Running a large production at a major music festival can go one of three ways, according to FOH engineer Brett Orrison.
Ideally, your show is the headliner and the crew arrives the night before, giving you plenty of time and access to get the job done. Or you get to the venue the morning of the gig before gates open, run a line check, tune the sound system and still have time to grab a sandwich.
Neither of those scenarios applied when Jack White’s tour pulled into the 49th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May. Instead, it was the third way. As Orrison put it, “The first time we hear the P.A. is when the band hits.”
White is currently closing out big festivals on his first tour in four years, including Atlanta’s Shaky Knees, Boston Calling and Governor’s Ball in NYC. A late-night drive from Memphis after playing Beale Street Music Festival, though, put them in New Orleans around 10:30 a.m.—too late to get everything unloaded before the grounds filled with people at 11 o’clock (and the first band went on at 11:15).
“We were forklifting gear to front of house while the crowd was in there,” said Orrison, who came on board just before pre-production for the tour began.
Local hero Trombone Shorty may have played last that night on the festival’s Acura Stage, the largest of 12 stages and tents plotted around the Fair Grounds Race Course, but White was the de facto headliner, drawing the biggest crowd of the final day and the longest set change of the day at 45 minutes.
Within that window, Orrison, FOH tech Taylor Nyquist, monitor engineer Marcel Cacdac and the rest of the crew rolled out the band’s preassembled stage modules, ran line check and did final prep before the band hit the stage at 3:35.
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On his 2018 run, White is playing to a mix of arenas, festivals and clubs with extensive video and 20 channels of keys on top of his power-trio foundation of drums, bass and guitar, making this his largest and most varied production to date. Two keyboardists roam among Rhodes, clavinet, B3 organ and various synths during the show to re-create the sounds on his latest album, Boarding House Reach, and add texture to White Stripes hits like “Seven Nation Army” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.”
There is no set list, so the band and crew are on their toes during the entire show. Like his preference for analog and penchant for recasting muddy Delta blues into saturated, barbed riffs, White’s performance style is unorthodox and unpredictable, making the crew part of the performance.
“He just does it by how he’s feeling, which is really fun and exciting,” said Orrison. “It’s a free-for-all rock ’n’ roll show with a punk attitude, which is so cool to see on a big stage.”
In this situation, he added, “There’s no ‘set and forget.’ You have to be part of it. You have to ride the faders.”
During the performance, Orrison mans a Midas XL4 console, the centerpiece of an all-analog rig White wanted for the tour. He and Nyquist get settings close enough during soundcheck so they’re able to ride faders within a few decibels—a technique he’s mastered from mixing Widespread Panic’s fluid, improvisational shows since 2014.
A rack full of vintage analog processors gives the mix White’s signature warm, vinyl-era sound. The fleet includes a UA 1176 tube compressor and an AMS Neve 33609 alongside a pair of Alan Smart C1s and other gates, reverbs and compressors. Orrison enlisted a vintage Roland RE-201 Space Echo and a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo to re-create the vocal sound, with saturation and reverb he can ride as needed.
“If you listen to [White’s] records, they’re warm,” he noted. “Anything he curated is really amazing sounding on the top end. To get that, I’m running that Fulltone Tape Echo with just the most minimal amount of delay.”
The vocal situation isn’t entirely under his control, though. White has a three-headed hydra of a microphone stand, with his standard Shure SM58 vocal mic in the center flanked by two Audix OM7 mics—one for distortion and the other linked to pedals and effects White controls himself.
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Orrison’s instrument microphone selection includes a few gems as well. He found a handful of AKG C414 TL2 mics through Firehouse Productions, which he uses on White’s Silvertone guitar amp, and a Coles 4038 ribbon mic for underheads on the drum kit. Elsewhere, he’s using an Audix D6 on the kick, and Shure SM57s on the snare and bass.
The tour’s main loudspeaker rig is a d&b audiotechnik line array, usually 16 per side depending on the venue size. At Jazz Fest, Orrison mixed to a Clair Cohesion 12 rig through a Lake processor with 12 boxes per side for the mains, another six each on the sides, plus six flown subs and three ground subs per side.
Over in monitorworld, the production gets even more interesting. White wanted a clean stage but also wedges, so the crew worked with Firehouse and Accurate Staging to develop a modular system of rolling platforms that creates a semicircle when fully assembled.
Having all the stage volume funneling toward White’s three-headed mic stand and monitors created some acoustical anomalies for monitor engineer Marcel Cacdac to overcome, but figuring out how to run wedge monitors with no visible cables or speakers required even more ingenuity. To meet the spec, they devised a way to suspend the wedges underneath the grated stage modules.
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“The d&b M2 wedges already have [mounting] points in them, so we developed a rigging system to use underneath, and then a hanger system,” explained Cacdac. “When we’re setting up, the rigging goes on four points on the speakers, the speakers slide underneath, and they clip into the eyebolts.”
That may sound easy enough for a headlining performance at an arena, but pulling it off during a rushed festival setup is another story. “For situations like today,” he noted, “everything has to be suspended—all our cables, all our looms, all our inputs, all the outputs. Everything has to roll. We have a hanging system [with] carabineers, [and] we’ve got 22 Neve DIs suspended under this thing.”
Back at FOH, Orrison is using the skills he’s learned both in live and studio settings—he also owns Austin Recording Service, where he’s worked with Alex Haas of the Black Angels and Kalu and The Electric Joint—to make his live mixes stronger every night.
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“The mixing situation is so different between live and studio,” he said. “At first, it can drive you absolutely crazy, but you can get to a point where both disciplines lean into each other and help each other out.”
One of the reasons he specified the old-school Midas XL4 is the line input that allows for virtual playback, which he feeds to a redundant setup of Focusrite RedNet interfaces and into a pair of Mac laptops.
“When I do playback in a live situation, like playing back the night before and being able to mix on [Genelec 8050A] studio monitors, I’m able to mix in a record form,” he explains. “You can trust that mix and know that if something’s wonky, it’s in the P.A. and it needs to be dealt with from the root of the problem. You don’t go chopping up your mix every night.”
Orrison doesn’t mind the constant learning curve and challenges of constantly seeking the perfect mix.
“That’s something you’ll strive for your whole life,” he said. “If you care, you’ll constantly search for the perfect situation.”
Clair Global • www.clairglobal.com
d&b audiotechnik • www.dbaudio.com
FOH Engineer: Brett Orrison
Monitor Engineer: Marcel Cacdac
FOH Tech: Taylor Nyquist
FOH Console: Midas XL4
Monitor Console: Midas Heritage H3000
Monitor Speakers: d&b audiotechnik M2, Q Subs
Monitor Amplifiers: d&b audiotechnik D80
FOH Equipment: Focusrite RedNet A16R, MP8R; UA 1176; Rupert Neve Designs P2MB Portico II, 5035, 5043; Allen Smart C1; Genelec 8050A; Drawmer DL241; AMS Neve 33609; Demeter Rv1; Yamaha SPX2000; TC Electronic 2290; Avalon 737sp; GML 8200; Empirical Labs Fatso; Fulltone Tape Echo; Sound Devices USBPre2; Lectrosonics R400A
Monitor Equipment: Neve DI; BSS DPR901II, DPR404; Yamaha SPX900; Lexicon PCM96, PCM70; Empirical Labs Distressor; dbx 160A; Drawmer DL251; BSS FCS960; Meyer CP-10; Avalon 737sp
Microphones: Audix D6, OM7; Shure SM58, SM57; Coles 4038; AKG TL2 414