Justin Timberlake has again selected Montreal’s Solotech as the audio provider for his “20/20 Experience” world tour. To ensure the tour’s success, the sound company has in turn designated Shure as its primary wireless supplier.
The 2014 tour, which began in January, is currently in its second leg with dates across North America.
Solotech RF Technician Éric Marchand is currently on the road with the band. “I’ve been working as a touring wireless specialist for the last six years,” he says. “A major tour uses so many frequencies these days, and production designs have become so demanding, you don’t want to leave anything to chance.”
The tour employs ten channels of Shure Axient wireless for backing vocals and the horn section, plus four dual-channel Shure UHF-R bodypack systems on all guitars and bass.
With the exception of Justin’s vocal microphone, Shure gear was specified for the entire band, dancers, and much of the backline crew, who were covered by 26 channels of Shure PSM1000 personal monitors, with 24 of them running through a single pair of antennas using a series of four Shure PA821A wideband antenna combiners.
The production design of the tour is a demanding one. The concept was a completely bare stage with a huge video projection screen behind; the performers make their entrances from beneath the stage by elevator platforms. It was mandated that nothing interfere with the audience line of sight, severely limiting the options for antenna placement. A secondary “B” stage located beyond the FOH mix position offered another wireless reception challenge.
“The arenas we play are always sold out, so there was no way I could bring cables and antennas out closer. It was crucial to get good line of sight to the B stage, for both the receive antennas and the transmit antennas for the IEMs. So we designed the system to cover everything from antennas discreetly hiding in plain sight on stage. The actual wireless racks, along with me and my scanners, all live under the stage.”
This tour is Marchand’s first time using Shure Axient. “A friend of mine was out with Bruce Springsteen for Solotech last year. That was all Axient, and he told me it was great,” says Éric. “Plus, I’ve been trained on Axient, so I was excited to use it.”
The system’s usefulness was immediately apparent. “We did rehearsals in Memphis, which is where we got everything properly tuned and working together,” continued Marchand. “The ShowLink access point made it easy to make quick adjustments on audio and RF levels. Very accurate and efficient. It also saves me a lot of time when I do my RF coordination in the morning. I don’t have to sync a single Axient pack. I just turn them on and, boom, they’re done.”
Axient’s full remote control of all transmitter functions through ShowLink comes into play when Timberlake moves to the second stage, which is more than 100 feet from the antennas. To compensate, Marchand boosts the output power of the Axient transmitters.
“That allows me to optimize my system for Justin’s mic on the B stage. I keep an extra transmitter on an alternate frequency for him, just in case. I know if I can get that happening, everything is going to be fine, because the Shure systems, both Axient and UHF-R, plus the PSM 1000s, are all going to be solid.”
Marchand is also clearly a fan of the PSM 1000, which offers the security of diversity receive antennas on the bodypack and precision front-end filtering for maximum range and signal reception.
“The RF stability is outstanding, and I really like the CueMode feature. That allows me to walk both the stages with just one pack and listen to every frequency,” he explains. “It shows that Shure really designed the system for major tours.”
To ensure that everyone hears what they need to hear during the show, 20 monitor mixes are required. That includes Timberlake, two guitars, bass, two keyboardists, percussion, four backing vocals, and the four-piece horn section.
In addition, the six dancers share a mix, while the drummer uses a Shure P6HW hardwired system. PSM 1000 systems are also in the ears of the key backline techs: the monitor engineer; instrument techs for guitar, keyboard, percussion, and drums, and two more audio assistants.
Axient’s interference detection and avoidance system and frequency diversity feature have proven helpful, even though Marchand routinely uses two scanners to monitor the RF landscape.
“My main attention is on Justin’s mic, so I have the Axient channels set up in Prompt mode instead of automatic. That way, it alerts me whenever there’s a channel with issues,” he says. “I also use the Spectrum Manager, which has a listen option, which is really helpful. That way I can check it personally and decide whether to change channels. I like to have my hand on the wheel.”
Another of Marchand’s responsibilities as the tour’s RF specialist is power management. And that means batteries. Axient and PSM 1000 make that job easier with their optional lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.
“I did tests, and the Shure rechargeables actually last longer than they claim,” says Marchand. “I love being able to see exactly how much time is left as well, although that’s never been an issue. I keep two sets, and change them out every day after sound check and before the show. On a long tour, it really saves a lot of money.”
Carrying about 60 channels of wireless from city to city is a significant challenge, because large cities are almost certain to offer significant RF challenges.
“On tour, there is a huge trust issue between the gear you are using, the company you are working for, and the people you are working with. If the equipment fails, everyone is affected,” says Marchand. “When you have a tour like Justin Timberlake, you want to make sure the tools you’re working with are top of the class. The fact that Solotech chose Shure Axient and PSM 1000 for this tour tells me they’ve earned that trust.”