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Live Sounds: Suzanne Vega

by David (Rudy) Trubitt, Sound Reinforcemnt Editor

This article originally appeared in Mix Magazine, © April 1993 It also appears in Concert Sound: Tours, Techniques and Technology.

Venue: The Warfield Theater, San Francisco, February 13, 1993
Sound System Rental Company: Scorpio Sound, West Bridgewater, MA
House Mixer: Geoff Keehn
Monitor Mixer: John Gallagher

Suzanne Vega's current tour is playing mostly theater-sized venues across the US, with an anticipated European leg to follow. Working in their favor are strong material and performances by Vega herself, and skilled band and crew with much individual and joint experience and dynamic musical arrangements enhanced by very moderate stage volumes. The tour is carrying FOH gear and a full monitor rig from Scorpio Sound (West Bridgewater, MA) and picking up stacks and racks at each gig to complete their system.

At the house mixer (a PM3000) is Geoff Keehn. "I've never been on a long tour with Suzanne, but I've worked with her for a long time," says Keehn, who did some second engineering on her first two records and co-engineered Days of Open Hand. Keehn's last road gig was a year-long stint with Curtis Stigers. Also on that tour were Vega's current monitor engineer John Gallagher as well as drummer, bassist and guitar tech. "We work together well. Once you know somebody, it's easier," says Gallagher. "It's like a little family," adds Keehn. "John's one of the best monitor engineers I've worked with. He makes the stage sound great. I was having a talk with the drummer just the other day and his remark was 'it's not just volume--it's musical.'"

The four-piece band (electric guitar, bass drums and keys) and Vega's vocal and acoustic guitar re-create (or exceed) the performances of material from her four records. Vega's new album 99.9 F, produced by Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Richard Thompson) is something of a departure from Vega's previous efforts. While her dry, intimate vocal remains a familiar landmark, occasional looped rhythm tracks and intense shifts in ambiance give the new record a sound of its own. The question was, how would this translate in a live setting?

"Mitchell and I spoke before we went out on this tour," says Keehn. "He said he pretty much wanted it to punch off the stage, keep it very dry and not very processed. On the new record, there's a lot of vocal effects--time delay, phasing, very tight doubling. You can try to recreate that kind of stuff in a live situation, depending on the [venue]."

Monitor engineer Gallagher describes Vega's vocal mic choices since 1986: "We're with a Beta 58 right now. It has that high-end cut--It's very sibilant, and it's smooth in the low end. We used a Beyer M88 for a while, but the proximity [effect] of that mic [didn't suit] her--if she gets off it at all, it goes away. We tried an EV 757, which is perfect on certain singers. I call it the 'Steven Tyler mic'--If you want to be screaming into it all night, it's fine. We used an AKG 535 on the last tour--it was OK, but in general, I don't like using condensers as a vocal mic. Sometimes cables start moving around and cracking and popping--you should be able to catch that at sound check, but I'd rather not worry about it at show time. And, I don't mind dropping a Beta 58--you know it's going to work."

In the house, her vocal runs through a Summit Tube limiter set for very light compression. "For a vocal compressor I wouldn't ask for anything else, it's very smooth," says Keehn. "But, this particular Summit is very hissey [for such a quiet show]." On the European leg, Keehn has requested a BSS DPR-901, a frequency-dependent, four band dynamics processor. "It's a very flexible box," says Keehn. "Any [band] can be compression, expansion, de-essing, whatever you like. I used it at the end of Curtis' tour. [For example], when the singer backs off the mic, you can expand the low end, compress the top and try [to control the variation in proximity effect]."

"She sings very softly," continues Keehn. "That sets the volume of the show, depending on how far back upstage I can get her vocal mic from the PA. Trapezoidal cabinets are much easier for us to use than square cabinets," due to what Keehn feels are their greater directivity. "With square cabinets, I'm finding [sound from] the horn just wraps right around the back of the cabinet and goes right into the vocal mic." When wrap-around is a problem, Gallagher positions his sidefills to try and block part of the path between PA and mic.

Vega's low vocal level also complicates the mix. "The band isn't loud, but the vocal mic is picking up the entire mix," says Keehn. Rather than try to gate or ride the vocal when Vega goes off-mic, Keehn uses it to his advantage. "I'll start sound check with the vocal mic open [at the level] I think it's going to be, and I'll start bringing things in. Sometimes if you just put up the kick drum and bass, you've got a great mix!"

Fortunately, Vega's monitor mix does not unnecessarily complicate matters. Her forward position enables her to hear her vocal effects from the house, rather than duplicate them in the monitors, a fact Gallagher appreciates. "Effects in the monitors, especially in smaller places, are not always compatible with the effects being used in the house. Then it ends up being more of a mish-mash of sound than something coherent."

"She knows what she wants," Gallagher continues. "She's got very good ears, which helps me. I've worked with other people who also knew what they want, but the way they say it is not always pleasant, let's put it that way!" Gallagher runs 7 to 8 mixes, including stereo side fills. Vega uses two or three wedges, depending on the size of the venue. (The low-profile Scorpio wedges are comprised of a single 12 and TAD 2 inch.) When three wedges are used, her vocal alone is run through the center with her acoustic guitars in the outer pair.

"Her guitars are good sounding," says Gallagher. "I don't have to do anything radical to them. One has a pickup and the other has [an internally mounted condenser mic] and a pickup. I don't use the mic on-stage, just the direct. She does everything from hard strumming to really soft finger picking, and plays with the level on her guitar a bit, so I kind of have to watch her." The tour's Soundcraft 800B monitor desk lacks one feature Gallagher misses. "I'm used to faders for subtle changes, as opposed to rotary controls, which are hard to find quickly. When a vocal is on the edge of feedback, it's more comfortable for me to ride the fader than keep my hands on a rotary pot. But it's a nice desk--the EQ is nice."

Although the stage has an open look, movement of each player is constrained. "Everything's in the same position every day, measured from the vocal mic to the drum riser," explains Gallagher. "It helps me, because I don't have to mix things loudly. Normally, a drummer would have kick, snare and bass guitar right off the bat. But there's no bass in his wedge, because he's close enough to him that he doesn't need any. It's one of the quietest stages I've ever heard."

The low stage level offers additional drum miking flexibility, according to Keehn. "I close mic just about everything--all the drum kit and so on--just to get some meat out of things. But I've also got a pair of overhead AKG 414s, which come in extremely handy. I've gotten to the point where I take the entire kit except for the kick and put it on one VCA and the overheads on another. Mitchell and I had a talk about this at the beginning. His suggestion was to try squashing the overheads, which surprised me--I'd never done that before. But, I tried it (using BSS 402s) and it seems to work pretty well. It tightens it all up."

As it happened, producer Froom was present at the San Francisco show. He noted that clarity in musical arrangement is as important live as in the studio. He also explained that to help recreate some of the album's sounds, samples (recorded with appropriate effects) were drawn from the sessions. Some of the looped rhythm beds on tunes from 99.9 use manually triggered sounds while others actually do loop. The intent was to use these unusual rhythm tracks in such a way that the audience would not be aware of what was live and what, if anything, wasn't.

Froom offered one other interesting anecdote. As one point the sessions, what he describes as an Indian-made PA was brought in. It had a huge fiberglass horn, built-in delay and an obviously "unique" sound. For the tour however, this unusual PA was replaced with a bull horn, used by Vega during Blood Makes Noise.

As for the PA, explains Keehn, "getting stacks and rack every night makes for some interesting situations. There have been some nights it's been absolute hell, but other times, like today, it was quite as a mouse." The Warfield's system consists of Meyer MSL-3s 650 subs and Crest amps, supplemented by additional 650s and racks supplied by Ultrasound. "The Scorpio system is very compact and tidy," continues Keehn. "They've got everything down to multi-core and Elcos (please verify spelling of this type of connector with GP) from desk to effects and returns." Keehn also notes that the system makes "buzz-busting easy" with ground lifts available at numerous points in the AC and signal chain.

Although results could vary depending on gear supplied at each venue, I found the sound at the sold-out Warfiled show to be excellent. Vega's vocal achieved her trademark intimacy, and a very dynamic and musical performance by the band was enhanced by the sound system, making for a very enjoyable performance.

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