Retro PSN: The Sound of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers Tour

Legendary rocker Tom Petty died October 2, following a heart attack in Los Angeles; he was 66. Over the course of his four-decade career, Petty deftly combined roots rock with mainstream pop to create a long string of classics, including as “American Girl,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Free Fallin,” “Refugee,” “The Waiting” and many more. In the live realm, Petty spent the last 22 years shaping his sound with FOH engineer Robert Scovill, and that long, trusted audio relationship began with 1995’s “Dogs With Wings” tour, backing the triple-platinum Wildflowers album. In remembrance of Petty, PSN looks back at the start of that era with a tour profile from our May, 1995 issue—a story that found the artist adopting then-cutting edge technologies like in-ear monitors and Scovill devising a precursor to the modern-day Virtual Soundcheck capabilities found on today’s digital mix system.
Author:
Publish date:

Legendary rocker Tom Petty died October 2, following a heart attack in Los Angeles; he was 66. Over the course of his four-decade career, Petty deftly combined roots rock with mainstream pop to create a long string of classics, including as “American Girl,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Free Fallin,” “Refugee,” “The Waiting” and many more. In the live realm, Petty spent the last 22 years shaping his sound with FOH engineer Robert Scovill, and that long, trusted audio relationship began with 1995’s “Dogs With Wings” tour, backing the triple-platinum Wildflowers album. In remembrance of Petty, PSN looks back at the start of that era with a tour profile from our May, 1995 issue—a story that found the artist adopting then-cutting edge technologies like in-ear monitors and Scovill devising a precursor to the modern-day Virtual Soundcheck capabilities found on today’s digital mix systems.

Tom Petty Hits The Road With 'Dogs'
By Clive Young

NEW YORK—With some veteran rockers, it takes the will of God to get them back out on the road; a monumental tour once every five or six years is the best their fans can hope for. Tom Petty, on the other hand, seems to always be on the go—if he hasn't already made a stop in your town this year, you can be sure he'll come through in the next 12 months. Known to fans and critics alike as a consummate performer, he, along with the Heartbreakers, is on tour again in the Dogs With Wings tour, supporting his recent Wildflowers album. Petty and Company knock out the trademark mellow-yet-rockin' tunes one after another, and before you know it, a few hours and a plethora of hit songs have gone by.

The friendly demeanor that Petty displays throughout his shows is no act either, as members of his crew will tell you at the drop of a hat what an easy artist he is to work for. They also note that he's open to trying new things.

Brian Hendry, monitor engineer for the tour, explained Tom's recent move into use of a Future Sonics ear monitor—a brand Hendry has used himself for some time. "He's always been straight-forward rock and he's always been pretty comfortable on stage, but maybe felt he was being left behind, because I'd told him so much about ear monitors. Tom admitted, 'I want what the Eagles have.' I said, 'No problem, Tom; I'll fix you up.' So I had everything ordered with Future Sonics, ready to go, and then I was told, 'No, Tom wants exactly what the Eagles have.' So I called Future Sonics and called it off. We were in rehearsals, and waited for the (other) ear monitors to arrive. I said, 'Do you want to try mine?' and he said, 'No, I'll wait for my own.' They arrived Thursday, he put them in and said, 'OK, let's go.'

"Tom talked into his mic and his reactions were, 'Oh God, these sound terrible; oh, these sound horrible; oh, there's something way wrong. There's no bottom.' And I'm saying, 'Well, they don't sound that bad, Tom' and I'm tweaking and he thinks they're broken. After 10 minutes, he had me try them and they were 6-8 dB down in level, real high, paper thin. Tom summed them up, 'They sound like the air-tube earphones you used to get on airplanes'—and they really did.

"I said, 'Tom, right off the bat, I'm sorry. Here, you try mine' and when I put my Future Sonics in his ears, he tried them and said, 'Oh, this is living now, this is it!' It was just night and day."

After some testing, Petty decided to only wear one ear monitor, and he uses it for about 70 percent of the show. "He went with wearing only one because he didn't want to be in his own little world, which can sometimes happen. He worried that if he's having a real good mix in his ear-phones, it may not be like that on stage. He likes the ambient sound on stage. We're using old Vox tube amps and such up there and he likes the sound, so primarily I'm using the ear monitors as a reinforcement with vocals, acoustic guitar...little accents as opposed to the full mix and being completely self-absorbed. They're working out great," said Hendry.

The ear monitor apparently sounds good to Petty--perhaps too good, as Hendry explained: "Tom has a soft, delicate voice and his music is very dynamic so he can sing very soft on to the mic, pick real soft on his acoustic strings. The ear monitor was working so efficiently in his ear that, unconsciously to him, he was backing off the mic. He was singing away and it's sounding great, but all the time, he was putting less and less input in the mic, so consequently, Robert (Scovill, front-of-house mixer) was struggling. I was mixing fine for Tom, but on stage, the band was going, 'Can you bring his vocal up?' So after, he was aware of the fact and he keeps right on the mic now; consequently, he backs the volume of his ear piece down."

Petty happens to make things a bit easier for Hendry because he likes to stay put on stage, surrounded by four wedges; having to chase Petty around with mixes appropriate for one ear with monitor and one without would be no picnic. Still, when Petty does walk around, his vintage Vox and Bassman amps bleed directly into his vocal mic; he uses the ear monitor's mix of the vocal mic as a reference for guitar solos instead of Hendry having to mix solos specially for his ear.

A 56-channel Midas XL3 is being used for mixing monitors, providing 12 mixes on stage as well as ear monitor mixes (Drummer Steve Ferrone also uses an ear monitor; Hendry uses a monitor set up with him that has a number of subs and an Aura Drum Shaker under the stool as well). Effects-wise, Hendry uses a few Yamaha SPX-990s, an Eventide H3000 and "a host of gates and compression—the usual." Hendry noted that Petty prefers to go almost completely dry with his sound, both with what he hears and what he delivers to the audience—"He uses a little effects pedal for a certain guitar part in 'Mary Jane's Last Dance' and this to Tom is like 'Whoa!' His roadie guy says he's like a 16-year-old kid in the guitar center for the first time."

A Dry Show

Robert Scovill is manning the front-of-house boards for Petty on this cross-country jaunt, mixing on a Gamble 56EX console and using a horde of processing equipment not normally seen on the road--"I use a lot of the same stuff I use in the studio when I'm touring--out of habit or comfort." Some of that "stuff" includes Neumann microphones, an SPL Vitalizer, Tube Tech preamps used on bass and snare drums and vocals, and a new Tube-Tech LCA2B dual limiter used on acoustic guitars. "I just absolutely love that one to death," Scovill noted.

"There's a dbx 160 on Tom's vocal, funny enough, per some conversations with Don Smith. He said he'd been around the mill with Tom in the studio and he found that the 160 really works magic on Tom's vocal, even better than the later ones like the 160x. So I'm using a combination of that and the 1176 on Tom's vocal. The 1176 is standard; I use it all the time, and I know Petty and Mike Campbell (Petty's longtime guitarist) are both big fans of it. I have some Summit DCL100 and 200 compression. I use different kinds of compression for different kinds of instruments. I have the characteristics of them tailored to certain instruments."

Ever the perfectionist, Scovill was still fine-tuning the show when Pro Sound News visited the tour. "Today, we brought in some Lang EQ and some Tube Tech EQ; I'm going to try them on Tom's vocal tonight. As far as effects processing goes, this show doesn't really call for a lot of it. It's very low-key on the processing side. We don't use the 'R' word much around here: Reverb. If you listen to Petty's record productions over the last few years, they've been very natural sounding and pretty dry for the most part, but I think they're very cool sounding. Any digital processing I do out here is very tight ambiance. I like the new set of ambiance programs in the t.c. electronic M5000; they're really good. I use that primarily on drums and piano, and the Eventide H3000 on vocal, t.c. electronic delays on the vocals, and that's about the extent of it. I did just get a new Alesis Quadraverb 2 though and I must say I am pretty impressed it. I hope I can find a slot for it though, because there's not a lot going on out here in Digital World," Scovill remarked.

The 96-box PA, provided by Electrotec of Westlake Village, CA, is divided into zones, each with its own crossover and EQ—the long throw section, short throw section, underhungs and center fill cabinets down in front—allowing Scovill to control the tone of the nearfield PA as well as the mix and level. "I've been real happy with the Electrotec PA; it has performed well on the tour. Petty has been an Electrotec staple for countless years. I've been using it for years as well and know it inside and out," said Scovill.

Also on tour with the band are 56 channels of ADAT, plugged into the insert point, before any insert gear or the console, to track each show. "When the band's done, you just rewind the tape, push play and there's your mix sitting there, just as it was during the show, and you can work on your inserts or anything. You can come in, put on last night's performance, walk around, listen to any instrument in the room, work on your inserts or judge microphone placements…it lets you tune the PA much more effectively.

"Funny enough, we brought the multi-tracks out with the intention of capturing some songs for B-sides, as well as multitracking for some documentary shoots we were doing with VH-1. I went into Electric Lady in New York to do some mixing of three songs. Well, I also make two-track references every night on DAT with audience and ambiance mics and the whole nine yards, and we brought those in just as reference because we liked the way they sounded. We futzed around with it for three or four hours, trying get it to sound as good as the two-track mix, and finally ended up just using the two-track mix. It was like 'Man, why are we banging our heads against the wall? This sounds fine.' As Petty would say, "Hey, good is good; don't mess with it." I believe they're going to release 'I Just Want To Make Love To You,' by Muddy Waters, and 'Diamond Head,' a song by the Ventures—which are both in the show—and maybe a Byrds song, probably 'Won't Be Wrong.'"

Tour is a Long, Long Road

Since Petty spends months touring, he goes out of his way to make it easier for everyone involved--and that includes the tour schedule. Reflecting a growing trend among touring artists, Petty's itinerary has weeks set off at a time, allowing the band and crew breaks in their hectic schedules. Hendry observed, "Nobody gets too burned out; after four weeks, you can start to get on each other's nerves, but then you go home for a week and come back refreshed. The tour is very nicely thought-out. Most of the guys on the tour, we've all been doing this for 20 years; Tom, Michael, guys in the band have kids, and the tour is very oriented to keeping that in mind. I've done a lot of tours like Motley Crüe and tours like that, which are good fun, believe you me, but they're not kid-oriented or family-oriented that way."

Months into the trek, Hendry was still impressed by the range of people attending Petty's concerts—and their reactions to shows: "The audience will range from high school kids right up to 45-50-year-olds who have their kids in their arms, clapping away. It's really good, everyone's up dancing, right up until the very end. Nobody leaves."