OSA International, Inc. of Chicago, Las Vegas and Nashville is again supporting Steely Dan on “The Dan Who Knew Too Much Tour” featuring special guest Steve Winwood with a Martin Audio MLA loudspeaker system.
The tour encompasses a variety of venues from amphitheaters to arenas which, given two iconic artists with different musical signatures and Steely Dan’s reputation for superior audio, places extra pressure on the OSA crew of Kevin Gillson (system engineer) and Werner Gerbracht (stage and PA tech) to excel in every kind of situation, no matter what challenges the weather––including hail stones that caused audience evacuations at Red Rocks––and the acoustics of each venue hold in store.
In addition to those pressures, Kevin, the man who implements Steely Dan FOH Engineer Mark Dowdle’s vision for each show, is working with MLA for the first time with only certified training and limited exposure to the system and software. Even with these challenges, the crew has exceeded the expectations of both engineers and delivered exceptional and repeatable results for every show.
“I’ve worked with another system for many years,” Kevin explains, “but was really impressed that even with the large amount of information that goes into the MLA box, the software is straightforward and easy to grasp quickly, which was a big key for this because I had to jump right out and start using it. Using this system from design to deployment has been a real eye opener on how well it can deliver the artist’s mix to the audience as well as take the problems of the room out of the equation.”
In terms of a typical setup, the main configuration for sheds and arenas consists of 13 MLA and one MLD downfill per side, with nine MLA Compact a side for off hangs and four MLX subs a side either flown behind the MLA or ground-stacked depending on the venue and setup time.
Asked about MLA, Kevin responds, “Overall, I was very impressed. How, with MLA, you can walk through the horizontal coverage and maintain the stereo image. You don’t have the hard definition between the right and left hang that you have with other systems––it’s seamless from side to side. I also like the Martin Audio crossover points where the vocal range hits a paper cone instead of a horn, which makes it much smoother, more natural and easier to listen to.
“MLA’s control is also helpful,” adds Kevin. “I can hard avoid 20 feet upstage from the stage edge, which makes the PA extremely quiet on stage for the artists. I can then control and extend the coverage for the first seats as far back as I need to and again use hard avoid on problem areas like a balcony edge or a shed roof that comes down in back of the pavilion, which has been very helpful in controlling room acoustics.
“With other systems’ subs, I would try to use cardioid setups but still had too much low end behind the cabinets. I have found that the MLX subs are so quiet in a standard configuration that Vern will occasionally ask me if they’re on. I’ve also had sound engineers in the audience who can’t believe we’re only running four subs a side and tell me how amazing they sound. The MLX subs are so musical and their tonality is just phenomenal.”
Having succeeded with MLA on this tour after years of using other systems, Kevin has a special perspective at this point: “There are a lot of PAs out there and they all do things differently. But working with MLA where the approach is phase coherence at the listener instead of at the box really makes sense in so many ways. One benefit with MLA versus other systems is the system’s stability with wind. With other systems, when we get wind off stage coming across the PA, the mix moves with it. With MLA, I can hear the mix and it doesn’t shift in a strong wind. That blew me away.
“Because I had such a short learning curve, I was concerned about having to deploy MLA for a band with Steely Dan’s reputation, but the system has performed phenomenally well for the tour and has been easy to deploy, no matter what type of venue, weather or circumstances.”
James Towler, who’s worked with Steve Winwood for 19 years both as his FOH and recording engineer as well as managing Steve’s Wincraft Music Studios in Gloucestershire, is also using MLA for the first time.
According to James, his primary goal when mixing Steve live is “getting vocal presence out of the PA and making sure everyone can hear the Hammond.
“With the MLA, I haven’t had to touch the Graphic EQ on my board because of the way the system’s been performing. It really became apparent when we were in Dallas at the American Airlines Center that it was the best vocal presence I’ve ever gotten in a live situation and I’ve mixed that room a few times. I’m really pleased with the definition I’m getting from the PA.
As it turns out, James uses a different approach for mixing than Mark Dowdle, his counterpart with Steely Dan: “Mark and I have completely opposite setups, but we’re both very similar in terms of our philosophy, which is get the right microphones and mic pres, and you’re well on your way.”
Focused on a “high quality front end,” James’ setup starts with a DiGiCo S21 console into a Dante networking system that includes Millennia mic pres converted to Dante, Focusrite RedNet interfaces, a PreSonus RM32AI rackmount mixer “for sorting out his monitor feeds,” and Shure PS 1000 in-ear monitors on a Digital Audio Livemix personal monitor system.
Commenting on the MLA system, James reports that “Steve is pleased with the way things are sounding. He’s happy because the rejection on the back side of the PA is fantastic so we don’t have to balance Front of House level with what the performer needs on stage.
“I have really enjoyed mixing on the MLA. When it comes up and we get the sweet spots, it sounds like I’m back in the studio. I can get that vocal presence right in my face and be both a live and studio engineer!”
For Steely Dan, highly esteemed veteran FOH engineer Mark Dowdle is again at the helm as Audio Supervisor and Mixer. With a list of credits that includes Elton John, Gloria Estefan, Fleetwood Mac, Tina Turner and Jackson Browne to name a few, Mark has successfully met the challenge of mixing Steely Dan live for numerous tours over the last five years with the last three tours being on MLA with OSA.
When mixing the band, Mark’s goal is “to reproduce their music as accurately as possible, getting as close as I can to the standards they use in their recordings.”
By mutual agreement with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, his process is 100% analog. Mark mixes on a Midas XL4 console with 57 channels including stereo modules. As mentioned, he believes “getting the microphones, mic pres and mic placement correct is the first order of business. I choose microphones best suited to the instruments and vocals rather than based on brand.”
Mark is wholly responsible for achieving consistent sound from one venue to the next and tuning the system after it’s rigged, a process that requires instinct, judgment and flexibility. As he explains, “When it comes to Steely Dan, all venues are somewhat challenging because they tend to take away from the concert experience instead of adding to it.
“So you have to take a good look at the situation and figure out ahead of time what will work the best in that scenario in terms of how to do the hang, how many boxes to use, how to aim the PA and tune it to the room. You put the system up and do the best you can to anticipate what the room’s going to do, and hopefully you’ll end up close to where you need to be.
“In terms of this system, MLA is very coherent with a lot of definition and separation. The extended high end has a lot to do with what happens in the middle of the frequency range and how that appears in the mix. I’m usually pretty consistent where I end up from one venue to the next.
“The network and software make it easier to identify setup issues and we’ve really had none to speak of,” Mark concludes. “Fortunately, the system has been very dependable and steady so I haven’t had a real reason to rely on that. Overall, I’ve enjoyed using MLA. It’s given me everything I’ve needed from start to finish on this tour.”
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