April 09, 2014, by Greg DeTogne
Once the exception and now the rule on many tours, the practice of picking up whatever hand the house deals in terms of PA from venue to venue isn’t so much a gamble as it is a chance to exercise one’s ingenuity.
“VerTec, V-DOSC, Martin Audio, I never complain,” says Spencer Jones with an air of existential audio contentment. “I think it’s actually kind of fun to use a new rig every day, some you may not have even heard before. The show is never exactly the same, and with the technologies ever-improving, we get to stretch our wings creatively on a regular basis.”
As front-of-house engineer for Panic! at the Disco, Jones’ latest foray with the band and monitor engineer Jeremy “Spud” Groshong recently took him on a PA du jour odyssey spanning 25 dates in the U.S. and two in Canada.
Supporting the group’s fourth studio album, Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, the tour carried consoles, cabling, subsnakes, microphone stands, and other ancillary gear provided by Camarillo, CA-based Rat Sound.
FOH engineer Spencer Jones, who’s been with the band since 2011, with his Avid Profile console and a rack of largely analog processors.
Playing venues ranging in size from Vancouver, British Columbia’s 990-capacity Commodore to the 2,425-seat House of Blues in Boston, the production traveled light with a single truck and one bus with all bunks filled.
More than half of the songs heard on the new album made their way onto the set list nightly, bringing a sound to the tour that asked less of bass and guitar, moving into the realm of electronica with rich, saturated vocals, delays, and synth sounds, all layered deeply with golden tones, and diverse, hard-hitting dynamics.
“As you’d rightly expect, the real challenge at front of house revolved around consistency,” Jones noted at the end of the run from his home in Arizona. “Given the room and system changes every day, getting things to sound like you wanted them to was always a calculated exercise in manipulation, all within the context of the time given to us.
Monitor engineer Jeremy “Spud” Groshong also uses an Avid console, with the band’s Sennheiser G2 IEM systems racked to his left.
“Acoustically, some rooms were great and others were horrible. I never had the opportunity to tune the PA for a couple hours. Sometimes I only had 15 minutes.”
While the environments and system elements they found themselves working with varied greatly, at least both Jones and Groshong had Avid VENUE Profile consoles as a constant. With 33 inputs arriving at his desk from the stage along with a few talkbacks, Jones was enveloped in a digital world, but he nonetheless took a somewhat analog approach to the tasks at hand.
“It just made sense,” he explains. “These musicians are innovators, and their music continually evolves in a unique fashion. There’s a lot of theatricality within the new material – the songs come together like a play does, you can hear a lot of ‘80s synth pop influences and that of bands like the Electric Light Orchestra. Taking an analog turn within the confines of digital was a natural response.”
The process saw spare application of plug-ins. “I used stock stuff found in the console,” he says. “I kept things basic, using the onboard word clock to sound like an SPX990 reverb, a de-esser on the vocals that’s a plug-in, and a Fairchild compressor plug-in.”
He also packed an outboard rack housing (from the top) a TC-Helicon VoiceWorks vocal processor, a pair of dbx 162SL comp/limiters, a dbx 160SL comp/limiter, and a pair of Klark Teknik DN360 graphic EQs. With the dbx 162SLs placed in-line with each other and entered into his mains to better promote the desired feel, the dbx 160SL was given over to lead vocals.
“At the console,” Jones says, “I took all of the input channels out of the stereo bus and ran everything through a group. I ran my mains through a matrix, so left/right subs and fill were all on separate matrixes, and then ran my subs off an aux. Compression and EQ were introduced before the amps.
The rack of largely analog processors at front of house.
“In the end, signals were routed through my console many times just like a lot of people do within a traditional analog setting. I find that I get a tighter sound doing things this way, and sometimes I’ll even compress my groups to optimize my analog-in-a-digital-world technique.”
Onstage, the world Groshong created was an extremely quiet wedge-free one, with everyone on in-ear monitors built around Sennheiser G2 wireless systems and three stereo Ultimate Ears UE 18s for the band, plus a mono UE 18 used by frontman Brendon Urie.
For those who haven’t seen Urie perform, it’s interesting to note that the multi-instrumentalist utilized a stand-mounted collection of pedal effects on his vocals. With his wireless Shure KSM9 condenser mic running in-line through this pedal board coming out at line level at the receiver, his vocals pass through the pedal effects into a Radial JDI passive DI to bring them back to mic level and into the snake.
Frontman Brandon Urie with his stand-mounted pedal effects, singing on a Shure KSM9 and outfitted with Ultimate Ears IEMs.
His effects include an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb, Boss GE-7 equalizer, and Dunlop Carbon Copy MXR analog delay, all of which he mixes by hand.
“We rigged a mic clip on the edge of the stand so he could place his KSM9 in there and go at the effects with both hands,” Jones relates. “He can create some pretty crazy noise. I think he got used to producing himself early on in his career and not relying on the FOH guy to hit the cues.
“He uses the EQ to cut all of the LF out of his voice, making him sound like an old mono AM radio, or as if he’s singing through a bullhorn.
Some of Urei’s effects pedals joined by a Radial JDI.
“The Holy Grail provides a nice saturated reverb,” Jones continues, “and then with the delay he accents certain passages during interludes with a sweeping effect, for example. It’s fun for him and adds a nice dimension to the show.”
Another out-of-the-norm production element was found at the drum riser, where a custom SJC kit was built using a kick drum, rack tom, and floor tom outfitted with LEDs inside that shone through perforated rings on each of the drum’s exterior surfaces.
Controlled via the lighting desk out front, the resulting LED show offered considerable dazzle and flash, but somewhat at the expense of function.
“Those drums presented quite a challenge, actually,” Jones says. “As with all the holes drilled through them to facilitate the lights inside, they really weren’t true drums anymore. Getting that kit to sound like real drums was hard, but we made it work. The floor tom was the worst – really rough on the ear.”
From the riser, drummer Dan Pawlovich also had access to an 808-style sub-bass drop, as well as a number of other effects managed via a compact unit housing six separate electronic pads.
As with anything within reach of his drumsticks, every effect fit within a click track heard by the entire band. The main storehouse of these sounds was an Ableton music sequencer. Running with redundant backup through a MOTU interface, the Ableton tracks traveled through an 8-output, rack-mounted Radial ProD8 DI via an XLR connection to the local house subsnake.
As an aid to bringing consistency to the band’s sound at the tour’s diverse stops each night, Jones drew from an arsenal of old school tricks.
“I tuned the house PA to my own voice at every stop,” he notes, “until it sounded the same as at the stop before. I tuned to the same songs every day as well. I use the songs to tune the low-end I can’t replicate with my own voice through a 58, then I bring it all together with my compressors and everything else.
A selection of Shure mics capture most of drummer Dan Pawlovich’s kit.
“I learned this technique from an old school guy, who told me to always talk through a 58. You’re not using an iPod onstage, you’re using microphones and musicians. So if you get the 58 to sound good with the PA, you have a solid foundation, as we were using 58s onstage for backing vocals. With that foundation established, I fine-tuned from there and it worked every time.”
In addition to Urie and Pawlovich, Panic! includes Dallon Weekes on bass guitar, synth and backing vocals, and Kenneth Harris on guitar. Within the house mix, Urie was at the very front, where many fans generally sing along with him word-for-word. From there, the rest of the band falls in solidly behind him.
The Panic! crew, left to right: Guitar tech Kyle Henderson, bass tech Matty Ensley, FOH engineer Spencer Jones, monitor engineer Jeremy Groshong, and drummer Dan Pawlovich.
Jones began touring with Panic! in 2011, working the monitor console, and took on the responsibilities of FOH along with other production duties in September of last year. “The band has been exceptionally liberal when it comes to them letting me do my own thing,” Jones says of his working relationship with the group. “When I stepped in at FOH they really didn’t tell me anything. I’d been mixing monitors for years, so I knew all of the songs.
“And while at the monitor console I created my own house-style mix for my own listening use. I listened to the albums carefully and studied them; I’ve always known what they’re going for,” he concludes. “I may get a few pointers or questions now and again, but most of the time I’m left alone to exercise my own judgment. It’s a pleasure to work with these guys.”
Gregory A. DeTogne is a writer and editor who has served the pro audio industry for the past 30 years.