DB Sound Image and Electro-Voice (EV) Meet Critical Demands of R. Kelly ’Light It Up’ Tour
Milwaukee, WI (April 28, 2006): Ubiquitous FOH engineer Rob “Cubby“ Colby is world-renowned as a wizard behind the desk. His solid reputation has granted him entrance to that that same elite club whose members include Big Mick, Robbie McGrath, Pablo Boothroyd, Robert Scovill, Dave Kob, etc. When the Rolling Stones, Prince, Metallica, or acts of equal caliber need an engineer, these are the names rallied in greenrooms and dialed from secret black books.
Since the 1970s, Cubby has worked with the music industry’s biggest talents, including Prince, the Cure, Phil Collins, Paula Abdul, Genesis, Janet Jackson, Bob Seger, Phil Ramone, Shakira, Luis Miguel, Robi “Draco“ Rosa, Juanes, and Shakira.1 Thus, it was no surprise when he got the phone call from Rob Kelly’s production staff, an outfit known for their critical ear. Signing on with incumbent sound company, db Sound Image, independent engineer Cubby hopped on a plane and headed to the Windy City. There, he and dB Sound Image CEO, Harry Witz, reunited after years of separation, making it a homecoming of sorts. While at the db shop, Cubby and Witz conducted a number of listening tests to determine what would be the right P.A. for R. Kelly’s “Light it Up“ Tour, which would play primarily half-arenas and theaters for 12 weeks across America.
During this stringent series of tests Cubby was introduced to the sound engineer phenom Michihiro “Michi“ Tanikawa, who over the next 12 weeks would become his right-hand man. Cubby comments: “Michi and I have a good musical understanding.
Personnel Rob “Cubby“ Colby - FOH engineer
Michihiro “Michi“ Tanikawa - Assistant Engineer
Dustin “DJ“ Johnson - Systems Technician
Chris Gratton - Production Manager
Donnie Lyle - Musical Director, R. Kelly’s “Light it Up“ Tour
Carlton Brown - Monitors Engineer
Most skilled engineers will tell you that rap, R&B, and soul music places serious demands on P.A. systems. Almost first on the list of features a P.A. must have in these musical idioms is low frequency response. Now, couple that (no pun intended) with music of this type being performed in half-arenas and theaters and you can see where issues might arise. The system must be able to fill a 2,000 - 10,000 person theater or half-arena with adequate low frequency program as well as throw mids and highs over 150 feet into the audience and vertically into one or two balconies without losing definition - all without melting people’s faces off in the front. What is the best way to do this? Given the physics: the line array, what with its potential for wide, even coverage.
Cubby explains: “Given the production demands and the venue types of the tour, I knew the P.A. had to be some kind of mid-sized line array. So, I did some research on my own about what was available from EV’s range of line array products. I then spoke with Harry about the Electro-Voice Xlc mid-sized line array, because he had a large part of the design process with EV. So, I flew down, met Michi there, set up the rig, listened to it, discussed the rigging options and set up the FOH environment. My footprint doesn’t change that much. I’ve got three of reverbs, a delay, very little compression, and two distressors. It’s more about the speaker system. After hearing it, I knew that we made a really, really good choice. I then flew up to Electro-Voice and saw the Xld-281 front fill element and looked at it and thought, wow, that’s going to be the box: low-profile, good dispersion. Then we heard it - power was right, sounded right, problem solved, great front fill! This is always about the team effort. I spend my time at the production rehearsals, that’s when we establish our formula. It’s not rocket science, well, sometimes it borders on rocket science as to how we’re going to set everything up to work the best together, as effective, as efficient, and above all sound the best it’s going to sound in every venue in every seat… I hardly touch the EQs - with the Xlc it’s really nice…“
Michi: “Likewise, I’ve done extensive shoot-outs of medium-size format systems in outside settings along side one another. The Xlc really sounds better than a lot of what I’ve worked with. This is what Cubby decided to go with, and I am very glad because of it. I know this system extremely well. With big line arrays if I change the angles it affects all EQs, especially 400 to 500 Hz. They end up feeling very different. This system doesn’t do that! I can change the angles as I need to in each theater and I don’t run into that. But with most of the theaters on this tour, we can do mostly the same angles, maybe some small changes on the top, but that’s about it. I also like the Xi boxes…“
However, as Cubby will be the first to point out, in today’s age there’s a laundry list of pro audio manufacturers who market great sounding line arrays - in all formats and sizes. You can stand around all day and talk about how good everything sounds, but there are other factors to take into consideration, especially when you’re trying to run a business - as sound companies and entertainers obviously are. What really makes the difference in a lot of instances is how a P.A. can save time, which ultimately equates to dollars in the pocket and hours of sleep.
Cubby: “This is a new system for R. Kelly and his team and they’ve been very impressed and very helpful to us. I was forewarned that we would only be able to fly the P.A. perhaps 50% of the time. However, with this system we’ve never had to stack it. If you can fly the P.A. upstage of the curtain, why not do it? The Xlc system really affords us the ability to be versatile. We’ve saved a lot of time and money because of it.“
Michi: “Plus, each box weighing 110 lbs doesn’t hurt at all. 12 boxes at only 1320!“
Cubby: “We have a real good crew. Chris Gratton is the production manager - he’s got a policy - it’s a 3 truck/2 bus tour, there are 7 of us on our bus, 4 sound guys, 3 lighting guys, and a driver. It’s a working tour. We all work. We all have something to do. Everybody works, so find something to do. Michi comes in and does the P.A. shoot of the room. It’s 10:30 in the morning - you want something to do. So I raise all the motors for the rigging guys: 25 Points total for lighting, gag’s and sound. The rigging on EV’s Xlc -which is another Witz concept - is a very intelligent rigging system. It’s more than just easy - it works intelligently. You don’t have to fight it to find your angles. The EV LAPS program really helps. It only takes Michi and DJ a half hour to throw up 32 boxes. By the time all that’s done Cubby has the FOH wired. Cable the whole system up and the P.A.’s ready. We then we run pink noise through each section of the line array and front fills and (side hangs if needed), do a crucial component check, and make sure each section of the system is equal from side to side. Then we’re ready to rock! Shoot, by 1:00 today we were ready to roll.
Michi: “It really does go fast with the Xlc. The first thing we’ve got to do is decide where we’re going to put up the P.A. We’ve got to be very careful how far we are from the edge of stage, how far from center, etc. Then I start calculating the box angles. Of course, we’re also using the EV LAPS (Line Array Prediction Software) program, which saves time. 11:00 load-in, 12:00 all speakers in the sky and subs in place. 1:00 tests, pink noise, play music, check delay times, wire the stage and by 3:00 all done, line check complete.
Production Manager Chris Gratton makes the same claim, as to how a system, in this case the EV Xlc, can save time and money: “It rolls in real easy. It flies real easy - one point, two point. The subs are great - stack easily. Keeps everyone happy. I’m on stage the whole show and my hairs stand on end. I’ve had no complaints and we’ve been on the road for 12 weeks… It’s a great system. I’m amazed at how well it performs for its size, especially for Mr. Kelly’s music. His music is well-rounded with a lot of low end. It’s unbelievable for a mid-size. I never expected it to sound that good to be honest with you. The way Cubby’s driving it helps… And you’ve got this hard-core studio band, one of the best R&B voices ever, and it just sings in every building. Every day we’re in arenas, theaters of all sizes, it sounds great. It performs equally in each room.“
Again, Cubby relates the business realities of how a well-designed and great-sounding P.A. system affects day-to-day touring life, something often excluded from data sheets or marketing collateral: “The Xlc package, the way the rigging is designed, the dollies, it’s a quick load-out. Let’s say load out is at 10:45 p.m.- if so, everyone is on the bus at midnight. You can sit around and talk about how good everything sounds but it’s also about how it’s packaged. Again, at the end of the day, the guys in the production office, they know how it works. You plan your in and out, and look at how quickly it can be done. It all equates to money saved and more rest.“
Cubby: “We’re 28 feet off center, an ideal distance for arenas. We’ve done half-arenas with this Xlc system and it’s been fantastic. 16 elements high in the line array with the subs on the ground, not on the deck. Sounds fantastic. I asked the production office, why aren’t we doing more of these half-arenas? The get-in is so easy. We could go-in at noon and be ready by 3:00.
Cubby: “Radio City Music Hall is where we really put the Xlc to the test. It’s just such a large room - so much volume - that it really requires a lot of energy to get the air moving. It performed very admirably - very much like a larger line array. In the end, we didn’t need it any louder.“
Cubby: “I started out this tour with an approach of how I want to do every room. I built a template for us to follow and showed it to Michi. Michi follows the same template every day. We seldom stray from that. The only real difference is, worst case, is that we hang the P.A. upstage from the fire curtain, which happens about 50% of the time. 50% of the time we’re on the other side. It’s really more of a safety factor when we get points in front of the down stage edge in theaters. I don’t have to ride the vocal mic on every line. But he’s now conditioned and he’s singing stronger. So even if he’s singing 12 - 14 feet in front of the P.A., everything is fine, we get zero problems. We’ve done that through tailoring the lower first four boxes where he would be in that plane of feedback issues. But he goes from one side of the stage to the other and we got zero problems.“
Cubby: “EQ-wise we really don’t need anything. The boxes sound great flat. When I was handed the P.A. that’s the way it was handed to me. FLAT! The crossovers were set, etc. It was more of how we were going to handle flying the line array with the sub-bass stack on the theater stages.“
Cubby: “The bass is very deep, punchy, and tight. Not muddy. R. Kelly walked in the first day stood at FOH and spent about 10 minutes and said nothing. He calls us in every once in awhile to tell us how happy he is. It’s that thing: if you don’t hear anything, that’s good. He’s the producer, arranger, musician, lyricist, singer - like a Prince but in his world of R&B. I see a lot of similarities there based on all the years I spent with Prince. But he operates in a different world - moves in a different way. He’s similar in some - he’s constantly working, constantly thinking of new things, constantly changing the shows.“
(32) Electro-Voice Xlc-127+ full range loudspeakers
(32) Single 18-inch half Xsubs (db Sound Image proprietary design)
(4) Electro-Voice Xld-281 front fill
(1) Electro-Voice X-Array Xn and (2) Xcb per side as side fill
(28) Electro-Voice P-3000 Power Amplifiers
On Power Amplification
Michi: “The EV P-3000 is my favorite amp right now. They are very stable. Harry and I picked these amps when we were doing the infamous power amplifier listening tests years back. At that time, I told Harry, “You gotta come here and hear these amplifiers!’ So we’ve been using them since then, 1997, with the Stones and tons of other tours.“
On Working with R. Kelly
Cubby: “He’s a great guy like that. He wants it to sound good because he’s all about the music. All he cares about is the music. And he’s done enough of this kind of stuff where he knows what he wants and how to verbalize it. It’s not like some performers who don’t know what they want or don’t want. It’s all been very straight-forward. All live instrumentation - Donnie Lyle, the musical director, has done a great job. Two keys, bass, drums, guitar, three b/u singers, and R. Kelly. There are few sound effects and a few segue sequence parts - strings, etc. - but that’s it. Again, he’s the producer, arranger, musician, lyricist, singer - like a Prince but in his world of R&B. It’s a theatrical show. It’s not just a band or some rappers who are going to stand there for two hours. A talented guy - very refreshing. I’ve been having a great time.“
Ultimately, R. Kelly is doing “the business.“ He’s selling out each theater he plays, doing five shows a week, sometimes more, as in Chicago where he sold out two standing room only engagements. Consider that he averages 5,000 tickets per theater. Now, consider his production costs and what’s been able to save by choosing the right P.A. for the rooms. What’s the perfect match to his business acumen? The expertise of an engineer like Cubby, the technical prowess of someone like Michi, the wisdom and experience of db Sound Image, and the packaging and performance of the EV Xlc line array, as well as the host of other EV product’s used. Ultimately, a lot of the world’s concert touring production staff could learn from the latest R. Kelly “Light it Up“ Tour. It’s a finely tuned, well-oiled machine.
- Cubby: “In the late “70s I was mixing a band that had just been signed to a major label. I went off to the East Coast and mixed the group but soon grew tired of that and moved back home to the Midwest. It was then that I got into contact with Chicago-based sound company, db Sound. I met Harry Witz and he offered me a job. After about a year’s time I decided to try it. From there my career really took off. I started mixing monitors for bands like Heart and Kansas, and then was introduced to Prince, not long after, I became Prince’s monitor engineer all through his tours “Controversy’ in 1981, “1999’ in 82 and 83 and “Purple Rain’ in 1984. After “Purple Rain’ I became the FOH engineer for him and did all the tours through 1989 - “Parade’, “Sign O’ the Times’, and “Lovesexy’. I then moved on to work with Phil Collins, and Genesis through the 90s. Mr. Collins, like many musicians, was a big fan of Prince at the time.“
“It’s been really nice to get re-acquainted with db Sound Image. I used to do so much with dB - the 70s and 80s was all db. 90s was all Showco and Clair Bros. I’ve had such a long relationship with Harry that it’s fun to be back with him.“ - Cubby
“I spent all the 80s with Prince and got funked out. But now I’m ready to be funkified again and this guy’s pretty funky.“ - Cubby
“Electro-Voice, do they really belong in the touring industry? Absolutely.“ - Cubby
“You can go anywhere in the world now and get a good concert P.A. system. But, it’s with easy-to-set-up and operate systems that still sound killer, like EV’s Xlc, where the real winners stand. Again, this equates to huge cost savings…“ - Cubby
“These sub-bass cabinets are incredible. I can’t find anything out there like these. This has turned out to be a really fun package - super compact. Harry and EV are always on to something.“ - Cubby
“We were ticking the limiters, that’s the way it should be… Just a great system.“ - Cubby
Electro-Voice (EV), is a professional audio brand of Telex Communications, Inc., a leader in the design, manufacture and marketing of sophisticated audio, wireless, multimedia, aircraft, broadcast and communications equipment for commercial, professional and industrial customers. Telex Communications markets its products in more than 80 countries under the brands EV, Telex, RTS, Dynacord, Midas, Klark Teknik and others.
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