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A Day in the Life of Fleetwood Mac’s World Tour, Part 2

David Morgan • December 2019Tour Spotlight • December 14, 2019

The author at work, London’s Wembley Stadium, June 18, 2019.

Note: The “Evening with Fleetwood Mac” world tour wrapped up last month at the T-Mobile Center in Las Vegas. This month, longtime FRONT of HOUSE contributor and FOH engineer David
Morgan continues his insights into a “typical” day during that 13-month odyssey. —ed.

Last month, at the conclusion of Part 1 (https://fohonline.com/articles/tour-spotlight/a-day-in-the-life-of-an-evening-with-fleetwood-mac/), Fleetwood Mac’s tour stage had just been pushed down the arena floor by an army of stagehands and nudged into its final placement, settled in beneath the newly flown lighting, video, automation and audio systems. That Tait Towers-designed, artist-provided rolling stage may just have been the most valuable player on the 16-month journey that was just completed in San Francisco. It had been a while since I had been on a tour with a rolling stage — I believe the last time was with Bette Midler in 2004/05 — and I may have forgotten many of the positive contributions this easily transportable, rapidly deployable stage system provides to the production as a whole.

Assembling the stage at the far end of the arena floor creates a vast, clear, level space at the opposite end for prepping, cabling and rigging the various flying elements of the show. Having the main shared workspace at floor level greatly increases the efficiency of all those who are performing the necessary labor. There is less pushing, less lifting, and less necessity for forklift usage. Additionally, communication, co-ordination, and co-operation among the several departments are greatly enhanced because many of the usual bottlenecks or cramped workspaces normally encountered in a fixed stage situation have been eliminated and work flows more freely. The result is a more carefully planned and logically sequenced load-in that offers greater gig-to-gig redundancy/predictability than one customarily experiences when working around fixed locally provided stages.

The author’s office; rug and chair are NOT optional

‡‡         Setting Up at FOH

Once the stage has been rolled into place, the FOH audio position soon ends its forced isolation from the rest of the production. The audio snake can now be run from FOH to the stage and be connected to the DiGiCo SD stage racks, the amp rack processors and the AC power distribution system. My duties flying the P.A. end as soon as the three Cohesion 12 arrays and the flying subwoofers are parked at their approximate heights from the floor. As soon as I hand off the stage right motor controller to P.A. tech Chris Fulton, I head straight out to FOH.

On a normal day, it is now about 1 p.m., and many of the crew heads off to lunch while system engineer Thomas Morris and I are embarking on the busiest part of our day. Hearing the UPS chirp just as I arrive at the console signals that AC power has been connected to the Clair AC distribution system. The console, computers and supporting electronics can now be brought back to life. My first job is to ascertain that all elements of the FOH system have powered up correctly. That includes running through the console diagnostics and audio I/O pages to determine if all devices connected via Optocore, MADI and Ethernet are responding correctly. We also ensure that all console power supply voltages are within proper tolerances.

While I am powering up and preparing the FOH gear, Thomas Morris along with P.A. techs Chris Fulton and Amy Bammarito work together to connect FOH to the amp racks and then verify signal from each processor and amp channel in the Lab.gruppen P.A. racks. After verification of signal in all P.A. components, and armed with the numbers derived from the EASE Focus audio system prediction program, the guys will then use tape measures attached to the bottom cabinets of each array and the aiming lasers mounted to the top bars of each Clair Global Cohesion 12 columns to coax the various arrays into the positions that will deliver optimal audio distribution within the seating area.

The Fleetwood Mac FOH rig consists of a DiGiCo SD5 console connected via Optocore to two DiGiCo SD stage racks w/32-bit preamps, a Waves MultiRack plug-in system running Waves 10 on an external Mac-Mini computer, a 96-channel Pro Tools recording rig, a Bricasti M7 reverb and a TC System 6000 containing four stereo engines. A DiGiCo SD Nano rack in the FOH system provides extra AES connectivity for the outboard gear. An additional Mac-Mini runs the Lake control software for the Cohesion 12 systems, subwoofers and Cohesion 8 front fills.

It’s all hands on deck, with everybody joining in to adjust the positioning of the huge rolling stage.

‡‡         Sound Check, 1-2-3

On most show days, there is only a brief time window during which there is an opportunity to listen to the playback specific songs or song parts. And that listening has to be done in headphones due to the proximity of other crews around the FOH position. Luckily, we were afforded the luxury of nearly two months of rehearsal before the tour began. Most of my programming decisions and critical judgments had been made long before the first show in Tulsa, OK over a year ago. We emerged from those rehearsals with what we believed to be a mature, polished show that was ready to be presented to the public. Changes since the initial rehearsals have been relatively minor and have been accomplished, evaluated or abandoned at sound checks.

Although we have the technology, we don’t run a virtual sound check. Instead, the band comes in every show day to do a live sound check at which they can work out any arrangement changes or introduce new songs. We then run a predetermined sequence of songs (or song fragments) that provides everyone with the opportunity to communicate with monitor engineers Myles Hale and Blake Suib and ensure that optimal audio information is being delivered to the band members for that particular stage environment.

In nearly every venue, these abbreviated sound checks provide the necessary information to tweak individual inputs, components, or the overall performance of the P.A. to successfully deliver an impactful and accurate mix of the music produced by the 11 musicians on the stage. The confidence I express comes from having earlier followed a carefully considered system tuning routine long before the band hits the stage. I have developed and honed this tuning technique over the years and the many generations of sound systems I have encountered — spanning far too many tours to recall. Following this routine throughout those years has resulted in creating a reasonably predictable and controllable mixing space rather than constantly battling against adverse audio constraints and conditions that may be imposed by the building.

P.A. techs Amy Bammarito and Chris Fulton

‡‡         Tweaking the System

System engineer Thomas Morris uses pink noise generated from the SD5 console to run a component check on the P.A. Once Thomas has completed the verification process and turned the system control computer over to me, music becomes the test information to be played through the Clair Global Cohesion 12 system. When using music tracks as the tuning source, one must have a goal in mind and a plan for achieving that goal. I don’t play music I like or rock out to songs that are currently popular. Instead, the pieces chosen for the P.A. EQ’ing playlist sequentially lead me through a series of observations, judgments and actions that should, in a perfect world, induce the best possible outcome from a well-tuned system. The different songs are purposely arranged to excite particular audio frequencies in a logically predetermined order.

While the other crews often complain, albeit good-naturedly, about the same old songs being played over the audio system, work in most departments can usually go on working despite the music emanating from the speakers. Excessive volume is not required. Conversely, the band techs checking their instruments or tuning drums do not interfere with my process as long as it is not excessively loud or protracted. Additionally, I will always defer to those who request silence for rigging, climbing or moving chain motors. Safety first is not just a slogan.

It customarily takes Thomas and me about 45 minutes to complete the room tuning ritual. When I began mixing on the Clair CO12 system in 2016, one of the first characteristics I recognized as an exceptional attribute was the remarkably even vertical distribution that comes from the 16-high arena curved arrays. I have since learned to confidently accept that what I hear in the bottom half of the arena is an accurate representation of what is being heard in the top half of the arena. This fact saves time and steps by limiting the area I need to visit to the lower bowl and the floor of the arena. During sound check, however, Thomas does a complete loop of the higher seats to ensure our coverage meets or exceeds the predicted result.

While seated at the FOH console, we begin by listening to the two main (forward-facing) columns of Cohesion 12s. The first two songs on the playlist give me close to 12 minutes of music during which I am able to employ a band equalizer for broad response shaping, a graphic EQ for smoothing out more specific problem areas, and a parametric EQ for zeroing in on very fine frequencies that may still remain prominent in the room. It’s important to have a pre-established goal and a trusted plan for achieving that goal. The #1 goal for me is almost always maximum vocal intelligibility. The acts for whom I most often mix on tour are both exceptional songwriters and standout vocalists. It is imperative that the vocals are always my first priority and that the voices sound warm and natural.

The first song I play has a very uniquely recorded bass guitar sound that is quite dominant in the mix. It helps me identify the most troublesome low frequencies that can easily obfuscate the entire vocal range. In that same track, there is also an abundance of high midrange information in the 3k Hz range that can make vocals seem stridently unpleasant. These regions between 50 Hz and 100 Hz and between 2 k Hz and 4 k Hz are often the most difficult to tame in large performances spaces. I spend much of the first song working on these zones.

The second song has a much tighter bottom-end with the kick drum and bass guitar locked together well. It is a good choice for adding the flown and ground deployed subwoofers to our main arena system. From FOH we can set the volume levels, adjust the equalization and determine the best delay settings for the Main arrays, the flown subs and the ground subs. Having achieved an integrated whole from the forward-facing elements of the sound system, I save what we’ve done on the control computer and pick up the traveling tablet connected to the main control computer via VPN.

The next destination for Thomas and myself is the area just in front of the downstage edge. After we determine that each of the eight Clair Global Cohesion 8 enclosures are operating properly, we then mute the four CO8 boxes that are placed nearest the center of the stage. Listening only to the outer front fill pairs along with the main arrays and subs, we adjust the delay and gain for those Cohesion 8s first and then move closer to center stage to integrate the inner front fill pairs into the complete system. The chosen music for these tasks is more percussive and has greater high frequency content than the first two tracks. These characteristics make it easier to set delays and maximize vocal articulation.

We always set the various system delays by ear. I like having Thomas next to me offering a second opinion or voicing observations derived from an alternate listening perspective. We are hoping to determine optimal high frequency alignment and establish a delay time that moves one’s point of attention slightly away from the front fill enclosure and out toward the main P.A. A slightly longer offset, in the 2-3 millisecond range, from a “perfect” delay time allows us to run the front fills at a slightly higher volume level. Audiences seem to be forgiving of greater volume when the “in your face” element of the CO8s have been altered in this way.

Next we head up the stairs to the highest seating area in the lower bowl area that is not beneath an overhang or otherwise obstructed. I take a seat directly in front of the 16-high side column of Cohesion 12s. Thomas roams from side to side to ensure that we are providing adequate coverage to the seating areas served by this vertical array. We use the “Solo” function on the Lake control software to isolate the side column from the other P.A. elements. We next employ the same equalizer options utilized on the main columns to shape the sound from the side units to best marry with the output of the main P.A. system.

We run the side (and rear) columns in mono. One’s visual perspective from the side is more about mono depth than side-to-side stereo spread. We strongly believe that one’s ears and eyes should be in agreement as often as possible. Therefore, we also slightly delay the side columns — usually in the 3-5 millisecond range — to best align their output to the main (forward) columns and thereby focusing one’s experience of the perceived depth. The music we use for integrating the side and rear columns is heavier in lower midrange content. This is often the area that tends to build-up when a stereo mix is matrixed into mono. The music emphasizes the areas that need to get thinned out a bit.

Liberally using the “Solo” and “Pile” functions on the Lake software, we repeat much of the same process for EQ’ing and time aligning the rear column on each side. The tour has sold in a 270º configuration for most of the arena shows and the 12-high Cohesion 12 rear column is part of our normal setup. The distance between the side and rear columns is quite a bit greater than the distance between the front and side columns and setting the delay times for the rear columns is a bit trickier. It takes a bit more trial and error time to get things just right in the time relationship among the three CO12 columns. Standing in the “seam” between vertical columns, we adjust the delay time to produce the best frequency balance. It takes a little practice to hear minute changes in output, but our goal is to create a consistent horizontal sound field as one walks from the front column around the sides to the rear column.

When Thomas and I head back down the hall toward FOH, we both take very circuitous paths so that we walk through as much of the horizontal coverage as possible. Any anomalies observed can be discussed and addressed when we return to the mix position. When we resume our places at the FOH console, the music from the playlist changes from tracks selected for the specific frequencies they excite in the room to what I feel are beautifully recorded and expertly mixed tracks. I use these selections to apply tight parametric filters to the “Master” module on the Lake software. Filters applied here will affect every element of the sound system. This stage is the final phase of overall fine-tuning and the decisions made at this time are derived from hearing the entire system in operation.

‡‡         The End Result

For me, working from a logically and sequentially prepared routine increases predictability and maximizes system performance. The routine also guarantees that we take as little time to do our job as possible. We always want to give the band techs as much time as they need to prepare their gear for both line check and then sound check. We are all a team and we are blessed with an awesome group of backline techs on this amazing tour. Safe travels!

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