Photo: Paule Saviano
Celebrating 25 years in the music business, Janet Jackson has nothing left to prove, but she continues to enhance her live performance year after year, including bringing a more rock sound to her pop sensibility. At the Madison Square Garden stop on her Rock Witchu tour, the power vocalist swept through her catalog in a two-and-a-half-hour blitz that showcased hit songs (including those from her latest albums, Discipline and 20 Y.O., punctuated by pyrotechnics, celebrity video duets and even a little mock S&M. For each tightly choreographed dance routine, Jackson and 20 backup dancers whipped through a dizzying number of costume changes that ranged from retro-futuristic to fantasy to maritime.
“That [brings] its own challenges in terms of Janet singing, her coming on- and offstage, changing costumes all the time,” notes front-of-house engineer Jon Lemon. “We always have three or four mics being swapped over, so the whole wardrobe department gets that together: The belt packs are in the right place to match the headsets and handhelds.” In addition, Jackson's costumes have pockets sown in for the wireless packs.
Getting the Voice Right
During the show, Jackson sings through handheld mics and her signature headset. “For the really heavy dance portions of the show, she uses a headset mic — the same one for 12 years: a Crown 311 headset,” says Blake Suib, the show's monitor engineer. “Pretty standard; still sounds great.”
“A lot of it is a physical thing because they attach very well,” Lemon adds. “They were custom-made for her so they can actually stand up to the dancing. And she likes the sound of the Crown microphones.”
For the ballads, Lemon and Suib chose a Sennheiser SKM 5200 wireless with a Neumann KMS 105 capsule. “I've used the KMS 105 a lot with different bands,” Lemon remarks. “With women I find that they're really, really good because they're just such a natural-sounding microphone. They're not colored at all, so you get this really sexy-sounding vocal, basically, almost like a studio-quality vocal.”
Lemon processes both microphones using two Manley VoxBoxes (“The de-esser is great on them, the EQ is great on them, the compression's just fantastic, so for me they're a no-brainer”) and two TC Electronic 6000 systems to add chorusing and double-track effects to the vocals. The remaining two channels of the 6000s are dedicated to reverbs for the drums, such as small plates and small rooms.
P.A. Showcases Rock Quality
Lemon — known for his work with Beck, Oasis, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails — might seem an unusual choice for Jackson. “Pop has never really been a big part of my genre,” he says. “But she wanted something kind of edgy: She wanted loud, rock-y-sounding, not just that slick pop thing. So it's been really nice to kind of blend that together because most of her songs have so many great pop hooks in them anyway.”
To work in that edgier live sound, Lemon has found much attention needs to be paid to microphone and P.A. choice, as well as tuning of the P.A. “One of the most exciting things about this tour for me is that I have the new Clair i5 P.A. system, which is a total revelation,” he exudes. “It's certainly hands-down the best sound system they've ever made. I don't think I've ever had such consistent gig-to-gig audio as I've got currently.
“One of the great things about the i5 is that it's got the new Clair subs with Powersoft amps on them,” he continues. “I'm convinced there isn't a better sub in the world at this time. I'm expecting tonight that should really help on that floor, give us a much better bottom end because we could actually steer the bass around the room using delays.”
The new P.A. requires a new rigging system, deftly handled by Clair tech Frank Principato, who uses a J-hang for the speakers, with a stack — from top to bottom — of six 2.5-degree cabinets, six 5-degree cabinets and two 10-degree cabinets. “That enables me to get a lot of power coming straight down the room to the back,” Lemon explains. “And in arenas, of course, you need a lot of high end to cut through the reverb.”
The side hang sees four 5-degree cabs and four 10s, offering a bit wider dispersion as you go down the setup. “And we've been able to make that walk from down the arena going up the side bleachers right around in the back totally seamless now,” Lemon adds. “I think it's been the first tour where I've been able to make it that seamless with a line array.”
Lemon mixes the show on a DiGiCo D5 with “well over 100 cues in this show, snapshots set up, and then you control that from the MIDI on the Pro Tools so there's just stuff going on all the time,” he says, also praising the board's analog-like sound: “It's got that fat, British thing going on, which most of the other consoles don't.”
The band comprises two keyboardists, one of whom doubles on bass, and a drummer. The remaining sounds, such as loops and backing vocals, are played through Pro Tools. All the instruments are DI except for the drum kit. “For this, again, I wanted something that would bridge the pushier, rockier thing, as well as really reflect her music,” Lemon says. “The kick drum is a Beyer TGM 88 and a Shure SM91 — fairly standard. Snare top is an SM57, snare bottom is an AKG 414. And then the top of the kit is basically all Sennheiser and Neumann — the two hi-hats have KMS 184s on them, the cymbals are Neumann TLM 103s and all the toms I use Sennheiser 604s, which is kind of very interesting because they had Shures on the drum kit in rehearsals, and I sent over my own mics, and they were all amazed when they heard that the drums were miked up differently — they heard the difference in dimension immediately.”
A Closer Look at Monitor World
Suib does his mixing on a Digidesign VENUE, citing the board's recall functionality as crucial: “We rehearsed for two-and-a-half months to re-create all the sounds that are on the record, but with a new twist for the live performances, which was quite a task because we started with 53 songs. So the great thing about the VENUE was the recall.” Suib is also taking advantage of onboard effects, including Focusrite plug-ins for all mix EQs, Bomb Factory compressors and TC Electronic reverb.
Jackson and the band all use Ultimate Ear UE7s, with Jackson and one of the musicians using the Sennheiser 300 wireless system; the other two are on hard-wired packs. Amplification is via Lab.gruppen. Another feature of the system is Digidesign's Personal Q mixers, which give the band control over their own mixes. “It allows you to have 12 groups or channels per mixer so I can build stems,” says Suib, “The band can actually mix their own ears without having to ask for a mix, and then I can devote the rest of the time to Janet's mix.”
Because Suib spent eight weeks with the band and Jackson before Lemon arrived, he was able to do something he has never had the opportunity to do: “I would record all rehearsals in Pro Tools through my console,” Suib says. “I would then mix each song down to a 2-track and burn a CD for Janet to approve the arrangement. I would use the same stereo outputs I was using to mix the CDs for her ear mix so when she liked what she heard, the mix was saved and that was the mix she heard for the tour. Each song had its own set of levels and EQ settings, and because they were saved to their own snapshots, she always heard the mix she approved. Most of the time, this is done from the FOH console, but for this tour, I was able to do this. The end result was that Janet had total control of what she was listening to.”
Gaby Alter is a freelance writer based in New York.