Viewpoints is designed to illustrate the varied approaches and schools of thought on relevant trends and interesting topics in the world of pro audio. This time our writers contrast the approaches for single shows (a.k.a. “one-offs”) versus touring with the same artist.
Michael Lawrence: One of the things I’ve found most important to a successful one-off or short-term engagement with an artist is research. I’m not going to have the luxury of rehearsing with the artist or working with them to develop their sound over the course of multiple shows. So doing a little research in advance to understand how the artist’s music sounds is incredibly helpful, even if it’s a few YouTube videos. This way I have a sonic goal from the time I walk into the venue, rather than waiting for sound check, wondering what’s about to come down the snake.
A while back I mixed an up-and-coming pop star and foolishly went in blind, with very little idea about her, or her music. I must have gotten the mix relatively close because her manager only asked once for the tracks to come up by about a dB, so they were happy – but I wasn’t. The entire time, I felt that the mix just wasn’t coming together and really wasn’t satisfied with the sound.
When I went home and looked her up, I realized that was her sound. The show had sounded exactly as it was supposed to. I wasn’t happy because I was bringing my own preconceived notions about how the artist should sound. Ever since then I’ve made sure to try to understand the musical context of what the artist is doing, even if I’m only mixing them for a single night.
Jim Yakabuski: Michael, you’re definitely a go-getter for diving in and doing the research ahead of time, especially for a one-off. If our schedules are slammed and we’re concentrating more on one or two “big” tour preps or corporate events, it’s easy to brush off the pop-up one-off and give it less attention than it deserves. But in our heart of hearts, where our audio integrity lives, we always want to give our best, even for a one-off with an artist we don’t necessarily know much about.
I’ve been fortunate enough (more often in more recent years) to work on tours with bands who put a lot of value on doing a decent amount of pre-tour rehearsal, and totally understand that having the monitor engineer there (and often me at front of house) with the consoles and gear we’ll be using on tour pays dividends at the start of a new tour.
I’ve often gone into these rehearsal/tech schedules with last tour’s console file, which can make things much easier on the front end, but I also like to try to refresh things by adding to or improving where I left things off last tour. Equipment-wise this is where rehearsals are very valuable. There are always gear kinks that pop up as we get in tour mode, so having a few days or weeks of tech and band rehearsals is great.
As far as the music goes, I always go back and review a console recording from the last tour, and also give a fresh listen to the original studio tracks to see if there are ways I can improve things on the upcoming tour. Sometimes I’ll hear a cool effect in a song that I’d previously missed or I’ll devise a better way to route some inputs to make mixing more intuitive.
All that said, it’s up to the way the artist or band views tech time and rehearsals (and how much budget is dedicated to this very valuable time) that determines if it happens or not. With one-off shows, techs are usually lucky to get a 2-hour sound check to make the magic happen, so as you mentioned Michael, some up front research is pretty crucial.
ML: A few years ago, I saw a great article by David Morgan (FOH, James Taylor) about how he came up with his processing for James’s guitar sound by sitting in his living room with a (DiGiCo) SD5 for hours and hours. I loved the attention to detail that he put into it.
There’s a funny and sort of sad thing that happens to me with one-offs: I’m making tweaks and improvements throughout the event, and obviously the goal is to have something nice and listenable very quickly, but I gradually add polish as the night goes on. And by the end of the show, I’m usually finally happy with the sound, and so I’m thinking “OK, now let’s go back to the top and do the show again!” and obviously we can’t. But on a long-term gig, you can. You’re in rehearsals for a few weeks and then out on the road for longer. What sort of tweaks are you making when you’re weeks into the gig?
JY: By the end of a week or so of rehearsals, I’m usually fairly well along with the foundation of my mix: preamp levels, EQ, FX and gate/comp settings and overall gain structure. I think the main thing that happens during the next couple weeks as the tour kicks off is muscle memory and “mix anticipation” rather than “mix reaction.”
Even if you’ve worked with an artist before, it takes hearing the songs a few times again to get back in the swing of knowing what’s coming at the beginning of the song, as well as the “ebb and flow” mix changes that occur during the song.
Other tweaks might include fine-tuning plugin settings or trying a different reverb on the drum kit or vocal. It all stems from the familiarity that comes with hearing the same songs night after night and feeling free to be creative as opposed to the instinctive reaction-based mixing you would be doing when mixing a new band for a one-off.
A quick reply to your comments on David Morgan’s article: I totally get why he’d take advantage of spending so much time working on guitar sounds when the console he’ll be using on tour is right there! That’s not always possible for everyone, but I’ve found if you treat people well, and ask a few favors in your local area, often you can find a sound company or theater that has your console of choice, and with a multitrack recording session in hand, you can spend a good bit of time getting things in the ballpark, especially if you’re just starting with a new artist.
The fine folks at Clemson University (which is just up the road from my home in Anderson, SC – Go Tigers!) were kind enough to let me spend two days on their SD5 in the Brooks Center recently to build a mix for the Gwen Stefani residency in Las Vegas. Without their kindness and a couple days to get a head start I would have been in deep trouble walking in for a first show with only one sound check.
Jim Yakabuski has worked for well over three decades as a live sound engineer for a wide range of top artists.