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Taking EDM to the Next Step

Mike Wharton • February 2020Production Profile • February 10, 2020

Photo by DH Nuyen

Brown Note Supports Illenium’s Ascend Tour

llenium, the encompassing name of the aural canvas artist and performer Nick Miller uses to paint his sonic stories, has really exploded in the EDM world in 2019, selling out Madison Square Garden, three nights at Red Rocks and Staples Center as well. Brown Note, a rental production house based in Denver, CO provided initial design, assisted with programming the time-coded show, and supplied and supported the audio, lighting and video system and crew for the tour. FOH engineer Cameron Scurek and monitor engineer Dom Gambone discussed the successful run, which — after a short break — moves onto select dates in Europe and Japan, then returning for the U.S. festival circuit through June 2020.

FOH engineer Cameron Scurek

Scurek is largely a self-taught audio engineer. After “bugging a production manager long enough” at a local venue, he was “allowed to push road cases for free” to get his foot in the door. The venue’s production provider took note, brought him to work at its warehouse, and in a short time, Scurek traveled the traditional route of starting out wiring a stage, then mixing monitors and finally becoming a system and FOH engineer in his own right. During that five years, he often worked with local lighting designer Chuck Williams, doing a lot of freelance collaboration on projects for Brown Note.

In 2017, Williams told Scurek that Illenium, a solo DJ act he was working with, wished to add a band to his performance and take a larger production on tour. Would he be interested? “I am big on pushing the envelope; doing things differently,” says Scurek. Mixing EDM offered him an opportunity to pursue that muse. Discussing his sonic approach during a meeting with the artist solidified the deal.

Photo by EmpMedia

‡‡         Breaking the Rules

“With EDM you don’t have to follow the usual rules. That, integrated with the live rock band thing, opened a lot of possibilities.” Ableton Live is the brain of the whole show. For the Illenium tour, Scurek designed a completely redundant Ableton playback system mounted in an 18-space rack. His primary computer was a Mac Pro, secondary was a Mac Mini. All the digital audio was sent via Dante. No analog moments are in the show other than drums on stage.

“I started playing with the audio-over-IP scenario looking for a slick solution to route a high audio channel count out of the DAW. I really liked the audio-over-IP flexibility. It’s fully redundant and eliminates a lot of copper. From there, we built a RTT MIDI system — MIDI over Ethernet. We could then sync the FOH console to the keyboards, drum pads and guitar amp modeling units to an Ableton-controlled MIDI network that triggers everything throughout the show.” On top of that, all the lighting and a majority of the video and laser cues are over SMPTE time code.

“Basically, the whole network system can be controlled by Nick, our artist, from his DJ booth onstage,” he adds. This includes firing snapshots on Scurek’s DiGiCo at FOH, as well as firing video wall effects and guitar tones, all in all a very slick integration of a time code system overlaid with a MIDI system. Scurek also uses an assortment of analog outboard gear, “basically because I like the flavor.”

FOH setup

All the Abelton tracks are run through an SSL Fusion all-analog multi-processor. “With all the digital, modern, loud, heavily compressed music that I work with these days, the SSL gives that analog smoothness I’ve been looking for.” And as “we have a ton of drums,” Scurek puts the kits and percussion world on parallel processing and finesses all the individual vocals on different compressors. “Nick is very much a storyteller. He comes to us with the big picture on how he wants things to work, but gives us free rein to determine how we get there. He is definitely very particular. Most of rehearsals he spent at FOH with us,” says Scurek.

The FOH console is a DiGiCo SD 12 with a Waves package and Waves Extreme. A Dante DMI card into a Focusrite Red 8Pre ran all outboard gear. Two SD 12’s and a DiGiCo “Orange Box” also fed Dante into the Optocore system.

When asked about the challenges encountered in getting the tour out the door and running smoothly, Scurek laughs. “We had three weeks to go from nothing to producing a fully time-coded show. In the process, we rebuilt every rack we took on tour from Brown Note to meet the design demands of the system,” he says. Integrating the whole playback structure with redundancy was time-consuming, yet ultimately provided a rock-solid backbone for the road.

For inputs, Scurek had 26 playbacks via Dante out of Ableton Live, 44 channels of miked drums; analog lines in, several vocal mics and two Kemper Amp acoustic guitar modules. A wireless mic talkback system for the techs, routed through the consoles, was used. Two paths of communication were available through this setup. On one, all the techs could talk freely with one another. Then, should Scurek need to speak with Nick, or vice versa, Gambone in monitorworld would loop him into their channel used for stage communication.

“We all have nothing but high accolades to (Brown Note founders) Ryan and Sara for being super-accommodating,” smiles Scurek who, when at home, contracts with Brown Note on local projects. “Every one of their techs on the tour has been awesome, too!

Dom Gambone at Monitors

‡‡         Meanwhile, in Monitorworld

At the other end of the snake is monitor engineer Dom Gambone. His roots are in Philadelphia, where he learned his chops as an audio engineer working the local bar scene and renting a small P.A. system he had. In 2013, “for no reason at all,” he sold his inventory, hopped on a Harley and headed to Colorado. Once there, he established himself at the Mishawaka, a 1,000-person bar that booked a lot of national acts.

Over the next couple of years, Illenium — as the artist Nick Miller designates his collective sonic and visual projects — appeared there several times. Gambone, by then the production manager at the venue, offered to help Miller with his mix while listening to “a really horrible sound check. They looked at me, like ‘Please do!’” and a working relationship followed. In 2017, Illenium took him on the Awake tour as monitor engineer.

“We’ve been using Brown Note since the beginning,” says Gambone.” Not only is their gear and support excellent, Ryan and his whole staff have been very accommodating. When mounting this tour, they made space in their warehouse available while we built and prepped. This is a very ambitious project that required a lot of custom-built racks assembled for Cameron (Scurek) to build the Abelton Live playback system with double redundancy.

For Gambone, “My goal as a monitor engineer is to make the band as comfortable as possible both on a technical level and in a personal mood, whether during the sound check or a show. I create a little atmosphere in monitor world by getting some incense burning; having some gummi bears lying around. I want the band loose and smiling before they even get on the stage.” After working with them for a couple years, getting that vibe has become much easier, and it’s paying off.

“This is a complicated and intricate show using a live session of Ableton to fire all the tracks,” Gambone says. “Nick primarily plays electronic drums, but is equally facile on keyboards and guitar. There are no turntables and, he has a band backing him consisting of drums, keys and guitar.”

Optocore loop gain sharing on both consoles enables the boards (FOH, DiGiCo SD12; monitors, DiGiCo SD10) to act as one, when needed. “We can pick off inputs or outputs from each console,” explains Gambone. Everything coming out of the playback rack arrives via Dante, so there’s no A/D conversion until the signal gets to the speakers.

“Cameron (Scurek) is an artist in his own right, and more technically advanced than I am,” says Gambone. “I concentrate on the artful side of the production. Mainly, I listen and try to make things sound natural. With in-ears, that’s a challenge, as the performer is isolated from the crowd and all the attendant ambient stage noise that goes with that. So, in a sense, I almost have to manufacture a natural atmosphere.”

Gambone recalls a valuable bit of advice a mentor told him early on, “Just listen. As simple or stupid as that sounds, just listen. If it sounds good to you, then it’s right. You don’t have to get there a certain way.”

‡‡         The Systems Approach

The mains rig is comprised of 32 d&b audiotechnik GSL12 and GSL8 large-format directional line array boxes in left/right hangs. Two 12-box side hangs with d&b J8/J12 line arrays offer coverage for wide venues, with eight V10P employed as fills. The all-important LF comes via 24 d&b SL-GSUB triple-21 cardioid subs, with powering from d&b D80 amp racks.

Onstage IEM hardware was Shure PSM 1000, with 12 Shure ULX-D digital wireless handling guitars and vocals with Shure KSM8. Talkback mics on stage open via infrared sensor Optogates, providing an intricate talkback setup/central hub between stage and FOH. The video team gave Gambone with a live video feed, providing a clear, close-up view of the stage, “because they knew it would help me with sightlines. It’s just one example of how smooth a team we have working with one another,” says Gambone. “The Brown Note crew mesh really well with us.”

Mike Wharton is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to FRONT of HOUSE’s sister publication, PLSN.

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