New York, NY—R&B dance diva Rihanna spent the summer kicking off her Loud world tour. While the name refers to her most recent Platinum album, Loud, it could just as easily describe the audience’s reaction every night, as the singer barnstorms through her string of Top 10 hits. Along with her sizable band—which includes guitarist Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme—the singer also hosts the occasional household name dropping in for a few songs, like Jay-Z, Eminem and Kanye West on different stops. The result is a show that keeps crowds on their feet, thanks in part to a thumping audio system from Eighth Day Sound (Highland Heights, OH).
Holding it down behind the FOH console nightly is Sean “Sully” Sullivan, the dictionary definition of a Journeyman Engineer, having mixed for everyone from Sheryl Crow to Thom Yorke to Beck to ZZ Top to Justin Timberlake. For the Loud tour, he’s working behind an Avid Venue Profile, overseeing 81 inputs.
“I’ve pretty much used Venues since they came out,” he said. “I started on the D-Show, then when the Profile was released, I embraced it and never looked back. I’ve heard a lot of guys go, ‘It’s only got 24 busses, it’s not really enough for me to do my gig,’ but I don’t think people really know the Venue well enough to exploit the power of it. It’s not unlimited bussing and blah blah blah like Pro Tools, but it’s extremely powerful and I’ve never been able to tax it to its limit. To me, it’s simple, lightweight, efficient, doesn’t use a lot of power. I don’t use any gear other than the desk and a Dolby Lake to drive the PA. That’s it.”
While Sully noted that the desk is lightweight compared to the consoles of yore, his FOH position has also dropped some extra pounds in the form of racks. “If I had to bring what I have in my current show in racks, I don’t know if I could do it,” he laughed. “I have 90 plug-ins in my show right now, and a lot of them are replacing gear that would be three rack spaces, so it would be quite an extensive package—lots of cabling for sure.”
So what are some of those 90 plug-ins? Sully leans heavily on the Waves Live bundle, having gotten into the company’s wares when he began using Waves Platinum in his studio, mixing live DVDs for some of his touring clients. Other favorite plug-ins include TC Electronic’s VSS3 Virtual Stereo Source Reverb, directly ported from the company’s System 6000; Bomb Factory Purple MC77; and Crane Song Phoenix.
“I recently got hip to this new plug-in called DUY DaD Valve,” said Sully. “It’s an analog saturation plugin, and I use that a lot on inputs. It’s very simple, just a grid of cartoon instruments, so you pick snares or kicks or whatever you’re using it on and it pretty much knocks your socks off. On a kick drum, turn it on and you’re like, ‘OK, I’ll move on now; I’m done with that.’”
Helping beef up an already solid set of musicians are 14 tracks of Digital Performer, 12 of which are musical material, such as drum loops, extra background vocals (mostly sung by Rihanna herself), doubles of Bettencourt’s guitar solos, sound effects like car crashes, and so forth. And yes, there are two tracks of Rihanna’s lead vocals, though they aren’t for showtime, explained Sully: “She’s a pretty busy woman and they keep her running ragged with photo shoots and everything else. She doesn’t have much time other than to do the shows with us, so the vocals are for rehearsals, basically just so dancers know where they’re at. When we do shows, we mute it and she sings everything.”
Rihanna’s singing is captured by a Sennheiser e965 wireless, while background vocals are heard via Shure wireless mics with Heil RC 35 capsules. Meanwhile, Bettencourt’s guitars are picked up via a Shure 57 and a Heil PR 40, the drums are all Heil PR mics (excepting the Shure VP88s for overheads), and Radial JDI direct boxes nab everything else. Sully’s favorite mic, however, is the Heil PR 30: “You could mic the whole stage with it and have a great-sounding show. I’ve pretty much put them on everything and gotten good results.”
Hanging up above all the performers are hangs of d&b audiotechnik J series line arrays, with J8s on the mains and J12s for the sidehangs. Additionally, eight J Subs are flown left and right, and are bolstered by a dozen B2 subs on the ground.
Rihanna, belting into a Sennheiser e965 wireless mic, during a tour stop in Baltimore, MDAt stageside, too, there’s a fair amount of d&b on hand. Ed Ehrbar handles monitor duties on a DiGiCo SD7 console, and everyone on stage gets his mix either from JH Audio personal monitors on Sennheiser wireless packs, or via d&b audiotechnik MT wedges, with J8s and B2 subs used for sidefills. The result is a monitor rig with Thump: “We played Chastain Park Amphitheater in Atlanta,” said Sully, “and they’ve got a 90 dB A-weighted limit. At FOH, we were getting 95-96 dB from just the stage! We had quite a tiring day trying to keep the levels in check.”
Given Rihanna’s production-heavy sound, it’s almost a given that Sully would aim to replicate the dance mixes that fans are accustomed to. Surprisingly, however, that wasn’t always the case on the show; in fact, initial arrangements of the songs were unusually guitar-heavy, in some cases having drifted far from the sleek dance vibe of Rihanna’s singles. Ultimately, a housecleaning this past spring, prior to the tour, found the singer both changing management and hiring Kevin Antunes as musical director, who, in turn, brought in Sully. “One of his fortes is taking an album and making a band play it live, but hyped up like a concert should be,” said the engineer. “There’s lots of low end compared to what’s in the record, but it’s pretty true to the core of the album.”
While many FOH engineers get pigeon-holed as “a country engineer” or “a hip-hop guy,” Sully’s clients come from every genre, and his wideranging experience has, in turn, kept him working. The key, he explained, is that in the end, the genre doesn’t matter.
“I look at it all like the job at hand is the mix, and I have a blast whether it’s an artist I love or not because it’s still something I love to do,” he said. “To me, the drum kit’s got to sound great all night long, the vocals have to work all night long, everything’s got to be on point. A two-hour show goes by and it feels like 10 minutes to me, because there’s a lot going on and I’m just doing what I do—which is putting a mix together for 15,000 people every night. I love it all.”
Eighth Day Sound
Eighth Day Sound
(Highland Heights, OH)
Sean “Sully” Sullivan
James Lamarca, Victor Arko
Avid Venue Profile
d&b Audiotechnik J8, J12, J Sub, B2
d&b Audiotechnik M2; J8; B2; Q Sub
Sennheiser; JH Audio
Waves Live Bundle; TC Electronic VSS3; Bomb Factory Purple MC77; Crane Song Phoenix; DUY DaD Valve
Heil PR 40; Sennheiser e965 wireless; Shure wireless mics with Heil RC 35 capsules, 57, VP88