Tour Profile: David Bowie

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Breean Lingle

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From the moment David Bowie's band entered the stage, walking along a high catwalk and silhouetted against a dramatic, projected backdrop of the Milky Way (Bowie appearing suddenly below them, wrapped and abstracted by white beams of light), it's evident that his Reality tour is a rock show of grand proportion.

On this January night at the HP Pavilion (San Jose, Calif.), midway through a nine-month world tour, the set list reads like a Best of album. The music and Bowie's enthusiasm are infectious, and the audience spends much of the two-and-a-half-hour concert on its feet dancing. A showcase for Bowie's enduring, haunting vocal sound and the versatility of his bandmembers, the show segues from hard-hitting guitar and drum-powered songs to piano and electronica-influenced tracks such as “Fame,” “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Under Pressure” to songs off of his latest CD, Reality, including “Bring Me the Disco King,” “The Loneliest Guy” and “Days.”

MEET THE CREW

Front-of-house engineer Pete Keppler and monitor engineer Michael Prowda head up the audio crew, with systems provided by Firehouse Productions (Milan, N.Y.) and Adlib Audio (Liverpool, England). While regularly selling out arenas, the show occasionally dipped into 1,500-seaters, which meant that the system had to be scalable and the mixers needed to stay on their toes.

As a studio engineer in New York City, Keppler — a music enthusiast, part-time musician and iPod convert — previously toured with such singer/songwriters as Steve Earle, Aimee Mann and Suzanne Vega. He first worked as an assistant engineer in the recording studio and for one-off events with Bowie in 2000, and was asked to join full time for this year's tour. Keppler uses a Yamaha PM1D digital console, which he calls a “good-sounding, relatively bullet-proof desk.”

“It's totally active mixing, and for each song, the instruments change quite a bit,” he says. “I can change the compression and EQ; I don't have to scramble in-between songs, I just hit a new preset. We had a lot of production rehearsals last summer, and I was really able to hear each song and solo inputs to hear how things were fitting together and make a lot of base preset structures. I've been improving on it ever since.”

There are seven musicians onstage — Bowie (vocals/guitar), Sterling Campbell (drums), guitarists Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick, Mike Garson (piano/keyboard), Gail Ann Dorsey (vocals/guitar) and Catherine Russell (keyboard/backing vocals) — who, combined, require 53 inputs to FOH. Keppler handles FOH setup each day of the show, saying with a laugh, “It's just a preference of mine to be the one who connects everything because if anything has gone wrong, I don't have to blame anyone else. It's like a pilot knowing his plane.”

VOCALS ON TOP

Working with a dynamic vocalist such as Bowie, who not only has one of the most distinctive voices in the business, but also a masterful mic technique and a preference to control his own vocal effects, it's almost expected that his vocals would sit atop the mix. Keppler tempers this assumption, saying, “David's voice sits on top, but this is not a Vegas-style show. The band is every bit as present as they need to be in the mix.”

Bowie sings into a Shure Beta 58A, switching to a Shure wireless unit (comprising a U4D receiver matched with a U24D transmitter) when walking around the elevated sections of the stage during the show. The vocal chain starts with the Focusrite Red mic pre, from which both Keppler and monitor engineer Prowda take a line-level feed. Keppler uses two of the 24 onboard graphic EQs from the PM1D to compensate for the wired-to-wireless transitions. In addition to using the PM1D's onboard effects, Keppler relies on a couple of TC 3000s on vocals and select instruments and a BSS 901 dynamic EQ. All of Bowie's vocal mics go through a Summit DCL200, and a touch of reverb is added to vocals and the piano when necessary.

After experimenting with other P.A. systems on past tours, Keppler decided on a JBL VerTec line array, claiming that “it's the best rock 'n' roll P.A. out there. It really carries the high frequencies further than other systems I've used.” A maximum of 14 cabinets and subs are flown per side. Keppler takes the time to walk the house and check every zone in every venue for the most even coverage, making use of a PRAM wireless tablet that was introduced to him by his system tech, Tony Szabo. “I go into the deepest seats in the venue — up in the back row — tune the system from there and get it sounding good. Concert tickets are expensive these days. People come to hear a show as much as to see it. It doesn't matter where people are sitting. I want them to get the best sound they can.”

HALLO, MONITOR MAN

While Prowda has been a fixture on Bowie's tours for almost a decade now, he worked extensively — and just wrapped production — with the Blue Man Group before Bowie's current tour took to the road. A recent convert to the Yamaha PM1D, Prowda manages about 30 mixes during the show, a range that comprises six stereo musician mixes, 14 stems sent to Campbell's Mackie 1402 VLZ Pro, various tech mixes and a Bowie vocal send that feeds his vocal effects system. With 11 drum inputs and a variety of vocal, guitar and keyboard direct ins, Prowda relies on the scene capability of the PM1D, saying, “Every song is a scene and I have some 50-odd scenes.”

The Reality tour seems to be an atmosphere that encourages musicians to experiment with and take control of their own sound: Prowda has Campbell customizing his own mix. “He's got a 14-channel mixer,” Prowda says. “I'm creating mix stems off of the PM1D, which includes kick, snare, hat, bass guitar, a stereo drum mix-minus, DB vocal, a stereo band mix-minus, stereo tracks and click. Once my levels to the Mackie are set, he creates his own blend. It's been working great.” Campbell also gets extra punch on his drum throne through two Aura transducers. Prowda reports that there is another drum system onstage that uses a Firehouse F15 wedge on top of an L-Acoustics DV sub powered by L-Acoustics amps.

As for Bowie's mix, Prowda explains that, “What sounds good to me works well for him. There's no second-guessing. I make it sound like I think a house mix should sound with a blend of everything.” Bowie, meanwhile, puts his focus into his vocal performance, using a proprietary vocal effects system onstage that comprises a Digitech Vocalist and a Moog moogerfooger.

“These are doubler and distortion effects that go to monitors and front of house,” Prowda explains. “David has two volume pedals onstage where he mixes his own distortion and doubling and sets his volume level. He's hearing the balance in his head and wants it to sound similarly in the house.” In addition to onboard effects, which Prowda varies from song to song, he uses a dual-channel Focusrite 8 preamp and one his favorite tools — a Summit TLA100 — on Bowie's voice.

The entire band is on in-ear monitors: Sennheiser Evolution Series EW300s with Westone Elite Series ES2 soft molds, which Prowda likes because, “These systems provide the best audio quality and stereo imaging of anything I've heard to date,” adding that the frequency agility of the Sennheisers have become essential in today's marketplace. Prowda also employs a rack of eight Aphex Dominator 2s, processing that he “can't live without,” using it to “drive as much signal as possible into the radios.”

When it comes to miking the performers and their instruments, Prowda selects the right mic for the job, anything from “Shure KSM32s and Audio-Technica A-T 4050s on the guitars and overheads, Shure Beta 56s and 91s on snare and kick, to Sennheiser E 604s and 602s on tom and kick. I've got this mic that I love on hi-hat: an A-T 4041.” Backup vocals are heard through Shure Beta 58As and 87Cs.

Keppler credits his crew — Tony Szabo, Greg Lopez, Bob Lewis and John Drane — for their “expertise and ability to put up the P.A. up in such a wide variety of venues, and making it all work flawlessly.” Keppler also notes the generosity of tour vendor owners Bryan Olson (Firehouse) and Andy Dockerty (Adlib Audio), and thanks Prowda for doing an amazing job mixing in-ears for Bowie and the band. “If David Bowie and the band weren't able to hear themselves as well as they do, it wouldn't matter how well I mixed the show. It all starts from the stage. If the band can groove with each other, we'll have a good show.” Prowda, in turn, can't give enough kudos to his supporting crew who he laughingly refers to as a “dysfunctional extended family,” which includes his assistant, Tristan Johnson, Andrew Burns (guitar tech), Tom Calcaterra (guitar tech), Peter Danilowicz (keys and vocals effects tech), John Walsh (drum tech), Jeff Ousley (bass tech) and Dave MacMullan (computer tech). Despite any new challenges and demands that Keppler, Prowda and crew have to overcome during Bowie's tour, the reaction in the stands at tonight's show makes it evident that, Reality, as it is, is good enough.


Breean Lingle is a Mix editorial assistant.






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