Elvis Costello may punch the clock touring regularly these days, but that doesn’t mean he’s knocking out a ‘this year’s model’ cookie-cutter performance at every stop. 2016 saw him focus on solo shows around the country with an occasional spike of concerts with his longtime backing band, The Imposters, and, for the last run, a trio of backup singers. There were some constants, however: The tours were always mixed by FOH engineer Fern Alvarez and monitor man Steve McCale, using control and monitor gear provided by VER Tour Sound.
Some other givens? Long sound-checks and even longer shows. Speaking in monitorworld at New York’s Beacon Theater, hours before Costello’s last show of 2016, McCale recalled, “We did a solo tour most of the year, and he sound-checked every day for at least 90 minutes. He plays off the sound in the room, especially on the solo tour—on that, a lot of the songs are just him singing and playing guitar with a Neumann TLM 103 on a stand. He’ll come in with his acoustic, play in different positions and see what feels good; it’s him preparing for the performance, feeling rehearsed and ready to go. We have to caution him a lot about not singing for three hours in the afternoon before he does a three-hour show.”
Helping keep things fresh for the Imposters-backed run were the new background singers—an approach Costello had never taken live before—and for the crew, there was the addition of Avid Venue S6L consoles at both FOH and monitors, sharing one stage box with no splitter involved. While McCale was intimately familiar with the mixer, having consulted on the desk’s development, it marked the first time Alvarez had used it.
“This console helped me out on disengaging some plug-ins,” said Alvarez. “It’s really been cool hearing what the S6L can do—the warmth of it and getting to start from scratch if you will. I’m back at a point where I’m not relying on a lot of frontend and alternative stuff; it’s just the console doing a lot of the work. Of course, I’ve got some pretty good inputs up there with the band, so it makes life a lot easier. If you always want good sound, make sure you work for a good band.”
McCale, on the other hand, was neck deep in the S6L, knocking out mixes for the band’s in-ears and Costello’s wedges and sidefills: “When Avid came out with this, I was so happy because finally the shackles are off and I don’t have to deal with 24 aux busses anymore. I run all my effects busses in stereo—because I can. Why not send them in stereo? Which when I’m imaging stuff in the sidefills from time to time, might make a little difference.”
Most monitor engineers would do anything to get their main artist on IEMs, but soon after joining the production, McCale could see Costello was desperately unhappy with the IEM-and-wedges arrangement he was using. When McCale suggested the singer go back to just wedges, “I thought he was going to hug me! But I was able to turn the wedge system down 4-5 dB overall and spread everything out to create a pocket. He can sing better, hear better now, but it’s specific to this artist—everybody’s got what works for them.”
That said, the rest of the band preferred IEMs, with the core Imposters using JH Audio JH16s (as did Costello before returning to wedges) and the backup singers opting for new Future Sonics Spectrum Series G10s. Costello’s monitors were d&b audiotechnik M2s and some Q subs, said McCale. “We normally use M4s everywhere on the solo tour, but I need more spank on this because he’s in front of a drum kit.”
The drum kit also meant that McCale had the singer on a Sennheiser e935 microphone for much of the show (“A little more open than a 58, but it solved the pick up from the drum kit problem”) and a pair of Ear Trumpet Josephine mics that were brought in by Costello himself: “We got it out of the box and went ‘Oh my God; this is gonna feedback, it’s gonna get ugly.’ We hooked it up, said ‘Check One Two…hey, that sounds really good’—and it looks amazing.” Alvarez concurred, noting, “He’s very fond of those mics. I don’t know if it was luck or coincidence, but Josephine was his grandmother’s name, so now the second one, by the piano, has been nicknamed Mabel after his other grandmother.”
Miking of the piano itself was handled by Alvarez, using DPA 4099s: “A couple of years ago, Elvis did a show at the Hollywood Bowl; we used their 9-foot piano and I had to get in there to see what they were doing. I started placing 4099s as I saw in that piano and it kind of works, separating them a good 28 inches apart. If you’re looking at the one leg, one is about 12 inches offstage of that point, facing upstage, facing the way the strings are coming towards the mic. For the high side, it’s about where the curvature of the piano is, facing the player. They’re way off-axis and well over 180 degrees of each other. I’ve never had to throw them out of phase and we haven’t had phase issues, and I do have somewhat of a stereo image. We did Newport Jazz Festival where I used the house piano, and those guys were, ‘Take a picture of where those mics are placed!’”
The piano mics—and everything and everyone else on stage—got a workout at every show. “He’s putting it out there every night, almost to the point of overdoing it; the set list is four pages long,” said McCale. “He wants to play right up to the end—last night, we cut four songs from the set and we were still 20 seconds from going over and getting the fine. It was tick, tick, tick, ‘Thank you, good night,’ boom!”
VER Tour Sound
This article original appeared in the March, 2017 issue of Pro Sound News as "Live Sound Showcase: Audiences Get Happy with Elvis Costello."