Back To Basics With Straight No Chaser
Let’s just say this is a tour where stage volume is never an issue. Not even with 10 open vocal mics onstage. No guitars, no bass, no drums. Not even a piano. Production manager Richard Korby and the crew from Aggressive Sound based in Cleveland, Ohio spent the last half of 2015 providing audio and production for the 10-piece all-male vocal group Straight No Chaser on their first tour that was more than just a holiday event. As you read this, the are all getting ready to wrap things up with a string of eight shows in Paris.
Not bad for a group of college friends who got together just because they all like to sing.
The group started back in 1996 on the campus of Indiana University the group carried on as original members started to graduate and head out to day gigs outside of music. Each graduating member picked their own replacement, in this way, what should have been a three or four-year phenomenon became something of a campus and Bloomington-area tradition with more than 50 different voices passing through the group.
But, like many other things these days, the real driver that took them out of an Indiana-only deal was YouTube.
The school hosted a reunion show featuring all of the original members in 2006 to mark a 10 year anniversary of a group that had a big impact at Indiana University. Inspired by that show, original member Randy Stine posted video for an eight-year-old show on YouTube, the first performance of the group’s unique take on “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
It was a hit. Today, that video has more than 19 million views. The video caught the attention of Atlantic Records chair Craig Kallman who signed the group. The were still a holiday deal with two albums and several tours when they decided last year to move into new musical territory.with a new record called “With a Twist.” and a tour to back it.
But while it may have looked like a holiday deal on the surface, it was deeper. Production manager Richard Korby has been with SNC since they really started touring, first as the front of house engineer and now as production manager passing the task of pushing faders on starting tour years ago. “We have had a couple of guys. Jonin Fehlmann, our friend from Switzerland is mixing this tour.”
“The group really started to get serious about this in 2007 and the booked a small 15-date tour. In 2009, they booked a 40 date tour and all quit their day jobs which is when I came on board and it has just grown from there. In the beginning, I was front of house engineer and production manager and monitor engineer—I did everything.”
They pulled into Las Vegas for the opening show of the tour, taking over the David Copperfield Theatre at the MGM Grand for four shows over a weekend in October.
The venue presented a challenge in that there was really nothing that could be moved or modified. Once known as the Hollywood Theatre and hosting a large variety of acts, the room closed in 2009 after stage hand Vicente Rodriguez fell from the rigging to the stage and was killed. Copperfield had already done many shows in the vine and when it reopened it was dubbed the David Copperfield Theatre and had been redesigned and built-out specifically for his shows..
“That means we can’t put anything in the air, “Korby reported. “So, even though we are carrying a line array, we need to ground stack it. That kind of versatility was a key part of our decision to tour with the DAS Aero 40. It sounds great and rigs easily both on the ground and in the air.”.
The voice of vocal mics might scare lesser engineers as there are TEN open Shure KSM9 handhelds on stage. Great sounding mics, to be sure—OK, bad pun—but they are not using the hotel with the hyper-cardioid pattern and the KSM9 has been know to be a little… wide. The Rev. had one country engineer once refer to it as the “roving drum mic” when talking about what he has to do to keep drums out of the lead vocal mic. But in this case it works in their favor. “First there is not stage volume other than the voices to deal with and we do run in cardioid mode which is a little tighter. But with all of the signers on in-ears, the wideness of the KSM9 works in our favor. The guys say they can hear some bleed from the voices right around them and it helps with both their contribution to vocal blend and in lessening the feeling of isolation that is common for singers using in-ears.”.
Consoles are an Avid SC48 with a Waves package of compressors and the stunning H-Reverb plug in and a Yamaha M7CL hot-rodded to do 24 mix outs..
One of the big takeaways from this tour is the absolute value of relationships. Korby notes that his rep in the business is totally based on his work as a front-of-house engineer and six years ago when he started working with SNC he was pushing both a pencil AND faders..
“Twenty years ago I was mixing a writer’s night in a club and the sound system was provided by Aggressive and that was when I first met owner Jeff Hair and i worked with him many times over the next two decades,” Korby recalls. Hair is also a two hats guy as owner of Aggressive and the man behind the faders for metal band MANOWAR since 1986. Korby continues….
“About a year and a half into me working with SNC, I called Jeff and got them involved. But we were not carrying a lot back then. Mics and in-ears and maybe a console. When we got ready to do this tour—by far the biggest one we have ever done and the first on which were were going to carry full production—we looked at all of the big-box companies and I thought, ‘You know, we should call Jeff. They have great gear and I know they will take care of us.”.
Korby note the DAS AERO rig as key to overcoming the biggest challenge with a group like this. “It is all vocal harmony and it only works if you can hear everything in every part of the room. And we have to do that without blowing away any part of the room. We need smooth and even coverage and the AERO rig has done that for us.” In the show we caught, they were using a ground stacked AERO 40 system but also carry and use AERO 20 for some venues to ensure that smooth and even coverage. “The keys to success on this tour are good deployment of the PA, properly tuning it and having the flexibility to make the changes that we need to in the PA on the fly. And that is where we count on two things. One. the DASNet software that controls the AERO rigs and, two, our system tech/monitor engineer/stage manager Bob Rager from Aggressive.” Rager reported that the preferred set was to fly the Aero40s. “If the venue could not support that, second choice was to fly the Aero20s and if that was not possible, we would ground-stack the AERO20s. it gave us a lot of flexibility.”.
“The reviews have all been great in terms of sound quality and the guys in the band can actually tell the difference,” Korby said. “On the few occasions when we have been forced to use a house PA, they can tell the difference. I really could not be happier with the DAS AERO stuff. I would take it out with any band I was working with. Rock, country, anything.”.
But the challenges are not just technical. “With an act like this, we as engineers have to be very musical. We have to understand arrangements and what voices are playing what parts in any given song. Unlike some other all-vocal groups, we do not have people imitating instruments and there is no one or two “lead” singers. Every person on that stage plays both lead and background roles—often in the same song. So we have to really know the music and be very aware of everything that is coming off the stage. In a sense, the engineer is actually playing the band.”.
But the challenges come with a big payoff. “Every night at the end of the show, someone will come up to the mix position and say something like ‘So, there is a band behind the curtains right?’ No, there is not. ‘Then you are using backing tracks?’ No, we are not. This is musical art in it’s purest form,” says Korby. “There is no click track, there is no auto-tune. It’s just 10 guys with 10 mics and they live and die by what they can do with their voices.”.
We actually caught up with Richard on a break between the US and Europe parts of the tour as he was driving down the interstate in his home state of Tennessee as the big January snowstorm was starting to hit. “I have been with SNC for 6 and a half years now and this is my 7th Fall tour. And we are getting ready to do our second European tour. We start with two full weeks at the same venue in Paris.” Not a bad way to spend a February….