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All Access: Elton John

We've got the Yamaha PM5000 board here [the second one made] and I love it! enthuses front-of-house engineer Clive Franks (pictured below right with Clair

Elton John’s Red Piano dates in Las Vegas’ The Colosseum at Caesars Palace went from 18 shows a year (over three years) to 31 shows this year alone. The home of Celine Dion’s mammoth undertaking is now under the visual direction of photographer David LaChapelle, who takes us on a road trip of John’s music.

It’s hard not to get lost in such a spectacular stage setting, but John’s audio crew ensures that each bandmember is heard crystal-clear. Pictured from left: Elton John, keyboardist Guy Babylon, Bob Birch (bassist/vocals), Nigel Olsson (drums/vocals), Davey Johnstone (musical director/ guitars/vocals) and percussionist/vocalist John Mahon

Photo: Steve Jennings

“We’ve got the Yamaha PM5000 board here [the second one made] and I love it!” enthuses front-of-house engineer Clive Franks (pictured below right with Clair Bros. systems audio engineer Jo Ravitch). “It’s a lot warmer and cleaner-sounding. I use a lot more EQ on this board, but that could have to do with the room. I like that the PM5000 has more VCAs [12], more effect sends and a whole bank of aux sends — it’s a great improvement.

“I’ve worked with Elton for 32 years on the road with various bandmembers. Musical director/guitarist Davey Johnston has always been there. Now that [original] drummer Nigel Olsson’s back, it sounds like the Elton John band again.”

Franks is carrying much of the effects, including an Eventide Harmonizer 3000 to thicken the backing vocals, a Lexicon 480 for reverb, dbx 160 limiters on vocals, an old AMS-Neve RMX16 digital reverb for drums and a TC Electronic 2290 for delay. “I have bassist Bob Birch play through all the notes on the bottom two strings to find what notes set off a resonance in the room,” Franks explains.

“I find that frequency and fine-bandpass it, so when it’s mixed with Nigel’s kick, you hear every note he plays.”

On this tour, Clair Bros. systems audio engineer Jo Ravitch’s main duties comprise assisting Franks with interfacing with the house P.A., providing support for the Clair equipment used and dealing with the various playback cues that pop up during the show. “The Colosseum is a well-thought-out installation of Meyer line array gear,” Ravitch says, pointing out that Francois “Frankie” DesJardins designed and installed the system. “I enjoy working with Clive and we’ve had a great working relationship since we met on Elton’s European tour in 1986! We lean on each other to make the audio presentation as perfect as we can. I’ve learned more about how to mix a band the right way from Clive than anyone else.”

Photo: Steve Jennings

Monitor engineer Alan Richardson (left) is using all of the Yamaha PM-1D’s onboard EQ, limiters, gates and effects. “The only external gear I have is a Crown D-75 headphone amp for my cue,” Richardson relays. “I don’t use cue wedges—I mix on Sony cans—so I need an amp that’s a little beefier than the one in the desk. Other than that, it’s just output signal to Sennheiser in-ear systems and my amp racks. It’s great to be able to take a simple PC laptop anywhere on the stage and be able to operate the PM-1D fully.

“Elton’s vocal mic is the old reliable Shure Beta 58A. We’ve tried other mics for him, but the 58A, so far, is the only one that has the ability to take his vocal pressure without bottoming out and has the rejection that Clive needs out front. The background vocalists are on Audio-Technica 5400s. They sound great for in-ears and are pretty warm-sounding for a condenser mic.”

“Elton’s piano is a 9-foot Yamaha grand with a MIDI output,” Richardson explains of John’s instrument of choice, “but 90 percent of the sound we use for the show comes from his rack of digital piano sounds. There’s an assortment of gear, but the main sounds come from rack-mounted Yamaha Motifs. That’s the only way I can get the monitor levels to where Elton wants them. Clive has mics in the piano for the house, but I can’t even attempt to use them because of feedback.”