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Metallica’s S&M Returns

Thomas S. Friedman • FeaturesOctober 2019 • October 15, 2019

Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony performed at the new Chase Center on Sept. 6 and 8. Photo by Ralph Larmann

Hard Rock Giants Reunite with San Francisco Symphony to Inaugurate New Chase Center Venue

For two shows in early September, Metallica teamed up with the San Francisco Symphony for the first event in San Francisco’s Chase Center — the gleaming new home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors — while surrounded by capacity audiences of 18,000 for each show.

Photo by Ralph Larmann

Staged in the round and dubbed S&M2 [a nod to the 20th anniversary of the 1999 S&M concert and the band’s Grammy Award-winning Symphony and Metallica (S&M) recording with the same orchestra], the 2019 shows had 70-plus musicians encircling the band, with conductor Edwin Outwater perched on the perimeter of a rotating stage. The performances were delivered at full power and with panoramic scope through a custom-designed reinforcement system of more than 250 Meyer Sound loudspeakers anchored by a Lyon system.

Photo by Ralph Larmann

‡‡         No Easy Task

Metallica show director Dan Braun played a pivotal role in translating the band’s vision into a cohesive concept, and finally into the nuts and bolts of staging, sound and visuals. “We knew it would be much easier technically and logistically to do this show in an end-stage configuration,” he admits, “but the band really wanted to do it in the round. It’s a much more intimate vibe. So we went ahead despite the technical challenges. But that’s typical Metallica — never afraid to push the boundaries.”

Metallica regularly tours arenas with in-the-round staging, in recent years using a similar Meyer Sound LEO Family reinforcement system. But placing a full symphony orchestra on the same stage, requiring more than 90 open microphones, added a whole new level of complexity.

“We decided from the outset that we did not want the orchestra off stage or isolated in any way,” says Braun. “We wanted them on stage, so everybody would be playing together as one band. And instead of separating them on stage, we decided to place the orchestra surrounding the band, with Lars on a drum riser in the middle. It took a major leap of faith by Edwin [Outwater, the conductor] as to how we would set it all up, but it worked out brilliantly.”

Longtime Metallica FOH engineer Big Mick Hughes at work. Photo by Ralph Larmann

‡‡         All About the Mix

Crafting the main audio mix was Metallica’s veteran FOH engineer “Big Mick” Hughes, with San Francisco Symphony’s head of audio Hal Nishon Soogian handling the orchestra pre-mixes as well as the final mix for two symphony-only pieces in the program.

Delivering the concentrated power of Metallica along with the delicacy and dynamics of an orchestra in an arena setting places extraordinary demands on a reinforcement system, but Braun was confident of the result.

“I had unwavering confidence that Meyer Sound would give us everything we needed to achieve success at the highest level,” says Braun. “What we heard and saw in the arena was exactly what we intended to do. We had an entire design team come together to make the sound magical, so Big Mick could work with the best possible P.A. for this kind of production. When you’re in my position, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

The in-the-round show definitely provided some challenges. Photo by Ralph Larmann

‡‡         The System

The Meyer Sound system was custom designed for the unique challenges of S&M2 by director of system optimization Bob McCarthy, with assistance from senior technical support specialist David Vincent and technical support manager, digital systems James Edmondson. The outer ring of loudspeakers, covering the seating bowl, comprised 10 arrays in five stereo pairs, each with six Lyon-M loudspeakers over six Lyon-W wide coverage loudspeakers.

Covering the floor and transitioning deep into the lower bowl were 10 inner arrays, again in five stereo pairs, of eight each Leopard line array loudspeakers. The stage was ringed with 24 UPJunior loudspeakers, which functioned primarily to bring the image down for the floor seating. Five clusters of 1100-LFC low frequency control elements, deployed as cardioid gradient arrays, supplied forceful yet controlled deep bass. A cohort of 16 Galaxy processors linked via an AVB network supplied system drive and optimization.

A recent addition to the Meyer Sound technology toolset, Low-Mid Beam Control (LMBC), proved particularly helpful in precisely shaping uniform coverage patterns. “We set both the upper and lower arrays so that the curve in them makes the back lobe fire upward, away from the orchestra,” notes system designer Bob McCarthy. “The LMBC keeps those beams uniform and steered in the right direction, both to the back and the front, which is enormously helpful in maximizing gain before feedback in this situation.”

The sheer scope of the S&M2 project demanded close coordination of multiple contributors. The full complement of Meyer Sound loudspeakers was supplied by Production Resource Group (PRG), with systems engineer Chris Nichols working with McCarthy on tuning.

UltraSound supplied the front-end gear for the symphony mix, which included the full microphone complement along with Avid Profile and Yamaha CL5 consoles. The combined mix was through Metallica’s own Midas XL8 console. Audio crew chief Paul White oversaw both audio production teams for the two performances.

Meyer Sound founders John and Helen Meyer with Metallica show director Dan Braun (center)

‡‡         The Show… and Beyond

The concert set list incorporated songs spanning Metallica’s four-decade history, closing out with “Master of Puppets,” “Nothing Else Matters” and “Enter Sandman.” San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas took the podium following intermission to conduct the symphony in Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite and then, with Metallica joining in on “Iron Foundry” by Mosolov.

Once again, Metallica has dared to redefine the possible in both musical and technical terms, yet the result, according to a review in the San Jose Mercury News, was a performance “nothing short of epic” with “music that was unbelievably rich and powerful.”

S&M2 was filmed and will be shown in its entirety at more than 3,000 theaters worldwide on one night only, Oct. 9. Metallica resumes its WorldWired tour in mid-October with shows in Australia and New Zealand, with a South American leg scheduled for spring of 2020.


Analysis of one of the 10 sectional hangs (at 4 kHz) shows even top-to bottom coverage

Bob McCarthy Speaks Out

For more than three decades, Bob McCarthy has been involved in the design and analysis of some of the most complex sound systems and productions in history. As a pioneer in the development of Meyer Sound’s SIM System, McCarthy helped push the science of tuning sound systems from the laboratories into practical world of theaters, arenas and stadiums. Recognized worldwide as a leading expert in sound systems, he has shared his experience via many seminars and books on the subject, including the classic Sound Systems Design and Optimization: Modern Techniques and Tools for Sound System Design and Alignment, now in its third edition.

The director of system optimization for the S&M2 project, McCarthy offered his insights on the complexities of the production.

Clearly, presenting a heavy rock band in-the-round in an A-level arena with full symphony is far from the usual gig. “This was a first for me, and it’s a pretty rare thing,” McCarthy notes. “There have been a number of rock shows with full symphony, like The Who with London Philharmonic — that part is not unprecedented — but the in-the-round staging is certainly unique to this concert, at least to my knowledge.”

Entering this mostly uncharted area, McCarthy called on his years of experience working on shows such as Pavarotti tours in arenas and other large spaces. “The trick is, you still want the orchestra to be an orchestra and to arrange itself as normal a way as possible. You want them to use their full dynamic range, and to be free of any worry of insufficient acoustic gain. Because of course a symphony never has to worry about feedback in a ‘normal’ concert.”

There was no shortage of other issues to consider — from both technical and artistic viewpoints. “Listening to an unamplified symphony in concert hall is a full panoramic event. It’s not just left and right — it’s specific placement of sections all along the panoramic horizon. That makes it a wonderful immersive experience, because each instrument is placed in its exact location. Metallica, however, is a compact power quartet, all concentrated — you don’t need that full panorama to get the full impact and power of their music,” McCarthy adds.

“My challenge was to get the focused power and impact of Metallica, yet still have the panoramic impact of the symphony,” which was where the technical details weigh in.

“We have two levels, and have to provide coverage for the seats up close but make sure it will not feed back, and then have a lot of horizontal overlap. I extended the number of arrays, all Meyer Sound Lyons because they offer a much wider horizontal, so the system are highly overlapped in the horizontal to develop the full panorama of the orchestra, so much so that you could almost cover every seat with only the left or the right arrays.”

Given the complexities of such a large in the round show in a massive venue, there were some creative concerns for FOH engineer Big Mick Hughes. However, “I told Mick he was free to use the full extent of panning,” McCarthy recalls, “but the key channels — like the voices and kick drums — should be straight down the middle, as the system is carefully arrayed in a precise circle, so all of those paths are arriving on time. It’s like spokes on a wheel.”

Horizontal layering for section coverage was key. “We have a Leopard system close down, so it can run a relatively low gain to cover the front, then transition to the outer Lyon arrays. They transition not just at the end of the floor, but out into the bowl. This is much farther than we normally do in a Metallica show, because we wanted to make sure the big mains that have to go deep are absolutely free and clear of the stage.”

The lower and upper arrays were both set so that their back lobes fired upwards — away from the orchestra. “If you look at 250 Hz, you see them streaming off into the lowest risk areas. It’s those frequencies, 200 to 160 Hz (the bottom range of those systems) that have the highest risk of feeding back with 90 open mics on stage.”

Large-scale sound in any arena can be difficult, but there were a few factors in the show’s favor. “The ceiling of this arena is basically a big, giant pillow, all acoustically treated. That was very helpful in terms of sound not coming back down. Also, they have Helmholtz panel low-frequency absorbers, so overall, the reverb tail for a building of this volume is well-controlled. We could keep it sounding very tight, even though we were firing sound out of 25 loudspeaker hangs — ten Lyon, ten Leopard and five subwoofer hangs. That’s a lot of sources, but carefully coordinated and with favorable acoustic conditions, it worked very well.”

Chase Center will also serve as home to the NBA Golden State Warriors. Photo by Jason O’Rear/Chase Center.

Enter the Chase Center

The country’s latest venue is San Francisco’s Chase Center — the new home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, who previously played 47 seasons across the bay, at the Oakland-Alameda County Arena, formerly known as Oracle Arena. Built at a cost of $1.4-billion (naming rights were sold to JP Morgan-Chase for a reported $300+ million) this 100-percent-privately-financed facility opened on time for its public debut with the Metallica/San Francisco Symphony’s S&M2 concert on Sept. 6 and 8, 2019.

With 18,064 arena seats, the Chase Center will provide a state of the art fan experience for the Warriors, but also rentals for other events and is expected to host approximately 200 events per year. In addition to the opening Metallica/SF Symphony concerts, 11 other shows were scheduled in its first month, including top draws like Eric Clapton, The Dave Matthews Band, Elton John, Chance the Rapper, Janet Jackson, Eric Church and a couple WWE Smackdowns.

Beyond functioning as a sports/concert venue, the facility offers 3.2 acres of waterfront plaza and public space, 100,000 square feet of retail and 580,000 sq. feet of office and lab space — with tenants such as Google and Uber’s new world HQ already moving in. So far, it’s off to a good start.

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