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Usher Returns to Vegas

George Petersen • Production ProfileSeptember 2021 • September 10, 2021

The residency brought a series of sold-out shows to the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Photo by Thomas Falcone

Mixing the R&B Superstar’s Residency Shows at Caesars Palace

The first new headlining residency show to open on the Las Vegas Strip in more than a year and a half was a stunning success. Global megastar Usher returned to the 4,300-seat Colosseum at Caesars Palace with a series of sold-out concerts that premiered on July 16 and ran through Aug. 14.

And residency shows in Las Vegas seem to be back — last month, Bruno Mars completed a run at MGM’s Park Theater, while Lady Gaga is slated to begin a series at the same venue in mid-October.

Usher made sure his residency was memorable, with an extraordinary immersive experience featuring more costume changes than a Cher show, high-tech video and lighting effects, a live band and more than two dozen dancers. With a focus on smash hits from his 20-year career, Usher called in A-list audio veterans, with the Parnelli Award-winning Kyle Hamilton (at FOH) and Jeremy Peters (on monitors). This dynamic duo mixed the shows on a pair of DiGiCo Quantum 338 consoles provided by Sound Image, who supplied the entire control package, as well as the sidefills and extra subs brought in to supplement the house P.A. at Caesars.

FOH engineer Kyle Hamilton

Not the Usual…

“It’s like pseudo-theater meets concert,” says Hamilton in describing the show. “It’s like a roller coaster ride of what he’s done, with some heavy visuals. It’s not the usual Usher show, where he’s popping out of the floor or flying in — it’s a very well orchestrated production — to say the least!”

A major change came from the performances using a three-piece band. “This was very unorthodox for Usher, as he usually has a really big band,” notes monitor mixer Peters. “There was a DJ/drum programmer/percussionist (IZ Avila); utility player (Bobby Avila) on keys, keyboard bass, guitar, bass and Talkbox; drummer (Aaron Spears) — and a lot of Pro Tools tracks.”

Another departure from the usual? “Most of the time, the stage was completely clear,” Peters adds. “There were dancers and a big set piece that rolled on and off, along with columns that could track, rotate and go up and down. There really wasn’t space to have a band onstage. The instrumentalists were in front of the stage in the wings — almost in front of the P.A.”

With elaborate sets and a huge cast, the show sometimes resembled a theatrical production.

Off the Bus

Hamilton is no stranger to residency shows, having previously mixed FOH for Janet Jackson’s 2019 extended series at MGM’s The Park Theater in Las Vegas. “This is the second residency I’ve done and it’s cool, because once you’re locked in, your day is relatively short. You come in, do a quick line check, sit around for about an hour and half and then we do a show. It’s just a couple hours a day before getting back to relaxation. I would definitely do another one!”

Peters did a residency series with Prince in Chicago years ago, and he also did Stevie Wonder’s 2018 residency in Las Vegas as part of his “Song Party” tour. But Peters is not adverse to life on the tour bus: “I really like the bus,” he confesses. “As a kid I grew up camping, and residency has its cool parts and its weird parts. To be honest, I was just happy to get back to work, but I miss the bus life.”

Either way, both Hamilton (after a string of upcoming festival dates for Lizzo and Doja Cat) and Peters will reprise their roles for Usher’s return to Caesars Palace on Dec. 28, 2021 for another run.

Usher likes to mingle with the fans during the show, which creates a delicate situation in terms of feedback control.

The Big Mix

According to Hamilton, “we had 92 total inputs from stage. In terms of personnel, it was small, but it was still a standard pop show input list. This show could not have been done on a Heritage 3000!”

For the run, both Hamilton and Peters decided to try DiGiCo’s new Quantum 338 digital console, but felt somewhat limited by the fact that mixer has only 128 input channels.

“The Quantum 338 was a good desk, but I have to say, I used every bit of it,” Hamilton notes. “We totally maxed this console out for the show — I literally had one channel left of DSP. Overall, it was solid, it held up, it did its thing and it sounds great. We had heard a lot about it and were anxious to try it out. We pushed it to its limits — but if I had another stereo channel coming in, I couldn’t make it happen.”

Regarding processing, Hamilton used Universal Audio’s UAD Live Powered Plug-ins platform and an Avalon VT-737 preamp/compressor/EQ. “But I’m not plug-in heavy and I generally use minimal effects,” he says. The vocal chain begins with Usher’s Crown 311 headset mic or sE Electronics V7 MC1 capsule on a Shure Axient Digital handheld. From there, it’s routed through the Avalon, sometimes followed by UAD’s Manley VoxBox and Brainworx Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor plug-ins.

It’s a big show, but Hamilton keeps SPL’s in check. “My cruising level is between 98 and 102 dB. We have peaks and valleys, but it’s all about having a big sound, and the audience having a great listening environment without me half-damaging someone’s ears.”

Of course, these days, Covid was on everyone’s minds. “At first, we were told we’d have 50% occupancy, which then went up to 75% and then 100% occupancy,” Hamilton explains. “When the show started, it was a no-masking free-for-all, and later, as the Covid levels started going up — and with the new virus [variant] — Caesars made a change and everyone had to wear a mask unless actively eating or drinking. I wore mine most of the time, and at FOH, people were distanced away from me. Actually, even before the pandemic, I never liked having people around me while mixing, because I don’t know what they have.”

Mics, Mics, Mics

All onstage mics (except the 311) are sE Electronics. In addition to Usher’s V7 MC1 vocal capsule, the drums are all captured using sE mics, with V Beats on toms/snares, V Kick on kick and floor toms, sE8 on snare bottoms, hi-hats/ride and sE2200s on overheads. The V Beats were also used on percussion, timbales and bongos, with sE2200s overhead.

“It was a complete sE show,” Hamilton says. “I discovered these a few years ago — they’re uncolored and very transparent — so what you put in is what you get out. The bare canvas is there for me to do whatever I want. They don’t add any texture, which is what I want and I’ve had great results with these over the years, on Usher, Janet Jackson, Pharrell, Big Sean, Lizzo — quite a few artists.”

Of the Crown 311, Hamilton says “it’s the best sounding headset mic out there. Even when Usher is out in front of the P.A. and dancing with the audience, the rejection is incredible with zero feedback issues. I’ve tried other mics, but keep going back to ‘old faithful’ — it always sounds great.”

Monitor engineer Jeremy Peters

Monitorworld

“We had used Quantum SD7’s before with Usher, so we were pretty familiar with them and the Quantum engine,” says Peters, “but the Quantum 338 is an entirely different animal. It was great for monitors. It was a major jump because we wanted to see if we could fit [the show] into this desk. Both Kyle and I had only one or two processing channels left.”

Nearly everyone in the band was on different in-ears. Usher had JH Audio Roxannes, IZ Avila was on JH Audio 16V2s; Bobby Avila was on UE 18s, and Aaron Spears used Clear Tune Monitors. Peters used JH Audio Roxannes — his go-to IEMs, which he says translate pretty well when dealing with players using earpieces from different manufacturers. He also provided a sub for each of the musicians so they could “feel the music.”

Usher’s custom JH Audio Roxanne IEMs

With a smaller band, RF coordination for IEMs or mics was much less of an issue than on most mega shows. “The Pro Tools guy was on wireless; I was wireless, Usher was wireless and any of the guest performers were wireless,” Peters recalls. “And as the three band members didn’t have to move, I put them on Albatros Audio PH9B headphone amps.”

With all the dancers, onstage side fills were a must. “I had four VUE Audiotechnik dual-21” subs on each side and four VUE AL-12s per side,” Peters notes. “So I had my own ‘P.A.,’ and when I turned it on, everybody knew it. One day I was playing music and I walked out to Kyle at FOH and asked whether my onstage subs were too heavy — and sometimes they were — but we worked out a happy medium of what I needed and what wouldn’t clash with the main P.A.” But even so, the stage levels tended to be fairly loud. “One time, I actually had confetti falling out from the grid above the main floor, just because of the sidefills,” Peters adds, with a laugh.

The house system was created for Celine Dion’s extended residency. “That P.A. was designed for a different style of music, which was something we had to overcome, and in some aspects, my sidefills helped the FOH sound. We also brought in ground subs. I don’t really believe you can do justice to Usher’s music without that low-end information on the ground coupling with the floor,” Peters explains.

FOH system tech Brendan Hines (at left) and monitor/RF tech François Paré

Given the challenges of a P.A. that was not exactly suited for a big R&B/hip-hop sound, the entire crew helped make it happen. “It took a lot of work to get to where we ended up, but it turned out great,” Peters notes. “Sound Image came in and did an amazing job with the gear and crew. I should also add that my tech François Paré and Kyle’s tech Brendan Hines were both really great. And that’s what we work for — we kept it rocking all night and did our job.”

Hamilton agrees: “It was a pleasure to rock out with Usher. The show got terrific reviews and I’m sure there will be a lot more dates added in the future.”

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