“Weird Al” is back with his full band, backup singers and a 71-piece symphony orchestra! We asked FOH engineer Albert Rettich aka “Big Al” to talk about how he mixes Weird Al's most full-blown, over-the-top extravaganza ever—The Strings Attached Tour.
Anything weird happening at FOH? Is your setup as over-the-top as this show? How do you use plugins in your live mix?
At FOH, I'm pretty stripped down. I don't have a lot of outboard gear, so I rely on Waves quite a bit. We’re touring with a 71-piece orchestra, so that with a full band including guitars, bass, drums, keys and background singers comes to about 133 inputs on our DiGiCo SD5 consoles at both front of house and monitors.
On my main outputs, I have a plugin chain that starts with the CLA Mixdown plugin. I love the glue and the drive, and that gives me capabilities of tightening things up in the mix a little bit. I come out of that into an MV2 (high and low-level compression plugin). I like using the ‘Broadcast Wizard’ preset so that I'm right into that one pocket. I come out of that into the L3-16 Multimaximizer with IDR. There's a setting in there that takes out a little bit of the mid-range—that gives me that loudness curve. I then come out of that into the GEQ Graphic Equalizer, which I think is one of the most underrated plugins. You know I'm old…really old [laughs], so having a 31-band EQ is like second nature for me.
The nice thing about the GEQ is the ability to switch between the Classic and Modern components. I prefer the flat-top filters on the Modern (component), because it maintains the Q shape no matter how you adjust the band’s gain—not like the classic version of it where the more you cut or the more you boost the wider or narrower it gets.
What’s weird is that a lot of the theaters we’ve been visiting have the left and right subs, and front PA speakers all down the same line, and that's kind of rough because the timing and the cutoff of the subs is going to be off in a lot of cases. So, the Sub Align was great for these situations. Using this plugin on the mains was useful in fixing this problem with a PA, and also helping the artist shine.
How do you make Weird Al’s vocals shine in the mix?
My vocal plugin chain is always on my side monitor. I like having that control in knowing it's right there. Especially with this show—I've got my eyes in so many different places; and so far the Scheps Omni Channel is what I've been messing with the most.
I use the Tune Real-Time, and that's mostly because we do five or six shows a week. On that fifth or sixth show, he might be getting a little tired so I sometimes need to kick it in—otherwise it's out. Then on his vocal; and pretty much all my vocals in the show, I have the Primary Source Expander. This way, if his background singers, or the band aren't singing, I'm not getting any bleed.
For effects sends, I’m using the CLA Effects plugin. It’s got everything there—delay, pitch control and short and long reverb. I use it in send/return mode to feed the reverb and the delay separately within the plugin.
I direct-out his vocals again into another channel that has the CLA Vocals plugin on it. What I love about it is that I can get a nice compressed sound, and I’ll use the Wide setting to make his vocal sound a little bit wider if I need to—without having to push his vocal levels too hard.
If Weird Al is priority #1 during the show—is his accordion the #2 priority?
Yes [laughs]. We use a wireless Beta 98 (miniature cardioid condenser microphone), hooked up directly inside his accordion to reduce any bleed. I do tend to get wind noise when he is not playing—especially if we’re playing an outdoor concert. The F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ works great right off the bat; it takes that harshness out of the wind noise. Then, I have a CLA-2A plugin just to kind of even it out and compress it a little bit. I then have the IR-L Convolution Reverb for a nice, smooth room on it—to give it a little tail.
How are you micing and mixing the live symphony orchestra with a full band?
Throughout the inputs I've got the F6, but I’m not micing every instrument. I'm trying to keep it as minimal as possible. I typically place one microphone for every two pieces or instruments throughout the 71-piece orchestra. For instruments that don’t put out a lot of signal, like oboes and bassoons, I use a one-to-one close-micing technique.
What’s your advice for aspiring live engineers about touring and having fun, versus staying technical and doing your job?
What was told to me when I first started in this industry was; "Keep your mouth shut, ask a lot of questions and just listen!" It’s important to understand how the gear works and how to use the plugins, but there's other things on how to layer stuff and you know... Let me give this analogy: Getting in front of the console without prior knowledge is like trying to drive a car when you don't even have a license, or even have the key! You know you can't get up and running when you've never taken a first step.
Don’t rush to get behind that desk so badly that you forget everything else! Slow down, learn everything, ask some questions, and it will come. If it's meant to be, it will happen.
Learn more about mixing with plugins live for large-scale productions. Go behind the sound design of Jagged Little Pill: The Musical.
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