NEW YORK, NY—Janet Jackson has famously worked with teams like producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to shape her sound over the years, so it’s only fitting that on a world tour aimed at highlighting her greatest hits, she has another behind-thescenes duo keeping tabs on her concert audio.
FOH engineer Kyle Hamilton (left) and Michael Duwoody
(monitors) survey the scene at the Janet Jackson tour’s
DiGiCo D5 inside New York’s Radio City Music Hall. FOH engineer Kyle Hamilton and monitor man Michael Dunwoody first met in 2007 and started mixing together the following year on a Keyshia Cole tour. Next, they reteamed for a Mary J. Blige jaunt, and have worked together ever since.
“It’s a relationship that works out not only because of the quality of our friendship, but also our similar approaches to mixing—and we get along in spite of our differences in talents on a basketball court,” joked Dunwoody. “Having worked with each other for so long, if we see the beacon light start flashing, we already know what the other one is gonna say before we even pick it up the phone. It’s good to have someone on the other side of the snake that has your back.”
That’s particularly important when taking on a daunting production like Number Ones: Up Close and Personal, only the sixth tour of Jackson’s nearly 30-year recording career. Since breaking out with her 1986 album, Control, the dance diva has primarily been an arena act; this time out, she’s playing multiple sold-out nights in large theaters instead of a single arena show. “She wants to be a little bit closer to the audience, so this allows her to achieve that goal,” said Dunwoody.
The upside of a smaller physical production is that less gear needs to be carted around, and while the tour is carrying equipment from Clair (Lititz, PA), it’s been picking up local stacks and racks at every stop. Nonetheless, working with a new PA in every city hasn’t been an issue, said Hamilton: “I keep running into JBL VerTec boxes, so I’m having some sort of pseudo-consistency. The only change is interfacing with everyone’s systems—for instance, the way they structure their gain versus my console is always something quirky. They’ll say, ‘Well, your faders are low.’ Yeah, because your PA is on fire! So you adapt—you adjust and make it make sense, but overall, we have a pretty solid, consistent sound.”
The faders in question are on a DiGiCo D5 at the FOH position, taking 56 inputs between Jackson, the multi-instrumentalist band and an Avid Pro Tools rig used to fill out the lush dance grooves that fans have come to expect. With the aim of reproducing the records with a live vibe added to them, perfect renditions would likely require strings, horns, percussionists and a throng of background singers, but “that’s pretty unrealistic in today’s touring reality,” admits Dunwoody. “To cover the parts that the eight musicians on stage literally do not have enough hands to cover, we use the Pro Tools rig.” Accordingly, the tour has its own Pro Tools operator; while main melodies and parts are being played live on stage, the Pro Tools rig handles more of the filler parts. “We set our Pro Tools gains to unity and make the majority of our adjustments within the box,” said Dunwoody. “With the right operator, this works great, and for us, it solidifies that everything coming out of the box is consistent— ‘True and Spicy.’”
Consistency is the name of the game for the tour—Jackson’s vocals are captured with a wireless, custom- fitted Sennheiser HSP 4 headset sporting a Neumann 105 capsule, while background singers are on Shure KSM9s. Most instruments on stage are captured either with Countryman DIs or a passel of Earthworks microphones, with SR25 and SR30 models in play. “They sound amazing,” said Hamilton. “Before, Earthworks were usually for analyzing, more for studio kinds of environments. Now they have drum kit mics and the whole nine yards; mics I used before on other artists are not even in the same ballpark.”
While most dance-oriented acts have tightly regimented shows with the same set list every night, Jackson’s tour changes things up often, throwing in new songs regularly and including a nightly rock jam that Hamilton readily admits keeps him on his toes. With a certain state of flux at hand, then, the engineers’ goal for the stage is to get the majority of things mixed before the signal even hits the splitter.
Dunwoody explained, “That’s why we implement sub-mixers for all the keyboards. We want a consistent sound from the keyboard player and instead of fighting with 10 lines per keyboard player, we put everything into the submixer, take the stereo outs and then mix his sounds within his patches. This eliminates the need for dozens of unnecessary snapshots, making our changes between songs minimal. We are constantly having the musicians make adjustments, and that also makes each musician more aware of how little changes he might make will affect the ‘big picture’ regarding sound.”
At stageside, Dunwoody oversees an Avid Venue D-Show console, sending mixes to Sennheiser 2000 series IEM systems sporting JH Audio JH16 earpieces. Side fills are still employed, however, for the half-dozen dancers who accompany Jackson in the show’s ornate routines, aided by single 18-inch speakers hidden on the bass and keyboard risers. “Those thump pretty hard just because that gets the dancers a little more into it,” laughed Dunwoody.
Audiences have been getting into it, too: The result has been one of the best-reviewed tours of Jackson’s career. While the journey was originally set to run through 35 cities to coincide with the 35 number ones per show, Jackson announced in April that she’ll be taking a victory lap through North American venues in the fall, following a summer run through Europe—all of which should keep the team of Hamilton and Dunwoody busy for some time to come.