Veterans Of The Rock Scene
Febuary 2012 Issue 150
A supergroup in every sense of the word, American rock band Chickenfoot knows what it takes to fill a venue with energy. It doesn’t get much more rock ‘n’ roll than a line-up comprising former Van Halen members Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, guitar icon Joe Satriani and star drummer Kenny Aronoff. Keen to see the all star band in action and meet the hardworking crew, TPi’s Zoe Mutter attended the show in Tilburg, the Netherlands.
Fans congregated at Tilburg’s 013, waiting in eager anticipation in the crammed to capacity venue for a performance from some of the greatest legends from rock music’s hall of fame. The show was part of what Production Manager, Paul Binder, described as a warm-up tour before Chickenfoot head out on the road again in May with a full-scale show. When TPi saw the rockers perform in The Netherlands, their sold-out tour in support of new album Chickenfoot III was drawing to a close - having already played a selection of dates in the US, the UK and Europe, the band had one more date in Düsseldorf, which was being filmed for longrunning German series Rockpalast.
Binder has been with Chickenfoot since the very beginning and saw the band come together through a series of impromptu jam sessions at vocalist Sammy Hagar’s Mexico-based club Cabo Wabo. He said: “I’ve been with Sammy in different capacities since 1998 before becoming Production Manager in 2003. I helped him build the studio we used to record the demo for the first Chickenfoot record and the whole second Chickenfoot album. I’ve seen it all evolve and we have a great band and production crew.”
On the recent tour, Kenny Aronoff took over drumming duties for Chad Smith while he toured with Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the same way that choosing the right musician to take up the drumsticks was important, so was selecting the production team. Explained Binder: “Everyone who works with us has to have a really good attitude so we all gel. The crew we have now is down to years of honing out the right people. As it’s a team effort on our tour, I try to hire people who will work outside of their job and help other members of the crew and a lot of the guys have been with me for a long time.”
However, it’s not all been down to the people on tour - preparation has been at the centre of a smooth running production, with tech days planned at each venue to allow kit to be checked thoroughly. Binder added: “I wouldn’t be able to do my job without my production assistant Kenny Jensen either and the companies that handle the logistical side in terms of bussing and trucking - Horizon and Coach Service - have been amazing in bringing the whole tour together.”
Mixing for some of the music industry’s major players for the past 27 years has allowed A-list Audio Engineer, Michael ‘Ace’ Baker, to get FOH audio down to a fine art. Instead of taking the traditional route into the live music business by going through audio companies, Ace came up through the clubs, mixing at The House of Blues for a decade. The time he spent working at the music venue was instrumental in artists Sheila E, En Vogue and Anastasia, among many others hiring Ace and helping to hone his skills before he headed out on the road with Tower of Power.
“It was a pretty intense gig and I was doing 200 shows a year with Tower of Power. I felt it was time to mix some different music so I started working with Sammy Hagar four years ago - I was especially keen to come on tour with him because I grew up listening to his music,” said Ace.
Due to his reputation within the industry and link to vocalist Hagar, Ace was invited to join the crew when Satriani’s engineer - who mixed FOH on the band’s first outing - had commitments that clashed with the recent tour. With Ace on board, the audio crew for Chickenfoot’s recent road test dates was keen to experiment with multiple brands of audio kit before choosing a final list of equipment to feature on the larger scale shows later in the year. Said Ace: “We’re playing around with ideas when it comes to mics. We’ve brought a few different makes and models in and at the end of the tour we’ll figure out what we want to use going forward.”
When TPi spoke to the crew in Tilburg, Shure’s SM58 was being used as a vocal mic and, according to Monitor Engineer, Jim Jorgensen, it had performed well. He explained: “It’s the one that works best with Sammy’s vocal and Ace hasn’t had to EQ things too much. I’ve tried other capsules several times and I’ve always come back to the SM58 mainly because of its off axis rejection. Sam and Mike will sing together quite often so the newer capsules are more isolated and they wouldn’t pick up the off axis sound as well as an SM58. The industry is moving in a direction to have more off axis rejection and this is an instance where I prefer to have as little as possible.”
An assortment of other microphone models were thrown into the mix on stage. Audio-Technica’s AE2500 dual-element cardiod microphone was positioned in the kick drum, a Shure SM57 on the snare, the Audix Micro-D on the toms and bottom snare, Audio-Technica’s AE3000 cardioid condenser microphone was used on the lower tom and two Shure KSM32’s for overheads. Audio-Technica’s AT4081 ribbon microphone was positioned on the ride but, as Jorgensen pointed out, although ribbons have become increasingly popular, audio engineers need to be careful with their placement.
“Kenny’s such a touch player and we wanted something that picked up more of the character of the ride along with the different touches you get when you have a player like that and the ribbon mic was perfect,” said Jorgensen. “With Kenny being an avid studio drummer, he has several mic endorsements so we’re not being too brand specific at the moment and are using a mixed bag of mics. We had been using other models of mic for kick and snare for Chad Smith. Switching to the Audio-Technica dual element kick drum mic has worked well in this environment, picking up all of the high end we need while still maintaining its clarity.”
CREATING A CLASSIC ROCK SOUND
Ace’s selected digital board at FOH was the Yamaha PM5D and - with many of the venues on the tour featuring smaller production areas - the desk’s small footprint offered the crew added convenience. The size of the venues the tour was visiting dictated the FOH console chosen, but Ace also wanted to avoid desks that were highly plug-in based, believing quick navigation around the desk when mixing the 36 inputs he was working with to be of great importance.
“Half of the gear up there on stage was invented for the band and it wouldn’t make any sense to throw some of my favourite plug-ins over the top - that’s not what they want it to sound like. I try not to use too many effects because it’s old school rock and should sound like the band, just a little bit louder,” Ace highlighted.
“I like the way the 5D sounds and feels - it’s laid out well too and it’s the desk I got exposed to the earliest. When I was with Tower of Power we didn’t carry production and that seemed to be the desk I was on the most.”
To give the audience some extra wow factor in what was already a lively performance, Ace chose to use some gates on the kick and toms along with a little compression and delay. When working with bands that had multiple lead singers, Ace has used scenes, but he felt this was not necessary for a group such as Chickenfoot, which comprises a vocalist, drummer, bass player and guitar player.
Set up alongside the PM5D at FOH was the 24 channel version of the PreSonus StudioLive desk - a piece of equipment that Ace would not be without when multi-track recording audio on the road. He first got the opportunity to use the digital mixer when he needed to record audio whilst touring with former Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert. “We were playing a lot of 500-seat rock clubs and trying to figure out how best to record it. Some venues might have XLR outs and some might not have any, which made it tricky. I called PreSonus, who I’d worked with before with Tower of Power. The company had also provided some recording equipment for Sammy Hagar’s club, Cabo Wabo,” said Ace.
“PreSonus recommended we take its StudioLive console on the road with Chickenfoot and now I’m pretty vocal about my love of it. I think it sounds incredible and I’ve been able to multi-track record all the shows really easily. It takes up no room when it’s set up and has been with me on every tour since I first used it - as a FOH desk or a recording desk.”
Production Manager Binder is familiar with the strengths of the PreSonus StudioLive after it saved the day on a Sammy Hagar performance that Ace mixed at FOH. “It was a saving grace for us. The show was being recorded for a DVD for DirectTV in the US and the sound truck didn’t catch the first half hour of the show. Luckily, we were using the PreSonus as a back-up and we’ve now got into the habit of carrying it with us.
“A lot of famous rockstars play at Cabo Wabo too and put together jams that are unique so we needed a one button recording system there to capture those special moments because that’s how Chickenfoot came about. Through the club, we created this relationship with PreSonus and Ace has now taken out the console with other bands he worked with.”
AN EVOLVING PA CONFIGURATION
Similarly to the microphones, as the tour progressed from the US on to Europe, the PA equipment varied. Martin Audio’s Multi-cellular Loudspeaker Array (MLA) was chosen for the UK dates in Manchester and London, having been supplied directly by Capital Sound. However, when the band and crew moved on to the other European dates, house PA systems were used instead because the venues featured permanent installs and did not allow for an extra PA to be brought in.
Aside from Ace’s enthusiasm to use the MLA system, Jorgensen’s association with Martin Audio played a part in the system being brought in for the UK leg of the tour. Said Jorgensen: “Apart from Chickenfoot, I’m stepping back from touring to take up a position as Martin Audio’s MLA Product Support Specialist in North America. On the UK dates, the MLA was really consistent throughout the whole room - someone walked around with an SPL meter and it measured 105 at the mix position, the door, the fire exits and the balcony. It still had that big rock band sound and wasn’t just a pretty fidelity box, it had some punch to it.”
Added Ace: “I heard the system at a demo in Las Vegas last summer and, like every FOH guy, I’d been wanting to try it since it first came in. The MLA is the rig for the job when we go out this summer - it sounds awesome and there was a noticeable difference. Even in 3,000 seat rooms, there’s something about the PA that creates that big rock concert sound.”
The London show marked the Brixton Academy debut of the MLA. The system was configured with nine MLA elements and an MLD Downfill rigged each side and six MLX’s ground stacked on either flank. According to Systems Technician for the band’s UK dates, Mark Edwards, the MLA’s ability to produce a neutral balanced sound allowed the audio to be mixed flat on the PM5D. He explained: “Because the system is so responsive to system EQ, if there’s a bit too much sub in the room it is easy to notch a tiny bit out.”
He also commended Martin Audio’s Display predictive software: “The Drag & Drop approach to loading the optimisation is as transparent as it could possibly be and at Brixton I was surprised how little room interaction there was. Overall, I was extremely pleased with the sound.”
MASTER OF MONITOR WORLD
Whilst on the road, Jorgensen’s specialist knowledge was valued when selecting the best configuration of equipment to produce the big rock sound Chickenfoot is famous for along with the most suitable monitor kit for the band on stage. A fascination with audio that started at an early age when Jorgensen was a fifth grade AV technician in the school library has developed into a dream career working as a systems engineer for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Leona Lewis and Missy Elliott.
“I then got the chance to mix monitors for Sammy Hagar and have stayed with that ever since - this is my sixth tour with him. Sam has said the reason he likes Ace and I to work together is because we have similar mixing styles so, for example, if his wife is attending the show and stands on or off the stage, it will sound similar,” explained Jorgensen.
Adjusting to venues that have varied in size and shape significantly and altered the acoustics was a challenge for the audio team. Aiming for a dynamic feel on stage, Jorgensen therefore chose to use wedges instead of in-ear systems. In addition to the audio mixing consoles, Clair Brothers was selected to supply 16 SRM monitors fueled with Crown power, four Clair R4’s and six ML-18 low frequency subs for the tour because, according to Jorgensen, the company offers the most standard configuration of equipment and is well suited to international touring.
“The band wanted to get back to a point in time when it was fun and they weren’t playing to a click track or to anything that required so much production that it weighed them down. I needed to create an environment on stage so that it sounded like a friend from high school’s basement. It had to be very interactive on stage and IEMs can become quite confining,” said Jorgensen.
“The problem was that Sam runs from one side of the stage to the other and Joe plays at 114dB to 120dB on stage so it needed a lot of wedges to cover a large space. On the 2009 tour I was up to 24 wedges and had two sets of sidefills left and right.”
The convenience of the Avid Venue console in linking to Protools played a part in it being selected for use in monitor world. During the US tour dates, Jorgensen used Protools to record every night to allow him to carry out a virtual sound check the next day and archive the show. All 16 of the Venue’s mixes were used for the four piece rock band, with three mixes downstage, a stereo drum mix, stereo sidefills and additional mixes for the sides of the stage, VIP areas and backline techs.
“Nowadays, if you go to a concert and are standing backstage or at the side of the stage you may not find as much entertainment in the show as if you are out in front of the PA or in a space covered by audio. Here, if there’s a VIP section, I put out a stereo mix for them, so wherever you’re standing around the stage it will sound the same,” added Jorgensen.
Some of the levels on stage had to be reduced at Tilburg’s 013 because it was a smaller venue than those the band had played previously. Jorgensen specifically reduced the level of the snare drum, hi hat and stage right sidefill. Especially on stage right, guitarist Satriani wanted to keep tempo with drummer Aronoff and needed to hear more high end elements in the sidefill. Jorgensen made use of snapshots for some of the tracks performed but as the band has been testing out some new material on the recent tour, certain cues were still being written. “When it gets to the bigger tour later this year, we’ll have a snapshot for each song and a particular set list that coordinates everything on stage,” added Jorgensen.
OLD SCHOOL WITH NEW TECHNOLOGY
Having scaled back production for the road test tour, all members of the crew stepped up their game, including Jim ‘Rosie’ Greenawalt who designed and directed lighting as well as stage managing. An expert in the touring industry, Rosie started out on the lighting crew for Iron Maiden back in 1988 and went on to tour with rock stars AC/DC, Lenny Kravitz and Genesis. It was his working relationship with Sammy Hagar as his LD in 1999 that led to him becoming an important part of Chickenfoot’s productions when he joined as stage manager and later took on the lighting elements of the show.
“As we are playing more intimate venues to build up the hype on this tour, the lighting design is simpler and we have a smaller floor package. We’re trying to keep that classic rock look - old school but with new technology,” he said. “There’s a lot of red light used as it fits in with many of the songs and also with Sammy being known as the Red Rocker. We use ambers as well and not too many pastels so we can keep a hard edge with primary colours.”
Whilst Bandit Lites supplied lighting equipment when the group toured in the US, the floor package the crew carried with them on the European dates was provided by HSL and integrated into the house lighting system at every venue. On each of the six lighting towers a Philips Vari-Lite VL2500 was positioned along with a total of six Martin Professional Atomic 3000 Strobes. At the base of each tower, on the drums and on each mic, Rosie placed James Thomas Pixel Par 90’s to light up the towers and the backdrop. Around 120 PAR Cans were brought in by local vendors at each venue to use as fill in light. Rosie chose to make use of a standard 24-inch box truss and introduced Philips iColor tubes to form the Chickenfoot logo in a simple yet effective manner.
“I believe the fans don’t need a lot of over the top lighting that masks everything if they are really into the music. LED is still important in the show and we’re going to use a lot more of it in the larger rig to give the show a bigger look,” explained Rosie.
“We’ve been keeping the lighting quite static. At one point Sammy wanted more PAR Cans and to go really old school, but with a limited amount of space there’s only so much you can do. We needed to introduce some moving lights and even though I only have six of them, there are still lots of effects you can create.”
Lighting prep began last October, when Rosie spent four days programming the show at Bandit Lites in the US using recordings of the tracks the band would play live. According to the LD, both Bandit Lites and HSL have been supportive throughout the pre-production process and tour. A key piece of equipment on the road was Rosie’s High End Systems Wholehog 2 system, which produced a rock look with impact and included an extensive effects engine that he has been building up gradually. He explained: “The desk is really easy to work with and I’ve always used it. My favourite part is the eeffects engine, which I’ve been working on for the past decade because when you create some really cool looks, you don’t want to have to rebuild them every time.
“I don’t really work with cue stacks - I set up one song per page and then I just lay it out across the board as start, verse, chorus, solo and vamp. These guys play pretty much the same every night, but when they go into their jam, it’s helpful to be able to jump around and create different effects.”
Life on the road with Chickenfoot has been fun and fast-paced, revealed the LD, who classes his colleagues as his touring family. “We have a great production team, surrounded by top notch guys and everyone does their job above and beyond. The tour has been great and we’ve been excited every night because the album is so good,” he commented.
“I really enjoy the band’s music and understand it, which was the same with Sam when we started way back. Being a drummer years ago means I’ve got some kind of rhythm and makes it a little easier because you can figure out where the band is going. The highlight for me is when the house lights go out and the show begins.”
SEASONED PROS OF THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
When musicians with decades of experience such as Chickenfoot perform, magic is created on stage, but the same is true for the production unit, which Binder likens to old friends being reunited. The only disappointing part of the tour, he admitted, is that it was such a short run this time around. “On the road test, we were seeing how the fans took to Kenny playing drums and it’s been really successful. We’ve sold out dates and with the success of this run, we’ll be able to plan the next tour on a bigger scale,” he said.
Monitor Engineer Jorgensen echoed Binder’s sentiments, concluding: “We’re like family now we’ve been doing this for a number of years. They’re all industry veterans and it’s been extremely efficient, which allows us to have a lot of fun. These are musicians that I’ve liked since I started listening to music and now I get to work with them - that’s pretty rewarding.”
Photography: Zoe Mutter,
Jessica Gilbert & Martin Kelly