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The Path To Carnegie Hall: Shaping Theatre Sound For Little Big Town

The sound team talks about the design for the legendary New York City music hall that hadn’t seen a mainstream country artist cross its stage since 2013.
Little Big Town performing at Carnegie Hall. The show maintains a clean stage; outside of the performers there’s not much on it at all. Shure Axient Digital captures star vocals using three transmitters outfitted with SM58 capsules and a fourth with a Beta 87A. (Photo by Reid Long)

With the release of “Nightfall,” their ninth studio LP, the country quartet Little Big Town (Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, and Phillip Sweet) has embarked upon an ambitious 30-date theater tour that launched in mid-January at Carnegie Hall. The object of prolonged endeavor for generations of musicians, the legendary New York City music hall hadn’t seen a mainstream country artist cross its stage since Alan Jackson performed there in 2013.

“It’s not a typical country venue,” Phillip Sweet told The Boot, an online source for country music news. “That’s part of the appeal of playing there. As a group, we’re constantly seeking ways we can stretch our style and find a universal sound.”

Contributing their combined skills to the cause, an audio crew led by Josh Reynolds at front of house, Jason Hall at monitors, and system engineer Rudd Lance is charged with the task of delivering that sound each night. Long-standing veterans of the band’s tours for several years, the trio took to the road this time faced with the challenge of downsizing their arena and amphitheater efforts from previous seasons. A demanding task at any level, it was compounded by a decision to rely on a different PA at each stop, making the best of whatever they found along the way.

Getting Things In Order

“It’s definitely a collaborative process when it comes to figuring out what a PA will do in a theater,” Reynolds notes. “Especially when you’re not carrying your own rig. Fortunately, Rudd Lance, our system engineer from Spectrum Sound (based in Nashville) when we’re using our own boxes, stayed with us on this tour. I leave him to his own devices as he tunes the system in each room. Once he feels he has all the resonances taken care of and things are stable, I’ll come in and line check over the top of that, and maybe make a few tweaks. But for the most part he gets things in order for us.”

Left-to-right: front of house engineer Josh Reynolds, system engineer Rudd Lance, and monitor engineer Jason Hall at Reynolds’ DiGiCo SD10 in Carnegie Hall. (Photo by John Croswell)

During rehearsals at Nashville’s 1,000-seat James K. Polk Theater in the week prior hitting the road, Reynolds and crew modified the show’s overall volume, bringing it into a C-weighted range of 95 to 106 dB. Known for its soaring harmonies and mellifluous voicing, Little Big Town’s four-part vocals occupy the largest amount of bandwidth within the mix, with everything else being tucked around and oriented to serve them. Jazz-like in its approach, the band swings down with delicate nuance to 82 to 85 dB at times, then moves con brio above 100 dB at others. It’s this pendulum of dynamics that the crew strives to express with transparent detail in theaters, in a fashion unlike anything they can achieve outdoors or in bigger spaces.

“Last spring and summer we were touring with a d&b audiotechnik GSL and KSL rig,” Lance recalls. “The year before it was a GSL rig when they first came out, and a V-Series rig before that, so we’re quite used to going back-and-forth between large and small platforms with d&b cabinets. Now that we’re in theaters, however, beyond d&b we’re facing everything and anything: NEXO, L-Acoustics, EV, JBL, Clair, you name it. The secret for success within these environments is finding a common terminology between all the bits and pieces. Once I accomplish that, I can bring continuity to everyone’s day.”

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As an aid to maintaining an uninterrupted sonic flow throughout the tour, the crew decided early on to carry a minimal amount of its own PA gear that could be used to augment the systems they encountered along the way as needed, and rent some if they required more. Right out of the gate, Firehouse Productions (Red Hook, NY) got a call for assistance at Carnegie Hall.

The monitor position in Carnegie Hall. Most of the tour’s outboard gear resides there at every stop, with Jason Hall presiding over a collaborative blueprint of control decided upon prior to each show. (Photo by Jason Hall)

“We’re carrying four d&b SL-Series subs and eight Y10P loudspeakers that we added to Carnegie Hall to handle the suite boxes, balconies, and ground floor,” Lance explains. “We used the house’s own mono cluster for the upper part of the top balcony. Six V-Series cabinets from Firehouse – 8s over 12s – were groundstacked per side. Once we dialed it all in, marrying the two groundstacks with the SL subs and front fills, and then the central cluster, the room breathed as a whole. There weren’t places anywhere that weren’t representative of each other, everything was collectively the same.”

Moving north to the Apollo Theater on 125th Street for the tour’s second and third shows landed the crew in front of the familiar: A d&b V-Series rig buttressed below with B4, J, and J-INFRA subwoofers and E8 front fills.

“Hopping into a situation like this I can pretty much go through a normal process like I do every day,” Lance says. “Even with a few advantages, like since the system is already flown and I don’t have to figure out any of the angles, I can get right to verifying that everything is in tip-top shape. Making sure, for example, that everything is plugged-in correctly and none of the elements are blown-up.”

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