The three members of Lady Antebellum demonstrate their vocal prowess
as they gather around a Neumann U 87 for a bit of three-part harmony.
By Frank Wells.
On the heels of Lady Antebellum being named the 2008 Academy of Country Music Top New Group and the 2008 Country Music Association New Artist of the Year, the country trio recently added the 2009 CMA award for Single of the Year, a second CMA award for Vocal Group of the Year, and a 2010 Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals.
In between awards shows and dates as the opening act for Tim McGraw���s current tour (where the promotion has taken almost a co-headliner twist based on the growing popularity of “Lady A”), Lady Antebellum—singers Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Dave Haywood—took a victory lap of sorts by booking two solo nights at the Mother Church of Country Music, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
“This has been their coming out party,” said Curt Jenkins, monitor engineer. The two dates, he reported, sold out in just a couple of minutes, revealing that “Lady Antebellum can headline shows, kind of showing Nashville, ‘Here we are.’”
The Ryman seats a little over 2,300, with a prominent balcony to complicate sound reinforcement. Guest artists at the Ryman use the house PA, a thoughtfully implemented JBL VerTec system with a flown array, center flown subs and a number of side, front, deck and under balcony fill components. Amplification is Crown, driven by a Lake Contour speaker management system with wireless tablet control.
At FOH for Lady Antebellum is Brett "Scoop" Blanden, who has been with the band throughout its meteoric rise to fame. On tour with McGraw, Blanden has been using an Avid Venue D-Show with sidecar. That has given him plenty of faders, which suits him fine, as he likes “not having to leave my center mix world.”
For the band’s solo dates, the smaller footprint of an Avid Venue SC48 meant he stayed centered. Blanden noted he first used the SC48 when Lady Antebellum was out with Keith Urban, and it proved flexible enough to move from arena to fair/festival modes while sounding great (and “even better” with an external clock, with a Lucid master clock employed). A full Pro Tools|HD record package was set up at FOH for the Ryman gigs, facilitated by the addition of a second stage rack.
Blanden finds that effects changes are the primary area where snapshots are used at FOH—for reverb delay times, threshold and tweaks on dynamics in accordance with a given song, and for the occasional cut of a lightly used mic. Overall effects are simple and, “Everything is in the console,” Blanden elaborated. “With this act, I typically do ‘Hall’ on the vocals, ‘Plate’ on the drums. I do a doubler on the vocals that I blend in primarily in choruses.”
Individual instruments might get a plug-in like Smack! or a Fairchild emulation. “It’s about the music,” said Blanden. “It’s just about the music…let it be what it is.” Plug-ins aren’t stacked deep on the channels. “I don’t like having to page, so, whatever’s not on my front page means I’m overthinking it,” he opined.
“I ride vocals; I don’t squash the hell out of them,” Blanden continued. “I think a lot of guys in live sound, they compress vocals and they get off the fader. I still let the vocals breathe.” It helps that the principals in Lady A can truly sing. “The singers are great; they’re on the mic,” said Blanden.
The vocals are captured with Sennheiser’s new EM 2050 wireless system with 965 (for Kelley) and 935 capsules. “They are rock solid,” said Jenkins of the mics. Blanden agreed, adding that last year, Kelley was using a Neumann KK105 capsule and he “really, really loved it. He’d walk up and talk to you with his ears in, into the microphone and that says a lot to me. But he gets real meaty down in the 300 [Hz] area, and the 965 really took some of that proximity effect out, smoothed out that 300 area, and he can really get on it.” Blanden gave praise to the 2000 series electronics as well (“I don’t feel it folding up in the middle”).
Sennheiser mics abound around the stage. “We’re a Sennheiser act,” said Blanden, “but I still have a Shure Beta 52 on the kick drum and a 57 on the snare. Old habits die hard. I am using Sennheiser’s 901, their PZM inside the kick drum. I really like it a lot. I spent my years with condenser tom mics and have gone back to dynamics and probably will forever stay there. We’re using Sennheiser 904s on the toms and a 902 on the floor tom, which is Sennheiser’s kick drum mic. We’re also using that same 902 on the bass.”
Continuing around the drum kit, “We’re using Sennheiser 614s on overheads, on hi-hats and ride.” On electric guitar, there’s a 65 amp driving a single cabinet loaded with two different speakers. “On the more meaty driver, I’ve got an Audio-Technica AT4033, and on the thinner driver, I’ve got a 421. The secondary guitar amp, which Dave plays on a couple-three songs, is a Shure SM 57 and a 421. Bass is just a 902 and it also goes direct.” Direct boxes in play are a combination of Radial JDI and MK3s, for keyboards as well as bass, and for an Avid Pro Tools/Propellerhead Reason 8-track playback set up at drum world for string tracks, clicks and cues.
A Leslie cabinet for keys employs Sennheiser “609’s on the top of the Leslie and an AKG C 414 on the tub.” The C 414 wasn’t Blanden’s typical choice, but a magnetic field issue with the new Leslie’s motor was tamed by moving to a condenser. Moving the signals around, a Whirlwind 3-way iso splitter has cleaned up some of the variables of road travel that had caused some issues when non-isolating splitters were employed. A viola and violin quartet joined Lady A onstage for a special home crowd arrangement of an encore tune, miked with DPA 4099 series instrument mics.
The Ryman shows marked about a dozen dates with Lady A for Jenkins, who joined mid-tour. He says that Sennheiser systems are used to feed personal monitors, with the three lead performers on Westone ear buds and the rest of the band employing various units from Ultimate Ears and Future Sonics. The band’s monitor demands are “all over the place,” he said. “The hardest thing is figuring out gain structure on them because some of them keep everything so low, and then others listen to everything so loud. For the three principals, there’s three completely different mixes. The four band guys are pretty close--just with their instruments on top--but the three principals are all night and day.”
Other than a touch of compression on kick and snare and a couple of simple verbs, Jenkins said he’s not using much in the way of effects, and those he does use are all standard Avid plug-ins, on a second SC48 at the monitor position. Jenkins became a Venue fan when working with John Rich (formerly of Big & Rich). “That was the first time I heard ears on the Digi desks; I had a 5D out with them all summer, and it was a night and day clarity difference, just over the top. There’s not another desk that I would use for in-the-ears right now, for the sound.”
The day of the first Ryman performance, Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” was on top of Billboard’s Country and Top 200 album charts. A short few weeks later found them in Las Vegas at the 2010 ACM awards where they took home Song of the Year, Single Record of the Year, and Top Vocal Group of the Year honors. It seems a safe bet that Lady A will translate their string of entertainment news headlines to headline tour billing in the very near future.