A Day in the Life of Lady Antebellum’s Front of House Engineer

We used to measure an artist’s popularity with record sales and radio airplay. But today, as physical and download music sales continue to tank, the metric that matters most is the number of tickets that artists can sell to their shows.

According to preliminary data, 2016 was the worst year for LP sales since Nielsen started keeping track. Compare that to concert activity, which saw 2016’s top 100 tours of North America gross a record $3.34 billion—up 7% over 2015’s $3.12 billion (itself a record number)—according to Pollstar. Nielsen reported a record overall $9 billion in detailed 2016 concert grosses.

This changing economic fabric of the music industry has put a new emphasis on the person at the helm of live shows: the front-of-house mixer. The FOH mixer stands (or sits, if it’s a long show) astride a complex mixing matrix. Microphone and instrument inputs come from the stage, working with prerecorded elements played from hard drives to help artists make their live performances as dense and intricate as their recordings.

A day in the life of the FOH mixer reflects much of what’s changed in the metrics of music.

Logistics

Brett “Scoop” Blanden (nicknames are de rigueur in the FOH culture) looks out over a Digico SD5 digital FOH console at Lady Antebellum on stage. A 35–foot stage thrust points toward his position, usually dead center in the stadiums the band’s popularity has propelled it into.

Brett “Scoop” Blanden

As the five-time Grammy Award winners’ show has become more faceted, the number of inputs Blanden manages has grown to 96, nearly the limit of what his console is currently configured to accommodate. The console is the steering wheel for the 100–piece L–Acoustics K1 PA system the band travels with. The tour's rig fills a total of seven 53' semi–trucks. The entire FOH arrangement had to be worked out well before any of those trucks were in first gear.

Blanden says that most high–end PA systems and live–sound consoles have reached a point where their performance characteristics are reasonably similar. Even though this critical hardware can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month to rent and operate, components are ultimately selected based on a number of other factors.

Considerations include: weight, ease of transport and handling, speed with which the system can be “flown” (raised up on a rigging grid via chain motors) and lowered, and access to manufacturer and rental company support in places the tour is headed. The size of the venues themselves is also important.

“The longer a system can ‘throw’ and still sound good means that we can deploy fewer delay speakers out into the venue,” Blanden explains. That reduces the number of PA boxes the tour needs to carry, which means lower fuel costs. The towers those delays sit on can eat up seats, making them loom large when calculating tour finances.

Before Blanden touches a single fader on the console, though, he’s on one side of the stage working with the tour’s production manager and staff to fly the sound system. It goes up after the lighting truss and video rigs are put into place and comes down before them at the end of the show.

Lady Antebellum's Stage Set-Up

Even though last–up/first–down sequence means that Blanden can hang out on the tour bus a bit longer before soundcheck and get back to it sooner after the show, it does little to minimize what is still a very physical gig.

Sound systems have become more efficient in recent years, but they also have to cover more of the venue. “Lady A,” as the crew affectionately calls the band, often sells enough seats to warrant a 270–degree system in which the strands of speakers will also face seats behind the stage.

While setting up, the PA’s system technician fires up the system’s amplifiers and DSP engines, checking the time alignment of the speakers and making sure that what comes out of the speakers isn’t reaching the furthest seats before the actual sound from the stage does. This would create disorienting phase problems.

After that, Blanden does the first of several layers of soundchecks. These begin with playbacks of favorite CDs that have some key frequencies or percussion parts that he’s intimately familiar with to guide him through the system tuning process. Steely Dan tracks have long been the gold standard for this process, but Blanden personally has a thing for Neil Diamond records.

Lady Antebellum - "Need You Now" (Live)

“I do get shit for that,” he laughs, “but the harmonic structure of his records is very close to what they [Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott, and Dave Haywood] sound like together.”

Next, Blanden sends recorded tracks from earlier shows on that tour through the system so Blanden can analyze familiar parts and mixes in an unfamiliar space. He then listens as the musicians’ backline technicians plug in and warm up amps and drums.

It’s over an hour into the process before Blanden starts working with the band’s actual musicians as they get comfortable on the stage, work out kinks in arrangements, or experiment with new songs or sounds. Sometimes this process lasts for just a few minutes to check vocals, and sometimes it goes for longer to try out new parts.

The short soundchecks can be the result of hitting it big. The more popular artists are, the more of their time must be given over to the meet–and–greets, promotional appearances, and other obligations that come with celebrity.

Is It Really Live?

One of the great philosophical dichotomies artists face is whether to try to reproduce the record on stage or to let the live show be its own entity. Florida Georgia Line—Billboard’s 2016 Top Country Artist—opt for the former on their current tour, according to Jared “Reez” Blumenberg who has been the band’s FOH mixer since 2012.

Jared “Reez” Blumenberg

The process of recreating the record provides a peek into the Nashville studio musician culture. Touring musicians for an artist are rarely the ones who played on that artist’s records. As Florida Georgia Line prepares to hit the road in January, its backline—bandleader and guitarist Tyler Chiarelli, bassist Tom Beaupre, drummer Sean Fuller, second guitarist Dan Weller (who played keyboard on the last tour), and the newly added keyboardist Aaron Farmer—carefully studied what their studio counterparts recorded for the band's newest album, Dig Your Roots.

“We all listen closely to it and take notes,” says Blumenberg, adding that none of the touring crew was present for any of the recording sessions. Instead, they rely on their ears and input from the producer and engineer for what they’ll need to do in order to recreate the record live.

This time out, for instance, Chiarelli is not using the PRS amp heads plugged into a Palmer Power attenuator which directly fed into the PA system that he used on the last tour. Instead, he opts for a Fender Tweed Deluxe and an Ebo Del Rio head plugged into a 2x12 Fender Bassman cabinet that will be mic’d using a Sennheiser 421 dynamic microphone and one of several ribbon microphones to emulate the studio choices.

Blumenberg records the band’s rehearsals to let them hear what they sound like in the house, as everyone tweaks what they can in pursuit of the LP’s vibe. Nuance is everything. “The sound of the guitar amp is going to change slightly from gig to gig because the microphones are in different environments every night,” he explains.

Florida Georgia Line - "May We All" (Live)

The live sound is filled out with a few pre–recorded tracks—a tactic no longer eschewed by country acts who (like everyone else) need to make every live show as perfect as possible as they compete for ticket sales. In FGL’s case, those include a few percussion tracks and some pedal steel guitar parts.

Otherwise, it’s up to the band on stage and Blumenberg at the console to recreate the record night after night. “It’s a performance,” he says. “It’s a show, and everyone knows their parts.”

Two Hats Are Better Than One

The role of the FOH mixer is becoming a hybrid with that of the recording engineer. Virtually every major concert show today is recorded using a multitrack system—mostly Pro Tools—by the FOH engineer.

Steve Cross, longtime FOH mixer for Kid Rock, says that his gig begins at the load in where he has to balance the roles of mixing a live show while managing the multitrack mix.

“I add some audience microphones at FOH to capture [ambience] and get the room and PA sound to combine with the dry board mix,” he explains. “The stereo track is delayed to line up with the FOH audience mics and gives a really nice representation of the sound of the show. Kid gets a stereo file nightly so that he can listen back and make the necessary adjustments with myself and the band.

“We record every input as an individual track, plus an array of stems* to make quick promo type stuff when we need it. The stems are a real time saver, should management ask for a 30–second clip mixed for a radio spot. When the show is over, I transfer the stereo and audience tracks to a USB key to be delivered to the artist. The following morning, I transfer the multitrack file to a large storage drive that will eventually go back to the vault at the studio.”

Blanden has a similar routine, recording 96 tracks on Pro Tools at every show in the process filling up a 1 TB hard disk after about 18 shows.

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The Pack Up

As the audience files out of the venue, the crew begins a carefully choreographed exit that sees the entire touring rig broken down and put back into the trucks, each road case with its own precisely plotted place to maximize trailer space. The driver releases the air brakes with a loud hiss, and they drive off into the night to the next gig.

*A stem is group of similar instruments, such as all the guitars or background vocals, on a single mono or stereo track.

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