When your latest album debuts at number one in seven countries, it’s only fitting to follow it with a world tour—so that’s what Canadian R&B star The Weeknd has been doing since February, supporting Starboy with a journey that kicked off in Stockholm and will have crossed Europe twice, the U.S., Canada and South America by the time it winds up in Paris next month. Holding down the front-of-house mix at each stop along the way is veteran live sound engineer Derek Brener, working with audio production provided by Clair Global (Lititz, PA).
Brener first began working with The Weeknd (né Able Tesfaye) when he mixed the artist’s breakthrough headline show at Coachella in 2015, and that experience has informed his approach to the mix ever since. “Throughout the Coachella rehearsals, Abel, some of his select producers and I worked together and assembled a tasty mix,” Brener recalled. “That initial collaboration was so victorious that when it became tour time, I figured, ‘Why would I try to beat this mix? Everyone’s happy and so am I.’”
That’s right in line with Brener’s methodical approach to ensuring both the artist and audience are well-served by the mix. He’s a firm believer in extensive preparation during rehearsals, so that when a tour goes out, the only surprises in the mix are for the audience.
“How long were rehearsals? About two years,” Brener joked. “I say that because this mix hasn’t changed much since I started with him; it’s the songs that change. But for this tour, we had approximately two weeks to dial everything in. All the programming and hard work was done in rehearsal, because I want things to be consistent and easy as possible come showtime. I do so much mixing in pre-production with virtual soundcheck that I don’t do much mixing during the show; the mix is dialed and controlled, and I mostly ride the vocal and fire snapshots come performance time.”
That’s not to say that the mix has been static since 2015: “Abel and I have a comfortable working relationship; during rehearsal, he most always sits with me and listens to the entire show. If there is something that he wants, he has no problem asking for it. He directs the band and playback engineer from the talkback.” And naturally, every night is slightly different, depending on the room—and the mood in it: “It comes down to how the audience is responding a lot of the time. I ride the main fader quite a bit when I need to pull the band back and push the vocal. The mix gets as loud as I feel the audience wants it, but for the most part, I mix on average at about 100 dB over an hour.
Brener feels that an Avid Venue Profile console is what is applicable to this gig, so that’s what the current tour is mixed on. “The Profile has proven to be the perfect desk choice for this show,” he said. “It is reliable, compact and I love how plug-ins are still TDM. Also, on this tour, my FOH position changes daily, putting me in some awkward mixing situations, so the fact that the Profile is lightweight and cooperative is a major plus.”
Onstage, The Weeknd’s vocal is captured with a Sennheiser MD 5235 dynamic capsule on a SKM 5200 wireless mic, which the artist chose well before Brener’s tenure for its sound, rejection and reliability. Upon reaching the Profile, the vocal rolls through an Empirical Labs Distressor and then into a string of plug-ins for the vocal chain—Waves C6 compressor and V-EQ4 equalizer, sometimes followed by a Waves RVOX compressor if there’s issues getting a consistent level. Last but not least, the vocal slips through an outboard RND 5045 primary source enhancer to get some more gain before feedback—a key piece of gear since some of the PA is aimed right at the stage thrust.
Elsewhere on stage, the drums are surrounded by a Sennheiser e604 on toms and a phalanx of traditional Shures everywhere else, chosen for “that customary live rock ‘n’ roll drum vibe,” said Brener. “The dual-element Audio-Technica AE2500s on the guitar amps were a trick I stole from [Saturday Night Live music engineer] Jay Vicari. I adored the fact that you could have a perfect phase relationship with dynamic and condenser elements instead of hoping two separate mics stayed in the right position everyday.”
If the miking is largely traditional, the PA arrangement is not. The tour’s elaborate stage set meant that typical left/right stage hangs were out of the question. Instead, there’s a variety of hangs and ground-level boxes employed, as each side gets three hangs of 16 Clair Cohesion CO-12 cabinets, plus there’s 10 front-fill CO-8s on each side under the thrust, 16 Clair i-3s used as rear fills and 21 Cohesion CP-218 subs (16 airborne, five under the thrust) for a total of 143 boxes.
Throughout the tour, there’s been numerous stops at festivals, highlighting why Brener put so much effort into the mix during pre-production, ensuring he could attain the expected house mix without the aid of the massive Cohesion PA used on the tour’s regular shows. “I try to get every PA to translate my reference mix from rehearsal,” he explained. “Howard Page [legendary FOH engineer/senior director of Engineering at Clair] taught me a long time ago to get my mix as good as I could in my favorite reference monitors so I that I could have confidence that the bones were solid, so to speak. From there, I try and get every PA I mix on to sound as much like my reference as possible.”
That came to a head at Lollapalooza Brazil in late March, he recalled: “I don’t think in my seven years of touring with big pop acts have I ever experienced a crowd like that—the energy was so high the entire time that it injected that special spiritual stuff into my blood and heart that we all yearn for and rarely feel. Hats off to the music of the Weeknd for getting the crowd to be that lively! That’s as good as it gets—you can’t beat that response for a show.”
For more insight from Derek Brener, check out “Five Career Tips from The Weeknd’s FOH Man.”