It's not surprising that INXS would pull out all the stops for their Switched On tour. It's the band's first outing since a reality television show netted them a new lead singer and a revitalized image. With visuals that include a dynamic light show and a custom-made 23×10 video screen, the nearly two-hour show has all the gloss of the Hollywood set where Rockstar:INXS was filmed.
What is impressive is that INXS — with singer J.D. Fortune, guitarist/saxophone player Kirk Pengilly, guitarist Tim Farriss, drummer Jon Farriss, keyboardist/guitarist Andrew Farriss and bassist Gary Beers — doesn't actually need any of that glitz to hold their audience's attention. All they need is the music coming off the stage.
Mix caught up with the act at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, Calif., in late January. The venues in which they're playing are a bit of a challenge for front-of-house engineer James McCullagh — especially the Paramount, which has reflective side walls that spread wider as they extend farther away from the stage. Also, the FOH position at the Paramount is under an extensive balcony and hanging the line array (Martin Audio W8lC, powered by Martin MA4.2 amps) closer to center-stage for better coverage would have restricted the audience's sight lines.
McCullagh credits his system tech, Alan Behr, with getting the system right each day and helping resolve that sight-line issue. “[Behr] thought the best thing to do would be to hang it and then tweak it in,” McCullagh explains. “It's a Catch-22, because if you tweak it too much, we get nodes, and if we don't tweak it enough, it seems to go past you. We've pulled them in slightly, but we didn't want to pull it in too much because then the seats on the side go dead.”
Moving the cabinets in slightly also solved the reflection issue; as for the balcony, the array's natural upward curve covers the upper floor. Although they didn't have to do it at the Paramount, McCullagh and Behr have had to turn off a box that's aimed right at the balcony's lip to avoid reflection problems.
McCullagh spec'd the system to supply a lot of bottom end for a very specific reason: The band is “making a comeback, so you've got to make an impact,” he says. “I said that I wanted at least nine subs on the bottom, because that's what I probably would have used on a V-DOSC system in this size venue.” Instead, he got 12 W8LS sub cabinets (with Crest 8001 power), and he has yet to use them all.
“At the first gig, I turned on all six and it was too much bottom end,” he says with a smile. “In this room, I'm using four and I have them turned down. We could probably turn them back to zero, unplug one and be okay. That's what I like about this system: It's very tight around the bottom end and there are no holes around the 200/160Hz area.” Infill cabs are four Martin W2s with Crest 7001s behind them. There are also two stacks per side of Martin W8C/CS as sidefills; again, 7001s on those, crossed over by BSS OmniDrive.
In terms of outboard gear, McCullagh carries a Lexicon 480 and a dbx 160SL stereo compressor/limiter. “I got the 480 as an external reverb because I wanted something just a little bit better than the standard reverbs out of the [Yamaha PM5D FOH console],” he says. “I've got a dbx 160SL over the whole mix to warm it up slightly, just because it's pretty clean coming out of the console and I wanted it to be a little more rock-like and dirty.”
While he appreciates the board's ability to set scenes for the songs, McCullagh has yet to take advantage of that feature. “I enjoy having the spontaneity of each gig,” he explains. “I've got the first song of the shows dialed up and then I tweak from there. If I want to save it, I can. It keeps things alive for me.”
Front-of-house engineer James McCullagh (left) and system tech Alan Behr.
TUCKED IN STAGE LEFT
Manning another PM5D is monitor engineer Paul Kennedy, who has to balance the pairs of Shure PSM personal monitors used by Pengilly (PSM700), Jon Farriss (PSM600) and a pair of background singers (PSM700s) with the Martin LE700 wedges (amps are Crest 7001, crossovers by Martin) used by the rest of the band. Jon Farriss went with the personal monitors, plus a pair of 8-inch subs and a stool shaker because he's running a number of sequences and click tracks during the show.
Kennedy tried to get the whole band to use personal monitors, but it didn't work out. “They've been playing together for so long with a million wedges, and after a week of rehearsal, I could see that they were uncomfortable,” he recalls. “So I gave them the option.” Kennedy gets both mixes from the PM5D. “I do [the personal monitor mixes] for the first three or four songs, and if they are happy and no one is waving their arms at me, I'll let them go,” he says. “Once they are up and running, very little needs to be changed.”
For the most part, all of the bandmembers get full mixes, but Fortune mostly receives a vocal mix with a touch of reverb that comes from a Yamaha SPX-990. The only other outboard gear that Kennedy touches is a Summit TLA-100.
Of course, the wedges contribute to a high stage volume. It's that way for a reason, Kennedy explains. “The band has got to fire up and perform. They are a rock band, and it's hard to do that quietly. They enjoy the electricity of it when it's pumping along, and you get a better performance out of them. That's why the ear thing fell over, because they were all in their own little world listening to ear phones and the vibe wasn't there.”
GETTING THE SOUNDS
INXS has an endorsement deal with Shure, whose microphones dominate the stage: SM57s on guitar amps and snare, SM58s on vocals, a 91 and a 52 on kick, and Beta 98s across the toms. However, Jon Farriss' cymbals are miked with AKG 414 overheads, and AKG 4060s are used on both hi-hats (one on either side of his kit) and ride cymbal.
Beers' bass track is DI, as are Andrew Farriss' keyboards. Pengilly also sends his saxophone tracks — which are miked with Shure 98s and then run through an Eventide effects unit — to McCullagh as he wants them. “Kirk wants to make sure he's giving me the same amount of effects that he wants to hear,” McCullagh explains. “I get great sound from him. I just put up two faders with a bit of EQ.”
FINDING THE MIX
When it comes to establishing his mix philosophy for the tour, McCullagh says, “I thought about what I would want to hear. Since J.D. is the new singer, the focus would be on people comparing him to Michael [Hutchence, the band's original singer who passed on in 1997],” he explains. “That's not necessarily the right thing to do, but it's going to be a focus. So I concentrated on that.
Monitor engineer Paul Kennedy (left) and system tech Steve Walsh
“They are a simple band of bass, drums, keyboards, guitars and vocals,” he continues. “A bit of sax here and there and background vocals. So in every venue, I try to get the drums kicking along with the bass, then put J.D. up and layer everything else inside the mix, making sure that nothing is cluttering. There's nothing too fancy. I think that's my secret. Let the band impress the audience rather than me trying to impress them.”
Yet McCullagh does have the challenge of bridging the Hutchence and Fortune eras. In an effort to create some continuity for the fans, he went back through the INXS catalog and listened for obvious outboard tricks. For instance, he says, “Most of the vocals have delays, like on ‘Suicide Blonde’ and ‘Original Sin.’ I had a close listen and discovered that sometimes it's not a delay, it's a pre-delay on the reverb with a long decay. So I've got all those things going in the right places.”
At the same time, McCullagh understands that audiences aren't coming to listen to a studio reproduction. “I'm past trying to mix a live band like it's coming out of a studio,” he says. “It's live, so when you're watching it, you don't want to think about the nice P.A. it's coming out of — you just want to watch them and hear them as they should be onstage.”
David John Farinella is a San Francisco — based writer.