All Around the World
A behind-the-scenes glimpse at their global light and sound show
Keeping thousands of teenage fans amused with a stunning lighting rig is one thing - getting the sound system to rise above a noise floor of screaming voices is something else. Ian Masterson watches the East 17 'All Around The World' tour swing into action
The Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 18 May 1994. It's four o'clock in the afternoon and already a large crowd has assembled outside the building, queueing for this evening's performance. Which, as usual, is sold out. When it comes to a hardcore fan following, East 17 have it made. At the moment, most of those waiting appear to be teenagers in the 13-to-16 age bracket - the 'Dorothy Perkins brigade', as one record company executive likes to label them. As I help James, The Mix's lensman, carry his photographic equipment into the foyer, one determined girl demands to know if we're 'with the band' - and, if so, will we introduce her to Tony Mortimer? The request is followed with a whispered bribe that makes even the burly security guard on the door blush. Such is the price of fame.
Inside the venue, the East 17 road crew are hard at work. In fact, they've been hard at work for almost a month now, first devising, then staging, and finally touring what has to be one of this year's most impressive, technically complex and exhausting pop shows.
Everyone scurrying around the auditorium carries a slightly weary, but nevertheless enthusiastic, expression on their faces. The team involved managed to gel into an effective, cohesive whole very early on; the sort of touring machine that makes a show like this more than just successful. This is the East 17 Around the World Tour - an unstoppable cavalcade of hit music, slick dance routines and goodtime vibes.
Rusty, the tour stage manager, bounds over and introduces himself, leading us off to inspect the stage. The set itself simply engulfs one end of the hall. Not only is it one of the most complex constructions ever toured in British indoor rock venues, it's also one of the largest. As we clamber around the various rigging positions and platforms, it becomes apparent that the whole thing resembles one massive Meccano kit, constructed from scaffold-like poles and risers.
The back of the set is built on three stacked levels. Above the stage floor hang two gallery platforms, directly above each other. Intellabeam intelligent lighting units hang from the supporting 'pillars' throughout the construction, giving the set a distinctly industrial, futuristic look. Risers for the various musicians - keyboards, drums, percussion - nestle in at the foot of the towering aluminium and steel construction. No expense has been spared in putting together this set, and it shows.
"It's perfectly safe," shouts Rusty above the 'Eeeaahone, Eaaaahtwo' din of soundchecking engineers. He leads me up a set of steps onto the highest platform, some 20 feet above the stage. This, I assume aloud, is used only by riggers and spot operators during the show. Wrong.
"This is where the band and dancers do a lot of their stuff!" says Rusty calmly. To demonstrate, he bounds up and down, causing the whole stage to quake slightly. Noticing my look of utter terror, he continues: "Honestly, it has to be safe. Otherwise we wouldn't let the band up here. The whole thing is supported on horizontal feet that run under the stage risers, and it's all rigid at the back. When you look at all the lighting hanging up here, you realise we can't afford to take any chances.
"The other good thing about a set like this," he adds, leading me back down to terra firma , "is that it's quite modular. We play a whole range of sizes of venues on this tour, and we need to be able to get all of this in and out of the hall, never mind putting it up. It's been designed so that the top bars can be cranked in if the ceiling is quite low - as it is in here - and the sides can be shrunk or expanded quite a bit.
"The preparation beforehand was hectic - now the only pressure is keeping the quality constant"
"When the audience come in, the whole stage is concealed behind a massive projection screen until East 17 actually come on. All the support bands play in front of the screen, and in between times we project music videos, so that the crowd is entertained the whole time."
A multi-tiered structure such as this creates all sorts of nooks, crannies and black spots that simply can't be lit by traditional battens of Parcans strung from above. And anyway, after all the effort that has been put into getting this set built, lining it with naff rock 'n' roll coloured spots à la Status Quo would have been something of a let-down. Alex Reardon, the sole lighting operator on the tour, is keen to explain how he and lighting designer Pete Barnes make the whole show just that bit more special.
"We have an arena-sized set, and there's a lot going on in the show," says Alex. "It's not just a rock show where the lights come on and go off at the beginning and end of every song. The mood of each song has to be carefully thought out and set. What I have to do is make sure that every night, everything we originally planned happens - no matter what size the venue is, or what the problems are in getting the set in and out.
"The main effects we're using are Intellabeams - quite a well-used, well-worn old faithful type of intelligent lighting. You can do a great deal with the system, and it's very, very flexible, but the controller is really easy to use - and very good for the money. As a whole system, they're light, they're easy to transport, they're durable, and they've got easy access for repairs. All of that is important in a rig like this, where the lighting is built into the set; you have to have units you can muck around with. There are 19 Intellabeam units in total: 13 on the main set, eight of which are arranged down the 'legs'. There are also two above the speaker stacks, which are good for picking out the big 'East 17' logos, and panning over the audience during the support bands.
"The rest of the background stuff is simple washes, with colour scrollers on the eight-light boxes at the back [those arrays of high-intensity bulbs that produce a dazzling light from behind the band to stun the audience]. On the Celco Gold control desk I'm using 60 channels of basic dimming, and 30 channels designated purely for controlling technology - the first 12 for intellabeams, the rest for different colour changes. Which means that there is a lot going on in the show - and a lot for me to keep my eyes on. Early on I delegated the followspot control to Scotty, my assistant, which means he can concentrate on the spots, while I concentrate on everything else that's going on."
So have there been any problems so far?
"Not yet. Technology can be troublesome, but we have enough setup time to get everything focused and tested, and to sort out any niggles. Before the tour began, it took us about a week to get the body of the programming work done in production rehearsals. Luckily we had enough time to try and work around what the problems would be, and work with them then, rather than trying to solve them on the road.
"I'm pleased with the way it's come together. Even though I'm not the LD, I've been able to put enough in so that I've been getting something back - and there's a really good vibe on the tour. We do work hard.
"Europe, where we're off to next, will be a completely different kettle of fish, because we're dealing with different-sized venues out there, and different equipment to facilitate flexibility. But so far it's all gone very smoothly."
"You can set up the mix for the bass guitar and the drum kit and leave it all night. It'll just move up and down perfectly within its own dynamic range... But only one rhythm section in 80 performs like that"
Less smooth has been the job of Steve Levitt, the front-of-house sound engineer. Steve was actually asked to join the tour at a very late stage as, to use a well-weathered euphemism, the previous sound man "just didn't work out". As the Corn Exchange show preparations gather momentum, I ask Steve just why doing sound for a show like this is so taxing - and why some engineers might run into unexpected difficulties.
"If you have a problem with sound, invariably you'll have one of two options to go for," he reflects. "But the real knack, which only comes with experience, is knowing that if you make the wrong choice, you need to reverse it bloody quickly! Perhaps that's what the previous guy didn't know, because he didn't necessarily have the experience. I think the initial vibe was to get young engineers to go with the young band, which is great, but you do need some experience to level things off. And with age - although I'm only 36 - you tend to get respect. I actually don't think I'm doing that much different from the guy that was here before. But, ultimately, the results are different.
"The hardest live mix I've ever done - and also one of the best results I've achieved - was in pop music, for Bananarama. On that tour we had two PM3000 consoles in the house - one of them had two Fairlight MkIIIs on it, the other had a 40 mic-input band. The machines were integrated with the band - like 'other members' - and the beauty of that tour being so constant in performance terms lay in the fact that the musicians couldn't just change their minds from show to show. The machines ensured continuity.
"Having said that, nothing quite beats working with decent live musicians - and the band here are shit-hot. It's great working with good players. You can set up the mix for the bass guitar and the whole drum kit and leave it practically all night. You'll never lose it, it'll never get too quiet, it'll just move up and down perfectly within its own dynamic range. The musicians themselves are doing it - but it's only one rhythm section in 80 which performs like that. I think we've got one of those here.
"As an engineer I like to get in there right from the start. In pop music, though, I very often end up with a situation where someone else has programmed things beforehand - where they've sampled things off the multitrack in the studio - and some don't realise that that's very different from the sound you want to achieve in a gig. I believe the sound in a live show should excite people, and I like to take the strongest part of a musical arrangement and exaggerate it beyond all belief. And you can only really do that with a live band."
Steve has had plenty of opportunity to prove his theories, having worked with a veritable Who's Who of the rock biz: Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Cutting Crew, World Party, Little Angels, Marcella Detroit, Gary Moore, Talk Talk... What is it that keeps him interested in mixing live sound?
"If these guys could deliver a vocal performance with technical perfection at 19, they'd be boring by the time they were 25"
"I enjoy pop music - I've never gone on a tour where I haven't found something I enjoy. If you like doing your job there's always something interesting you can bring out of it. These young guys [East 17] are good. They can definitely sing, and they can definitely rap. Sure, there are a few problems, such as mic technique - but that you only get through experience. If these guys, at 19, could deliver a vocal performance with technical perfection now, they'd be boring by the time they were 25. It's all about raw energy.
"What does go out the window in these gigs is something in terms of sound 'quality'. With the entire audience screaming, I run the system at least 6dB hotter than I would at any other gig. A full audience like that can reach 110dB, and the system has to do it too. You can't EQ at 90dB and then turn it up. It won't work.
And I hate 'hurting' people - it's not my style. I hate putting vocals top-end heavy in the mix so they pierce. So I keep my fingers crossed every show and edge the levels up slowly throughout the night.
"The rig we're using is an EAW system, powered by some new amps which are doing rather well - they're Lab Griippen. I'm using a Midas console front-of-house; it's an oldie, but good. Sure, you could use an XL3, which is basically the newer version with all the automation, but I don't need that. The old Midases probably sound better than any other board you can get.
The whole secret of good-sounding gear, for me, is being able to plug a mic into the back of the desk and take the output into an amp, and if it sounds good it's a great board. You don't have to turn any knobs. That's what its all about."
With that, Steve makes his apologies and moves towards his desk, ready to begin mixing for the evening's first support act. By now the hall is packed with an audience absolutely gasping for a good time - and, despite what you may think, they're not all screaming teenagers, either. Hard-nosed clubbers, DJs, married couples, young executives... all are here simply to enjoy one hell of a pop show. By the time the first pyrotechnics announce the arrival of Tony, Brian, Terry, and John on stage, the crowd are going mad - and engineers Alex Reardon and Steve Levitt are loving every minute of it.
"Plug a mic into the back of the desk, take the output into an amp, and if it sounds good it's a great board. You don't have to turn any knobs"
Interview by Ian Masterson
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