Keith Urban Live
Australia’s very own rootin’ ’n’ tootin’ cowboy had quite the homecoming, complete with a brand new Adamson line array.
Text: Christopher Holder
I hate to be the one to point out the elephant in the room here… but what’s a bloke with the surname ‘Urban’ doing playing country music? It’s like an LA hip hop producer being called DJ Rural, or MC Primary Producer. Truly bizarre!
And why do country and western acts need so many guitarists? At times Keith’s got four on stage, including himself. And it’s not enough to play guitar like you sold your soul to the devil, you gotta get one-up on your comrades by finding some weird-arse left-handed 11-string bouzouki made out of a Ugandan gourd and tuned to a mode that hasn’t been used since Babylonian times. But… just at the point that you’re feeling kinda ‘in the zone’ with your left-handed pumpkin, the song finishes… and, believe me, it is complete anathema in hi-falutin Country circles to play the same guitar twice in one night. No sooner has your gourd stopped vibrating, your tech rushes on stage to plug in the custom two-string semi-acoustic lap-steel tea-chest that you’re so fond of. So you can only imagine what the breaks between songs are like! Keith Urban resembles a quarterback doing his best to not be sacked by a guitar tech team of defensive ends and nose tackles as they fly around the stage plugging and unplugging.
Steve Law is Keith Urban’s front-of-house engineer, and all these guitar-swapping shenanigans make his life interesting.
Steve Law: I like it, it makes things interesting. I just have a snapshot on the [Digico] D5 for each song, which acts as a starting point and mutes the stuff that doesn’t need to be on. There are so many instrument changes that you’ve got to make sure the stuff that’s not being used is off.
Steve (along with Keith Urban, I guess) is the ‘token Aussie’ in an all-American touring party. He’s been mixing Keith for years, and this means he gets to play with expensive kit, amazing PAs and in enormous arenas week-in and week-out. Coming back to Australia to play somewhere like the Rob Laver Arena must be like Ian Thorpe doing a couple of laps of the backyard pool…
Steve Law: These are small venues compared to what we do in The States. That’s especially the case this year, as we’ve been in the ‘A’ arenas over there – last year was a mix of A and B. These places are all kinda like the size of the Superdome in Sydney, which means there’s a lot of vertical coverage to deal with – from the highest to the lowest seats. Then you’ve got some of the venues that are off the Richter scale – just huge. There’s the Staples Centre in LA, for example. That just massive – it’d be six times the size of Rod Laver.
CH: With lots of screaming cowgirls in the audience?
SL: That’s one of the biggest things I have to deal with – the volume of the crowd – and it’s very hard to get over the audience in some venues… especially at the start of the show. I mean, they just go crazy. You stand there and go: ‘well I think the PA’s on’. They quieten down eventually but there are moments where it’s ‘fingers in ears’ time. And there’s no point in fighting it. It’s silly to just keep turning the PA up – it defeats the whole purpose – you’ll turn it into a mad house!
I actually get a better snare sound from the overhead mic five foot away than I do from the snare mic.
CH: What’s the trick to filling those larger spaces with hi-fi sound?
SL: It all starts with the band, and this year we’ve focussed on nailing that arena ‘thing’. That means keeping the guitar parts a bit simpler and a bit tighter. Anyone anywhere will tell you the best rhythm section in the world is AC/DC because they’re just so tight – the notes are so definite and precise. Our guys worked really hard to develop definite parts, rather than just a big wall of sound where they’re going at it all at the same time.
CH: Which must make your life easier?
SL: Sure. Now everything has its place in the mix without having to dig holes with EQ. Because that’s the normal technique: dig a hole in the EQ to fit that instrument in, then dig another hole for the next instrument… you end up colouring the tone of the instruments to make them fit into the mix. I’m not a big fan of EQ in the first place – I reckon if you have the right stuff on stage and the right mic then you should be able to just run it flat – so this tour’s approach suits me down to the ground.
CH: And I guess it’s about the tone of the guitars as well as the arrangements?
SL: Right. The guys have all gone through various configurations of amps… we’ve tried to mix and match a bit as well. Obviously if you play a Marshall head through a Marshall cabinet it’s very different to playing a Bad Cat head through a Marshall cab. After lots of experimentation each of the guys now has a unique tone, which makes it a lot easier to get them all sitting in the mix properly. There are times when four electric guitars are playing at the same time, and fitting that into a mix is usually a major effort. But we’ve got it working really well.
And Keith tends to lay back a bit more these days. Now there are more guitarists in the band, he can concentrate on his singing more and the parts he really needs to play – the solos – without having to be there the whole time, chugging away and filling up the sound. The other guys can cover that. He can take a back seat on the playing a little bit. And that helps with the mix. And when he comes in it just gets bigger.
CH: I notice you’re double-miking Keith’s guitar cabs.
SL: He uses a custom amp hand made by a guy in the US. They’re called 65s. He specifically made these ones for Keith. They’re a little higher powered than the normal ones he builds. And the cabs have two different drivers, and totally different tonal qualities come out of each driver. So we double-mic them. I use a Royer ribbon on one driver and a Shure SM57 on the other, and the combination of those is really good – the Royer’s really warm and the 57 gives you the poke and smack.
CH: A Royer 121 on tour, in front of a full throttle guitar cab? That’s a big call.
SL: It is an expensive mic and it is very fragile – if it gets dropped it’s history – and I’m not saying we didn’t umm and ah about it for a while; but it’s the best mic around. When we go into the studio we put a Royer up, so why not do it live? And these types of shows, where no one else comes near it, it’s not so bad. When we get to the festivals we might need to re-think things – there’s no way I’m going to let some stagehand chuck it around.
CH: Any other examples of microphone bravery? A Neumann U47 on the kick perhaps?
SL: I’m using another Royer – a stereo SF24, which is an insanely expensive mic – for drum overheads. But it’s absolutely amazing. Truly amazing! The best overhead mic I’ve heard. It sounds totally transparent… you can almost do away with the rest of the drum mics.
CH: Well, I notice that you’ve placed the SF24 quite high – it’s evidently more than a ‘cymbals mic’.
SL: Yeah, it’s funny, because I actually get a better snare sound from the overhead mic five foot away than I do from the snare mic. It’s a thicker and nicer tone.
CH: So do you find yourself pushing up the overhead mic more these days?
SL: With that mic I do. I’ve definitely got more of the overheads than any other mix that I’ve done. Most other mics catch too much of the highs and it just doesn’t sound real. With this mic, you put it 10 feet away and it sounds the same as if you’re two feet away. There’s no proximity loss – you’re not losing all that nice warmth and fullness of the cymbals instead of them just going tssss, tsss, tssss. And I can run it down all the way to 150Hz. That’s something you don’t normally do with overhead mics, you’d normally be rolling it out about 300 to 400Hz. It just sounds so nice… it even picks up the kick drum nicely!
From our tests, we get around 6dB more out of each T21 compared to any other dual 18 we’ve compared it against.
Elsewhere in Steve’s rack (not pictured) is a G5, used to run Cubase SX3 and record the shows straight off the mic pres, via MADI straight into a recorder. “We can take it straight to a studio and do what we like with it.” The G5 is loaded with two RME MADI cards, and 2 x 300GB serial ATA drives, striped as a raid array. “Also very handy for virtual soundchecks to fine-tune stuff.”
DRUMS – TIGHT AS
CH: You’ve got two ELI Distressors in your rack, which I gather are for keeping the drums in check?
SL: That’s right, they’re for the kick and snare. We have two kick mics, which I’ve grouped to a mono bus then send out to a Distressor and back to the console. It works pretty hard. Distressors are great ’cause you can be hitting 10 or 12dB of gain reduction and you really don’t know that you are, until you hit bypass… The snare Distressor isn’t doing a huge amount of work but enough to keep the sound more consistent.
CH: Then you’ve got an ELI Fatso as well?
SL: Yes, the Fatso is on the rest of the drum kit. Saying that, it doesn’t really do a lot of compressing. It takes a little bit of the highs off when our drummer really starts slamming the cymbals, but it’s mainly there to keep the latency the same between the kick, snare and the rest of the drum kit.
SL: Well, obviously when you go out of a digital console to an insert device, you’re going through a set of digital converters and back in again analogue… you get about a 5ms latency going on. So if I send the rest of the kit out and back in, it brings everything else back in time. If you take the Fatso out you hear it kinda flanging. The toms sorta go c’hoah c’hoah… really strange tone.
CH: So the Fatso is a very expensive delay compensation device then.
SL: Yes! But it does do something. You can tell when it’s not there. I’m running it in Transformer mode on the output. Which warms it up.
CH: Tell me about the vocal mics?
SL: They’re all on Shure Beta 87Cs hardwired for the background vocals and Shure UHR wireless for Keith’s. He has six mics set up in strategic locations around the stage. I send all the vocals to a stereo group and then they go through a pair of Crane Song Trakker compressors.
DUMB & DUMBERER
CH: Apart from the obvious differences in scale, do you notice much of a difference when you return to Australia for a tour?
SL: I find the stagehands here are generally better. The companies here try to make an effort to train them to actually know what they’re doing. There will be specific people that know audio and people who know the lighting. So if you’re touring with a PA that they’re familiar with, you can walk away and let them fly the whole thing. You couldn’t do that in the US, not in a pink fit. Not to mention the unionisation in the US. There are guys over there who will push the PA to the bottom of the truck and different people who will push it up the ramp and a different bunch of guys that load the truck… and they don’t ever leave the truck, they just sit in the back of the truck and talk to each other all night… ’cause the truck drivers pack the truck – ‘they know the pack’. There’d be times in the US when I can remember just yelling at the hands… because they seem to have no idea. You say, ‘take the lid off the case’ and they just look at you like, ‘what’s a case?’, ‘what handle?’. They must get these people from just anywhere. So that makes the days pretty long over there. Saying that, we’ve had some frustrating times in Australia as well… so there’s room for improvement all ’round.