With a large, loyal fan base and a long history of spectacular performances, country icon Kenny Chesney is on the road again, teaming with Tim McGraw on one of the biggest draws of the 2012 touring season.
Audio for the tour is being handled by Nashville-based Morris Light & Sound, with VP of Audio John Mills hitting the road as systems engineer/audio crew chief.
“For a stadium tour like this, there are literally millions of dollars on the line every day, so we took a real hard look at Kenny’s equipment package before hitting the road this year,” notes Mills. “He feels very strongly that his fans deserve the best at all times, and that needs to be reflected in the quality of our gear.
“That’s how we ended up with Shure Axient for his wireless microphone system and the Shure PSM 1000 for his in-ear monitoring.”
Monitor engineer Phill “Sidephill” Robinson is in his 12th year working for Chesney and is a big fan of both systems, handling Kenny’s mix alongside Bryan Baxley, who mixes the rest of the band’s monitors.
“The Axient system is just amazing,” says Robinson. “We use it in full automatic mode on Kenny, so it can jump to a backup frequency if we run into interference. We’re totally comfortable with it, and there hasn’t been so much as a glitch from the start of rehearsals in Nashville. And the PSM 1000 is the best-sounding system I’ve heard.”
One of the biggest technical challenges is at the show’s opening, with Chesney starting the concert on a second stage out in the audience, roughly 200 feet in front of the PA. After the first song, he’s transported to the main stage on a flying chair that’s outfitted with an HD video camera, which is transmitting wirelessly to the video system.
“That chair is basically a Faraday cage, plus you’ve got the camera transmitting video at about five or six watts,” says John Mills. “It’s just about the worst situation you can have for a wireless mic system, but in high power mode, Axient cuts right through it. Same thing with the PSM 1000 and the two antennas on the bodypack. Kenny hasn’t taken an RF hit once, which is just unheard of on that chair.”
Oddly, it was at a video shoot for the Chesney single “Rock Star” that Mills and Robinson became convinced that the PSM 1000, with its diversity reception, was the right system for the tour. “One of the biggest things that messes up RF is lighting ballasts,” Mills explains. “Part of the video included a field of Vari-Lites on the ground…dozens of them. That would be certain death for a regular in-ear system.
“So as an experiment, I took the PSM 1000 bodypack, plugged in my ears, and walked around in the middle of all that during pre-production. It barely wavered the whole time, even on the low power setting. That was the day I called the office and told our President, David Haskell, we have got to put this system on Kenny.”
Shure wireless is not the only weapon in the Morris Light & Sound bag of tricks. “One of the biggest problems with Kenny is finding a microphone that sounds consistent in any situation,” says Mills. “We needed a mic capsule that could be cupped, that could have a thumb put over it, and still have the rejection needed to deal with screaming fans, especially when Kenny’s out in the audience. We talked to Shure about it, and they said they’d been working on something we might be interested in. It’s a new prototype version of the KSM9.”
Dubbed the KSM9/HS, this modified capsule is designed to remain true to the character of the KSM9, regardless of the user’s mic technique. “You can cup it, then take your hand away, and the sound barely changes. It still sounds like a KSM9. And there’s also way less crowd noise coming in through the PA than there has ever been,” reports Mills.
Robinson adds, “Kenny used it at the CMT Awards just recently, and when he walked off the stage, everyone in the broadcast truck was immediately on the comm, asking ‘What was that microphone?’ I don’t know what magic smoke Shure put into this thing, but it is pretty amazing.
“This new version is basically a KSM9 that doesn’t change its tone when you cup it. When you put it on top of an Axient transmitter, you’ve got something really special. Putting Kenny on stage with a new system was a little scary, but we’ve had great technical support from Shure. I can tell you now, the Axient system is as advertised and extremely impressive.”
All of the wireless audio for the tour is coordinated through Shure Wireless Workbench software. “We’re using the latest version, WWB6,” says Robinson. “What we love about it is having the ability to coordinate every wireless system we’ve got, no matter what brand. That includes all the mics, the in-ear systems, guitar systems, even the comm systems, for Kenny, for Tim McGraw, the co-headliner, plus the opening acts. With Wireless Workbench, every system is accounted for, and when there’s a conflict, we can find a new frequency without creating new problems.”
In addition to Chesney’s vocal mic and spare, Morris Light & Sound elected to have two spare channels of Axient, which are used for vocals on both opening acts, Jake Owen and Grace Potter, when they join Kenny for specials and the ending number where all artists come out together.
Mills sees this as the start of a trend. “After the success we’ve had with Axient, I can tell you that Morris Sound & Light will be investing in more of it. You know it’s going to work, and the system will have your back if there’s a problem. Shure has knocked this one out of the park.”