Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen rocks the house in a huge three-hour show.
Photo: Marty Philbey
There are 192 potential songs on the set list and tonight Bruce Springsteen picks one they haven’t rehearsed. The Springsteen touring ‘caravan’ has plenty of multi-decade veterans, and that includes a good chunk of the audience. And they know to bring placards with song requests, because Bruce is quite likely to pick you out and, if inspired, bash out an obscure B-side you made your own. And so it was the night AT checked in. Bruce pulled the placard from the audience found a key on his electric, “No, that sounds too high… let’s try this… Okay, E Street Band, we’re in the key of C.”
“They give us a set list on the night but that’s only a guide. Bruce will call a song he picks out from the audience and you have a couple of seconds to find the right snapshot on the console. I have an ‘Oh Shit!’ snapshot for when he picks out something we haven’t rehearsed!”
FOH Engineer, John Cooper, has been touring with Bruce for nearly 12 years, which he figures makes him a relative newcomer. Wrecking Ball is a big complicated show that powers on for over three hours. At 55, ‘Coop’ is at the top of his game and clearly enjoys the challenge. With backing singers, a brass section, percussionist, fiddle player, a Hammond B3 along with the drums/bass/guitars nucleus, the stage is crowded and so are the Avid Profile’s input panels.
“It really sharpens your chops up to be involved in something like this,” observes Coop. “It’s three hours of very intense concentration. You’ve got to watch the band. This is not a show where you can stare at the sound board.”
WRECKING BALL: IN FULL SWING
Wrecking Ball, as the name suggests, is a loud rock ’n’ roll show. The stage volume is punishingly loud. Along with all the foldback, there are two arrays of Vertec for sidefill. Bruce’s two Marshall amps, in themselves, are scary-loud. Similarly, the JPJ L-Acoustics K1 rig earns its keep and Coop isn’t shy with the subs. And when all 18 musos are in full flight it’s what I can only describe as a glorious, unholy racket. It’s exhilarating, but it’s not politely pristine.
Coop: My aim is to deliver it the way it’s been played. There’s not a lot of magic in what I do, I’m just trying to reproduce the performances through a narrow window — it’s a lot of audio info to squeeze out through that PA.
AT: So how do you achieve a measure of separation in the mix?
Coop: It’s about how to tonally separate and spatially separate everything. There’s just too much information for everything to be heard all at once, so you have to spread it out over the stereo spectrum and spread it out over the tonal spectrum. You’ve got to be very cautious with it. There’s only a finite amount of real estate there and a seemingly infinite number of input sources. So you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do to make the most of the dynamics for that particular song. And it’s not always the same from song to song, in fact, it can be quite different. We might go from one song where everyone on stage is playing full throttle to the next song where it’s really quite stripped down. It’s about finding the important elements when they’re needed.
AT: Are we talking about savage EQ song-to-song, for each element to occupy a niche?
Coop: It’s very rarely done with EQ, more often it’s done with volume balance and spatial balance. I leave the 12 o’clock (centre) position open for only four things in my mix: Bruce’s vocal, bass guitar, kick and snare. Everything else has a ‘clock’ position. I don’t pan hard (mostly between ‘10:30’ and ‘1:30’) and the panning generally adheres to the player’s position on stage.
I’ll also do a lot of stereo simulation. Which means I’ll take a mono source like the horns or backing vocals, I’ll put those through a stereo delay and bring them back with time offsets, left and right, to create a stereo perception of that group of instruments which pushes them ‘around the clock’.
AT: While always keeping Bruce’s vocals riding high?
Coop: Bruce is always telling a story, so you’ve got to maintain the vocal intelligibility regardless of the war that might be going on underneath musically.
Troy Milner: We use a lot of trusty standards on stage, like Shure SM57s and 58s — we know they’ll work. Something different are the Heil PR28s on toms. Max, the drummer, doesn’t like big mics but wants a big mic sound. So credit to Heil there, they’re very consistent in the monitors, and they have a very tight pattern — you don’t hear a lot of cymbal bleed. We’re very happy with them. Max likes a clean look so we position the ‘overheads’ under the cymbals — ‘underheads’ we call them… Shure KSM137s.
VOCALS: RIGHT OUT FRONT
Bruce Springsteen is 62. He’s been on the road off and on for 40 years or more. At this point in his career many would cut the man some slack. You might even allow him a retirement-fund Vegas residency. But Bruce is still doing it the ‘hard way’. He’s the bandleader, the star, and the spiritual guide of a large group of people. And talk about leading from the front! He pushes his uncomplaining compadres through three-plus gruelling hours where Bruce gives his absolute all — the bloke even crowd surfs. Bruce is a total pro. Still, from an engineer’s point of view he’s hard to keep a handle on. The guys on monitors even have a screen dedicated to ‘Bruce Cam’, for when he makes one of his loping runs into the crowd.
Coop: A good deal of the time he’s in the audience. My approach is to, first and foremost, set his vocal mic up for stability — about 12 to 16dB above his operating level. Bruce’s vocal is routed independently of the stereo bus, so there’s independent control of the vocal through the matrices that drive the PA. Then on a daily basis I ring his vocal mic out, like a monitor engineer would, so he can be on a platform 30m in front of the PA and we won’t have feedback issues. He can be in the aisles singing. He can be on his back crowd surfing and singing and we don’t have feedback issues.
The PA packs a lot of horsepower, it’s a loud show, and the vocal mic is a deadly item in those circumstances. After all that work is done, you still have to be very active in the way you mix the vocal. You have to turn things up and down, off and on, religiously — you have to stay on top of it.
AT: Including when he’s back on stage and not in the crowd?
Coop: The stage is very loud and I’m riding that fader hard. It’s not like some acts where you can leave the fader and rely on muting/unmuting the vocal, you have to throttle it on and off because he may phrase things differently night to night. So when he’s on stage, I have to watch him like a hawk, because he’s always moving. Most nights I’ll spend no time looking at the sound board. If he’s downstage centre with an acoustic guitar, then that’s one of my more leisurely moments — I don’t have to work the fader quite as much. But if he’s playing electric and he’s singing and he steps away from the vocal mic, his guitar amps are right behind him. That mic has to be ducked out immediately.
TEAM OVER GEAR
Coop will politely and cogently run you through what he’s using and why. He sings the praises of the Avid Profile’s reliability, for example, and made the K1 switch because he liked what he heard in previous tours. But when invited to express a preference for XYZ over ABC there’s a barely concealed impatience. The gear is secondary. “It’s all about the music, and being emotionally involved with the music.”
Coop: Don’t get me wrong, technology does help. The first tour I mixed for Bruce I used a Midas XL4 and racks of outboard electronics. I would be totally comfortable doing that today, but it just takes up a lot more space and many more guys to set it up, and lift it in and out. It’s just as effective, only a little more mechanical.
Meanwhile, the automation allows me to have a starting point for each song. It keeps me from spending the last 30 seconds of Song A worrying about Song B and the first 30 seconds of Song B making sure the preparations were correct. In other words, it keeps me mixing more, where previously I had to manually turn things on and off.
I’ve been a proponent of automated consoles since the mid ’90s. I was one of the first brave souls to take the Amek Recall out on the road and I had great success with it. It was a life changing moment — I wasn’t spending all that time prepping one song while mixing another. I was mixing the whole time; I was engaged musically with the band until the last moment of that song and the first moment of the next. And that for me is the single biggest benefit of today’s consoles.
You’ve got to maintain the vocal intelligibility regardless of the war that might be going on underneath musically
THE BOSS IN THE HOUSE
Bruce Springsteen commands respect. According to Coop he’s always educating; always being the consummate band leader. If he’s offering advice to one member of the band then it behoves all involved to pay attention — The Boss isn’t verbose, but it pays to hang on every word.
And the Springsteen professionalism is contagious. “He’s made me such a better audio engineer because he always comes to play with his A game. He’ll never let up. He’ll come in today, he’ll flip open his notebook and he’ll have a note about something during the last show or he’ll have a note about a new song he wants to work up, or he’ll want to try this or try that.”
In other words, if The Boss cares, then maybe you should as well.
Coop: I go back every single day, and I’ll brush over every song from the mix. What I hear through the sound system on the night is obviously the most important thing that I do but at a later date they might take a video cut of that night because it looks great, and then it lands in my court, and if the audio isn’t so great then they can’t use it. So it’s up to me to make sure the mix translates to all the different destinations. But you can’t really focus on those ‘derivatives’ in the moment.
The only way to do that is to go back and listen back to 60 seconds of every song that I’m recording in ProTools.
AT: What are you listening for?
Coop: I’m focussing on the mix balance: where it should be and where it is; see how it ebbs and flows with regards to the dynamics of the band on the night; how that emotion reads and turns into audio. I carefully pay attention to that on a song-by-song basis.
K1 REVEALS ALL
Solotech out of Canada has the Springsteen account. Coop got the chance to use L-Acoustics K1 while mixing Sheryl Crow and liked what he heard. So come time for preparations for Wrecking Ball the call was made to Solotech. JPJ has the account in Australia, supplying ‘stacks ’n’ racks’ for the tour.
The arena configuration is pseudo in-the-round: mostly shooting up the room but with those behind the stage trading off eye contact for an up-close experience. Solotech system engineer, Etienne Lapré, likes the approach because the PA isn’t exciting the whole room symmetrically. Four hangs of K1 with dV-DOSC underhangs do most of the work, and tag teams with the flown K1-SB subs. Etienne assures me that low-end isn’t a problem, “The whole bowl is covered.” Ground-stacked subs provide additional support for the floor area in front of the stage. The sides and back of stage are covered by four hangs of dV-DOSC.
Coop: For me, the goal is consistency. In production rehearsals you have the sound system and that’s the static element in the rehearsal period. Everything else is changing as the band work on their parts and you refine your mix. It’s being built.
Once rehearsals are over, that role is reversed. Now the music is fully formed: the parts are finalised, the tone is set and the balance leaving the console becomes more constant. Now the dynamic element is the environment — the room.
If I’m achieving consistency from the mixing side and we have the technology and know-how to set up the sound system so it’s reproducing in a uniform manner day to day, then we’re firing on all cylinders — we’re working perfectly. And that’s the luxury we have on this tour — a spectacular sound system managed by real professionals. The canvas is white when I start the show. It’s not yellow. Whatever colour I lay on the canvas will be there. If it’s shit brown then that’s what it is. And if it’s a beautiful sky blue, then that’s what you’ll hear.