Elegantly wasted used to be the phrase commonly applied to Keith Richards, as in the worlds most elegantly wasted man, and in truth it still seems apt. So how dare the likes of Aussie rockers INXS steal such a world-worn mantle for the title of their latest album? More to the point, are they worthy? Well, thats debatable, but in one aspect at least, their current tour is offering something worth talking about.
This is the first ever touring appearance of JBLs new HLA (Horn Loaded Array) system in the UK. Although the packaging might look familiar (physically identical as it is to Audio Analysts Aalto system which came over last year for Springsteens sparse smattering of shows), it is fundamentally different in its content. Despite Albert Lecessee at AA being heavily involved in the development, JBL themselves have taken a less hurried route and come out with a different component combination.
In essence, whilst AA went for a redesign of the box, horns and packaging, JBL started with a totally blank sheet and looked at every aspect of a concert system, as well as some new speaker ideas. Having only heard the AA system once over a year ago at the Brixton Academy with Springsteen and his guitar (no band), its neither right nor proper to attempt comparisons.
It is, however, fair to say that both share the same logistical benefits. Chris Hey, no stranger to these pages in his role as audio consultant to many productions under the aegis of Spencer, Hey Associates, is production manager for the INXS tour. He was quick to praise the system: "Its very fast to rig. We can, for example, keep two cabinets stacked together and roll them straight into the truck. Its light, easy to manage and great for rigging, not only being relatively light - box for box - but also with a good power-to-weight ratio. The tube-framed cabinets weigh just 95kg for the mid-high pack and 105kg for the subs."
This was just the fifth show of the tour, one of which had been an outdoor multi-band event in Cardiff, but already other benefits were beginning to emerge. "Outdoors its very coherent," said Hey, something readily agreed with by Stuart Kerrison, INXSs FOH engineer: "Every engineer remarked on this at Cardiff. Another factor was its ability to continue to perform in windy conditions and there was no sudden disappearance of the high end."
This is Kerrisons first tour mixing for INXS and thus quite a step, using an as-yet-untried PA: "The spec looked great. I liked the idea that they were trying to do something new and that it could put out twice the level. Of course, I went to JBL and heard it there, but it wasnt until the opening UK show at Aberdeen that I actually got to use it."
One of the claims that caught Kerrisons attention was the power output benefits of the Differential Drive® technology employed in the system. However, not being one to risk all, he started by putting a sizable rig into Aberdeen for the first show, but by the time he reached Sheffield Arena four gigs later he was already convinced of the veracity of the claim: "I might have put 20 mid-highs per side in here last week, but Ive been cutting down on my perceived requirements every day, so Im down to 15 a side and I probably dont even need them all."
The PA is supplied by EML from Belgium. Although theyve serviced UK tours before, this is a high profile Arena tour for them and shows similar faith to Kerrisons in that they were prepared to try HI.A out on such a well-established act. Xavier Theys is the system engineer from EML; in truth, he has as much experience with HLA as Kerrison in terms of actual touring, although he underwent familiarization prior to the tour. "Were still learning how to make the best use of the equipment," said Theys in confirmation.
"The horn assembly in the mid-high can be tilted 15 degrees within its tubular aluminum frame. So by inverting the top cabinet in a stack, you can get a 30 degree spread in the vertical. But we asked JBL to add another 7.5 degree adjustment and Im already experimenting with different ways of using the system for different coverages."
Two rigging factors emerged at the Sheffield show. One already gleaned is that the wrap of the flying system affects performance: "If you put two cabinets side by side with their fronts in line or close to it, you get power coupling, effectively giving a much longer throw," said Kerrison. "We wouldnt have put a delay hang in here if it had been fully sold."
The other is the uniformity of coverage. Although Kerrisons mix for this band is very mid-low heavy, in keeping with the bands musical style, it was possible to walk within three (maybe three and a half) metres of the front of the flown stack before you could discern youd moved out of the full spectrum coverage of the system and started to hear more from the EML self-built near-fills positioned across the front of stage. The main system was relatively high too- the bottom edge trimmed somewhere around five metres.
What was really nice though, and perhaps the more important factor in terms of rigging, was the approach Theys had taken to covering the near-stage bleachers. Here the wrap was much tighter and availing himself of the horn tilt mechanism he had kelped the two outer edge top cabinets up the full 15 degrees to cover these seats. What makes this nice is that the stack is a dead hang - all kelping is done in the box, not by straps and hanging devices, so a complex variety of kelps can easily be arrayed to cover any room shape.
If you find the degree of angling on the horn too much, its a simple job for the rigger or even a crew person to rappel down onto the flying system and re-align the tilt mechanism without the lengthy procedure this would entail with a more conventional hanging system. These are aspects that owe a great deal to Ms touring input to the design process. Even if this were a crap-sounding system (which it certainly isn't) the lessons of usability and functionality could well be applied by other manufacturer
The system itself comprises, twin 18s in the sub, the mid-highs containing a 14", 10" and a 1.5". All speakers are dual cone, the business end being extremely lightweight (on the 10, for example, the chassis weight is just 3.1 kg). "They do generate some heat," said Kerrison, "as I discovered when I visited JBL and saw them on soak test. There is a bloody great heat sink on the back which obviously copes, as theres none of that sluggishness you normally associate with heat in the driver.
EML are powering the whole system with Crest amps (9001 on the subs, 8001 for the 14" and 10, with a 7001 on the high), something Kerrison was initially cautious about. "I was apprehensive about Crest, but I have to say that with this system they sound much more natural. In fact, this PA is easier to tune than any other system Ive ever worked with. I can hear everything - even at high level I can drop something just half a dB and hear the difference."
Kerrisons enthusiasm for the PA is palpable and certainly for a typical rock band mix the power and coverage was there. As mentioned, he leans on the low end and low-mids which give that physically exciting sensation of listening to a loud band, something INXS needs, without any unpleasant, damaging top end. Vocals apart, he plucks the higher frequencies of guitars and saxophone and lays them into the mix with great care, a method that keeps him extremely busy throughout most of the show. Watching him operate (Midas XL4 with full flying faders) it was certainly the case that minutely finessing the fader on a sax solo, for example, would bring a discernible difference to the presence of the sax in the mix.
I walked the room during the show from nose-bleeds to front row floor and the uniformity of the coverage appeared to be everything it was claimed to be, although with Kerrisons put and take approach to the high end, it was difficult to judge what was happening in that upper range. Often it could appear you were passing through a hot spot and then, upon reflection perhaps all youd heard was just a passing flourish of guitar that had been brought to the fore. But theres no denying the clarity of the system.
Sean Motley Hackett has designed for INXS before, but as it is around four years since his last outing for them, some changes have occurred. "For this tour, Jon Farriss the drummer has designed the set and I was basically presented with a this is how it will be scenario. But the band are cool - despite what the British press might say theyre just regular blokes, so I was able to apply a basic straight ahead rock and roll approach to lighting on top."
In fact, Motley has imposed a four truss grid above the so-called Science Lab set, on which hes spread a fair assortment of lamps: "I just put a bunch of lamps in the tumble drier and threw them up in the air," he said with characteristic aplomb. Wash predominates in quantity: 5kWs with colour changers, four- and eight-lamp Moles and every bulb type of Par 64, while LSD Washlights and Icons (LSD are the lighting
contractor) provide the effects. Two truss spots and a bunch of four-cell ground rows complete the rig. "This is my first tour using Icons - I actually used them in South Africa for the first shows. We didnt have this rig there, but the band were still pleased." And with true Australian bravado, only then did Motley admit to the band hed never used the lamps before. In this respect he owes a debt of thanks to Mark Colemen at LSD Los Angeles who organized the training.
Motley claims Davidian, Cohen and Bennett as major lighting influences, although on this occasion it was his early days working with Smeeton on George Michael back in the late eighties that has coloured his approach. "Ive tried to make everything look as big as I can. The symmetry of the set is slightly frustrating, but Ive managed to get round this by putting some darkness between the lamps that helps break it up."
Hes also used his Washlights very effectively, placing them across the back of the set on Manfrottos and also in the four gauze tubes that frame the stage. An obvious use with the tubes, but the back position lamps are a departure from convention, used as they are to shine into the audience from what is a low level position. "I want to make it look different for every song. Theyre an eighties rock band and thats how I light it."
And thats exactly what they are, which somehow justifies the Elegantly Wasted title, though not in the way they intended. What is most apparent about this show is how stuck in time the band are: the material from their new album could just as easily have been from their first. Wasted certainly.