Strength In Smaller Numbers: Setting The Stage For Sara Bareilles On Tour

February 13, 2012, by Greg DeTogne


As part of their efforts to keep Sara Bareilles performing at her peak on the road, Trey Smith and Kevin Twist share the responsibilities of many.

With Smith standing-in at front of house and fulfilling all the duties of tour manager too, Twist takes a place each night at the helm of monitors, in addition helping to manage myriad other production details.

Speaking from Nashville while on hiatus after wrapping up a successful touring season late last December, Smith concedes that he and Twist probably have done everything the tour has demanded at one time or another outside of selling merch out front.

“Fortunately there’s another person for that,” he notes with a laugh and subliminal sigh of relief that reveals itself between the lines. “We may be small and pulling double-duty in many areas, but we all work together - band and crew - with a level of honesty and efficiency that really adds value to our every move, and gives us a certain power that is greater than sheer numbers.  Beyond camaraderie, we’ve all been together long enough that this is really like family.”

Eclectic Collection
Since signing with Epic Records in April of 2005, Eureka, CA-born Bareilles has gone from bar and club scene graduate to mainstream success as a singer, songwriter, and pianist with a string of hits (“Love Song,” “King of Anything,” et al.) and three Grammy nominations. This past touring season found her both headlining and supporting Sugarland, the latter appearances having the unfortunate distinction of finding the artist concluding her performance on the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand stage just before its collapse at the Indiana State Fair on August 13.

Front of house engineer Trey Smith (left) and monitor engineer Kevin Twist at the Midas PRO9 house console. (click to enlarge)

The venues Bareilles inhabits are as eclectic as the members of her audience, ranging from 1,500-seaters like the House of Blues outlets found in major markets, all the way up to rooms with a capacity for 7,000 like the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, which was the site of her next-to-final performance for 2011, as well as the backdrop for the photos that accompany this article.

Most of the time Bareilles sings and plays piano onstage, but she also is seen and heard with an acoustic guitar and even a ukulele, which, Smith admits, is “a tricky instrument to do with a full band setup. We’re still trying to get it 100 percent spot-on, and are pretty close.”

Bareilles and her band in full concert mode at the Bil Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. (click to enlarge)

Bareilles’ live band features Joshua Day on drums, Daniel Rhine on electric and upright bass, Phil Krohnengold on keys and guitar, and Javier Dunn on guitar. With everyone singing backing vocals, Day is known for bringing a vast collection of percussion (shakers, tambourines, and much more) to the stage, while Krohnengold’s keys are backed by the classic sound of a Leslie speaker.

“We have stage volume,” monitor engineer Twist says, “but this isn’t a heavy rock ‘n’ roll stage where there are towering sidefills or anything. There’s a fair amount of bleed, but we do our best to isolate the various elements by carefully positioning cabinets onstage and adjusting our volumes based upon the venue. Overall we keep things very natural. We don’t want to put cabs in iso-boxes offstage. That look isn’t consistent with who we are, and it can sometimes be disturbing for musicians sonically, or even psychologically if they’re not used to performing without an amplifier behind them.”

There’s A Balance
Concurring with Twist, Smith subscribes to the notion that there’s a need to adjust accordingly to the needs of every room, especially since the tour carries no stacks ‘n’ racks of its own, relying instead upon “whatever the venue is kind enough to provide,” and a console package from Spectrum Sound that places a Midas PRO9 at front-of-house and a VENUE Profile from Avid for monitors.

“Honestly, the band provides really great input,” Smith notes. “Everything is really awesome before it even gets to me. We’ve worked hard to get the tones just right onstage across the board, and a lot of our success stems from our relationship with the musicians. We can go to them with suggestions for any room, and they’ll work with us to obtain the best possible results. There are no egos anywhere.”

Smith has spent a lot of time with Bareilles’ vocal mic (a wireless Shure KSM9) to keep her voice right on top and in the pocket. “She doesn’t sing as loud as I’d like her to all the time,” he confides. “So I have to turn to a few tricks.

“A good deal of effort is put into ringing out her mic. It’s pretty hot and picks up a lot of things, and she likes to run the stage - walking back-and-forth, sometimes right in front of the PA. She loves the openness that the KSM9 naturally has, but in turn I have to combat cymbal bleed into the mic, or a guitar amp that may be getting picked up. There’s a balance, and sometimes I walk a thin line.”

Twist at his monitor position, joined by an Avid VENUE Profile console and numerous wireless units. (click to enlarge)

Once lead vocal is properly placed on top, Smith builds the rest of his mix around big, fat, drum-heavy sounds that openly display his love for percussion with a natural, focused flair sans a lot of gating.

“I love a large, looming drum presence,” he admits. “Kick drum with real depth; big, deep, heavy snare… Yet I keep everything operating with pinpoint precision. High-pass filters are my best friends in the world. I roll everything up, even if it’s a kick drum. If I’m in a big arena or a shed, I like to have less around 44 to 50 Hz, even 60 Hz. You can roll that up and keep your mix cleaner. The first thing I focus upon each day going through our line check is just cleaning up the low-end.”

Sharing Resources
As a complement to the sonic options available to him within the 48 channels on his Midas PRO9, Smith was quick to raid Spectrum Sound’s remaining inventory of vintage outboard gear to complete his aural palette.

Smith’s house effects rack, with a Lake processor also on hand to help dial in house systems. (click to enlarge)

A TC 2290 dynamic digital delay found its way into his outboard rack, along with a Yamaha SPX990 that serves as his drum plate, and an old school Rev100 (also from Yamaha) used as the effects engine on Bareilles’ vocal. To better complete his outboard view of the world, a dbx 160A comp/limiter climbed aboard for electric bass, because, Smith reasons rhetorically, “Why not?”

In keeping with a production theme that finds strength in smaller numbers and efficiency, the show’s input scheme was designed to be shared. Eschewing a traditional split system that places one set of preamps in the front-of-house console and another separate set of preamps in the monitor desk, Smith and Twist called upon a pair of DL431 input splitters from Midas and charted a different course.

Rack-mounted devices, the DL431s are each equipped with 24 mic/line inputs that each feed three separate preamps - two with separate gain controls, and a third with fixed gain.

“The DL431s are basically 3-way, active splitters in our scheme,” Twist says. “The way we have it setup, the A and B preamps in the units are controllable in 2 and a half dB increments.

“The A side goes to the PRO9 out front, and the B side travels a path to me through a Klark Teknik piece that converts it from the AES50 language the DL431s speak into MADI for my Profile. All of our input comes from these two Midas DL431s.

“What we gain from all this is a reduced noise floor throughout the entire system, along with the sound of a Midas preamp on my console. In blind tests I’ve done with Spectrum Sound, people pretty much choose the sound of a Midas preamp over that of the VENUE preamps a majority of the time.”

Painting The Soundscape
Onstage, all musicians use ears for monitoring courtesy of Shure PSM900 systems, although Bareilles supplements the personal monitoring devices with a trio of M4 wedges from d&b audiotechnik.

Joshua Day’s drum kit, which Smith likes to feature prominently in his house mixes.(click to enlarge)

Serving as confidence monitors more than anything, the d&b wedges provide Bareilles with some foldback for her voice and piano when she sometimes removes one of her earpieces.

Twist mixes for the band pretty much in a fashion you’d expect: very stereo with each of their instruments up, nothing really unusual going on, everyone listening to each other. “We probably went through 15 or 20 different reverb sounds on the console before we found one that painted the right soundscape for Sara,” he recalls.

Listing a Massey L2007 as a favorite plug-in he uses as a mastering limiter across everyone’s mix, Twist adds, “My plug-ins are straightahead, but the one thing I call upon as a supplement to what’s on the console is a Serato Series dynamic EQ from Rane. It helps Sara listen to the high-end on her vocals with less cymbal bleed. I have it set so that if she comes off the mic, it pulls out enough of the bleed so it’s not overbearing.

Bareilles at the piano on her recent tour. (click to enlarge)

“For drums I use the SPL Transient Designer. It adds a little extra polish that’s hard to create in the low-end when you’re on ears, especially in the floor toms and kick drum.”

A reality these days for many touring acts, taking a “PA du jour” approach to life on the road has its advantages and disadvantages. “Line arrays are getting more consistent, and that’s a much-appreciated trend,” Smith adds. “Many times we find ourselves with a (JBL) VerTec rig, or an (L-Acoustics) V-DOSC, and then there’s a lot of EV (Electro-Voice) stuff. I EQ a lot. My board is pretty much set from night-to-night, from there I just dial-in everything else and make it the best I can.”

In addition to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, venues hosting this tour act included the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT, the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, Orlando’s Amway Center, and the Hollywood Palladium. Having toured relentlessly since 2010, Bareilles is rumored to be ready to return to the studio shortly, as well as reveal her next steps on the road.

Gregory A. DeTogne is a writer and editor who has served the pro audio industry for the past 30 years.

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Strength In Smaller Numbers: Setting The Stage For Sara Bareilles On Tour