Blending bluegrass, reggae, jazz, blues and straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll into their own unique musical stew, Colorado's String Cheese Incident has, in a few short years, risen to the upper tier of the jam-band echelon. As recently as 1999, the band was playing the 600-seat Fox Theater in Boulder, but in 2000, the band headlined a show at Red Rocks for a near sold-out crowd. Constant touring and a slot on the 1999 Summer Sessions tour with former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh has let fans across the country in on the secret that Coloradans had tried to keep for over five years.
String Cheese Incident is made up of mandolinist/fiddler Michael Kang, acoustic guitarist Bill Nershi, bassist Keith Moseley, keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth and drummer Michael Travis. The musical hopscotch the band performs every night keeps soundman Jon O'Leary working hard. “It is difficult to be perfect every single night, because we change so much from genre to genre in each song,” says O'Leary. “Every song needs to be mixed differently. When we go from reggae to bluegrass, I have to redo my whole mix, and they genre-hop so much it constantly keeps me on my toes. There are a lot of subtle things that need to be done to make it sound good, and that is what I like so much about working with these guys. They go so many places soundwise during an evening that it keeps me very focused on the music. It is a big challenge to make them sound good each night.”
O'Leary has been doing sound for the band since 1996, when Kang approached him at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and asked if he would care to mix the band's set. O'Leary, one of the founders of the Fox Theater, had gained extensive sound experience at the Fox and readily agreed. After leaving the Fox and joining up with String Cheese Incident, O'Leary formed Shaped Music Productions with Rich Werdes, and the company owns the entire SCI sound production setup.
The core of the band's sound system is a V-DOSC™ line array system, which they have been using since August 1999. For the theater tours, Shaped Music Productions provides 12 V-DOSC™ speakers and six d/V-DOSC™ speakers hung under the regular cabinets and used for downfill, all powered by QSC 6.0 amplifiers. Eight L-Acoustic SB218 subwoofer cabinets are powered by QSC 9.0 amps. “In 2001, we will be upping to 16 V-DOSC™ speakers, split eight to a side, to cover more area,” adds O'Leary. “We also use Meyer UPAs for near-fills; we stick those onstage for people in the front row.”
O'Leary mixes on a Midas Heritage 3000 console. “It's a great-sounding desk and gives me a lot of flexibility,” O'Leary comments. “It has 24 auxiliary ins, which help me create the full stereo effect and wide sound that we go for, and it also helps with the multitrack recording we do.” For effects, O'Leary uses TC Electronic M5000 and M2000 multi-effects units, plus a TC Electronic D-2 delay unit and a Lexicon MPX-1. Dynamics are handled with dbx 1066 compressors and an ACP 88 for gating.
O'Leary has a variety of microphones set up onstage. The drum mics include six Shure SM98s on toms and percussion, two Shure KSM32s for overheads, an M88 on kick, Shure Beta 57 on the snare and Audix CX-111s for hi-hat. Michael Kang's amplified mandolin gets stereo Sennheiser 409s and an Audix CX-111 on his fiddle cabinet. Acoustic guitarist Bill Nershi is assigned a Neumann 170 on the speaker cabinet, plus a stereo direct input. Keith Moseley gets an Audix CX-111 on the bass cabinet, plus a direct input from his preamp. Keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth's Leslie cabinet is miked with two Audix CX-111 mics on top and an Audio-Technica AT25 at the bottom. Left and right Rhodes piano and left and right synthesizer inputs are submixed to a stereo pair through a Mackie 1201. “That isn't the way I want it, but it saves inputs for the multitrack,” says O'Leary. “We might change that in the future.”
Vocal mics were all Audix VX-10s at the time of writing, but O'Leary intended to change vocal mics in the New Year. “I want to start using the Neumann 105s,” he says. “Eventually, I would like to have a whole rack of mic pre's to go into, with the ability to remote-control the levels from FOH. That is all lots of money, and we will have to see if we can afford it. There is a lot of cutting-edge stuff we'd like to keep up with.”
Mixing acoustic guitar with electric mandolin and keyboards could be a feedback nightmare, but in late 1997, the band switched to in-ear monitors, and that has made life easier for both O'Leary and monitor engineer Ian Skomski. In particular, O'Leary says using in-ear monitors helps him get the volume of the acoustic instruments up and balanced in the mix. “One of the things that certainly has contributed to getting volume out of Billy is using the in-ear monitors. Since no sound folds back from the monitors, I can get his guitar further up into the mix and get tonal qualities that I couldn't get if we had open wedges onstage. As far as balancing the tonal aspects, there are a lot of mid- to upper-midrange frequencies that Billy, Kyle and Mike live in. It is equally important for me to try to create space between them and for them to play parts that don't step on each other. They have to realize that they shouldn't fight each other, but complement each other, and I try to separate them a little bit in the stereo image to give them a little more space than if it was a strictly mono mix. It's more taste and who I feel needs to be on top a little bit and who needs to be layered underneath. That is very tricky. I have to understand where each individual wants to be in the mix. We talk a lot about that, about where they should be in the mix during parts of songs, and I do my best to find a balance between what is working for me at front of house and where they want to be in the mix.”
Monitor engineer Skomski, who joined up with the band in the summer of 1998, describes the in-ear setup: “We use a Midas XL250 monitor desk and Shure ESM600 personal in-ear monitors. Everybody in the band has a stereo mix going to their head. We use a pair of AKG microphones onstage to add stage and audience ambience to the in-ear mix, so the band can really pick up a little on what the audience is hearing and adjust accordingly. Those mics just go to the monitors; one is between Mike and Billy, and one between Kyle and Keith. There is also one for Travis. The mics also allow each bandmember to talk to each other, which really helps them give each other cues for the segues between songs. In-ears cut about 20 dB, so the mics are necessary for communication. It's much better than having everyone yelling at each other. We use very little outboard EQ on the monitor desk. We use some Ashly EQ, but no other processing. We have a reverb, but they don't even use it.”
Placing the cabinets each night is something O'Leary works out scientifically with systems tech Phil Krumrine and is an important element in the finished sound. “Phil will measure the dimensions of the room and the height of the rise to the back of the room and the height of the balcony to the back of the balcony,” explains O'Leary. “Specifically, we measure where the ear level of the front row of the balcony is to the ear level of the rear row of the balcony, and that is where we aim the sound. We only shoot sound where the patrons are sitting or standing. After we get the measurements, it goes into the computer, and it will give us a physical display of the P.A. and what angles straps to use between each speaker. The computer gives the optimal splay to make the sound the most consistent, so that people in the back row should hear the same tonal qualities as someone in the first row. Obviously, dB levels will be different. The whole technique is called ‘wave front sculpture technology,’ and that is critical to making line array systems sound good.
“We are pretty happy with the L-Acoustic V-DOSC™ system,” O'Leary continues. “Judging from the number of brand-new line array systems on the market, it is a growing field, but L-Acoustic was really the first company to invest in it, and they patented their wave guide in 1992 and started making those V-DOSC™ speakers. All the major companies are moving toward using line arrays for several applications. There is a debate over what systems are best for different applications, but some of the biggest tours in the world use V-DOSC™ now. It has been a great system for us and works in theaters, outdoor festivals and big outdoor shows, and I think we will be able to grow with it. I mean, Aerosmith uses V-DOSC™ for arenas, so it must work. If we ever get to that level, we will try V-DOSC™ first. I haven't done a show yet where I wasn't happy with V-DOSC™, and I have used it everywhere from small clubs to big outdoor festivals.”
Candace Horgan is a freelance writer based in the Denver area.