Bruce Springsteen Live

Jun 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Barbara Schultz; Photos By Steve Jennings



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photo of Bruce Springsteen

Front-of-house engineers often tell us that their top priority is to make sure the audience can hear all of the lyrics, especially when the lead singer is a great storyteller, a singer/songwriter type. All over club land, mixers strive to create a balanced mix, but keep those vocals intelligible and out-front. However, that task gets a bit more challenging when the singer/songwriter is fronting a powerhouse 16-piece band, and the audience is giving the 180-cabinet L-Acoustics P.A. a run for its money—shouting, singing along, bellowing “Broooooce” between numbers, and effectively defining the term “thunderous applause.” Bruce Springsteen’s eight-man audio crew has the job of delivering meaningful, dynamic sound to packed arenas full of those joyful fans—and to a fairly packed stage as well—and their hard work helps Springsteen and his E Street Band maintain a start-to-finish fever pitch for more than three hours, the way The Boss intended it.

“I’m working for a guy who has such a clear vision of where his music needs to go and how it needs to get there,” says Springsteen’s longtime FOH engineer John Cooper. “We had a conversation onstage 10 years ago in our first couple of rehearsals and it became very clear what I had to do to deliver this show, and that was to take it to a level where I got on top of the stage volume and on top of the audience. Nothing less does the material justice.

“I think the show does breathe dynamically pretty well,” continues Cooper, who has also mixed dates with Sheryl Crow, Ringo Starr and Lionel Richie just in the past year. “But at the same time, it’s a take-no-prisoners kind of thing. It’s a real challenge at the levels we’re working at to make things discernible and let you find all the parts that are essential to a piece of music.”

Cooper’s approach requires making informed decisions on the spot. “It’s a physical impossibility to hear everything all the time,” he says. “You have to take advantage of moments that lend themselves to allowing you to deliver the song the way it was meant to be. And those parts that exist in one piece of music might not be as evident in the next piece. Sometimes it’s all about the three blazing guitars, and sometimes it’s all about the dynamic punch of the horns, or the vocal accents, or the spark of Roy [Bittan]’s signature piano sound.”

And sometimes all of those moments happen in one song. Take the classic “Badlands,” for example, which, at the show Mix caught at San Jose’s HP Pavilion, was number three in a 26-song setlist that included several tracks from the stellar new Wrecking Ball album, as well as many fan favorites and a terrific Apollo Theater-inspired interlude of soul songs. At various moments, the gigantic wall of sound gives way to reveal those lovely piano parts, or a blistering guitar solo (or two), the lyrics of an especially powerful verse, or for the first time that night, a familiar, heart-wrenching sax solo by the late Clarence Clemons’ nephew, Jake Clemons.

“With 17 people onstage, it is real estate management in the tonal spectrum,” Cooper says. “All told, you’ve got three electric guitars, two acoustic guitars, a violin at times, a horn section, two keyboard players, singers, drums... With this many inputs, dynamics control is also crucial, and the compressors and downward expanders lend an extra hand to keep things under control.”

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