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Mixing “An Evening with Chicago and Their Greatest Hits”

George Petersen • November 2021Production Profile • November 3, 2021

The band is currently on a 46-stop tour. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Since the debut of its landmark first album (Chicago Transit Authority) in 1969, horn-based rock/pop/jazz band Chicago has achieved remarkable success. This includes garnering 23 gold, 18 platinum and eight multi-platinum albums since then and selling more than 100 million records along the way. Arguably the hardest working band in America, Chicago has been on the road for 54 years, touring every year since the band formed.

The lineup of this 10-member ensemble has changed over the years, but original band members Robert Lamm (keys/vocals), Lee Loughnane (trumpet/vocals) and trombonist James Pankow keep the live performances consistent with the original sound. The band line-up also includes Wally Reyes, Jr. (drums), Keith Howland (guitar/vocals), Lou Pardini (keys/vocals), Ray Herrmann (sax/flute), Brett Simons (bass) Ramon Yslas (percussion) and lead vocalist Neil Donell.

The current “An Evening with Chicago and Their Greatest Hits” outing is a 46-stop tour that kicked off June 23 in Lincoln, NE, and wraps up with a New Year’s Eve show at the Hard Rock in Atlantic City. We caught up with FOH engineer Tim Lawrence and monitor engineer Scott Koopmann during an all-too-brief pause between tour legs and chatted about their experiences.

From left, systems engineer Jim Ward, FOH engineer Tim Lawrence, monitor engineer Scott Koopmann and A2 Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo by Todd Kaplan

From left, systems engineer Jim Ward, FOH engineer Tim Lawrence, monitor engineer Scott Koopmann and A2 Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo by Todd Kaplan

At the FOH Position

FOH mixer Tim Lawrence, who has been with Chicago for five years, has worked with artists ranging from Poison, The Cult, Black Star Riders and Steve Earle to Linda Ronstadt, Mickey Hart, Glenn Hughes and The Spinners — to name few.

A long-time Chicago fan, Lawrence was thrilled to get the gig. “Way back when I heard the first three or four Chicago albums, I felt there’s nobody that plays this kind of music and sets this kind of groove. This band was my ultimate pinnacle — the band I always wanted to mix. Then, way beyond in my history, I wind up mixing them every night.”

But blending the intricate vocal and instrumental harmonies of a 10-piece band is no picnic. “There are not many bands I’ve worked with where I get sweaty palms on a nightly basis. These guys are a handful, but they are fun to mix, although this is not the kind of gig for an engineer who just does rock ‘n’ roll bands.”

A look in one of the FOH racks reveals two of Tim Lawrence’s secret weapons: Rupert Neve Designs Portico II and 5045 units.

A look in one of the FOH racks reveals two of Tim Lawrence’s secret weapons: Rupert Neve Designs Portico II and 5045 units. Photo by Todd Kaplan

Formerly a fan of the Avid Profile D-Show system, Lawrence says he “inherited” the DiGiCo SD10 platform from Chicago’s previous FOH engineer. “But over the years, I’ve learned to love the SD10, and it has a huge expanse of what’s available to you.” He also travels with a rack of analog gear from Rupert Neve Designs. “The outboard gear really makes our P.A. sound nice and sassy and warm. I’m using the RND 5045 Primary Source Enhancers on all my primary vocals and on horns — it really warms up the overall signal nicely. It’s a versatile unit and when you have a singer who likes to stand on the downstage edge, in front of the P.A., it really helps stop any regurgitation through the P.A.”

Also in his outboard rack are three RND Portico II Master Buss Processors. “I have one Portico EQ on the left/right mains, and everyone who has a vocal has a Portico on it. I use those as primary warm-ups on vocals. Our vocal line is absolutely spot-on — it’s spectacular.”

Lawrence keeps his mixes under control, averaging 95 to 98 dB for the first set, and bumping it up to 101 or 102 peak for the second set. But he adds that one of the secrets of mixing a 10-piece horn band is “all about placement. The hardest part about mixing this band is that bandwidth from 1.6k Hz to about 5k Hz where I have vocals, horns, a guitar and keyboard parts. I have to keep those separated or it all becomes a midrange wash. And there are some rooms that are not conducive to layering that with clarity. Here, the Waves C6 [multiband compressor plug-in] really helps out, taking a lot of the edginess and bark out of the vocals — making them nice and smooth — while helping with that separation.”

The System

As a Clair Global tour, the tour (no surprise) has a Clair rig. “We’re running Clair i-3’s for the main hang, with 218 subs. It’s not my favorite box but I can make them sound good. I’d love to be on Clair’s Cohesion series — CO-10’s or C0-12’s. It takes a lot of work to make the i-3’s sound good, although on a 1-10 scale, I’d give them about a 7.5. But I can make it work, and on a nightly basis, at least five people come up after the show and say how great the show sounded.”

All horns are miked with DPA 4099s. Photo by Todd Kaplan

The Mic Locker

Lead vocalist Neil Donell is on a Telefunken M80, with all other vocals using Shure Beta 58s. Horns use two different versions of the DPA 4099 (high-volume on trumpets and trombone; the low-volume variant on woodwinds). Guitar is an output from the Fractal amp and bass goes direct. Drum miking is mostly conventional, with Beta 57s (snare top and bottom); Sennheiser e904s on all toms; AKG 451s on hi-hat and ride; Shure KSM 32s on overheads; and a Shure SM91 and an Audix D6 on Kelly Shu internal mounts in the kick. Of the latter, Lawrence says “it’s a nice combination, and I vary the kick drum sound from song to song.”

Photo by Todd Kaplan

Monitorworld

At the monitor mix position is Scott Koopmann. “I started with Chicago in 2007, as the A2, handling stage patching. After a few years, their monitor engineer, Ken Parkin — who I consider my mentor — was looking to retire, and our tour manager put me in the spot,” says Koopmann. “And I’ve been mixing monitors since 2011/2012. I had already worked with Babyface and Tower of Power, which helped ease me into working with large bands.”

There have been changes during that period. “Now, we’re running a ‘silent stage’ — there are no wedges and no amplifiers onstage, which developed over time. First, the blisteringly loud B3 onstage went away, then the guitar switched over to a Fractal Audio modeler,” Koopmann says. “These days, Fractals and Kempers have really stepped up in terms of amp modeling; the Fractal does a great job and it’s ultra-reliable. So the only things you can hear on stage are the drums, the horns and percussion. It makes for a really nice sound. It also makes Tim’s job easier at FOH, when he’s not getting a lot of that blowback off the stage.”

Other changes were also incremental. “When I started with the band, they were on a variety of in-ears. I’ve been working with 64Audio now, and put everybody on A12t’s, which are very nice. I’ve been using Shure PSM1000 in-ear hardware systems for a number of years and the sound quality is great.”

In terms of signal processing, Koopmann is mixing in the box. “I’ve been using the DiGiCo SD10 for about five years now. It gets the job done, and I don’t feel the need to go bigger. It’s been very reliable — a great product. I’m not using Waves. I don’t have anything against plug-ins — I’m using Waves at home — but I like keeping it simplistic, with a less-is-more mentality. I want to keep things as clean and natural as possible for the band, especially the vocals.”

In terms of challenges, Koopmann cites the “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.” “It’s a tricky song that’s 12 minutes long with a lot of microphone movements and instrument changes. I use 12 snapshots during the show, and that one song has six different snapshots.”

Koppmann pays particular attention to all the band’s Shure Axient wireless systems. “I do all the frequency coordination. I’m anal-retentive when it comes to frequencies. The most important part of my day is to find the ultra-clean frequencies, and I don’t trust anyone else to do it.”

Photo by Todd Kaplan

A Family Affair

“Amazingly, with Covid and everything, we’ve been pushing pretty hard,” Koopmann explains. “We’ve been on tour since June, and it’s nice to be back and working again.” But you can’t be too careful. Lawrence keeps a shrunken head on the FOH meter bridge, just in case. “It’s my good luck mascot to drive off all the evils in the night.” And with a great support team, including systems engineer Jim Ward and A2 Ryan Fitzpatrick, the tour has run smoothly. “We have all been together for so long,” says Lawrence. “Everyone at team audio and our entire production staff get along really well. We’re one giant family and keep an eye on one another.”

 

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