Simply Red: Two Shows In One | Simply Red
Live Music for the Hi-Tech Musician
Simply Red, whose superb Stars album is still riding high in the UK album sales charts a year after its release, toured extensively during 1992. There was a run of summer outdoor arena shows and, to wind up a successful year for the band, a brief but spectacular outing in December.
For the latest shows (three of which, following Mick Hucknall's vocal problems, were re-scheduled for this month at the Birmingham NEC) Simply Red settled on a production design that was lavish by anyone's standards — giving fans of the band an excellent deal for their money. It also marked an equally unusual liaison between two of the UK's leading (and, normally, competing) PA companies — SSE Hire of Birmingham and Britannia Row Productions of London.
The deal was this: rather than the usual end-stage setup employed in large arena shows, Simply Red took with them two stages. The show's first half was played 'in-the-round' on a compact central stage; then, for the second half, the band moved enmasse to a conventional 'main stage' located at one end of the arena.
SSE director Chris Beale explains the philosophy: "It was a management-driven thing: Simply Red had been on tour since the beginning of the year and they wanted to make arenas more intimate. Somebody came up with the idea of using a small stage in-the-round to open the show and then having a main stage to show off the band's talents in two different lights.
"The first part of the show, which was done on the in-the-round stage, has a 'clubby' kind of feel, demonstrating the jazzy side of the band with a lightweight presentation. There's no stage set or massive lighting rig; the band shines by itself. Then, when the show moved onto the big stage you saw their other side: the dramatic side and the more powerful sound mix."
He adds: "That's not a comment on one PA system or the other; it's just the way it was presented — and the audience got the best of both worlds. They got a very intimate first part and a grand second part. It all worked very well."
The two systems in question comprised of Britannia Row Productions' Turbosound 'Flashlight' cabinets, for the 'round' stage, and SSE's ElectroVoice MT4 PA which served the 'main' stage.
The Flashlight system was outlined in last month's Live End review of The Cure's tour. The MT4 was developed by American loudspeaker manufacturer Electrovoice as their flagship concert PA system. SSE runs a large quantity of MT4s — and its recently launched sister system, the more compact MT2. However, SSE last year worked with EV to produce an enhanced version of the MT4 — and the new system received its first outing on this tour.
Beale says: "Simply Red had been an SSE account for many years and we were finding that, especially in the outdoor shows, we'd reached the limits of what the MT4 system could do, and Robbie McGrath [Simply Red's front-of-house sound engineer] felt the same.
"Robbie went out to look at alternative systems, including Flashlight, Showco's Prism and others — he couldn't decide if he'd found anything significantly better, but he decided that if he was going to change, he'd choose Flashlight."
Chris recalls: "But by the time he came up to see us about it, we'd produced the new cabinet. He listened to it, which was a formality to begin with, then he got more and more excited about it." The result was the unique dual system design that featured on the tour, with each company having its own separate contract with Simply Red.
Chris: "Robbie opted to go for a different company to get a different feel, and I think that decision was absolutely right; the whole vibe of the two stages meant it was appropriate to use different systems.
"...rather than the usual end-stage setup employed in large arena shows, Simply Red took with them two stages."
"The interesting thing is that it wasn't a case of our system versus theirs: both crews worked really well together. The sum of the whole was actually greater than the parts, and it wouldn't have been that good if just one company had been doing it."
Robbie McGrath and the two PA companies worked together to figure out the overall layout and design of the two systems, while SSE and Brit Row's engineers looked after the specific details of their respective hardware.
"Both systems were completely separate," explains Chris Beale, "apart from the Midas XL88 Matrix, which routes everything into the various systems."
However, the two systems did work together in the show's second half, with the rear-facing portion of the Flashlight 'ring' providing a cluster for the front stage MT4 arrays. "It was pointless having separate MT4 delay clusters," explains Chris.
"We set it up with the XL88 Matrix," he continues, "and we re-EQ the predelayed centre signal, to the matrix, and just send it to the rear delay hangs in the cluster. So basically when we 'flip' from one to the other, there's no switching to be done; you just un-mute the main stage console and go. It's already delayed and equalised."
The 'round' stage was surrounded overhead by a ring of 12 'hangs' of Flashlight cabinets, each hang arranged in stereo pairs two cabinets wide by three deep. A dozen Turbosound 12" dual concentric stage wedge monitors formed the bottom tier of this flown system, providing near-fill for the audience closest to the stage. Another dozen or so Turbosound TSW124 sub-bass cabinets were arranged below the stage.
The main system comprised eight systems aside of the 'new' MT4, and eight systems aside of MT2 cabs for the nearfield, forming the bottom row of the main hang — flown from SSE's own SuperBeam flying hardware.
I asked Chris about the SSE-inspired revisions to the MT4 cabinet.
"It's now a three-way system, using the same drivers as before but in a different way. We replaced the HF section with a multi-cellular array which is driven by half the compression drivers of the original box. We've been able to improve both efficiency and dispersion whilst reducing weight and amplifier requirements.
"The TC Electronics moving fader remote hardware is now our standard monitoring setup..."
"I think it'll herald a new generation of PA products, and that may well completely change the way in which we as a company approach arena sound system engineering."
The changeover between centre and main stage was the slickest part of the operation. Orchestrated by production manager Nick Levitt, it was a classic piece of theatre with the audience's attention subtly diverted by a keyboards/vocals duet whilst the remaining band members took up their new positions out front.
Says Chris: "What actually happens is that the last number of the set — 'Wonderland' — is played by Mick Hucknall and Fritz, the keyboard player, with a drum machine while the rest of the band go and prepare themselves on the main stage. The last note of 'Wonderland' is the cue to kill the lights on the round stage, lift the main stage drapes for the band to come in, and then Mick and Fritz come down to the main stage also.
"Because the song's fairly simple, Robbie [who also has to swap mix console positions] can set up his main stage mix in the first part of the song while Flakey [monitor man Steve Flewin] sets up the monitors.
"When Flakey leaves to go down to the main stage halfway through the song, Gareth takes over and just watches the levels; similarly Hugh Richards watches the levels for Robbie while the two of them swap sides and get into position for the second half of the show. The most important part of any mix is the first few bars, so those guys have to be settled very quickly and ready to go."
Paddy Addison, meanwhile, was overall co-ordinator for the operation of the systems. Needless to say, with two PA systems in operation there was an impressive acreage of control gear in evidence. At the main stage mix position, behind the round stage, were a Midas XL3 desk plus 'stretch', attended by Robbie, while Hugh Richards looked after Brit Row's PA system control from a little 'nest' under the main stage front, which served as the mix position for the round stage — again, featuring a Midas XL3 desk.
Other crew included Pete Russell (monitor technician), Martin Hutt (system tech) and Danny Cooklin (amplifiers and other gear on the round stage). People's tasks inevitably overlapped a little, but the experience on hand ensured that everything was well covered.
As for monitoring, Flakey mixed for the 24-feet-wide round stage where, as expected, feedback from the PA cabinets directly overhead was a constant threat. Chris Beale adds: "We've been doing some interesting things on stage. The TC Electronics moving fader remote hardware is now our standard monitoring setup; on this tour it's been great, storing the monitor EQ settings for each venue, so that when we return to a venue a second time around the EQ is within a gnat's of where it's supposed to be. Flakey can ring out his monitors without having somebody at the desk saying 'can you put a bit more 4k in it' or whatever. It really is an extremely good way of setting up a stage, especially where you've got a lot of cabinets to deal with."
The main stage monitor system was SSE standard issue, featuring Macrotech 2400 amplifiers, SSE MB3 wedges, MT4 sidefills and DML 1152s — "there's a lot of it," says Chris, "and the band like it!"
Many of the effects for guitars and keyboards are located off-stage and fed either direct or through miked-up guitar cabinets. Robbie builds different 'feels' for the mix — such as a reggae feel, a jazzy feel or a funky feel — using a combination of BSS 901 multi-band compressors, various equalisers, and straight compression. He works very hard on building his 'feel', which he regards as a very important aspect of his mix concept. "Just turning it on and making it sound good is not enough," explains Chris, "he treats it much more intimately than that."
Anyone who enjoys live music, superbly played and brilliantly presented — even non-fans of Simply Red — would appreciate the technical and artistic merits of this show. Check out the rescheduled NEC dates on February 23-25 (if you can find a ticket!) — you won't be disappointed.
Feature by Mike Lethby
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