No matter your musical predilection, there's no denying that Barbra Streisand is one of the biggest talents in show biz. She is the epitome of élan and elegance, bringing a level of detail and sophistication to every aspect of her professional presence, from motion pictures to Broadway to concerts. As for the latter, the notoriously stage-shy artist's performances have been few and far between; the beginning of her 2012 Back To Brooklyn tour marked only her 82nd performance in a six-decade career.
For the 1993 Concert Tour—which was her first outing in nearly 30 years—Streisand built an audio dream team spearheaded by audio innovator, engineer and sound designer Bruce Jackson. His challenge was to create a comfortable yet controlled live sound environment designed to make Streisand supremely comfortable, while simultaneously ensuring her audience would get the best-sounding show money could buy from any seat. Often this involved carpeting a venue at tremendous expense, or configuring and designing gear. Jackson, who had worked with other notorious perfectionists including Elvis for six years and Springsteen for another 10, brought on orchestra mixers Chris Carlton and Kevin Kilpatric to help shape his vision for Streisand's tour. He was rewarded for his efforts on her 1995 TV special Barbra: The Concert with an Emmy Award for sound design and sound mixing.
Flash forward to 2012. Strategic planning was already underway for another tour when sound designer/FOH mixer Carlton assumed Jackson's reins in the wake of Jackson's untimely death in a plane crash in early 2011. The Back to Brooklyn tour, a 12-date run of fall shows, would bring Streisand back to her roots: to Brooklyn (where she jokingly mentioned that the last time she performed in the borough was "on somebody's stoop on Pulaski Street" as an 8-year-old) in the city's new Barclays Center, and also to the MGM Grand, the spectacular hotel/venue in Las Vegas she helped open on New Year's Eve in 1993. Each of the Brooklyn tour shows clocked in at about two-and-a-half hours and featured a variety-style format, with Streisand performing along with a 72-piece orchestra, a top-tier rhythm section of studio stalwarts from Los Angeles, an 80-piece guest choir in each city, and special guests including her son, singer/actor/writer Jason Emanuel Gould, world-renowned smooth jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and Italian teen-tenors trio Il Volo—plus touching stories and a tribute to her longtime friend and composer, the late Marvin Hamlisch.
Inspired by Jackson's legacy, Carlton designed a new system worthy of Streisand for the tour that would improve on the previous technical model while streamlining and advancing the technology. His positive experience working with DiGiCo consoles on the 2010 Vancouver Olympics was still fresh in his mind as he teamed with DiGiCo and Clair Global at Clair HQ in September to build and program the new gear for the tour. With a team of 12 engineers on deck, the updated system was comprised of six consoles in five mix locations: FOH (Carlton on an SD7 with Kevin Gilpatric on an SD7-EX007 expander), artist monitors (SD7 run by Ian Newton), band monitors (SD10; Blake Suib), orchestra mix stems (SD10; Steve Colby), and David Reitsaz on a Avid Icon in the M3 Music Mix Mobile truck. What made the setup so distinct was that all FOH, monitor and broadcast recording engineers shared the 170+ inputs, generated from one central SD system rack—comprised of four DiGiCo SD Racks—and linked solely by a DiGiCo/Optocore 2GHz fiber optics network running at 96kHz. On some dates including Brooklyn, they used broadcast recording feeds into a Brainstorm DCD-8 that could receive Burst or Word Clock, and the DiGiCo system would sync off of that. In addition, the SD Rack's third MADI port handled live down-conversion from the 96kHz to 48kHz, which fed to both the mobile truck as well as to a backup redundant recording system located in the orchestra mix room.
"The audio production on this tour has evolved slightly from what we've done in the past only because of the newer technology that was available to us," explains Carlton. "As far as the amount of mixers and personnel involved with this show, it's pretty much the same team we've been working with for the past 12 years—although she doesn't go out that often, as you know. We revisited what we had done back in 2007 and wanted to incorporate what worked well back then, as well as identify areas that we could improve upon with the current technology. In the past, our system involved a lot of analog splits and another digital console, which worked well for us, but this is a much better, streamlined solution for having multiple mixers online with no passive splitters involved. Having an all-digital fiber optic distribution network ensured that we had no additional unwanted loading on the microphones, too."
"Given the number of inputs we are using," adds longtime Clair Global engineer and Streisand tour crew chief Bob Weibel, "if we were using individual stage racks and analog splits, we'd need like 15 racks, which would occupy three to four times the physical space! From that perspective, it's been good logistically for us to have everything concentrated in one spot. All of the PA outputs, as well as all of the analog and digital monitor outputs, come out of that rack and all systems that run digitally are also assigned to an analog card on the SD Rack for backup. We've got all of the mics from the orchestra musicians going to Steve Colby, who's devoted to generating the orchestra stem submixes, which in turn are sent to Chris Carlton at FOH, Ian Newton at artist [Streisand] monitors, and to Blake Suib at band monitors. Those submixes get returned to the other consoles digitally through the DiGiCo network system that can handle 448 channels simultaneously at 96KHz, so it stays in the digital realm the whole time. In addition, the engineers have the ability to grab any discrete channel of the orchestra on their work surface."
"Chris Carlton had some pretty hefty shoes to fill with the passing of Bruce Jackson," offers Kevin Gilpatric, assistant FOH engineer. Gilpatric started as an orchestra mixer with Streisand in late 2005. "I've known Bruce over 35 years, as have Chris and Bob. The three of us go way back, so it was a logical extension for Chris to have me on the EX-007 expander. Initially, the idea was for the console to just be an extension of the SD7 as additional faders for Chris, because of the sheer amount of inputs he had to manage. As things progressed, however—and because the extender could be used either as an extension or a mirror of the main console—it was decided that I would assist with the main FOH mix. This way Chris could pay attention to the overall mix and do most of the heavy lifting on his side, and I could monitor little things, change or save presets, and fine-tune different things on the EX-007 without affecting what he's doing. It's almost like there's two separate consoles out there and it worked seamlessly."
Having extensive hands-on experience proved beneficial for Carlton, who was well versed on the DiGiCo desk, not only from his work on the Olympics but also with his own sound company, Carlton Audio Services and the DiGiCo regional training sessions. "The best thing about the consoles," he explains, "is how flexible they are. When we were thrown the last minute addition of an 80-piece choir, we were able to adapt and suggest a few different solutions. I could add an additional 20 inputs to cover the choir with plenty of space to spare. Working within the fiber optic network, we were able to send different mixes and different foldbacks between the monitor consoles and that added a lot of flexibility to what we were doing. Plus, the stems that were sent by the orchestra mixers to everyone else all stayed digital at 96kHz—no splitters and no additional A/D - D/A convertors.
"As far as for Barbra, there are a few things onboard the SD7 that I patch in for her," Carlton adds. "The multiband compressor works well. In addition, I have an outboard Summit Tube Compressor on her vocal and a TC6000, but for the most part, I'm using onboard dynamics and effects for everything else. DiGiCo's DigiTube Tube Emulation works well and adds a nice edge to the sound on some of the instruments. With this kind of music, we are trying to represent it as naturally and organically as possible. We're not doing a lot of processing. Just a little bit of compression and some high pass filters are all that are required to get us where we need to be. We are using quite a few DPA microphones on the string section of the orchestra and high-end Beyer and Milab microphones on the rest of the orchestra. These combined with the great sound of the console make the job easy."
As Carlton expressed, the DiGiCo consoles paired with Clair Global's innovative i-5 line array system with full-range cabs proved to be a stunning sonic combination, and more than satisfied the artist as well as audience members, who were treated to clear, intimate acoustics even in the farthest of seats. The standard PA configuration is 16 x i-5s in the front PA, left and right, plus 12-high stacks that are the side-facing element of that front PA. The i-3 line arrays, which are 10 cabs high, covered the rear corners of the arena. Positioned underneath the stage were 4 x i-5b subwoofers that were spaced individually across the front of the stage to add a little bit of low end for first few rows. Additionally, there were approximately 10 x FF-3 front fill cabs spaced across the front of the venue, and they were employing a delay system of six clusters of a two-way i-DLcab.
"Chris places a strong emphasis on making sure the frequency response is really even across the front of the audience," explains Weibel, "ensuring it is consistent even as you move from front to back. We spent a lot of time focusing on that. The addition of the delay system added a tremendous amount of clarity and vocal presence in the back of the arena. It was a great amount of work to install but it was worth it. The Lab.gruppen amps are driven by AES digital outputs from the DiGiCo SD stage racks. As I mentioned previously, we have a simultaneous active analog backup feed from the SD racks as well to ensure there wouldn't be any issues one way or the other. The amps have input priority configured such that if they failed to see the digital signal, they would automatically fall over to the analog. We've had good reliability with this system and the rig sounds great."
"Most groups wouldn't be carrying delay speaker systems because it takes a lot of time, additional cost and extra effort to set up," adds Carlton, "but because this is Barbra we wanted every seat to have the best sound possible."
Carlton brought in Steve Colby, the longtime FOH engineer for the Boston Pops and veteran DiGiCo user, to handle the orchestral stem mixes on an SD10. (Earlier this year, Colby added a pair of SD10 consoles to the Pops' sound system.) "I'm very, very fond of the platform," Colby says, "and when we got to the Clair shop the first week for training, I came in at an advantage as I'd had a lot of flight time on the SD10. It was fun to be able to show people some of the things it could do. And that's a credit to the console, too. Everybody latches onto it very quickly. The guys who have been on previous Barbra tours are really, really happy with this new system. They love the fact that we could send signals to and from consoles directly. The DiGiCo/Optocore system is a brilliant concept, and sonically it's extraordinary. The SD10 is a very flexible console. You can drill down pretty deep in terms of surgical equalization and things like that. "One of the real treats for me was the addition of the DigiTube Tube Emulation on the SD10, which was added with the most recent software upgrade (5.3.2, available for all DiGiCo consoles). So if you're a guy like me who deals with strings a lot, it's great to have something overall to warm up the signal. You have the clarity and the noise floor of the digital signal, coupled with the warm analog fuzziness of the DigiTubes. It's a terrific combination for us.
"This is a particularly large input show," Colby continues. "It reminds me a lot of the Star Wars show we did with the Pops because we were at 160 inputs and did the whole thing from FOH. It was a chore. With Barbra, we tried to spread the labor around in specialized areas. We're taking all of the microphones from the orchestra and breaking them down into submixes that go off to other mixers in the system. So Chris at FOH is taking my string stems and mixing with other discrete channels, and I make five stems that are sent off to Ian on monitors for Barbra and to Blake on monitors for the orchestra. We're basically taking the first wave of huge chunks of inputs and cutting them down into something manageable, making lots of subtle mix changes from song to song that we hope will make a difference out front. I'm thinking about what it's going to sound like in the room; how I can help Chris by giving him something consistent to work with, bumping up solos and things of that nature, so he doesn't need to worry about it. I listen to that and then I also listen to the other stems at the same time from a monitor standpoint. The matrix capability lets me set up a different listening mix on every song, so it helps me to stay honest to the boys that I'm providing feeds for. Having a really deep snapshot automation that can drill all the way down into the matrix inputs and levels is incredibly powerful. The snapshot recall automation on the console is fabulous, too. I like that you can build your own macros. We're cranking on these shows every day. We get them set up fast, they sound great, and we're happy as clams."
On his first tour with Streisand, Blake Suib—whose previous outings include work with Britney Spears—attends to band monitors on an SD10 rig upstage center under the deck. The console, run primarily in conjunction with an Aviom system, is used to generate submixes that are fed to the string section's in-ear monitors or to various band members with their own adjustable Aviom rigs. He was blown away by the ability for all of the mix engineers to share stage racks and preamps, a feature not available on other comparable digital consoles. "What that means is that we've simplified our whole patching world," he explains, "which is huge as far as the logistics. With this new approach, all of the engineers had to agree on something that we stuck with. Traditionally, most award shows and the like use shared stage racks, but that rarely happens on tours. With the DiGiCo Gain Tracking, we each had our own independence. In my 30 years, I've never had to consult with anybody on any setting on my console. But on this tour, it's worked really well, and in the end, was definitely worth it because of the amount of inputs we have. With the DiGiCo Gain Tracking, we were able to set the input gains on the first day, make maybe a couple of tweaks here and there for the different zones, and were able to lock that down. Each engineer could change his own Digital Trim to boost or reduce the level on the discrete channel, or, if we wanted to make an over-tone change in the mic preamp, we could adjust the mic pre. With the flexibility of the outputs on the DiGiCo, there's really no competition. I love the console and in particular, the setup. My setup here is pretty basic, though, and I'm mostly only using all the onboard compressors and they are working out great."
Ian Newton has handled monitors for both Streisand and her special guests since 2006. Newton's logged time on an SD7 previously with Roger Waters. For Streisand, he's feeding a stereo pair mix to 40 wedges around the stage. "As she walks around the stage, I send a mix that I flare through the wedge wherever she is, so we don't have them blowing into her orchestra mics," he says. "She gets a balanced mix of everything and everyone uses the wedges with the exception of Il Volo, who are all on in-ears. I'm taking stems from the orchestra from Steve, which helps out and cuts down a bit of mixing on my end. Because I'm sending the same mix to all the wedges, I'm using the Copy to Mix feature in the SD7 pretty heavily on the outputs. I'm also using the onboard reverbs, but other than that, I'm not doing anything groundbreaking here. My main challenge is keeping an eye on Barbra all night."
With stellar reviews coming in at every show, the consensus is that Streisand is still brilliant at age 70 and still very much in control. "This is really a classic example of having all of the elements in place for a great show," Weibel sums up. "We have a band that plays great material, are very skilled and generate really good sounds. Chris is a very talented engineer and works really hard, putting in a tremendous amount of time and effort to make sure the overall sound, SPL levels and frequency response is great in every seat… Combine that with very capable digital consoles and speaker system, and you have the potential to have really great shows. We're fortunate in that we have all of those elements in place and working on all eight cylinders. In my personal opinion, we've had some really outstanding shows over the course of this tour and have gotten quite a few compliments from people we respect along the way. The new stage racks, particularly, have been really solid and reliable, as have the consoles. We've literally had no service issues. The rig sounds good; there's no getting around that. Personally, I'm very satisfied and really pleased."
"The amount of things that Bruce Jackson shared with us over the years is staggering," adds Carlton. "One of the highlights of my career was working with him; it was a pleasure. Carrying on his legacy with Streisand, we're trying to keep pushing that as much as we can. One of the most important things I learned from him was about thoroughness: nailing down every detail you possibly can to make it right, no matter what. And I believe we are doing just that with the Streisand tour. I think we'd make Bruce proud."
Tour staff (LtoR): Dave Reitzas, recording engineer; Chris Carlton, Sound Designer/FOH Engineer, Blake Suib, Band Monitor Engineer; Ian Newton, Artist Monitor Engineer; Kevin Gilpatric, FOH Mixer (Clair); Danny Badorine: PA Technician (Clair): Brandon Allison, PA Technician (Clair); Ricky Avila, PA Technician (Clair); Steve Colby, Orchestra Engineer; Bob Weibel, Crew Chief/Systems Engineer (Clair); Jason Brace, RF Engineer/Monitor Assist Clair); Tom Ford, Audio Stage Technician (Clair); Chris Fulton, Monitor Assist (Clair). Photo by Matt Larson