NEW YORK, NY—The Cure first played Madison Square Garden in 1987, and 29 years later, the stalwart pop-goth band returned once again to the fabled venue to play the last indoor shows of its 2016 North American tour. The 26-date run took the production through a variety of venues, from arenas in Dallas and Chicago, to amphitheaters in Miami and Denver, to theaters in Kansas City and Las Vegas—and the journey isn’t over yet, as now the European leg is currently underway, running through December.
Working with the group every step of the way, much as it has since 1979, is UK audio provider Britannia Row, which fielded a full audio system for North America rather than pick up a stateside PA. FOH engineer Paul Corkett, who’s respectively engineered and co-produced two Cure albums with bandleader Robert Smith, explained, “Robert puts a lot of time and attention into rehearsals, listens to everything and he’s very hands-on and articulate about what he wants, so I think he wanted to carry one consistent rig with him.”
And what Smith wants coming out of that rig, it turns out, is an open-sounding show built around the dynamics of the carefully plotted arrangements. In many ways, “The band mixes themselves,” conceded monitor engineer Rob Elliot.
As a result, the Avid Venue Profile console at the FOH position wastes little horsepower on processing. “I have some scenes that recall some delay times, but otherwise, the board is pretty live,” said Corkett. “Just a vocal delay and a tiny bit of parallel compression on the kit; that’s it. All the dynamics come off the stage. When I first started, I was squashing stuff a bit; Robert listened afterwards and said, ‘We’re playing hard here and it’s not opening up.’ So it went—no gates.”
Corkett has roughly 80 inputs coming into his desk between the five-piece band, various audience mics to flesh out archival efforts and more. The tour carries two Avid Pro Tools rigs—a main and backup—that recording tech Colin Burrell uses to preserve every show. “There are a lot of pre and post signals taken,” said Corkett. “It’s to be mixed down the line, so we’re providing options where you can reamp something, but once again, Robert does all that himself—he’s pretty good with a Pro Tools system.”
Capturing everything on stage are a slew of different microphones, starting with Smith’s new vocal mic for this tour, a DPA D:facto II. “Paul started using it in rehearsals, and I thought it was going to be a nightmare for monitors because it’s a really loud stage for a condenser mic,” recalled Elliot. “I put it on, set the gain levels the same as for a 58 and basically it’s great. Sounds very similar, the rejection is good and I’ve managed to get the gain before feedback higher than the 58.”
That’s necessary as the stage is relatively loud and Smith’s mic position is right in front of the drum riser. “There’s a lot of cymbal information that could go straight down that mic and we found this one helped,” said Corkett. “It’s still there, but it has a smoother top end—and Robert seems to like it. If he felt uncomfortable, he would’ve said straight away.”
Because the stage is loud, there’s as few mics on it as possible. Drummer Jason Cooper’s kit is captured with a Shure Beta91A and Beta52A in and outside the kick, respectively; Shure SM57s and Neumann KMS105s on the snare tops and bottoms; Shure KSM137s on the high-hats; AKG C414s on overheads; and Sennheiser e604s on toms. Otherwise, the rest of the instruments skip the microphones: Smith’s guitar is straight from the outputs on his amps, while fellow guitarist Reeves Gabrels is using Palmers and bassist Simon Gallup uses a Radial JDX48 active guitar amp DI box.
The volume onstage is due to the 10 d&b audiotechnik M2 monitor wedges present, with four pairs across the front and single wedges behind Smith and Gallup. “Robert’s wedge behind him has the full band mix in it, and it’s loud. And it’s getting louder as the tour progresses,” said Elliot, who is mixing on a DiGiCo SD5 desk. Both drummer Cooper and keyboardist Roger O’Donnell wear 64 Audio brand IEMs, sporting the now-discontinued Adel S1 model, but it’s unlikely that Smith will move to in-ears anytime soon, said Elliot: “I approached the subject with Robert once and he shut me down before I even finished the question.”
The audience, too, gets its fair share of sound—in this case, an L-Acoustics PA overseen by system engineer Adam Smith: “Our touring inventory consists of a total of 48 K1 elements and 28 K2 elements, generally configured with a main hang consisting of 14 K2 and the side hangs with 10 K1 and eight K2. They’re for large-format applications, but it also gives us the flexibility venue-to-venue so we can change configuration. We have 24 additional Kara hangs for around the back, beyond the 180 line, as needed, as well as 24 K1-SBs flown subs, which are flown cardioid, and then a series of SB28s on the ground, with Kiva, Kara and Arcs IIs around as fills.”
Handling the variety of venues, occasionally some main array elements were released to be used as delays for a given show, but for the three Madison Square Garden concerts, Firehouse Productions (Red Hook, NY) provided additional boxes for use as delays.
While the concerts throughout the tour are not quiet, they aren’t a start-to-finish aural onslaught either. “I figure we’re running 98 to 102 dB, but it’s a three-hour set,” said Corkett, “and when its seated, you can’t run it that hot all the time and go 100-plus. It’ll take you out—but the diehard fans go for it upfront; binge on the bass bins!”
Corkett prefers mixing the band’s earliest songs (“They were written for a three-piece, so they’re a joy to mix because you can have space”), but no matter the track, he has one singular goal, handed down by Smith: “His guide to me was make it sound exciting. He listens to everything, so I certainly know if I’ve gone wrong.”
But if the bandleader expects the best from his crew (he’s similarly hands-on with the lighting team), Smith is just as demanding of himself and the band, changing the 30-40 song setlist nightly as he draws from a pool of 80-plus songs worked up for the tour. Corkett provided insight into that epic work ethic, explaining, “I think he experienced seeing an artist once only play for 40 minutes when he was 18 and he’d saved up a load of money to see him at Earl’s Court. He felt really shortchanged, so he swore he’d never do that as an artist—and he hasn’t. He’s so focused on it; he really wants to give the audience a whole experience.”