Jonny Lang bends the strings of his guitar and the lighting on The Fillmore's (San Francisco) crystalline chandeliers mutes to purple. He soulfully croons in a rich, well-traveled voice that belies his 24 years of age and the audience, 1,000 strong in mid-April, swoons.
photo: Steve Jennings
At this point, Lang is already a seasoned veteran who has toured the globe, bursting into the national spotlight as a guitar phenomenon when he hit the road at age 14. Lang's latest CD, Long Time Coming, shows off his songwriting and vocal chops. During the gig, he also jams on numerous stringed instruments: acoustic guitar, dobro, mandolin, electric guitar and piano.
Lang's four-piece acoustic band (Reeve Carney, guitars/vocals/piano; Stephan Hovsepian, violin/mandolin/piano/vocals; Jim Anton, bass/vocals; Luke Fisher, drums/percussion) is a stripped-down version of his electric outfit. Accordingly, Lang tours with a minimal crew: Mike Ronkainen, who has been mixing monitors for Lang since 1997, has added front-of-house duties; Greg Classen is the tour manager and lighting director; and Erik Cartwright is guitar and stage technician, who also joins the band to play slide guitar for the encore.
“It keeps me in shape,” Ronkainen says, referring to his double duties. “I also set up and tech the drum kit and bass rig.” Ronkainen, who is also a drummer, spends a good deal of time tuning and miking the kit. “I have eight inputs from the drum set,” he says. “I use all Shure mics: Beta 52 on kick, 57A on snare, two KSM32s for stereo overheads, Beta 98s on rack and floor toms, and I mike the hi-hat from underneath with an SM81. I also use an SM81 on bongos.”
In addition to a lightweight crew, the tour is only carrying Shure mics and Countryman DI boxes. As such, Ronkainen acclimates himself to whatever gear he finds at load-in. He's pleased with the sound system at tonight's Fillmore show: a Crest Century FOH console, a Crest Century LMX monitor mixer and a full complement of flown Meyer powered line arrays and stage wedges.
Lang normally travels with Electro-Voice XW-12 wedges and Shure PSM700 in-ear monitors provided by Wood Sound of Bloomington, Minn. Because the Fillmore is a one-off fly-in date, they are using the venue's Meyer wedges. Ronkainen presets five monitor mixes to the wedges at soundcheck. During the show, a Fillmore tech will oversee the monitor mixes while Ronkainen is stationed out at the house mix position.
Monitor engineer turned front-of-house: Mike Ronkainen at The Fillmore’s Crest Century board
Ronkainen gets 23 feeds from the stage to the Crest Century. Except for drums, keyboards, bass and the variety of stringed instruments go directly to the board. There are amusing exceptions. “Jonny plays electric guitar on two songs,” Ronkainen explains. “He plays through his practice amp that has a 4-inch speaker. Then I mike it with a KSM32, which is almost bigger than the amp. The first time we put it on there with a Z-Bar, it knocked that little amp over!”
All vocals are captured with Shure Beta 58s, and everyone but the drummer sings. In fact, the musicians trade off instruments and mics all night, which keeps Ronkainen on his toes. Just when he has a level right on a mic, a different performer steps up and sings into it.
Ronkainen explains how he builds his mix for the night: “It's pretty easy since it's an all-acoustic show. Everything onstage is so quiet. I basically build the mix around Jonny's vocals and then start pulling everything back from there rather than trying to push his vocal more and get everything louder.”
Ronkainen makes use of the outboard gear racked at the Fillmore: Yamaha SPX-1000 and TC Electronic D-2 on Lang's vocals; Summit Audio DCL to slightly compress the vocals and acoustic guitar; and judicious use of compression on the bass and dobro with a dbx 160X. “I keep it pretty dry,” Ronkainen says. “I'm using the same plate reverbs on instruments and vocals. Since it's acoustic, you want it to be organic. I just tweak the reverb time for each room we're in.
“It's really different to be out in the audience after mixing monitors onstage for seven years,” Ronkainen concludes. “When I'm doing monitors, I get so focused on breaking up the sound into individual mixes. Now that I'm mixing for the house, it's like, ‘Oh, yeah, that's what goes on out here!’ I see how the music affects the audience. It's been a lot of fun.”
Jeff Forlenza is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.