Team Effort: Keeping In Sonic Step With Blake Shelton On Tour

May 07, 2012, by Greg DeTogne

live sound

“We’re all from Nashville,” says Brad Baisley, who, with a name not far off from that of one of country music’s best-known superstars, seems well-suited for stating the obvious of what you’d expect of the sound crew traveling with Blake Shelton, another top artist from Music City. “Maybe we weren’t all born there, but it’s surely home, and the town’s vibe goes with us on the road.”

Imbued with laid-back poise, a down-to-earth demeanor, and a clearly no-attitudes posture, Blake Shelton is a modern poster boy for all that is Nashville past and present.

With his 11th No. 1 single “Drink on It” currently riding high on the airwaves, the three-time Grammy nominated artist migrated at equal altitude across the country on the first leg of his ongoing tour this year, rolling with added vigor and a legion of new fans brought into the fold based upon his appearance as a vocal coach on the NBC reality show “The Voice.”

“Audiences have been amazing,” Baisley, the tour’s monitor engineer relates, “both in terms of sheer number and response. I’ll be at my console with my cue wedge off between songs, and the crowd noise alone is posting 103 dB on my SPL meter.”

A perspective view from the recent tour. (click to enlarge)

Out of necessity, the tour jumped in size exponentially along with the numbers on Baisley’s SPL meter, growing from two trucks to nine earlier this year, the added cartage required to meet the needs of larger venues booked to accommodate Shelton’s burgeoning fan base.

With Sound Image Nashville chosen to provide the audio inventory, beyond Baisley the crew included veteran Jeff “Pig” Parsons at front of house, system engineer Joe Calabrese, system tech Zach Mitchell, assistant rigger/stage tech Dave Shatto, and guitar tech Brett Hardin.

Jeff Parsons at the Avid VENUE Profile at front of house. (click to enlarge)

It may be a small crew, but one that adds value to every move it made as a team. “I have one fly guy,” Calabrese says, quickly correcting himself: “Well, make that one-and-a-half fly guys. Given the dual role Dave Shatto plays, I’ve had him half the morning and half the evening. So that’s technically one-and-a-half, then, right?”

Beyond 180

Playing mostly arenas the first three months of the year, the tour deploys JBL VerTec VT4889 large-format line arrays hung 12 deep per side in the main hang, each with three QSC Audio WideLine-10 boxes underhung for down fill.

Crown Audio is the provenance of house power, with a contingent of IT12000HD amplifiers chosen for the task. Eight VerTec VT4880 dual-18 subwoofers receive flight orders as well, with further low-end thunder by eight more VT4880s on the ground.

Crown I-Tech 12000HD power for the VerTec line arrays. (click to enlarge)

“Most venues are sizable for this show,” Calabrese explains. “And very few seats are blocked out. We’ve been selling 8,000 tickets on average, and going way past 180 degrees, usually to about 240. I brought along VerTec aux hangs just in case when we started, and we wound up using them 90 percent of the time.”

VerTec V5 DSP presets have made a notable difference, serving as a type of “plug-in upgrade” for the arrays. For his part, Calabrese is of a mind that V5 has given new life to VerTec performance.

“Weighed against other newer options, V5 is insuring that VerTec remains a relevant player,” Calabrese states. “We’re living in an era that’s sort of a renaissance for line arrays.

“The technology is more efficient, predictable, consistent, and standardized than ever before. Things perform exactly how the software says they’ll perform – it’s getting a whole lot easier to be sure that what you see on the computer screen is going to translate directly into real life.

“Performance is reliable using mixed platforms too,” he continues. “Just take a look at this rig. I don’t know of anyone hanging WideLine under VerTec like Sound Image is doing, but it works well. With their 140-degree horizontal dispersion, WideLine is the perfect complement for the wide angle coverage we find ourselves dealing with every night.”

With processing taking place inside the amplifiers, HiQnet System Architect software facilitates connections and control in conjunction with DriveRack 4800 loudspeaker management systems from dbx.

Vocal Attributes

“Big country vocal over the top of a rock band, that’s the essence of what this show is about,” Pig Parsons says. Inside the “pigpen” – his front of house lair – he presides over an Avid VENUE Profile, a board identical to that under Baisley’s command for monitors.

“I pay a great deal of respect to how Blake sounds on his albums within my live mix,” Parsons explains. “He delivers his phrasing live pretty darn close to what’s captured in the studio. His mic technique is fantastic, he knows when to get in close to gain the advantages of proximity effect, and when to back off. Powerful singer too, with wide dynamic range – he can probably whisper louder than most people scream. Intelligibility and diction are superb as well. All of these attributes I find great for mixing.”

Shelton performing recently with Sennheiser SKM 2000-XP transmitter and e935 capsule. (click to enlarge)

Shelton’s wireless handheld vocal microphone – an SKM 2000-XP transmitter topped by an e935 capsule – is, like all other mics on the tour, drawn from the Sennheiser stable. Backed by EM 2050 receivers in the racks, the wireless rig is complemented across the stage by a battery of other transducers, including hardwired e935s for all other vocals except those of a highly talented utility player equally adept at guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, who prefers to hear her voice through a supercardioid e945.

“She sings softly, so the supercardioid mic provides better rejection from the drums,” Baisley explains. “That’s a rather easy problem to solve with just the right mic. Looking at the show in its entirety,
however, one of the biggest challenges I face is that while the entire band is on IEM, Blake prefers wedges. That means I need to strike a balance onstage that allows everything to sound good in both traditional floor monitors and ears. As anyone who has been faced with this situation before knows, that can be a tricky thing.”

Brad Baisley managing the monitor side. (click to enlarge)

Baisley’s strategy to cope with this mixed bag of monitor sources is to rely upon mindful mic’ing choices and placement. One of the lead guitarists, for example, is double-mic’d with a Sennheiser
e906 located off-axis to obtain a darker sound (that wedge-users like Shelton generally prefer), along with a Sennheiser 421 centered right on the cone, which delivers a “brighter” sound that most ear-wearers enjoy.

With two available sources at his disposal, either can be delivered as needed, according to each musician’s preference.

Roaming The Stage

The band wears JH13 earpieces from JH Audio with the exception of the bass player and drummer, who use JH16s.

While the drummer and keyboard player opt to wear the wire, the rest of the band goes with wireless using Sennheiser ew 300 G3 Series systems.

Out front, Shelton absorbs the acoustical energy of proprietary Sound Image wedges, which are 2-way carbon fiber boxes loaded with a single-12 and a horn, and fueled, like the house, by Crown IT12000HD amps. With the wedges firing from both the center of the deck as well as from below up through grates,

Baisley notes that “Blake doesn’t like things extremely loud, and he keys off the house a lot, spending as much time not in front of his wedges as he does. WideLine and its 140-degree horizontal coverage came in handy once again as he roamed the stage, providing him with additional monitoring capabilities, especially midway out on the thrust.”

Baisley adds that he’s automated the entire show for the band. Even though there aren’t a lot of changes among the songs, many require a click-track to be turned up or down, an instrument to be attenuated or have its gain boosted, and so forth.

Plug-ins on his Profile console are straightforward, centering around parametric EQ supplied by Flux Epure II that he uses for overall tone shaping. Saturating plug-ins, such as Bomb Factory BF76 compression, round out his palette.

Instrument amps ready to be rolled out, with mics already in place. (click to enlarge)

Beyond his voice, Shelton’s guitar playing starts at the source with signature acoustics from Takamine and a signature electric from Michael Kelly Guitars that features a camo finish, roaming deer track inlays, and a pair of antlers inlaid at the 12th fret. A Mesa Boogie Electro Dyne 2x12 combo is his amp of choice; when combined with a Sennheiser 421 the resulting sound leans toward classic British.

Imaging Process

For his acoustic moments, Shelton recently took possession of a pair of Aura Spectrum DIs from Fishman. Outfitted with imaging technology that brings a studio-mic’d sound to an undersaddle or soundhole pickup, Shelton’s Aura units were custom-equipped with modeling done using one of his own guitars.

“They modeled every note on the entire fingerboard in this perfect studio environment,” guitar tech Brett Hardin says, impressed by the Fishman process, “which I can now blend-in during live performances. The resulting sound is… well, consider that Blake is the kind of musician that doesn’t normally ever say anything about gear so long as it works and sounds good.

The Fishman Aura Spectrum DI tandem deployed for acoustic guitar imaging. (click to enlarge)

“He has, however, already stopped four times during sound checks to express how great he thinks this device is. Someone obviously did something beyond right this time. It’s rare that he’d give any piece of gear this kind of attention.”

On the other hand, attention is constantly focused on Shelton himself these days in a never-ending schedule of showmanship, fine playing, and just plain good times. Is slowing the touring pace slightly over the summer while appearing at a number of fairs a sign that everything may have become a bit too much for everyone?

“Not a chance,” Hardin says with conviction. “I can’t adequately express what this opportunity means to all of us. As a team, this gig is our career song, one we’ll never forget and that will live for us forever. The moment belongs to all of us as well as the fans, and we’re savoring every minute right in step with Blake.”

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

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Team Effort: Keeping In Sonic Step With Blake Shelton On Tour