What kind of board are you using?
Mickey Beck: For FOH, we chose the Yamaha PM1D for many reasons. First and foremost for the ability to store mixes and recall scenes for individual songs. With such an extensive input list, the ability to use scenes to change levels, effects and mutes for each song is invaluable. We went with the PM1D over other digital systems because of the intuitive control surface, the solid preamps, and the quality internal effects and dynamics. An interesting note on our configuration is that the FOH and monitor position are sharing the preamps. This can get a little hairy, but offers us the option to avoid an analog split before the preamps, and enables us to carry only one set of input cards, saving on valuable rackspace. It does require good communication between me and Will Miller, the monitor engineer (who has control over head-amp gain). But once the gain structure is together and using the 96 dB of digital attenuation available on each channel, it works out pretty well.
Probably the coolest feature that this system offers us is the ability to stay digital throughout the entire rig. Using the AES-EBU interface cards, we are able to stay digital from preamp to amplifier, at the same time incorporating inserts and external effects without latency.
Will Miller: Like the previous Closer tour, I am using a Yamaha PM1D console (this time running Version 2.03!) as a main desk. However, due to the sheer number of inputs, I also have a Yamaha PM5DRH that serves as a shared submixer for FOH and monitors. While the PM1D handles all principal inputs, effects returns and outputs, the PM5D sends discrete, digital stereo mixes of the horn section, string orchestra, choir and audience mics to the FOH and monitor consoles. I also have a small Yamaha 01V digital mixer that currently handles all of the band talkback microphones, busing them down to a single master talkback channel on the PM1D.
Maryland Sound's Bob Goldstein (left) and FOH engineer Mickey Beck
There are a lot of really good reasons for using these desks. First off is the sheer size of this show. I believe that when you count everything being submixed by the PM5D and the small 12-channel submixers onstage, we are up to 160 inputs coming in to us. (I’ll admit it, we stopped after a while!) And that’s not including the effects returns. Attempting something of this size in the analog domain is just really not efficient, in terms of cost or physical footprint. We’d be setting up consoles all morning if that were the case! And even then, there really aren’t too many analog consoles with 48 mix outputs, and I’m currently using about 44 of mine. I’ve got 11 musicians on stereo ears, 12 effects sends, tech wedges, and string section in-ear mix, orchestra fill wedges and an emergency FOH mix all being created on my console. That’s an awful lot of outputs and we needed a console that could handle that.
Another huge advantage to using the Yamaha desks is both their ability to recall and replicate. Josh has one of the most diverse musical sets I’ve ever heard, moving from classical ballads in Italian featuring heavy strings and synths to straight rock numbers with big drums, guitars and a horn section. Obviously, there’s no real one-size-fits-all mix for an artist when their repertoire is so varied. With so many musicians and mixes that need things brought up or down in their monitors, or certain instruments turned on or off depending on the tune, the ability to pull up different mix scenes is almost essential. Having mix scenes allows me to do all of those utility functions instantly and then concentrate on the actual mix, rather than spend the first-half of a song finding knobs and faders and making necessary level adjustments for each person onstage. I have even set up my external effects and the scenes of the PM5DRH to change via MIDI commands fired off the PM1D. This means that every time I change scenes for a new song, the second console and everything else changes to the same corresponding scene, without my having to go to each unit and manually call up a program. Not only is this a huge timesaver, but it allows me to keep my eyes on the stage and Josh, where they belong.
And the ability to replicate is fantastic. For example, in the fall we spent a week in rehearsals in L.A. before flying to London to do two promotional appearances: a performance at Abbey Road Studios and a live broadcast to radio with BBC orchestra. I was able to spec a PM1D running the same version of software with comparable I/O units and load the file we have worked so hard on in L.A. and be hours ahead of the game rather than starting from scratch. As long as you come close to replicating your mic package, the ability to have a desk recall all the mixing you’ve done on the other side of the world is really fantastic. It’s not a magic bullet and you still need to do lot mixing and changing to re-create the sounds you had, but it gets you way ahead of the game!
Finally, I love the sound. I’ve heard a lot of criticism over the years. People say digital doesn’t sound "warm" or "full," but I don’t really buy it. What goes into this desk comes right back out, pretty much uncolored as far I can tell. With 160 inputs being crammed through the tiny drivers of our in-ear monitors, I’m looking for all the clarity I can get, and this desk has never let me down on that front. For this tour, we’re actually using shared preamps that are split digitally and sent to the respective mixing engines for FOH and monitors. Noise has basically become a non-issue. We’ve had almost no grounding problems onstage and zero between FOH and monitors. Plus, because we are both using the same preamp, it means that in a pinch, one of us can do a line check if the other is busy. If an input’s clean for monitors, it’s going to be clean for FOH. As long as you have two engineers who trust each other, which Mickey and I do after years of doing this gig, this can be a real timesaver in an already jammed day.
Are you using onboard effects with the digital board?
Beck: As far as effects, I use the internal effects mainly for delays, backing vocals and orchestra. Basically, any effect that needs to change from song to song. The main effects processor is the Lexicon 960L configured into four stereo engines for use on Josh's vocal, drums, percussion and featured strings. The ins and outs are routed digitally via AES-EBU. The Lexicon 960L is easily the sweetest-sounding effects processor I have ever heard, while at the same time being easy to get out of it exactly what you want. The vocal chain consists of an XTA D2 dynamic EQ and an Avalon 737 mic pre/compressor/EQ.
It seems to me that the main vocal mic is truly important on this type of tour. What kind of mics are you using?
Beck: Where do I start? The input list seems to grow on a daily basis. There's nothing outrageous about the mic scheme, but after drums, percussion, a multitude of guitars, keyboards, piano, Pro Tools, backing vocals, strings, horns and choir, we end up above 150 inputs. We actually had to incorporate a PM5D for submixing to fit in the PM1D's 96 channels. We use mostly Shure stuff for the drums and percussion. We use a 91/52 combination on the kick, AT4050s for overheads, Beta 98s for rack toms and percussion, and KSM32s for floor toms. There is an SM57 and KSM44 on the electric guitar amp, and SM58s for backing vocals. In the piano, we use two DPA 4022s up by the hammers for high and low, and a PZM down at the bottom for a little warmth. Pretty much everything thing else is direct. As far as Josh's mic, we use a Sennheiser SKM Series wireless handheld transmitter with a custom-made Neumann capsule. The Neumann is easily the most natural- and accurate-sounding handheld vocal mic out there. I can get all of the clarity and warmth of his voice without a lot of EQ or processing.
Miller: As for effects, the PM1D still comes with its standard eight onboard engines, which are all pretty much based off of the SPX reverbs as far as I can tell. Now that we have Version 2.03, there are some slightly more lush reverbs and a few of the "analog compressor" plug-ins available, but I don’t use them. Josh has been listening to the same SPX-990 reverb for years and he loves it, so why change? Plus, I know I can get an SPX-990 reverb just about anywhere in the world for a fly date or TV promo trip, so I can always give him that sound. The amazing thing is that it turns out eight effects really isn’t quite enough! I’ve actually added a pair of SPX-990s, a TC Electronic M2000 and an M3000 to my mix rack to provide me with four more. I’ve only had to add these because of my unique situation. If I were mixing FOH, I could probably bus all of the string to one reverb and blend that with the dry sound, but when you’re dealing with string player on in-ears (and we carry a principal cellist and violinist), you need to give each of them their own reverb; otherwise, the ratio of dry instrument to effect in their monitors can get very disconcerting.
Crew chief Chris Leonard (left) with monitor engineer Will Miller
The same goes for background vocals; each vocalist really needs their own reverb to give them a natural balance of their effected vocal and the other effected vocals. Add in reverbs for drums, percussions and acoustic guitars, plus delay effects, and it’s easy to see how the onboard effects units can get eaten up pretty quickly. This is where the outboard units bail me out. I use two of the onboard effects engines to do Josh’s vocal 'verb and delay, respectively, and all the time changes are pulled up by scene switching. But all of the other delays come from the SPX units, which are driven by the MIDI commands of the PM1D. That way, I don’t have to reach down and make manual adjustments. I set the delay times in rehearsals, and when each song comes up the effect is already set to the proper time and sound. I still need to make sure the return is turned on or off at the desk, but the actual parameters are already there the instant a scene is recalled.
You're using Maryland Sound for this tour. What are they providing in terms of P.A.?
Beck: This is the coolest part of the Maryland Sound rig. The P.A. is completely digital from preamp to amplifier. We use a VerTec line array with VT4889s for main and side hangs, and VT4888s for rears. The show is sold 270 degrees, so we have six arrays in the air with subs on the ground. Front-fills are VT4887As. The amps are Crown I-Tech, all configured for digital input with an analog backup. If the AES system were ever to go down, the fully redundant analog backup would kick in automatically. All DSP is done in the I-Techs. The presets we use were developed by engineers Ryan Beck, Art Isaacs, Steve Guest and Bob Goldstein at MSI. Their settings sound great out of the gate, giving me a smooth and coherent, flat starting point every day. The house EQ is covered by five Lake Mesa EQs. They give me unlimited EQ control over each zone of speakers, wirelessly. The best part about having a digital rig is that there is no such thing as a ground loop. We have no noise issues. It is clean, stable and sounds good.
What kind of monitoring is happening on this tour?
Miller: Virtually all of the monitoring is via in-ears. Josh and some of his band are using wireless Sennheiser IEM units and the rest are on hardwired Shure units. In general, unless it’s absolutely necessary for a performer to be wireless, I always try to have them on a hardwired pack. The airwaves are getting so congested out there that it’s really getting very hard to find clear frequencies these days. Every time you add another channel of anything wireless to a rig, you open the door for more complication, so I take the approach ‘If you need it, we’ll make it happen. If you don’t need it, let’s see if we can make you comfortable with a hardwire pack,' because that’s never going to have the same kind of problems you encounter once you enter the world of wireless.
This time out, I did put my foot down a bit by insisting everyone wear the same-style molds. We got Josh a set from every manufacturer and what he picked was the choice for everybody. In this case, it’s Ultimate Ears UE-5s. And I must say I have been extremely happy thus far. They sound great and in terms of standing behind their product, Ultimate Ears is simply amazing. Any problems I’ve had and parts, replacements or repairs I’ve needed, they always handle it quickly and without any issues.
We have a local string section consisting of about 15 players every night and they use a mixture of in-ears and wedges. Most of the songs in the show are played to a click, so I have a bunch of 4-channel headphone amplifiers set up on the orchestra riser with generic Sony headphones that the string players use to hear the click, piano and vocal. Then, just downstage of them, we have four Maryland Sound DP1 single 12-inch wedges for some ambient music fill. For any musicians, especially classical ones, playing with just in-ears can be a bit disconcerting at first, and we have a very quiet stage, so the wedges help things feel a bit more natural to them up there. A bit less like they’re playing in a vacuum and a bit more like they’re playing with a band.
Monitor engineer Will Miller
Apart from that, I have a few tech wedges scattered about so everyone working under the stage can hear the musicians talking in case they need to ask for something or get their attention. And our keyboard tech has his own mix of Josh’s piano only, just so can hear that everything is working properly when it rises out of the stage for Josh to play.
Do you have a specific mixing style for this tour?
Beck: With all those inputs, the challenge is to make sure everything is being heard in its proper place. I like a warm, powerful mix that seems to fit right in with this style of music. I think to get the impact of a live show, you have to move enough air to make people feel it. The mix can be a little dirty, as long as it’s natural and not harsh. Also, the show is so dynamic that I try to use a bit of compression to maintain the size on the quieter stuff without losing control of the louder stuff. Beyond that, a little reverb goes a long way. The most important thing is having a relatively flat, consistent starting point.
Miller: One of the hardest and yet most important things to accept as a monitor engineer is that it doesn’t really matter how you like to hear things. You are merely a facilitator of someone else’s art. Now, if you’re lucky, you and your artist agree on a lot of things and the mix sounds pleasant to you both, but you have to be willing to accept that you may not want to hear something the way an artist does. It’s still your responsibility to deliver it to them that way.
I do believe I’m fortunate in that Josh likes a very clean album-style mix, with certain things highlighted and obviously a little extra level on the voice. It’s funny because after three-and-a-half years of mixing him, I’m not really sure if we really have the same taste in mixes or our opinions have just converged; I just know that when it sounds right to me, it usually sounds right to him, which is a huge blessing.
It’s especially fun this time around because he’s requested more interesting effects for himself. In the past, it was just his voice with reverb, but now I’m doing some really cool delays, some that match the album and some that I just kind of add to taste to make it a little more exciting for him. We’re also using some delays and ‘verbs as musical instruments. For example, the lead-off song, "Don’t Give Up," has a repeated quarter-note piano motif, but that’s actually me! Our MD plays the chord on the downbeat, but the three repeats come from my delay, which is a sound that couldn’t be achieved with piano alone. There’s also a cool cannon-like effect from the end of "Mai" that I’m replicating by sending the kick drum through a long reverb (like eight seconds!). I get the sound by only turning the send to the 'verb on for the last hit and it’s a really close approximation to whatever they used on the record. The rest of the band gets similar style mixes but with more emphasis on the things that they’re playing and what they are playing to. For example, the percussionist will get a lot of himself and the live drums, but then also a ton of the rhythm loops from the tracks because that helps his groove. Our musical director will get his piano and then a blend of everyone else pretty evenly since he needs to know what going on.
I try to give everyone what they need and then enough ornamentation to make it fun. But if you let yourself get caught up in trying to give everyone the perfect album mix featuring themselves,you can get into trouble. With this many inputs, you’re inviting clutter. And it’s not that it’s not achievable, but the fact is you can only monitor one mix at a time, and with 11 people to take care of you don’t want someone getting lost in the shuffle. I like to give everyone mixes that can kind of stand on their own without too much work or too many cues. My hands are pretty full keeping up with Josh’s cues and effects, so it’s good to know that everyone has a good mix that they can work with if I’m trying to fly in delays and ride audience mics for Josh.
It’s also extremely helpful having my monitor tech/crew chief Chris Leonard right with me the whole show. Not only does he take care of all the orchestra and horn submixing for me and FOH, but he’s also an extra set of eyes and ears that’s invaluable. I’ve got to watch Josh a lot of the time, but he’s always watching the band so they can signal to him and he can alert me if someone needs something. He wears a Cue beltpack identical to mine along with the same ears molds, so if I need an opinion I just have to hit the Cue button and ask. The added benefit to this is one we didn’t even think of at first: communication. If I need him for something and he’s out in the audience with Josh or troubleshooting something away from me, I need to only cue up my talkback mic and I’m right in his ear. It freaked him out a bit at first to have me in his head like that, but it’s been a real help more than once.