It was rough going into it, but we finished the first show of the Experience Hendrix tour. I flew to this show in Bethesda, Maryland, straight from a two-week tour of Japan and Southeast Asia with Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
The norm for this tour is to have a production day or two to get everything “tour-worthy” and do extended sound checks with all of the artists. Not this time! I had a 20-hour flight from Indonesia to New York, followed by a five-hour car ride to Maryland. To say that I was jetlagged is an understatement, and it took a toll on my nerves. So after getting as much sleep as I could, we headed off to load in.
Fortunately, the crew is all the same from the last few Experience Hendrix tours. These guys are the best—not only are they great techs, but they’re all terrific musicians as well. My monitor engineer for the tour, Mike Ronkainen, and I have been doing the tour together for 3+ years now, so we know the gig really well. The schedule for the day was to load in at 8 am, sound check with all artists starting at 2 pm for four hours, and then start the show at 8 pm. Thankfully, I’d had two shop prep days in Saratoga, NY, with 8Twenyfour Productions—the audio and backline provider for the tour—and they sent two top-notch techs to help get us up and running.
Now that everything was in order—trucks at the dock, bus in the lot, crew on site—we went inside and checked out the stage for the show tonight. My nerves dropped again. It’s a symphony hall, a perfect acoustic hall, designed for no amplifiers whatsoever. I worked in a place like this when I was a younger, and it was great until you turned on the P.A. The house engineer explained that about four seconds of reverb was designed into the room, and there are plexiglass baffles over the stage, steering the stage sound into the audience. After a mild nervous breakdown, the house engineer said he could tighten up the room sound by moving curtains—and the plexiglass could go away. That just left the huge cave-like room.
For the tour, we have a wall of guitar amps that stretches 50 feet across the stage and looks like a Guitar Center showroom. Fender, Marshall, 3 Monkeys, and many, many more—all on 11! Let’s just say that loud stage volume is an understatement! I started picking microphones for all of the instruments on stage. Some artists come with their own microphones due to their endorsements, but for the most part, I pick what I think will work well, and I generally stay with what we have used on past tours to keep it consistent. My theory over the last few years has been to keep it simple—a few boutique microphones, but for the most part guitar amps get a Sennheiser e906. Some artists ask for a Shure SM57, which I’m fine with. That mic has been around for 40 years—if it ain't broke, don’t fix it!
Jonny Lang brought a Shure KSM9 for his vocals and a KSM313 ribbon mic for his Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb. Brad Whitford brought something that looks like a SM58, but it’s not (no one will tell me what it is—it has no markings) for his 3 Monkeys amp. Eric Johnson brought two vintage SM57s (the Unidyne III type) for his two vintage Marshall 100 watt Plexis and vintage 4x12 cabs, and I provided vintage Sennheiser MD 409 U3s (my personal favorite mic) for his stereo early 60s Fender Twins. Buddy Guy has two sE Voodoo ribbon mics on his Blues Box amps. Robert Randolph gets two e906s, as does Kenny Wayne Shepherd. David Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas use Audix i5s. Mato Nanji gets an SM57, while Dweezil Zappa goes direct out of his Fractal Axe-Fx.
For the most part I use one mic per player unless it’s a stereo rig, as we are limited to one VENUE Stage Rack (48x16x8 AES outs), and the monitor console has 56 I/O. I have an additional eight-channel preamp at FOH (with my VENUE Profile System) for room mics and a few other inputs.
Bass guitars get Radial DIs—Billy Cox uses a passive JDI, Tony Franklin gets an active J48, and Scott Nelson gets the new Firefly Tube DI and a Beyerdynamic M88 on his cab per his request.
Bootsy Collins has three inputs: low, mid, and high. The low is a send off of his sub-bass send, which routes to the subs, while mid and high go through a JDI Duplex—these signals have the effects on them. His rig consists of two 8x10 cabs and one 2x18 sub—just a little bit of stage volume! The other players use an 8x10 each. We have one acoustic DI for Jonny Lang.
Chris Layton’s drum kit gets an Electro-Voice RE20 in the bass drum, Sennheiser e905s on top and bottom snare, e904s on toms, a Neumann KM 184 on hi-hat, and a a pair of vintage AKG C414 for overheads. Chris is really going for the Mitch Mitchell sound, so all of the drums are tuned really high and open. Drum tech and sometime drummer in the show, Mike Musburger, does a great job at helping me get the right sounds. Drummer Tim Austin, who is with us for the first six shows, gets my standard mic set up: a Sennheiser e901 and e902 for the bass drum, e905 on snare top and bottom, e908D condensers on toms, and KM 184s on hats, ride, and overheads.
For vocals, I use Sennheiser e935s set on two radio frequencies. I use one for the main center vocal, three wired on stage left and right, one for Robert Randolph, and one spare. The only other vocal mics are Jonny Lang’s KSM9 and a Shure Beta 57A for Keb’ Mo’. I really enjoy the e935s, as they give me everything I need and don’t pick up much stage volume. Room mics for the recordings are Neumann TLM 103s, stage left and right, and a matched pair of KM 184s in an XY pattern at the mixer.
After all of the mic setup and patching, we were finally ready for sound check. Most artists showed up around 2 pm-ish, and I started with the Pro Tools-recorded show from the last Experience Hendrix show in May 2011 (using Virtual Soundcheck). The drums and basses came to life pretty quickly and then I got 15–25 minutes with each guitar player.
I started by flattening out the EQ, then worked on each guitar channel for a few minutes until they started to sound like what each player was giving me from the stage. About 30 minutes into the sound check, I noticed that what the house engineer had done to the room had really tightened it up, and the decay time had shortened up by a massive amount. My nerves were slowly calming down (the jetlag was still a bit of a problem), so after a 3+ hour sound check, I got a quick bite to eat and had some time at FOH to go over the set list and program some snapshots for delay and reverb changes. Later, the crowd filed in—good crowd—a sold out 1,800 “sound baffles.”
And then finally, show time! The first song is “Stone Free,” with Billy Cox on bass and lead vocal, Eric Gales on background vocal and guitar, Mato on guitar, and Chris "Wipper" Layton on drums. In one minute, all of my fears were gone with the mix sitting nicely, with good clarity and a nice round tone.
As the three-hour show went on, it got better and better. By the encore of “Red House,” I felt really good about the first show in a large cave-like concert hall. No one died, and I got a few "Hey, good job soundman" compliments. The best praise I got was from my mentor and business partner Matt Elie, who gave me a big hug and said the sound gave him chills. So much for all of my worrying on the long flight in, the car ride, and first look at the room! To quote the great Tom Petty, "It's not supposed to be that good."