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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)

At the Apollo, Lance was given full access to the house’s d&b ArrayCalc simulation software and its associated ArrayProcessing functions. Much to his relief, all the latest firmware upgrades were present, which isn’t always the case in the world of “PA du jour,” a fact that sometimes forces him to plug in his own laptop and update things himself to meet his needs, and even downgrade them after the show is over so the system can return to the house version of normal.

“The Apollo was friendly in terms of adapting it for our show,” he notes. “As I said, I was able to pretty much go through my own process and blend our own sound on top of the tunings that were there. I’m not always that lucky, sometimes I wind up taking the house file and morphing it into something entirely different. It’s often easier to start from scratch.”

From The Studio To Live

Both Reynolds and Hall handle their mixing chores from behind DiGiCo SD10 consoles and a single shared SD rack, which, like most of the tour’s outboard processing elements, takes up residence each night in monitor world. The duo, who both engineered in the studio on “Nightfall,” helped infuse the record with a vintage, ethereal sound punctuated with a starry-eyed flourish of romanticized overtones.

House and monitors share the SD rack at bottom left below the API lunchboxes; a Shure Axient Digital receiver and PSM 1000 transmitters dominate the center rack, Avalon VT-737SP units are housed in the third rack far right. (Photo by Jason Hall)

“That’s the way the record was produced,” Reynolds says, “and the band did it very intentionally. We spent a lot of time in the studio coming up with drum and guitar sounds that fit into this world. We brought those same sounds to the tour in a broad, sweeping manner using a strategy built around a pair of API Lunchboxes filled with 10 CAPI VP312-Platinum and 10 CAPI VP28 preamps. The 28s are on electric guitars and synths, while the 312s are on drums and bass. These preamps provide an excellent analog gain stage and harmonics, and another great thing about them is that we can adjust their output gain to drive our signals a little in the preamp stage before it gets into the console. My DiGiCo is so pristinely clean it preserves all of that. The CAPI preamps fit into the signal chain right before the SD rack, arriving with 0 dB gain.”

Wireless occupies a dominant role in gathering input onstage, with the four-piece backing band supporting the principal members cutting the cord entirely with the obvious exception of keys and drums. Star vocals out front are captured via a Shure Axient Digital system using an AD4Q 4-channel receiver and three handheld transmitters sporting SM58 capsules with black grilles for Westbrook, Fairchild, and Sweet, and a black-grille, Beta 87A-topped version for Schlapman. Straight from the wireless system – which, like all RF components, is networked across the stage to easily facilitate deploying new frequencies every day – vocals travel to Avalon VT-737SP tube channel strips to gain a “warmth” from the tube design, opto-compression, and sweep-EQ functions of the analog units.

Returning to the backline, the guitar techs have assembled a MIDI-distributed network that’s used to change pedalboards for the players. The input scheme on drums starts at the bottom with a Shure 91A on kick that’s joined externally by a Solomon LoFreq “reverse speaker” mic. Shure SM57s stand-in at snare top with Shure KSM32s being the choice for the bottom, while side-snare and toms are managed by beyerdynamic TG D58 cardioid condensers. Neumann KM84s are used for cymbals, a Shure KSM137 for hi-hat, and for a low-fi secondary kick drum, a Shure KSM27.

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Hall’s monitor rig is all-in with in-ear monitors except for a direct box and headphones for the drummer, with Shure PSM 1000 systems utilizing P10R+ diversity bodypack receivers being the chosen product for everyone else. “We’ve flown side fills in arenas before,” he says, “but the band really likes a clean stage – they actively move around a lot. Our guitar cabinets have been moved offstage and placed in isolation cabinets, we tend to keep them cracked open a bit to avoid low frequency build-up. The P10R+ body packs have been popular based upon their extended stereo imaging and frequency range, as well as the extra clarity we obtained, especially off the acoustic guitars.”

The tour’s second and third shows were at NYC’s Apollo Theater, where the crew adapted the house d&b audiotechnik V-Series rig for its own needs using ArrayCalc and ArrayProcessing software functions. (Photo by Reid Long)

Serving The Music

Reynolds maintains a mix philosophy in the house that builds upon itself categorically. “I really try to hear all my inputs in groups, in terms of how they best serve the music,” he says. “Drums drive peak volume, they are the loudest thing in my mix and come and go quickly, so I treat them as a single group and process them that way. I approach guitars and keys as another group, vocals, bass, and so forth, all as their own groups.

“I add different stereo processing via a Universal Audio UAD-2 Live Rack to get the exact color and tone I want to hear on each group; this is where I develop my harmonics fully. Digital consoles don’t have a ‘ceiling’ to push against like analog desks do, so I also like to build my own layer of simulated analog bus processing to push against a little to give everything a finished feeling.”

Following its debut, Little Big Town’s theater tour is winding its way across the U.S. toward an early May conclusion in Denver at the Paramount Theatre. At this juncture perhaps just one question remains: What was it like for the crew to actually get to Carnegie Hall along the way?

“To be honest it was the first time I had ever been there,” Lance replies. “Many of us in this business are musicians, and came to do what we’re doing now from rock bands. My story is the same in terms of being a musician. But it differs in that I was a cello player, not a rocker. As a result, I’ve been imagining what it would be like to get to Carnegie Hall since I was in the third grade. Well, I finally made it, and I was in total awe.

“We all handled it well, taking a very respectful approach. The room’s acoustics are unparalleled, but it’s super-live, so it’s a challenge to maintain clarity within a context that makes aural sense. We hit a sweet spot though, and everyone was happy.”

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