TOUR PROFILE: Melissa Etheridge: Arena Rock Hits the Theater Circuit

Feb 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Gregory A. DeTogne

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Absent from the touring scene for some two-and-a-half years before the release of her latest album, Breakdown, Melissa Etheridge took to the road in late September to promote the new disc. And, like other arena veterans such as John Mellencamp and Sting, Etheridge decided to open her new touring season with a string of dates in theaters, offering fans the opportunity to catch their favorite act in an intimate environment. Etheridge's first major theater show occurred October 7 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J., and the 1999 leg of the tour concluded December 18 at the Star of the Desert Arena in Primm, Nev.

Etheridge again teamed up with Escondido, Calif.-based sound company Sound Image. Jon Schimke has overall production management chores, overseeing both sound and lighting rigs. Huey Lewis veteran Jim Moran is handling monitors, and the FOH mix engineer is Steve Folsom, who has worked on Etheridge tours since June 1989.

"Melissa and I have talked about our long-term professional association at length," says Folsom. "We think it's because we both came from non-industry places-she's from Kansas, I'm from Maine-and we both slugged it out in the clubs for a lot of years, chasing a dream in a place where not many people achieve that dream. As fate would have it, we both made our respective visions come true at the same time. There's been a bond between us ever since."

EVERY SONG A ROCK ANTHEM Folsom's task is to bring aural harmony to a set list of 23 songs, a half-dozen of which are performed in an acoustic set midway through the three-hour show. In addition to Etheridge (vocals and guitar), the band includes John Shanks (guitar), Mark Browne (bass), Kenny Aronoff ("the world's loudest drummer," according to Folsom) and Patrick Warren (keyboards).

"There was a time in the beginning," Folsom recalls, "when we used to be a nice, 104dB kind of theater act. But then we started playing arenas. We got bigger and louder. Melissa loved it. This band loves it. The crowd loves it. Every song is a rock anthem. We've measured guitarist John Shanks in front of his rig onstage at 113 dB. Kenny [Aronoff] came in at 110 dB at the front of one of his snares. At the outset of this tour, I realized that there was no turning back. Everyone was demanding a big, powerful arena sound, even though we were going to be playing theaters. Creating that sound was my challenge. I had to effectively gear down from arenas in size and scope, yet still maintain the volume and presence that was expected."

Folsom's approach calls for optimizing the efficient use of both space and power. For the P.A., Sound Image supplies a dozen carbon-fiber G-5 three-way enclosures, four 2x18 subwoofer cabinets built expressly for theater use, a pair of G-2 carbon-fiber frontfills and two lip-fill loudspeakers from their ACE line of components.

The carbon-fiber G-5s play an important role in Folsom's system design. "Since they are made with a composite material, all the energy within these boxes comes out the front," he says. "There are no wooden surfaces to resonate and spill sound out onstage. We gained 3 dB per box right there just by saying 'no' to wood enclosures."

Folsom uses the G-2 frontfills for problematic areas down front and even entire balconies. Amplification throughout the Sound Image rig consists of QSC models, with 3800s for the G-5s, EX-4000s for the subs and PowerLight 1.8s for the G-2s. House drive processing is controlled via three bands of BSS Omnidrive for the three-way cabinets, with the subwoofers running from a separate aux send through a Yamaha C20A/ Behringer 5-band parametric combination. G-2 and lip-fill devices are tuned with XTA 11/43-octave EQs.

GETTING PERSONAL The Breakdown tour marks only the second time in Etheridge's live performance history that both band and star have opted for personal monitors onstage. Folsom says he found that, during the two-and-a-half-year gap since their last tour, new and better in-ear technology had been developed. Monitor engineer Moran agrees. "The only in-ear systems available just a few years ago made everything sound like surf music," he comments. "And I don't mean like the surf music of the early '60s with heavy reverb and guitars. I mean surf music like the noisy crashing of ocean waves breaking on the beach. Things have come a long way since then. Our system on this tour is clean. We dialed it in during rehearsals, and it has pretty much remained the same since."

Moran mixes monitors on a Yamaha PM4000M-56, which feeds an in-ear monitor system consisting of Shure PSM600 transmitters and wireless beltpack receivers for the bandmembers and Trace Foster, Etheridge's guitar tech, who fills in for some of her parts offstage. Drummer Aronoff mixes for himself on his own 16-channel Mackie and listens to custom dual-driver earpieces from Sensaphonics. A Sensaphonics seat shaker supplies the extra wallop necessary to supplement the drummer's in-ear mix.

Shure PSM600 systems for Etheridge and keyboardist Warren include new dual-driver earpieces supplied by ultimate Ears, whereas bassist Browne and guitarist Shanks still use the single-driver ultimate Ears models that they had used on the last tour.

"Compared to the last tour, which left some members of the band uneasy with the in-ear concept, this time we're in heaven," Folsom says. "Why did things turn around? Well, the gear has gotten immeasurably better, that's one thing. But it's more than that. We've evolved with the technology. When we first started using our previous system, we thought going in-ear meant being totally sealed away from everything. We didn't even have ambience mics in the beginning. As a result, we created these sterile, little, isolated worlds onstage. I loved it at FOH, but the musicians' performance suffered. Power chords weren't power chords anymore, the band couldn't feel them exploding around them properly. We struggled through back then, paying hideously expensive in-ear rental fees and still carrying a traditional monitor rig anyway, just in case. It wasn't until this tour that we really got it right." To correct the lack of ambience in the in-ear mix, Moran has added crowd and room pickup from Shure SM81 mics placed stage left and right.

MIC CHOICES At front-and-center, Etheridge uses a handheld Shure u24D/58 uHF system for vocals. The Shure uHF u1 bodypack is mated with Etheridge's headset mic, a much-modified Crown CM-311E. "After we got through with it, it became a 'neckset' mic," Folsom says with a grin. "Being a dynamic singer, what Melissa hated about headset mics was that she couldn't ever get away from them. She couldn't 'play' them properly, in other words. We took the Crown unit apart one day and sort of turned it inside out, adding a hair tie to hold everything together. Then we mounted it around her neck just like you'd do with a harmonica." The result is that Etheridge can turn away from the mic as necessary, adding the dynamic control she can otherwise achieve only with a handheld mic.

Guitarist Shanks plays through four custom, single-12 cabinets, driven by a selection of amp heads located offstage right, including Top Hat, Fender Bassman and Marshall models. Each of the cabinets is tilted backward at roughly a 60D angle on stands built by guitar tech Zachary Saville; this arrangement projects energy into the ceiling, sparing the first ten rows the full ear-bleeding fury of the stadium-size guitar rig. Never quite sure of what goes where in the guitar rig, Folsom has designated the two outside enclosures "wet" (fully effected), and the inside ones "dry" (less effected, usually with delay only). For the wet cabinets, Folsom uses Shure Beta 57As in front of the dry enclosures.

"Some songs start with ethereal sounds coming from the wet cabinets, which are panned hard left and right," Folsom explains. "When you hear them, it's almost as if a second keyboard is coming through. Then, as John's power chords come into the chorus, I bring up the center dry cabinets and punch it through. At that point, it's all him."

DRUMS, DRUMS, DRUMS Aronoff, who has played on more hit recordings than anyone would care to list, has been playing live with Etheridge since 1995. "When I sat down and thought about how I was going to represent the newer material live, the only way I could think of to do it was to add more pieces to my setup," he explains. "In the past, the set list was pretty much straight-ahead rock 'n' roll. This time, I had drum loops to deal with, plus a sizable amount of different textures and dynamics."

In rehearsals, Aronoff kept adding pieces until he reached a point where he had effectively created two drum kits, covering every square inch of available riser space. At the Chicago date, as the drummer proudly displayed a "Kenny Trackmaster" brass shell, hand-engraved super piccolo Signature Series snare drum from Tama, the star of the show walked by on her way to the front of the stage. "This is insane," Etheridge said, looking as if something from Aronoff's towering rig may break loose at any moment. Ignoring the good-natured jibe, Aronoff continued: "I arranged everything you see before you so that I could properly cover all the bases. And although I have a reputation as being a slammer, this new dynamic has changed me. Now I'm using brushes, dowels, many more cymbals and a number of other tricks to broaden the dynamic."

Folsom's first reaction to Aronoff's sprawling two-crammed-into-one drum kit was similar to Etheridge's, and he initially came up with a drum mic input list of 18 channels. "From my perspective, it really was insane," he recalls. "There were microphones everywhere: under the bells, under the ride, next to a sizzle cymbal way over to the right, in the kick drums...In some places you could reach out and touch four mics with one hand-that's how close the mounting positions were." To economize, Folsom uses two Shure KSM32 condenser mics as overheads. "I was able to use those two mics to capture a huge part of the kit, not just the overhead sounds. Given their performance characteristics and sensitivity, if Kenny started riding his sizzle cymbal, I found I could pull that sizzle out by simply riding the appropriate KSM32 on my end. I didn't need a dedicated sizzle cymbal mic. The more I experimented, the more I was able to strip away other mics in the same fashion. In my world, less is always more when it comes to miking drum kits."

Eventually, the drum input scheme was reduced to a manageable number. A Beta 52 on kick, SM57s for snare and piccolo snare, an SM81 for hi-hat, and Beta 98s on rack and floor toms. In Chicago, Aronoff also used a ddrum electronic pad as a second kick, but it was replaced later in the tour with a Tama 18-inch Deep Star Classic unit outfitted with a ddrum trigger. "The sounds are the same; it just feels better," Aronoff says.

BOTTOMLESS LESLIE Keyboardist Warren's setup includes such vintage items as an orange Wurlitzer, a Chamberlin and classic Hammond B-3. using Countryman DIs for the electronic keys, Folsom originally miked the Hammond's Leslie cabinet in a traditional fashion at top and bottom, using a Beta 52 on the bottom and a Beta 56 on top. New at the helm of a genuine Hammond (he bought his first one just for this tour), Warren likes to reverb up and mix in little percussive sounds, adding a few pop playing techniques along the way. Although he quickly discovered that the rotor switch leading to the Leslie can be fun, he never went for the low-end, dragging growls some players latch onto.

As Folsom tells it, "Jim [Moran] and I were talking one day, and we both agreed we didn't really even need the low mic. Jim had used a Shure single-point stereo VP88 on a Leslie with Huey Lewis, so I brought one out and we tried it on top with nothing on the bottom. It did what 88s do-gave us that natural, perfect blend from left to right."

The VP88 also proves useful for the show's acoustic set in an overhead left-and right-configuration over Aronoff's cocktail kit. The quirky-looking drum set from Remo fuses diverse elements (a snare drum body with a conga head, for example) and can be played with either hands or sticks. In addition to the VP88 overheads, Folsom uses a Beta 56 for kick.

Of the remaining inputs, bass is taken DI, and Etheridge's Matchless guitar amp is stashed offstage right and miked with an SM57. Beta 58A microphones serve for backing vocals, and a Shure SM98 for the accordion completes the input list.

RACK GOODIES Folsom has a "less is more" philosophy on processing and has neatly tucked everything vital for the Breakdown tour into a pair of outboard racks. "Most clubs have more stuff than I do," he says. A Roland SDE-3000 supplies about one-quarter of a second of delay for Etheridge's vocal. "But I don't use it in nice-sounding rooms," Folsom is quick to point out. "In really live rooms, however, I use it to bring a little more dimension to her voice than everything else around her. After I use it, I turn it off. I don't want it perceived as being an effect."

A pair of Yamaha Pro R3 digital reverbs are mainly used on drums. To meet the need for a "lo-fi" section in the show, Folsom uses the filtering effects of a Yamaha SPX990. A Drawmer 1960 tube mic preamp/compressor is assigned to Etheridge's acoustic guitar and bass, and four Aphex 661 Tubessence compressors are patched across the four vocal channels. Six Behringer Intelligates occupy the remaining rackspaces.

To ensure that the rig would fit in theaters, Folsom selected a Yamaha PM-3500-56 console for FOH. And, acting on a tip from a friend at Sound Image, Folsom uses the single-rackspace, 2-channel Midas XL-42 mic preamp/EQ for Etheridge's vocals. "It's a great meeting of cultures," he says. "I now have nice warm English EQ on my Japanese board."






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