January 11, 2013, by Kevin Young
Joe Jackson is best known to many for a string of breakthrough pop-rock/New Wave hits that began with 1979’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” but the British singer, songwriter, and composer (and five-time Grammy Award nominee) has explored a variety of musical styles over his stellar career.
His latest tour is no exception; a series of live shows in the U.S. and Europe in late 2012 featured both reinterpretations of his own material and selections from his latest record, a tribute to jazz great Duke Ellington that’s aptly titled “The Duke.” Jackson performed with his largest band to date, a seven-piece ensemble appropriately named The Bigger Band, featuring jazz violinist Regina Carter.
Ellington’s own (sometimes radical) reinterpretations of his own music heavily informed Jackson’s unconventional treatment of the material on record and on stage, using instruments including banjo, tuba, synthesizers and accordion rather than more traditional big band instrumentation. Doing so was a challenge, which Jackson notes in a recent bio: “When I started this, it felt daunting – like, how am I gonna pull this off?”
When monitor engineer Paul Froula first heard the recording, he echoed that sentiment. “Before pre-production I was thinking, ‘How much of this are we wanting to reproduce live?’ But it was a nice challenge.”
The three-week rehearsal process provided the opportunity to pull things together and work out the kinks. One highlight, Froula notes, was working with a mixture of musicians who were comfortable with in-ear monitors and others who were using them for the first time. “It was a nice change, as opposed to a band that’s completely accustomed to in-ears.”
Joe Jackson and The Bigger Band performing on the recent tour. All performers on IEM made for clean stage. (click to enlarge)
One of the primary factors driving the design of both monitor and house systems was size and scalability, with the tour stops at venues ranging from large theatres to smaller clubs. “Essentially we had to fit everything we carried into a trailer behind a bus,” notes house mix engineer George Cowan.
Froula based his monitor system approach on a Roland V-Mixer M-480 console. While a variety of smaller format digital consoles have hit the market of late, he’s most familiar with the M-480, having used it recently with Todd Rundgren and others.
“We carried backline, band gear and our own FOH/monitor consoles on this tour,” he notes. “I’ll use this desk where space is at a premium and performance can’t be compromised. I’m comfortable with the workflow, and, considering the number of players and mixes I had to manage, things needed to be where I wanted them on the control surface.
Paul Froula with the Roland M-480 console that proved a great fit for his work on monitors. (click to enlarge)
“Items like pulling up EQs, effects and my defined presets demanded a well-designed layout,” Froula continues. “The desk has an onboard RTA so I could isolate a few things visually – particularly Joe’s vocals. He has a fantastic ear, and it really helped to be able to work with George out front and his (Rational Acoustics) Smaart rig to get the sound he wanted in his ears.”
The ability to control the M-480 remotely with an iPad also came in handy, particularly for optimizing microphone positions and gain settings on band members Sue Hadjopoulos’ percussion and Nate Smith’s drum rigs.
“They’re next to each other on the same riser, separated by a Clearsonics drum shield, and between them there are 17 open microphones, so there was a lot of bleed potential. Not everyone has the iPad control app down, but the Roland app has almost every feature I needed, so it allowed me to be in two places at once.
“Standing at the congas monitoring a mix in the IEMs while simultaneously making console adjustments was a real time saver. Plus, I can tweak mixes while beside band members for those who like to be involved in that way.”
The M-480 was paired with the Roland S-3208 and S-1608 modular digital snakes to meet a 48 input and output requirement.
“The snake heads are part of the REAC networking system that drive the heart of the A/D conversion. It all combines for very simple integration, and sounds great. I really wouldn’t have it any other way for this situation.” Froula says.
He also recorded each show to a Roland R-1000 48-track recorder that lived handily on the REAC network.
“It plugs right into the console’s REAC bus,” he explains, “allowing me to multi-track 48 channels with two Cat-5 cables and a hard drive, providing for easy DAW integration as well as the ability to do virtual sound checks, if necessary.”
In keeping his front-of-house footprint compact, Cowan handled all processing using a combination of the onboard capabilities offered by his Yamaha DM2000VCM console and a variety of Universal Audio plug-ins hosted in Pro Tools 9 on his MacBook Pro.
His choice of the DM2000VCM was “a no-brainer,” he says, something his production company, A Major Productions, had on hand and that allowed him to travel with very little in the way of external processing. “It’s well equipped with plugins, and the Waves 96 DSP Card provides additional choices for compression, EQ and de-ssing, but, primarily, I’m using Universal Audio plug-ins for reverb and delay,” he says.
Front of house engineer George Cowan at his Yamaha DM2000VCM console. (click to enlarge)
This preference is informed by his long-time work as a recording engineer, and including at upstate New York’s Bearsville Studios. Since taking on live duties for artists like Natalie Merchant, and later, in 2003, with Jackson, he now splits his time between recording and live sound.
“UAD products have always been counted among the list of top gear, especially for studio recording,” Cowan explains, “but I wouldn’t put their hardware in a rack on the truck every night. Now they’ve moved into the digital realm so I can take the tools that I’m used to, and that do what I expect of them, and put them in my live arsenal.
“I park the UAD plug-ins on Pro Tools channels, put the channels in record ready so I have a through port and digital I/O between the console and the laptop using an M-Audio Lightbridge. It’s a lot like setting up a rack. You don’t see many people doing this. It’s not a typical way of using Pro Tools, but has proven to be stable.”
A look at the miking approach for Nate Smith’s kit. (click to enlarge)
Typically at each venue, Cowan requested a high-quality stereo, 3 or 4-way main loudspeaker system with commensurate subwoofers, controlled by a configurable, digital electronic crossover/loudspeaker management system.
The goal was consistently delivery of sound pressure levels of 112 dB, A-weighted, throughout each venue.
“Essentially, I start from the top down, providing a list of acceptable PA systems,” he adds, noting that top-flight brands including d&b audiotechnik, Meyer Sound, L-Acoustics,
Martin Audio, Adamson Systems, NEXO, Electro-Voice and JBL all make his cut.
Still, he’s not locked into using one manufacturer’s product exclusively over another: “It depends on what’s available, what the venue’s needs are and if additional loudspeakers are required for over/under balcony support. I’m not going to demand a specific system if they already have an adequate one.”
Jackson prefers a clean, quiet stage – all in-ears, no wedges.
In response, Froula deployed beyerdynamic IMS-900 RX/TE-9000 TX RF systems feeding Future Sonics MG6 Pro in-ear monitors, a choice based on their armature-free single driver design.
“That makes a big difference in delivering natural sounding mids and highs, along with huge low-end reproduction,” he states.
While Allison Cornell (keyboards/viola/banjo/multilingual vocals) and Hadjopoulos – both veterans of previous Jackson tours – and Jackson himself knew exactly what they wanted, there was a little more interpretation going on with the rest of the band.
“They weren’t as familiar with what they wanted, versus what they needed, versus what they thought they wanted,” Froula says, “but once they started performing, the in-ears became a part of who they were on stage, which is the way it should be. And Joe, he was looking over the band smiling, pleased that everyone was doing what came naturally and the improvisation breaks kept flowing.”
In addition to percussion, drums, keyboards, violin, viola and Adam Rogers’ electric and acoustic guitars, Jesse Murphy plays electric and upright bass and Tuba, Jackson plays accordion and Cornell plays banjo. Ensuring the band could do what came naturally, and that the eclectic mix of instruments sounded natural both in the player’s IEMs and in the house, played a part in the choice of microphones.
Radial JDI boxes provided the stereo keyboard feeds, with mics on violin and banjo. (click to enlarge)
Froula’s predominant selections are from beyerdynamic. “As a rule, for drums, I go with Opus models because they sound really good and have an innovative mounting system that clamps on drums very nicely and allows for a full-sized XLR coming off the barrel connector. They’re clean, reliable, and I’ve used them on drums for the better part of 10 years.”
Both drums and percussion received similar treatment: Opus 88s and 87s on snare, toms, timbale and bongos, and beyerdynamic MC 930s for hi-hat, overheads and various “toys and tinkles.” Cowan went with a Sennheiser e 602 on Nate Smith’s kick – part of a vintage kit that has it’s own peculiarities, Froula notes. Additionally, a Shure SM98 was applied for Hadjopoulos’ glockenspiel.
More beyerdynamic could be found on other instruments: Opus 62s on banjo and on Jackson’s accordion, TG-X 60s for backing vocals and MCE 86s for house left/right ambient mics. Violin was handed with a combination of an MCE 10 clip-on mic and an LR Baggs direct box, but the viola was LR Baggs direct only.
“Allison’s choice,” Froula explains. “The way she configures the DI sounds great. As far as tone and EQ, she’s got it down.”
beyerdynamic Opus 87 and 88 mics fit handily on percussion, with a Shure SM98 for the glockenspiel. (click to enlarge)
Radial JDIs handled stereo keyboard mixes and, in tandem with an internal Fishman pickup, acoustic guitar. The only amp in evidence – for electric guitar – was offstage in an isolation box and miked with a Sennheiser e 609 over the dome for the house and a Royer R-121 on the right edge of the cone for monitors.
Between electric/upright bass and tuba, Murphy had a lot going on, Froula notes. “On electric we used a TabFunkenwerk DI, and on upright a JDI and an Audio-Technica ATM350. On tuba, there’s a certain punch to brass at that frequency some mics don’t handle well. We tried a bunch of things and the last – probably the 10th mic we checked out – was a Sennheiser e 904 gaff-taped down the bell on a piece of foam. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked and was a method previously proved by George.”
Enjoyable & Engaging
In each case, it’s about choosing the right microphone for the instrument; an approach Froula and Cowan both adhere to. “I think that comes from my recording background,” Cowan says. “Whatever sounds good on a particular instrument on a particular day, we move forward with that.”
Nowhere is that approach more evident than when it’s applied to the most important instrument on stage, Jackson’s voice. “We’ve tried a number of microphones,” Cowan explains, noting that the Shure KSM9 has provided the answer. Specifically, it treats the mid range tone of Jackson’s voice very well and allows both engineers to reproduce his signature tone while applying very little in terms of EQ.
The approach also fits in perfectly with Jackson’s approach to his music. Like Duke Ellington, Jackson is known for taking pleasure in showcasing the individual voices of the musicians he works with, but also for recognizing the talents and art of the technicians who strive to reproduce those voices accurately, both for the band on stage and for their audiences.
“Joe spends a good deal of time rehearsing to get it right,” Cowan concludes. “He has high standards and so we generally have time to work out the kinks before we all get thrust into the limelight. He gives us the time to experiment, and that’s awesome. We truly appreciate working with him because it’s always enjoyable and engaging, night after night.”
Based in Toronto, Kevin Young is a freelance music and tech writer, professional musician and composer.