The thing about Beyoncé Knowles is she's just so bloody good. Whether you're an avid fan or just someone who appreciates a strong vocal performance, there's really no debating it. The 17-time Grammy Award-winner has been shown to be 'Auto-Tune proof' in the studio; while on stage, she's absolute dynamite.
What the public probably aren't so aware of, however, is her hands-on approach towards her live shows: she reviews her show tapes every night, and she's very involved when it comes to live sound.
“Beyoncé is definitely not shy about her opinions on things, and it's good to hear those specifics, although it's not always easy making them happen,” smiles FOH engineer for The Mrs Carter World Tour, Stephen Curtin. “She always wants a nice clean vocal, but she gets far more particular than that: she likes to be very well heard over the music out front, which can be challenging for me as I have to build in some headroom, first to accommodate the music and then her vocal, and that's before you start hitting any kind of system conversion.”
To cope with Beyonce's extraordinarily wide dynamic range, her vocal chain is understandably longer than most: signal from her Sennheiser SKM 5200-II handheld (with MD 5235 dynamic capsule) hits the preamp on the DiGiCo SD7 at FOH, gets squeezed a little by an Avalon 737 compressor on the insert, then is passed to a group where it receives a light shaping from a Waves compressor plug-in, before finally settling at the master fader.
“The vocal's going through a few different stages, but it's not limiting her dynamic range; it's just harder live than in the studio to be able to go with the music,” Curtin insists. “She's got to be limited beforehand, to find out how low she can go before she's lost, so it's a case of balancing compression to get it to sit in a pocket of 8dB as opposed to 20dB.”
Beyoncé and the 'Big Mamas' (her three backing singers) have their own dedicated monitor engineer, Daniel Gonzales, also working from an SD7, while Demetrius Moore works monitors for her band from an Avid Profile.
“It's pretty crazy during a Beyoncé performance at monitor position as there is a lot of talkback going on and it tends to get very vocal,” Curtin admits. “For one guy to concentrate on Beyoncé, the girls and the band would be very taxing!”
There are 12 channels of Sennheiser EM 3732-II wireless receivers on the tour, to cater for the eight Sennheiser SKM 5200-II handheld mics and four SK 5212-II belt pack transmitters (for the horn section). IEMs are Shure PSM10000s.
“The flexibility of the RF when working with Sennheiser is great, because unlike many manufacturers, if you buy something in a certain range in the US then come over to Europe, you can re-tune it,” he says. “On the flip-side, Shure took hold of the in-ear world when they brought out the Diversity receiver belt packs with the PSM1000s, which made our RF and monitor guys way more happy in terms of stability.”
At FOH, Curtin is running 80 channels on his SD7 at 96kHz, which ties in nicely with the bigger system. “I've always been a DiGiCo man and it's fantastic that we can run at 96k. This means we're straight out of the desk into the Dolby processors and amplifiers at the front end of the PA without any sample rate converting going on whatsoever,” he explains. “We're using a mix of AES and analogue because Demetrius [Moore] needs analogue signal as there'd be a lot of sample reconverting involved if we went AES into the Avid [Profile] console.”
Curtin is utilising one DiGiCo SD-Rack at FOH and there are a further four on stage. Flexibility is key on this show, he says, and much of that stems from his DiGiCo set-up.
“I have one local SD-Rack and there are three on stage which we're using as inputs; then there's a fourth SD-Rack which is mainly used for the support stuff and a few extra bits and pieces,” he explains. “The flexibility of DiGiCo is what drew me to the consoles in the first place; everything is simpler and more intuitive, and compared to other manufacturers, there are less steps to go through to get to where you want to be when mixing.”
The PA for the tour is by d&b: two hangs of 20 J-Series enclosures with eight cardioid-configured flown J-Subs per hang constitutes the main L/R; a further 16 J-Series make up the side hangs; and 12 Q-Series boxes make up the centre clusters. There are an additional nine J-Subs per side on the floor and a scattering of d&b M4 wedges on stage, should the in-ears go down; the bassist and drummer are using Pearl Throne Thumpers.
System tech Arno Voortman uses Rational Acoustic’s Smaart and Morset Sound’s WinMLS software to tune the PA, though he admits this venue didn't need much tweaking.
“The process at the O2 Arena doesn't take long as it's very similar to an American arena, which I'm obviously used to,” Voortman explains. “I use Smaart for the low-end timeline and WinMLS for everything else.”
Voortman, who also worked on Madonna's last major tour, is a big fan of d&b for its ease-of-use and versatility; and as far as processing goes, he lets the speaker do all the talking:
“I find DSP is often being abused these days, as in over-processed, which can actually make it a detrimental thing; suddenly systems sound worse instead of better! If a system is a good system, why should you tweak the hell out of it?” For your correspondent’s position at FOH (sat next to Mr Carter – AKA Jay-Z), the system sounded like it was being driven very hard, but any slight distortion enhanced the experience. And always, intelligibility and boundless energy from Beyonce’s voice. After opening with Who Run The World (Girls), a two-hour set left the crowd mesmerised, and Mrs Carter was right on the money – she didn't seem to break a sweat, despite dancing throughout!
One highlight was the moment the singer was zip-wired to FOH to perform the latter part of the show from her 'Bey Stage', (above the mix position).
The second was the über-spectacular finale. As Beyonce came to the end of her hit, Halo, lighting designer LeRoy Bennett's unbelievable 'Wall of Inferno' (including 450 SGM X-5 strobes and 220 Clay Paky Sharpys) provided an incredible 'wow' moment as more than 1,000 fixtures lit up the entire arena,making it (we think) the brightest show ever to be seen on a concert stage.
I’ll put my hand up, like the lady asks: this was truly a night to remember.
Story: Paul Watson