LC's career has always been a roller-coaster ride, and the past year was no exception. The early 1999 release of the R&B trio's third album, FanMail, met with great success, selling three-and-a-half million copies and launching a series of hits including "No Scrubs" and "Unpretty." Then, in the fall, the group became the center of a media frenzy after heavily publicized band disputes led TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes to challenge Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozanda "Chilli" Thomas to a solo album showdown. Perhaps due to the negative publicity and lackluster promotion, the band's first worldwide tour in their 14-year career got off to a quiet start. But every roller coaster heads back to the top of the hill, and 2000 is looking better for TLC. With disputes resolved, and an impressive eight Grammy nominations and three wins for FanMail, with awards for R&B Duo/Group with Vocal, Best R&B Song and Best R&B Album, the group started a strong second tour leg, and they've been pulling in sold-out crowds since January.
opening for TLC on the U.S. leg of the tour was teen pop sensation Christina Aguilera, whose popularity has been steadily rising since her performance on Star Search ten years ago. She then spent two years as a cast member on the New Mickey Mouse Club, and went on to become a pop star in Japan; her U.S. career took off when she was chosen to sing the song "Reflection" for Disney's animated film Mulan. Now 18, the high school senior is on her first arena tour to support her eponymous debut album, which earned her a Grammy for Best New Artist and a nomination for Best Female Pop Performance for a Solo Vocal Performance, for her hit single "Genie in a Bottle." Mix caught the second date of the TLC/Aguilera tour on January 8, at the oakland Arena (oakland, Calif.).
MoNIToR ENGINEER oUT FRoNT?Sound for the tour was being provided by Dallas-based Showco. The system is a Showco Prism(r) P.A., 4x8 per side, with about 100,000 watts RMS power. There are Yamaha PM4000 consoles at front of house and Harrison SM-5s for monitors.
Christina Aguilera's FoH mixer is Blake Suib, who interestingly has been a monitor mixer for Clair Bros. for 15 years. But he's also Aguilera's engineer, so he's out mixing this tour on the Showco P.A. He says it doesn't take much adjustment to get used to a different P.A. system: "It's like borrowing someone else's car," he explains. "When you get in it, you have to adjust the seats a little bit, adjust the mirrors, and then you're all good." As for his new role at the FoH position, he says, "I've mixed FoH twice. I mixed the Stray Cats ten years ago and now her. I'm finding front of house a lot easier than monitors. I'm used to 'it has to be perfect yesterday.' I know that I don't get until the second song to make it perfect; it had better be perfect on the first note, or the musicians are going to be freaking." Suib says there's a little more leniency mixing FoH. "I keep turning around looking for someone to tap me on the shoulder and ask me for something."
This is Aguilera's first arena tour, the first time she's ever had a real monitor engineer, says Suib. "So this is really unique for her, but she's doing great. From a sound point of view, she's a blessing because she sings powerfully. She's got perfect mic technique." Aguilera's band includes a drummer, bass player, two keyboard players and a guitar player, plus two background singers. Although she sings her parts live, "We do use Pro Tools for some sounds," he explains, emphasizing that the files are "mainly loops and effect sounds, not vocals or instrumentation."
Suib says the show mix is mostly dry. "To be honest, I use no processing except a Summit limiter on her voice. Especially in the arenas, I only use a little bit of reverb on her voice, for one ballad, because there's so much natural reverb that you just muddy up your mix. It being the first night, I find that it's easier to mix dry and see what your sounds are like before you start adding all kinds of stuff and you don't even know really what your base sound is. I put a little doubling on the background vocals, the PCM-90 is my snare reverb, and the 480 is her main vocal reverb, but like I said right now I'm only using it on one song."
Aguilera sings into a Shure Beta 87. Since she has such a powerful voice, Suib does use a decent amount of compression. He typically uses a 4:1 ratio with a really fast attack time and up to 16 dB of gain reduction on peaks. "You don't really hear it [working]," says Suib. "But when she screams, it's as loud as when she's quiet."
As for monitors, Suib says that Aguilera has tried ear monitors but felt they took her out of being in the live situation: "It made it feel like the studio for her." He says that he's been using ear monitors for about ten years, however. "I feel that they're mainly for people who have problems dealing with regular monitors, where they have their monitors so loud that it screws up the sound. Then you get ear monitors, and it sorts the problem out. But for a singer that doesn't use extremely loud wedge monitors, it's almost better for her to hear what the band's like, because she knows what her musicians are playing."
Suib says that since Aguilera is a new artist, he is more involved with shaping the sound of her show: "I work really closely with her producer out there, to make sure the mix is the way he wants it, perfect. I'm completely in control of anything to do with the FoH sound. During rehearsals, I got to sit down with all the musicians, make sure the guitar sounded right, bass sounded right-I pretty much got to do a sound design. So the good thing about that is, when I'm out front, if something's wrong, I can only blame myself."
WATCHING DYNAMICSMixing FoH for TLC is John Blasutta, a 26-year Showco veteran. (When asked who he's worked with during his long career, he says "the list would be too long, and you wouldn't believe me," although he does confess to gigs with The Who, the Bee Gees, Weather Report, Steve Miller, the Blues Brothers, Alice Cooper, Rick James and New Edition, to name just a few.)
TLC has a 90-minute set. The show features an elaborate, futuristic stage design and includes dancers, a video sync, props, magic tricks and a big pit in the stage that gets filled with 30 lucky kids picked from the crowd. "They have everything. Except for fireworks," says Blasutta.
Blasutta got involved with TLC in August, when they were deciding how to approach the tour. He says the tour has a different approach from the album. "It's not a heavily processed show, more of a live sound," he says, adding that much of the content is the same. The biggest difference, he says, is that "there's a lot more instrumentation than what's on the album as far as keyboards. There are keyboards on the album, but they're not as predominant." Musicians onstage include six bandmembers (including TLC manager and producer Dallas Austin on keyboards), plus a backup vocalist.
Blasutta is using about 50 channels on the PM4000. "TLC uses Shure wireless handhelds with 58 caps, plus Crown headset mics," he says. "There are Sennheiser 409s on the guitar, Shure 57s all miked on the inside of the drums, everything else is Shure. In-ears are Shure 600 Series."
He says TLC's vocal effects are straightforward: "A little bit of vocal doubling, a little chorus, a little bit of limiting, a few gates on the drums, just your basics. The entire effects collection is pretty minimal: "a few gates, limiters, reverb, and not that many-an Eventide H3000, two Yamaha 990s and a Roland 3000-a basic setup."
Blasutta says most of the changes he makes throughout the course of the show deal with levels. "The girls have very soft vocals. I have to be careful with the dynamics of the band in relation to the vocals. It's the trick to this whole mix out here-as opposed to Christina Aguilera, because she has a very strong vocal. But it works out, since the band does have good dynamics."
Blasutta's biggest challenge on this tour? "Not getting to play enough golf," he jokes.
MoNIToRLANDMonitors for both acts are mixed by Jerrell "Big J" Evans, who has been with Showco for three years. Before joining Showco, Evans spent many years working regional acts and worked for Akai for more than a decade. His credits include Jeff Beck, ozzfest, Ted Nugent, Bad Company, Judas Priest and the Moody Blues. "I love rock," he admits. But he's really enjoying the TLC tour. "The girls are great; they're wonderful to work with," he says.
There are ten monitor mixes for Aguilera's set, and as with the TLC set, the mixes are straightforward. "She's really great to work with, very strong voice, and everybody's on wedges up there. We have sidefills that we've flown directly over the stage for both TLC and Christina, so that way there's no sightline issues, and it works great."
TLC are using in-ear monitors. "Their mix for me is really easy," says Evans. "They like to hear themselves and a little bit of the band, and that's about it. The mix is basic: vocals, a little reverb and a low mix of the band.
"With everything that's going on in the big arenas, there's so much noise, and there's a lot of ambience from the audience coming in," he continues, adding that the band has wedges onstage. There are 16 monitor mixes, including stereo in-ears for TLC and mono mixes for the bandmembers.
When asked what his biggest tour challenges have been, Evans did have one interesting tale: "We had one show where there was a guy with a wireless microphone attached to him, with somebody outside the building trying to record the show, and it actually interfered with one of the girls' microphones, and we finally figured out where it was coming from. But we caught it."