When I recently spoke with Travis Bing, front of house engineer for the ongoing tour of multi Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves, he was in Nashville getting ready to head out for shows in Texas. Although it’s a day off, as usual he’s had a busy afternoon, with audio only taking up about 10 percent of his time: “The rest of it is production management,” he says.
I followed up by asking what he was thinking in taking on both roles, and he replies with a laugh, saying, “I started working with Kacey in spring 2018, filling in until they found someone more permanent, but it ended up going so well we started looking at ways to make it work long term. Then, in December, they were making some changes and asked if I’d be interim production manager. Things went well so I ended up taking the gig.”
Since the release of her 2013 debut album “Same Trailer, Different Park,” Musgraves has kept up a steady touring schedule. The current outing, Oh What a World Tour, is in support of her fourth album, “Golden Hour,” which garnered the 2019 Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
The tour will keep Bing busy for the next several months and find him working in a variety of settings ranging from theaters to large-scale festivals like Bonnaroo. Dates in New Zealand and Australia are also on the docket before a scheduled wrap in November.
Like The Record
Bing has made a name for himself primarily as a monitor engineer, but lately finds himself increasingly at front of house.
In a 2012 LSI profile covering sound reinforcement for Paramore, he explained his approach to mixing monitors for that band: “I mix monitors like a front of engineer, polishing stuff to make it sound as much like the record as possible,” adding that mixing for the band is a “psychological game” – one that requires not only providing musicians with what they want to hear but also giving them confidence by building mutual trust.
It’s an ethic that also heavily informs his work on this tour. “Kacey wants it to sound a lot like the record,” he notes. That works well in most venues, but occasionally it’s a bit tougher owing to room acoustics or other factors. “I tell her what’s happening acoustically in each room,” he explains. “Coming from a monitor background, I understand what she’s feeling, so if something’s sounding weird on stage I’m not going to write it off and go, you know, ‘she’ll get used to it.’ I talk to her and see if there’s anything I can change out front to help. I’d rather have a comfortable artist feeling her best. That’s always going to make things sound better.”
Musgraves is backed by six musicians, with everyone playing multiple instruments. Bing continues, “They’re a super-talented band and work constantly on the music; how things are orchestrated, song structure and on how they are going to do things live. There are a lot of acoustic, hollow-body instruments, and that’s troublesome in some venues but it’s fun and challenging trying to find a spot for all the instrumentation. And the musicians do a really good job of not playing on top of each other, which helps. There’s a lot of attention to detail from the band.”
Transmitting that level of detail to the audience can present other challenges, however: “Because of the abundance of acoustic information and different layers I’m probably doing more EQ tricks then I would with a rock band; high passing a lot higher and trying to carve out space for everything to create a clean mix. It’s not just ‘throw it up and keep the EQ flat.’ I’m going to cut something out in one spot to make room for a keyboard, or in the keyboards for an acoustic instrument. There’s a cello and an upright bass, and sometimes it’s clean and clear and no issues at all while other times it just wants to resonate at the low end, so I’ve got to carve that out for that day to make sure it’s stable in the room and stays that way for the show.”
Another challenge is ensuring Musgraves’ vocal sits in the mix where it should. “Kacey has a beautiful, delicate sounding voice. It’s incredible and she’s pitch perfect every night, but she’s a quiet singer, so I sculpt the house EQ towards her vocal. I’m not a traditional, vocal heavy, country mixer. I come from the pop rock world where the vocal needs to be clear, but with all the instrumentation right there in the mix. With Kacey, I reinforce her voice with the instruments and let the vocal lead the way.”