People from all walks of live will converge this summer, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles just to see their favorite musical acts perform. Attending a concert is a fun experience and a way to escape the mundane daily aspects of life for most people. Being part of a large crowd of concert-goers can certainly lead to great memories, yet many people are not aware of what goes on behind the scenes to put these concert productions together. Unless someone has a strong background in concert sound, usually they either do not notice most of what goes on behind the scenes, or they may be curious about how things work, yet unsure of how the technology or the infrastructure goes together to create a full concert production.
Personally, I used to fall into the latter category, meaning that I was actually quite interested in how a large concert is organized and put together, but I did not possess the training or experience to fully understand what I witnessed when I traveled to see my favorite bands play live. I merely went to the concert, enjoyed the music, and traveled back home in a good state of mind. I grew up attending a wide range of shows in the Philadelphia area, from tiny club gigs all the way up to huge stadium-based productions, but I still didn’t quite realize what it took to put a large show together. This all changed when I began to study audio engineering. A few years later, I started to tour professionally with major artists, and I now possess a much deeper understanding of how a large show is put together based on my work experience. Many of these productions share common elements regardless of size, though obviously the magnitude of the production can be scaled up or down based on venue and audience size, and also the financial resources available to buy or rent equipment and pay for travel expenses.
Since I started on the path to becoming an audio engineer, I have produced shows in the smallest venues imaginable. More recently, I have gained significant experience working at large music festivals and stadiums that hold thousands of people. I actually write this article as I sit backstage of the Panorama Music Festival on Randall's Island in New York City. The difference between a small and a large production can be quite drastic, though all shows generally share common elements. Based on my experience, I would like to address some of what I feel are the most common uncertainties when it comes to concert productions.
Generally, touring acts will begin to hire crew members to travel with them from show to show once their music reaches a certain level of popularity and success. A small crew might consist of a sound engineer, a lighting technician, a guitar/instrument technician, and a tour manager. The tour manager deals with the day to day business side of touring, while the rest of the crew sets up, maintains, and breaks down gear before and after the show. A lesser known band might travel with just one sound engineer and maybe also a tour manager. Oftentimes, a single crew member will pull double or triple duties on a smaller tour, working as both a sound engineer and a tour manager, for instance. The sound engineer is responsible for mixing what the audience hears (the Front of House mix) using some type of mixing console. In the case of a single audio engineer, he or she must also mix monitors, which consists of any audio reinforcement that the performing artist might need in order to hear themselves and the other band members while on stage.
In years past, monitor engineering was generally achieved using speakers pointed back towards the musicians on the stage. These monitor “wedges” frequently led to high sound volume on stage and occasional problems with feedback, when the monitor mixes were loud enough to be picked up by the stage microphones, creating a feedback loop and painful squealing noises. More recently, with the advent of more reliable wireless technology, artists are beginning to switch over to using in-ear monitor systems (essentially very advanced in-ear headphones) in conjunction with wireless belt packs, enabling them to move around the stage freely without losing perception of the rest of the band or their own performance. Instruments such as guitars have also lost their long cables, relying instead on wireless RF (radio frequency) systems. Going wireless allows for a much more dynamic performance because the band members are not tethered to one particular location on the stage.
Many larger tours will travel with a dedicated monitor engineer in addition to the Front of House engineer. The monitor engineer is in charge of operating a mixing console and ensuring that each band member can hear everything that they need to perform. Groups traveling with both a Front of House and a monitor engineer must use some type of splitting system which takes the signals from each microphone and instrument and splits them electrically or digitally so that both engineers have access to the same set of inputs. The signals must be split so that changes to the Front of House mix, for instance, do not affect anything in the monitor mixes. This is absolutely vital because what the audience wants to hear at a concert is generally very different than what the band needs to hear while performing! For instance, a bass guitar player may want to hear just the drums, their own bass, and quieter vocals. In contrast, the lead vocalist might want to hear quiet guitars, drums, and bass, and loud vocals. The audience generally wants to hear a balanced mix of all instruments at similar volumes, with lead vocals and instruments slightly louder. As you quickly come to realize, there is a whole lot more going on technologically behind the scenes of a large show than one might think!
Concert lighting is another field that has progressed significantly in the past few decades. Years ago, a lighting designer would need to hang individual white lights (par cans) throughout the venue, with colored plastic filters (gels) in front of each light to provide the desired colors. These lights would need to be individually aimed and focused by hand for each show, and they generally could not move independently or change color during the show. This means that at a show where red, green, and blue lights are all needed, large groups of each color would need to be hung in the ceiling, aimed, and focused for every single show! Fortunately, modern day light systems are much more sophisticated. Individual lights can now be motorized, and can have multiple colored filters inside, enabling frequent movement and rapid color changes. The newest LED-based lights are capable of providing millions of different colors from a single light without using filters, and the movement of each light can be controlled remotely. As the technology of concert lighting progressed in recent years, so too has the control that the lighting designer has over the appearance and capabilities of lighting systems, and advanced computerized lighting consoles are needed to control the complex systems.
One of the most modern revolutions in concert production is the relatively new technology of LED video walls. Video walls consist of several flat screen panels that link together to form large walls on which graphics can be displayed. The implications of video wall technology are immense, and artists can now have artwork or imagery displayed around and behind them as they play. These walls can also display the live feed from cameras on the stage, allowing a larger than life image of the artist to appear on either side of the stage for large festival crowds. The advent of video wall technology has revolutionized concert lighting entirely, to the point that larger tours might travel with at least one crew member purely as a video wall technician! The job of a lighting/video designer has grown simpler in some ways, while also much more technically challenging in others.
In terms of tour travel logistics, a small concert tour might involve the whole band traveling in a passenger van and taking turns driving from show to show. On a larger tour, you will find one or more large tour buses with full-time bus drivers. Some bands will pull a trailer behind their tour bus or van for equipment, but on large tours, semi trucks are needed to haul equipment from show to show. Some of the largest tours even have upwards of a dozen semi trucks full of lights, speakers, and other concert gear!
My current tour mixing monitors for Lindsey Stirling lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with two tour buses and one semi truck full of lighting, sound, and video equipment. We travel with a full crew consisting of a monitor sound engineer (myself), front of house sound engineer, a backline/instrument tech, a lighting designer, a video technician, and several others in charge of things like merchandise and wardrobe. It is typical on a tour like ours to carry a small amount of vital equipment and “advance” everything else we need, meaning that the sound system and some lighting equipment is sourced from local companies closer to each concert venue. Our semi-truck carries some lighting, a small video wall, merchandise, wardrobe, and the basic audio gear that we need to put on a show. Everything else we need is advanced to the local production company, who will provide the sound system, the stage platform itself, extra lights, and anything else we need to put on a show besides the gear we carry with us .
As I stated in a past article, the term “roadie” generally conjures images of partying and characteristic unprofessionalism, but most modern tours are staffed by professional technicians with years of experience and education in their respective fields. We work together as a team to unload the truck each day, set up the equipment, and then break everything down to go back on the truck at the end of the night. Our average work days can be in excess of fourteen hours, but touring professionals don’t choose this line of work because it is easy. A dedication to providing a technically impressive and successful show supersedes the desire for easy, carefree work.
Touring can definitely be a stressful environment, but at the end of the night, it is always worth the effort to put a smile on the artist’s and the audience's faces. If you have an interest in concert sound, I urge you to delve deeper and discover some of the modern revolutions in both technology and techniques. Next time you see a great show, observe the crew working tirelessly behind the scenes to provide a great event. Many tour crews will be happy to explain technical details to those who are interested (though, admittedly many do not want to be bothered), but just keep in mind that we are hard at work from the morning of the show until well after the crowd has gone home!