Sheryl Crow performing live
Photo: Paule Saviano
With a peace sign on the backdrop, Sheryl Crow took the stage at the Nikon at Jones Beach amphitheater in Long Island, N.Y., opening the show with “God Bless This Mess” from her latest release, Detours. The tune was a state-of-the-union address from the outspoken artist, depicting a country fractured by the Iraq war and the events of 9/11. It's par for the course of Detours, whose songs Crow mixed with her slew of hits.
As an activist on the road, Crow puts her money where her mouth — and her gas tank — is. The tour has been playing arenas, amphitheaters and clubs in the States since June, and Crow and crew use buses and trucks that run on cleaner-burning (and more expensive) bio-diesel fuel. Other “green” initiatives include merchandise made from recycled materials, rechargeable Green batteries and eliminating plastic bottles.
Echoing this “going-green” philosophy, front-of-house engineer Sean “Sully” Sullivan carries no outboard gear, sticking instead to the built-in plug-ins of his Digidesign D-Show Profile mixing console, keeping his FOH footprint compact. “I just try to keep it simple,” he says. “It's crazy enough that we're controlling everything with software and trusting it to work every night — that has got my full attention.”
Sullivan uses the desk's Pro Tools recording capabilities, documenting each gig and playing back the next days. This lets the engineer dial in many of the sounds well before the performance and helps him avoid setting levels incorrectly during soundcheck when the band might not be playing at full energy. Thanks to the D-Show, when Crow hits the stage, everything is spot-on. “There's a lot more of fixing and working on things that are happening now as opposed to making the hi-hat sound exactly the way you want or the snare to be sent to a reverb perfectly,” he adds. “This console makes live mixing just like a studio; I can sit around all day and work on stuff.”
There are other advantages to having high-quality recordings of every show. “We've done a full-production live DVD shoot without having to bring in a truck to record. We have hundreds of shows to use parts from as backup if something goes wrong that night,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan considers tonight's venue to be pretty ideal. “Open-air outdoor venues behave a lot differently than arenas and indoor venues do because what you produce in the P.A. hits your audience and then gets on about its business and leaves the area,” Sullivan explains. “Outdoors is more like a studio, where there is no room sound because you're not in a room. All my best mixes happen outdoors.”
The tour is carrying a Clair Bros. i3 line array with a side-hang of 18 i3s and six BT-218 subs per side flown behind the P.A. “The problem with most P.A.s working well with subs evenly throughout the venue is that the high boxes are so full-range, especially from Clair Bros.,” he says. “Everything they put out has good, reinforced low end, so when you have a line array in the air producing the same low frequencies as subs on the ground, they don't hit you at the same time everywhere. So by putting [the subs] close to the main P.A. in the air — basically right by each other — they pretty much become one, so no matter where you are in the building they're always hitting you at the same time.”
The amps are Clair Bros.' Stak Raks with Lab.gruppen PLM models with a Clair iO crossover processor built into each channel. “Through network control, we can do whatever we need to as far as EQ'ing, controlling zones of the P.A., sections of the line array, shading sections of the line array, or if the subs don't line up perfectly to the wrap we can adjust sub distances to the P.A. accordingly.”
ALL MIKED UP
Sullivan is covering many of the inputs onstage with Heil dynamic PR-30 and -40 mics. “I've used condensers all my life, and P.A.s are typically hyped up a lot more than a studio reference monitors are,” he says. “So you end up not needing a lot of what a condenser normally does for you. It's not a quiet atmosphere, so what goes into it you're going to hear back, and if it's the P.A. getting back into it, what good does that do you? These Heil microphones have taken that approach as far as scientific response and good-quality sound, but they're not that sensitive to anything they are not pointed at. If something's not very close to them, you're not really going to hear it in them,” he continues. “I mean, I've seen Bob Heil gaffe-tape them to the end of a shotgun and make movie sound effects with the things.”
Crow sings into a Shure UR-4D wireless series with an SM58 capsule. Sullivan treats her voice with Waves Renaissance plug-ins: a compressor, de-esser and EQ, “And that's it,” he adds. “I spend most of the show EQ'ing her mic to how she's using it.” One of the tour's challenges was closely approximating the acoustic guitar sounds from the album for the live show. “[In a studio], you stick a nice mic in front of it and it sounds great,” Sullivan says. But live, the piezo pickups being used were not cutting it. “We shipped in a bunch of esoteric preamps and compressors, and all kinds of stuff — this was going off of [producer] Bill Bottrell's recommendations — to get the guitars sounding the way Sheryl was expecting them to sound. We went through a lot of pieces of gear and ended up with a simple, little mic preamp, a Chandler Limited LTD1, just to get the signal hot enough to compress it a little bit with a Purple Audio 77 comp/limiter. No DI is involved because the mic pre is onstage, so it's all line-level by the time it leaves the guitar.”
Geno Salerno has been Crow's monitor engineer since 1995. “I've learned a lot from working with the same artist for such a long period of time,” he says. “Like, what's that look on her face mean, what's she looking for right now. She'll tip her head back and that means more vocal. She'll bring up the neck of her guitar and that's more guitar, but then if she brings it straight up that's not more guitar, she's just playing to the audience.”
Salerno is mixing on the same board as Sullivan, “except the grown-up version,” he quips: the Digidesign D-Show VENUE, which is twice the size of the Profile. “It's got more space in the middle section so I can see and access more outputs easier.”
The band uses Future Sonics IEMs with Sennheiser EW300 G2 Series beltpacks, except for drummer Jeremy Stacey, who uses a 12AM Clair wedge with an ML-18 sub and an occasional in-ear for a click. Crow takes one in-ear in and out during the show, leaving the other in, while guitarists Peter Stroud and Tim Smith use one in-ear each. On Crow's vocal, Salerno uses a Digidesign Smack compressor plug-in, which is similar to a Fairchild 670 comp/limiter. “In the past, she had never wanted any compression on her voice at all,” he says. “This tour's rehearsals, Bill Bottrell came out, and she really wanted him to have a hand in how stuff went down. He wanted to have a compressor on her voice to affect the way she sang, which for me was great because I finally had a little control. If she doesn't think about me, then I'm doing my job,” Salerno concludes. “It's not my job to go up there and be a pop star sound guy. It's to let them play together without me being a factor.”
Gaby Alter is a New York City–based writer.