- by George Petersen
in Production Profile
Without a doubt, Asleep at the Wheel founder/frontman Ray Benson is a national treasure. While other live music forms seem to espouse all the amenities of “modern production” — Pro Tools backing tracks, drum machines, loops, beatz, flashy lights, video playback, overblown sets, elaborate staging, pyro effects, legions of dancers, multiple costume changes and the must-have flashing strobes that blind the audience — Asleep at the Wheel just shows up and plays. And no “grueling” 20-stop tours, either: these guys (and gals) are on the road doing between 140 and 200 shows a year to packed houses and festivals, leaving audiences cheering for encore after encore.
Even more amazing is that Benson has been at it for 44 years — with a little help from his friends, of course. On the current tour, Benson is joined by six world-class players (some of whom have been with him for decades) and a tech crew of three — actually two and a half, but we’ll get to that later. And it’s all about keeping the genre of Western swing and the spirit of legend Bob Wills — alive, with a few distinctive Asleep at the Wheel touches, of course. But even with pedal steel guitar riffs and some vocal twang, don’t call it “country” music, or as Benson himself puts it, “we don’t play country, we play Western music!”
The Bare Necessities
Keeping with that tradition, Asleep at the Wheel tours fairly simply, with a well-appointed bus pulling an 18-foot trailer. No racks and stacks here — just the backline for the seven players, console, mics and monitors. And whether playing a stadium or a roadside honky tonk, it’s set up, plug into the house rig and go. The crew is equally Spartan — just production manager/backline tech PJ Harrington, FOH engineer/road manager Jim Finney (who signed on in 1980) and monitor mixer Jay Reynolds, who doubles onstage, playing reeds during two-thirds of the show.
The current lineup — Benson admits there have been some personnel changes over the past 44 years — includes Benson on guitar and vocals; drummer David Sanger; David Earl Miller (bass/vocals); Eddie Rivers (pedal steel, sax, vocals); Katie Holmes (fiddle, vocals); Emily Gimble (piano, vocals); and Reynolds on sax, clarinet and monitor faders.
While some of their venues may be considered backwater, there’s nothing backwoods about Asleep at the Wheel’s sound. Besides running Asleep at the Wheel, Benson — who originally hails from Paw Paw, West Virginia — also operates a production company and recording studio in his adopted home of Austin, TX. And he’s no stranger to electron flow, having won nine Grammy Awards, released 20 or so studio albums and received the prestigious TEC Les Paul award bestowed to musicians with a passion for technology. Going backstage and hanging with the band and crew, I uncovered some brilliant and innovative approaches to live sound that even some of the largest megabuck tours could learn a trick or two from.
Part of the success during those long outings comes from a family feel among everyone involved. “I’m part production manager, part tour manager, part monitor engineer, backline tech and lots of roadie,” says Harrington. “We have a bus driver, but Jay and I also have CDL’s and will take turns relieving him on long hauls. But with this 67-foot package [bus plus trailer], we — crew and band — are all together in there and it’s a good thing. We’re a friendly group of folks; there’s no crew vs. band divide there. We’re all on the same team and those close quarters actually work to help us. Audio-wise, we have a good team — we all overlap a bit to help each other and it works well. We must be doing something right.”
The FOH View
The heart and soul of the tech crew is FOH mixer Jim Finney, who’s been with The Wheel for more than three decades. Yet his connection with Benson goes back even further.
“There was a club — actually an old hippie hall — in Austin called the Armadillo World Headquarters and by 1973, they started doing radio spots to advertise the club,” Finney recalls. “These spots weren’t very good, so I bought a TEAC 4-track, a bunch of Shure M68 mixers and began a little production company to do these commercials. Eddie Wilson, who started the Armadillo, looked at my setup and said my studio was only one wall away from the stage. He wanted to poke a hole in the wall and run a snake over. A local cable TV company wanted to air Saturday night performances from the Armadillo on Sunday afternoons. They brought in three grainy 1/2-inch black and white Sony handheld cameras and I’d do the soundtrack for those videos. Before you know it, I was mixing Bill Monroe, Roy Buchanan, Van Morrison, Asleep at the Wheel, Commander Cody, Boz Scaggs... and that’s how I got started mixing live shows.”
Interestingly, 108 hours of those tapes still exist and “we still have them,” Finney adds. “Funny thing is, if you listen to my 1974 mix of Ray doing ‘Choo Choo Ch’boogie’ — which The Wheel still does — and compare it to my board mixes now, they haven’t changed at all!”
However, all things must pass. The club was torn down in 1980 and the next day, Finney started working for a Texas reggae band called The Lotions. “One day in 1983, Ray walked up to me at the mix position and said he wanted me to work for him. I said yes. That job turned into a career and here I am, 31 years later.”
Taking Advantage of Technology
With smaller tours, it’s common for the FOH engineer to mix monitors from the house. But bucking that trend, one noticeable thing about an Asleep at the Wheel show is that there is no FOH position. For years, the crew has used a Yamaha M7CL situated backstage to handle FOH and monitors, with Finney mixing the main P.A. from a tablet — and no Wi-Fi or iPads here either.
According to Finney, the no-console idea originally came from seeing it used by engineer Paul Rogers on George Strait shows. “They were doing it as an add-on to their PM5D house mixer and used it mostly during sound check. But if they had any problems, they could just set the tablet down and walk back to the console and keep mixing the show,” notes Finney. “I heard about that and figured we could mix shows on it. Our design engineer, Jason McLaurin — the go-to guy in Texas for custom wireless stuff — created our current rig. We were the first ones to adopt a single console as the poor man’s front of house. I can’t afford a second M7, either as the space in the trailer or the weight. I can’t afford the copper — space, cost and weight — it would take to support my own front of house.”
There were a few rough spots along the way. “We started doing it with a modem, we had a lot interference in many places that would knock me off-line or do wacky stuff. So when Jason designed our current rig, he suggested going from the consoles to a 5G radio and let that radio see the tablet and the MAC [Media Access Control] addresses of the console and my tablet.”
The system connects the M7CL console via Cat-5 into an HP laptop running Yamaha’s Studio Manager that lives on top of the console, which provides Remote Desktop Control of that laptop with a tablet. Finney uses a Motion J3500 tablet (motioncomputing.com), which he says is “rugged and has some kind of etched matrix in the screen, so it’s daylight readable. It’s not 100 percent bulletproof — that’s why I have the radio [for spoken communication]. If for whatever reason, I get knocked offline, I can call Jay or PJ and say ‘I’m offline.’ I restart the tablet, he does the same at the console. But if I say the Motion tablet changed my life, I couldn’t be more sincere.”
Finney is a definite fan of the M7. “I use the onboard Yamaha compressors, reverb and processing, but I don’t do too much compression, mostly because of who I’m mixing and the overall sound I’m going for. I want the mix to breathe, from the quiet stuff and when he goes into ‘Choo Choo Ch’boogie’ or some jump song, I want it to thump. We have a big band, with a big band sound and I don’t want it be compressed.”
And console choice, like everything else — has to be put into perspective. “It always bugs me when I go on ProAudioSpace or some other forum and hear these kids complaining on and on about preamps or compressors,” Finney says. “Sure, if you’re in a studio environment, you can hear the difference between say, M7 or 5D or SC-48 preamps. But in the real world that I live in, with some 200 shows a year, with 200 different acoustical environments and speaker configurations, my environment changes from black to white 200 times a year. I really defy someone to come out to those 200 shows and tell me whose preamps we’re using. If the show sounds enjoyable and musical and non-fatiguing, then that’s what you’re trying to achieve. The M7 has plenty of bells and whistles and amplitude to allow me to do whatever I want.”
Mics, Mics, Mics
There’s a lot of Shure mics in the lineup, with Beta 87’s on all vocals except for Emily Gimble, whose powerful voice is better suited to a Beta 58. Shure KSM32’s are used on all the guitar amps and clip-on miniature Beta 98’s used all the drums, except kick, which is has been a Beta 52, although Finney was planning to switch to a Beta 91 boundary mic for better isolation from the amps.
The drum overhead mic is a Shure stereo VP88. “We started with that mostly for the ease of using a single stand,” says Finney “but when [drummer] Dave Sanger went to in-ears, he liked the spatial sound it gave his drums over close miking. It’s worked out very well.”
On the reed side, clip-on Beta 98’s are also used for saxes (steel layer Eddie Rivers doubles on sax with Jay Reynolds on some songs). “The 98’s work just right for that sort of R&B sax sound we were looking for.” The optimum clarinet mics turned out to be a pair of Heil PR 28 dynamic drum mics. “We needed a lot of rejection, because on smaller stages, the drums are so close and they provided a lot of isolation.” Finney says.
On steel guitar and fiddle — two instruments that are both harmonically complex the sound is a combination of both miked amps and DI inputs. “I mostly use that for sibilance issues, especially if we have a resonant hall with a lot of standing waves,” Finney notes. “From that DI input, getting that sibilance out of the steel and fiddle is a great help; and then I warm it up with the feed and reverb from their miked amps. We currently use the Avalon U5 DI on Eddie’s steel and on bass and a Millennia TD-1 on Katie’s fiddle.”
Piano is captured by either a C-Ducer or a Helpinstill pickup, depending on the particular piano supplied by the venue.
There are a lot of Shure mics on the tour, but “these things are built like tanks and we’re using most of the same mics we had when I started three and a half years ago,” adds monitor engineer Reynolds.
Reynolds, who’s the “official” monitor engineer — when he’s not onstage playing sax — started out as a performer touring with several Cincinnati bands in the 1990’s who were produced by Bootsy Collins. Eventually he began working in a music store, put together a small project studio and later started doing freelance live sound the 20th Century Theatre and the Children’s Theater of Cincinnati.
In May 2011, Reynolds got a call from PJ Harrington, who he had worked with at the music store. “PJ asked me if I knew the Yamaha M7 — which I did, and if I wanted to stage manage and do monitors for Asleep at the Wheel in Austin. I jumped at the opportunity.”
While on tour, Reynolds would bring his sax along and occasionally jam with other people on the tour bus. Once, when the regular sax player was sick, Reynolds was asked to cover his parts. “And I’ve been creeping into the set more and more since then,” says Reynolds with a laugh.
And the crew makes it all happen. Reynolds still tunes and rings in the P.A. and “as far as monitors go, PJ comes over and watches the console,” he explains. “With the digital board and the tablet mixing, it’s easier to get on deck and in front of the wedges and set it up, so hopefully, all PJ has to do make a few revisions to the mixes or occasionally notch something out. It has more to do with spending a lot of time on setup to make sure there are no issues and then turning it over to someone we can trust.”
Benson isn’t much of an IEM fan and the wedges are EAW SM200B’s. “They’re heavy, but they’re consistent, easy to work with and driven by Lab.gruppen FP-6000’s,” says Reynolds. “We are trying to transition Katie and Emily to in-ears pretty soon. Our drummer has been on in-ears for a long time — all on Ultimate Ears UE-6’s — I’m happy with mine.”
All Together Now
Sound for Asleep at the Wheel is straight-up and straightforward — not tricks or gimmicks. “The band has an older demographic and what they want to do is sit in their seat and comfortably access every word,” explains Finney. “So I mix so you can hear every syllable of Ray’s vocal, even if the person next to you is singing along. The hot guitars and the hot solos and all the things we’ve won Grammy’s for is all fine and good. But what puts butts in the seats is Ray’s voice. And I make sure every person in the audience can easily and readily hear every word. And that is Asleep at the Wheel.”
Asleep at the Wheel
- Sound Company: Self contained, using local racks & stacks.
- FOH Engineer: Jim Finney
- Monitor Engineers: Jay Reynolds, PJ Harrington
- Production Manager: PJ Harrington
- Console: Yamaha M7CL (shared with monitors)
- Effects: Onboard console effects
- Control: Motion MJ3500 Tablet
- Mics: Shure Beta 87’s (vocals); Shure Beta 58 (vocal); Shure KSM32’s (amps); Shure Beta 98’s (drums); Shure Beta 52 or Shure Beta 91 (kick); Shure VP88 overheads); Shure Beta 98’s (sax); Heil PR 28 (clarinet); C-Ducer or Helpinstill pickup (piano); LR Baggs pickup (fiddle).
- DI’s: Millennia TD-1 (fiddle); Avalon U5’s (steel guitar and bass)
- Console: Yamaha M7CL (shared with FOH)
- Effects: Onboard console effects
- Monitors: EAW SM200B’s
- Amplifiers: Lab.gruppen FP-6000’s
- IEM’s: Shure PSM 1000 hardware; Ultimate Ears UE-6 earpieces