The biggest-selling female artist of the '90s is Mariah Carey, and she closed out the record-breaking decade with both her ninth release and her first tour in eight years. After a string of performances in Europe and the Far East, Carey's Rainbow Tour hit U.S. shores last March.
While Carey's sales and airplay figures are astounding-more than 128 million albums and singles sold worldwide; 84 Gold, Platinum and multi-Platinum certifications; and more Number One singles than any other female artist in history-her touring experience has been surprisingly limited, making pressure on the Rainbow Tour intense.
The show, which plays in 270D with an upstage video screen, showcases material that ranges from the shimmery pop and lush ballads of Carey's early efforts to the hard-edged, hip hop sound of her more recent recordings. That fact, combined with her remarkably wide vocal range and notorious vocal pyrotechnics, makes the already difficult task of getting good sound in multiuse venues, such as L.A.'s Staples Center, the San Jose Arena and Madison Square Garden, even more daunting.
Tour sound provider Clair Bros. pulled it all together with a veteran crew headed by FOH engineer Trip Khalaf and including monitor mixer Glen Collett, crew chief Bob Weibel and assistants Tom Ford and Gene Phillips. Rainbow is a highly crafted and staged show that required plenty of pre-production: three weeks of band rehearsals at North Hollywood's Power Plant, as well as production rehearsals at the new Raleigh Studios in Manhattan Beach. "The actual tour came together kind of unexpectedly," explains Khalaf, whose FOH credits include Madonna, Michael Jackson, Queen and Roger Waters. "Last winter, we did about six weeks with the same band on a press tour that included Oprah, The Today Show, and the Video Music Awards. We thought we were done when, late in December, we got a call that said, 'Can you be ready to go in two weeks?' So we threw this thing together pretty quickly."
The hip hop element and the size of the venues dictated a sound package that Khalaf describes dryly as "big-about three-quarters of an acre" to handle the nine-piece band, which includes drums, bass, guitar, percussion, keys, four backing vocals and lots of computerized drum samples and loops. The P.A. system comprises 74 Clair Bros. S4 Series 2 cabinets, powered by Carver 1.5 amplifiers, and it includes seven TC Electronic 1128 programmable EQs and four Clair Bros. CTS system processors.
"People come to hear her voice, so number one is getting the voice out," stresses Khalaf. "And let's get this straight from the get-go, Mariah sings every note. But there is a guy over in the corner (not onstage) who does all the hip hop rhythm stuff on computer."
That combination of acoustic and computerized drums is a recipe guaranteed to bring on mixing headaches. "It's easy to do a show with a drummer," Khalaf continues. "It's the same sound all the time; you hone your drum kit and there you go. But when you're dealing with hip hop, everything changes all the time. One tune sounds absolutely nothing like another. The challenge is to make it all make sense, to make it flow as smoothly as you can. One of the stark things is that in the older material the drums are pretty far back and on the newer stuff they're right in your face. So you do have to change it a bit from the records to keep the drums at some sort of recognizably consistent level."
Countryman directs are used on bass, guitar and keys; the acoustic drums are miked mostly with Shure products: a Beta 52 on kick, SM57s on snare top and bottom, and SM98s on toms. Milab 96s for overheads round out the kit. No compressor is used on the drums themselves, and no overall stereo compression is used on the mix.
BANDPASS CROSSOVERS ARE MORE FORGIVING"We use bandpass compression instead of overall compression-the CTS processor, the system controller for the S4s, has really wonderful compressors built in," Khalaf explains. "In a live situation if you use overall compression you wind up having the kick drum or the vocal modulate everything. If you break it up into system bandpass crossovers, it's a lot more forgiving: The kick drum will modulate only the lows, the vocals usually will determine the compression of the mids and the highs. And," he laughs, "if I get really out-to-lunch on the hi-hat or somebody's got a real sibilance problem, it will drag the highs down a little bit. But that's the most noticeable-you don't really want to get into that."
The computer drums, fed from MOTU's Sound Designer, come up on the main 56-input Midas XL-4 console, which, not surprisingly, has all inputs occupied. "The XL-4 is automated to the point where you can assign any of the inputs to any one of ten VCAs which are motorized and have programmable levels," continues Khalaf. "Besides that, on/off switches are programmable. But since only the VCAs are programmable in level, I drop all of the channels down into ten VCAs and use them like submasters."
A Yamaha 02R sidecar run by Opcode's Max software is used for effects returns. SMPTE sent from the stage is fed into a MOTU MIDI Time Piece, then into a Macintosh laptop that runs the XL-4, the 02R and Max. "With all these different drum sounds, you have to not only make the different sounds work together but also deal with levels that are all over the place," says Khalaf. "With the system we're using, a SMPTE number signals the program changes to the XL-4 and the 02R, as well as opening up a window of notes for whatever tune comes around."
TIGHT PATTERN, smooth RECORDINGLead and background vocal mics of choice are Shure wireless models fitted with Beta 87 capsules. "We do a lot of recording in very different environments," Khalaf explains. "Mariah's studio engineer needs to be able to take the tapes into the studio for overdubs and fixes if necessary. The 87 has the tightest pattern we've found, so he can just put an 87 in front of her in the studio and match it up."
Board EQ is used on the lead vocal when necessary, along with a Tube-Tech limiter and reverb from a Lexicon 480L hall program. "You don't want to jazz this vocal up too much," comments Khalaf. "She really does have an incredible instrument, and it's fine just like it is."
Dealing with those famous dynamics? "I just kind of goose it a little bit with the limiter to keep it under control somewhat, and then it's down to riding the fader a lot. Not only does she have an incredible range, she has a number of voices which she uses; a lot of them very breathy, a lot of them very deep. They all react to the microphone differently, and sometimes it's a challenge."
Reverbs of choice are the 480L, "plates for drums, halls for the vocals," and "a nice layered shift from the Eventide 3500 Harmonizer for backing vocals, which fattens everything up."
WEDGES AND IN-EARSOnly Carey and her four backup singers use wireless mics, with two additional wireless ready for various guest artists such as Missy Elliott and Da Brat, who sometimes drop in for the show.
There's plenty of other RF flying around the stage, however; although Carey herself relies on traditional monitor wedges, the rest of the band use Ultimate Ear UE5 two-way monitors, three of them wireless.
"I try and keep it to a minimum," notes monitor mixer Collett, a Nashville resident whose credits include Bette Midler, Julio Iglesias and 16 years with Bryan Adams. "The people that are stationary I try to keep wired in order to keep the total number of radio frequencies onstage down as much as possible. On this tour, only the bass player and two of the singers are wireless.
"Reception problems are always of paramount concern. The airwaves are getting more and more jammed, and, once you put a pair of little monitors inside your ears, any kind of bad reception is a real problem. Essentially, you have a little stereo FM radio station on your belt. It just happens to be turned to a frequency that, hopefully, isn't being broadcast by TV, or radio or anybody else."
RF isn't the only problem Collett faces; the use of both in-ear monitors and wireless microphones increases many of his other equipment requirements. For example, his 52-input Yamaha PM4000 is overextended.
"The console does a maximum of 22 mixes; I'm using them all and I could use many more. When you go to in-ear monitors, the requirements go way up. First of all, you're now supplying each person's mix with their primary instrument as well. Usually, for instance, the guitar player would get a lot of his instrument's sound out of his own amplifier. Now, he gets nothing of that; you supply it all. And, not only do you need more mixes, you also need more inputs, because that guitar player might want to hear his guitar EQ'd very bright. When you send that bright guitar to anybody else, they don't like it. So I have to split off the guitar, or any other instruments where someone wants to hear drastic EQ that nobody else wants to hear.
"It's funny," he laughs. "People, or at least the accountants, thought when we went to in-ear monitors we'd lose all these amplifiers and speakers and we'd save all this money. But it didn't turn out that way."
For Carey's monitoring, Collett runs six mixes into eight Clair 12 AM wedges and eight Clair Bros. R4 sidefills, all powered by Carver Clair CVA 1000s. "It's a very wide stage," he comments. "I use a pair right in the center, then, as she walks to either side there's a group of three in an arc, then four sidefills on each side. When you get a whole lot of wedges that have to cover all the way across the front of the stage you can't just put them all in one mix. When you get off-center and you're in front of wedges that are closer to the sidefills, those wedges need to sound a little different than the ones that are all by themselves in the center. The idea being, of course, to make the voice sound the same everywhere you go."
Collett uses numerous compressors in the console inserts, mostly dbx 900 and 160s. Reverbs are a TC M5000 dual engine, with one stereo side used for Carey and the other for the backup singers, and SPX900s for acoustic guitar and snare drum. "Reverb is another requirement that goes up with in-ear monitors," he adds. "You can't have one reverb and put a bunch of things into it; if someone needs a reverb, it has to be discrete on their instrument and in their ears."
And so it goes. There's that French saying that translates into something like "the more things change the more they remain the same." Our rising sound technology curve hasn't changed the need for more and more equipment, and better and better sound engineers.
"Theoretically I suppose a show should work by being computerized," concludes Khalaf with a laugh. "But that's the thing about live music. You can never just sit back. You'll never be able to phone it in. We are actually forced to ply our trade over and over again every evening."