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That Travelin’ Sound

Formed in 1986 in New Jersey, Blues Traveler, led by harmonica wizard John Popper, quickly took New York City clubs by storm and landed a major-label

Formed in 1986 in New Jersey, Blues Traveler, led by harmonica wizard John Popper, quickly took New York City clubs by storm and landed a major-label record contract in early 1990. Their debut album, Blues Traveler, sparked a resurgence in jam music around the country. By 1995, the band had scored two Top 10 singles, “Runaround” and “Hook,” and their continuous touring won them legions of fans.

While the band has gone through several changes, many of the crew has stayed the same. Front-of-house engineer Bo “Obi-Bob” Mahoney has been with the band since the early days; he started originally as the guitar tech. “I’ve been with the band since ’89-’90,” he says. “I was actually working at a club in New York called Kenny’s Castaways, as were [former soundman] Rich Vink and Dave Swanson, who produced the Save His Soul record. Traveler used to play there all the time, as did Spin Doctors and Phish, and we all mixed for them. Rich was the first guy hired out, and when Traveler graduated to needing another guy, I signed on as the guitar tech. I got the ‘Obi-Bob’ nickname a couple years later, when Travelers and Thieves came out and John decided to give everyone Star Wars nicknames.”

Mahoney uses a Midas XL4 console with 56 total inputs, 40 mono and eight stereo, all of which are used. “The stereo inputs are for Ben’s piano feed and the Leslie top. The other stereo feeds are a pair of audience mics on the stage, which I run to a board tape, and a pair of mics out front that I also run to board tape. I love the mic preamps in the Midas, which sound fat and warm; using those with a little compression, I’m in good. Then if I have VDOSC, I’m set. We are trying to get VDOSC for the band; we did a show with String Cheese Incident in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and their engineer [Jon O’Leary, see Mix March 2001] time-aligned the P.A. to the kick drum, and it tightened up my low end so much. Sometimes the low end can get floppy, but time-aligned like that it was slamming. I didn’t touch my EQ that day. When Brendan plays his acoustic drum kit, he has a stereo feed on the overheads.”

As for effects, Mahoney has a small rack to reinforce what the band does. “I use two TC Electronic 2290s, one for a stereo feed and one for background vocals. It has a ‘learn’ feature; at every song, I tap out my delay time. A lot of times, they don’t follow the set list, so I tap in the beat for each song. I also have a TC M3000 reverb unit for Brendan’s drums, and a Lexicon 460 reverb for John’s vocals. There is also a Yamaha 990 reverb on John’s vocals; I alternate between the Yamaha and the Lexicon for short and long reverbs, depending on the song. I also have a Yamaha Pro R3 reverb on Brendan’s drums. I have four Summit tube compressors; I use one on John’s vocals, one on Tad’s vocals, one on Tad’s bass and one on the kick drum. I have seven to eight harp inputs that I put compression on. I use compression more as a limiter than anything else, to keep the top end down. I also have two Klark compressors that I use on Tad’s stomp pedals. He sometimes uses the pedals a lot, so I set up a DI before and after the effects so I can control how much of the effects he sends. Sometimes he uses too much, and I lose all of the bottom end. Eighty-five percent of my channels are flat; I don’t EQ much at all. The XL4 has high- and lowpass filters on each channel. For instance, with Brendan’s cymbal mics, I use the highpass filter to clean it up without using gates. It’s a good console.”

A big part of Mahoney’s current setup involves the use of both Demeter and Randall Silent Speaker cabinets offstage. Explains Mahoney, “John never comes to soundcheck; he always come in later, and Chan’s line would really bug John, and he would have to turn Chan down, so I lost all the guitar sound. That’s when we started using the Silent Speaker setup. I don’t have to worry about John freaking out and making Chan turn down. The only amp onstage is a small one John uses for feedback effects. These cabinets are offstage in little boxes that you don’t hear; if I shut the P.A. off, the only people you would hear onstage are John and Brendan. I can isolate them that way so the levels aren’t bugging John. Chan has two guitar inputs and two Silent Speaker cabinets. He used to have an A/B setup, but I gave him a stereo pan pedal so he can blend a clean and dirty signal, and pan between the clean and dirty when he wants; I have two Klark compressors on those.”

Popper’s vocal mic is a Shure Beta 57A, while the other vocal mics are Shure Beta 87As. Mahoney mikes all the cabinets with Shure KSM32s “To me, for the money, those are the best microphones around,” he says. “They are like a better 421. It’s a good, big condenser mic with a warm flat response. I use them on Chan’s guitar cabinets, Tad’s bass cabinet, Ben’s cabinets and John’s cabinets. Ben has a stereo keyboard DI, a Leslie, a Clavinet and a Wurlitzer. He had his Leslie modified so it has a ¼-inch output that he runs into effects like distortion, and sends those to another cabinet. He has Silent Speaker cabinets that I run offstage, and I use the KSM32s on those.” Rounding out the microphone setup is a selection of Shures on Brendan’s drum kit: an SM91 and a Beta 52 on the kick; SM57s on top/bottom snare; four Beta 98s on the toms; two KSM 32s on overhead left and right; an SM91 on the right cymbal; and SM81s on the hi-hat.

Though Popper’s harmonicas are probably the least-expensive instruments to start with, the setup that Popper uses to get his amazing tonal coloration is anything but. “I split John’s signal to five different places,” explains Mahoney. “He plays into a modified Shure SM58 microphone. The mic goes into a Behringer stereo mic preamp, just to split the signal and change the level from mic to line. John considers himself to be like a guitarist, so the Behringer lets me switch the impedance. One side from the Behringer I take a direct out into the Midas at FOH via an XLR. Then the ¼-inch output of that side of the pre goes into a Mesa Boogie amp switcher. From there, I send the first input to John’s main two Mesa Boogie Heartbreaker 100-watt heads, the second input to the effects pedals Heartbreaker head, and I have a third send that goes to the little amp onstage he uses for feedback effects. John can play one and flip to the other. Out of the first main head, I go slave and that drives John’s offstage Leslie cabinet, which I mike with a Shure SM57. That signal is brought back into his monitors. He has a volume knob on his mic so he can turn the send to that Leslie up or down, and he controls the speed of the Leslie from the mic as well. The other side of the Behringer goes into a rack of effects that we run offstage; he controls it with MIDI pedals and that goes back into his monitors. That way, I’m not stuck with one sound. He can have whatever he wants onstage, since everything is separate. The units he uses offstage are Mesa Boogie Tri/Axis models, which are MIDI-programmable preamps. I use that to control levels of each of his effect’s sounds. He uses an Alesis Quadraverb, a DigiTech IP33 harmonizer and an Eventide H3000 harmonizer. I use the pre to control the effects there. From there, I take a stereo left-right to FOH, and I send those to John’s monitors.”

Monitors are handled by James Lionti of Clair Bros. Lionti signed on with the band at the start of the 2001 summer tour. “We prefer a Midas, but the last few tours we used a Yamaha 4k,” says Lionti. All of the bandmembers except Popper and Brendan use in-ear monitors. Popper has two monitor wedges and two sidefills, and Brendan has a pair of wedges and a sub. “The guys use in-ear monitors, so they don’t need to hear the cabinets. It helps with stage volume.”

Lionti explains the monitor mixing this way: “Tad has an even mix with the bass on top. Chan’s guitar is so loud I don’t know how he hears anything. Chan only has one in-ear monitor in place. I find that hard; it would throw me off balance. Ben uses one in-ear and a wedge, and he has a separate mixer for his monitors.”

Candace Horgan is a freelance writer based out of the Denver area.