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Tour Profile: Jellyfish

by David (Rudy) Trubitt, Sound Reinforcemnt Editor

This article originally appeared in Mix Magazine, © June 1993

Semi-retro pop thrash-ters Jellyfish have been touring theaters and clubs in support of their second recording "Spilt Milk." Traveling with the band is engineer Shalom Aberle. "I've been working with these guys for three years," says Aberle, "the very first show, and every one since." Aberle came to the attention of the band's song-writing duo from a combination of studio and live work around the SF Bay area. As it happens, Aberle was in the midst of a move to Atlanta (where he now resides) when approached with the gig. "I said I really couldn't do it," recalls Aberle, "but they sent me a copy of Bellybutton [the bands debut] before it was released, and I knew I would be going. The music was totally up my alley."

The current record is a remarkable sonic collage of musical styles and thick vocal arrangements, as well as being a great listen, at least in my opinion. However, the material is demanding, especially without the aid of tape tracks, sequencers or vocal samples.

"It's very dense," says Aberle. "We try to reproduce it as much as possible. [Drummer] Andy Sturmer and [keyboardist] Roger Manning both spent incredible amounts of time re-working the arrangements [to make them workable live]. There are no vocal samples and I'm really proud of that. That's the most common question I'm asked at every show. [All four band members] are really great singers and they stick really tightly onto the microphone. I compress the heck out of the vocals and I throw a little thickener on the backups and a little bit of delay and reverb and they do the rest."

"I've studied voice myself," adds Aberle, "and it's worked to my advantage--I'm able to really pick apart the vocals and hear who's doing what." Aberle's vocal skills leads him into territory not often treaded by engineers. "Occasionally I'll have a discussion with them on who's singing an 'ooh' or an 'ahh,' or who's taking a breath where. Maybe an intonation problem is happening because someone is singing a different vowel sound. That does make a big difference--two people can sing the exact same note, but if one's singing an "ahh" and the other an "eeh," it doesn't work. That's why CSN sounded like that--they found the vowels that they could use and all sang the same ones all the time, which is why those records sound so incredible. This band is tuned into that. It's great to work with a bunch of singers that care so much and want to get it right."

Economics preclude the band from carrying full production. "I've done everything I can to try and keep our costs reasonable," says Aberle. "Fortunately, the band is a stickler for a certain level of production to maintain a certain quality."

"We go into a lot of different kinds of situations," he continues. "The most important thing to me was to maintain as much consistency as possible, even though we're only carrying a Soundcraft Venue 32 channel console, house processing and microphones." The tour picks up a new monitor system and stacks and racks where ever they go.

Aberle carries a lot of compression. "The first few shows I did with them, their [studio engineer] Jack Joseph Puig, who I worship, came out. He said, 'you've got a good ear, this is a good sound, but you keep losing the mix. You just have to compress the shit out of those keyboards and everything else!' And he was right. We got the money to get a whole slew of dbx 166s. I have 14 channels of compression, and one club sound man after another asks 'got enough compressors there?'"

"I'm compressing everything individually," he continues. "I think it's mandatory to compress vocals individually, and of course bass and acoustic guitar if you want to hold them above the mix, and keep it consistent." The keyboard sub-mix is firmly compressed as a whole. No compression is intentionally used on the overall mix--Aberle mixes at a moderate SPL level, usually below the threshold of any house limiting.

"As far as outboard gear," says Aberle, "we have a Roland SDE-1000, an SPX900 which I use pretty much as a pitch-shifter for vocal thickening--the 'fine' is adjusted +-7 in either direction with a 20 and 30 millisecond pre-delay. We have a couple of LXP-1s--one is set for a small room ambient sound for drums, the other a big or gated reverb." An SRD 2000 is used for guitar reverb and a Lexicon POCM 70 for vocals. Aberle uses a MIDI controller to change presets between songs, but not within the same tune.

"Very little digital reverb is used on the new record," Aberle adds. "They set-up a lot of room mics, and that's what I try to re-create. I can't quite get that, but it's what I'm going for. I really want a very non-conventional rock and roll drum sound--I don't want the drums going AHHHHHH."

On the microphone front, lead singer/front-line drummer Andy Sturmer (see photo) uses a Beta 57 on his vocal and snare top with an SM-81 on the bottom, while Beta 58's are used by the other singers. A number of Whirlwind passive direct boxes are also used on stage. Aberle cites the reasonable cost and lack of phantom power requirements as pluses.

An AKG D112 is internally mounted in the kick drum, along side a less common material. "We've got some shredded newspaper in the bass drum--it's a suggestion of Jack's," credits Aberle. "It mutes the heads but doesn't kill them. But, one night one of the wires came off the mic and we had to open it up--we had all this shredded newspaper all over the place!"

Being a crew of one has it's disadvantages, notes Aberle. "I'm tweaking monitors every day with a different engineer. They could be great, like today (Sound On Stage's Ricardo Caltagirone) or they could be mediocre, drunk or just obstinate." Load-in to end of sound check typically takes five hours, most of which is spent on monitors.

The band wants the flattest monitors we can get. I especially work to make sure they're as non-2.5-4kHz-ish as possible. That whole area there can get so shrill. A lot of people who are checking monitors will get right on the mic and talk--'check 1-2' in a big voice, but they'll neglect a lot of other vowels. And the most important one, at least for that mid-frequency range, is an "E.' When you go 'HEEE,' if you've got 2.5 or 3.15 kHz too hot, it'll show you right away. I work back and forth between 'HAY' and 'HEE' to smooth that out. A lot of people expect that a rock and roll monitor system should have a lot of edge right there, but if you've got four guys up there going 'EEE' it can be murder. I EQ the main PA the same way, making sure it's not too harsh in that range. I also try to keep a fairly low spl level out front--I don't want to see anybody with ear plugs."

Once the day's setup and tweaking is done, Aberle can shift his focus to the music. "I approach mixing from a musician's angle," he notes. "I also do a lot of mix 'weaving,' meaning I hand mute the vocals with the faders all the time. And, I try to make sure none of the mics are ever up unnecessarily, especially with the drummer on the front line. I could do that with mute switches, or have mute groups set up, but I think this sounds a little better."

This swelling in and out of backing vocal parts is a distinctive feature of the album mix, which Aberle faithfully executes live. "It's probably what gives some people the feeling that [vocal samples are used]," he notes. However, the success of the technique is dependent on monitor levels. "If they're too loud, or you're hearing some ringing overtones from them, like 200 or 160 Hz, it'll take away from that effect. We open with 'All Is Forgiven' (which features a sharply faded full-voice, a cappella vocal chord), and I can tell what the night's going to be like when I pull that out...If we're playing a large outdoor amphitheater, it's great, but when you're playing in a night club...We have considered using Futuresonics Ear Monitors, but it's also a money question."

Next up is a tour of Japan, where the band has attracted a serious following, selling out all shows far in advance. Aberle will carry only a 4-space rack with his programmable effects, picking up everything else. A RAMSA or PM-4000 console is expected to be used, hopefully the same model at each date, although probably not the same unit.

Where ever they go, the band's focus on immaculate vocals and intricate arrangements is reflected in Aberle's own priorities. "I'm kicking my own ass every day trying to get it right. I feel now after 14 or 15 weeks of touring that I really have all my cues down really well and can really focus on more things all the time. My hands are always busy, but now that I've got everything down, I can find other things to fix here and there. They all make a difference, and it's nice to make a difference."

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