Audix Sound Engineer

Ross Humphrey

Blue Man Group

The Blue Man Group has become a worldwide phenomenon with an international following. If you’re not familiar with the blue-faced troupe it’s safe to say you’re in a small minority! One of the interesting things about BMG is its influence on pop culture. They’ve appeared well over a dozen times on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, on sitcoms including “Arrested Development” and “The Drew Carey Show”, and were showcased in an Intel international advertising campaign for the Pentium corporation. They were even spoofed on the animated TV series, “The Simpsons” several times.

What started as a performance art trio on the streets of New York City by Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, and Phil Stanton, has blossomed into an unusual franchise. In their tenure together, the group has staged theatrical shows in New York, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Oberhausen with upcoming productions slated for Orlando and Tokyo. But the Las Vegas setting in the Venetian Hotel, a 1750 seat custom theatre that has been their home since April 2006 is indeed the largest.

Sporting blue grease paint and black outfits, the Grammy-nominated group is known for their all-ages theatrical shows and concerts combining music, satirical comedy, and commentary on contemporary culture, all performed with multimedia theatrics and without a single word. And over the years, the group has developed a set of custom instruments, many designed from common materials such as PVC pipes!

BMG announced its return to the touring world last fall with the “How To Be A Megastar 2.0” tour-following up the critically acclaimed “Complex Rock Tour” in 2003. The Megastar tour, complete with a live band and vocal performance, takes the audience through a clever and interactive show in a rock concert environment.

Audix spoke with sound designer/engineer, Ross Humphrey, who has been with BMG since the late ’90s. He designed a miking system utilizing a myriad of Audix mic’s to handle many of BMG’s various amplification needs, whether it’s in fixed installations such as in Vegas, or on the Megastar concert tour, such as vocals, percussion, and “backpack” applications for the Blue Men themselves.

Says Audix co-founder, Cliff Castle: “The reason we like being involved with Ross is that he is always pushing the limits of high fidelity and high performance, the same way the show is pushing the limits of our visual senses.”

Where are you from and what’s your audio background? I understand you’ve done live sound for groups ranging from Mighty Mighty Bosstones to the Goo Goo Dolls?

I grew up in a small town in Illinois. I played drums for about 10 years before I realized that I really wasn’t any good at it and wasn’t getting that “high” performers get from playing. I moved to St. Louis to study art in school, and by circumstances had to get a job in an Italian restaurant to pay the bills. A friend/coworker asked me if I wanted to “roadie” (that was the term then) for his brother’s band with him. The bass player for the band knew a lot about sound and started teaching me about the gain structure and EQ. (I think the guy does acoustical research for the U.S. government now.) One day, he didn’t show up and they had to hire a pick-up bass player, so I started doing sound. I purchased a small P.A. and worked with bands for a long time until I got to the point where I no longer needed to own the P.A. to get gigs. I worked for a lot of bands in St. Louis, New Orleans, New York, and Boston. I did house sound at the Rat and Spit, two punk rock clubs in Boston. I got to mix a lot of great bands in that time from Gang Green to the Zulus, the Del Fuegos to Juliana Hatfield. There was a great music scene in Boston for a lot of ’80s.

I also started working for the Westwood One radio networks in the late ’80s. The first gig I did for them was Live Aid. I was losing my mind. I was so in over my head… completely overwhelmed! After a year or so of running cable, and being “tape op” on the Boston Mobile truck, I started recording for them, as well as mixing. During those WW1 years, we did every kind of music from Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash, and all the old-school rap groups at the Apollo to the Boston Pops. I kind of struck a balance between both worlds. I toured with and mixed a lot of bands as you mentioned, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Goo Goo Dolls, The Rentals, (one of my faves), Porno for Pyros, NY Dolls, and Rivers Cuomo’s solo acts just to mention a few.

How did you score the gig with Blue Man Group?

I got the gig with BMG via Todd Perlmutter, a friend, and kick-ass drummer I met in Boston. He played in some bands that I loved. I recorded a demo with one of his bands, Orangutang, and brought Hugo Burnham (Gang of Four), who was working for Imago Records to see them at CBGB’s, and they signed them. Orangutang was amazing… Lots of big powerful guitars, pounding drums, and great hooks.

A few years later in 1997, Todd was slated for the music director job at BMG, when they were starting to do R&D for a “bigger” show, which ended up being Vegas. Todd insisted that I was the sound engineer he wanted to work with, so I got the job. I consulted on a few outside appearances for them and then started full-time in 1999 to design their new show going into The Luxor in Las Vegas. My current title is sound designer/engineer, but no matter what titles may say, in Blue Man land, EVERYTHING is a collaboration.

When did you first hear about Audix and what mics did you first integrate into your production work?

I first heard about Audix mics in the early ’90s when I was touring with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. We were opening a tour for the Butthole Surfers, and Ratt Sound was using OM7’s on the B.S. vocals. I was using another industry standard with a much larger cardioid pattern, and as a result, was picking up a lot more than the lead singer’s voice. MMB had 5 or 6 vocal mics on stage which made for a lot of cymbals, SVT, horns, and Marshall amp bleed, plus the lead singer could be holding his mic anywhere from 3″ from his mouth to swinging it around his head, so the hyper-cardioid pattern was extremely helpful in picking up just precisely what the mic happened to be pointing at, at any given time. The singer for the MMB’s was in the habit of throwing his mic as high in the air as he could so as to cause a boom when it hit the stage. (I actually wrote a reverb program to enhance the “BOOM” that I’d try to hit whenever I’d catch it in time.) The OM7 seemed to be every bit as sturdy as any other mic I’d used before. We’d have to keep replacing grills but the mics seemed to keep plugging away.

What mics are you using currently with BMG and for what applications?

I use a lot of Audix mics. I have to be able to use the appropriate mic for any given application, particularly with Blue Man, so I strive to use the mic I find best suited for any particular application.

I use D4’s on a lot of toms, drum kit toms, and percussion toms of the same relative size (10″ to 16″). I use M1245’s and M1290’s for smaller drums like concert toms, and Gong Bops. (Yes, we have them in our show. Where did they go Billy Cobham?) I also use D6’s on some bigger 36″-42″ drums. I really like the “thud” they have when I use them on these loosely tuned, double-headed drums. And we “internally” mic a PVC-based instrument called the ‘Drumbone’ with M1245’s. We’ve recently added the i5 for guitar cabs and to mic the front of the “big drum out front.”

Talk a bit about the “backpack” instruments used in the big shows in Vegas and Oberhausen and the challenge of miking them. I understand you’re using the Micros series. This is definitely the most unusual application of the Micros that we’ve seen so far.

The “backpack” instruments are the same concept as the larger PVC instruments. The instrument designer/builder, Aron Sanchez tries to make all these different lengths of tubing, cut to length to determine pitch, end up at a relatively close area (cluster of notes). He’s done all the work by getting the end of those notes to terminate closely together. My job was to find a way to mount a mic on the things so that it’s at a relatively average distance from each tube, and they aren’t feeding back. The Micros have really allowed me to place the mics where I need to, and deliver really accurate sound while standing up to all the transient frequencies created by slapping the end of a piece of PVC pipe and miking audio at the other end. We use 1245s and 1290s with a shock-mount adapter of our own design.

One Blue Man plays a contraption we call “Doppler Toms”, which are 5 concert toms tuned to pitch to play a melody, and each one of those has a 1245 behind it. We also use 1245s to mic the Drumbones internally. The PVC instruments and Drumbone are so strange looking that we’ve had a hard time convincing audiences that these are real instruments. For a long time, we resisted putting effects on them or making the Drumbone wireless so the guys are dragging cables around. Since then, we’ve stepped boldly into the ’70s and I started using a flanger on the Drumbone, and reverb on the PVC’s. We’ve gone to so much trouble to build these acoustic instruments and make them work, we want people to know they’re truly being played and the sound they’re hearing is the real sound of the instrument. Some consider it uncommon to see 3 blue guys slapping 80 different lengths of PVC pipe to make a song.

Aside from the obvious, how are the Megastar tour shows different than the fixed installation shows?

There is a big difference in the way they’re approached but the technology is basically the same, there’s just way more of it on the tour. There is still some of the original NYC “Tubes” show, and “Blue Man vibe” in the Megastar Tour, but there is a lot of material that you can do in an arena environment that you wouldn’t do in a theater setting.

One very notable difference between a show that sits in a theatre and a show that moves from venue to venue each day. In a theater, you have this vibe where you come in and the audience thinks they’re supposed to be quiet, sit in their seat, and pay attention. Maybe ending up a little bit more reserved, even though Blue Man’s really not that kind of show at all. It’s more of the expected behavior when you go into the theatre. Whereas in a rock concert setting, you’re encouraging people to lose their inhibitions and “go nuts”.

While both are telling many stories during the show, it’s a little easier to pick up that through-line when you’re sitting transfixed in a dark theatre. Maybe it’s easier to take it in since you’re less distracted. There’s a lot more technical “Shock and Awe” on the tour.

The number of musicians and band instruments is the same on tour as they are in the big productions where we have a kit drummer and multiple percussionists. The Blue Men on the other hand have a load of instruments we don’t have in the theater shows.

On the Megastar Tour, we have vocals, too, which we don’t have in any of the theatrical productions. Since discovering Audix in about ’92 or ’93, I’ve used OM7’s for vocals almost exclusively. I typically work with loud bands and the Audix OM7’s have such good rejection I don’t end up with 2 or 3, (or in the case of the Blue Man Megastar Tour) 8 “cymbal mics” scattered around the stage.

Blue Man, where art and technology smashed into each other!

Experience this unusually inventive and complex company for yourself:

Interview by Diane Gershuny