Mixing Norah Jones

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Production Profile
Photo by Kevin M. Mitchell
Photo by Kevin M. Mitchell

FOH Engineer Gordon Reddy’s “Less is More” Mix

With Norah Jones, it’s all about the piano. Specifically, that Yamaha C6S grand piano. FOH engineer Gordon Reddy first works to figure out what is going to wrap back around the stage from the P.A. and how much of that can he keep from going into the piano. “Without a doubt, that is the largest challenge I have,” he says, admitting that if Jones went with a MIDI controller with sampled grand sounds, it would be easier for him.

Yet for an artist like Jones, not having an acoustic piano would be heresy. No worries, as Reddy has it figured out: He has two Shure SM91 boundary mics taped to the lid, one high one low, and then two Yamahiko pickups screwed between the soundboard.

It’s showtime! FOH engineer Gordon Reddy on the DiGiCo SD8 and FOH tech Alex Fedrizzi (at right) await the opening curtain.

“The Yamahikos sound fantastic — they still sound like a pickup, but they don’t sound like a stethoscope like others do,” Reddy says. “They are quite remarkable.” (And relatively new, only on the market since 2010.) With those four inputs for the piano, and a strategy of keeping the stage clean, he’s able to create the intimate evening this tour is calling for.

Jones’ Day Breaks tour kicked on April 26 at the Hawaii Theatre in Honolulu and recently completed its North American leg. Currently, the tour is continuing on into the European portion, which runs until July 29 at the Cap Roig Festival in Barcelona, Spain.

“It’s a lot of fun doing this tour — everyone is really good people,” Reddy says. “And it’s 100 percent about the music. There’s not a synthetic source, sample or track to be found. It’s all wood, brass, and strings! It is the antithesis of the modern pop mix.”

Photo by Kevin M. Mitchell

‡‡         Canadian Mafia

Reddy grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, playing with kit stereos and building stereo equipment. As early as grade school, he was working table saws, building sound equipment, and by 15, he was mixing for his friend’s band.

“At that age, I decided to be a sound clown and dropped out of high school,” he laughs. Jones’ lighting designer, Steve Baird, “also dropped out to go on the road — we’re just a bunch of Canadian hosers on the road here.” (Along with Baird and Reddy, many of the other members of the touring crew were born and raised north of the border, including tour manager Dale Lynch.)

At 16, Reddy got his start in the audio world by mixing for an Irish band from Dublin. “I ran sound and lights — I was bi-techual,” he jokes. Then he started buying sound equipment and working clubs before moving to Vancouver in 1990 to work for a local sound company there. His big break came in 1993 when he started working for Sarah McLachlan, starting out as an assistant and working his way up until he was mixing for her. Other acts along the way include k.d. lang and alternative rockers Guster. “The Guster experience is something I’m especially proud of, as they are a great band and it was a great experience. I learned a lot.”

Two hangs of 18 L-Acoustic Kara line arrays proved perfect for the mostly large theater venue dates on the tour.

‡‡         The Mix Perspective

Reddy’s experience mixing a lot of female artists caught the attention of Jones’ management, and he was asked to mix this tour. The production team hit the ground running. “The band had been working together prior to me coming on board, and they did a few smaller venues before really launching the tour, and they just threw me into the fire so to speak,” Reddy says. “But this is a show you can do that to, because it’s more about intuition and understanding the sensibility of the music as opposed to a bunch of scripted mixes full of snapshots. Not to say it’s easy — the challenges are ever and ongoing, and I’m developing the mix continuously.”

In play on any given night is a repertoire of 60 tunes, and Reddy gets the set list 45 minutes before any show. Another variable is the guest musician — sometimes she has a sax player with her, but usually a pedal steel guitarist is playing. Even with that, Jones is known to switch it up further on the fly as she reads the mood of the band and the room. It’s all fine for Reddy — he has basic mixes organized in groups (jazz trio, solo piano, the country set, etc.), and then just “hangs on.”

Reddy makes it happen on a DiGiCo SD8, and says it — or its sibling SD10 — are his go-to boards. “I like that they have a lot of handles (faders).” He adds that, at this point, all the new digital consoles sound good, and it really comes down to how an engineer likes to work. “Workflow dictates which way I go, and the DiGiCo boards commonly have more faders than the others, which I like.”

Reddy has a Waves DeEsser plug-in, but that’s it — no outboard gear. In fact, he treats the board as analog for this show. “If everybody didn’t think I’d be a jerk for doing it, I’d love to bring out a [Midas] XL 4 for this show,” he says. Otherwise, “we go au naturale, as this music is so organic. I’m looking for an intimate and revealing mix, so there’s very little processing.” Working against him are the large sound arenas the band sometimes plays in, but he’s still able to keep it stripped down and manicures the power balance and tone as meticulously as he can, without a lot of effects or color. “I just try to keep it real.”

Monitor engineer Jamie Landry uses an Avid Venue Profile for mixing the band, which includes Jones on piano, guitar, and vocals; backed by guitar, acoustic bass, organ, drums and guest musicians.

Three ground-stacked, L-Acoustics SB28 subs and a number of L-Acoustics X15hiQ and 8XT coaxial fill speakers rounded out the main P.A.

‡‡         Mics and More Mics

Reddy has Jones singing into a Neumann 105, which everyone loves. He says that was the mic McLachlan used before trying others, only to realize it was a mistake. “We talk about this word, ‘distortion,’ but man oh man, this mic taught me what it is like to not have it. It’s so pretty, so clean, and is really good handling a singer’s consonants.”

Otherwise, Reddy has SM58s on the band members who sing backup, saying he runs them a little darker than normal to balance out Jones’ voice. He has Shure KM32 condensers on the guitar amps. The drums are covered in Sennheiser 914s. “They really take care of everything.” The exception is on the snare, as drummer Greg Wieczorek positions the snare and hi-hat close to each other. “It’s too tight, and I don’t have enough side rejection, so we went back to an SM57 on that.”

The piano lid is closed; with the live band, it’s simply not feasible to have it open. “Sure, I’d love to mic it studio-style with condensers up a couple of feet from the open lid, but in this setting, those would just turn into additional snare drum mics. So it’s about being close, tighter, and keeping the other sounds out of it. There are still moments when I don’t have enough rejection, and while I’d love for her to be playing from inside a Pope-mobile or something, that’s not particularly practical.”

Photo by Kevin M. Mitchell

‡‡         System Flexibility

We caught up with the Day Breaks tour at a stop at St. Louis’ Peabody Opera House, an ornate, marble-infused 3,500-seat house built in 1934. The venue was renovated and reopened in 2011, and they are selective in what music acts they bring in. “It’s new, but made to look older,” Reddy comments. “You don’t see many modern theaters trying to embody the old ornate style from another time, and I commend them for that.” He adds that, initially, he was concerned it would make for audio challenges, particularly with the large flat segments downstage of the proscenium, but the room was reconstructed with the needs of modern sound equipment in mind.

Solotech is supplying the show, as Solotech’s Lee Moro has a long history with Jones, having mixed and PM’d for her for seven years earlier in her career. “I always try to take care of her as much as I can, because she was so good to me,” he says. “What a fantastic human being — and I know and have worked with the guys on the crew. It’s a great family.” Moro echoes Reddy’s point that it was clear that she needed a simple, compact, but powerful system.

The tour is traveling with an L-Acoustic Kara system, two arrays of 18 boxes, for a total of 36. “The main reason we have them is they are practical — they are lightweight, and they allow me to control them the way I need to in the vaudeville houses we’re playing in,” Reddy explains. The challenge in the houses is controlling the sound so it gets to the back with power and precision without “melting everybody up close.”

Reddy is enjoying himself. “There’s a lot of variation in textures and sound,” he says. “We get a little rock ‘n’ roll, a little country, some jazz, etc. And I love it’s not a 99 to 102 dB onslaught all night long. That makes it more enjoyable and will probably lengthen my career!”

The Yamahiko piano pickup

Secrets of the Pros: The Yamahiko Piano Pickup

A key part of delivering Norah Jones’ natural piano sound onstage comes from the Yamahiko pickup system. Piano pickups are nothing new, and units from companies such as Helpinstill and Barcus-Berry have been in use for decades. A “relative” newcomer to the market (since 2010), yet still not exactly widely known is Sonaresearch’s Yamahiko pickup system, which has been used live with artists such as Herbie Hancock, KEM and, of course, Norah Jones.

Located in Fujisawa City, Japan (about an hour from Tokyo), Sonaresearch offers vibrational contact pickups for a variety of instruments, including double bass, acoustic guitar, piano and koto.

The piano models are available in versions for recording (CPS-PF1R) and sound reinforcement (CPS-PF1S), with the main difference between the two being that the P.A. model has a frequency response that’s voiced with a +10 dB boost from 500 Hz to 10 kHz.

Common features to both versions are the ability to accommodate either grand or upright pianos and easy on/off mounting without adhesive tapes. The unit’s Force Mode Pickup System (FMPS) combines high fidelity and high S/N, and specs include a 20 Hz to 10 kHz (±3dB) response, with a 2 Vp-p maximum output voltage and a 10M ohm termination at its 1/4-inch unbalanced plug. A direct box is required, and Sonaresearch recommends the Countryman Type 85, although any high-quality pro direct box would suffice. Two pickups can be combined for stereo operation.

Sonaresearch sells the Yamahiko pickup system direct from its website at a price of 80,000 yen (approximately $715 US), with shipping included. For more information, go to yamahiko.info. —George Petersen

Photo by Kevin M. Mitchell

Norah Jones Day Breaks Tour

Crew

  • Sound Company: Solotech
  • FOH Engineer: Gordon Reddy
  • Monitor Engineer/Production Manager: Jamie Landry
  • FOH Tech: Alex Fedrizzi (Solotech)
  • Monitor Tech: Erik Phillips (Solotech)

 

P.A. System

  • Mains: (32) L-Acoustics Kara (16/side)
  • Subwoofers: (6) L-Acoustics SB28
  • Fills: (6) L-Acoustics X15hiQ
  • Front Fills: (6) L-Acoustics 8XT

 

FOH Gear

  • FOH Console: DiGiCo SD8
  • Outboard: Waves Server
  • Near-Fields: (2) Meyer Sound UP Junior, USW-1P compact subwoofer, Galileo 616 controller

 

Monitor Gear

  • Monitor Console: Avid Profile
  • Monitors: (12) d&b audiotechnik M4 wedges
  • Amplifiers: d&b audiotechnik D20
  • Vocal Mics: Neumann 105 (Jones); Shure SM58s (backup vox)
  • Instrument Mics: Piano — (2) Shure SM91, (2) Yamahiko piano pickups; guitar amps — Shure KM32s; snare — Shure SM57; kick — Shure Beta 52; other drum mics — Sennheiser 914s