Clockwise, from left: bassist Chris Baio, vocalist Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij (synth) and drummer Chris Tomson
Photos: Steve Jennings
Considering the band’s calypso-esque, Afro-Cuban leanings, it was a bit odd to hear DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” played as background music as Vampire Weekend walked onstage at Oakland, Calif.’s Paramount Theater—but that’s exactly what the band and the sold-out crowd did. Despite being considered an overnight success with the release of its latest, Contra, Vampire Weekend took to the stage like old hands. With intelligent guitar hooks, pop-centric vocals and a progressive synth accentuating the bombastic drumming, the band and crew set out to re-create as much of the album as possible.
“I try to faithfully and dynamically reproduce the record in a live environment,” offers front-of-house engineer Neil Heal. “A lot of people don’t appreciate the effort that goes into making a record and just ‘make it louder.’ I know months of work have gone into [making the album] and I only get one chance to re-create that. I might like a certain way something sounds, but if it’s unrepresentative of the record, it’s just massaging my ego and that’s not why I’m here. Some of what I do and how I do it enhances the band’s live sound, but it never strays too far from or dramatically changes the original intentions.”
That being said, Vampire Weekend is a band that likes to experiment with its sound—bringing in different textures, tempos and the like to give the audience something just a bit more to gnaw on. “Occasionally, they want to try mixing things up a bit and when they do, Rostam [Batmanglij, synth; also producer/engineer on Contra] normally comes out front with me and we’ll listen to the rest of the band and try different things,” Heal says. “Pretty much it’s trusted to me to make sure it’s right.”
Key to making sure that everything sounds the way it should is the Soundcraft Vi6 board at FOH. Heal chose this console as it “sounds great and is the most ‘analog’ of all the digital desks I’ve used. More importantly, I can do four things at the same time and see all of my channels right there; I’m not scrolling through menus or wondering what ‘XXX’ flavor-of-the-month plug-in may or may not be doing. I can concentrate on the mix and not worry about the technology.”
FOH engineer Neil Heal at the Soundcraft Vi6 board
Heal uses a Distressor over Ezra Koenig’s main vocal and a Yamaha SPX2000 for vocal distortion on one song, which bumps his channel count to 56. “I have no idea how that happened!” Heal enthuses. “With that desk, it’s just so easy to add things and experiment with new ways to re-create the album’s production.”
Monitor engineer Chris Moon is also taking the digital route, manning an Avid Profile. He opted for this console because its snapshots are user-friendly. “I have snapshots on every song saved, which puts me at a good starting point,” Moon says. “I still have little cues to do within the song, though. The snapshots save me from cycling through multiple pages on the fly. Ezra relies mainly on his guitar for pitching: It varies from song to song for each member, hence all the snapshots. I also chose the board because it’s easily available around the world. So for the shows when we are not traveling with production, it’s usually not a problem to have one on-site.” Moon is not carrying any outboard gear, instead making use of such onboard plug-ins as Crane Song Phoenix on some of his inputs and outputs.
Moon is taking 41 inputs from the stage, including the bandmembers’ mixes. “All the guys seem to take their instruments and vocals the loudest,” Moon says. “Then everything fills in around them. Chris Tomson’s [drums] mix comprises a lot of drums, bass and then all the other inputs. The same goes for Chris Baio’s [bass] mix: bass and drums. Ezra’s mix is based on his vocals and guitar, and then just a couple things here and there. Rostam takes all the keys, along with his guitar. During the show, depending what song is being played, I am having to turn inputs on and off for the guys. There are many changes that are made to their mixes throughout the course of the show. I’m pretty much always in communication with the band. They don’t ask for much, but when they do I’m there for them. The most important part of my mix is to know that the band is having a good time onstage. It all starts with them, so keeping them happy with what they need to hear is going to reflect on their performance.”
Monitor engineer Chris Moon at an Avid Profile
The band is on in-ears: Koenig and Batmanglij use Ultimate Ears UE 10s; Baio and Tomson are on UE 7s with the ambient option. All in-ears are run on Sennheiser G3 Series hardware. Moon also employs Meyer MJF-212 wedges lining the stage for the rhythm section. “There are a lot of drums and bass going through [the Meyer wedges],” Moon says. “They handle the low end very well—nice and punchy.”
P.A. DU JOUR
Another important factor that helps re-create the album sound is having the same gear night after night. With the exception of local racks, stages and mics, all equipment is provided by Thunder Audio—with whom Heal had previously worked on tours for the White Stripes and Raconteurs—including mics. Every onstage mic is part of the Sennheiser’s e900 range: e945s on vocals, 901/902 on kick, 905s on snare, 904s on toms, 906s on the guitars; Heal is a Sennheiser endorser. All DIs are Radial, the best Heal says he’s come across. Batmanglij’s keyboard setup is also DI’d: a Korg SV1 piano, a few vintage keys and a variety of sounds coming from his laptop. “I have five Radial DIs for him and he plays through a [Roland] JC-120 that I mike up,” Heal adds.
As for the “flavor of the day” P.A., the tour has been seeing either V-DOSC, d&b J Series or Meyer Sound’s MILO. Neal says that the fall leg of the tour will see full production, and he believes that the MILO will be selected. Normal system setup comprises 12 on each side with nine subs per side, four front-fills and side hangs when needed. And with any tour—whether carrying full P.A. or relying on house-provided—Heal tunes the system each day. “I pink-noise the P.A., run an oscillator sweep or two and then voice the system,” Neal explains. “Then I have a few tracks that I play through, including a few Vampire Weekend tracks—after all, that’s what’s playing through the P.A. at show time!
“This is definitely one of the best tours I’ve been on,” Heal continues. “Every crew member could have their own stand-up comedy show. Everybody gets on really well.”
Sarah Benzuly is
’s managing editor.