Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Live: When Old School Meets New School
“It’s not the gear, it’s the ear.” There is no outboard EQ at all, just dbx 160’s for vocals, bass, lead guitar and piano. Everything else is notched in off the Midas.

May 01, 2009, by Nort Johnson

tso concert

Not since the legendary Burl Ives sang and narrated the animated Rankin-Bass television special Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) has there been such a Christmas phenomenon as Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO).

A late load-in had the crew scrambling at 11 a.m. at the Allstate Arena in Chicago, and with the doors were opening at 3 p.m. for a matinee show, it was their next-to-last date for TSO’s East tour production for the 2008 season.

TSO uses identical systems on both East Coast and West Coast touring productions, where they deploy old-school practicality with new-school technology.

Todd Johnson, Director of Touring at Clair’s Chicago location, has been with TSO since their touring inception, and he oversees the pro audio side from rehearsals to the last show of the season.

Walking through the arena, Johnson began to give a little background on the audio side of TSO’s growth. The first year was the beginning for Johnson.

“I believe we did four cities – Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia – seven shows total,” he said. “I’m very involved, working closely with Dave Wittman (Head of Audio) and the production managers Patrick Whitley and Jeff Boguski to insure we get the most out of everything… sonic quality, truck space, coverage and sight lines, etc.

“Also, Elliot Saltzman (Tour Director) keeps a very close eye on what we do in the decision making process.”

Over the last 10 years of tours, Johnson says changes have been minimal. “We use the same loudspeaker system, but it just keeps getting bigger. When we started, the band used all wedges and now the band is 50/50 ears and wedges.”

All audio is overseen by Paul O’Neil (TSO’s Composer, Lyricist and Producer). The buck stops with O’Neil. He likes having both East and West Coast touring productions using the same gear to try to keep the shows as consistent as possible.

Traditional Front Of House Mixing
Front of House Engineer Dave Wittman started his career as an intern at Electric Ladyland Studios working with world-renown Producer Eddie Kramer in 1972. Wittman worked on the demo that got Kiss its first record deal, and went on to engineer a slew of Kiss albums. He worked on studio projects that made rock ‘n’ roll history as we know it today.

After the matinee show in Chicago, Wittman sat down in a cold dressing room to talk about his 10-year tenure with TSO. “We’ve been using a Midas Heritage 3000. The running joke now is that we’ve been thinking about switching to a digital console because I’m running out of inputs. I’m putting more stereo inputs in the slots in the Heritage.

“As a studio guy, I still want to have the stereo thing. I’d still like to have access to the faders at one time rather than do the paging thing. I’m sure I can set up my system for whatever I need to do. I was dragged kicking and screaming into digital recording as well, switching from tape to hard drive but I worked a little bit with a Yamaha digital console in the studio so it’s certainly a feasible thing for me. I like the sound of the Midas and I like having everything in front of me.”

The tour features an Electro-Voice X-Array loudspeaker system, which Wittman explains they selected when the tour first started a decade ago. “I have read a lot about line arrays, and we’re certainly looking at them as an option,” he states.

Wittman loves venues with inborn ambiance, which explains the minimalist old school approach to his mixing. He says, “When the natural acoustics of the venue sound great, it just pumps me up.”

For outboard equipment, he simply uses his Heritage, explaining, “It’s very minimal – just like in the studio. I prefer Lexicon reverbs, this time using a PCM 80 and PCM 90.  I just like the rich chamber sound, which I can add in small amounts in the ‘drier’ rooms, but nothing over the top!” He also uses an Eventide H3000 harmonizer.

It works unbelievably well. Like the old saying goes, “It’s not the gear, it’s the ear.” There is no outboard EQ at all, just dbx 160’s for vocals, bass, lead guitar and piano. Everything else is notched in off the Midas.

System Engineer Michihiro (Michi) Tanakwa handles the business of deploying the entire system. Wittman gives credit where it is deserved. “Michi is the best. He knows this system like the back of his hand and there is no way we could do without him. He will catch a problem even before it occurs. He’s that good. He’s both sharp and attentive!”

Bringing Monitor World Into The Digital Realm
Monitor Engineer Tony Luna has toured with KISS, 3 Doors Down, The Rolling Stones, Matchbox 20, Cheap Trick, Metallica and many others. He loves to talk shop and beams about new technology and ideas. His take on mixing monitors is a real delight as he took a break between shows to sit down on the bus.

“The DiGiCo D5 I’m using is really flexible – I like the way it’s laid out. It works well for me. It’s got two solo buses and I think that’s really important. I’m using 64 inputs and all the outputs of the desk to drive a combination of eight stage mixes of wedges and 13 stereo pairs of in-ears.

“I’m using a whole bunch of different things… Shure UHF-R mics, Sennheiser G2 IEM and PWS combiners with their helical antennas. This year for wedges we’re using Electro-Voice Xw15 with Crown 36 x 12 with P.I.P modules. It’s been interesting mixing over the years – doing the same mix on different manufacturer’s brands. I have a good time using all of them.”

Using all the outputs on the D5 for the monitor side, Luna has a variety of models of in-ears to deal with and the action never stops on a TSO show. “I’ve been using Sensaphonics 2XS and I’ve been mixing on Ultimate Ears UE7’s. My guitar players have been using Ultimate Ears UE11 ambients. I find that when I use the UE7’s, I have a good basis of reality. The 2Xs units sound great for the mixes I’m using those on. I’m using Sensaphonics for the singers. Most of the musicians – with the exception of the keyboard player – are using Ultimate Ears. The drummer is using Sensaphonics – the 2XS.

“For mics we’re using a lot of Shure Beta 58’s. If we have something and Paul O’Neil wants to do something else, if he wants to change something, we change it. The whole thing with the 58 is, in the back of Paul’s mind, the 58 was the premier standard rock mic and he’s all about trying to recreate this old school vibe.”

Luna has programmed the D5 with 25 snapshots for 31 songs. “If I don’t have to change anything, I might leave that snapshots in for another song,” he explains. He changes mixes for different artists between songs. “The five primary vocalists all share one vocal mix. If I have secondary vocalists, they would share a second mix. If I need another vocal pack, another discrete mix, I can use a guest mix.”

For programming wireless frequencies, naturally handling 40 channels is a chore. Luna uses a VWS Inter Modular Analysis, which he states is, “The best tool out there right now. They’ve had it out on the market for two years. I’ve got almost 200 shows under my belt running it, and it’s about 99.5 percent accurate. I’m not doing small calculations either, I’m doing 40 channel calculations.

“I’m coordinating all the frequencies for the show – stage left guitar world, stage right guitar world, my vocal microphones and my in-ears. It comes out to 34 frequencies, product ranges and frequency ranges.”

Luna uses a variety of products on different frequency ranges, including Audio-Technica UFHD, Sennheiser 300G2, and Shure ULX. With the VWS program, Luna can tell the program which products he’s using and how many frequencies are required. He builds a column listing all the frequencies he requires for the show, and the program calculates what frequencies are available, making sure to avoid television frequencies.

“In different cities where there’s different television density, like Miami, Chicago and New York, there is both analog and digital television on the air.” Luna points out, “They’re broadcasting for a Spanish population and broadcasting south to Cuba and South America, from Miami. It’s the densest TV area right now. The frequency coordination in that area was about 110 million frequencies. I had to watch out for it in the bandwidth I was using.

“How do you figure that stuff out without a computer? How would you know where to begin? You could use the auto tune feature but this is so robust and bullet proof, you could go into any situation in any city – you don’t have to have a tuner. You just run it through this program and it does all the work for you. It saved my life… 40 frequencies a day, for 70 shows.”

Two Shows In 70 Days
Three years ago, due to poplar demand, TSO started doing back-to-back matinee days with 16 trucks. In 2008, each company did it 26 times in 70 days – now that’s what you can consider serious touring.

Wittman sums up this year’s tour with high praise for Clair. “All the tours I’ve done this past year have been with Clair,” he states. “Each one with a different crew of course. No matter who worked with us, they were all top-notch. Bobby Taylor, my assistant, and fly-guys Ken McDowell and Erik Swanson joined the tour as first-timers. They all did an excellent job! I’m very impressed with the depth of knowledge of the Clair employees.”

With children dancing in the aisles, 80-year-old grandparents, hippies and heavy metal lovers in the house, the mix was impressive and never over the top. The Clair system was outstanding. As was Wittman’s ability to satisfy the masses, sounding just like the TSO CDs he has previously engineered.

Check out our PSW Photo Gallery of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra system and crew.

TSO East Audio Production Crew
Front of House Engineer: Dave Wittman
System Engineer: Michihiro Tanakwa
Monitor Engineer: Tony Luna
Monitor Tech: Robert Taylor
Fly: Ken McDowell
Fly: Erik Swanson

TSO West Audio Production Crew
Front of House Engineer: Kurt Vanderhoof
System Engineer: Tom Carlson
Monitor Engineer: Chris Hoffman
Monitor Tech: Tommy Gragg
Fly: Ricardo Avila
Fly: Rick Roman

Nort Johnson is an entertainment production and management professional who has been working in the music industry for 30-plus years. He has supplied tour management, production management, FOH and monitor duties for some the more prominent entertainers of the last three decades.

Return to articleReturn to article
Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Live: When Old School Meets New School