To always equate exciting, high-energy rock shows with microphone-wielding vocalizing frontmen is to ignore any live performance by renowned guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani. Granted, most great rock shows are led by charismatic, swaggering singers, but when Satriani steps onstage, he is the front man. Mic or no mic, vocals or no vocals, Satriani always wins over an audience with his deft digits, delivering signature hooks and melodies.
On October 13, 2004, hundreds of music fans observed a blistering performance by Satriani and his equally proficient band at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh, N.C.
For front-of-house engineer Doug Nightwine, touring without a traditional vocalist makes for jam-packed schedules but also a well-oiled musical machine. “The fact that there's not a singer means that we can go eight or nine shows in a row without a break,” Nightwine explains. “We don't have to give a singer the mandatory ‘three-shows-and-a-day-off’ kind of thing. By the time you've made it to the second week, you've got your game on strong.”
While Satriani does sing on a couple of tunes — using a Shure SM58 to do so — the vast majority of his two-part instrumental set showcases the guitarist, who is always on the move. “Because Joe is the main artist,” Nightwine says, “he can't be locked down in front of his amp where he would normally get the feedback and sustain he needs. Joe can step into his zone of wedges — which we call ‘Guitar-vana’ — and get the sounds he needs. It makes for a loud stage volume, about 112 dB on his side of the stage all the time, but at least the tone is good. It's not 112 dB of crap!”
Satriani travels between three pairs of Showco SRM wedge monitors, mixed through a Midas Heritage 3000 console by monitor engineer Bobby Diller. “The SRM wedges are the finest on the planet,” Diller claims. “They're one of the best things about my gig. They're very flat, and the more you give them, the better they sound.”
(L to R): Doug Nightwine, FOH engineer; Bobby Diller, monitor engineer; Jim Ragus, Showco systems engineer
For main monitors, the theater tour is using a 32-piece Prism Sound P.A. system with eight subs. “We're carrying a little bit of front-fill for those occasions when we need it,” Nightwine says. “The only outboard that I have in my rack is a Clair Bros. iO system drive for loudspeaker management, so it's a pretty clean-looking rack.”
How is it that Nightwine gets away with having such a featherweight rack? On this particular evening, a lack of backstage space at the theater required Nightwine to run main and monitor mixes on the Heritage 3000 at FOH. For every other stop on this tour, however, Nightwine has gladly — and successfully — used a beta version of Digidesign's brand-new live digital console, VENUE.
An avid Pro Tools user, Nightwine has previously considered bringing a Digidesign Control|24 console and Pro Tools TDM system on the road to be able to use plug-ins in a live setting. “I thought about using it as a live console and just ‘record-ready’ everything,” he explains. “In the course of think-tanking that idea, it turned out that Digi was already working on VENUE.”
Upon hearing about VENUE's imminent release, Nightwine volunteered to take an early version of it on the road with Satriani for a trial run. So far, Nightwine says that it has been smooth sailing. “It's been flawless,” Nightwine attests. “I'm glad we're using it as the main console.”
Although VENUE had been out on tour with John Mayer last summer, that situation was strictly beta testing. “They would set it up and tear it down every day, and they would go through soundcheck with VENUE tied in along with the other consoles while doing some ghost mixing,” explains Nightwine. “The show was never run on the console. The audience wasn't hearing it and the engineers weren't relying on it. I'm the first knucklehead that went on the line to use VENUE as the main console.
“The guys that are out there mixing on digital consoles now like the [Yamaha] PM1D, PM5D or the DiGiCo — are going to take to VENUE because they're used to the concept of selecting a channel and working on a master channel where you do everything on one set of knobs,” Nightwine adds. “And users who know anything about the Pro Tools plug-in architecture are going to be all over it. In my opinion, it's going to be a DiGiCo D5 killer. The price point is half of the D5's, and you can have the great-sounding plug-ins you want — all onboard.”
Each night, Satriani's three-piece backing band — featuring drummer Jeff Campitelli, bassist Matt Bissonette and rhythm guitarist Glen Henson — provides the sonic foundation upon which he builds his fiery six-string ditties. Campitelli's seven-piece DW drum kit is miked with a Shure SM91 on the kick, top and bottom; Shure SM57s for the main snare; Shure SM98s on each tom; and another SM57 on an auxiliary snare. For hi-hats, ride and stereo overheads, Nightwine uses four AKG 414s.
Bissonette's signal chain is simple but sufficient. Nightwine takes the bass direct from an Avalon U5 tube DI, while the bass cabinet is miked with a Shure Beta 52. Because of VENUE, Nightwine can dial in a plug-in — enhanced sound that Bissonette absolutely loves. “I dialed up [the Line 6] Amp Farm on an aux send and set up a Fender Bassman with the drive cranked,” Nightwine recalls. “I brought that back into an input and bused it back down the snake for him to have it in his monitors. When blending it with the tube DI sound, I can use it where I need it. We've both become hooked on it!”
Nightwine uses SM57s on Henson and Satriani's guitar cabinets, each with just a touch of compression at FOH; again, VENUE-enabled plug-ins are utilized. “I'm using the Sony Oxford dynamics package,” says Nightwine. “You can be 6 or 8 dB into the compression before you can perceive it at all.”
After successfully using VENUE in a real-world, city-to-city setting for the Satriani tour, Nightwine is confident that live engineers of all stripes will absolutely love it. “For the guys that aren't familiar with Pro Tools, it shouldn't really be that big of a deal. It's not a redesign of Pro Tools. It does share some of the same technology, like the HD Accel cards are the basis for the mix engine and the plug-in architecture, but that's where the similarities end. VENUE is purpose-built from the ground up for live mixing. There's a lot of uncluttered, visual feedback on the console. And it's not a prerequisite to have experience with Pro Tools. If you do, then you've certainly had experience with the plug-ins and how you manage DSP, but it's certainly not something you have to be familiar with before.”
Nightwine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.