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Joni Mitchell With Strings   Print

by Chris Michie
MIX - The Recording Industry Magazine
September 2000

A four-time Grammy winner, Joni Mitchell has consistently stretched her prodigious talent and many of the 20 albums in her catalog roam far from her folk music roots. But Mitchell's latest album, Both Sides Now, is something entirely new even for her - an album on which Mitchell sings "standards", plus remakes of two of her best-known songs, over sumptuous, orchestral arrangements.

Recording artists typically schedule a tour to promote a new record release, but the number of popular artists who have successfully toured with a full symphony orchestra is predictably small; the expense and logistical barriers alone are enough to deter all but the bravest souls. So it was with a faint air of gruesome fascination that Mix attended Joni Mitchell's May 13 show at the recently renamed Chronicle Pavilion in Concord, Calif. As it turned out, the show was a stunning success, but reproducing the songs from Both Sides Now in concert - the set list included every song on the album, in order - posed many technical challenges. FOH engineer Grant McAree and monitor engineer Mark Frink were kind enough to describe the technical setup after the tour ended.

"We were out for the month of May," says Frink (whom, we should note, is Mix's sound reinforcement editor). "After rehearsing for a couple of days in Los Angeles with an orchestra, we did 13 shows in 12 cities. It was a short run, but it was long days for us because we contracted a new symphony orchestra in each new city, and that meant that we had to have the P.A. up and running at noon every day. Conductor Vince Mendoza (who arranged and conducted the album) started conducting the orchestra and running through the parts at noon, and it actually took the entire afternoon to rehearse the 12 songs on the album, plus another five that Joni had asked Vince to arrange for the tour."

Because the entire sound system plus chairs, music stands and lights for every musician had to be in place and working by midday, load-in started at 7 a.m. whenever possible, 8 a.m. at the latest. Once the four-truss, conventional par can lighting rig (from Obie's Lights of Los Angeles) was in the air, the sound crew had to work fast to get the P.A. system flown and the stage set in the time allowed.

Flying the P.A. was relatively simple, as the tour used a fairly compact Meyer Sound system supplied by Jason Sound of Toronto, Ontario. Commissioned two years ago for the Barenaked Ladies and designed by independent engineer and SIM operator Dave Lawler, the system goes up quickly and features a drive rack optimized for SIM measurement and manipulation. Each of the two main clusters featured three Meyer Sound MSL-6s in the top row for long throw. In the second row were three DS-4P self-powered mid-bass boxes, with a row of MSL-4s on the bottom. "That was the usual cluster configuration," comments Frink. "In some shorter rooms, we would collapse the cluster into two rows and alternate MSL-4s and DS-4Ps in the second row."

McAree and Lawler took great pains to ensure that all audience members got a representative mix and typically hung a pair of MSL-2s beneath each cluster for front and side fill, occasionally supplemented by another MSL-2 on the extreme outside of the stage. Most of the stages on the tour were at least 40 feet wide, so they also placed as many as eight Jason P80s across the front of the stage as front fills.

While McAree, Lawler and system tech John Sulek were flying the P.A., Frink and stage manager David Riley kept busy setting the stage. "Riley, who has been Joni Mitchell's guitar tech for some years, was given several hats to wear," recalls Frink. In addition to setting up the drums, the bass amp and a Yamaha piano fitted with a Helpinstill, Riley set out all of the music stands for the orchestra and also acted as music librarian. "We traveled with not only all our mics and stands but also the chairs and music stands and music stand lights for the orchestra," says Frink. "It was a hard decision, but we decided it was better to bring those ourselves than to rely on a local vendor."

CLIP MICS FOR STRINGS
FOH engineer McAree knew that he wanted to use Schoeps condenser mics for the area mics in the orchestra, but he also wanted to be able to boost instruments and sections as needed. The Both Sides Now CD features a fairly active mic, and album co-producer and tour musical director Larry Klein had made it clear that he wanted to capture the sound of the record, so McAree set to work to find a mic package that included clip-on mics that could be mounted on individual string instruments.

"Putting the mic kit together was a trip, in terms of who's got them and wasn't already committed," says McAree. "We knew we wanted Schoeps and some Neumanns, so it was a matter of finding them all from one supplier at the right price." In the end, a Canadian company called Euro Classic Sound BV supplied all the mics, which included about 16-S5V clip mics from New Jersey-based AMT. "The clip mic has a gooseneck and a clamp that clamps onto the instrument," explains McAree. Different-sized clamps allow the mics to be clamped to the body of the instrument, rather than the tailpiece. "As soon as you clip something to the tailpiece, you deaden the sound of the instrument," comments McAree. "The short gooseneck allows you to point the mic element where you want it. We had clips on the section leaders and maybe another one or two in each section."

"Rather than the more conservative traditional area miking, we actually got quite carried away with the input list," says Frink. "There was a mic on virtually every music stand." For area string mics, McAree used Schoeps CMC-5Us with MK4 and MK41 capsules. Neumann TLM103s were assigned to the acoustic bass, saxophone and trumpet solo mics, while the trumpets and trombones got Neumann KM184s. Drum overheads were Neumann TLM193s, while the rest of the kit was miked with Shure SM91 and Beta 52 models on the kick, Shure Beta 98s on toms and a KM184 for hi-hat. The snare got two mics, and SM57 for sticks and a KM184 for brush work.

To capture a realistic piano sound, McAree installed Helpinstill bars in the Yamaha grand (which traveled to every gig with the rest of the band gear) and ran the six Helpinstill bars through a BSS Soundweb "to clean it up." McAree also used a Shure VP88 stereo mic taped to a short piece of aluminum and laid across the struts of the harp, under the lid on the short stick. After some unsuccessful experiments in rehearsal with DIs, it was discovered that bassist Chuck Beghofer owned an Avalon preamp, and that, in combination with a microphone, provided the sound McAree was looking for. Finally, for Mitchell's vocal, McAree selected Audix's new cardioid condenser vocal mic, the VX-10.

MONITORWORLD
Although neither P.A. nor wedge monitors were turned on during the first two hours of each day's rehearsals, Frink had to have an in-ear mix ready to go at noon. "The challenge for me was that drummer Peter Erskine and bass player Chuck Berghofer both decided that they would try to use ear monitors," Frink says. "This meant that when they started rehearsal, I had to be able to give them their mix of the orchestra with the ear monitors in - they wouldn't be able to hear it otherwise."

With a 48-channel Soundcraft SM24 at his disposal and an input list that topped out at about 88 microphones, Frink had to make some tough choices. "I couldn't necessarily depend on the clip mics because I didn't know if they'd be in place and on the instruments at noon, plus they're subject to being taken on and off instruments and being whacked and dropped on the floor occasionally," he explains. "I decided it was best to not have those in the mix, so I carefully chose which microphones would be in my desk, rather than go to a second desk just to accommodate all the inputs."

Frink ended up putting only about half the string mics and about half the woodwinds through the SM24. "I had to take all of the horn mics, because, on several parts, they ended up taking a different note," he explains. "I also took a few of the drum microphones, just kick, snare and overheads."

For Mitchell's monitors, Frink set up a circle of Meyer UM-1s. "Larry Klein wanted me to create a headphone mix coming out of wedges, the entire orchestra mixed with cues for each song," he explains. "Originally, I was going to use a left, center, right arrangement of wedges, but I realized rather quickly that that wasn't enough to capture the entire orchestra, so I put a fourth wedge behind her - over her left shoulder and tucked under the piano - to sort of create a surround sound environment. Her vocal went primarily in her center wedge, and the orchestra was panned from the left wedge through the back wedge and then over to the right wedge. So she heard each element of the orchestra coming from the direction that they were in."

Things quickly got complicated. "We ended up putting the entire orchestra into the mix most of the time," recalls Frink. "So to compete with that I ended up putting her vocal in the wedge coming over her shoulder. But than that sort of threw the image off to one side; to balance that, some of her vocal also went into the downstage right wedge."

Normally the comb-filtering caused by using that many wedges for a vocalist would present feedback problems, but by using Sabine Graphi-Q digital equalizers Frink was able to increase gain before feedback in order to get Mitchell's voice on top of the mix. "By using Smaart Pro with the Graphi-Q's delay to synchronize the arrival time of the wedges at the vocal mic, plus the on-board FBX filters, we were able to get an additional 10 dB of gain out of her mic," noted Frink.

Because Frink typically used an in-ear system rather than a cue wedge, he was somewhat stumped when it came to checking his four-position monitor mix. "It was practically impossible for me to monitor it accurately," he says. "The only way to really monitor was to put your head out there just over her shoulder and listen to what she was listening to. Larry Klein was calling the cues for each song to me so I got him a wireless microphone and plugged the receiver into a small self-powered speaker that sat on the console meter bridge. So Larry would just go during soundcheck or rehearsals and call cue changes to me - I had a page of notes for each song, what the settings were, what the changes were for each song."

Frink estimates that using the wireless system save him several miles of trudging out to the artist's position and back to the monitor desk. "Of course, Larry Klein has an extraordinary ear for music and his comments were extremely helpful - they were always right on the money. So it was actually the most efficient way of going about doing it."

NATURAL-SOUNDING VOCAL MIC
As noted above, Mitchell sang through Audix's new VX-10 vocal mic. "We did a listening test before the tour and collected all of the currently available vocal condenser microphones," explains Frink. "On the previous tour, (Mitchell) had used a Shure Beta 87, but she objected to the sibilance in that microphone, so we were looking for something that had a little more natural sound, particularly since her vocal was going to be placed up against a symphony orchestra. The Beta 87 is an excellent rock 'n' roll mic, but we needed something that was a little more natural. Because of its preamp, the VX-10 has a very open and transparent sound, and it doesn't have the presence peak that's found in most other vocal condenser microphones."

In addition to four Meyer UM-1 wedges for Mitchell, Frink set up a wedge downstage for trumpet soloist Mark Isham and guest pianist Herbie Hancock, who played on several songs at selected venues. Bassist Berghofer also got a single wedge to supplement his ear monitor. "Chuck likes to just use one ear bud, so he needed a wedge to overcome the boominess of that he was hearing back in the house," explains Frink. Drummer Peter Erskine had a stereo in-ear mix only and used the Shure E-5 earpieces. Larry Klein, who came onstage to play electric bass on "Hejira" and the encore and Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man," listened to the downstage trumpet monitor.

Featured saxophonist Bob Shepherd, who played from within the woodwind section, also had a monitor. "We got the usual complaints from the brass section that they couldn't hear that well back in their corners, so we added a small speaker, and Jason Sound P80, and filled it in with a couple of the drum mics and a little bit of brass," says Frink. The P80, which also served as audience front-fill speakers positioned on the lip of the stage, is a low-profile passive monitor loaded with two JBL 5-inch cones and a 1-inch compression driver.

ORCHESTRAL STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
At FOH, McAree mixed on an Amek Recall fitted with 9098 modules, the board he has been using for several years with k.d. lang. Dave Lawler mixed the string mics on a Midas XL3, sending five stereo premixes to the Amek. McAree used a Lexicon 480 for reverb on the strings, and tapped into either another 480 or a PCM 90 for woodwind, brass and vocal reverbs. Besides Drawmer gates on the drums and Pendulum OCL-2 optical tube compressors on the vocal, trumpet and sax soloist channels, McAree used the Amek's onboard VCA dynamics control sparingly. "I also had a BSS DPR 901 multiband dynamic equalizer on Joni's mic, which I set up for proximity effect and at 2.5k to help me when she got loud," he recalls.

Because the tour picked up a different orchestra at each venue, McAree was in a unique position to compare them all. "It was like a new band every day," he says. "Some places you'd have incredible woodwinds and the strings wouldn't be that good, and at the next gig it would be the reverse! The way that Vince Mendoza orchestrates the music, he throws the melody all over the place and you're forced to go for a similar mix every day.

"Having the system SIM'd every day made a huge difference," adds McAree. "After the third show, it was a pretty rare day that I'd turn an EQ knob on the desk. I'm a huge fan of Joni's, and mixing for this tour was a chance of a lifetime for me."

Chris Michie is a Mix technical editor.

 

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