August 2009 Issue
FOH Interview

Blake Suib Runs Away and Joins the Circus

Blake Suib
FOH engineer Blake Suib has a resume that includes artists from Prince to Annie Lennox and was presented on this tour with a huge challenge—covering 360 degrees without blocking very large video screens that play a big part in the show.

FOH caught the show in Oakland and then sat down with Blake a few days later in Las Vegas. (Mixing legend and current Meyer guy Buford Jones sat in.)  


FOH: So, how did we get here? 

Blake Suib: Right before this, I did Janet Jackson as the monitor engineer. Went straight to this. Promo leg. Break, then rehearsals starting in February. It’s going real well. I really enjoy mixing FOH. I go back and forth between FOH and monitors so I have a good understanding of both jobs. But this is a little unorthodox configuration in the PA. We’re trying to cover 360 but in a way that does not block big video screens.  


FOH: Who came up with the configuration? I have never seen a hang like that… 


Blake Suib: Steve Dixon, who is the tour director,  came up with the concept of the stage, and we, by which I mean myself and Solotech, were asked to come up with a design that blocked the least amount of seats but provided the quality and coverage that she expects and that we were looking for.

The PA is made of 64 Milos that split into four hangs of 16 per hang. Each hang of 16 is shooting toward what we call the end zone. Two at the 50 yard line point one way and directly behind, two at the 50 yard line point the other way. We use 32 Micas — 16 per hang, pointing to the sides.

What is pretty incredible — we are covering one whole side of an arena with one hang of Micas. The Milos only come into play when you start to come toward the curve.  


FOH: I couldn’t really hear a seam. 


Buford Jones: Yeah. I have gone looking for the seam myself and it is almost undetectable.  


FOH: What I did hear, which was unusual, is as I went up the stairs, about every two steps, there was an audible volume bump. It got louder. Until I got past the bleachers on the floor. From that point up, it was completely even. 


Blake Suib: I like to try and get an even balance in every seat in the arena. When working in the round with many different zones that make up the PA it can be hard to accomplish. Usually the upper sections do not get the same presence from the PA that you get on the floor so I try to adjust the levels of each hang so that for the most part the level does not drop off as you get farther away from the hangs.

The way we have set up the PA gives us a lot of control. Each hang of 16 speakers is separated into four sections, each with its own EQ and level control. This way, I can set the bottom four speakers in the hang to the level I like for the floor and the next four speakers can be a little bit louder and have a separate EQ to compensate for any change in the tone due to the distance.

FOH: That is the bump I was hearing.  


Buford Jones: Yeah, probably.

Blake Suib: We take four reference mics and position them in front of each of those blocks. This way the mics are positioned in the seats where the stacks are pointing. We get individual and specific information on what each block is doing at the place where it is pointed, not just at the mix position.

Now when you add the blocks together you get coupling. So we not only have the individual block mics but we have another mic at the front of house position that we can bounce back and forth with. So instead of using one reading from one mic we have readings from all areas that we are trying to cover with each hang.

One of the things I like most about Meyer Sound is that they design and make all the tools and components we use in the PA. This starts with a program called Mapp online, which we use to decide where to point the PA. We then use the Simm, also built by Meyer, to analyze and time align the PA in a very accurate way. The Galileo is used to EQ and balance all the sections of the PA so we can get as close to seamless coverage as we can. And the speakers are self-powered with amps also built by Meyer Sound.

Louis-Philippe Maziade is the system tech from Solotech, and we both work together to tune the PA. We start by listening to one hang at a time. As we add the next section of the PA we can hear changes due to the coupling effect I spoke about before. We can then decide if we want to place a filter on all 16 speakers in the hang or just to one section.  Time aligning a PA like this is also very important and this also helps give us seamless coverage.

The other thing we do differently is, we do not do traditional front fills. We found that when we put speakers on the ground, as soon as people stood up, they were blocked. What we do is place three hangs of three M’elodies per hang in the ring pointing down. What they do is cover just the portion close to the main stage until you get into the coverage of the Milos.

(The stage for this tour is set up to resemble a three ring circus with an outer ring surrounding that. There are large, couch-style, premium (i.e., really expensive) seats all the way around the inside of that ring. —ed) 


FOH: How do you handle the in the round low end?  

Blake Suib:
There are 24 HP700 subwoofers positioned all over the arena floor. I always hate when I go down front next to the subs and they are so loud because you need them to carry all the way to the top sections. One way to avoid this is by hanging the subs. Because this show is so big, we have weight issues, so we cannot hang the subs. Instead, we place subs all around the floor and use the Simm and Galileo to time align. I find this to be the hardest thing to get right. One trick we have learned to get away from the bass buildup that can be a nightmare is to trick the subs by steering them. We take the mic we use to time align each block of subs and place it where we want to steer the low end. This way we do not get the buildup of low end where we do not want it and we are able to steer it where we like.  


FOH: What type of monitor setup do you use for Britney?

Blake Suib: Britney does not use in ears. The one thing she has always told me is that she wants it to sound like a dance club, and she says this is the closest we have come to that. We use 12 Meyer CQs. There are eight flown around the center ring and two on each of the two B stages. Because the CQs can also be heard by the people in the front sections, I decided to send a FOH mix minus the two live vocal mics to the monitor console. Lawrence Mignogna, our monitor engineer, then adds the two vocal mics at the level she needs and the result is that she is hearing the FOH mix onstage and there is one mix going to all speakers that can be heard by the audience.   


FOH: How long does it take him to tune the PA? 


Blake Suib: I would say that with this particular setup and the way we choose to tune the PA it takes us less than an hour from start to finish to adjust the levels, time align and tune.  Traditionally, PAs were tuned just by our ears. We might look at an analyzer attached to one mic, but for the most part, we would pick a piece of music that we knew well enough to know what it should sound like in any environment and we would play it thru the PA and adjust the EQ until we got what we liked.

Now that works great, and there are a lot of great sounding shows done this way, but I think as audiences become more sophisticated and expect to hear exactly what they heard on the record, we are conscious of making it as close to the record sound and quality as possible.

That is where the Simm is just unbelievable. I can’t be in every seat in the house at the same time. but the Simm is the next best thing.

  FOH: I agree that those are great tools, but I am seeing too often guys trying to mix and tune APA with their eyes rather than with their ears. 


Blake Suib:  I know what you mean. When I started out mixing live sound 28 years ago, the only tools we had were our ears. There were no schools that taught live audio. Today there are a lot of engineers that have learned mixing in a classroom and it can be very easy to trust a machine instead of your ears. I like to use all the tools I can to get my PA as close as I can to a flat response system.  I always do a multi-track recording of every show, which is very easy with my Digidesign Venue. I then use the virtual sound check. mode to play back the show instead of music from another artist. I do this because all music has different tones and peaks in all frequency ranges. By using the live recordings, I can hear exactly what it will sound like during the show.  I could tune a PA in the traditional way and it would be fine, but by using the Meyer System I can take the system as a whole to another level.

I was talking to John (Meyer) the other day and he said something that really stood out for me. He said he did not design a PA to decide what the artistic vision is. He designed a PA to provide the tools to allow the artist to decide for themselves.

Some systems that I have worked with have a very specific sound, and no matter what you did, you could not escape that sound. In my opinion, what he has achieved is a flat response PA.

When we first got to production rehearsals I decided to bypass every bit of processing in the PA for my first run through.  I wanted to hear a totally flat PA, and I am telling you that what people hear during the show  is maybe three or four very narrow filters at no more than 3 or 4 dB  of cut. Our cuts and boosts are minor.

Keep in mind, this is a multi-zone PA. We have 10 zones, which is a far cry from your typical left-right with some side hangs with maybe some subs and front fills. With 10 zones, all kinds of phasing problems and bass build up can come into play, but we are experiencing none of that. People who know me will tell you that for 20 years I would not even allow an analyzer in my rack. I thought it was cheating. If you could not do it with your ears you did not belong in the business. That was my mindset. But I don’t think we could achieve the same results without using the MAPP Online and the Simm. I think that having all the tools are a big help and get us 80 percent there, but I still believe that you should always trust your ears. 

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