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TOUR PROFILE: Ricky Martin: Stagin’ “La Vida Loca”

Ricky Martin has been called the Latino Elvis, but on the weekend before Thanksgiving at the San Jose Arena, it probably would have been more accurate

Ricky Martin has been called the Latino Elvis, but on the weekend before Thanksgiving at the San Jose Arena, it probably would have been more accurate to compare him to the lads from Liverpool. The screaming was as deafening as it gets in the San Francisco Bay Area, this side of The Beatles’ ’65 Candlestick Park show.

“It’s girls and women screaming, and they scream at a very high pitch. Sometimes they’re screaming so loud I put my headphones on-more for ear protection than anything else,” says FOH engineer Steve Guest, a veteran of tours with David Bowie, David Sanborn and Janet Jackson. “My biggest challenge with this show is the crowd, which is generally a lot louder than I am, or louder than I want to be. I don’t want to mix the show so loud that it’s painful. But at the same time, I have to keep in the game so the crowd doesn’t wipe me out completely.”

Guest says the crowd at the first of two nights at the approximately 18,000-seat arena was one of the loudest on the tour, which ran from October 20 to December 7. The SPL meter mounted on his console hit 113 dB (A-weighted). “And that’s just a slow average from a cheap analog SPL meter,” Guest adds. “I don’t know what the actual real peak SPL is, but it’s painful when they get that loud.”

The second night was a little more sedate. The crowd started screaming as the show opened with a video of a day in the life of Martin, complete with a Hard Day’s Night-style dash from the press rather than fans. They waved Puerto Rican flags, held up signs, including one that read “Show us Your Bon-Bons,” and yelled even louder each time Martin turned around to execute his trademark hip swivel.

“I think a crowd wants to be able to do that to an extent,” Guest explains. “They’re expressing their enthusiasm so much that they drown the show out for a moment. I guess it’s exciting-a feeling of power for them. I have the horsepower to get it over them, but I feel they should be able to do that to a certain degree, so I’m walking the line between being too loud and loud enough to have intelligibility in the show with the crowd noise. Everyone wants to hear the show.”

In addition to wearing molded custom earplugs, the ATK/Audiotek and Firehouse Productions crew found another way of coping with the intense crowd noise. “Recently we’ve started making little bets at the front of the house on what the crowd noise is going to peak at,” Guest jokes.

“LA VIDA LOCA” ONSTAGEThe elaborate production design proved to be another big challenge for the crew. Artistic director Jamie King utilized every part of the stage in a show designed for an MTV-weaned audience: The theatrical performance includes a variety of set and costume changes, tasteful video backdrops and lighting design, and thoughtful choreography. Martin gyrates on the hood of a car that rises up on a hydraulic lift for the opening number, “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” surrounded by go-go dancing couples. He later comes up on the same lift, lounging on a couch, accompanied by sitar and tabla players on “She’s All I Ever Had.” For “Private Emotion,” he descends from a small catwalk on a pole-like elevator, dueting with backup vocalist Madeline Rosado as she ascends on a parallel elevator, and he cheers on the crowd in the World Cup song, “The Cup of Life,” as dancers do somersaults from bungee cords and walk up the video screen backdrops. The tour includes 77 crew members (150 with band members, dancers and managers), 14 buses, 19 working trucks and two alternating pre-rig trucks, each containing a set of rigging.

The massive show played a major part in Guest’s choice of L-Acoustic’s V-DOSC system. “The set and lighting/ video rig on this tour is extensive, and the V-DOSC system’s small footprint is relatively low in its weight and space requirements by comparison-both in the air and in the trucks,” he explains. “I knew the crowd would be a factor, and the V-DOSC’s high intelligibility really pays off.”

Invented by French physicist Christian Heil, the V-DOSC has proven to be a very coherent system, especially in large, acoustically hostile spaces such as hockey arenas, Guest says. Each cabinet contains two 15-inch, four 7-inch and two 1.5-inch transducers behind a patented waveguide, all powered by QSC PowerLight amps. Floor-stacked Electro-Voice MTL-4 subwoofers complement the main system. “I like the MTL-4 for low-end punch, but I’ve found I’m not relying on the subs as much as I normally would. Although I’ve used V-DOSC quite a few times, I’d never toured with it, and the V-DOSC low end is performing well above my expectations. We started with eight subs per side, and I cut it to six after a few shows,” Guest says. “The P.A. is physically aligned according to the physical dimensions of each room. Once that’s done, the rest is just EQ’ing the P.A. for the room.

“We’re using the XTA 226 crossovers, which have plenty of parametric EQ power built in, and they sound great,” Guest continues. “What I’d really like to see XTA do is to add ‘linking’ capability to the crossover output limiter banks. Each individual crossover output has limiters to protect the system, but they operate independently. Ideally, I want the system crossover to have the capability to link the output limits in the system so that if one output limits, all or selected outputs limit together, and when you start hitting the limits of the system, the system limits evenly and predictably. Bob Stern, who founded Northwest Sound, got me hooked on that concept a very long time ago. Otherwise, say if just the high end limits, suddenly it seems the midrange is jumping out at you, and the system sounds like the tuning is changing, which is very, very distracting when you’re mixing. Suddenly, you think, ‘I’ve got too much midrange’ or ‘I haven’t tuned the system right.’ You get very preoccupied in the middle of the show with what’s happening with the system. Otherwise, it’s a great crossover.”

Assistant FOH engineer, systems engineer and crew chief John Tripeny measures each room and inputs the dimensions into his laptop’s special spreadsheet program for the V-DOSC calculations. “We’re very careful not to be shooting the P.A. system into large flat spaces,” he says. “If we’ve got a concrete wall that runs all the way around the arena, we’ll put a break in the system so we’re shooting above and below, but we try to avoid those ugly, reflective surfaces, have the arenas lift the scoreboards up out of the way [and] open the glass on the luxury boxes-anything they can do to minimize the reflective surfaces of the room.”

“The system is very definable in the vertical domain, and when you keep the sound out of the roof, you really have done something,” Guest adds. “You don’t hear all the stuff coming, washing back out of the roof, so the sound becomes more coherent. You’re hearing more direct vs. reflective sound.”

UP FRONT ON THE MIDAS XL4Guest mixes from a Midas XL4 console with full automation and motorized faders. The FOH and monitor equipment was provided by ATK/Audiotek of Burbank, Calif., and Firehouse Productions of Red Hook, N.Y., with ATK, supplying the V-DOSC system, amplification and AC distribution. Although Guest mainly had toured with XL3s and Yamaha PM4000s in the past, he had used the XL4 a few times. “This is a great singer and a great band, and I wanted to do the tour with an XL4 because I think it’s very musical. Mike Stahl from Audiotek offered me a fully automated XL4, and the automation package was a very attractive bonus,” he explains. “I had never used automation live before, and it took me a few days to get adjusted to it, but now I really like it. The show is entirely live with no sequencing or digital tapes so the automation helps out a lot with muting the unused live mics.”

Tripeny throws in praise for the console’s versatility: “It’s very nice because it sends MIDI program changes, it snapshots your song, snapshots all your balances, all your mutes, everything.”

Guest can also drive effects cues from the desk. The Eventide H3000 DSE, Lexicon PCM91 digital reverb, three Yamaha SPX990 multi-effects and Roland SDE-330 digital delay all return to a small Yamaha 01V automated mixer, Guest says. The entire effects chain is keyed off of the MIDI program change issued by the XL4 automation, when he changes cues from one song to the next. Guest also connected an old Roland MIDI program changer keypad to the MIDI input to the XL4, which, he says, is “good for quick random access to program changes when you don’t want to have to step through or scroll to cues on the XL4.”

Other inserts include Drawmer 241 dual compressors, dbx 160SL dual compressors and Aphex 612 gates. “I use the Aphex 612 because the external trigger inputs accept lower-level inputs than the newer 622,” Guest says.

Otherwise, Guest has a pretty fundamental outlook on mixing. “My basic mixing philosophy is ‘find the magic and get everything else out of the way,'” he says with a chuckle.

MARTIN IS VOCAL ABOuT MIKINGMartin is very particular about the microphone he uses. He prefers the Sony WRT-810A that has a handy mute switch but agreed for a few shows to try a Sennheiser (the same unit his backup group and band members use). “Earlier this year [monitor engineer Rafael Alkins] and I discussed going to a good Sennheiser wireless, and Ricky agreed to try it out,” Guest says. “He later returned to the Sony after it was rebuilt. He’s really comfortable with that one, plus it suited his voice. It just cuts through everything very easily.”

Alkins agrees that it seems to suit his vocals. “Every artist has different ranges in their voices, and somehow that microphone projected that range we were looking for,” he adds. “That [mute switch on the Sony] was the magic switch that he really enjoyed having.”

Martin likes to have control of the mic: He might start singing up in his dressing room or mute it when he talks to others backstage or shut it off while he dances in strategic spots. “Normally, if an artist ran out in front of the speaker stacks unexpectedly, it could take off in feedback,” Guest says. “I can avoid that by panning him to the other side, so that, when he’s speaking, it comes out the other side, but he just doesn’t worry about it. As soon as he goes out front, he just kills the microphone so he can dance and the crowd can participate in the show, and when he comes back onstage, he turns the mic back on.”

“He’s great with that switch,” Guest continues. “Once he was doing a duet with a special guest vocalist who was using his identical spare mic. He was singing, she came in for the duet, and her mic was off. He ran upstage and went right for the switch and turned it on for her before any of the stage crew could even react.”

For Martin’s vocal processing, Guest relies on a Focusrite Red dual mic preamp, a Meyer CP-10 dual parametric EQ and a Drawmer 1960 dual tube limiter, with Klark Teknik DN-360 dual graphic EQs as a sidechain for the 1960s. The dual-channel setup allowed Martin’s main and spare mic to have identical processing, and the spare channel could be used for announcements and line checks, Guest notes. “The signal from Ricky’s wireless receiver runs directly to the mic pre. The output of the vocal processing rack returns to the line-level insert return patch points on the XL4 console, bypassing the input preamp and EQ stages,” he says. “The added benefit of this system is that this rack can accompany Ricky on any gig, live or TV, giving a high degree of sonic consistency for his vocal in any audio situation.”

MOVING THE BANDThe new sets and choreography demanded more movement from the musicians, who played live, without backing tapes and with no sequencers or computers onstage. “The guys were used to the band basically standing and playing a show, and suddenly the band was walking, dancing, moving, changing clothes,” Tripeny says. “At first, until everyone was familiar with it, it was kind of difficult to segue. The band had to think about so much that they weren’t as focused on the playing, and it made it a little difficult on our ends. Now it’s fine, but it took us four or five shows to really nail it and get it right.”

Fortunately Guest and Alkins had joined the tour before the new staging and larger set, during the “Vuelve” world tour in October 1998. They worked eight weeks with only one week of rehearsal. Now, Guest says: “The guitar players wear headset mics because there’s a lot of dancing and movement. Everything’s wireless because everyone’s moving. The only things that aren’t wireless are the drums, percussion and keyboards. They have their in-ears, but everyone moving onstage has to have ear monitors and a wireless. We’re using 34 wireless frequencies so the show is complicated in that regard, especially for Raffie [Alkins].” There are no wedges on stage, only sidefills for the dancers.

MAINTAINING THE MONITORSCaribbean native Alkins monitors all the stage action from a 72-input (with eight stereo inputs) ATI Paragon II. It’s capable of as many as 20 stereo monitor mixes and includes four bands of parametric EQ, the patented ATI compressor and parametric noise gate. “This is one of the first consoles they put out,” says Tripeny. “It’s a beautiful board, and it sounds great. We’re using all 40 outputs on it now.” Compression comes from an Aphex 720 Dominator, which Alkins praises. “It’s not a hard compression that you normally find. Very supple.” His effects rack also includes a TC Electronic 3000, two 2000s and two Yamaha REV500s, as well as a BSS 901 vocal processor for Martin.

For the tour, Alkins chose a Future Sonics in-ear monitoring system, which Martin now owns. “[Future Sonics] made alterations to suit our needs, such as the switching system they installed for me,” Alkins says. “The system is all stereo, and we have 15 stereo mixes onstage. We have a full stereo return, and they were very instrumental in doing that. They had one-week turnaround time to do it, so they did a great job.

“It’s a whole lot easier noise-wise,” Alkins says of the system. “So all we have to deal with is the main quality. We don’t have to fight with the stage levels, but again it can also be dangerous [with the loud levels].”

“In general, it’s difficult if someone is singing and the monitor engineer gives them too much of themselves in their ear monitors,” Guest adds. “Then they start backing off the microphone or singing too soft, and I get the room sound swirling in. So it’s a delicate and tricky balance that he and the singers have to strike between giving them enough to keep them properly on the microphone and enough for them to be happy and hear themselves with some degree of dynamic reality.”

ORGANIZED ROAD WARRIORSOtherwise, the tour is a model of organization, Tripeny says. The entire show, as large as it is, takes eight hours to set up and three to take down. The audio equipment takes three hours to set up and an hour and a half to break down. “We do a pre-rig every day,” says Tripeny, who puts the P.A. up with systems tech John Protzko (filling in for Greg Lopez on part of the tour). Firehouse monitor technician Mark Weglinski handled the stage inputs and technicals. “We have a double set of motors and steel, so when we walk in the room, [it’s] already rigged with all the motors, and then we build the rest of it. We have the grid up here, the superstructure,” he explains, pointing out the steel frame of the set above the stage.

“Then the lights and curtains and video walls go up over that,” he continues. “Once that and the audio is up, the stage rolls underneath everything. The stage actually gets built out on the floor out there,” he gestures to the area in front of the stage. As a testament to the crew’s teamwork, Guest drives the motors at night when they’re bringing the P.A. out, and even the “pyro guy,” Frankie Loffredo of Zambelli Fireworks, helps the rest of the crew load out.

Guest and Alkins believe teamwork and trust have been essential in this multidimensional show, which is scheduled to begin again on February 11 in Puerto Rico and end July 7 in Los Angeles. “[Martin] is very flexible for us,” Alkins says. “He allows us to do what we need to do, in his best interest, and he trusts us, and that makes for a good relationship. A lot of the artists that I’ve worked with in the past will not just allow you very much latitude.”