Veteran engineer Horace Ward holds down the FOH fort on Usher's current tour. NEW YORK, NY—As a teaser for his upcoming album, UR, Usher has embarked on a 27-city tour, called The UR Experience Tour, with the first leg launching on November 1, 2014 in Montreal. The tour will continue through December 14, hitting most major cities in the U.S. and Canada before heading out for the tour’s European leg in January.
Like many of his previous tours, Usher has spared no expense when it comes to theatrics, opting for an impressive lighting setup and background dancers to accompany the power of his voice.
And the man who brings Usher’s power to the audience is FOH engineer Horace Ward, who has handled Usher’s house mixes since 2013, bringing to the table years of experience from mixing for some of music’s top acts, including Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige and Prince.
With 37 years as a live sound engineer, Ward knows what to do to make a show sound great, but doesn’t hesitate when it comes to trying out new gear. For The UR Experience Tour, Ward is working with a whole new setup, provided by the Lititz, PA-based sound rental company, Clair.
The FOH position is centered around a DiGiCo SD7 desk, where Ward mixes, using a number of Waves plug-ins for effects, specifically the L1, C4, Renaissance Compressor and the DeEsser. Also on-hand is an extensive range of Focusrite RedNet gear. This setup, the largest in the U.S. at the moment, consists of 96 channels of RedNet 4 Microphone Pre Amps; RedNet 6 MADI Bridge units feeding to the DiGiCo SD7 console; RedNet 5 HD Bridge devices to connect to Pro Tools for recording of the 96 tracks; RedNet 1 and 2 A/D to D/A analog units for outboard device processing; and 96 channels of RedNet PCIe for backup recording with Reaper software. The whole system is networked using Dante.
“The Dante stuff is basically the highlight of what I’m doing. Ninetysix channels of independent mic pres that aren’t part of the console enables you to have a good sound,” Ward explained.
The relationship between the console and mic pres is vital, Ward added, as he said that sometimes a console’s built-in mic pres aren’t to his taste. “We’ve learned that in the studio and take the knowledge we gained on the road,” Ward said. ‘I don’t always like the pres on the console, so I grab as many quality mic pres as I can.”
While mixing, Ward said his ultimate goal is clarity—even with a quality arsenal of gear, he has to make sure every member of the audience, whether in the front row or the last, has the same experience.
“We have a saying: Loud is beautiful only if it’s clean. That’s the idea— we need to achieve a strong low end so we can get a really clean show. It makes the show more enjoyable for the audience, and makes it seem like they are closer to the artist. If you go to a concert that sounds bad, it always makes the artist seem like he’s in the distance. If it sounds good, the artist seems like he’s right in front of you,” Ward explained. “It all depends on the efficiency of the system that you use.”
Helping ensure Usher is heard everywhere in the venue is Clair’s proprietary PA—i-5 cabinets used as mains and the company’s new CP subs, all amplified by Lab.gruppen amplifiers in Clair’s custom StakRak arrangement.
Of course, even with Ward’s handpicked gear and his years of experience, there are challenges he faces at each show. “I will say that he uses a headset for the first few songs, and just getting the music [bleed] through the headset can make it difficult to get his voice,” Ward said.
The tour’s staging can also creates challenges for Ward, especially when it comes to speaker placement. “Because the stage is asymmetrical, we don’t really have the space for subs. I stacked three subs into the ground, and I’m flying eight subs,” explained Ward.
Load in begins as early as possible the morning of each show—usually around 5 or 6 a.m., depending on the venue—to accommodate the extensive lighting design.
Ward said he holds two soundchecks before each show, one with the band and one with Usher. “Usher does a soundcheck party with some fans, so he’s there every day.”
Even with Usher’s extensive catalogue of hits (he’s won eight Grammy Awards), Ward had difficulty choosing one particular song he enjoyed mixing most during the tour.
“You have to look at every song as a complete mix, and I’ve got to mix each song as an individual,” he said.