George Michael returns to the live arena with Sennheiser and Digico

Last month saw the long-anticipated return of George Michael to the live stage with Symphonica: The Orchestra Tour, which will take in a variety of iconic venues such as the Royal Opera House in London, Italy’s Arena di Verona, Rotterdam’s Ahoy and Manchester’s MEN arenas. Audio Pro caught up with him at the Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany.

With Michael taking the unconventional step of recording a hefty portion of his new album live whilst on the road, Symphonica sees him take a somewhat unexpected approach to proceedings.

In contrast to Michael’s relatively minimal previous musical entourage, the Symphonica Tour carries a staggering 50 musicians, with a 39-piece orchestra making its presence felt on what is a truly complex audio operation. What is also immediately obvious is that a number of the star’s greatest hits are noticeable by their absence, at least in their usual form, as he serves up a number of new tracks, covers and re-worked renditions.

With such a vast quantity of musicians onstage throughout the show, and Michael’s renowned hearing to take into account, the task of monitor mixing is both a daunting and vital one. But Andy ‘Baggy’ Robinson, Michael’s monitor engineer and head of sound for the tour, has been undertaking such responsibilities for the artist for more than a decade and has both a crew and system that can ably cope with requirements at his disposal. “This is the first time George has toured with an orchestra and it sounds amazing,” he says.

A total of four Digico SD7s being put to work between front of house and monitors; something that FOH engineer Gary Bradshaw believes is a world first.

“We have the four desks all on one loop – one at FOH, three for monitors – which I believe is the first time this has been done,” he explains. “We did have four on the Take That Progress tour, but they were on two loops with a passive split.”

“Simon Hall is in charge of two of the SD7s at monitors,” says Baggy. “One is for the band, which takes band inputs and the sub mixes for the orchestra and handles their outputs, and vice versa for the orchestra.

“George and all of the band members have a separate stereo in-ear mix, whilst the orchestra is divided so that the lead of each section has their own mix. This is because we tour the 11 lead members of the orchestra all the time and guest orchestras join us as we go along. All monitoring is in-ear via Sennheiser’s 2000 series.”

The selection of microphones on offer is, of course, a vital aspect of the audio production. For some time now, Sennheiser has been providing micing solutions for both Michael and his regular backing vocalists. “George uses a Sennheiser 5200 with a Neumann 105 capsule. Onstage the backing vocalists are using the 5200s with a Sennheiser 5235 capsule, and they sound fantastic,” Baggy says. “We specifically chose the 5235 capsule for its lack of spill, because the backing vocalists sit in amongst the band.”

Having toured with Michael for six years, Bradshaw is quick to comment on the qualities and improvements evident in the SD7, having previously been a user of Digico’s D5 desk: “It’s a definite step up from the D5. It’s a similar operating system, so if you know how to use a D5 it’s a fairly easy jump up to the SD7. I love it. It’s easy to get around and has a great sound. The layout of the desk and the information you get on the display is very transparent. It really is a significant improvement.”

Baggy is also clearly impressed with the Digico upgrade, stating: “The SD7 offers a definite improvement in audio quality and functionality. We are able to share racks more easily because we can now have four desks on one Optocore loop, which we couldn’t with the D5. Digico has completely lifted the benchmark. The desk surface, although it isn’t much bigger, feels bigger. You get more screen information and, of course, it’s got greater capacity.” 

Bradshaw has a reasonably straightforward setup, but utilises sub mixes as a means to ease the process of mixing for such a hefty number of musicians. “Most of the channels are occupied,” he says. “The first and second violins ,violas and cellos are sub mixed, so I get stems for those, but everything else is mixed individually.”

Whilst there are few effects being used, Michael does make use of a TC Helicon on a couple of tracks, which require a specific vocal effect, much like that of a vocoder. Baggy comments: “On his last two singles ‘Where I Hope You Are’ and ‘True Faith’ the vocals are put through the TC Helicon, so when he performs these we trigger a couple of preset changes.”

RF considerations are also of paramount importance and are complicated by interference from the LED screen and lights, but RF Technician George Hogan is a past master at tackling the challenges that such an environment creates, building a new plan for each show to – as he explains in simplistic terms – ‘fit in the gaps’, using a piece of self-designed software.

“I input the information I gather into the Sennheiser software package, which is brilliant, and that sets up all the radio equipment,” he says. “All I have to do then is point each individual mic at the unit, press the button and it transfers the information across.”

In reality, this is a complex process that takes some five hours to build and tune for each show, with local restrictions on spectrum also having to be taken into account. “But the best thing is that the Sennheiser equipment always works,” he smiles. “As a piece of RF engineering, it doesn’t suffer from issues such as not working if you hold the aerial. It’s very reliable and it syncs with everything at the push of the button, which means I don’t get any stress.”

With regards to sound reinforcement, models from d&b audiotechnik’s J Series are on call to provide optimum levels of audio, a brand Bradshaw is certainly in favour of; particularly for a tour in which the vocals are such a prominent feature of the performance. While this is arguably true of any musical performances, the nature of the orchestral music places the lead vocal firmly at the fore.

Bradshaw elaborates: “I think d&b systems are the best you can get for vocals. We are using J8s and we have J12s at the bottom. We’ve flown four subs and have two on the ground with some front fills along the front and four J8 delays.²

The subsequent effect of such a large-scale project is certainly something to behold. The audio quality throughout the show is genuinely impressive, with Michael’s lead vocal on top form, perfectly offset by the subtlety of the orchestra. Furthermore, the manner by which each section makes its presence felt, whilst never overwhelming or pulling focus from the central vocal, is clearly the result of an expertly executed operation. For fans of George Michael this really is a show not to be missed.

Image by Caroline True.