We're Doing WHAT?

by David Morgan
in On the Digital Edge
The Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, TX.
The Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, TX.

After an all-too-brief six-day break, it’s time to head back on the road. This tour leg starts out in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. We begin with a show at AT&T Park in San Francisco, home stadium of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. It will, of course, be a very well attended event that will require a very large audio system. Our next show is two days later in Frisco, TX — 1,724 miles away.

One can easily imagine quizzical head-scratching from many members of the crew upon initially seeing these consecutive dates on our tour itinerary. The Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, TX is a newly opened venue and has never hosted a show of any size. All that was known described rigging in this facility as a complex task that would require a load-in day before the show at the very least. For that reason, it was obvious that our touring gear would only be available at one of these two venues. It was also apparent that the crew would have to be divided between the two sites.

The itinerary also told us that the show in Frisco, TX would be followed by a back-to-back show in Houston. We all shared the belief that the tour gear would have to go to Texas and that San Francisco would become a very extensive one-off. When that belief turned in reality, I contacted my friends at Delicate Productions, Sound Image and Pro Media/Ultrasound and asked if they thought they would have enough available inventory for this mid-summer, high season show. Each company replied in the affirmative, and the three bids for this stadium show were requested. The contract was eventually awarded to Pro Media/Ultrasound. Josh Osmond (who mixes FOH for the Lumineers) became our contact person, and he and I initiated the necessary dialogue to recreate our system in San Francisco.

‡‡         The San Francisco Show

Our show is a 70-input effort with 11 performers appearing on our stage. We have a moderately extensive wireless system for vocals, instruments and in-ear monitors. Our transducer package is very specific and has been painstakingly shaped and evolved over many touring years. We want to give the audience what we feel is our best show every night and we made every effort to reassemble the pieces on the input list for the San Francisco AT&T Park event. Steve Callebert from Clair Global, our tour sound company, was able to put together an augmentation package of microphones that helped us fill in any gaps in inventory.

Josh Osmond sent me detailed renderings of the sound system Ultrasound was proposing to deploy at the stadium. The main arrays would be comprised of 15-deep Meyer Leo enclosures plus three underhung Meyer Lyon boxes. The side hangs were spec’d to be 16-deep Meyer Lyon enclosures. The four delay towers would each support 14-deep or 12-deep Meyer Leopard arrays. Ground deployed Meyer 1100 LFC subs were spaced across the front of the stage in 11 three-high, cardioid arrays. For frontfill coverage, a single Meyer Mica cabinet sat on top of each of the sub arrays. Overall, it was a very robust system that covered the stadium extremely well.

Monitor engineer Rachel Adkins, Clair stage tech Chris Fulton, and I traveled to the Pro Media/Ultrasound facility two days before the scheduled stadium load-in. We would then have that afternoon and the following morning to assemble and test our gear before it rolled into the trucks. It turned out that we were in very good hands with Brad Galvin (monitor engineer for the Lumineers), Ian DuBois (monitor engineer for the Grateful Dead), and Tom Lyon (systems engineer for the Grateful Dead) making up the rest of our Ultrasound staff. With their extensive knowledge of the company gear, these gentlemen helped enormously to facilitate our prep work for a big show. Each of the many assembly tasks went smoothly and rapidly as we put together the various gear packages, loaded our software files into the consoles, programmed the wireless rig, made up cable looms and tested through all system components. After performing a full line check, we packed up the gear and headed from Martinez across the bay to San Francisco. We left the Pro Media/Ultrasound shop confident that we were well prepared for the next two days at AT&T Park.

The local crew at AT&T Park was obviously very familiar with the Ultrasound gear. Assembly of the various stadium system elements went quickly and without incident. Even after sound load-in had been pushed back to 11 a.m., the sound crew had their work completed well before dinner. When all the system testing and alignment had been accomplished, Tom Lyon handed control of the tablet over to me. Not being familiar with the Compass system control software, I asked Tom to guide me through the assignments of equalizers and delays for each element of the system. I opted to use graphic equalizers to do the initial tuning on each of the separate system elements. I would later go back and fine tune with parametric EQ’s as each of the various elements were brought online.

I was looking forward to my first experience mixing on these newest generation of Meyer line arrays. I had only heard the Leo arrays once before at the product’s introduction demo that was held a while back at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. The system impressed me then, and impressed me even more when I was actually hands-on with the audio. It was a straightforward and facile process to shape the system’s output to best suit our show. I also found remarkable consistency in overall sound as I moved from Leo arrays to Lyons and then on to Leopards. I was able to rapidly build a well-balanced, well-behaved and well-articulated sound throughout the stadium. I was particularly pleased with the sound of the new Meyer VLCF subs. These units produce plenty of very low frequency information from which one can easily achieve the subtle physical effect from the subs that I prefer over a dominating single frequency.

The audio product, the system coverage and the Ultrasound crew in San Francisco were all excellent. Ours is a complex show for a one-off, and the fantastic results definitely exceeded all expectations. I had a great time mixing at AT&T Park despite the unusually chilly summer weather conditions at the stadium by the Bay. The Meyer system produced high quality audio in all seating areas. The whole venture was vet well planned and extremely well executed by our colleagues from Pro Media Ultrasound. Many thanks to each of our co-workers on the audio team and to the people at Another Planet Entertainment for making it all happen for us in San Francisco. I hope we can repeat the experience at some future date.

‡‡         The Frisco TX/Dallas Area Show

After the AT&T Park show, and in sharp contrast to our successes there, we next spent two days in a space that is far from audio friendly. The rigging in this football practice facility alone took three weeks to plan and over four days to execute. I think we must have used every chain motor in Texas. We were all staring up in amazement at a dense forest of steel bridles when we arrived at the newly opened Ford Center in Frisco, Texas. Every single audio point was derived from very, very long (sometimes three-way) wire rope bridles. When any one flown motor was moved, one could see sympathetic movement out of all the adjacent points. It, for sure, was a daunting endeavor. The overall complexity and cost of this setup will have to be significantly pared down in the coming years for this venue to become a viable tour stop for major acts. One can only imagine the immense labor and equipment costs incurred by the effort to transform a cavernous athletic space with no acoustic treatment whatsoever into a show friendly environment.

Local acousticians had determined that the RT 60 for low frequencies was well in excess of 12 seconds. Additionally, high frequency reflections are completely uncontrolled. Sound seems to be coming from everywhere. There is not one bit of acoustic treatment of any form in any area of this massive enclosed structure that serves as a practice field for the Dallas Cowboys. It will take a monumental amount of effort and a huge bundle of money to transform this bare, unfriendly environment into a viable concert venue.

I would like to thank the local vendors who did everything they could to make this show possible. Head rigger and old friend, John Bleich, did an incredible job planning and executing the painstakingly precise steps required to fly our big show in this particularly hostile arena environment. Miles of wire rope were used to suspend the show points from the vast 130-foot high roof. The bays between the structural beams were extremely wide (30 feet) which further complicated the rigging process. In general, I really don’t want to be the first show in any venue. In particular, I really wish we hadn’t been the pioneering venture at the Ford Center. It was an extremely difficult mixing environment, and I hope the lessons learned from this initial experience will benefit shows that may follow us into the Ford Center. Special thanks also go to Robin Magruder and Crossroads Audio for providing the delay systems we needed in this vast, unfriendly space.

It was indeed a very interesting weekend of highs and lows.

Safe travels!