SNARKY PUPPY LIVE: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Jazz/funk collective Snarky Puppy are all about improvising, even their console and mic choices.
Story: Preshan John
Live Photo: Anna Madden
Midway through their popular tune What About Me, Snarky Puppy frontman Michael League calls out, “Hey, it turns out half the band tonight is from Dallas, so we’re gonna let the Texans jam while the rest of us take a water break.” With that, he and half the band walked off the Melbourne Recital Centre stage, leaving the remaining four to improv their hearts out for the next six minutes.
From what I understand, a ‘typical’ Snarky Puppy gig is anything but typical. Each live performance is refreshingly unpredictable; one of a kind. Adding to the intrigue, you’ll never know which of the roughly 40 member-strong jazz/funk collective will form the lineup each night — or how long they’ll stay there apparently. It matters not, because only players at the top of their game make the Snarky Puppy roster. So even when the band is broken down based on state of origin… or colour of their pants, or favourite food… it’s evident from the first minute of the show you’re in for a treat.
It’s fun to watch talented musicians ditch the script and jam, but I wonder whether that unpredictability rubs the sound techs the wrong way? When I ask Michael Harrison, FOH for Snarky Puppy, he says he doesn’t mind one bit. In fact, he’s learnt to embrace the unexpected when out on tour. Same with monitor engineer Matt Recchia; it seems the improvisational culture of the band has been adopted by the entire crew.
COMMON MIDDLE GROUND
Originally from Scotland, Michael Harrison has a surprisingly relaxed demeanour. Surprising because his job requires mixing 11 musicians who are all improvising on upwards of three instruments each; it’s not a snapshot-able affair. “Snarky Puppy is a heads-up band to watch,” observes Harrison. “Things happen. They don’t play the same set list in the same order with the same songs in the same way every night. There’s a healthy level of variation in their performances.”
You’d think that means active mixing and non-stop fader popping, right? In Harrison’s case, not at all. He has a unique, almost set-and-forget approach to mixing that’s rooted in trust — trust in the musicianship of the band members to basically mix themselves.
Harrison walked through how he sets up the console, which represented a musical rather than technical approach to the concept of setting up gains with faders at unity. “I leave every fader at 0dB at soundcheck,” he explained. “Then I get up and walk around the room. While I can’t judge the mix properly in an empty room, I can still hear the dynamics of the band represented knowing the faders are all set at 0dB. I don’t have to make a mental note and think, ‘right, that’s how it sounds when the overheads are back such and keys are up such.’ No, this is my dead centre for everything.
“It’s like line check is sensing the median dynamic for every player, and placing the median dynamic along this line. So when they play up, it’s appropriately over that line. When they drop back, it’s appropriately below that line. So everybody can oscillate around this happy middle to form a balance. When the whole band’s playing, rarely do I shift anything more than a few dB in any direction. There’s definitely a happy middle line. If there’s peaks or troughs, or large swings, the players create them. It’s very little fader riding during a show.”
Over the past four years, Harrison and Recchia have gradually refined the band’s mic collection. “The mic choices have progressed more and more towards getting the sound as soon as you bring up the fader, and not actually having to carve out the sound with EQ,” said Harrison. “It saves you a lot of time at soundcheck.” However, in step with the band’s improvisational spirit, if a venue’s mic locker bares a few treats they’ll happily jump at the chance to set it up. Matthew Recchia says, “When you walk into a new room, if they have something nice — like an EV RE20 — we’ll set it up. We’re all about playing with nice toys.”
The band feels the same way about instruments. Before the Melbourne show, one player uncovered a Korg MS20 in the venue’s back rooms. It wasn’t long before it was onstage.
Snarky Puppy usually doesn’t have spare budget to spec consoles for Harrison and Recchia. Probably because they spend all their budget hiring and lugging around Hammond organs, Leslie cabinets, a room full of exotic percussion instruments, and the rest of their seemingly never-ending instrument list.
“The priority is always getting the correct backline,” says Recchia. “By the time the costs are added up, it’s usually well beyond where Harrison or I could request anything.”
However, neither engineer is complaining; it’s actually worked in their favour. They’re so used to nutting out unfamiliar consoles with the tour manager yelling “soundcheck in 10” that it doesn’t matter what’s in front of them anymore — they’ll make it sound good.
“We’ve seen most, if not all of the popular console choices out there at some point or another,” Harrison says. “It’s not like having one or the other is going to dramatically change our day.” If pushed to voice a preference, Harrison says he digs Midas gear and Matt is partial to Digico.
It also helps they’re not heavy plug-in users. For Harrison, it’s actually a pet peeve: “I don’t tour with my Waves plug-in pack or some other suite of plug-ins. I’m a pragmatist. I simply want things to work. Years of doing sound hasn’t left me with an appetite for putting too many extras in. With Snarky Puppy I’ve got 45 inputs to move through at soundcheck, it’s not like there’s time to be whacking plug-ins on all of them.
“It’s not that any particular plug-in manufacturer’s suite is a sore point for me, I’ve just never gotten into using them. I’ve also got a dislike for some of the situations I’ve seen other engineers in. Real ‘toys out of the pram’ situations where their flying rack isn’t recognised by the host desk, and he says, ‘oh my god, that’s my show over.’ I don’t want to be having that day. I just want to mix the band. That said, when I’m at front of house and everything is running fine, if there’s a nice reverb unit sitting there, of course I’ll try it.”
ENGINEER OLD SCHOOL
When Michael Harrison isn’t on tour he runs his own production company, E H Sound Ltd, back in his homeland of Glasgow. Matt Recchia’s day job is house engineer at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, GA. He also tours with drum and percussion duo GhostNote.
Harrison worked Melbourne Recital Centre’s Digico SD5 like an analogue board; soundchecking one input at a time, none of this thumb stick business. The SD5 runs via Optocore to an I/O rack located to the side of stage. Main outputs go to a Meyer Galileo DSP system processor on the way to the d&b amplifiers.
Given Melbourne Recital Centre hosts far more variety than purely classical performances, it needed a PA capable of more than simply reinforcing acoustic instruments. Ground stacks are employed for most contemporary shows, each comprised of three d&b V-Series line array elements, a Y7P infill, and a J-Sub per side. The top three elements of the T-Series left/right hangs cover the hall’s balcony area.
Phillip Pietruschka, Sound Technician at MRC, says, “The idea of what the PA is supposed to achieve has gradually changed over time, from something that was principally there to reinforce what’s already happening acoustically on stage to a more conventional amplified concert approach.”
Keyboardist Shaun Martin’s vocoding skills are as entrancing as his keyboard chops. Shure SM58s cover vocal duties and that rubber pipe feeds into an MXR TalkBox.
A D112 on snare? The unlikely pairing works a treat to accentuate that in-the-chest oompf on Jason ‘JT’ Thomas’s second low-tuned snare drum. Other kit mics include a pair of Neumann KM184s on overheads, Shure Beta52 and Beta91 on kick, Sennheiser e604s on toms, an Audio-Technica 2035 on ride, and a Beyerdynamic M201 on main snare.
Matt Recchia used Melbourne Recital Centre’s Digico SD8 to create 11 separate monitor mixes for the band. Wedges are the go here; IEMs are nowhere in sight. Mixes are sent to nine d&b M4 15-inch wedges and two subs for both the drum and percussion risers.
The percussion setup gets a riser as big as the drum kit’s. There’s a lot going on here, from congas, bongos and djembes, to tambourines and pandiero. For the most part, percussion instruments are spot miked with Shure dynamic mics. A pair of SM81 condensers capture everything from shakers and chimes, to cymbals.
When a band takes a Hammond B3 and full-sized Leslie cabinet on tour, you know they don’t compromise on backline. The rotary cab is miked with a Shure SM7 down low, and two Rode NT5s to capture the spinning horn. The Moog Voyager comes in via DI.
Keys form a big part of the Snarky Puppy sound — organ, piano, synths, the full gamut. Besides the B3, the input list includes a Fender Rhodes, Moog Little Phatty, Moog Voyager, Korg Kronos, Yamaha Motif, Nord Stage EX, and Clav. Halfway through soundcheck someone discovered a Korg MS20 which was promptly added to the lineup.
It’s not often you see the original Shure Beta 57’s unique grille design. Harrison and Recchia like to use it on Mike Maher’s trumpet. Chris Bullock plays both saxophone and flute during the show, with a Sennheiser MD 441 on sax and a Shure Beta 87A on flute. But you’ll find an additional SM58 sitting next to both of these mics — that’s for effects. Both Mike and Chris run these ’58s into their own, ever-changing string of stompboxes and reverbs to create unique sounds during the show.