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Vanessa Carlton

‘Liberman’ Live with Violinist Skye Steele

Singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton began 2016 with an extension of her tour in support of her October 2015 album release, Liberman. Her latest studio work, produced by Steve Osborne and Adam Landry, is a contemplative collection of 10 songs—described by Carlton as “a calm record”—driven by her voice, storytelling lyrics, and lush, ethereal washes of synths, strings, effects, percussion and piano. Carlton notes that Liberman was largely inspired by her grandfather’s 1963 oil painting in pastel colors of three women, and also named the album after him. “The swirly colors of that painting reminded me of the music, and the music reminds me of those colors,” Carlton says.

To bring Liberman’s music to the stage, Carlton teamed up with violinist Skye Steele, who played on the album and created its string arrangements. The duo visited a variety of indoor venues along the West Coast and in the Southwest during the second leg of their tour, including The Independent in San Francisco, Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, and Livewire in Scottsdale, Ariz. Carlton and Steele traveled with a two-person crew comprising tour manager and front-of-house engineer Colin Quisenberry, and merch manager/primary driver Britt Bowman.

Quisenberry, who was on his first tour with Carlton, explains that in addition to playing violin, Steele is also operating a Mac laptop running Ableton Live to play backing tracks from Liberman and create live loops of his violin.

“These beautifully complex, layered sounds are essential to re-creating Liberman in the live setting,” Quisenberry says. “The laptop is the backbone of the Liberman portion of the set. We have split the signal from the laptop into four separate channels: kick drum, bass, violin loop, and everything else—percussion, key synth, harmonies. Most of the time the kick drum feels more like a heartbeat than a driving force in the song. I try to mix the tracks in a way that they are coloring the vibe of the songs rather than driving them. The harmonies are barely audible and mostly add depth; Vanessa doesn’t need much help, as she can carry these tunes on her own.”

Steele’s violin takes a David Gage Realist pickup. “I found we were getting cleaner low end and less ambient sound out of the pickup, which was essential for such a dynamic mix of sounds and loops,” Quisenberry says. “From the pickup we go into a Klark Teknik DN200 DI, which then goes to the Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 interface for Ableton. All of the real-time loops are then created in Ableton and sent out to our Radial Pro D2 DI, where I also receive a post-pedal board, pre-Ableton channel as a clean signal. A dbx 160A is used for the clean violin channel.”

Carlton’s tour relies on house-provided consoles, P.A. systems and monitor wedges, and travels with Sennheiser e 935 dynamic vocal microphones for Carlton, two Radial ProD2 stereo direct boxes, and two Radial J48 direct boxes for Carlton’s Yamaha CP300 Stage Piano. Quisenberry also travels with a rack of outboard gear that is essential for mixing Carlton’s vocals.

“I wash the vocal in a healthy amount of reverb and compression to keep it right in the pocket of the mix without popping out too heavily, so that I get this really steady and audibly pleasing mix that’s warm on the ears and easy to listen to,” Quisenberry says. “I usually EQ wide dips at 125 Hz and 500 Hz, with tighter notches at 1 kHz and 3.5 kHz. An FMR Audio RNC compressor is inserted on her vocal chain. I tend to compress Vanessa’s vocals pretty heavily since she’s such a dynamic vocalist, but with this unit it’s not blatantly obvious, even when I’m hitting 8 dB of compression and the vocals stay in this nice little pocket that’s perfect for the type of set she is doing.

“I’m actually running a good amount of reverb the whole night,” Quisenberry acknowledges. “I’m a real sucker for the Lexicon LXP-1. It’s got that classic Lexicon fullness without coming across as digital-sounding, especially when I’m pumping a heavy dose through the P.A. I’m using the Roland SDE-1000 as my slapback vocal delay for two songs in the set, ‘Willows’ and ‘Operator,’ with a 120ms delay time. Before this tour I mostly used the Roland for my long vocal delays but have since found a new favorite: the Boss RE-20 Space Echo. When I heard Vanessa’s new album, I visualized the Space Echo as the sound I wanted to best represent Liberman in the live setting. Vanessa likes the huge sounds that we are able to produce on this tour and I very much concur. She has given me creative control on the different delays throughout the show, which I think has paid off.”

Carlton’s 2015-16 set list offers a quieter, introspective show, in which musical subtleties, textures and layers must be clearly conveyed. “I start the mix with the rhythm section of the track, usually cutting out most of the high end of the kick and bass so that it lays a nice, smooth foundation that won’t step on the tones of the piano,” Quisenberry says. “The piano takes most of those warm frequencies in the low to midrange section, and the violin rounds out the high-mid to high section. Skye also plays a lot of the rhythms, looping them live in Ableton, which I mix just a step below the clean violin but still very much on the top of the mix. I rely on the violin and loops to really tie the whole mix together; this is the driving force for most of the set.”