Luke Bryan “What Makes You Country” Tour

by Mike Wharton • in
  • July 2018
  • Production Profile
• Created: July 18, 2018

The “What Makes You Country Tour” is Luke Bryan’s sixth headlining concert tour. He will be playing 13 stadiums along with a diverse mixture of arenas, amphitheaters and festivals; often in the same weekend. Past years have seen him sell out Chicago’s Wrigley Field, the Minneapolis U.S. Bank Stadium, and Cleveland’s Progressive Field, which points to at least one reason why Bryan will be the first country artist to headline a show filling Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium on July 28.

Photos by Todd Kaplan

While Bryan may follow the pattern of the typical “weekend warrior” from the 615 area code, with the usual extended run to the West Coast, his venue schedule is anything but. Clair Global, the vendor for the tour’s front of house engineer Frank Sgambellone — who has been with Luke going on six years — sums it up best, “It never ends. He’s that guy, he’s a brand, he’s Luke and he’s on TV. He’s a successful country artist. This year we had the rare occurrence of five straight weeks off because he did the American Idol tapings. We sometimes forget that when we are at home, he’s still got something going. He’s got press, familial obligations, he’s got TV. To watch this go down the way it does is unbelievable.”

And that’s just the start, Sgambellone adds. “Then there are corporate events or award shows he’s asked to host, like the CMT awards television show. As much as we just go to the show and do it, he has to do all the lead up to it and the press. It’s not easy being him; it’s not easy for anyone in that position. He is not a micro-manager, he leaves us alone. He trusts us.”

The audio crew, from left: John Weldon, James Anderson Hall, monitor engineer Seth Kendall, FOH engineer Frank Sgambellone, Rachel Hope Stuemke, Dustin Ponczeck, Dave Moncrieffe and systems engineer James “Fish” Miller. Photo by Todd Kaplan

‡‡         Experience and Education

Sgambellone began mixing as a teen, before he was old enough to drive or legally enter the clubs he worked in. His band rehearsed in a building owned by Soundstage, a local sound company. As he was vaguely familiar with audio, he started getting calls from Dennis Verduchi, the owner of the sound company “as a last resort” to stand in for guys who did not show up. During the week, he was in high school. His mother would drop him off and pick him up each night on the weekends. He later got a degree in electronics at the New England Institute of Technology and then went to Full Sail for a year despite a lot of folks advising him not to.

“It was a fantastic school for me,” he says. “Specializing in exactly what I wanted to do seemed the perfect idea. I liked the school, did well, but I also showed up. That was the beginning of my work ethic; you gotta show up to move up.”

His career began with Showco (later acquired by Clair Global in 1996), learning systems by starting at the back of the building and working as a P.A. mechanic; “really the simplest basic skills that have to be dealt with as a P.A. guy; how to hang a P.A. and more importantly — how not to hang a P.A.”

Sgambellone’s second year with Showco brought him back into desk world, once again by default. “I was put on a festival tour with Iggy Pop and several other bands, none of which had monitor engineers.” Armed with his mixing experience from his club days 10 years earlier, he was put to work. “Besides, the desks looked pretty much the same, only a lot nicer.”

A few years later, Sgambellone got his first shot at mixing at the other end of the snake, when he was offered the FOH position by replacing the current engineer who was having problems.

“This was the big leagues. We were the opening act for Metallica. I had no idea what I was doing with a system that big, but I had Mick Hughes and Paul Owen giving me all the help in the world. They could have let me twist in the wind.”

Sgambellone did well on that tour and hasn’t sat at a monitor chair since. “The monitor engineer position is a hard job,” he says. “It requires a supreme amount of discipline and patience. All the best monitor engineers in the world have those two qualities. You never take your eyes off the artist and you never, ever lose your patience with demands from the artist. In my experience, the best guys seem to have an uncanny ability to speak to artists and treat them like artists. It’s an attitude of ‘I’m trying to help you do your thing’.”

FOH engineer Frank Sgambellone’s console of choice is a Yamaha PM10. Photo by Mike Wharton

‡‡         From FOH

“FOH guys, we’re all d*cks, we’re like a guitar player; everybody thinks they can do it faster and louder,” he says laughing. The tour starts up February every year with a first stop shakedown show in Mexico and runs through October. In early January, Sgambellone was at Clair Brothers in Nashville, prepping for the Mexico show.

His FOH desk of choice a Yamaha PM10. The small effects rack he carries has two TC Electronic 2290’s, a Neve Portico channel strip and a Neve 5045 Primary Source Enhancer. On the system drive for the P.A., he uses an API 2500 master compressor.

Besides the challenge of different venues with scalable production, Sgambellone says his biggest issue on the tour is that Luke is in front of the P.A. “all night.” A thrust of some length is part of every set configuration, because the artist maintains a close audience interaction throughout his show.

Sgambellone solves the potential problems caused by the singer’s position by always having what he considers his most essential piece of gear on the tour. “I’m gonna be a sad old man if the 2290 piece ever stops being available. I’ve used that [TC Electronic] delay on every single tour I’ve ever mixed front of house on for the center vocal. It’s just a stereo spreader. It is literally just a short chorus, but I can’t get anything else to sound like it.”

That spreader is an offshoot of Mike Adams’ design for Ozzy Osbourne’s vocal wedges on stage. It gives Sgambellone the ability to manipulate the incoming vocal by a couple of milliseconds left and right off each other and pan everything out in the stereo field. Then the actual direct vocal is modulated on a sine wave through the left and right in a very narrow panning window. This way, the vocal is never so far off center that somebody could notice it moving left and right. Likewise, it is never in the center long enough for the alley of both horns to meet and feed back the microphone.

“This does two things for me,” he explains. “It makes his vocal much bigger sounding in the system, and it also keeps it stable by moving the gain point when it’s going to be away from center. It’s never in the center for long. It’s the most useful trick I’ve ever stolen!”

“If I don’t have a mic in front of the P.A., it’s still a magical device for that very reason,” Sgambellone continues. “It makes the vocal so much bigger without the issue of feedback. And 15 to 20 milliseconds is nothing. You can do this with any product but it does not sound the same. The TC is better than anything I’ve ever used.”

About the only time Luke Bryan comes around for a sound check is on TV. “That’s it. We have not seen him for a sound check in months. That’s a testament to our monitor engineer. Luke knows when he walks out on the stage, Seth has the environment dialed in,” says Sgambellone.

‡‡         Monitor World

Seth Kendall is an independent engineer who has maintained a long relationship with Clair. He was a drummer in local bands in his teens.” I was curious about all the mics around my kit, so I followed the cables to where they ended at a mixing console, which I thought looked pretty cool.” This led to a lot of gigs in college doing the bar band scene. By the 90’s, he was mixing national acts on a large scale.

Kendall has been using DiGiCo products for quite some time. “Everything I use is onboard at the desk. I really like the dynamic EQ multiband compression and the ergonomics, because the desk is capable of being configured in a customized way to suit the user. It’s the most comfortable platform for me to mix on.”

His console of choice is the DiGiCo SD-5. Kendall is also using DiGiCo’s new 32-bit preamps. Shure PS-1000’s provide in-ear monitoring. Bryan has a Shure sponsorship, so all mics on stage are Shure. For wireless vocal, he uses a Shure Axient with an SM58 capsule.

Everyone onstage uses IEM’s, which provide consistency in the different environments they play in. “The natural acoustics change from show to show. That challenge is virtually eliminated with IEM’s,” says Kendall. A couple band members have a wedge that’s “just there for a light bit of feel,” says Kendall. The wedges on the drum set are Clair CM-22 and the drum sub is a CP 118. “They’re the best available, that’s why I use them,” he adds.

“I like to program the guitar changes, so I don’t have to remember to do it. I may be distracted if some other problem pops up. Then I’m not going to forget to do something because it’s not a memory thing — it’s programmed.”

 

The Clair Cohesion main hang includes flown subwoofers in a cardioid configuration. Photo by Todd Kaplan

As far as indispensable gear, Kendall is quick to point to the Clair audio team. “Our Clair team is fantastic. We have a really good time working together and doing our jobs.” He adds, “What really makes this tour so enjoyable is, Luke is great to work for; easy going and funny. He’s a great personality with that big movie star smile. So as a team between artist and crew, it all works really well. When the boss is smiling, I’m smiling!”

The efforts to put that “movie star smile” on Luke’s face begins when Jim “Fish” Miller, the Clair systems engineer walks into the building with the riggers each morning. He calculates how much P.A. will be brought in for the day and determines and oversees the hang of the P.A. and its curve.

“The logistics of moving in and out of these different stadiums is the biggest challenge on this tour,” says Miller. “The operation guys figure out the additional P.A. each stadium needs, and send a separate truck with crew. The challenge comes when we do an overnighter from an amphitheater or arena into a stadium the next day.”

Clair CP218 subwoofers. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Using AFMG Ease measurements of specific cabinets in a Global Loudspeaker Library (GLL), data is input into Focus as a set preset, which extrapolates speaker box response to figure the system responses based over all the boxes in that file. “We can predict horn patterns very easily, as well as how to curve the system, and SPL” says Miller, “so every seat is covered top to bottom.” He uses Rational Acoustics’ FFT-based SMAART analysis software after he’s done with the modeling of the P.A.

Once Miller has determined the P.A. “is healthy and working properly, Frank comes in to add his EQ. He is a system engineer also, so he gets it. The Cohesion cabinets deliver so well they don’t need much adjustment.”

Sgambellone runs a few music tracks during the EQ’ing. “I have been using Daft Punk Random Access Memories almost exclusively. It is the best-mixed record I have ever heard and mostly analog instruments. Then I have a Lady Gaga song to test low-end if I really want to see how much I can shake a building.” He adds that “it took a little time for us to get our mojo together, but that is typical of any system and FOH engineer team.”

There are 76 inputs from the stage, but in terms of house levels, Sgambellone says, “we run anywhere from 96 to 105 dB,” noting that the show does not try to be overly loud.

The show scales up for stadiums. Pictured here, the show at MetLife Center in the northern New Jersey/NYC area. Photo by Todd Kaplan

“It’s not a quiet show by any means, but it doesn’t hurt to listen to it,” Sgambellone continues. “The quietest part of the show is just above the noise floor. At the beginning of ‘Drink a Beer,’ it’s him and a guitar out in the middle of the stadium or arena at the very end of the thrust, and it’s a quiet moment. If I try to blast that, it sounds unnatural and the crowd won’t shut up. I kind of leave him in the haze of the ambient noise; the crowd quickly comes back to the show. So he may sing the first verse and almost not be there, and it gets very quiet immediately.”

Sgambellone believes it actually gets louder at the end of “Huntin’ and Fishin’” — especially when he has the whole P.A. hanging. “Everybody is out there doing their Molly Hatchet three guitars, banjo and they want the air moving. One big whack on the API and I turn it loose. I’ve just never had the opportunity or reason to check the SPL during those 40 or so seconds.”

In the age-old debate regarding duplicating the record album sound live, he says “When all is said and done, the show is going to be different than the record. That’s the beauty of live performance. And that is what I listen for. The musician that makes a mistake on stage tells me he’s really reaching for it. Luke’s audience smells bullshit pretty quickly. I’ve never used tracks or samples on his show. I like live music, guys going out there and making mistakes and being great. It’s where we live.”

Luke Bryan “What Makes You Country Tour”

CREW

Sound Company: Clair Global

FOH Engineer: Frank Sgambellone

Monitor Engineer: Seth Kendall

Systems Engineer/Crew Chief: Jim “Fish” Miller

Additional Audio Crew: James Anderson Hall, Dave Moncrieffe, Dustin Ponczeck, Rachel Hope Stuemke, John Weldon

Detail of the main hang. Photo by Todd Kaplan

P.A. GEAR*

(*Stadium rig — counts are reduced for arena shows)

Main P.A.: (20) Clair Cohesion 80-degree ­CO12/side

Flown Subs: (6) Clair CP218/side (two sets of three in cardioid, flown directly behind the mains)

Side P.A.: (12) CO12 80-degree flown over (8) 120-degree CO12/side

Front Fill: (10) Clair CP6

Ground Subs: (12) Clair CP218/side

Delays: Various combinations of CO12 and CO10, usually four towers with (8) CO12/tower. Smaller stadiums, like Fenway, require four ground-stacked carts of CO12s

 

FOH GEAR

FOH Console: Yamaha PM10

Outboard: (2) TC Electronic 2290s, Neve Portico channel strip, Neve 5045 Primary Source Enhancer, API 2500 master compressor

 

MON GEAR

Monitor Console: DiGiCo SD5 w/32-bit preamp cards

Wedges: Clair CM-22

Drum Sub: Clair CP 118

IEM Hardware: Shure PS-1000

Vocal Wireless: Shure Axient with SM58 capsules

Luke Bryan tour photo by Todd Kaplan

 

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