Taming The Beast: Assembling A Unique Monitor Rig For The Mickey Hart Band
In the words of monitor engineer Elijah Topazio, the rig he rode herd over on the recent concert tour by the Mickey Hart Band is a constantly evolving monster...

February 17, 2014, by Kevin Young

live sound international

In the words of monitor engineer Elijah Topazio, the rig he rode herd over on the recent concert tour by the Mickey Hart Band is “a constantly evolving monster.”

Still, it was business as usual for Topazio, a pro audio veteran noted for his ability to effectively serve high-profile artists with innovative approaches to performance that can make for uniquely challenging gigs.

Mickey Hart certainly qualifies. As a member of the Grateful Dead and a solo artist, he’s known as a highly skilled drummer and percussionist as well as a tireless musical innovator and musicologist. On the 2013 album Superorganism, the band broke down barriers between the human body and music creation using technology developed by Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California-San Francisco.

An essential part of the resulting show was an EEG cap that read Hart’s brain wave activity, which was transmitted to Ableton operator/sound designer Jonah Sharp, who then translated that input into sound for the band so they could literally jam with Hart’s brain.

Topazio has worked with Hart’s band for five years, moving to monitors at the halfway point of that tenure. As a former member of the Dead’s crew, as well as the owner Aylett, VA-based Rosebud Productions, he’s someone who doesn’t shy away from a challenge.

The Mickey Hart Band performing on the recent tour on a stage devoid of wedges. (click to enlarge)

Operating Efficiently
At the core of the “evolving monster” rig are Aviom A360 personal mixers replacing the Aviom A-16IIs the band used previously. For a typical show, there are up to 13 mixes on stage and 40-plus open microphones. In order to deal with the potential feedback issues and in an effort to tour more efficiently, the Aviom format was ideal.

“Coming into venues night after night and using different stuff wouldn’t have worked for this band,” Topazio notes. Ultimately the Aviom system lets the band mix their own monitors, thereby allowing Topazio to focus his attention on Hart. “I spend most of my time making mix changes for Mickey because he has drum sticks in his hands, so I spend 45 seconds of every minute watching him and the other 15 scanning the stage.”

In all, there are eight Aviom A360s on stage, one for each principal musician. Topazio still uses an A-16II for his mix. He also carries three Meyer Sound UM-1C wedges from the Grateful Dead days for either guest musicians, as a means to provide additional reinforcement for Mickey when necessary, or for use occasionally as front fills.

Lead vocalist Crystal Monee Hall dialing in her mix on an Aviom A360 personal mixer. Next to her, keyboardist Joe Bagale is similarly equipped. (click to enlarge)

The A360s offer a variety of benefits over the A-16IIs, Topazio explains. The 36-channel mix engine can be used to mix up to 16 mono or stereo standard channels and provides mono or stereo ambience via the unit’s dual profile channel, an addition that offers players the ability to get an audio feed that represents their specific area on stage.

“We’re all on IEMs so you need some sort of audience mic to get some reference of the room,” he notes, “but we were so maxed out I didn’t have enough inputs for ambient mics.”

“Ambience is great,” adds Joe Bagale, the band’s keyboardist/guitarist. “I used to always find myself taking the ears out sometimes just to hear what is going on. Now it has that.”

The multiple banks on the A360s also allow band members to create a discreet mix for the ever-changing “brain waves” portion of the set and the portion during which they play Grateful Dead songs.

“On this last tour, we also had Tea Leaf Green opening and using our backline,” Topazio says, “and we set up a scene for them as well, so when they walk on stage it’s seamless. When musicians’ lives are easier, my job is easier.”

Tight List
A lot of ambient sound gets into the numerous mics on stage. To compensate, both Hart and Hall’s vocal mics have switches so they can turn them on and off.

In addition, Topazio deploys the foot operated pressure mats the Dead previously used to mute other mics when necessary. The sheer number of instruments in play makes for a tight input list, requiring Topazio to be economical with mics, but individual preferences of the players and their gear also drive choices.

For Greg Shutte’s drum kit, Topazio puts a Shure Beta 52 on kick and close-mikes snare with a beyerdynamic M 201 (top) and a Shure SM57 (bottom). Sennheiser e604 cardioids are deployed on toms, AKG 414 condensers for overheads, and a Neumann KM 84 for hi-hat. “Mickey really needs the bright sizzle of the hat and a studio mic works very well for that,” Topazio notes.

Reed Mathis, bassist for Hart’s band as well as for Tea Leaf Green, plays through a Fender Twin and uses many heavily effected sounds. “It’s basically another guitar,” Topazio says, “so I use a Sennheiser MD 421 on the amp and a Radial ProDI to capture the rest of the spectrum.”

Elijah Topazio mixing stageside on an Avid SC48. (click to enlarge)

Rhythm guitarist and keyboard player Joe Bagale also plays through a Fender Twin, which is miked with a Sennheiser e609 dynamic supercardioid. Another Radial ProDI captures the sound of Bagale’s keyboard – “mono out because we’re watching our inputs,” the engineer adds.

For lead guitarist Gawain Matthews’ Vox AC30 amplifier, Topazio applies a Royer R-121 ribbon mic. “It gives us great tone. I have a little spike at 3.15 kHz (Matthews’ preference), “but other than that we keep the Royer completely flat.” For backing vocals, it’s Shure SM58s all around, four in all. Lead singer Crystal Monee Hall goes between a Shure KSM9 and a Sennheiser e935 as her primary mic, with an Audix OM7 running through an F/X unit for effected vocals. Hart’s choice is a Shure 55, which he’s used since the 1980s.

One of the most important sonic elements for Hart is Sikiru Adepoju’s talking drum. “It’s a drum he made with his own hands,” Topazio explains. “I use an Audix D6 mic on that. When he taps on the rim you get high end that sounds like an antelope running, but it goes all the way down to the point where it can distort subs. He really drives the rhythm of the band and Mickey looks to him to keep time. I’m a big fan of Audix because they have such a wide spectrum and will pick up that intricate nuanced sound, but also go all the way down to 20 to 30 Hz.”

Plenty Of Variety
Hart’s percussion rig is the most complex beast on stage. “It’s mounted on a drum cage, is very intricate and changes every few days,” Topazio says. A variety of percussion instruments at the front of the kit, as well as Hart’s practice congas and timbales are mic’d wide with a pair of SM57s run into one channel for each instrument.

Audix D4 dynamics are deployed for djembe, a rack-mounted cajón and two small legros, with Audix D6s used for the largest legro – a roughly 20-inch instrument with the sonic character of a kick drum – and for Hart’s signature instrument, a pedal=operated talking drum. Hart’s dumbek gets an Audix I5, which Topazio refers to as “the Swiss Army knife of microphones” owing to its versatility.

The remainder of the kit is miked with Sennheiser: an e609 on a 14-inch rack tom, an MD 421 for ton ton and an e604 on a marching snare, which, with it’s Kevlar head and open bottom, is the ‘bossiest’ of Hart’s instruments. “It’s been clocked at 127 dB without a mic and doesn’t really need one,” Topazio says, “but we use an e604 on it.”

Then there’s the Random Access Music Universe (RAMU) side of the kit: electronic instruments, MIDI controllers and sound generators, a theramin running through a variety of FX pedals and a 13-string monochord instrument called The Beam that Hart plays with a bow, a steel bar and drum sticks, which also interfaces with the theramin.

The entire kit is fed to Sharp’s Ableton rig, including the EEG ‘brain cap’ that requires six lines out on its own. Sharp then uses Ableton software and a dedicated effects console, a 32-channel Midas Venice F, to manipulate the sound of the kit further. “That console connects via FireWire to Ableton,” Topazio says, “then Jonah sends me stereo left and right.”

For his monitor mixes, Topazio has an Avid SC48 console outfitted with an X-Net card for connections to a remote stage box over Cat-5, and an A-Net card to interface with the Aviom system. At FOH, there’s a Midas PRO2 supplied by Topazio’s company. IEM earpieces for the band include Ultimate Ears UE 5, UE 7 and UE 4, Shure SE315s and custom molds.

Mickey Hart ensconced in his world of drums, percussion and much more. (click to enlarge)

Both Hart and Shutte, however, want to feel the bottom end as well as hear it. For Shutte this is accomplished with a Buttkicker Concert Series shaker. For Hart, owing to the size and setup of his kit, has four Buttkickers mounted on a 3- x 8-foot, roughly 2-inch-high riser, to which Topazio sends kick, bass DI, both Talking Drums, the large legro, The Beam, and the low end of Sharp’s RAMU rig.

Delving Deep
A central challenge of the gig is getting Hart’s mix right, a situation impacted by both the eclectic mix of instruments and the fact that Hart has sustained damage to his hearing during his decades with The Grateful Dead.

“He’s missing some high end so I have a graphic EQ inserted on his outputs,” Topazio says. “I’ll be listening and think ‘I have to take some high end off,’ but I stop myself because that’s what he needs. Getting clarity, getting the gates to close and getting my compressors to work with all the effects that he wants is also challenging.

“At the same time, when Jonah is doing all the dubbing out of Mickey’s drums, I have to bring what we would call the dry signal down so Mickey can hear the Ableton rig.”

It requires constant collaboration between Topazio, Sharp, backline technician Alex McCraw and Hart’s drum tech, Mark Alspaugh, who’s listening to the same mix as Topazio. “It’s the kind of situation requiring a solution you have to take the time to work through,” he concludes, “but I really enjoy delving deep and spending time behind the console thinking, ‘how do I make this better?’ It’s constantly changing.”

Based in Toronto, Kevin Young is a freelance music and tech writer, professional musician and composer.

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Taming The Beast: Assembling A Unique Monitor Rig For The Mickey Hart Band