Lauryn Hill was only 15 years old (and working part-time as a soap opera actress) when she got together with high school classmate Wyclef Jean and his cousin Prakazrel “Pras” Michel to form The Fugees. Their careers took off with the 1993 release of their debut album, Blunted on Reality; and their follow-up, The Score, went on to sell more than 17 million units and won two 1996 Grammy awards, for Best Rap Album, and for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for their cover of the Roberta Flack classic “Killing Me Softly.”
Last fall, Hill released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and it was an instant favorite with critics and fans, soaring to the top of the charts. On this, her first solo endeavor, Hill not only showcases her vocal talents but demonstrates writing, arranging and producing abilities, infusing hip hop and rap with intimate ’70s-style soul and reggae.
Hill recently embarked on a world tour to support her album; Mix caught up with the West Coast U.S. leg at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco at the beginning of March, when the hip hop sensation was still celebrating her success at the Grammy Awards-ten nominations and five awards (Album of the Year, Best New Artist, Best R&B Song, Best R&B Album and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance) for Miseducation.
The low-key mood of the show prelude, a stirring sing-along accompaniment to a recording of Bob Marley’s classic “Redemption Song,” immediately gave way to excitement as Hill and her 16 backing musicians, two DJs and MC launched into a dynamic two-hour set, featuring performances of Hill’s solo material, sprinkled with lively renditions of ’70s soul classics and a few Fugees hits.
SPONTANEITY IS KEYThe show is improvisational, and the set changes from night to night; keeping up with the musicians is a tough job. Front-of-house mixer “Commissioner” Gordon Williams, who joined the tour after mixing Miseducation (he, too is basking in the Grammy glow), explains his free-form approach to mixing the performance. “It’s more like arrangement, and it’s spontaneous,” he says. “I never mix the show the same way any night. I couldn’t even tell you what I do from time to time, because it’s all how I feel, whether I put a delay on, or bring something up, or pull something back, or pump the system on a certain part of the song, or turn it down so the crowd can hear the vocal more-it depends from night to night.
“[Lauryn] really operates on improvisation; she’s very inspired, she may hear something that day [that she wants to play],” continues Williams, who, as an example, recounts a discussion with Hill earlier that afternoon, when she was considering learning Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” for the show that night. She decided against it.
“It’s really exciting because you never really know what may happen or change at the show,” says Williams. “But at the same time, if you’re not really on top of all that’s going on, it could be very difficult, because you’ve got 16 people going at once and you have all these open microphones and so many things happening that if everyone’s not in sync, it could be disastrous. The guitar player’s playing acoustic, then he’s switching to an electric; the bass player’s playing a different bass, the percussionist is going from timpani drums to wind chimes-as dynamic as that.”
It no doubt helped that Commisioner Gordon also mixed the record and that he has an affinity for musicians. Producing, he says, is his first love, and he has been producing and engineering professionally since his fist album was released in 1986. He also has been an artist and producer with Motown and Sony for most of that time and is currently doing A&R for Sony. He is also a professional DJ. He met Hill three years ago, when they both worked on the Panther soundtrack.
“We stayed in contact because at the time I was kind of in the hip hop scene,” he says. “I started doing a lot of work at Sony-I mixed Will Smith’s Men In Black-and I came back in contact with Lauryn, and she asked me to come in the studio with her and work on her record. She really wanted to incorporate the live instruments with a lot of the electronic stuff; we were both sort of figuring things out as we went along.” The album took just over a year to complete, and when they were nearing the end of the project, Hill began talking with Williams about him accompanying her on tour. He had much the same studio-live relationship a few years previously with KRS-One.
But the game is much different onstage than in the studio, and Williams had his own adjustment period during the first couple of shows, mostly in dealing with mics, “just being able to keep the vocal above the music in certain places where you have to play loud. Especially with a lot of hip hop, it’s a lot of low end and just a lot of driving the system hard, and when you have open microphones and you’re driving a system like that, you stand to get a lot of feedback. Once I got a technique being able to work that, that was fine. Like a DJ, where he’s at line level, and you can turn the DJ up as loud as you need to turn it up. But he’s right next to the drummer, or the saxophone player, who has an open mic on his horn.”
TOOLS FOR MANAGING THE SOUNDSound for the tour is being provided by Dallas-based Showco; Showco system engineer Gregory Hancock (who joined the tour after stints with Reba McEntire, Limp Bizkit and, most recently, Third Eye Blind) talked about the mid-sized system being used on this theater tour: “We’re carrying what is actually a theater Showco Prism[superscript]R rig,” says Hancock. “We’re only carrying 20 Prism enclosures, but we’re carrying a large sub complement-12 Prism subs. We have 13 BFM600 Showco wedges and an additional ten Prism SRM wedges, and we also have four Prism underhung/ nearfield enclosures. We have 17 musicians onstage; we are doing mostly 2,300- to 3,200-seat theaters, so it’s very tight, very demanding.”
The front-of-house rack is equipped with outboard essentials: dbx 160s, Drawmer 201 gates, dbx 903 compressors/904 gates. Effects include Yamaha SPX90s, Eventide H3000s, Lexicon PCM 42, Roland SDE3000 and a Summit TLA100 tube compressor. Williams says he uses effects sparingly, and those he applies vary from night to night. “I have basic reverbs that I may try from room to room, I may fool around with some delays on some instruments, on some vocals, on parts to accent certain things, but there’s nothing really that I plan; I just kind of keep things ready. Sometimes I don’t use anything, sometimes the show’ll be just straight up.
“I don’t really like too much compression, and [Hill] doesn’t like compression at all,” says Williams, who cops to using some on the DJ and a bit of light compression on the overall system. “If you even say that word around her, she’ll just freak out, because she always says that compression feels like it limits her voice, it takes away her dynamic range. One thing about Lauryn, she does go from full voice to a whisper often, to a rap-you have that transition.”
Because of her dynamic range, Williams says, compression is more helpful to him in a live situation than in the studio, since he doesn’t have the benefit of automation. “The console, a [Yamaha] PM4000, is fully loaded. I’m at 58 inputs, and the whole console is full. I have eight subgroups; they allow me to just ride overall sections, but the compression helps when I can’t grab something, like the vocal-there may be a part where she just may sing it differently tonight than she sang it the night before. The compression does help to hold on to things, but still, I don’t like to squeeze things too much.”
One particular FOH challenge is matching levels during a “duel” between the band and DJs spinning records onstage. “A lot of times the DJ is switching, and every night it could be different records,” says Williams. “It’s not like we have a set of records that are the same all the time. Newer records have a lot more pump, more drive than an older record, and he may switch back and forth between a record from the ’90s, a record from the ’70s, a record from the ’80s. I guess that’s where my knowledge of hip hop comes in handy, because I know a lot of the records, so as soon as he switches, I’ll know, ‘Okay I need to crank this one up, or this one needs a little help on the bottom, or this one is going to be too much, this has a heavy 808 so I need to cut on the highpass filter because you’ll get the rumble from the turntable.’ So even that is spontaneous.”
CHALLENGES IN MONITORLANDWhile Williams may thrive and come alive for the spontaneity, it doesn’t make for an easy night for the monitor engineer. “My hat goes off to Vish [Wadi, monitor mixer], because I know the advantage for me is knowing Lauryn, and a lot of those musicians I’ve worked with in the studio, too,” says Williams. “Vish came in as a total outsider and had to try to grasp all of these things while we were already going because we had already done six or seven shows and rehearsed for months before Vish even heard the show. The first time he heard the show was at the monitor board. And he has like 21 mixes going back there, so for him to lasso that horse is not an easy thing.”
Wadi, who’s working on a Yamaha PM4000M, certainly has his hands full onstage. He had joined the tour a few weeks in and was fine-tuning his process. “It’s kind of hard to lock in after four shows; you have to do about two weeks of shows [before you come up with a blend that can work for all the shows],” he says. The bandmembers have individual monitor mixes; Hill and her three background singers are using in-ears, and the drummer has floor monitors plus one in-ear. And since this leg of the tour is a theater tour, space onstage is pretty limited. When asked how he manages the sound onstage, Wadi says he “keeps fingers crossed. I’m using every mix there is on a 4K-everybody out there has their own mix. We’re just trying to get a musical balance up there.”
For Hill’s vocals, “we’re trying out different mics on her-Shure, also Sennheiser. When I came in, I was getting to know her voice. We had a [Shure SM] 87 and changed that to a 58.” Hill tried a Sennheiser for the Grammy Awards and has used it since. As for effects, Wadi is using a minimal amount. “There are some effects on the girls, reverb for their ear monitors, but [Hill] likes it pretty dry. Other than that, everybody’s got their own effects going on in their mix.” Wadi says there’s nothing fancy; everything is pretty straightforward. “I do like using a lot of compressors, just to keep the information tight. In any show, [the goal is to] give the audience what they want, and at the same time find control onstage. Don’t let the stage control you.”
Controlling the stage is probably his biggest challenge, but Wadi says that even as tour dates are being added at the current venues, they are beginning to play larger halls, making the show easier to manage. “[We’re] going in the right direction, from tiny venues to 3,000-seat theaters, to 4,000 seats. We’re taking one step at a time, getting into a groove.”
WHAT MATTERS MOSTWhen the show is over and the house clears, Williams says, the thing he enjoys most about live work is the instant gratification it provides. “As soon as something happens, the crowd instantly responds,” he explains. “When you make records, you may work on it for a few months, or in the case of Lauryn’s record, a year; and then you have promotion, then the record comes out and you have to wait and see what happens. It could be a year after you did something before you see whether people like it or not, whereas live, you know right away whether they like it or don’t.
“I’m part of what’s going on; as much as they’re doing what they’re doing up there, it’s like the board is my instrument-I’m playing it as they’re playing it. I can feel it happening directly, and then the crowd response.” Williams says it’s important for the crowd to hear the records as they are supposed to sound. “If it’s a record that has a heavy 808 or has a lot of low end, and the crowd knows it like that, but when it comes on it doesn’t sound like that, it doesn’t have the same effect. It just doesn’t move them the same way; that initial adrenaline rush, what it does to people when they first hear it, when they first feel it, right at the beginning. If something comes on and that initial impact is not really right, people may pay attention but you may lose the crowd, lose that momentum. So I like to try to keep that intensity all the way through the show, so by the time it’s over you feel like you’ve just been on a roller coaster; you feel like wow, I got what I paid my money for, it was a great ride.”
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