Portrait of a US Tour
Bands heading over to the US on tour for the first time confront more than just traffic on the wrong side of the road.
Text: Chris Braun
Waking up at the crack of dawn is never fun, especially when you haven’t done it for a month or so. But when you’re waking up with the sparrows to head to the airport on your first US tour, the task’s a little easier.
This ungodly hour is about to hurl me over the Pacific Ocean to tour with Melbourne band Blue King Brown, on their first solo tour of North America and Canada. Everything is pointing towards a cracking tour, so with the luggage packed, rack and survival kit in hand, it’s time to meet the guys at Melbourne airport and get this show on the road.
I have no idea what to expect for a large amount of this tour. Tech sheets were still being sent through right up until yesterday, and some of the in-house guys at the US venues have been hard to get a hold of. For the most part, it’s going to be a case of finding out what the production setups are like when I walk into the venue for load in.
With the wide variety of venues, production levels and PA sizes on the itinerary, I’ve opted to take a small survival kit with me. As with any show, I’m taking my mic kit on the journey to ensure that all my important sources are taken care of and remain consistent throughout the tour. The kit includes:
1 x Audix D6.
1 x Shure Beta 91.
2 x SM57s.
2 x Shure Beta 98s.
2 x Shure Beta 57s.
1 x Shure Beta 58.
2 x Mann M11s.
2 x Audix OM7s.
3 x Audix OM5s.
2 x K&M drum clips.
3 x Shure A56D drum clips.
From this starting point, all I’ll be using from the in-house production is a couple of Shure SM57s – otherwise I’m set to go. I’m also carrying a small rack with me that includes:
1 x TC Electronic D-Two (delay unit).
1 x TC Electronic M-One (reverb).
2 x dbx 266XL (compressors).
The mix for Blue King Brown involves a lot of effects cues and delay work, with some reverb explosions thrown in for good measure, so I’m playing it safe by adding these effects to the survival kit, rather than relying on there being at least one working reverb and delay unit in every venue.
HITTING THE ROAD
Arriving at Melbourne airport, I’m seeing the Blue King Brown guys for the first time in almost two months, which is a long time between drinks since I often spend weeks or months at a time with them on the road.
I’ve never been to The States before so I don’t really know what to expect. Boarding the plane bound for L.A., it finally sinks in that we’re doing this, and that, yes, there is nothing to do for the next 14 hours. With a single touch of a button my flight saviour and good friend Jack arrives…
Flying United Airlines meant that there was no personal entertainment, just the communal big screens and headphones. Sitting through movies like Nims Island and other fantastic kids’ flicks gets a little annoying after a while, although for a brief interlude a movie called Street Kings, starring Keanu Reeves, is shown… until someone complains about its violent content and the film is removed. I sit up in my chair to have a look around, hoping to stare daggers at the person who’s complained, but only catch the eyes of other people doing the same thing. We share a brief moment of mutual frustration… and I decide it’s time for another push of that magic button.
On arrival in L.A. I am grilled by U.S. customs as to why I’m here. The first thing I notice is that everyone is wearing a gun on his or her belt, so I don’t screw around. I’m the first person out of our group to be called and the last to leave… and yet somehow I come out of the experience feeling lucky for some reason.
THE FIRST SHOW
This tour marks Blue King Brown’s first chip away at the enormous block that is the ‘U.S market’ so we’re really looking to present a killer show to get the grassroots growing. The first gig is in a little club venue in Santa Monica called the Temple Bar. It’s a small-capacity room, similar to Melbourne’s Evelyn or Espy front bar.
The PA is comprised of a pretty standard 15-inch and horn arrangement, with dual 18-inch subs per side. The show rocks and the guys are received well. System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian is at the show dancing away from the first beat… things are looking up!
Our next gig is very different to the first; one of the country’s biggest Reggae festivals, Reggae Rising.
The system here is an Adamson Line Array with Tech21 21-inch subs. These things move some serious air but personally I found them lacking the punch that a front-loaded 18-inch can deliver. FOH and monitor console duties were taken care of by Midas H3000s, which is always nice in a festival situation.
Processing for the festival was taken care of by the usual suspects: dbx 160A compressors, Drawmer gates and effects from Yamaha, Lexicon, TC Electronic and my personal favourite for dub duties, the Roland SDE 3000.
UB40 was the festival headline for today’s show and the band’s engineer brought his own Digico D5 in with him, along with a small selection of outboard: a Focusrite Producer Pack for lead vocals, and outboard effects including an Eventide Harmoniser, TC delays and Yamaha reverb.
After thanking the production crew for looking after us so well at the festival, I head back to the hotel to get some Z’s. Tomorrow we have to get up early and drive from Piercy California to Portland Oregon, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from touring, it’s that you sleep wherever and whenever the chance arises, because it may be a little while before another good chance comes around.
DOUG FIR LOUNGE
Another day, another show. This one is at a venue called Doug Fir Lounge, in Portland. Rolling up to the venue all we can see in the car park is an army of Red Bull girls with their Red Bull VW Beetles – this show is looking up already.
Doug Fir Lounge has other surprises in store. Walking into the venue it’s EAW everything. There are two EAW KF650s per side, plenty of sub power and a kick-arse mic kit that includes Audix, AKG, Shure, Sennheiser and Audio-Technica – any venue in Melbourne or Sydney would kill for this collection and yet it’s only a small room.
Out front is a 32-mono/8-stereo Midas Verona with dbx, BSS and Klark Teknik compressors, Klark Teknik gates and TC Electronic and Lexicon effects processors. Monitor tuning is taken care of via a digital EQ much like the TC Electronic EQ Station. Being a little strapped for time, for two of the sends that didn’t have a vocal mic in front of them, I was able to simply copy & paste my tuning across, and with a quick double check, we were tuned and ready to go. The PA sounded great, and the show sounded even better. Very happy!
THE IN-HOUSE GUYS
When you’re touring overseas, your in-house sound guy can make or break a show, much like a studio assistant can be the difference between a good session and a great session.
A good house guy (and/or team) is someone that knows the system inside and out, is able and happy to accommodate any request that the system (and setup) can handle, is punctual to sound check and show time, and knows when to help out in any given situation. At the same time, he or she knows when to just sit back and let the crew do their thing. Being able to pass on these courtesies to members of the band is just as important.
My in-house tech at the Doug Fir Lounge, Mick, was a great example of this. I felt like I was doing a show at the Prince of Wales. No request was too much trouble, he was quick and accurate, told me about a couple of little issues with the system and had my patch done in no time.
I was lucky enough to encounter a number of good house guys like Mick on this tour, and some not so good. There were some ‘interesting characters’ among them and some that just plain scared the hell out of me. And of course, there are always those in-house guys that have been in the industry for 30 years, who are intent on showing you ‘how it’s done’. I actually like these guys for some reason; the ones that don’t agree with anything you do, tish at mic choices and placements, board routing and mixing styles. I like being told how to do my job by someone that’s never met me. I enjoy being able to politely say to them, “I think I’m going to do it the way I’m used to, thanks all the same,” and then have the room and show sound great in the end. At the same time you need to take on the advice of your house guy because he knows the room.
One particular individual that sticks out in my mind worked at a venue that was almost hard-wired into place – indeed, some things actually were. At this gig the gear was so old and filthy that, if you were to remove an XLR from the drop box or wall, it may not work when you put another one back in because that particular XLR and socket had been matched for so long that they’d bonded! Here’s one example: a hard-wired SM58, 10 years old and still kicking.
The logic behind this particular mic setup was that, because so many rock and punk bands that come through this venue swing the vocal mic around like someone performing ‘Round the World’ on a yoyo, something had to be done. This was the solution. The guts of this SM58 were removed, an XLR hard-wired straight to the mic’s internals, filled with expanding putty, and finally the XLR was looped at the back of the mic and gaffed into place for good measure. Not a bad idea… but what got me was the hard-wiring of the mic directly into the console!
This particular venue was also running a PA that can only be described as ‘interesting’. Take a look for yourself. This photo is of the left hand ‘Hang’?!
I can imagine some people are turning their copy of AT upside down right about now, trying to figure out if the photo has been accidentally placed upside down… I was doing a bit of that at the venue as well. I don’t really know what to say; I’ll leave the picture to tell a thousand words. What I will say is that this room was the most ‘challenging’ of the tour. Not only did I have this speaker setup as my PA but the console itself had a sweet spot that needed to be punched when a buzz found its way into the system. Yes, that’s right, one of those handy tips from the in-house guys at the venue this night was: “Oh… if you get a buzz coming through, just give the console a good solid hit right here – should take care of it.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from touring, it’s that you sleep wherever and whenever the chance arises, because it may be a little while before another good chance comes around.
‘B’ IS FOR BACKLINE
Although this is Blue King Brown’s first trip to The States by themselves, the band has been here before, supporting Michael Franti & Spearhead. The Franti crew are looking after us again on this tour, providing us with some of their ‘B’ backline: drums, bass and guitar rigs plus some percussion stuff.
We arrived in San Francisco on the day before our first show here, to spend some time with the Guerrilla Management crew and the Spearhead guys, who are all based in San Fran. Waking up on show day, Sam Cope (Keys), Pete Wilkins (Drums) and I are lucky enough to have ‘Versace’ (Spearhead’s FOH Engineer) take us around San Fran and do the whole tourist thing before load-in. After spending a few hours driving around snapping photos of some of the sights around town, we head to San Fran’s Guitar Centre to buy a new mixer for Sam’s in-ears setup. Guitar centre is a huge store and has pretty much anything you want. I say ‘pretty much’ because the little Soundcraft mixer we were after was out of stock, and they weren’t prepared to forward one on to our next hotel destination, which made things hard.
Our San Francisco show was a support for Julian Marley at the ‘Independent’ and it was here that I met one of the best in-house teams of the tour. Being a FOH engineer for the support act is hard at the best of times, but when the band you’re mixing is Blue King Brown, relationships can often become ‘interesting’ because the minimum number of inputs we require can often exceed that of the headline act.
The Independent in-house crew were great; told me straight up what the deal was with sharing channels, what I could and couldn’t use or change. Once we were both on the same page, things went smoothly. The band played a fantastic gig and the crowd were receptive, which was timely given that there were quite a few ‘important’ people in the crowd that night.
After doing America’s West Coast for a while it was time to hit Canada. As soon as you cross the border into that country the scenery gets amazing and the in house crews get chilled!
All of the shows in Canada were absolute crackers. The Canadian audience love their live music and eat up good Australian bands as fast as they can get them over there. Our first show in Canada was on Vancouver Island in a little town called Tofino. Tofino is one of the most amazing places we visited, although rolling into town we were all a little concerned that we’d be playing to a bunch of drunken fisherman or something resembling that famous scene out of the Blues Brothers where they steal ‘The Good Ol’ Boys’ gig and play behind chicken wire… for their own protection.
I was also thinking the production might be similarly sketchy, as all I was able to get out of management about the tech rider for this show was: “You have the biggest boom box in town.” As it turned out, the venue was the local Leagues Club and the show had sold out on the morning of our arrival. And it was indeed the biggest boom box in town.
With a pretty standard double 15-inch and horn per side and two double 18-inch subs per side, the room cranked! Nat [Blue King Brown’s singer] actually had to stop the show at one point to calm the crowd down – they were getting a little out of control and a few of the girls down the front were getting crushed. Even the merch’ table was overwhelmed. It just went completely off! It was incredible.
Canada was a party no matter where we played. Everyone in the band fell in love with it, its music scene and its people, and we can’t wait to get back. If you’re a good Melbourne band get over to Canada, they love us there.
BACK IN THE US OF A
Our first gig back in the US was at a Chicago venue called Double Door. The crew at Double Door are always making improvements to their system wherever they can, apparently. They take pride in their system and welcome comments from touring engineers, such as myself, about their thoughts on the setup. It’s no wonder the room runs super smoothly and sounds great. I was impressed.
The FOH PA is taken care of by EV, with separate systems for FOH and monitors. What’s cool about Double Door is that the FOH setup has everything you need placed in front and all around you. All the outboard is well within your reach without ever having to move from the centre of the console. The FOH ‘Island’ is made up of a Crest 40-mono, four-stereo input console with on-board compressors over the eight groups as well as on-board parametric EQ over the mix bus. These features were great. Dbx, Valley People and Klark Teknik took care of the inserts, with TC and Yamaha effects.
Mixing the gig, I found the room a little woolly once bodies filled the space, but instead of reaching for the graphic to solve the problem, I thought I’d give the parametric EQ on the console a go. It worked wonders, the ‘Q’ control in particular helping define my cuts well.
The compressors on the groups weren’t great but they were certainly handy. I tried slamming some stuff though them on a sidechain and they crunched really well for that purpose.
NOT ALL GIGS & SLEEPLESS NIGHTS
Not every day was a gig day on the tour. Heading back out of Canada we found time to stop off at Niagara Falls, which was a phenomenal experience. What a sight this thing is. A reported average of over four million cubic feet of water goes over the falls every minute! Madness! Not only are they an amazing sight but they’re also harnessed as a renewable energy source, which I thought was cool. In fact, the falls have been used to supply power for over 100 years.
Strangely, a couple of our band members weren’t all that impressed by the falls. As it turned out they’d made a wrong turn at the car park and walked down to the American Falls, which, as impressive as they are, are much smaller than the main Horsehoe Falls a bit further back up the river. Once they’d worked out their mistake they rushed back to see the main falls before we all piled into the van once more. Our destination this time? New York City and a night off!
BIG APPLE GIGS
This tour has had a pretty gruelling schedule so we can’t wait to have a night to ourselves in none other than New York City. After doing some of the tourist sites like Times Square, we get out of the city and head to Soho, the land of hidden jazz clubs and all-night Mexican food!
Next up are our shows in New York, at a venue called Sullivan Hall, where the band was supported by Teresa Anderson over two nights. Teresa is a solo artist out of New Orleans who has some seriously cool stuff going on in her show. It’s essentially a solo act, but Teresa has become one with the world of live sampling, and has a pedal board to rival John Frusciante’s (well not quite). Check it out [above].
Sullivan Hall is an all Meyer affair: MLS4s for FOH, UPJs for delays and even some of their fancy self-powered MJF-212A monitor speakers, which sound amazing. I think it’s a real shame that we don’t see more Meyer rigs in Australia; the sound quality of this gear is top notch. I cut my teeth on Meyer MSL-4 PAs actually, while learning from the awesome crew at Melbourne’s System Sound, so I do have a bit of a soft spot for the brand.
Unfortunately, the system processing at Sullivan Hall wasn’t 100%. The delay speakers had more clarity than the FOH PA and the time alignment was out of kilter, even though I was assured by the in-house guy during soundcheck that it was 100% accurate… I was hearing three snares per hit, the original stage snare, quickly followed by the FOH and the delays in front of me. But with no Smaart system in the house and a locked processor there was very little I could do about it, apart from the obvious…
Part of the solution simply involved turning the delay speakers off since we didn’t really need them for our show anyway. This improved things out of sight and the show ended up sounding fine… twice!
After living with seven other people in one van, doing 19 gigs in 27 days, going back and forth between two countries while covering 11,806 miles (19,000 kms) and using a different PA every night, do I still love touring… Hell yes! With some time off from the road there is some serious rest time ahead. As usual, once my body realises I’m home and no longer touring, it will unleash all the tiredness and exhaustion it’s been holding back, which is always a bag of laughs.
Till next time.
To find out more about Blue King Brown, visit their website: www.bluekingbrown.com
If you have a minute, and are into live sampling and recording albums in kitchens, then check Teresa Anderson out at www.myspace.com/theresaanderssonmusic. And if you’re interested in BKB, check out their Moment of Truth single launch on October 24 at Melbourne’s Palace Theatre.