AF’s Weblog

July 30, 2010

On Tour: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Modern technology reveals traditional sounds for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 2010 tour.

Technical Evolution


“We’re working with a very organic set of sounds here,” says Robert Scovill, ruminating on the current Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 2010 concert tour. “Piano, organ, old amps… a traditional drum kit. We don’t want to make things sound real modern. What we want is a transparent presentation of the way things are. That’s where digital comes in.  Using modern technology to reveal traditional and established sounds – I think that’s a great way to go.”

Scovill knows well of what he speaks, and of the technical evolution that has helped bring him to where he is today with the band.  Having pushed faders out front for Tom and the boys since right about the same time e-mail was sounding like a pretty darn good idea, for this tour the Front of House engineer gains the backing of a D-Show VENUE console from Avid and an L-Acoustics K1/KUDO rig supplied by Escondido, California-based Sound Image.

“I don’t want to ever lead people to believe we’re attempting to simply recreate the record live,” Scovill explains, commenting on the audio underpinnings that guide this series of dates running through October supporting Mojo, the band’s first studio offering in eight years.  “That will never be the spirit of what Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are about at their live performances. They have been together a very long time and have gotten to know each others’ moves implicitly not just onstage, but musically too.  You never get into a routine with them where Tuesday night is the same as Thursday and that’s the same as Saturday. Even with the big production elements surrounding this show, there is still a looseness to it,” he continues.  “Any given song can take a left turn at any moment and go in a completely different direction. This is definitely an ensemble with a collective will, not a group of musicians spoon-fed with material by a frontman.”

tom pettyA DSP advantage was gained, however, in being able to port effects settings built by engineer Ryan Ulyate during the mixing of Mojo directly into the plug-in processing of the VENUE system.  That process was facilitated by the fact that Mojo was mixed entirely “in the box” using a single ICON and Pro Tools system, with plug-ins brought over directly from the recording sessions including Sound Toys, Acousticas EMT impulses and Digidesign Delays.

Many of the vocal treatments for Petty himself – especially on newer songs – were pulled directly from the record for the live stage based upon their ability to manage what Scovill refers to as “extreme aspects” such as exceptionally narrow, cone-shaped vocals and slap delays he wound up using to underscore the “vintage-y” vibe.  Scovill is quick to add that he doesn’t routinely lean on plug-in compression unless the situation warrants it, opting in many cases for the channel strip processing already onboard the console.  For the times he does step out from his own internal circuitry for applications like system EQ or group processing, he gains the benefit of a Serato Rane Series of dynamic EQ plug-ins or their parametric offering.

“If I want to get into multi-band compression, I typically use an MC2000 on Tom’s vocal and bass guitar,” he notes.  “Our vocal chain is essentially the multiband compression along with some dynamic equalization to take care of things down in the low-mids and some of the ‘esses’.  That’s really about it. After that it’s just onboard compression and EQ as needed.”  Crane Song Phoenix tape head emulation plug-ins are applied on specific inputs as well as right across the mix bus.  Eventide reverb is a primary player on the drum kit, which also benefits from Waves API 2500 compression.  As further complement, a Brainworx BX Boom plug-in sees use on the drum kit in a fashion similar to a low frequency harmonics box.

Now let’s take a closer look behind the scenes…

Analogous Experience

Monitor engineer Greg Looper (left) and assistant monitor

engineer Mike Bangs at the other D-Show VENUE on the tour.

A pioneering force in the cause of integrating digital into the world of live sound, Scovill offers some pointed comments on the idea of “choice fatigue”- a possible downside to the digital world that’s offering a myriad of sonic options.  “It’s something live sound engineers have never been faced with before,” he says, scratching his head and trying to recall a time in his 30 years of professional life when such a thing could even be considered a problem.

“In the past, what dictated our choices was whatever the sound company had sitting on the shelf. If you went outside of that, then you were confined by space, budget, and rental agreements.  There were a lot of constraining factors. Now our work flow is very analogous to that experienced in the studio. You can say this is what we need and just load it on your system and get to work.”

As for the logic and creativity used to build his mix out front, Scovill relates on a final note that in many respects, all he has to do is get out of the way.

“The sources are just so good,” he says with reverence for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, masters of their craft.  “These guys are so good at voicing their instruments and orchestrating their parts, that you just have to let them do their work. In terms of mixing the show, I like to say I overemphasize the obvious. If there is a solo, I bring it up. If there is a critical rhythm part under that solo, you have to hear that too.  “Tom and the band have taught me over time that there is just as much skill in revealing something as there is in bringing something up. It’s not always about louder, it might be a matter of pulling something back so something else shines through.”

To read the full Article see: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Tour

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