Canadian-Made Sound & Versatility on Dierks Bentley’s Beers on Me Tour
This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
By Manus Hopkins
Photos by Zachary Belcher
Much of Dierks Bentley’s touring crew has been together for many years. 2005 was both the year that Bentley released his sophomore album, Modern Day Drifter, and the year that FOH Engineer and Systems Tech James “Pugs” McDermott was first invited to join the rising country star’s crew.
“I got a call, wanting to know if I wanted to do it. Somebody asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of Dierks Bentley?’” he tells Professional Sound. “I’d never heard of him before. I never really paid a whole lot of attention to country music at that point in my life—earlier in the ‘90s, I did, because that’s what all the girls were listening to.”
Though he’s been working with Bentley for 17 years, McDermott hasn’t always been in his current role. When he was first brought on, it was as a monitor engineer, before he took over as stage manager and eventually as production manager. “It was one of those situations where one day I was doing monitors and a week later I was at FOH,” he says.
Now, as we chat in early July, Bentley is on the second leg of a North American trek dubbed the Beers on Me Tour, its name taken from his 2021 single in collaboration with Breland and HARDY. The tour mostly fits the bill of what the crew would classify as a “shed tour”—meaning most of its shows are in amphitheaters, but there are a few festival stops and other venue types along the three-month journey.
As such, flexibility is the key word in choosing the sound rig for a tour like this one. McDermott and his team ultimately ended up working with a system from Calgary-based PK Sound for many reasons. McDermott recalls being on wintertime tour in Alberta a few years back and going to check out a PK rig for the first time at the behest of his lighting designer.
“I was beat tired,” he says. “I wasn’t feeling very good, and I could really have just used a hot shower and a nap instead of going into the PK shop.”
During that visit to PK Sound headquarters, though, McDermott was able to meet CEO Jeremy Bridge and check out the Trinity robotic line source system and Gravity subwoofers, seeing the “guts of the operation” and how everything works. McDermott was then taken into what he describes as a “dumpy, cinderblock, concrete room” to listen to the rig— and, not realizing it was a deliberate decision, his first impression was that they could have found a better-sounding room to demo it in. Nonetheless, he was already interested.
“We played around with it, listened to some music, moved the horizontals a bunch,” he says. “I didn’t have Smaart or anything to really do any clinical measurements, but after just listening to the pink noise and doing some adjustments with my ears, I was able to recognize how powerful those horizontals are, in regard to taking this dumpy cinderblock room and eliminating a good 60% of the reflections by just changing the horizontal. This was the lynchpin in what drove me to use the system”
What McDermott is referring is the ability of PK’s Trinity line source systems to provide multi-axis coverage control via integrated robotics. What that means is both the vertical and horizontal dispersion of each individual cabinet can be remotely adjusted in real time, even after the arrays are flown. According to the company, the flagship large-format Trinity Black and medium-format T10 offer 0.1-degree of resolution in the vertical angles between modules while horizontal directivity is variable from 60-120 degrees in 5-degree increments for symmetric or asymmetric configurations. The point being, this allows for tapered arrays that are tailored to any venue or listening area.
For the Beers on Me Tour, the supplier for the audio package – comprised of Trinity Black and T10 line source modules and the new PK T218 subwoofers – is Logic Systems out of St. Louis, MO. Speaking about that company’s decision to place trust in the Canadian manufacturer, CEO Chip Self tells Professional Sound, “We chose to invest in PK because we believe in the technology and the vision of the company. Concert loudspeaker technology has reached a point where sounding great is the barrier to entry, not the final variable. Most major manufacturers make high-quality systems that I can get what I need out of. What set PK apart in my eyes was the innovation in robotic articulation and waveguide technology. The time saving onsite and overall operational efficiencies of the system make it an ideal choice for many applications,” he says, also crediting PK for how it welcomes and acts on feedback from end-users, even on small but meaningful features like how a connector shell is oriented.
Because of the diversity of venues on this tour, there is no one-size-fits-all configuration, but the typical setup features main arrays of PK Trinity Black robotic line source modules, sometimes with T10 down. fills, out fills of T10 robotic line source modules, and own left-right T218 sub arrays in a cardioid configuration. Additionally, stacked onstage are columns of three T218s in cardioid configuration.
Self also adds, specific to the Bentley tour, that “the speed of deployment, and variable aiming once deployed is a perfect fit for a tour like Dierks’. The tour is traveling with very extensive production elements in all departments; time and space are all at a premium. The options offered by PK allow the tour audio team to make better decisions and deployments because they’re not stuck with the first answer of the day. They can adapt and adjust the deployment (at the click of a mouse) in ways never dreamed of by any other system.”
Part of what Self is referring to is an offering that is especially unique to this system — PK’s new .dynamics software that’s currently in alpha testing, coupled with the mechanical flexibility. It may seem like a bold decision to try out brand new software on a high-profile concert tour, but McDermott isn’t worried, especially with a month of shows already under his belt by the time we chat with him.
“I feel like this is the most stable alpha deployment that I’ve seen,” he says. “I mean, I used it all week at Essence Fest and we had 117 boxes on the network with very, very few issues. Again, it’s alpha, and there’s going to be bugs. But at the same time, the only issues I’ve encountered have been relatively minor.”
McDermott adds that he is able to run this system completely off of a Wi-Fi access point without any issues. The big selling point of this software, he says, is that historically, he’s had a prediction software completely isolated from an online management software.
“Previously with other systems, there was no reason for prediction and system management to be combined together, because you always had to take prediction, write down the values of what your angles were going to be, and then physically give it to the people that were going to hang the rig,” he continues to explain. “And then once the rig was in the air, then you went to your management software. With the robotics, we rely on software to actually deploy all those values. So, it made sense to have prediction and management all in one cohesive, homogenized piece of software.”
Using an example from the previously-mentioned Essence Festival of Culture at Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, a massive football stadium, McDermott outlines some unexpected production challenges they faced onsite, which forced the team to lighten the weight of the own sub arrays. Because overall production had created too much weight for that section of the Superdome roof, a building engineer asked all departments to lighten their deployments. The crew made a compromise with the venue and agreed to use fewer flown subs than originally planned. McDermott made it clear exactly what the new loads would be and assembled the system before taking the rig online.
“Just like with any situation, prediction often times meets real life with a variety of complications. So, once the compromise was reached as to the numbers and locations of the different arrays, there was no time to waste with redoing the prediction. Other departments were waiting on audio to get floated so that the stage could roll in. Making decisions had to wait,” McDermott explains. The team quickly assembled and verified the full system and floated at a height to allow others to work. “Once the time-sensitive bits were complete, I could then readdress the changes and deploy a new set of values. Connecting to the devices on the network is an automated process that will collect and build all the arrays attached to the network via a sorting algorithm. This allows the users to hang any box anywhere, and there’s no need to replicate the hangs the same from day to day.”
He further explains that “when the software registers all the modules and builds the arrays, the user then assigns the available ‘online’ arrays to the arrays built into the prediction in the ‘workspace.’ The user is then prompted to assign the values from the prediction simulation or to ‘reset all values’ or use the values retained in the DSP of the modules. With the simulation values now adopted, the vertical and horizontal movements can be made. All that is left is to raise the arrays to trim and use the software to calculate the site angle by reading the internal inclinometers.”
McDermott notes that as he is walking around a venue, if he realizes that changes are needed in the vertical or the horizontal, any changes made online with the system management functions will be represented on the prediction side of .dynamics. “There’s a back and forth between prediction and online that is unheard of so far in this business,” he adds. “Normally, once you’ve figured out what your angles are going to be, and you write them down and give them to your people that are flying the stuff, predictions are done; you don’t ever touch that stuff ever again.”
Scott Tatter is the monitors engineer on Dierks Bentley’s crew. Like McDermott, Tatter comes from a rock background, though he worked on some country tours earlier in his career (notably with supergroup The Highwaymen, featuring Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson in the early ‘90s). He’s been with Bentley for 11 years now, but his total career goes back 35, and has seen him work with everyone from heavy metal legend Ozzy Osbourne, to ‘90s heavyweights Korn, to some of the biggest names in modern hip-hop, including Kanye West and Jay-Z. Eventually, Tatter got to a point where he wanted what he calls a “cushy country gig,” meaning he could be home three or four days a week and do shows mostly on weekends. On his first day of a planned year off, he got a call asking if he would be interested in coming to work for Bentley, whose name he didn’t recognize at all. Over a decade on, Tatter firmly owns the monitor role, and even after taking a break from touring during the pandemic, it hardly felt like the crew had spent a day apart.
“It’s always fun to get the gang back together on a Dierks Bentley tour,” Tatter says over the phone from Battle Creek, MI, where the crew just finished setting up for a show at the FireKeepers Casino. “I always look forward to that. It’s just like, we never leave—we show up and off we go. So, it’s a very comfortable environment for a monitor guy to be in.”
Though the time off didn’t make Tatter and his colleagues feel rusty, there were still a few “firsts” with this tour, not only centered around the new technology being used for the sound system. Another major change was the addition of a new musician to Bentley’s touring lineup: Charlie Worsham, who is a successful country artist in his own right, and is spending the summer lending his skills as a utility player to Bentley. From a sound perspective, integrating Worsham wasn’t a small task, as he’s playing the banjo, mandolin, resonator guitar, and more, as well as singing.
“He’s busy; he plays a lot of instruments,” Tatter says of Worsham. “The transition of kind of trying to figure out what he should play that would be the most beneficial to add to the songs has taken a little bit of growing pains. But we’re there now and it’s fitting in real good. But that was the only real wrinkle—we’re pretty static as far as setup other than that.”
Tatter has a comfortable routine on tour these days. He now has an assistant who handles most of the heavy lifting for him, leaving him the time to go for a bike ride in the morning before returning to that night’s venue to finish setting up.
“Once we’re set, I’ll come back and plug my board groups and do all the mics and stands and set the stage,” he says, walking us through a typical show day. “Then Pugs and I line check. We’ve been doing this so long together, not just Pugs and I, but with the members of the band, we just don’t soundcheck anymore. We do a very quick line check to make sure our levels are right and our lines are clean, and we’re done around 1:30 p.m. depending on how long we had to wait for lights.”
Part of what makes any Dierks Bentley show run smoothly is the ease and comfort with which Tatter and McDermott work together. The PK Sound system on this trek has been beneficial for Tatter in his onstage position as well.
“I like the PK system because Pugs can control it so precisely,” says Tatter. “If I need more bass on the stage, more thump, he can give it to me most days and if he’s hurting me, he can get it off me most days.”
Something Tatter notes he and McDermott have to be careful with is feedback, as Bentley spends almost as much time out on the thrust as he does in his A position onstage. He says the PK Sound system has been optimal as far as this goes.
“It’s a cross Pugs has to bear, feedback-wise,” he says. “But if [Bentley] is feeding back, of course, it’s going to me too. And he can steer that PK—he can really pinpoint without screwing himself and the audience. He can get those burners off me very easily, and very precisely, if we’re having one of those days. And you can’t do that with any other PA. That’s one of the reasons I really like it [from a monitors perspective], especially an in-ear guy.”
Both FOH and monitors on this tour are using Avid Venue S6L digital mixing consoles, with McDermott using the S6L-24C, the smaller version with only one touchscreen, and Tatter using the S6L-24D, the larger format with three touchscreens. Both have switched to 24-channel desks over the 32-channel models they favoured for previous runs.
“Before COVID, we planned on going and doing a club tour with the Hot Country Knights, which is the alter ego band that Dierks has got. Look it up—you’ll laugh. You’ll wonder, ‘Why do they want to do that?’ I’ve been asking that for years,” laughs McDermott. “So, we trimmed down to the smaller consoles to try to take up less space, and I kind of liked the 24-channel console. It takes up less space and I’m able to do everything I can possibly think to do with it. So, I’m happy with that.”
Also at front of house, McDermott uses a Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel, an XTA Electronics D2 stereo dynamic EQ, and a Neve Portico 5045 Primary Source Enhancer—something he says every sound engineer should have.
“It is an incredibly accurate and incredibly magic ninja vocal gate,” he says. “You kill all the noise; you kill cymbal noise, you kill PA noise, you kill all kinds of stuff in your vocal. And how does it work? I have no idea.”
In terms of mics, McDermott says Bentley’s vocal mic—a Shure Beta 58—can’t be beat for his purposes. “I still don’t think that there is a vocal mic out there that does what a Beta 58 does,” he attests. “Is it the best-sounding microphone from a clinical standpoint? No. But it is by far the best microphone for being on a loud stage, behind a loud PA, or in front of a loud PA on a thrust.”
In the past year, Bentley’s guitar players have switched from amplifier cabinets to Fractal Audio Axe-FX systems, something McDermott is pleased about. While there are still some loudspeakers onstage, the absence of guitar cabinets makes McDermott better able to do his job, though making the change wasn’t a snap decision for anyone.
“They were hesitant,” he says of the guitarists. “These are all old-school attitude Nashville guys. I love the sound of a guitar amp, and honestly, I was hesitant.”
McDermott could go on listing all the different pieces of gear that make up Dierks’ Bentley’s show, and he does, even taking the time to list each drum mic and its position, but Tatter likes to keep his own operation as simple as he can, saying he doesn’t need all the ‘bells and whistles’ younger engineers use to get his job done. For him, the S6L does plenty enough, and though he’s had to adapt to major changes to the live audio sector in his 35 years working in it, he lives by the motto that change is bad and strives to keep everything he possibly can the same.
Perhaps it’s in part thanks to their shared background in rock music that McDermott and Tatter work so well together. For both, working with Bentley meant having to make changes to their approaches to achieve a different type of sound, energy, and feel than at a rock or a hip-hop show.
“With bands like Korn or Jay-Z and Kanye, it’s more about the pounding than worrying ‘does it sound pristine?’” says Tatter. “Probably not, but it’s fucking loud, and it’s not going to feedback, and that’s the challenge.”
At this point in their careers, both McDermott and Tatter value personal relationships, both working relationships and friendships in the industry. For Tatter, the sign that a show went perfectly is that nobody talks about it afterwards—if his colleagues are asking how his bike ride went, or chatting about their kids, rather than about what went right and wrong in that night’s performance, he couldn’t be happier.
“That’s when I know I was as good as I needed to be that day, when we don’t talk about how it went,” he says. “Because that means it was okay.”
McDermott believes getting along is a key component to working well together, and his friendships with the band, the rest of his crew, and the PK Sound team are beneficial on a personal and professional level.
“This business is too hard to have adversaries or enemies,” he says. “I don’t want to work with people that I don’t like and care for. I realized early on in my career that the live entertainment business, not just touring, it’s not about who you are and what you know, it’s not about your resume, it’s about who knows you, right? If you make good impressions with people, they will recommend you.”
With McDermott in his 17th year with Bentley and Tatter in his 11th, both know this is a lifetime role for them, and at least one of them doesn’t see himself ever taking on another full-time role.
“I think this is my swan song,” says Tatter. “I don’t think I’ll be getting another job after this. I’m 60 years old and I want to go out as a Dierks Bentley guy.”
Manus Hopkins is the Assistant Editor of Professional Sound.