Tour Profile: Black Eyed Peas + N.E.R.D.

May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, by David John Farinella

Hip Hop Ensemble Goes Off the Deep End

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As if it wasn't difficult enough to mix the Black Eyed Peas — a quartet of rapper/vocalists and a four-piece band who are living up to the reputation that a Grammy-nominated song (“Where Is the Love”) demands — front-of-house engineer David Haines gets to his console and reports, “I just heard Robin Williams is here. That makes me want to mix the show even better.”

The Black Eyed Peas (vocalists will.i.am, apl.de.ap, Taboo and Fergie, along with guitarist George Pajon Jr., drummer Keith Harris and multi-instrumentalists Tim Izo and Printz Board) have had a steady climb since their 1998 major-label debut. The collective's latest, Elephunk, has pushed them into the spotlight, and they spent much of this spring co-headlining a tour with this year's “it” band, N.E.R.D.

At the end of March, Black Eyed Peas and N.E.R.D. pulled into the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, two weeks into the six-week tour. Haines is understandably a bit worn out, because any scheduled day off gets filled with another date. They've been gigging almost constantly since May 2003.

LONGEVITY COUNTS


Haines has been with the Black Eyed Peas for the past seven years, meeting them when he was a senior in college. “My two best friends — the guitarist and keyboard player — joined them before they got signed,” Haines recalls. “When I graduated, I got a job at Paramount Recording Studios in L.A. They got signed the same month that I started there and they came to Paramount to record that first album with me. Then they asked me to be their live sound engineer.” While the band first did a number of club dates, their major tour debut was Smokin' Grooves in the summer of '98, which included a list of hip hop greats such as Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and Busta Rhymes.

During the seven years that Haines has manned the FOH position, things have certainly changed for the band. “It's been a slow growth, and every time I think we've hit a plateau, it's gone to the next level. It just hasn't stopped and I'm amazed at what's happening.” The band has played mid-sized theater venues before, opening for OutKast and No Doubt. “It feels good to be co-headlining, though,” he says. “Now we're drawing crowds for us. That's different.”

This is monitor engineer Shaun Sebastian's first run with Black Eyed Peas and N.E.R.D., although he's worked steadily as a FOH engineer for the past 12 years, plying his trade with Bad Religion, Lifehouse and Soul Asylum, and touring Ozzfest last year with Jason Newsted and Voivod.

ENTER STAGE LEFT


Sebastian's monitor gig changed dramatically when a DiGiCo D5 console was rented from High Tech Audio in San Francisco. “I was using house consoles every day and it was quite a struggle,” he says. “We've got 60 inputs between the two bands and 26 mixes, mostly to in-ears. So it was pretty tough to make things happen on a daily basis with the console du jour.” Rather than carry any outboard gear, Sebastian makes use of the D5's onboard tools.

The main difference between the two bands, Sebastian explains, is that the Black Eyed Peas still use wedges. “Four of the eight members are on in-ears; the others use the wedges,” he says. “So it's not as clean of a mix. The N.E.R.D. guys are all on in-ears, so it's much easier and much cleaner-sounding.” Both bands are using Ultimate Ears UE-10s, while the wedges are all house models.

According to Haines, each of the four front wedges get the same mix. “The four vocalists are such a whirlwind up there, it's silly to divide them out. They're running everywhere and they're not even in front of the wedges half of the show.”

Both bands are fairly low maintenance for Sebastian. “Now that I have the D5 out here, I don't really do much,” he admits with a laugh. “I really shouldn't be saying that, but everything is programmed now. There might be a move here or a move there, but for the most part, it's all consistent.” For Black Eyed Peas, he'll move guitarist Pajon's wedges up during a solo, and at various times, he'll boost vocalist Fergie's in-ears.

UP THE MIDDLE


Just as Sebastian was relieved to pick up the D5, Haines is looking forward to getting his for this tour. “We're about to get one because the patching is a little bit of a nightmare between these two bands,” he says. “We're both somewhat input- and outboard-intensive. I like a challenge, but this is getting to be a little much.”

For the Warfield show, Haines used a Yamaha PM3500 desk and rented an L-Acoustics V-DOSC line array system. “I like how they work, as long as it's set up right,” Haines says of the system. He'll put vocals through the whole array, but he'll pump more vocals through the central cluster. “This is a loud band, so a lot of times, I need everything I can get to get the vocals over them. I like Yamaha stuff a lot. This is not necessarily top-of-the-line, but it's flexible and I can usually get what I want out of it.”

Haines takes full advantage of the VCAs on the board: “VCAs are what makes life easy,” he admits with a laugh. “I'd be chasing things around all night if I didn't use them. I just reorganized how I group things. I used to separate the kick and snare out on their own VCA, but I just started using a separate band VCA so I could change the whole band dynamics: drums on one, bass on two, guitar on three, keys on four, all the computer stuff on five, horns on six, vocals on seven and the entire band — everything but vocals — on eight. I can mix a lot of the show just riding seven and eight. If I needed to change the mix of the band within that band VCA, I can do that with the other VCAs. It makes it so I don't have to touch the actual faders that much during the show.”

The computer “stuff” he refers to includes an Akai MPC that Izo uses during the show, and an Apple iBook that's set up on Harris' drum kit. Until recently, the iBook was running Digidesign's Pro Tools with an 002 mixer, but the system has been crashing. “There's something up with the interface between the two,” Haines reports. “We're not sure what it is, but we've blown up three 002 mixers in the past few months. Normally, we have a separated click track and separated-out strings multitracked off of Pro Tools. Right now, we've condensed it into iTunes, and there's a stereo out of the iBook. It doesn't give us much flexibility, but it's more dependable.”

Because the Warfield features spacious floor and balcony sections, Haines had to do a lot of EQ and driver tweaking. “We've got a couple front-fills that are dialed in just right,” he says. “That's important, especially for vocal mics, because you don't want them feeding back. I EQ things differently for the balcony; there is definitely a lot of 125 floating around up here.”

As he's polishing the mix at the beginning of the set, the subs have already been handled. “I just crank them up until they thump,” he reports. “This band has a lot of tricks up their sleeve onstage to give me the low end that I need.” Although he won't cough up all of his tricks, he does point out that the bass parts being played on the Korg MS2000 by keyboardist Board and the sounds from the Moog Voyager are getting sent through the subs.

Haines has 33 inputs going into the board and about eight channels of outboard gear, which includes a TC-Helicon VoiceWorks, Eventide Eclipse, Yamaha SPX-990 and TC Electronics D2 and M1. The VoiceWorks is used for Fergie's vocals. “It helps round her sound out and makes her sound smoother. I also like it because it helps differentiate her voice from the guys; it gives a different characteristic to her voice,” he explains. “I do some pitch correction with it. When you're singing and dancing that much, you get out of breath by the end of the show, which is when the hits are, and she needs to be in tune for them. Sometimes it's more critical than others, but I like to have it just so it's there.”

As for microphones, Haines uses a combination of a Beyer M88 TG with a Shure Beta 91 on the kick. “I really like that combination, but the problem is that the 88 is a ribbon microphone so it gets thrashed really quickly. It's just really flexible with those two kick mics; you can get the broad range of tones.” On toms, he'll use Shure SM98s; the top and bottom of the snare get Shure Beta 57s; bongos are miked with Sennheiser MD 421s; and for overheads, he uses a pair of Shure KSM44s. Shure Beta 57s are used on the guitars, a Shure SM58 is used on Izo's flute and saxophone, and a Sennheiser 421 on Board's trumpet.

On vocals, Haines has been using wireless Shure Beta 58s, but he's “thinking about switching to the Beta 87s because I like the EQ curve on those better,” he explains. “We've been having some trouble with wireless recently. Not so much RF, but with mics cutting out and batteries coming loose. The mics are overloading, too, when they scream into them.”

A Moog Voyager, Rhodes keyboard and the MPC get the DI treatment. Typically, Haines will use a Behringer Quad DI, but they are being repaired. So for tonight's show, they are using house DI — a Whirlwind Director — for those instruments. On the compression/limiter front, a rack of dbx 166s gets the call. Haines has his eye on an Aphex Dominator multiband compressor, which might just change the way he handles the live mix. “I'm interested in doing something like what DJs do: some filter effects on the fly with the band and doing some mix-minus stuff where you have the vocals untouched, but on the rest of the mix, you have filter effects.” Ah, does the band know this yet? “No,” he admits with a laugh. “I've talked to a few of the guys about it, but it's just something I'm toying with.”

Beyond technology, Haines is consistently challenged by the band's musical ability and their tendency to play beyond what's been recorded. From musician to emcee, the band likes to stretch during a live set. “The way they are playing [live] is not like the album, so I try to create something new with what they are doing,” Haines explains. “It's hard to create a studio sound with what they're doing onstage and they are not aiming for that — if they were, I would try to re-create it, but they are trying to go someplace different.

“I think that's what's always been really dynamic about a live Black Eyed Peas show: They don't just go up there and play the blueprint; they go up there and go off the deep end with it. So a lot of what I do is try to follow their lead or see where they're going.”


David John Farinella is a writer based in San Francisco.






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