics ProPhonic 2MAX in-ears with whatever wedges each venue provides or sometimes goes for in-ears alone. “When we roll in to do a TV or radio broadcast that's going live to air or going to tape, then we'll go exclusively on ears because it isolates everybody better; there's no monitor bleed into the microphones,” he says. “For bigger venues, if I roll into a festival with them [and] they've got a rockin' monitor rig, everything's tuned right and I can just patch into them, I'll do it.”
Photo: Paule Saviano
The band carries wireless Shure PSM 700s and a hard-wired PSM 400 with their in-ears. Lahr likes the consistency of the 700s, and their 32-channel broadcast makes them a must for frequency-heavy areas. He mixes on his own Yamaha 02R desk, saying, “It's got a really, really small footprint, and on this tour it's a necessity. It has compression and gating on every channel, four bands of EQ [and] it's fully recallable. I store every show, and then when I walk into a venue, I look around, and [say], ‘Okay, this stage is kind of like Omaha last week,’ and I'll pull up Omaha and start my patch there.”
Lahr uses almost no effects, except for a bit of delay on every channel. “I'll delay all the backline mics to the vocal mics so there's less of that phasing problem in the ears, especially in these tiny clubs with low overhangs,” he says. “I measure out how many feet it is from the backline to the mics every night, rough it in and then guitar tech Derrick [McDonald] and I will just sit there and rock the delay back and forth until we find the sweet spot.”
McDonald tag-teams with Lahr to ensure the band's in-ear mix is the best possible. “I carry in-ear packs so I can hear their mixes, as well,” McDonald says. “If anything is kind of squirrelly, I can talk to Paris either with Walky or eye communication.” He is also responsible for dialing in Robertson's guitar tone each night. “Allison's tone is kind of like Slash's [guitarist with Velvet Revolver, formerly of Guns 'N Roses],” he notes. “She can get the sustain she wants but without overdriving the gate, so I'm not making it too fuzzy, but not too clean.”
FOH engineer and tour manager Mark Anderson is on his maiden voyage with The Donnas, though he and Lahr have worked together before on tours with the All-American Rejects and American Idol finalist Mario Vasquez. Anderson carries a memory card — “We can throw it right in and pull up all the settings and effects routing that we've done from previous dates and start pretty close, if the room is EQ'd well,” he says — and is mixing tonight on the club's Yamaha PM5D board.
“Every channel has a compressor and gate available, which is incredible,” he says. “You can run just a couple dB of compression on the guitars; it just really helps to get separation on every instrument. We carry very little outboard gear because sometimes we can't even get a rack physically into where we're going.” However, Anderson always uses two TC Electronic D-Two delays for standard vocal and stereo guitar delay.
Lahr and the band are Shure endorsees, which is also Anderson's preference. Drummer Castellano gets an SM91 and Beta 52 on the kick, a Beta 57A and SM57 for the bottom and top of the snare, respectively, and a Beta SM98 on the rack tom. The floor tom gets a KSM32, while the hi-hat and ride are covered by two KSM137s. Anderson uses a VP88 overhead on the whole kit, which he calls “amazing.” “It's a stereo condenser, so you've got the same distance from the snare drum to each overhead mic, so there's no phase cancellation,” he says. “You get full stereo image from a single point.”
Guitarist Robertson's amps are miked with a KSM27 and SM57; bassist Ford's amps are taken direct. “Sometimes Derrick will take a third [Marshall stack] and put it in the back,” Anderson says, “because the guitar player likes to run the tubes pretty hot to get the tone she wants. So we'll turn that around and face it toward the curtain in the back, and then the front guitar amp almost acts like a monitor for her.” Both lead and guitar vocals go through Shure KSM9s.
The amount of reverb on drums and vocals varies from night to night. “We have different equipment all the time and the rooms are so different,” Anderson says. “Some places are huge and cavernous; I run the show completely dry because I can't get rid of the 'verb in the room. Some places are dead-sounding so you have to have a really high decay time.” The Highline Ballroom, while large, is deadened by a rubber material covering the stage, so Anderson runs the lead vocal and three backups through onboard stereo hall reverb, in addition to a stereo delay for the guitar. “It's like 24 channels of effects coming back,” he says. “I don't use half of it. I just like to set up the options and then see what sounds better. I try and keep it simple for [the band].”
Gaby Alter is a New York City — based writer.
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