Greensky Bluegrass: Mixing it Like a Rock Act

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Production Profile
Greensky Bluegrass photo by Kevin M. Mitchell
Greensky Bluegrass photo by Kevin M. Mitchell

Lots of pedals, lots of gain— definitely not your daddy’s bluegrass band

“This is not a traditional bluegrass band — it’s a rock ‘n’ roll show,” FOH engineer Greg Burns declares. “Traditional bluegrass tends to be mixed ‘crispy,’ but [Greensky Bluegrass] can be dark and messy, and you’ll hear more songs in minor keys than major.”

Greensky is also a jam band. “The set list changes every night, and even the way they play the songs changes slightly every night. Jams and segues are constantly changing and are typically discussed but not rehearsed. It all keeps [lighting director Andrew] Lincoln and I on our toes with changes and cues.” With this band, the jams are constantly fluctuating, though there are some parts that are consistent. “For some sections, the band has cues for when to fall out of a jam and back into the specific form of whatever tune they are in. The band trusts both Lincoln and I to know the ebb and flow enough to accentuate those jams as we deem necessary relative to a given moment… then bass bombs and strobing commence!”

And there are plenty of venues to interact with during the band’s 2017 tour, ranging from larger clubs to theaters and festivals, festivals and more festivals — including Telluride and Bonnaroo — as well as some lofty stops, such as Red Rocks. But no worries — this pro crew is prepared for anything.

FOH mixer Greg Burns

What? Victor Wooten?!

Burns hails from Ann Arbor, MI, and when he was 12, his father took him to his first concert: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. “I was this far away from Victor Wooten!” he says. He would be inspired to pick up the bass himself and a small P.A., which featured one of those old Peavey boards that had knobs the size of door handles. The town’s progressive approach to education allowed him to take different classes at different schools, including some music related. He was doing the typical kid things with one big exception — at 17 he got Domino’s Pizza to give him $30,000 to build a hangout for local kids that featured, among other things, a music studio. “We called it ‘the neutral zone’ and it was a safe haven for kids to come and hang out, and it’s still in existence today.” For the next five years, he managed it.

He went to Eastern Michigan where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in business management. “During this time, I was working at Saint Andrews Hall in Detroit, where I worked a lot of metal shows,” he recalls, shaking his head. But he was there when Jack Johnson came to town on the third show of his first Brushfire Fairytales tour. “My job was basically to work monitors and watch them rehearse for four hours. That was an influential show, because after all these rock, metal, punk and alternative bands, it was inspiring to see these acoustic guys. These were my people!”

Meanwhile, Burns branched out, working shows on the festival and corporate circuit. He first met Michigan-based Greensky at a festival, and was hired a few times by them for one-offs. In 2011, there was an opening, and Burns moved in permanently. He’s been with them ever since, evolving and growing with the band in a variety of ways, and now he’s both production manager and FOH. “This is a very family-based organization, and we’re all good friends with each other. We even hang out together when we’re not working.”

Burns started out mixing monitors for the band, and when he was asked to switch over to FOH, he did so on the condition that he get some “seed” money to pick up a Midas PRO1. “I love Midas. I really drive it like it has tubes, and I get tonality that is really full.”

Pedals, and more pedals, are a major part of the Greensky Bluegrass sound.

Pedals, Pedals, Everywhere

If you still need further proof that this is not your father’s bluegrass band, just look at the floor on the stage… it is completely covered in effect pedals. Distortion. Phasers. Octaves. Everything. “Everybody has several boxes, and so there’s a lot of tone coming out that I don’t have control over,” Burns says. “So I have to mix so the sound is the way the band intends in whatever room I’m in — no matter how wet or dry or hot or cold it is.”

And on the topic of mixing Greensky Bluegrass like a rock band: “Not all acoustic instruments are meant to be rocking 105 dB at FOH! The band has worked for years to maximize the tone and gain of each instrument. We’ve gotten to a great place now with pickups/preamps/pedal chains all pushing out great tones.” That visceral energy that the band strives for starts and ends with the bass signal.

Bassist Mike Devol plays an Eminence bass which, unlike other electric upright basses, is a real acoustic instrument. It’s smaller and more compact, yet with an arched top and bottom, a bass bar and a soundpost — the same structural design as a standard-size double bass, so it sounds and plays like a standard-size double bass.

The Eminence allows Burns to use multiple layers of compression and EQ to make the attack sound more like a kick drum. The volume of the band is a bit louder and more aggressive and creates the rock ‘n’ roll vibe. “It’s not quite EDM bass, but it does push toward that vibe.”

Both Anders Beck on dobro and Dave Bruzza on guitar use Fender tube amps in their chain as an overdrive effect. There is an aux output on each of their main preamps (Radial Engineering Firefly and Grace Felix, respectively), which run to a volume pedal, that lets them blend in overdrive as needed. “We tried multiple different overdrive pedals in the clean DI insert chain over time that didn’t quite seem to fit in our soundscape,” Burns says. “It’s hard to get an acoustic instrument pickup to react properly to an electric guitar overdrive pedal without sounding cheesy or fake.

Both dobro and guitar amps are positioned upstage, facing upstage to minimize bleed into other instruments — and both are miked with that classic Shure SM57-on-Fender combination. On the FOH console side of things, Burns employs a ducker on each clean DI channel, which is sidechained from the amp channel. When the amp gets turned on from the volume pedal, the clean DI signal gets ducked -7 dB to -10 dB.

Greensky Bluegrass

EQ’ing the Room

FRONT of HOUSE checked in with the tour at St. Louis’ The Pageant theater. One of the premier concert venues in the country, it’s certainly the best 3,000-seat house in town. Built as a concert venue from the ground up in 2000, it still sometimes presents challenges. “I try to use corrective parametric input EQ as lightly as possible, and I use grouping of inputs to allow for added graphic EQ to control instrument resonance in any given room,” Burns explains. “The Pageant was slightly heavier on the corrective input EQ.”

Burns also notes a constant challenge is that in many rooms, the stage is live enough that when he get instruments to a certain point, there are resonances that are constantly fluctuating relative to what key the band is playing in. Sometimes the bass notes set off the banjo, sometimes the dobro sets off the guitar, etc. Chasing those resonances around throughout the night with tiny little touches on his graphics as the band changes capo positions tends to be a common challenge, he says. Otherwise, “the quieter it is on stage, the better it is for me.”

Backstage - monitor engineer Caleb Conway (left) with FOH mixer Greg Burns

The Monitor Side

Working on the stage side is monitor mixer Caleb Conway. This is his first tour with this band, having previously dabbled working festivals as a stage manager, doing some P.A. work for corporate clients, and being a house audio mixer for Denver clubs. He’s working off a Midas PRO2C. “It’s got a small footprint, offers everything you could want at the touch of a button, and is easy to use.” Everyone is using IEMs — even the crew. They are relying on a Shure PSM 1000 system, chosen in part for its easy-to-use spectrum. What is in their individual ears vary, though most are using Sensaphonics IEMs. “The guys have everything really dialed in, so the biggest challenge is just keeping everyone happy, and it’s not hard to do,” he says. “The tight knit family of Greensky creates a low stress environment and makes being on the road with these guys an incredible journey. I couldn’t ask for a better touring scenario.”

By summer, the band is expected to be playing larger venues. “Every show has something new,” Burns says. “The energy that these guys put into every performance captivates everyone in the room, myself included. Even after hearing these songs time and time again, there are still moments that touch my soul.”

A Shure SM57 on this Fender Blues Junior (turned to face upstage) provided just the right miked amp sound with minimal stage bleed.

Greensky Bluegrass Tour 2017

Crew

  • FOH Engineer/Production Manager: Greg Burns
  • Monitor Engineer: Caleb Conway
  • Lighting Designer: Andrew Lincoln
  • Tour Manager: Guido Batista
  • Chief Roadie/Merch: Michael Trevors


FOH Gear

  • P.A. System: Venue Supplied
  • FOH Console: Midas Pro 1
  • Plug-ins: Waves L3 Multimaximizer, Waves Kramer Pie Compressor, Waves Primary Source Expander
  • Outboard: Drawmer 441 (Inserted on both lead vocals and the stereo master bus); RPM Dynamics RPM-MS48 (48 channels of digital I/O over Thunderbolt — 24 channels dedicated to Pro Tools, 24 channels dedicated to WavesRack.
  • Recording Rig: Avid Pro Tools on OS 10.9 Mac Mini Server
  • Battery Backup: Tripp Lite SU1500RTXL2UA


Monitor Gear

  • Monitor Console: Midas PRO2C
  • IEM Hardware: Shure PSM 1000
  • IEM Earpieces: Sensaphonics
  • Instrument Mics: DPA 4099 (inside banjo); Shure SM57s (guitar and dobro amps)

 The stage plot for the Winter 2017 Greensky Bluegrass tour

 

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