On Tour with Sia

by Thomas S. Friedman
in Production Profile
The tour achieves a big sound with a minimalist approach to staging. Photo by Vic Wagner
The tour achieves a big sound with a minimalist approach to staging. Photo by Vic Wagner

Sia Kate Isobelle Furler, known mononymously as Sia, recently set attendance records for her “Nostalgic for the Present” tour, which crisscrossed North America in support of her seventh studio album, This Is Acting. The artist is quickly redefining performance art while simultaneously setting the bar for those following in her wake. Special guests Miguel and AlunaGeorge accompanied the singer on the 22-city jaunt that kicked off at the end of September at Seattle’s Key Arena and wrapped up with a Nov. 6 show at Frank Erwin Center in Austin, TX.

From left, system engineer Vic Wagner and FOH engineer Jon Lemon.

FOH engineer Jon Lemon, who has known Sia since her days of playing small clubs in the early 2000s, was tapped for the tour towards the end of 2015. Lemon is definitely a veteran with a lengthy portfolio that includes touring work with bands such as Beck, Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. With direct instructions from the artist to “make it sound like the record,” Lemon received the original mix sessions and holed up in a rehearsal room with playback engineer Marco Gamboa to build and convert the studio material for the live arena as faithfully as possible.

“We started in Pro Tools by arranging how I wanted to see the various stems on the console so it would come at me in controllable fashion — i.e., kit, loops, perc, bass, keys, etc. From there, I would run it through the DiGiCo SD5 and rebalance, adding plug-ins to warm it up, suit the live environment and also lift certain hooks up to be faithful to the original track mixes,” Lemon explains. “We did this element by element until every song was done. You can’t take two tracks of playback and sync vocals to it and expect it to sound good — it becomes too linear and too artificial to sit live vocals into. So we found space for everything and made it fit. If you look at my SD5 during the concert, it looks like a full band is performing. Better than that, it often sounds like a live band.”

The view from FOH

In addition to working with Gamboa on the playback material, Lemon chose the P.A. For Sia’s first-ever arena tour, he was, once again, instructed to make sure it “sounded like the record.”

“I wanted to use Adamson from the get-go,” he says. “The fidelity of their boxes is so incredible, I literally hear things I normally only hear in a studio. I really like that, and it is especially notable with this type of vocal performance. So choosing the P.A. was easy, it was just a matter of finding the right sound company to team up with.”

With a performance that defies the rules of typical concerts — Sia standing and performing stage right while dancers and video are given center stage — finding a sound company that embraced Sia’s vision was imperative. After talking with Escondido, CA-based Sound Image, Lemon found the fit, and the Adamson P.A., he was looking for.

“I had not worked with Sound Image before, and I have to say, it’s an impressive team,” Lemon says. “This is not your normal show. The production values must be above par. The guys have been really terrific — [system engineer] Vic Wagner is fantastic. Crew chief John Leary and P.A. tech Emily Phillips are terrific. They go above and beyond to make sure it is done right.”

Flying the PA at Mandalay Bay Arena in Las Vegas

The System

The tour is out with a full complement of Adamson E-Series loudspeakers. The large arena shows utilize left-right hangs of 15 E15 line array enclosures with a side hang of 12 E15’s. Up to six E12s are hung below the main and side arrays, audience geometry permitting, to provide more coverage when needed. Six E119 subwoofers are flown just behind the main arrays to fill out the low end. Further support is provided by 16 E219 ground stacked subwoofers — eight stacks of two, to form a continuous spaced sub array about 65 feet long.

“I’ve been a fan of the subwoofer since they were released a few years back,” says Lemon. “Sia has such elements of dance and modern pop that I wanted something capable of delivering the low-end. The E219s on the floor, along with the flown E119, handle it masterfully.”

Wagner adds, “The ground stacked subs are a spaced array — add a little arc delay to spread the energy on the floor and fill into the bowl. The sound does not spread to FOH or interfere with the flown subs, keeping sub energy very consistent throughout the venue.”

Wagner is an admirer of Adamson’s Blueprint AV software, which he uses in 3D mode to design the system for each venue. “It’s great for looking at horizontal interaction; 3D is definitely the way to go. I really like that I can see how the arrays are interacting, off-axis and the seams between hangs and optimize the system before deploying the P.A.”

The PA setup in Boston's TD Garden

Adamson S10 line array modules handle front fill and near out fill where coverage of the main and side arrays can fall off a bit. Stacks of two enclosures are placed on top each E219 sub stack to complete the P.A. picture.

Adamson E-Racks power the system. Each rack is loaded with workhorse Lab.gruppen PLM 20K amplifiers. With an all-digital drive system, the PLM amplifiers tap a primary/redundant Ethernet Dante network, which incorporates Lake control/monitoring functions over the same network topography. Wagner explains, “I do all time alignment, equalization and zone filtering within the amps to optimize frequency/phase coherence, dynamic range and reliability.” Lemon adds, “I believe the Lab.gruppen PLM 20K’s are the best amps on the market currently.”

The view from FOH

The View from FOH

Lemon mans a DiGiCo SD5, running the new Core 2 software, at FOH, where he mixes the prerecorded elements (in a multi-track format) that he receives from Gamboa. A longtime fan of DiGiCo consoles, Lemon had one of the first D5’s back in the day and has stayed true to the brand since then.

“I think DiGiCo boards have a really good, almost analog sound,” he explains. “The SD5 is their latest board, and I really, really like it. As a company, they are always good about taking input from their end-users, so each new addition really rings true for guys like me, plus the backup is second to none in this industry.”

Lemon is running two Waves SoundGrid Extreme servers along with the SD5. He utilizes Waves’ NLS console modeling plug-ins to achieve a great analog sound.

“The NLS plug-ins give me a certain non linearity for the sonic effect of an SSL or Neve. In addition, I use the classic vocal chain of the R Vox compressor into a C6 multiband on all vocals and CLA76’s on bass; H Reverb for silky vocal FX and — of course — the industry standard H Delay for all delay components. On the master bus, I always run a Waves NLS SSL bus comp — occasionally in some songs with the C6 overall.”

Externally, Lemon runs a Massenburg 8200 stereo parametric EQ and a Smart Research C2 compressor to dial down whatever “digital” is left on the final left/right.

“I run Sia’s vocals through a Maag Audio EQ4 to put a little air in them; it can make any microphone sound expensive,” he says. “She is an absolutely marvelous singer. For such a little thing, she has a massive voice and range. Everyone is consistently impressed with her pipes.”

Monitor engineer Adam Jackson running a pre-show check at Mandalay Bay Arena, Las Vegas.

Playback Engineer/Monitorworld

Behind the scenes, Gamboa feeds the aforementioned “prerecorded elements” to Lemon by tapping into the Optocore network that ties everyone together. Lemon’s go-to software for sequencing the show is MOTU Digital Performer 9. “Besides the stability and solid performance night after night, it allows you to create an independent sequence with a unique timeline per song, thanks to the chunk function within the software. This is important, because timecode is generated from this station to synchronize the video, projection and lighting departments.”

As the master clock of the show is Lemon’s FOH console at 96k, the tracks are also at 96k. “I use a RME MadifaceXP interface and run a redundant system,” he explains. “Two EXAbox BLDS switchers from Direct Out Technologies provide the necessary 64 tracks. The switching is seamless from MADI A to MADI B.”

Gamboa is located on stage right next to monitor engineer Adam Jackson. Jackson uses a DiGiCo SD10 console. Sia and Jackson are both using Shure PSM1000 IEM units with Jerry Harvey Audio JH13 earpieces. Monitor tech Paul White ensures everything is in working order prior to the show, playing right-hand man to Jackson.

“Due to the nature of the show, there aren’t a ton of mixes,” Jackson explains. “I have Sia’s mix and then a tech mix that eight to ten other crew people listen to. Marco dials in his own thing, and that is about it. We use two Adamson SX18 loudspeakers — one per side — for side fill for the dancers. We don’t use talkback mics; if Sia has a quick note, she just gives it to me between songs.”

Jackson travels with two Shure SM58 microphones for Sia’s use during the show — both custom painted solid black and white to match the first and second halves of the show.

The show combines music and a performance art visual style.

Wrap Up

Sia’s “Nostalgic For The Present” tour offers fans a live performance experience that is second to none. With incredibly precise production values and immense attention to detail to each audience member’s sound experience, Sia succeeds in providing her followers with a sonic event that matches the recording while offering a visual presentation that rises to the level of performance art. At the heart of this success is a team of individuals that are equally committed to ensure every performance goes off without a hitch.

“Sia is an incredibly performer — her vocal talent alone is mind-blowing,” concludes Lemon. “To be part of a team that brings her vision to life is an honor. I think we all feel how special this tour is.”

Sia “Nostalgic For The Present” Tour

AUDIO CREW

  • Sound Company: Sound Image
  • FOH Engineer: Jon Lemon
  • Playback Engineer: Marco Gamboa
  • Monitor Engineer: Adam Jackson
  • System Engineer: Vic Wagner
  • Crew Chief: John Leary
  • P.A. Tech: Emily Phillips
  • Monitor Tech: Paul White

GEAR

P.A. SYSTEM

  • Main P.A.: Adamson E15 line arrays; Adamson E12 downfills (when required)
  • Subwoofers: Adamson E119 flown subs; Adamson E219 ground subs
  • Front Fills/Out Fills: Adamson S10
  • Drive Racks: Adamson E-Racks with Lab.gruppen PLM 20K amps
  • Software: Adamson Blueprint AV

FOH

  • FOH Console: DiGiCo SD5 with Stealth Core 2
  • Outboard Gear: (2) Waves SoundGrid Extreme servers; George Massenburg Labs 8200; Smart Research C2 compressor; (2) Maag Audio EQ4 AirBand EQ’s
  • Sequencing Software: MOTU Digital Performer 9

MONITOR

  • Monitor Console: DiGiCo SD10
  • I/O: RME MadifaceXP interface
  • MADI Switching: (2) DirectOut EXAbox BLDS
  • Mics: Shure SM58 on vocals
  • IEM Hardware: Shure PSM1000
  • IEM’s: Jerry Harvey Audio JH13s.