An interview with Gary Bradshaw, Sound Engineer for George Michael's 25 Live tour
Easily the most anticipated tour in a decade, George Michael's highly acclaimed performances just before Christmas 06 were universally rewarded by the European press with glowing reviews, not least for the sheer brilliance and cut glass quality of the audio. It's not often national newspapers even mention the sound, and when they do it is normally to complain, so all the more reason to congratulate Gary Bradshaw who mixed the live show.
"I was recommended for the job by one of George's back line crew, 'Deptford' John," often a sound man's strongest ally in achieving the perfect sound from stage, it's heartening to acknowledge that such a prestigious job opportunity comes from a friend's recommendation. "Naturally several people's CVs were considered; eventually it came down to two, we were both contacted by Ken Watts his Tour Director, and I got it." Bradshaw has a quiet understated tone of voice; modest, he would be the first to venture that there was more to the quality of this tour's audio rendition than his mixing abilities. But then that is probably one of the characteristics Michael and Watts recognised and why they gave him the job.
"I had a weeks rehearsal with the band in Lyndhurst Hall at Air Studios in late August. I was using a Digico D5 and recorded everything we did via Madi so I could playback material produced live again and again to familiarise myself with the material and begin the intense study of George's vocal cues." All engineers study their vocalist but in this instance Bradshaw's application to the task was deliberately more focussed, as we shall learn. "We then moved into the recently refurbished Wembley Arena, to be honest for all the money that's been spent things are not a lot better in there audio wise, but that is another story. The PA for the tour was d&b audiotechnik's J-Series system supplied by Wigwam. In both instances, PA and PA provider, I had not toured with either, but I've done lots of one offs with Wigwam over the years and was very happy to work with them; and I'd done a few festivals with Simply Red in Europe where the J-Series had been provided." "What I had discovered at those festivals was that this new system required very little EQ, and the sound on stage was really clean. Vocally I believe there is nothing to touch it. Other systems are often cited as the benchmark for vocal sound, and till I heard this I would have agreed, but now its J."
The J-Series had been decided on prior to your selection as house sound engineer with Andy '‘Baggy' Robinson, one of two monitor men for George Michael, making that decision; not the usual evolution for such decisions? No, but, one of the main criteria for George was keeping sound off the stage. George like many artists had experienced problems with the back lobe'ing from PAs; he could deal with reflections from the house, but found this energy back onto stage difficult. Baggy, along with John Roden who mixes monitors for the band, had already established that the J-Series was the ideal choice."
"As for touring with Wigwam, I've been really impressed, all their equipment is very well looked after, they have good crew, and Chris Hill", Wigwam's MD, "well, he is just so energetic. His energy is infectious, he just loves what he does, and the organisation he put behind this tour has proved outstanding." Together Hill and Baggy developed an extensive and robust packaging system for what proved to be an immensely complex network of audio links between the various desks and other digital control electronics. It would take several pages just to describe in outline what they achieved, suffice to say Bradshaw's appreciative comments are well deserved.
So what were the challenges in producing the classic George Michael sound in the live environment? "First and foremost getting George's vocal right. The J made that easy. We used Sennheiser radio mics with the Neumann 104 capsule; naturally we tried lots of mics, with George having the final say. He chose the one that Baggy and I had already thought was best for the job." So you were already in tune with the artist? "George has spent a lot of time in studios over the years and he knows precisely what it is he wants to hear, for people like Baggy and me that's really useful, we're not off on a fishing trip trying to discover what it is he wants, George can articulate his needs very clearly, and he wanted that studio sound live. That made it straightforward for Baggy and me. He said 'make it as close to the CD as possible', not all bands want that. For George the balance of reverb and delay on his vocal is critical; between the mic and the PA we got that with clarity and projection, and it just sounded really smooth."
So why the need for such intense study of the vocal cues? "The other thing with his vocal was compression, he did not want it compressed too much, he wanted me to ride his voice with the fader. It helped that he said to me, 'I'm going to stay right on the mic', and, being the professional he is, he did every show. But he also said, 'you're front of house; you've got to learn when I'm going to turn on the power'. That was quite a learning curve, George has very good ears and could always hear from the house when I was not quite there in time, but actually I found pretty quickly that although my hand never left the fader, operating it became almost automatic, so I was able to relax and listen. I know it was the same for Baggy and John (Roden). Essentially I had the desk set up with three VCAs in Recall Safe; George, the backing vocalists, and the band, This gave me the flexibility to manually balance the main elements of the mix."
Which brings us neatly to the rest of the band. "Band wise the system sound was great, especially the subs. We only needed six a side, two stacks of three each side and you could really do a lot of damage with them. Loads of headroom. They were run in CSA mode to stop them back firing and that was really effective. Carlos had a V Drum set up, electronic drums, and we fed a lot of that into the subs and it sounded great. The band worked hard during rehearsals leading up to Air. Everything was rehearsed and parts were being edited constantly, by the time we got to Wembley it all sounded pretty good, so for me they were a pleasure to work with."
And now the tour is complete is there anything you've learned from using the system? "Yeah, we did a show at the Copenhagen national football stadium Parken, it is a forty five thousand seater with a closing roof and it can sound pretty ugly in there. We knew before we got there that we would be all right, and that proved to be the case. A Danish PA company had already gone in and rigged delays for us, and they'd had the time to do it properly. With the J you can trim so accurately out of the array. Even with long lines, as in a big venue like Copenhagen, you can easily reduce that low end build up you get from long relatively flat line array coupling. And we needed only a few extra subs, it was amazing how well a small number of subs a side just filled the place." So you will be changing little for the forthcoming stadium tour? "Nothing, except to add some more J-Series loudspeakers to cover these much bigger venues. I'm really looking forward to it."