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Garth Brooks is Back

December 2014
Originally published at fohonline.com

When F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, Garth Brooks wasn’t around to refute that assertion. After officially “retiring” from recording and performing in 2001 — with periodic, strategic breaks to drop a few new singles and one-off shows — he came part of the way back in 2009 with a five-year performance-in-residence at the Encore Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Now, with a new deal with Sony Music Nashville and the release of his catalog in digital — something he resisted doing for years — Brooks embarked on a three-year-long world tour in September.

This isn’t your typical tour. Brooks’ putative victory lap could be viewed as a kind of extension of that in-residence gig at the Encore: he’s settling into venues for five, six or more nights at a time, in some cases doing two shows a night, and sometimes with a break of several days between shows. But Brooks has always done things his own way. In the 1990’s, he redefined what touring was for country music by studding his shows with pyrotechnical and rigging treats more commonly found in arena rock shows. His musical accomplishments are indisputable: 123 million LP’s sold make him officially the best-selling solo act in U.S. music history, and no one ever left a Garth Brooks concert feeling shortchanged.

A Hybrid Approach to Sound

Main hang at Allstate Arena, near Chicago, where the tour kicked offThe method of sound system deployment for Brooks’ world tour is a hybrid one, a cross between touring- and installed-system practices. “The show is in the round, 360, and Garth wanted to make sure that every seat in every venue was covered,” says Josh Sadd, the systems designer and the senior design engineer at Clair Brothers, the SR provider for the tour. Thus the cornerstone for the touring system is Clair’s i218-M and i212-M modules, which come in both touring and installed versions, which are loaded with a pair of 18- or 12-inch speakers. A left-right main array hang usually (depending upon the venue) has 16 i218-M boxes per side, topped with the i218-LT long-throw version to propagate high frequencies to the upper tiers of the venues. (The languidly paced tour had done arenas in Chicago and Atlanta through September, with only Jacksonville, Lexington, KY and Minneapolis announced by press time.) Rear hangs, aimed at the back of the stage area, comprise four arrays of 12 i212-Ms.

The marvel of the system, however, is the subwoofer arrays. A central array of 30 iS218-M subs in three columns of 10, each separated by 120° in a circular form, is flown above the center of the stage, directly above the drum kit. This LF array is always on but gets kicked into high gear as a special effect for several songs, such as the show opener, “Thunder Rolls.”

Crew, left to right: Pat O'Neill, crew chief; Dan Heins, FOH engineer; Josh Sadd, sound designer; Rob Rankin, system engineerAccording to Sadd, “We wanted a center column for even, low-frequency coverage throughout the venue to supplement the P.A., but the toroidal shape of the low frequency sound field is also very steerable. The array’s shape also keeps the energy away from the drum kit below — Sadd says they measured it as -24 dB down from the level in the house. “It’s essentially line array theory applied to low frequencies, with beam steering relying on the array being tall enough to create effective pattern control,” he says. A second sub array comprises 16 CS218-M subs stacked on the floor, eight per side, in a cardioid-endfire array molded to fit the outline of the oval stage. “It’s an effective way of filling the front and the floor with low end without imposing it on the stage,” says Sadd, noting that the Lake controller is used to steer the LF arrays. “It seems like an excessive amount of subs, especially for a country music show,” he adds (FOH mixer Dan Heins says the show regularly clocks in at about 105 dBA, with the audience as loud as the band at times), but points out that the LF array’s mass is precisely what gives it its steerability.

The rest of the P.A., which maxes out at 138 boxes, is rounded out with eight FF2-H fill speakers. Power is from 96 Lab.gruppen PLM20K amplifiers in 28 racks. The hangs’ lengths will vary according to the venue. Clair Global’s CM22 wedge monitors are hung below and pointing upwards from the stage deck rims. Most of the band is using Jerry Harvey Audio JH-16 IEM’s, but Brooks and fiddler Jimmy Mattingly remain very old school when it comes to monitors.

PerformanceThe heart of the design, though, is the coverage, which Sadd calls “immersive.” With this extended-stay touring model, Sadd and Clair techs are able to comprehensively model each venue in CAD and EASE and measure using SmaartLive, and Earthworks and Lectrosonics test microphones. “It’s a luxury most touring show don’t have,” he acknowledges. “We have time to advance each arena and really dial it in to get the system perfectly tuned for it.” In some cases, such as at Atlanta’s Philips Arena, the touring system is interfaced with the house’s distributed sound system, which gets it around architectural obstacles such as scoreboards. “That’s where it really starts to look like an installed system,” he says. “There’s the time to make sure every seat is absolutely covered.”

The emerging picture of a premium audio experience for the audience continues with the inclusion of a 96 k/24-bit Dante digital audio network as the main audio transport platform — both the Lab.gruppen amps and the DiGiCo SD7 consoles used at FOH are Dante enabled, using Wi-Fi tablets that allow the crew members Rob Rankin and Pat O’Neill to monitor and adjust the system from anywhere in the house. That’s backed up by both AES and analog pathways for triple redundancy.

A Visceral Mix

FOH setupDan Heins, who has mixed Brooks’ touring shows since the early 1990s, returned to the FOH position for the new tour. After the singer’s withdrawal from touring over a decade ago, Heins went to work for Clair’s nascent installed systems division in Nashville, and he sees the parallels with installed thinking with this tour’s sound system. “It’s based on the premise that every seat should have a similar and consistent sound experience,” he says. Pointing out the delay hangs, he adds, “We know the higher seats never get the same audio experience as the rest of the house, so we made sure that the tops of the arrays have the long-throw boxes.”

The DiGiCo SD7 consoles came about for a particularly digital-era set of reasons. Heins, who had mixed Brooks for years through an ATI/Paragon P40 analog desk, had some familiarity with it after using it on the Nashville flood relief benefit show at the Bridgestone Arena there in 2010. But it was specified for use at one particular show, a series of concerts in Dublin’s Croke Park scheduled for last July as a run-up to the tour, where the distance from stage to FOH required a fiber connection. The concerts were cancelled after a dispute between the city and Brooks, but the consoles stayed in the plan. “It was so close to the start of the tour that it just made sense,” says Heins, adding that monitor mixer Troy Milner used an SD7 when he was working with Bruce Springsteen. “As it turns out, we actually love it.”

System in Chicago arenaIn addition to the Dante connectivity, the SD7’s multiple MADI ports fit well with Brooks’ desire to record every show, in this case to a Pro Tools HD11 rig running 24/96. Every few shows, the hard drives are shipped to Nashville where digital transfer specialist BMS/Chase dumps them to LTO tape and the drives come back for the next set of shows. That content may become commercialized at some point later, but for now it’s being used for virtual sound checks, for the musicians to refine their parts, and to troubleshoot the systems. “It’s been a tool for everyone,” says Heins. “I can bring the entire thing up on the console with a single button, and Troy can hear it simultaneously on his console.”

There’s a bigger band this time around, including three background singers and a second keyboard player. They’re all singing into Shure KSM 9s, though vocalist (and Brooks’ wife) Trisha Yearwood uses an SM58, and all using a Shure Axient wireless system. But Garth continues to use the Crown CM311 headset mic that he made iconic, as one of the first stars of any music genre to use one.

Digital or analog, mixing Garth Brooks live is still a very visceral affair. Heins applies some processing from a Waves bundle, such as the C6 dynamics processor, and has an API 2500 stereo compressor on the main mix bus; there’s an SPL Transient Designer 4 on the drums — which Heins says does a remarkable job on the attack and sustain of the kit — and an SPL de-esser on the vocals, which also get a touch of reverb from a TC Electronic TC6000 that goes in through the console’s AES inputs. But mostly it’s about following the arc of the show as Brooks propels it. “Garth’s always been aggressive in concert,” he says. “If he’s not getting the energy he wants on stage, he’ll make it happen. As far as country goes, Garth was the leading influence to bring country music shows to a different level of production. He stepped up the bar for country music in the ‘90s, and it’s been that way ever since. Now he’s back full force.”

Monitorworld

Troy MilnerTroy Milner came to the tour after 13 years mixing monitors for Bruce Springsteen. Nearly a decade and half with a bunch of guys from New Jersey who never hesitate to let you know if they want something different in their ears is in stark contrast to Brooks’ tendency to communicate his satisfaction less emphatically. “I guess I was so used to getting lots of feedback from the guys in Bruce’s band,” Milner says. However, when Brooks does give a compliment, it comes with considerable heft. After mixing monitors for one of Brooks’ scattered gigs during his self-imposed semi-hiatus in 2008, the singer told Milner after his first sound check, “You’re the guy I want mixing my monitors,” as much a command as a commendation.

Fortunately, Milner came with considerable experience on the SD7, which he praises for its sound and automation. But monitors for Brooks — Milner continues to encourage him to try IEM’s, going so far as to have three sets of Jerry Harvey Audio 16s made for him — is an active proposition. With the stage ringed by 44 CM22s (the majority of the stereo wedges are installed into the stage itself and remain so even during transport), Milner has them grouped into eight zones, mainly stage areas Brooks will traverse during the show, letting him follow the singer around as he moves. “I never turn any zone all the way off during a show, but I’ll turn down the ones he’s not in and turn up the ones where he is,” he explains. “I’m constantly on the faders.” Even as that’s happening, he’s mixing within the zone, goosing guitar or fiddle solos and giving Brooks an active mix that reflects the show’s narrative.

By comparison the Shure PSM 1000 in-ear mixes are far simpler, with each user’s personal mix localized and with Milner switching preset scenes for each song from the console. And with 45 channels of wireless on stage, he adds that the Shure Axient wireless system has also been making his life simpler. “I love the Axient,” he says. “I have 24 channels of Axient for all vocals and all instruments in two racks all networked together. Using Wireless Workbench [software], I can scan, coordinate and easily change and monitor everything from one location. It’s made each show day a lot easier, and having all rechargeable batteries for everything is the only way to go now.”

Milner would also love to see Brooks switch to IEMs — he notes that Yearwood did so for the first time in her career for the tour and is happy that she’s raving about her mix to her husband — but he knows that his primary mission is to make sure that one of the most kinetic country-music performers in history can hear himself wherever he is on stage, no matter how loud it gets up there or in the house.

“My job is make sure that Garth hears what he needs to hear, all the time, and he never stays in one place very long,” says Milner. “The goal is to make sure that he never has to push too hard and wear himself out, especially on nights when he does two back-to-back two-and-a-half-hour shows.

Performance“The audience is incredibly loud, and Garth likes the stage rockin’ so I think we’ve found a nice balance,” Milner continues. “The stage is loud, but it’s completely under control now with the Clair CM22 wedges in the set. That wedge is a beast and makes my job easy.”

Garth Brooks isn’t the first artist to come back to active performing after announcing retirement, but he’s possibly the most significant. After having revolutionized what it meant to tour as a country artist, he’s now redefining the notion of touring itself, with a cross between a residency and a string of one-nighters, playing back-to-back shows one night and taking three or four nights off in between shows in the same city.

“We’re on a huge tour but we’re only doing two load-ins and load-outs a month,” Troy Milner marvels, traveling with a hybrid sound system to accommodate it. Brooks has always done things his way, and more often than not, others who come after follow pretty closely in his footsteps. So the touring world might as well get ready for some changes.