Justin Vernon of Bon Iver spent the summer
touring the U.S., usually heard via L-Acoustics or d&b audiotechnik line-array systems.Bon Iver evolved fast. But for a band whose sound is based around dynamics, such swift change now seems only natural.
Anyone who discovered Bon Iver’s 2008 debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was likely also treated to the story behind it—the story of singer/songwriter Justin Vernon, who retreated to a remote cabin in the Wisconsin woods to cope with recent hardships and losses in his life. Using only the equipment he had there, Vernon created a sparse, haunting and deeply-personal musical statement—that went on to become an indie favorite and critical hit.
Bon Iver released its eponymous sophomore album this June, sporting a newly lush sound and complex compositions made possible by an infusion of new instruments and musicians. Debuting in the #2 slot on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, the collection found Vernon embracing bigger, broader themes, and likewise on stage, the band has expanded to accommodate his vision; now nine musicians share the stage, swapping numerous instruments in and out during the course of each show. Currently in the middle of a world tour, this summer found the band tackling its first U.S. leg, carrying control and monitor gear from Eighth Day Sound (Highland Heights, OH).
The tour’s FOH engineer, Brian Joseph, was as equipped for the changes in Bon Iver’s sound as anyone could be—not only was he the engineer and mixer for the new album, but he’s known Vernon for 13 years. While he was more than familiar with the music, however, he never found himself trying to emulate the album per se: “There are definitely moments in the set I mix to be bigger than what we landed with on record, but only because the live setting sometimes calls for this. For example, Colin Stetson’s bass saxophone on ‘Minnesota, WI,’ is significantly more forward in my live mix than on record. It’s one of those moments I go back to with a small amount of regret—I knew I should have left more low-end in his instrument, but live, I get the chance. ‘Flume’ is another song that contains larger opportunity for sonic development in the live setting, with a very frequency-specific build throughout the song. The low-end extension gets lower and lower and the song moves forward, and that alone is the effect I’m working with on the song. My live mix and recorded mix help to inform one another, and it’s important to have the reference, to reset from time to time, and give the record a listen.”
Joseph and monitor engineer Xandy Whitesel each mixed on DiGiCo SD10 consoles with SD racks, with Joseph making use of numerous Waves plug-ins through a Waves Sound Grid server. Along the way, he found the desk was a good match for the tour, noting its onboard dynamics package was “only rivaled by the Soundcraft Vi6; [for the] overall sonic quality, I swear this desk has another layer of dimensionality.”
Snapshots were often used in order to keep track of the multi-instrumentalists onstage and the complex arrangements, as well as to help build the various textures through selective stereo imaging. “My snapshots contain a lot of pan position changes depending on which of the players are supporting each other and which are existing in the same frequency range and performance style,” he noted. “Snapshots save my life—with 74 inputs, I’m not sure I could be sane without them. There are different equalization treatments built into my snapshots, as well. I’m sometimes turning Colin Stetson’s bass sax into a synth sound or Justin’s keyboard into the bass guitar part, depending on what the song calls for.”
One of the most striking components of Bon Iver’s sound is the juxtaposition of complex textures and vocal effects against a background of music that is still mellow and contemplative. On album, vocals are often heavily layered, but in a live setting, there’s only one Justin Vernon on stage, of course. To create the same effect, Joseph relied on the other onstage performers. “Having the luxury of seven strong vocalists on stage is integral to the creation of Bon Iver’s sound,” said Joseph. “Since I only have one of Justin live, I am forced to keep him in my center image and balance the other band members accordingly. I’ll often place a short stereo delay on the upper harmony singers to add even more texture and keep them from jumping out too far in the mix.”
Joseph said he relies heavily on the DiGiCo SD10’s multi-band compressor. “The SD10 has great sounding dynamics control, and keeps the falsetto and full voice singing relatively intact from part to part,” he said. “As people know, 120 Hz to 500 Hz is an extremely important range to a vocalist’s sound, but can be trying with seven singers and nine musicians on stage. I like to keep the voice full, and in doing so, maintain a heavy and changeable amount of reduction in this range. I’m doing a decent amount of adjustment depending on the song.”
For Vernon’s own vocal effects, Joseph used a 200 to 300 millisecond Waves H-Delay for texture: “That particular plug-in is very responsive to how hard you hit it, and will add harmonic distortion at low levels. Tuck this in low behind his dry vocal, and you end up with a nice new palette. I use it, paired with the Waves Renaissance R-Verb, on a few songs to create a little more of an ethereal nature to Justin’s vocal.”
Brian Joseph mixed the summer Bon Iver tour on a DiGiCo SD10 console.On Bon Iver’s newest material, the complexity goes deeper than just Vernon’s layered falsetto; he switches between vocal styles from song to song, often dropping the layered effect altogether, or surging forward in the mix to dominate with a sudden, surprising baritone. For some of these moments, Joseph utilizes an Octaver. “During ‘Hinnom, TX’ and ‘Minnesota, WI,’ it is important that Justin appears larger and more menacing than even the sound of all nine musicians combined,” said Joseph. “I like to get his vocal in the subs for these two songs, and do so with this; I really walk the line of this vocal effect being heard rather than just felt.”
The tour picked up racks and stacks regionally, but tended to use either L-Acoustics K1 or VDosc supplemented by SB28 subs, or d&b audiotechnik rigs based around J8 and J12 arrays with B2 subs. “When these are the configuration, the systems are usually in perfect working order,” said Joseph. “There have been a few exceptions, but overall, they’re wonderful combinations.”
“My overall show SPL tends to vary a lot,” Joseph added. “I used to be self-conscious about this when listening to other engineers’ mixes. They would be so loud, so full and exciting, for the entirety of the set. Over time, I’ve come to realize that this band calls for a ‘whisper to a roar’ dynamic. It’s part of their impact, like in ‘Wash.’ It’s a delicate song where each tone is paramount, as the space in the mix seems neverending. It feels like the most orchestral moment in the set—the brass and strings coincide so perfectly, and the way Matt plays drums by lightly tapping the kit with his hands is example of the negative space in the tune. I’m not sure how other mixers feel, but to me, space is often the most powerful statement.”
Eighth Day Sound
(Highland Heights, OH)
DiGiCo SD10 with Waves SoundGrid Server
DiGiCo SD10 with Waves SoundGrid Server
Clark Synthesis Thumpers; d&b audiotechnik M4
Sennheiser G3 with Ultimate Ears
d&b audiotechnik D12; QSC
Waves H Delay, Renaissance R-Verb
AEA R92; Josephson e22S, c42; Electro-Voice RE20; Sennheiser MD 431, e604, e602, c42; AKG C414; Royer R-121; Mojave Audio MA-201fet; beyerdynamic TG-X60, M 260, M 88 TG; Shure Beta91; Radial JDI, JDV, J48; Audix D6