Tour Profile: R.E.M. and Wilco

Dec 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Heather Johnson

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When college rock trailblazers R.E.M. wrapped up their last tour in 1999, it was almost the end of the world as they knew it, to paraphrase their apocalyptic radio hit. Despite selling more than 40 million albums in their 20-plus-year career, lead vocalist Michael Stipe, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck nearly called it quits, bogged down by intraband tension and the 1997 departure of drummer Bill Berry. But rather than sever all ties with one another, the trio reconciled, recommitted and, most recently, set out in support of their greatest hits compilation, In Time: The Best of R.E.M., 1988-2003.

Drummer Bill Rieflin, best known for his work with industrial band Ministry, joined the original threesome and multi-instrumentalists Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Robyn Hitchcock) for a 22-song set culled from their past 13 albums, including two new tracks from In Time: “Bad Day” and “Animal.”

For this tour, fans could submit song requests through www.remhq.com, which the band later used to determine each night's set list. As a result, the chilled, but appreciative, crowd at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., heard a hand-picked mix of well-worn radio favorites (“Losing My Religion,” “Man on the Moon”) and more obscure cuts (“Welcome to the Occupation,” “Country Feedback”).

Engineer Jo Ravitch, a 23-year Clair Bros. veteran, held the FOH position after working as the band's system tech since 1989. Ravitch was joined by Clair Bros. monitor engineer Frank Lopes, and together, they took an organic, “less is more” approach when mixing the show.

Ravitch, whose credits include stints with U2, Rush and Elton John, worked on a 48-input Midas XL4 console. “It's a very warm, clean-sounding analog board,” Ravitch says. He used 40 channels for instruments, eight for effects. He also bypassed the Midas' automation system in favor of a more hands-on approach. “I enjoy being able to just lay my hands on the board, twist the knobs and do it,” Ravitch says. “The band has more than 120 songs, and if I had to scroll to a setting for every one of those songs, that could take [awhile] and we don't have a lot of time.

“It keeps you on your toes,” Ravitch says of moving each fader manually. “I find that the less you depend on automation, the more you think about the texture of the mix. You're constantly using your head and your ears. It's kind of retro, but I enjoy that.”

R.E.M.'s onstage setup could also be considered retro in an era of programmed drums, prerecorded vocals and processed-to-oblivion guitars. “This band plays everything themselves,” Ravitch says. “There's no sampling going on, no Pro Tools, just them playing their stuff. A few things [drummer Rieflin] plays are synthetic, but by and large, there's no looping going on at all.”

Their intelligent, often controversial lyrics and jangly guitars that influenced hordes of modern rock acts since the 1980s poured out of a Clair Bros. I-4 line array system, one that Ravitch helped to develop with another R.E.M. live engineer, Joe O'Herlihy. The group toured with a total of 40 I-4 cabinets and 36 I-4Bs, but for the Shoreline date, Ravitch pared down the system to include four long-throw cabinets per side, four mid-throw cabinets, two short-throw and two 10Þ cabinets turned on their sides. The Clair Bros. i/O system controlled the P.A., which was powered by a combination of Crest and QSC amplifiers.

Ravitch's effects rack included two dbx 160 Series compressors for Stipe's vocals: one on his Shure Beta 58A microphone and another for his wireless setup. The dbx is also used on Mills' and Buck's vocals, as are an Eventide Eclipse effects processor and TC Electronic D-Two and M5000.

The banjo, 12-string guitar and mandolin run through Manley compressors, while the rest of the drum kit runs through Aphex 612 stereo gates. The snare gets fattened up with a combination of Lexicon PCM70 and Yamaha SPX90 reverbs.

Ravitch chose the Shure Beta 58A as the group's collective vocal mic. “Michael is pretty hard on his mics,” Ravitch explains. “We go through at least one a show with him, but we can field repair the Shures pretty easily.”

All guitars were miked with Sennheiser 409s, and Ravitch added an Avalon U5 DI on acoustic six-strings. A Countryman Type-85 FET DI worked well on Mills' bass. Stringfellow's vintage organs were miked with Sennheiser 421s: two for the top and one for the bottom. On drums, Ravitch used an Audio-Technica AE2500. “We got loaned one for our European tour,” Ravitch says. “I fell in love with it, so I got another one as a spare.” He also used Shure SM57s for the snare top and bottom, Electro-Voice 408s for the toms, an Audio-Technica AT4050 for the overhead and an AKG 460 for the hi-hats. Rieflin's drum machine runs through a Countryman DI, while banjo, mandolin, and six- and 12-string guitars run through the Avalon DI.

BACK TO BASICS FOR MONITORS

Like Ravitch, Clair Bros. monitor engineer Frank Lopes adopted a rather old-school approach on this tour. Bypassing the i/O system, Lopes worked with popular Clair 12 AM crossovers and wedge monitors, powered by Crown amps. “It makes mixing fun,” Lopes says. “It creates a really big, warm sound, and I don't have to fight feedback.”

For this tour, Lopes decided on a 64-input Midas XL4 console. “I have all of the mixes in stereo,” he explains. “In monitor world, it's easier for things to peak out. But this way, I can pan things out and get more separation. It's been quite effective, but it requires more amplifiers, more speaker cable, more outputs and more EQ.”

Lopes used a TC Electronic M5000 with Stipe's stereo wedge and in-ear monitor, which he uses simultaneously. Lopes also time-aligns the in-ear between six to 10 milliseconds higher than the wedge. “What would normally come out of the right wedge goes into his right ear, so he actually gets the stereo image,” he says.

Both Stipe and Rieflin use Future Sonics ear molds — usually hot pink, green, black or another unusual color for Stipe — with the Shure PSM 600 transmitter and beltpack. The rest of the group relies solely on wedges.

On his first tour with R.E.M., the 32-year-old New Jersey native proved himself to be a confident engineer when he challenged Stipe's microphone etiquette by asking him to stop cupping the mic with his hand. “He's got it down now,” Lopes says, “though we still put tape near the ball of the mic to remind him not to put his hand there. That's made our lives so much better.”

LESS IS MORE IN WILCO WORLD

Newly configured, rootsy-rock quartet Wilco was a fitting opening act for the tour, both for sonic and personal reasons. They, too, lost a drummer (Ken Coomer) in recent years, not to mention co-founder Jay Bennett and their previous label, Warner Bros. Thankfully, Nonesuch Records picked up their latest album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, now hailed by critics as one of the group's most adventurous efforts to date. Wilco's tumultuous career later became a successful documentary for filmmaker/photographer Sam Jones, titled I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

The current lineup of Wilco co-founder Jeff Tweedy (guitars/vocals), John Stirratt (bass), Leroy Bach (keyboards) and drummer Glenn Kotche took to the stage using little in the way of lighting or visual effects, playing a stripped-down, rocked-out set of familiar tunes such as “Box Full of Letters,” as well as songs from their 2003 EP, More Like the Moon and new tracks from their forthcoming full-length disc. Wilco's current studio engineer and touring bandmate Mike Jorgenson contributed keyboard, guitar and computer-generated effects.

FOH engineer Stan Doty has ridden with Wilco on their roller-coaster career during the past three years, working on everything from small club dates to expansive shed tours. The Windy City-based sound veteran has also worked with fellow Chicagoans such as Liz Phair and Veruca Salt, as well as Sub Pop acts such as REX and The Grifters. On this tour, Doty mixed on a Midas XL4 console. “They have some of the nicest preamps in the business,” he says. “We run 39 channels for inputs and effects, including 10 for guitars. I use almost every inch of that board.”

Effects include a TC Electronic M1000, two Yamaha SPX1000s and a dbx 166XL for occasional vocal compression. His all-Shure microphone setup includes Beta 52As for kick and bass drum, SM57s on the snare, SM81s on the overhead, and Beta 98s for the toms. Doty mikes background vocals with Shure SM58s, while guitars and keyboard amps are miked with a 56A.

Monitor engineer Jason Tobias, also Wilco's drum tech and production manager, relies solely on the Midas XL3 console for gates and effects. After trying, and later tossing, in-ear monitors, the band switched to Clair Bros. 12AM wedges. “They wanted to feel the air again,” Tobias says, “so we went back to a more organic environment.”

Both R.E.M. and Wilco seem to share an appreciation for generally unprocessed live sound environments. They've also both survived enough drama for one lifetime, and, experiencing an upturn in their careers, there's no end in sight.


Heather Johnson is Mix's new editorial assistant.






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