Sennheiser SKM 2000 wireless systems work in conjunction with IEM systems and custom-chromed e935 vocal mics used live by will.i.am (left), Fergie (center) and Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas. Been to a boring concert lately? Thanks to production budgets that match the economy, the empty stage with a single video screen has become the bland norm. While purists rightly note that it places emphasis back on the music, in our media-saturated age, acts risk boring arena audiences unless they have truckloads of personality and another semi full of good songs to boot.
Going against the grain, however, are the Black Eyed Peas, currently crossing the U.S. as part of a nearly two-year world tour. Every night, they deliver not just hits and charisma, but an opulent, over-thetop spectacle, complete with a two-story stage, flying motorcycles, a DJ booth that pops out of the stage before perching 14 feet above the crowd, confetti cannons and more video screens than Times Square—not to mention a massive audio system from Clair (Lititz, PA). FOH engineer Dave Haines remarked, “Usually when there are more gags in a show, it’s to help gloss over the music, but obviously that’s not the case here.”
Though a Peas show is all about a good time, the band members are far from slackers. While the four members variously sing, dance, DJ and play music on stage, they’re also bona fide studio vets, having produced themselves, member Fergie’s solo album, and other acts, including tour openers LMFAO. Having that kind of technical acumen around is a boon for Haines and monitor man Ryan Cecil, but it also requires that the engineers bring their A game every day.
“These guys are all producers, so there’s no fooling anyone up there; if they ask for something and I don’t get it right, they know,” laughed Cecil. “The other day, Fergie came to me and said, ‘There’s a guitar panned too far to the left.’ With everything that she’s doing out there, she’s still right on top of it, noticing exactly what’s going on.”
On the flip side, having the production team onstage means they can communicate technically what they want, plus it’s easy to find out the mix details and plug-ins for each song. In Haines’ case, it also ensures that he’s mixing on his preferred console—a Venue D-Show console— because the desk was provided to the band, along with an Icon desk for leader will.i.am’s home studio, by Digidesign in 2005.
As is the case with many live acts, there’s a bit of the Antares Auto Tune Evo plug-in being employed, but unlike most productions, the engineers can freely admit this since it’s obviously used for the popular vocoder-like, hard-tuning effect. “I’m using some Waves plug-ins,” added Haines, “mostly the L2 Ultramaximizer Limiter and MaxxBass because those are used extensively on the album. The rest of it is stock from Digidesign; Ryan’s using a lot of Crane Song Phoenix, and I’ve been thinking about experimenting with that as well.”
Dave Haines mixes the Black Eyed Peas on a Digidesign Venue D-Show console,with the aim to turn every arena into a dance club. Cecil explained, “I’m using Phoenix on all the keyboards, because it helps give an analog feel to them. We haven’t moved into using it on vocals, but we’ve talked about it. We do have Digidesign Smack! on Fergie’s vocal, and everything else is pretty straight up. With Will, he’s the producer, so he’ll hear things that I’ll never hear with delays and such. He notices latency on anything and that’s become a big issue; that’s part of why we’re using Venues—the Auto Tune is internal so we don’t lose any time.”
The house mix feeds into a sizable, Crown-powered PA that includes main hangs of 14 Clair i-5s per side with 14 i- 5B subs hanging next to them. Side hangs include eight i-5s and eight i-5Bs each, and the rear fill hangs sport three R4s per side. Clair’s P2s are used for front fill, and everyone gets a heaping helping of low end, courtesy of 32 BT218 subs that are powered by Powersoft K10 amplifiers.
Over at the side of the stage, Cecil oversees a 96-channel Venue Profile, which is used for the Peas and both opening acts, sending mixes to a variety of wedges, side-fills and personal monitor systems. He noted, “We’ve got the new Sennheiser SKM 2000 systems for both the wireless mics and personal monitors, which are working out really well. I’m running 32 channels RF total. Most of the band uses Ultimate Ears ear buds; will.i.am uses Future Sonics—we all love both, so it goes back and forth between the two.”
The backing band includes two guitar players, drums, keyboards and a DJ, and while nearly everything is direct (“We’ve got 400 Radial DIs, roughly,” joked Haines), that brings added wrinkles to the mix.
“The drums are mostly digital, with only three real toms, a real snare and a real high hat,” said Cecil. “Everything else is samples of the actual stuff off the record, which is cool because it gives the Peas the sound they want and it gives us the most consistent sound you could ever ask for. On the other hand, there are now 20 kick drums and 20 snare drums, so you can’t just EQ a drum and say you’re done with it for the room.”
Despite the personal monitors, it’s not exactly quiet onstage, coming in at 117 dB, A-weighted—before vocals. “It’s insanely loud on stage,” said Cecil. “Everything runs in limit for most of the show, including the double 18s in the side fill PA. Will.i.am wears one in-ear with only his vocal in it, because they want it to sound like we put a dance system into a club somewhere and they’re partying with friends.”
When the Peas requested more volume on stage, Cecil’s request for more gear didn’t require any politicking, in part because production manager Tim Miller is a longtime engineer himself, having helmed acts like N*Sync, Will Smith and New Kids on the Block. “It’s always good to have a production manager that’s a sound guy,” said Cecil, “because when I said, ‘The side fills aren’t loud enough,’ I never heard once, ‘We’re going to kill seats.’ All of a sudden, there was a truck with more cabinets and subs.”
Ultimately, that may just be a few more boxes to keep track of on the massive 21-truck tour, although Miller himself added, “It’s actually 24 when you count the VIP and concourse trucks,” referring to 18-wheelers filled with furniture, concourse booths, and their attending audio systems. “There’s more audio on this tour than probably any arena tour’s ever had,” Cecil mused.
Ryan Cecil tackles monitors for all three acts—Black Eyed Peas and openers Ludacris and LMFAO—every night. The overwhelming presence of technology— and its surroundings—might seem a bit much, but it’s clear that a human touch is being kept in mind. Parts of the show are specifically designed for spontaneity and improvisation; as Haines put it, “The whole show isn’t SMPTE’d up as one unit. There are moments that are by the seat of their pants, and they try to preserve that, because they realize there needs to be an element of surprise for all this to work. It’s for both their own enjoyment of the show and for the fans to get a live, unique experience.”
Keeping the show fresh is a duty that falls on the shoulders of the Peas, but also on Haines, who’s been on the road with them for years. Many FOH engineers have a long, creative history with certain bands, but Haines’ goes further back than most, since he recorded the Peas’ first demos in 1996 as his senior class project in college. The result is that while he helps the act conquer every venue, all those hands in the air are a vindication of sorts for him, too: “I like to think that I’ve gotten where I’m at by trusting my instincts both with mixing and picking the artists that I work with, but you don’t always expect the world to see the same thing you do. There were plenty of bands to pick for my senior project and plenty of bands to do sound for, but I always saw the spark in them. When ‘Where Is the Love’ hit in 2003, I thought they’d made it then; now we’re in a whole new level of ridiculousness!”
Black Eyed Peas
Clair (Lititz, PA)
FOH Engineer :
Monitor Engineer :
Crew Chief / Systems Engineer :
Monitor Tech :
Sean Baca, Donovan Friedman, Simon Mathews, Jeff Lutgen
FOH Console :
Digidesign Venue D-Show
Monitor Console :
Digidesign Venue Profile
House Speakers :
Clair i-5, i-5B, R4, P2, BT218 Subs
Monitor Speakers :
Clair SRM, BT118, BT218, Prism Blues
Personal Monitors :
Sennheiser SKM2000 IEM systems; Ultimate Ears; Future Sonics
House Amplifiers :
Crown; Powersoft K10
Monitor Amplifiers :
Crown; Powersoft K10
FOH Equipment / Plug – Ins :
Waves Live Bundle; Antares Auto Tune Evo
Monitors Plug – Ins :
Digidesign Smack!; Crane Song Phoenix; Antares Auto Tune Evo
Sennheiser SKM 2000 Microphone systems with 935 capsules, ME 3-EW headsets; Radial, ProCo DIs; Heil PR 30; Shure Beta54, Beta98; beyer M88