Tour Profile: Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood

Jun 15, 2010 4:33 PM, By Gaby Alter

WORKING THE STAGE AND THE AUDIENCE THE GOOD OLD-FASHIONED WAY

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When many big pop acts put on a show, it typically calls for a heavily choreographed routine. Such acts follow a tight script that's filled with large production numbers, dancers and special effects. For Keith Urban, one of the biggest names in contemporary country music, putting on a show means doing it the old-fashioned way: working hard to win over the crowd, changing up the set with new arrangements — in short, making it anything but routine. This was evident at New York City's Madison Square Garden, one of the first stops on the Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Carnival Ride tour featuring co-headliners Urban and Carrie Underwood. The tour began in January and will be making stops across the U.S. before heading to Urban's native Australia and then finishing up Stateside this month. During his performance, Urban ran from one end of the stage to the other, up and down a runway and often into the audience, where he let fans touch him as he took guitar solos. At one point, he even unplugged his axe, signed it and gave it to a dumbfounded fan.

Urban's front-of-house engineer, Steve Laws, has been with the singer (minus a few breaks) since Urban started out on Australia's club scene 20 years ago. Admittedly, Urban's old-school Aussie club chops are enhanced by very new-school technology, in particular a 60×40-foot high-definition video wall that adds some fancy imagery and close-ups of the band.

The tour is carrying a Clair Bros. P.A., with the new “bow-tie” subs, eight i4s as side hangs in large arenas and a pair doing frontfills. “There's always a zone in the center that no matter what concert you go to is the worst seat in the house,” Laws says. “So we put a pair of i4s there, stacked on the subs, making it punchy down in the front. We have a couple of smaller P2 cabinets doing outfills on the very end of the runway on the sides, just for the people way close in the front. It's very consistent sonically from venue to venue. It doesn't throw a lot of junk off the back. It's a great system.”

However, the nucleus of the show remains Urban's spontaneous, crowd-engaging style. “He's known for grabbing the mic and going out into the audience, which is always fun,” says Spence. “The biggest trick was coming up with a game plan for his spontaneity to make sure he had a mic when he was out in the crowd and by the time he got back up onstage. So we have six vocal mic positions for him between the main stage, the B stage and the piano position. Whatever he's closest to, he grabs it and goes.” The mics — Shure Beta 87 capsules with Shure U4D receivers and U2 transmitters, along with a KSM9 as the main stage mic — often see abuse in the line of duty. “He goes out into the audience, grabs a mic and sings on it; now when it's time for him to play guitar, the mic just gets thrown,” Spence says, “so they're a little dinged up. We're on a rotation of getting 'em repaired, but it makes it fun for the audience.”

“Both Jason and I have to be on our toes a lot because he'll do audibles,” adds Laws. “He'll just call a song, and we've got to be ready to go. It doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen.” What's more, the band changes instruments frequently. During the show, Urban plays electric and acoustic guitars, banjo and bass, and his bandmembers switch between acoustic and electric guitars, banjo and mandolin. In addition, the band plays a second, mostly acoustic set on a raised platform at the end of a runway in the center of the arena, which has its own setup (and during which more instrument switching occurs). In all, Spence and Laws must deal with a massive 104 inputs. “I do a lot of awards shows, and I don't have that many inputs coming from [them],” Spence says.

To handle the FOH mix, Laws uses a DiGiCo D5 console. “I'd still rather have an analog system at the end of the day, but it's really impractical, especially now,” he says. “It's also a space-saving thing. I'd basically need two [Midas] XL4s to make the whole thing work, and the amount of real estate I'd take up would be obscene.

“I use the onboard EQ,” Laws continues. “I'm not big on using too many inserts or too many outboard devices, especially on a digital console; that kind of defeats the purpose of why you got the thing in the first place. Not only that, you can introduce latency, and then trying to compensate for that. I know a lot of people who don't compensate for it, and personally I can hear it.

“The only outboard I use is a [Lexicon] 480L. There's not many things around that can do what a 480L does. I use a medium hall setting, and I use a snare plate or a wood room on the snare drum. I have a [Tech 21] SansAmp guitar preamp I use to distort the drum kit for a couple of songs, and also the bass guitar for a couple of songs. It gives it a little edge. [For] the drum kit, I have [Empirical Labs] Distressors on the kick and snare, simply because there's nothing like that inside the DiGiCo. I've also got the ADK [Pro Audio] computer with the Universal Audio card, so I can access LA-2As and 1176s and things like that, but it's through the DiGiCo without having to go through any kind of conversion.” Laws sends the rest of the drum kit through a stereo pair to an Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso audio processor, “which really makes the drums leap out of the mix,” he adds.

Laws groups Urban's six vocal channels together and inserts Crane Song Trakker Class-A compressor/limiters across the group. “[It's] a studio device, primarily, but probably one of the most awesome compressors I've ever used,” he says. “I've got two of the Trakkers, and I also have an STC-8 [Crane Song stereo compressor], which I use over bass and guitar. There's a few touring guys that use the STC-8 on bass; it's really one of the best bass guitar compressors out there. The Trakkers are a little different — more of a mastering compressor and really good at handling vocal transients without any kind of coloration. It does have a lot of options. It's basically every compressor that you've ever used built into one compressor.”






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