O Christmas Tree

by David Morgan
in On the Digital Edge
Yolanda Williams was among the performers at the event. Photo by Lawrence Jackson
Yolanda Williams was among the performers at the event. Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Three months after my shoulder surgery, it was time to go back to work. Physical therapy has been going very well, and the range of motion in my left arm has almost returned to normal. Believing I was strong enough to get back behind a console, I accepted a job mixing FOH for the National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington, D.C. Having spent nearly all my career as a touring specialist, I have never been extremely comfortable doing this type of one-off special event, and I often decline when these positions are offered. There are many engineers who have far more experience in this specialty and may be better qualified to pull off these potentially chaotic productions. Then again, I had worked a couple of events for the production company that contracted me, and both experiences were very positive.

In addition, my employer, James Taylor, and his wife, Kim, were scheduled to perform at the ceremony, and being there for them was the best course of action. In any case, my schedule had me heading back East because James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett and Sarah McLachlan were also slated to perform at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn on Dec. 9. Working this event in Washington as the initial stop seemed like a very reasonable plan. So I packed what I thought was an appropriate winter wardrobe and boarded the plane from LAX heading to Reagan National.

In the days before getting on the plane, I had advanced the show with Matt Snyder and Brian Bednar from Maryland Sound (MSI) in Baltimore. I originally requested a DiGiCo SD5 at FOH. When they informed me that a SD5 console would not fit within their budget parameters, I compromised and requested an Avid D-Show. As it turned out, the choice of consoles would be the total extent of my involvement with the equipment specification. MSI would provide a JBL VTX main system augmented by several distributed arrays of smaller JBL speaker systems. The vast distance between the two main arrays, plus the isolated placement of the augmentation arrays, dictated that the show be mixed in mono. MSI has been doing this show for years, and I was more than happy to defer to their greater knowledge of the venue requirements. That faith was rewarded when the full system was powered up. It was apparent that the coverage was excellent and the VTX line arrays sounded very sweet indeed.

The project’s overall audio head was Dan Garcia, the recording engineer in the production truck. Dan made the call on all transducer choices. My email interactions and real time conversations with Dan were always positive. His demeanor was helpful and always pleasant; his experience with this event and his insights regarding the particulars of this production were invaluable in preparing for the complex circumstances that would be encountered working outdoors in December. Dan was in constant communication with the many acts that would be appearing in Washington. As is the case with any event of this nature, numerous changes occurred daily, and my attempt to create a workable console layout was a perpetual work in progress.

A surprise guest joined the President, the First Lady and the performers for a rousing chorus of 'Jingle Bells.' Photo by Pete Souza

Big Show, Big Lineup

In addition to James and Kim Taylor, the show would feature songs performed by Kelly Clarkson, Marc Anthony, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Yolanda Adams, Chance the Rapper and the Lumineers. Eva Longoria would host the event, with special appearances by President Obama, the First Lady and swimmer Simone Manuel. There would also be a host of presenters and speakers from the National Park Service and other governmental agencies who would be moving on and off the two performance stages in rapid succession.

I was grateful the production schedule called for a load-in day followed by two rehearsal days. The evening of the second rehearsal day was to be dedicated to a full dress rehearsal. The show was edited down to an hour when eventually aired on the Hallmark Channel, and the order of performances was tightly compacted with bang-bang-bang entrances and exits. It was extremely important to develop a logical sequence to the input layout on the D-Show console to best facilitate the flow of mixing this show. Or at least, that was my best intention.

I went to the job site around lunchtime on the load-in day to install the show file I had created at home using the Avid offline software. In the few hours that it took to travel from the West Coast to Washington, both the show order and the input list had significantly changed. It had become necessary to make several modifications to the console layout I had built only two days before. Brian Bednar and I loaded up the D-Show desk, and I went to work on the show file while Brian noised the various elements of the sound system.

Sound checking with the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note. Photo by David Morgan

Expect the Unexpected

The show’s input list had been expanding like a rising loaf of bread. The original spec of 12 wireless handheld mics had expanded to 20. The total number of inputs went from fewer than 70 to more than 90. One act that had already asked for the most individual inputs had now more than doubled that original request. I spent the remainder of the load-in day trying to reorder the available input layers on the D-Show to produce a workable configuration for a rapid-fire, shotgun-style show.

The D-Show configuration only provides four separate fader banks (A, B, C, & D) on one layer of 24 input channel handles. A bit of flexibility may be added via selections in the system software. The 16-input fader handles on the sidecar unit can be decoupled from the 8-input fader handles on the master unit, allowing the user to independently select Bank A, B, C or D on each of these control units. When I first saw the smaller version of the show’s input list, I believed the D-Show would allow enough input agility to easily mix the show. But, as the input list became denser and the setup changes became more complex, I found myself regretting that I had not taken a harder line regarding the choice of consoles at FOH. Released nine years later than the Avid D-Show, the DiGiCo SD5 has a far more sophisticated physical and software design than the venerable Avid VENUE platform.

The SD5’s control surface is divided into three separate sections of 12 fader handles. The center section offers two selectable layers of four banks of faders. The left and the right groups of 12 faders provide two selectable layers of five banks of faders. Using this more powerful console, I would have been able to create a far more logical layout for the various acts performing at the show. Because any fader on the SD5 can be assigned to any input or output, I could have created custom fader layouts for each separate section of the show. Additionally, the snapshot software allows any bank to be called up to the top layer of the work surface. When I mixed the Bob Dylan MusiCares event in 2015 using a DiGiCo SD7, I was able to seamlessly move through each performance section using a combination of snapshots and macro “Smart Keys.” The required inputs for each performer were always right there on the surface.

Hindsight aside, I still believed that I could still do a perfectly adequate job mixing with the VENUE snapshot software. It was my intention to build an individual snapshot for section of the performance during the dress rehearsal that was scheduled for the night before the event. But then chaos took over. The first VENUE D-Show control surface I encountered had problems that made it unusable. The replacement control surface had sticky Group Mute buttons including one that didn’t work at all. It wasn’t a big problem, but it was just one more unnecessary limitation.

The second day onsite was spent reassigning and re-patching the inputs on the stage. The house band would be the U.S Air Force Airmen of Note, a big band with a swing sound that continued the tradition of Glenn Miller. There were three other musicians who would sit in with the house band at various times. Additionally, there was a nine-voice choir, the Lumineers’ nine separate band and vocal inputs, Chance the Rapper’s additional 16 to 20 inputs, James Taylor’s and Garth Brooks’ guitar inputs, the 20 wireless mics and the four podium mics that would be used by the many singers, speakers and presenters. Once everything was finally patched, line check took about three hours to get everything correct at FOH, monitor world and the truck. Following that marathon, those people directing a two-hour production meeting attempted to bring some order to the chaos.

Mother Nature Sets In

We came back on the day before the shoot to a full schedule of sound checks and rehearsals that would be followed by a full dress rehearsal in the evening. However, Mother Nature had other ideas. I did have the time to get a good sound on the Airmen of Note. We also sound checked maybe half of the music acts. Sadly, the day was cut very short by a huge storm that had blanketed the entire East Coast with torrential rain, gale force winds and intense thunder and lightning. The P.A. had to be lowered, power shut down and all elements had to be securely covered. And, of course, the storm also blew away the dress rehearsal. Rain was always a big fear as only one of the two performance stages had a roof.

As a result, the show day became a total panic from beginning to end. Almost everything was made up as those in the production truck went along. There was so much confusion, screaming and yelling on the production PL system that I could barely understand any of the necessary show cues. Still, much of the show was absolutely great because the performers were incredibly patient, courteous and professional. The President, as usual, was fantastically poignant with his remarks at this happy event, his final lighting of the National Christmas Tree. It was a time of pride and nostalgia, bittersweet and fond memories. The President and the First Lady are leaving the White House with the same class and poise with which they entered their first days in Washington.

But, someone please remind me to
never do an outdoor show in Washington, D.C. in December. This winter-wuss Californian was so cold that I shivered uncontrollably all through the show. Never again!

Safe Travels!