FOH InterviewBarenaked Sound Guys
by Bill Evans
Robin Billinton (FOH) and John Sulek (MON) have taken Canuck acoustic-folk/comedy-turned-alt-rock darlings Barenaked Ladies from the clubs of Toronto and upstate New York to arena tours. And despite a world class rig including Meyer MILOs and an InnovaSON Sy80 digital desk, Billinton still describes himself as "Mr. Low Tech." How does that jibe with the world class system? It's all about the approach...
How long have you been with the band?
Going on 13 years. They never really stop touring, they never really stop playing live. In an album year, I'm guessing we do 100 to 125 shows a year.
I hadn't heard an Sy80 being used on a big show before. How'd you become an InnovaSON guy?
I used it at a little Christmas fundraiser in Phoenix. I hadn't even really heard of the console this was probably about four years ago and it was really easy to use, and I liked the size of it, and the combination of power, plus it sounded good. Just doing a quick sound check and then doing the show, I wasn't intimidated by it at all.
There was no big learning curve?
No. I thought, if I can use it, anyone can use it.
Are you using the processing onboard?
Yes, I use the gates and the compressors. For basses I use an external compressor, the Aphex 661, and I've got a couple of ATI Pro Sixes on the lead vocal, and other than that, everything's internal.
What are you using FX-wise? Anything special?
No, definitely not. I'm Mr. Low-Tech. A Roland SDE-330 delay, PCM 91 for vocal reverb, SPX990 for some chorusing effects.
What about drum miking?
We use all Shure on the drums: Beta 52, Beta 57s on the snare, SM 98s on the toms, KSM 32s for the overheads and a KMS 141 for the high hat. I love Shure mics because they re so reliable. I mean, the Beta 58 and SM 58, they're like hammers... I've had really good luck with them. We're using Beta 87As for on the two lead vocals, Steve and Ed, and they're great as well.
What's the biggest challenge with these guys?
Their songs are more complex than they used to be, I think, because there are more parts to them. They've got a percussion player, and there are five vocals, a drummer, a bass player, a multi-instrumentalist and two guitars, and it's all over the place, where before it was more acoustic and more straightforward. I'm finding that there's lots of constant fader movement, just making the vocals blend. That really wasn't the case, say, eight years ago.
Are you riding a lot of fader?
Yeah, no matter what, you have to ride faders. I don't think you're ever going to get away from that. I use what's called relaxed automation on the InnovaSON, so the drums are basically just like an analog console, because the band runs some songs together, and you don't want things jumping up and down in between songs.
Relaxed, meaning they're not automated?
They're not automated. That's what InnovaSON calls it.
So you can keep certain tracks not on the automation?
Once it's relaxed, it's relaxed. You can choose what you want. I just relax the faders from automation. You can relax everything, or just the faders, or the effects sends or whatever.
So that's the challenge of mixing. What about the tour?
In general, I think, good sound is a combination of a good band, a good sound system that's properly tuned and a good-sounding room. I've found it frustrating when you go into a brand new building and it sounds like a barn.
Most of these venues have realized that hockey or basketball is just not going to fill the building for 300 days a year, so they have to make it multi-purpose. So why not just make it good sounding?
With so much concrete and steel up there, the sound is going to be rolling around up there for a while there are ways to get around that. You could have curtains. I've been in theaters where for their symphony, they'd pull the curtains back and let it be very live, and then for an amplified show, they close the curtains and it's almost like an anechoic chamber, they can make it that dead.
It's come down to spending the dough to do it.
Yes, if the budget is there. A lot of the time, if it's a smaller city, it's like, well, we've got to cut 80 grand from the budget, and acoustic treatment might be one of the first things to get cut.
On the other hand, when you get to a great venue, you think, wow, what a great-sounding venue.
Like the Bell Center in Montreal, where they really know how to do a show, all the way from the red carpet that they put down, to the lighting on the stairs to the black covering the dashboards. It's a great-sounding venue, they've got a great local crew, it's a pleasure to do a show here, and they realize they've got to keep this venue as busy as possible.
How has the move toward line arrays helped in these kinds of venues? Or has it?
Line arrays are great, but they don't solve all the problems; they solve some of the problems. You still need conventional boxes, or what I call conventional boxes, for lack of a better term. We still use MSL-4s, we still love MSL-4s, there's no reason not to use them, they're great boxes.
So you use them in conjunction with the MILO?
Well, they do the side-hang, shorter throw, and I think they work great. MILO is a great-sounding box. It's one of the best-sounding boxes from 8K and up. They really got the top end right. When you hear the cymbals or the ride cymbal, I've never heard it that clear through any P.A. The rest of it sounds great too, but the top end is really right, the rigging is great, it goes up quickly, People are amazed at how quickly we can get it up in the air.
Does the fact that it's self-powered play into the ease of rigging?
No power racks that's a huge difference. You think there's going to be lots of room, but once you get guitar stations in there, monitors, dimmers, all that stuff... It's not that strange for a guitar player to have 20 guitars. That's all going to be in the way of your power amp. So this is easier, better.
Also, the amplifier is matched to the speaker, so you can't go wrong. You can go right out of a Mackie console with a CD player and plug it into an MSL4 or a MILO, and it's going to sound great. It sounds good straight out of the box my mom could plug it in and make it sound good, you know?
When it comes down to sounding good throughout the whole building, do you use things like the Lake Contour?
We don't use Lake Contour, we use BSS Soundwebs. I have no preference for system control. Lake, BSS, XTA, they are all good. We SIMM everything.. My philosophy is that it's a combination of measurement and ears for the best sound. Use the two; you can't rely on just one or the other. You've got to get up and walk around.
Any soapbox you want to get up on?
Just this: I sincerely care about how it sounds to everyone in the building, and I can be a little uptight about it, because people pay a lot of money. You have to make it pleasurable so people want to come out again. I really want people come back. They could just stay home and watch satellite TV, or whatever; you've just got to get people out.
John Sulek Sticks it in Their Ears
I'm told that everybody is on PMs. How long ago did that change?
I think that was around 1998, 99, when they got to a point where they were adding more and more wedge mixes as they moved from playing theaters to arenas, and they started having more of a set, and they started using more space. We ended up with a lot of spot mixes, and things on the subs that you're always turning off and on, and it got to the point where they went, it's not that it's not loud enough, we don't want it any louder, we just want to hear better.
When we did the first leg of that tour, we had PMs and we still had all the wedges, so that if somebody was really having a rough day and needed to take his earpiece out, he could go back on his wedge mix. But by the end of the third or fourth week of the tour, we put the wedges back in the truck and never took them out again.
So how many mixes are you running?
Five stereo mixes for the band, then we have a spare stereo mix on a different frequency, so that you can just punch in, and we also use that if any guests pop up. We also matrix four hard-wired mixes, one for the drummer, one for the keyboard tech and one for each of the guitar techs. So they wear a pack that's the same mix as their guy.
Are you on the same ear piece as they are?
Yeah. We went with Ultimate Ears. Mindy and Jerry have been great; any time we've had any concerns or questions, they're a phone call away, and they do whatever it takes.
Who is the sound company?
It's called Sound Art, based out of Winnipeg. We used to be Jason Sound clients, and when that folded, a couple of their touring directors went to Sound Art and offered to basically start a touring division for them, based on their existing relationships with clients. It works well for us, because we have the same contact we've always used in the past, so it's just different names on the cases.
What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to doing monitors?
For these guys, there are two things, I would say. The first is just finding clean space in the RF spectrum so that I'm unobstructed, especially in the last year, now that everybody's DTV deadline is here.
The other thing is fighting the ambience of the arena. That P.A. helps a lot, and the cardioid subs work great, so it's just basically riding the faders and shutting out the mics that you don't need, and trying to keep a rein on things.
Anything else that you want to talk about, anything new or clever or exciting that you re doing?
Well, I don't think we're doing anything super-clever. With everybody on PMs, there needs to be an extra level of communication, so we have a few extra talkback mics around. We're using the TC Electronic Finalizers as output buss mastering mixes, which works really nicely, and we got a new antenna combiner system from Shure, which is working really well.
It's pretty good with these guys. I've worked with them for a long time, so I have a pretty good sense of when somebody's comfortable or uncomfortable, and over the years they've purchased pretty much everything that involves the stage. They own the whole monitor rig, they own all the mics, all the DIs, all the cabling, so I can keep it pretty consistent.
Right, you know what you've got because it's yours.
Yeah, it finally got to the point where we couldn't just go in and wing it in a day any more, not without compromising somewhere, so it made sense to just buy it and hang onto it.
That's always nice. You get to go out to the same console and everything, not thinking, what's it going to be this time out?
And of course, we know where it's been and what's happened to it, so we don't go, Oh, gee, I wonder why this channel doesn't work anymore? It gets pretty babied.