Missy Higgins and her band have been touring the country with some of Australia’s leading symphony orchestras joining her for these special concerts.
By day Brent Gray is an account manager for JPJ Audio in Melbourne but he is set free whenever Missy tours as he has been her front of house engineer since day one.
“I did her first ever gig with a band 12 years ago at the Evelyn Hotel and since then I’ve done most of her tours locally and overseas,” said Brent. “Missy has always had a broad range of instrumentation on her shows but nothing like a 50-piece orchestra before!”
Audio was picked up locally at every venue provided by the local JPJ office except for Perth. The orchestras, which were also picked up locally, came with their own FOH engineer who fed Brent stems to simplify matters.
“As we weren’t touring one orchestra it was better this way, even though each orchestra was playing from the same charts and we have the same conductor for most of the shows”, said Brent. “It’s quite an unknown quantity having only a couple of hours before the show with a group of people you’ve never heard play before.”
Brent mixed Missy’s band and received stems from the orchestra mixer; stereo strings, woodwind, percussion, brass and a couple of mono solo stems for instruments such as harp which played a significant role in several of the arrangements.
“Within those stems I received, the orchestra FOH mixer balanced the various sections within those groups happening for me, and I mixed them in with Missy’s band,” explained Brent. “At times there can be a lot going on and I found that Missy’s band was playing back a lot relative to its normal arrangements. It could get pretty epic and big so it was important to have that space which also meant at other times it quietened down to the point you could almost hear a pin drop. As a result I often found myself turning things down to allow other things to come through instead of creating focus through increased volume.”
There were still a few songs that Missy performed with just her band making an interesting juxtaposition. Brent ended up using a combination of different approaches to mixing depending on what is happening in that particular song or at that particular moment.
“Missy has a strong voice that tonally works very well with her Neumann KMS 105 microphone and she has great mic technique,” says Brent who treats Missy’s vocal with an SSL G channel strip on her vocal channels, a Puigchild 660 compressor on a mono vocal group and a standard onboard reverb.
“I generally just roll it off at about 130 hertz, pull a couple of db at 230 hertz and add a little bit of sparkle in the top end,” Brent added. “However, as Missy’s music is quite dynamic, I don’t compress her vocal on the channel, rather I buss it through a group so that I can mix her vocal in and out of the buss compression. Then if I need to turn it up or pull it back, I can control the compression with the fader. The 660 adds really nice harmonic distortion so I’m using it as a tonal effect as much as a compressor. Missy also has two vocal positions so I can treat them individually as required, regarding phase particularly, but then buss them both through that one compressor. I feed her vocal effects from this compressed signal via a PQ output which works really well in terms of getting a very present, even vocal with all the intricacies that you often miss live all whilst not having runaway effects due to a dynamic performance. Via the PQ I can also send the BVs to the same reverb from an auxillary send straight off those channels. I do the same thing with the snare and toms, it gives a lot of flexibility.”
Brent ran an Avid Profile at FOH with a few plugins that he relies on heavily such as the SSL4000 bundle, Puigchild 660, In-Phase, Revibe and Echo farm. “I use the Profile as a matrix mixer and for the snapshot system rather than for its tonal qualities. For tone I use the SSL channel strips on everything and buss compression. I use the In-phase plugin to line up Kick in and out, snare top and bottom, bass DI and Mic and then to create stereo spread in the guitar. Kicks, snares and basses are all bussed to a mono SSL buss compressor much like Missy’s vocal channels.”
Some orchestras came with their own microphones or else JPJ provided them. For Missy’s band Brent favours the Sennheiser e900 range saying they work well for the way he approaches mixing. There’s an Sennheiser e904 on the toms, a Beyerdynamic M88 and Sennheiser e901 on kick, Shure SM57 snare top and a couple of Neumann TLM 103 condenser mics on overheads. Shure KSM 32 and Sennheiser e906 are used on guitars for a bit of light and shade, whilst backing vocals are all using Sennheiser E935s.
“I really like the way that those mics work and sound, which is like you’d expect them to sound,” added Brent. “That’s just the way I mix, I like to get the band sounding like the band sound, just a bit bigger and a bit more polished.”
Monitor engineer Nathan Davis also used an Avid Profile running Sennheiser G3 in ears with no stage monitoring at all, with the exception of whatever is provided for the orchestra. With little sound onstage the conductor also used in-ear monitors.
“It was all nice and clean onstage which is good for me out front as I don’t have to battle with too much onstage sound which is a friendly environment for the orchestra,” Brent said. “In general, the State Theatre gigs were very successful and a fun challenge for me. I could mix quite quietly as everyone is close to the stage which gives a nice ambience to the show, especially one featuring an orchestra.”