Tour Profile: Sarah Brightman

Apr 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Gaby Alter

Songstress' Many Musical Worlds Traverse the Stage


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Few artists can claim the international success of Sarah Brightman — and fewer still have achieved it as she has — in three major genres of music. She began her career in the late '70s (while still in her teens) as a pop singer. Only a few years later, she was cast in the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, leading to the pair's much-publicized romance, marriage and creative partnership, and the beginning of Brightman's ascent to the pinnacle of the musical theater world. While helping sell out stages in London's West End, she also established herself as a classical singer, making the Top 10 in the UK with “Pie Jesu” and appearing onstage with Plácido Domingo. In the mid-'80s, Webber wrote the part of Christine in Phantom of the Opera specifically for Brightman, building the music around her unusual ability to handle both classical and contemporary pop styles.

In the beginning of the '90s, her relationship with Webber ended and Brightman moved on to a solo career. Her albums from that time forward brought in all three of her musical influences: She lent her ethereal, three-octave soprano to works by Beethoven and Dvorák, as well as songs by Kansas and trip-hoppers Hooverphonic, and continued to perform works by musical theater composers. Her latest, Harem, retains this eclecticism, adding Middle Eastern flavors to the mix. Its tracks feature a melange of classical orchestral arrangements, dance beats and Middle Eastern sounds and musicians, including Israel's Ofra Hazra and Iraqi vocalist Kazem Al Saher. Reworkings of “What a Wonderful World” and “Stranger in Paradise” rub shoulders with a tune by Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman and songs inspired by Borodin and Puccini.


As to be expected from the former Phantom star, there is no shortage of theatrics on the Harem tour, which played in large-capacity venues in North America until March, and now continues in Europe and Asia until the middle of the summer. Mix caught up with the tour at New York City's Madison Square Garden; photos taken at the Rosemont, Ill., Allstate Arena. “The stage is shaped like a crescent, and there's a 20-meter catwalk that comes down the center of the auditorium to a star-shaped B-stage,” says Colin Boland, Brightman's front-of-house engineer of nine years. “There are also [hydraulic] riser lifts built within the stage so musicians and the piano appear magically onstage.” In addition, there is a Foley flying system that allows Brightman to soar into the air on certain numbers.

With a show containing such a wide range of musical styles — often one right after the other, sometimes blended together in a single number — you need to have a board that can change musical gears quickly. “The show runs from pure dance music through to operatic arias to West End musical-type stuff; it goes the whole way,” says Boland. To accomplish the job, he uses a Yamaha PM-1D console, a board he's stuck with on six or seven tours with Brightman during the past two years. Its total programmability allows Boland to dispense with outboard effects on all instruments and makes it perfect for Brightman's diverse set. “Aside from Sarah's vocals, everything is internal on the board. I've been able to have a totally programmable compressor, gate and EQ for every song, for every instrument,” says Boland. “It's like having a whole new console or effects racks for every song.” This allows him to keep his attention on dynamic differences, so that when Brightman switches genres — from pop, say, to operatic belting — the volume stays even.

Boland and Andreas Linde-Buchner, Brightman's monitor engineer, are handling a fairly large group onstage. In addition to the singer and a sizable band (two keyboardists, two guitarists, a bass player, drummer and two percussionists), there are a group of backing vocalists and a 10-person string section. Boland mikes the string players individually with DPA 4060s. Most of the guitars are taken in-line, although one guitarist who plays mandolin, sitar, electric and acoustic guitars and a keyboard, is run through a Yamaha 03D board before giving the engineers two outputs. The drum set is miked with a Shure SM91 on the kick, an SM57 on the snares, a 451 on the hi-hat, SM98s on the toms and AKG 414s as overheads. In addition, an electronic V-drum system goes in direct.

For Middle Eastern percussionist Aviv Barak, Boland uses a combination of mics. “He's playing a variety of instruments, jars and things like that. We cover him with three 414s, and he also has a Sennheiser radio ME-102 [clip] because he moves about a bit,” Boland says. The other percussionist has a much larger setup: congas, bongos, djembes, timpanis, timbale, a “big warrior drum,” and a table of chimes, cymbals and bells. Besides two 414 overheads, the player has “two DPA 4060s strapped to his hands as hand mics, so as he moves around his percussion section, he's always there. It means that we can cut down the number of mics we need on his setup.” Boland does, however, mike the timpani with Sennheiser 441s and puts SM57s on the djembe and war drum.

Brightman's main vocal microphone is a handheld Sennheiser SKM-5000 with a Neumann capsule. “The SKM-5000 is the most incredible-sounding radio mic I've ever come across. It just captures everything,” Boland says. Brightman also uses a Neumann KM 140 with an extension tube that the company custom-built for her. All vocals go through Neve 9098 EQs chained with a BSS 901 compressor and a Lexicon 480 reverb, and then grouped using a Focusrite Producer Pack. The 901 filters out her frequent sibilance, and the Focusrite helps to control the volume spikes when Brightman launches into her operatic material.


Apart from four SSE speakers onstage for the benefit of the tour's dancers, all monitoring is done with in-ear systems. Brightman uses a Sennheiser Evolution 300 system. Most of the musicians either use the same or bring their own in-ears. “On the tours before, we had Sarah on wedges, and there was always a balance that had to be kept between what she hears from the speakers and what she hears from the room,” Linde-Buchner says. “On this tour, she has in-ears, which is, of course, a completely different way of hearing. She can't hear the room present anymore.” As a result, he adds reverb, though very carefully. “It's comparable to if you mix a rock band that was on wedges before and now they're on in-ears. If something goes wrong in the mix, if you're on wedges, you go and meter the side and you're fine because you're not in that direct sound beam anymore. If you've got in-ears, you carry it with you everywhere you go — there's no escape!”

Like Boland, Linde-Buchner mixes on a PM-1D and uses the console's onboard effects rather than outboard gear. He stays primarily with large room reverb settings, although none are necessary for the string players — their mics pick up enough ambience. “String players don't like putting headphones onto their ears anyway,” he says, “so if I add some effects on it, I think they won't like it at all.”

Though monitoring is fairly straightforward thanks to the console, Linde-Buchner finds one aspect of his setup unusual: “I'm sitting underneath the stage and don't have any eye contact with Sarah,” he says. “So what we're doing is using cameras so I can see several looks on her face or eye winks so I know that there is a problem or a need.”

Brightman's sound crew carries a Nexo GeoT P.A. system provided by SSE Hire. The main system comprises 11 GeoT 4805s (side hangs) and three GeoT 2815s, with four Nexo CD18 subwoofers behind per side. There are six additional 4805s per side on deck and four Nexo PS8 speakers are used as front-fills; the entire system is flown. The P.A. is powered by Camco Vortex 6 amplifiers and controlled with Nexo NX241 processors.

Boland has high praise for the system. “It has phase-cancellation speakers on the back and the back projection to the stage is incredible. You can actually take a condenser mic and throw your fader up to 10 and not worry about it. And also, [Sarah] can walk out onto the B-stage — 20 meters into the audience — with her microphone and we have absolutely no problem. And the size of the system is incredibly tiny.”

Ultimately, Boland finds that with an artist whose music ranges as widely as Brightman's does, the best thing he can do is be flexible. “The general approach I feel is a very ‘Zen’ one,” he says. “You basically deal with what's put at you. Having the programmable board means you can actually deal with everything song by song and you don't have to have an overall approach.”

Gaby Alter is a freelance writer, songwriter and musical composer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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