Peter Gabriel Live
The Secret World Tour | Peter Gabriel
A behind the scenes look at how Gabriel steamed up Earl's Court with his hot new stage show.
Mike Lethby recently caught up with Peter Gabriel's 'Secret World Tour' at London's Earl's Court stadium, to find out how the sound crew did their thing on the night.
"It's quite a mental leap to go from the recording studio to taking on an arena like Earl's Court. With such a complex arrangement of speakers and sound zones it's about as far removed from listening to a familiar pair of monitors in a controlled environment as you can possibly get."
So spoke Peter Walsh, touring sound engineer to Peter Gabriel's 'Secret World Tour' extravaganza — and, more typically, a familiar face in the Real World engineer/producer's seat.
Peter was talking to me as a near-capacity crowd filed into the giant concrete barn that is London's Earl's Court Stadium before the second of Gabriel's shows there early in June. As the audience poured in their eyes were greeted by the sight of one of the most logistically-adventurous touring productions ever to hit the road — all nine trucks' worth of it.
The tour came to London with a stupendously high expectation rating among fans, critics, and the music industry. Getting it all on the road had been, according to sources close to the production team, a trial of strength for everyone involved. A no-holds-barred concept of musical theatre was the nub of Gabriel's brief, but when the resulting melting pot of ideas was first tasted in production rehearsals, practical reality swiftly suggested a major rethink — and a number of last minute personnel changes.
It is incredibly adventurous for a touring show. A complex set (designed by top theatre designer Robert Lepage) that you would expect to leap-frog in duplicate on tour is in fact being rigged and de-rigged back-to-back (ie. in and out of each venue in the space of less than 18 hours) across Europe. And nor is the tour playing a comfortable two city/four show weekly schedule: five nights in five different cities has often been the task facing Gabriel's crew, and that's very hard work.
That this is possible at all is a testament to the efforts of tour manager Dave Perry and production manager Dave Russell, the crew and the set's builders, the Samuelson Group staging division, Brilliant Stages.
Two stages, a square one at the back and a circular affair in mid-arena, are connected by an 80-foot spine which incorporates a moving conveyor-belt walkway (modular, to allow for variations in venue size).
Gabriel opens the show inside a telephone box, singing pleadingly "won't you please talk to me". During the course of the song he drags the handset and ever-extending telephone cable along the conveyor-belt to the round stage, for a vocal playoff with Sinead O'Connor. In 'Shaking The Tree', a tree rises out of the round stage; in 'Steam' Gabriel stands amidst blasts of white smoke. During 'Digging In The Dirt' we are treated to an eerie fish-eye close-up of Gabriel's features, courtesy of a tiny video camera mounted in front of his face, the video images appearing on a huge square projection screen which raises, lowers and rotates through 360 degrees. In the final song, a circular dome above the round stage (complete with lighting rig) descends, Close Encounters-style, to envelop the whole band. It all seems enough to keep the average production manager on psychoanalysis for many years to come.
I wasn't alone in finding the whole theatrical spectacle impressive rather than emotionally involving. That's hardly surprising, considering that the show's visual content was finalised with just a few days of production rehearsal time remaining — and much of that was occupied with lighting and other design decisions. In effect, then, the first couple of weeks of 'The Secret World Tour' formed a not-so-secret rehearsal session.
With Gabriel and band playing here, there, and everywhere on both stages and on the moving walkway between them, there was no chance of a simple two-point PA or lighting setup: the entire set had to be mixed and lit as one.
Responsible for the tour's sound are Britannia Row Productions' system engineers Chris Hey and Huw Richards, Steve Spencer, Paddy Addison, front-of-house (FOH) engineer Peter Walsh — and monitor mixer Bryan Olson.
Another man with a major role in keeping the show going is Julian Tether. Britannia Row's man on the radio, in charge of the many and various radio mic and in-ear monitoring systems (explained a little later by Bryan Olson).
The show looks a very complicated one to take out on the road, so was this the case?
Pete Walsh: "Yeah, absolutely. I guess it's always been Peter's ultimate vision to mix theatre with rock'n'roll and there's both sides to this show. There's the 'sit down and watch' side and the 'let's get down and party' side. After some songs the audience are so taken in by what they've seen, they almost seem to forget to applaud — but after other numbers it's like an explosion.
"Peter's always been known for taking chances, right through Genesis, WOMAD, Real World; I think he has as many people telling him 'it'll never work' as he has telling him 'it's great'."
Since Gabriel and his band use the set as one large stage, the show is mixed as a single entity but divided into six inter-related sound zones [see diagram]. These comprise the main PA (flown mid/high cabinets above each stage plus ground-stacked bass cabinets); the 'rear PA' flown from the end of the round stage dome, a near-field 'underhung' system below the main PA arrays to cover the audience nearest the stage; along with small delay clusters hung further back in the hall.
Britannia Row Productions is using 70 Flashlight mid/high packs and 78 Flashlight bass cabinets, with 17 pairs of Funktion One's new 'underslung' cabinets below the arrays for nearfield fills — and TMS3 delay hangs.
In fact, the tour marks the debut for Funktion One's new wide dispersion PA technology. Compatible with the Tony Andrews/John Newsham designed Flashlight system, the new cabinets provide much-enhanced flexibility in array configurations — allowing a large audience to be covered with fewer cabinets than would be needed with narrow-beam Flashlight boxes alone.
As the diagram shows, Gabriel's setup is far from the standard pair of left and right PA arrays. Making life still more complicated for Walsh is the fact that his mix position is located at one side of the arena floor, mid-way between the two stages.
Walsh: "There are two problems about the mixing position. One, it can get very loud in front of the stage and just below the PA — and it has to stay loud so that all the audience gets a feeling for the show. Two, the PA is set up to supply frequencies to the whole hall, not just to me here, so in some venues I've had bass cancelling out in the middle, right where I'm standing. A little trough with no bass; you move slightly to the left and it all comes out.
"For America, the system is likely to include more speakers on the dome to feed the rear of the arena, rather than using delay systems."
Earl's Court is undoubtedly a weird and difficult hall. On the first night I sat in the tiered seating some 20 feet above Pete's ground-level mix position. The difference between the tight bass response at his desk and up there, where it was much woollier, was immense: the room seemed to be absorbing a lot of energy.
Walsh: "I thought there wasn't enough bass getting up there, but Huw is definitely not into flying bass. And I trust him a lot; who am I to come in after practically no road experience and start telling them where to put the boxes? I rely on the Britannia Row team a lot to put them in the right places, then I might walk around and say, 'I want more presence up there' or whatever, and Paddy will tweak the system. It makes it better, but you can never get it absolutely perfect. The whole team are great, and that's so crucial.
"It is a tricky thing, because being a studio person my experience lies in working in very close contact with people, in a situation where you can go back and take another look; you can solo something without getting upset or you can spend half a day getting your drum sound exactly right.
"And then suddenly to jump into a touring situation... I'm still dealing with the people, of course, but I'm also dealing with two sets; I've got the band on my back and I also have to integrate with the crew and not just be this guy who shows up just before the show, mixes it, and then gets patted on the back. I'm not like that — even though [laughs] I do turn up just before the show!
"I think that's really why Peter likes to have studio people mix his shows, because there's so much stuff going on behind the scenes. He's got so much on his mind — where to stand, the production and the theatre of the show — that it strikes me that half the time he's not really aware of the intricacies of the music supporting him. Therefore he relies on the musicians... and me. And I do act as a sort of spokesman for the band at times; they come to me with problems that I can make Peter aware of — certain flaws or good points that should perhaps either be put in or taken out.
"It's such a change from working in the studio — refreshing and an enjoyable challenge — because I've always been one for panning toms and layering the sound, and I'm known for my wide, cinematic mixes."
The major challenge of moving from the studio to the road must be in dealing with the acoustics of these huge barns? How does he find Earl's Court compared to other large halls on the European circuit?
Walsh: "It's pretty huge... and the decay is incredibly long; it's got this cavernous reverb on the low end, so they hang drapes all over the ceiling, and in the swimming pool underneath the floor. It is a barn but I find the reflections not too bad, compared to some places which just scream at you. It's not as frightening as I thought it would be!"
Some engineers reckon the best approach is simply to put so much sound into the room that it simply swamps the echo.
Walsh: "You can, but it's terribly hard on the ears. I eventually want to go back and carry on my career as an engineer/producer and I don't want to deafen myself — or anyone else!
"Like I said to you at the beginning, this rig went out very early, before we'd all had a good chance to experiment — in the early days of rehearsals they were very much concerned about the visual side, the theatrical side. We haven't had any bad nights, but it's been a learning curve all the way through Europe to here!"
He says, ruefully: "Because we mix in between the two stages, with only a couple of Flashlight boxes pointing at us, we have to make comparative judgements as to what it's sounding like a few hundred feet away. Originally the whole show was designed to sit in the middle of the arena, an island surrounded by people, which conceptually would have worked well — and might have been a little easier for me, too — but it was too complicated from a production point of view."
(It was also too much for most European venue roofs, commonly designed for sound and lighting equipment to be flown from one end of an auditorium, to bear. The inventory hanging in Earl's Court totalled a massive 23 tonnes.)
Walsh continues: "It is essentially a mono system; I don't split the sound up too much because it would affect too many people."
Walsh sits in front of a pair of arrays which work partially in stereo; the pair on the opposite side of the spine mirror that mix. "Even though it's stereo," he adds, "everything comes pretty much up the middle and I only use the sides to focus certain sound sources. If the action is taking place on the round stage I'll tilt the vocals and violin slightly to the left, because the audience is looking that way. When they're on the square stage, I pan everything back over there. And for special effects — crazy moments in the show — I'll do left-right pans for the benefit of people on either side."
Instead of complex delay timings, he says: "The idea is that you have the main PA arrays just loud enough so that you don't hear them if you're listening to the back-of-dome PA on the round stage. That's simply mixed as a sum of left and right."
Fortunately, Pete doesn't need to worry about creating separate mixes for all the different zones. He explains: "I mix on a Yamaha PM4000 and Huw mixes drums on a PM3000. A Midas XL88 matrix feeds the PA's various left, right, mono, rear and underhang zones and a Sonosax mixer caters for playback machines."
Have you brought any special 'toys' out from the studio for the tour?
Walsh: "Well, yes... I've tried to make myself feel as comfortable as possible, to keep me in my natural habitat. So I've got a couple of [TC Electronics] TC2290s for processing effects, delays and flanging; and an [Eventide] H3000 Harmonizer for vocals. Peter loves the AMS RMX reverb for snares — and the Quantec Room Simulator for a vocal loop effect." (Gabriel introduced this unit to the audience as: 'An ancient German device; it's wonderful but rather temperamental.')
Walsh: "I agree with Peter — modem machines don't have the same texture as the Quantec; it's like a digital Mellotron. I use a 100 second reverb — with the ability to freeze that reverb and keep overdubbing vocal parts on top of it.
"I'm using the older dbx 160Xs and a couple of [BSS] Varicurves on bass and vocal. Because Tony [Levin] uses so many different basses during the show, I had to sit down and work out the EQ settings for each song; so when he changes basses I just change my EQ.
"All the program changes are controlled via MIDI by an Apple PowerBook computer. Each song has its own page for effects units — Lexicon PCM70s, TC graphics, BSS Varicurves — so that all the effects, all the delay times, phasers, flangers et cetera will change instantly. In the early days of the tour it acted as a reminder of which faders to push up; but now that the whole show has become more humanly programmed we don't need to refer to it as much."
When you're mixing such a complicated show, with two of you at the controls, how do you divide up the labour?
Walsh: "I do the sound-checking and get all the basic sounds up, and during the show Huw looks after the drums on the PM3000 desk. There's two drum kits and three drum setups. One is a processed kit, then there's a split of that same kit into another set of channels but unprocessed; on the same desk is the round stage kit. They then all feed into my desk, where I've also got bass, eight channels each of Peter's and Joy's keyboards, guitars, violins... and tonight I've also got Sinead's vocal."
Does the show mix change much from night to night?
Walsh: "Some nights it seems OK — other nights they're all up and down; you almost want to compress the whole thing. When the band all swap stages it's like starting the show again — you can't relax for one minute, it's hands-on all the time. And with Peter moving around so much, we have to be really careful with his voice: because of the different spaces he sings in [telephone box, dome etc], the vocal can sound really different. Moving from stage to stage changes the phase relationship between mics in relation to the PA, so I'm constantly having to change things.
"A big problem is the vinyl parabolic dome above the round stage — there's a build-up of low-mid frequencies under it that's impossible to get rid of. Originally Peter wanted to project a picture of Solsbury Hill on to the top of it. We'll change it for an acoustically transparent material, which will be a big improvement."
When monitor engineer Bryan Olson takes on a major tour, he presents his clients with rather more than just his mixing expertise and the equally adept diplomacy required for the 'hardest job in rock'n'roll'. Uniquely in the top flight, Bryan comes as a complete package deal comprising both the man and his monitors. It's an arrangement that Britannia Row Productions are used to working with — before the Gabriel tour. Olson had most recently provided a similar formula for BRP on The Cure's acclaimed 'Wish' world tour.
Through his New York-based company, Firehouse Productions, Olson designs and builds his own monitor wedges which incorporate a Tony Andrews-designed triangular horn and TAD drivers. He's using Crown amps, BSS crossovers, and a Ramsa S840 monitor console.
Olson: "I'm using a lot of the same Firehouse wedges and sidefills that I had with The Cure, and pretty much the same control and processing gear — like Klark Teknik graphics and BSS crossovers." The comments he made during the 'Wish' tour, and the philosophy behind them, apply even more pertinently with Gabriel's wide-open set. "I try to avoid using sidefills," he observed last year. "It's the whole thing about PA not coming back on stage again; without sidefills the issue isn't clouded, you've got that much more control."
A hardware-free stage was also in the sound production brief, though this was later relaxed slightly in the interests of practicality.
Walsh: "We're still using wedges for a bit of feel and ambience, and in case anything should go wrong."
Olson's small 2x15 TAD sidefills are flown around the square stage. "There's a lot going on in every song," he adds. "I'm running short of mixes, using all 18 sends on my two Ramsa consoles with 50 inputs off the stage; so I'm being creative — trying to create more mixes wherever I can."
I was intrigued to learn how Gabriel and the band — given the enormous stage length — can relay their monitoring demands back to Bryan at long range. In fact, he reveals, they don't need to. "It's all down to careful pre-planning in rehearsals. I'm aware of what Peter wants and I try to keep the mix and the cues as consistent as possible from show to show. It's rare that he wants anything different."
Olson opted for the increasingly fashionable in-ear monitoring (in the shape of the Personal Radio Station system) and persuaded Peter Gabriel to use it.
Walsh comments: "Peter was very wary about the health and safety aspects. He'd heard that Roland [Orzabal] from Tears For Fears had got an infection and he didn't want to risk it. But it became obvious during rehearsals that you simply couldn't cover that much stage area with conventional monitors, given all the potential feedback problems and other complications."
Gabriel, unlike some of the band, opted not to use the personalised ear-moulds that are normally provided to artists who use in-ear monitors. The moulds are tailored to fit the individual's outer ear and effectively exclude ambient (room) sound.
Bryan Olson: "It actually works extremely well without the moulds. Peter likes to hear the audience and what's going on around him. This way, he gets a lot of ambient sound and doesn't feel isolated.
"He didn't want to use it at all in the beginning; but once we'd persuaded him to try it, Peter picked it up in about three seconds and said "these are great'. Out in front of the PA you need the in-ear stuff. David, Tony and Joy — when they move to the other stage — and Shankar, the violinist, use the PRS system too.
"It would have been extremely hard to cover everything, everywhere, without them: we would have been close to feedback all the time."
"David [Rhodes, guitar] and Tony [Levin, bass] are on AKG radio mics," explains Walsh. "Peter's using a Shure headset mic, which was the most unidirectional one we could find. Its sound isn't bad but its pattern is fantastic — really tight. With Peter moving around so much we needed something that was very directional.
"We use a Shure Beta 87 mic for one song, which is really nice, and Beta 58s for the rest. I'd like to use the 87 more, but the pattern's a bit too wide. If you put that mic under the dome without winding out all the low-mid, it just starts feeding back."
Finally, if today's touring high technology seems to leave little room for off-the-cuff innovation, I can happily reveal that Bryan employed a device (often seen adorning the bodywork of decrepit cars) to make Peter Gabriel feel comfortable with his headset adornments. Take a bow, the humble coat-hanger.
Bryan explains: "I couldn't find a regular headset band that Peter was comfortable with, so in the end I made one out of a coat-hanger with a couple of cushioning pads." He laughs: "And then all the band wanted one!"
Feature by Mike Lethby
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