|Former Thompson Twins leader Tom Bailey is co-headlining the current Retro Futura Tour, performing the band's hits for the first time in 27 years.
Brookhaven, NY (August 29, 2014)—The great Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be”—and ain’t that the truth. Back in the 1980s, pop music reflected the upbeat times and a future that looked even brighter, with chart-toppers like Thompson Twins’ “You Lift Me Up,” Howard Jones’ “Things Can Only Get Better” and Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking On Sunshine.” Three decades later, optimism may have gone out of style, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it, so the Retro Futura Tour is here to revive the vibe and prove Yogi wrong.
Aimed squarely at folks with a sweet-tooth for synthpop, the five-act package features co-headliners Howard Jones and Tom Bailey of Thompson Twins—who hasn’t performed his former band’s music since 1987—along with opening sets from Katrina Leskanich of Katrina and the Waves, China Crisis and Midge Ure of Ultravox.
A tightly run ship, the tour has been picking up local production at each stop, with the openers’ sets mixed by regional engineers. The co-headliners, however, are mixed on identical—and unusual—FOH/monitor systems carried by the production and overseen by Sean Vincent, who’s been Howard Jones’ live engineer for the last six years.
In recent times, Jones has become a bona fide road warrior, constantly touring around the world. “Until three years ago, we were very traditional,” said Vincent. “I would mix FOH on whatever board was given to me, and we’d have a monitor engineer who would use whatever the venue had. Howard’s set is very precise, however, and the problem we had all the time was that we couldn’t get the band consistently happy with what they needed to hear in their in-ears.”
|FOH engineer Sean Vincent with one of the Roland V-Mixing System M-300 consoles used to mix Howard Jones and Tom Bailey.
The unlikely answer, it turned out, was to center Jones’ production around Roland’s V-Mixing System, an integrated series of digital consoles, personal mixers and recording gear that connects through specialized REAC Cat 5 digital snakes. The catch is that it’s intended for installations—Roland’s own website highlights its use for houses of worship, schools and boardrooms, but touring? Not a word.
“I’ve not bumped into anyone else using it live,” Vincent admitted, “but they should because it’s flexible and very robust. That system’s been here four or five times, we’ve been to Japan with it, Australia, all over Europe; never goes wrong, luckily.”
Aiming for a system that could handle front-of-house and monitors—and yet travel on commercial flights if necessary—Vincent centered FOH around a diminutive 32-channel Roland V-System M-300 console, which easily fits Jones’ synths, Robbie Bronnimann’s additional keys and sequencers, and Jonathan Atkinson’s electronic drums. Even with each of the musicians running separate Macs that variously use Apple Logic Pro X MainStage 3, Ableton Live and more, they only add up to 24 inputs coming off the stage. As a bonus, “I’ve only got one live mic, which is Howard’s Sennheiser ME 3 headset; everything else is line-level DI inputs,” said Vincent. “Since they’re all on in-ears with no wedges or sidefills, it’s a very quiet stage, which means I can do a much cleaner house mix. I don’t carry anything apart from that little desk; we use all the on-board effects—the reverbs are good, delays are good. It’s got all the vintage Roland Dimension D stuff in there, and the EQ is lovely, really nice.”
The musicians onstage, meanwhile, mix themselves via Roland M48 personal mixers connected to the same stage boxes as the M-300. Using a single Cat 5 digital snake for power and audio, the M48 retains the musicians’ last mix, so with the exception of tweaking, once a mix is dialed in at the start of a tour, it generally gets ignored. All the performers are outfitted with ASC custom T1 Live in-ear monitors and live packs, designed with built-in ambient mics that allow users to dial in their desired amount of ambient stage volume.
It was Jones who convinced Bailey to come out on the road performing Thompson Twins tracks, so perhaps it’s only fitting then that since Vincent is mixing both acts, he created a near clone of Jones’ Roland rig for Bailey’s band. “We’ve got two desks, one for each act, and I’ve combined both the files into one so we’ve got a complete spare FOH desk,” he said. “Tom’s set is slightly more complicated; I’ve got 32 inputs on that. Tom’s wearing exactly the same headset mic Howard uses, and then the drummer and two keyboard players have Shure 58s.”
While the Roland system was easily adapted to Bailey’s band, Vincent noted it’s not for everyone: “It requires the artists to have at least a small amount of engineering ability to do their own mixes.” Likewise, it’s not for every engineer, either, as he explained, “There’s a slight learning curve, just because every desk’s different. The menu system took me a while to get to grips with how it worked, but I think it’s actually a really intuitive desk.” Three years and countless shows later, he said there’s only one remaining drawback. “I’ve had some snide looks from other engineers, because it’s tiny,” he laughed. “It doesn’t look like you should be able to do this kind of thing with it, but you totally can.”
|The only live mic out of the 24 inputs used by Howard Jones and his band is his Sennheiser ME 3 headset microphone.
And the tour proves it. The system sounded fine coming through the sizable L-Acoustics V-Dosc rig provided by regional audio company Eastern Stage Productions (Edgewood, NY) at the journey’s third stop—an evening at the Pennysaver Amphitheatre on Long Island. The show itself was on the mark, too—you’d be hard-pressed to tell that Bailey hadn’t performed his hits in 27 years, given the instant command of the crowd that he had during his set. Likewise, Jones’s precision-timed performance made the most of video screens, lights and the artist’s trademark portable keyboard to get the crowd on its feet. The opening acts had their moments in the sun, too, each supported by the same flexible band of musicians, able to tackle Katrina’s meat-and-potatoes rock n’ roll; the cocktail jazz-tinged pop of China Crisis; or Midge Ure’s epic synth rock.
If Retro Futura provides a fun trip back in time for the audience, it turns out that the tour has done the same for Vincent as well, as he’s working alongside the man who first inspired him to get into sound. “Bizarrely, it’s kind of Midge Ure’s fault,” he grinned. “Years ago when I was at school, there was a TV program in the UK called Tomorrow’s World
. It’s not on anymore, but it was all about stuff that’s going to come in the future and it was really exciting. Well, Midge did a special edition where it was all about all the latest recording technology, and he was showing off the first digital mixer that was affordable—the Yamaha DPM7, I think it was. I was probably about 14, saw all that cool stuff he was using and I just thought, ‘Ah, I quite fancy doing that!’”
Eastern Stage Productions