All photos except engineers shot: Paul Natkin
Tirelessly flogged in the media for every manner of abuse imagined or otherwise, Guns N' Roses is still legitimately regarded by many as one of the biggest American rock 'n' roll bands to emerge from the late-20th-century. And this is despite major changes during the years that have left frontman Axl Rose onstage as the only remaining original member.
Amidst wide speculation last September over the long-awaited release of Chinese Democracy, an album that languished in production for nearly 10 years at a reported cost of $15 million, Guns N' Roses played five warm-up shows prior to setting forth on a North American tour. Held at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, the Warfield in San Francisco and at the Hyundai Pavilion in Devore, Calif., these dates led to the tour's official launch in Sunrise, Fla., on October 24.
From left: front-of-house engineer Toby Francis and monitor engineers John “Elmo” Sheldon and Andy Ebert at one of three VENUE consoles
Winding its way from Florida into Canada, and on through the Midwest to points wast before landing at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, Calif., just before Christmas, the act revealed a bigger and brawnier band than ever in sheer size and sonic horsepower. Weighing in with eight members including Rose, the band showcased a complex fusion of blues, punk, metal and classic rock 'n' roll infused with the talents of Dizzy Reed and Chris Pitman on keyboards; former Nine Inch Nails member Robin Finck, Richard Fortus and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal on guitars; Tommy Stinson on bass; and Frank Ferrer on drums.
Behind the scenes, Toby Francis was the point man at the front-of-house mix position, riding herd over a Showco Prism rig comprising 80 boxes flown per side and 16 subs, all fueled with Crown power and featuring Clair iO crossover management. To properly manage monitoring tasks onstage within a notoriously hot-seat environment known for ruining many a strong man, monitor world was subdivided into two areas of responsibility: Andy Ebert taking charge of the band's needs and John “Elmo” Sheldon given sole charge of Rose's personal mix.
Francis had more than a passing acquaintance with Guns N' Roses prior to signing on at FOH for the band. His first contact with the group came in 1988 while he was on tour mixing the house P.A. for Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses was occupying a support-act slot.
“Appetite for Destruction came out while we were on that tour, and GNR just exploded,” Francis recalls. “I got to know the bandmembers, and it was clear they had something that other bands didn't. I would go out and watch their whole show. What I saw and heard then is hard to describe. The music was transcendent; it drew you in, along with the rest of the audience, and took everyone to a different plane. The members may have changed over the years, but that magic is still there.”
Today, Francis occupies a spot once artfully directed by the late David Kehrer, who died on Maui in 1997 of complications resulting from hepatitis C. Francis finds it hard to believe that he's now standing in the shoes of an old friend he misses every day, as well as somewhat ironic that he's still working in front of a Prism system every night, a rig he was using nearly 20 years ago with Aerosmith.
“I've used line arrays mostly for the last six years or so, but the Prism system was the only thing readily available in Europe when I first signed on with this show, so I went with it,” he says. “As things have turned out, I'm really enjoying it more than I thought I would. This P.A. has a huge sound, and once you have it dialed in, it's really great for rock 'n' roll. The bottom octaves are as solid as you could ever want in any P.A.”
While things may not have changed that much this time around for Francis in terms of P.A., his control surface is light years away from what he relied upon back in the day. Like Ebert, to meet his mixing needs for this latest Guns N' Roses foray, he enlisted the aid of a Digidesign VENUE D-Show console. Given his own Pro Tools background, Francis found that he could make a natural transition to the VENUE desk, and is quick to note that engineers working for the various acts opening for GNR had no problem quickly learning what it could do either.
“We put new guys on the VENUE all the time that had never even used it, and nine times out of 10, they walked away with a big smile on their face,” Francis says. “They couldn't believe how easy it was to adapt and how quickly they could get a good mix. The thing I like most about this particular console is that it sounds phenomenal. It's the most analog-sounding digital board I've ever encountered. If a console sounds good, I can get around any of the other stuff. The Yamaha PM1D is also a good-sounding digital board, but it's harder to operate and there are a lot of things to navigate around. Digidesign's VENUE is straightforward.”
Thanks to the desk and the fact that it uses the same type of TDM plug-ins as any Pro Tools HD system, Francis was also able to significantly reduce his outboard gear. “I really like using plug-ins,” he adds. “Everything pops up on the screen, and I can reach it all without moving my body. One of my favorite plug-ins for this show was the Bomb Factory BF76, which is a digital emulation of a vintage UREI 1176 peak limiter. The 1176 is a great compressor, but it doesn't take to life on the road well. The Bomb Factory plug-in captures the sounds perfectly, only without all the familiar hums, clicks and buzzes.”
Within the austere collection of outboard gear Francis did keep at hand, little more gained rackspace outside of a Lexicon 480 used for drum reverb and a TC Electronic M5000 on Rose during “November Rain.”
Francis' basic approach to the house mix was to emulate the energy of the sound fans have come to expect from GNR based on the records, while giving definition and form to new material off of Chinese Democracy, which is also featured on the tour.
“When I first heard the songs from the new record, they floored me,” Francis admits. “This may indeed be the most-expensive album ever and the longest it's taken to do a record, but those who heard the songs live were stunned. Lyrically, there is a depth that stands up to Appetite, and it's very emotional. There is a positive side to this music as well that really surprised me. Most of the songs look forward without making so much as a nod to the past.”
DOUBLE MONITOR ENGINEERS, DOUBLE THE BOARDS
Onstage, Rose's predictable unpredictability keeps everyone on their toes. Working a tightrope where anything can happen and probably will, the sound crew went to work each night without the luxury of a set list. While the structure of the show remained in place from town to town, individual songs were called out from stage just prior to their performance using strategically placed talkback mics.
Francis and monitor engineers John Sheldon and Andy Ebert built a largely wireless input and monitoring scheme. Within this world, Rose relies upon a single in-ear monitor and Prism SRM Series enclosures used for frontfill and buttfill, along with a pair of Prism Blues boxes and two subs per side. Elsewhere onstage is full in-ear monitoring, with Ebert dispensing 32 Sennheiser beltpacks out each night to the band, backline techs, pyro technician, lighting guy, various guests and Skid Row's Sebastian Bach, whose band opened the shows.
“Last summer in Europe, I had a Midas Heritage 3000 with a side cart and I already had 58 inputs,” Ebert recalls. “I quickly ramped up to 64 inputs on the fall U.S. leg of the tour; that's the main reason I switched to the VENUE console. This tour lives up to its reputation for being tough, but my band guys are great and easy to get along with. We started rehearsing back in April so I know what's going on. I'm riding vocal mics all the time and making adjustments, and as long as I'm on top of that and not missing any cues, everything is fine.”
Dominated by Shure products, the input list onstage featured hardwired SM58s for all vocals except those supplied by Rose, who was on a UHF-R wireless rig using a Beta 58A-equipped transmitter, which he tosses into the crowd each night at the show's end. Shure UHF-R wireless guitar systems were also the choice for Fortus and Thal.
Sheldon switched Rose to the Beta 58A from a standard 58 in part to gain a tighter pickup pattern that would reduce some of the ambient bleed coming from onstage. “Everyone is basically on ears, but it's still a loud rock show,” Sheldon says. “The drums are right about at head level, and the stage was enormous with side wings, so I was getting a lot of wash. Every little bit helps at that point, so that extra bit of high end you get from a Beta 58A seemed to help me considerably. The mic has a clean transparent sound, too; Axl's voice isn't colored by it in any way. His voice sounds like it should to me.”
With the large amount of wireless mics and wireless in-ear monitor systems, RF activity was formidable for this tour. To help avoid problems, Sheldon kept his wireless systems within the 500MHz range, while Ebert roamed freely within the 600 to 700MHz range.
“We weren't plagued with wireless problems,” Sheldon says. “But no matter what you do, you're always going to have a little bump somewhere. With the UHF-R system, however, the automatic frequency scan feature makes it easy enough to redial a mic instantly if you have trouble. The same is true in terms of speed for system setup.”
Proving that history doesn't always repeat itself, Sheldon survived his nightly trial-by-fire turns as Rose's monitor engineer by adopting a strategy that comes natural to him. “It's all a matter of attitude,” he believes. “You have to stay clam and keep your head in the game. If something goes wrong — and it will — you can't flip out. With Axl, you have to logically sort through everything that's going on, as well as maintain that connection with him. There can't be any moments when I lock up or waver. I have a plan and backups of backups for every situation that may arise. That's how I maintain my calmness, that's how I'm able to hang in there.”
Gregory A. DeTogne is a freelance writer who lives and works at the Electric Gnat Ranch, his rural refuge north of Chicago in Libertyville, Ill.