Rising R&B singer Andra Day kicks off her latest headline tour next month in San Diego—a 17-date run that will take her across the country, playing 1,000 to 2,000-capacity venues. However it’s just the latest in a whirlwind string of tours over the last 12 months; along for the ride has been Caleb Morris, who’s worn the hats of FOH engineer, monitor engineer and production manager throughout the singer’s meteoric rise.
“When I started with Andra, we were doing bars and clubs, very small rooms, and now we’re doing things like the main stage of Essence Festival in the Superdome and that’s tens of thousands of people, so it’s been an incredibly quick climb,” he recalled. Even with the help of a hit, the Grammy-nominated “Rise Up,” however, that climb was fueled by old-school road work: “We’ve done over 110 venues in the last 8 months,” said Morris.
If Day’s profile has been raised the old fashioned way, that’s only in keeping with the way that Morris mixes her shows. “I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to make it about the equipment,” he said. “I don’t use plug-ins, I don’t use snapshots or anything like that; every single night, I mix by memory—and it’s because if I don’t do that, I’m not able to respond to what Andra and her band are doing on stage. I believe I’m doing the audience a disservice if I’m not responding to Andra and the band, because if my job is to bridge the gap between the artist and the audience, I have to be able to emotionally and musically engage with what they’re doing at any given time.”
Morris’ reluctance to use tons of equipment doesn’t mask a fear of the technical. “I love gear, I own a ton of it and I’m reading about it all the time, but it’s not a crutch for me,” he explained. Instead, eschewing extensive equipment use is his philosophical approach to mixing—one that has only been reinforced by experiences on the road with Day. “I’m not a very mechanical mixer; I’m definitely more of a musical mixer. I know what I want my instruments to sound like, I know what I want the band to sound like. At Sasquatch Festival, we had to just hit the stage and go, and at that point, it’s more about knowing the artist’s sound and knowing how to make things musical than it is having the time to do hours and hours of show prep and tons of plug-ins. You just have to roll with it.”
At that same festival, however, he saw proof that his erring towards simplicity was a good route to take: “There was an artist I was watching where you couldn’t hear the vocal at all and that’s the most important part. There were three different compression plug-ins on the vocal chain and the vocal had nowhere to go. There was no more make-up gain that could get the vocal up to where it should be.”
Over the last year, Morris mixed both Day’s house and monitors sound on a DiGiCo SD10 supplied by Clair Global (“We started with [Clair] when we were doing venues of only 300 and we love them to death”), but this past summer saw him move to an SD5 at house and Scott Burton, who had already been on the road with the artist as stage manager and backline tech, move to mixing monitors on an SD9.
|FOH engineer/production manager Caleb Morris mixes each Andra Day show on a DiGiCo SD5 console.
While there are a smattering of wedges around the stage, only keyboardist Charles Jones’ is on. “There’s really nothing in them and we don’t use sidefills or subs on stage,” said Morris. “The more volume you introduce to the stage, the more you have to work yourself out of Disaster Mode, cleaning up all the mics and trying to isolate everything. We run a very quiet stage.” In keeping with that, Day and her four-member band all wear the same in-ear monitors—64 Audio’s A6 six-driver earphones on Shure PSM 1000 wireless systems. “I am a firm believer in everybody having the same ears so they’re all on the same sonic page as much as humanly possible,” said Morris. “It’s a very musical-sounding pair of ears; 64 may not be as well-known as some of the bigger brands, but they make an incredible product.”
Another upstart brand that Morris has championed during his time with Day is Ear Trumpet Labs, whose Edwina vocal mic has been a distinct visual presence in front of Day ever since she began using it. While the microphone has a retro look that fits Day’s style, that’s merely a bonus as far as Morris is concerned: “I believe the mix starts at the source. People look at our mic lockers and go ‘why the heck are you using that?’ The truth is, because it sounds good. I can put this mic on and know it’s doing 95 percent of the work for me. When it gets to the console, there’s very little corrective work that I have to do and I can focus on making things fit or adding color or flavor. The off-axis rejection is absolutely incredible; its a large-diaphragm condenser, and there are often times that I can get more gain out of that than I can out of a 58. It’s very quick and it picks up significantly more low-end, so for a female vocalist, it’s very easy to get a lot of body behind the voice and the ETLs do that perfectly. We also use ETLs for the electric guitar and once again, it’s got this cool color and a great vibe. It doesn’t matter what application we’re using them on; their mics sound absolutely incredible.”
Morris landed the gig with Day through the age-old mixture of talent and timing—as the head of audio services at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, he happened to mix a show she did on campus two years ago, and things went from there. And they’ve gone far—besides touring the U.S., Asia and Europe supporting 2015’s Cheers to the Fall album, working with Day has even taken Morris to the White House.
“The security is tight, I’ll tell you that,” he recalled. “We had the privilege of playing for the First Lady and one of the last big campaigns that she was launching before President Obama is done with his term in the office. While I might walk into a club and say ‘We need this and this and this to make it work,’ when you’re part of a performance like that, it’s more ‘We’re just happy to be here.’ It was about the First Lady’s campaign launch, so we’re not the star, nor do we want to be like that. It’s more about us trying to fit in, have as small of a footprint as possible, interact with the staff and personnel as effectively as we can and make it a great time for everyone there. It was an experience I will never forget—amazing.”
Ear Trumpet Labs