Arena Rock In The Round

Among the pantheon of arena rock legends, Muse just may be having a truly transcendent moment with its Drones World Tour, which kicked off in late November in Mexico City prior to settling in for the holidays with a pair of sold-out shows at the Staples Center in LA.

With early 2016 dates in Las Vegas, San Diego, Chicago, Montreal, and well beyond, the English rockers are bringing their brand of aural and visual spectacle to fans in the round from a 360-degree stage. Reinforced with a formidable audio cache assembled by Skan PA Hire Ltd., the show travels in 24 trucks and uses 32 hang points for the PA alone.

Ambitious by any measure, the show, according to Muse frontman Matt Bellamy, follows in the footsteps of Pink Floyd’s The Wall Tour. “It’s our version of ‘The Wall,’ basically,” he told BBC Radio 2. “There’s a whole swarm of drones, and a stage like a double-headed arrow.”

The drones of which Bellamy speaks are, for insurance purposes, referred to as Helium Flown Objects, or HFOs, by the production crew. Making their swarming presence felt from above at specific times during the show, they’re controlled by a networked tracking system. Narrow and low-slung, the stage creates an aura of intimacy in the arena spaces it was designed for.

Getting It Coordinated
To create the show’s sound reinforcement blueprint, Skan PA Hire’s Matt Vickers drew from an inventory of d&b audiotechnik components housed at Skan PA’s Newbury-based headquarters in the UK.

Flown within four separate zones, each of the PA quadrants comprises three independent hangs of its own employing d&b J-Series J8 cabinets, J-SUBs, and V-Series V8s. In total, there are 72 J8 enclosures and 72 V8 boxes that are flown, and 32 J-SUBs, some of which are flown and some of which are deployed under the stage along with eight J-INFRA Subs and four V-Series subs per side.

The production’s ring of flying d&b audiotechnik J- and V-Series arrays.

Power for the loudspeaker rig is provided in force via 84 d&b D80 amplifiers. System processing falls under the guidance of Lake controllers, which, along with the amps, are all housed come show time in a “space station” flown high above the crowd. Not merely a repository for gear, the space station is manned by crew members and engineers from the audio, video, rigging, and lighting teams, as well as HFO wranglers.

For audio crew chief Liam Tucker, the biggest challenge among many when assembling the PA in the round is that the stage can’t go in until everything flown is in place. “Because this show is in the round, the cables can only go in one way,” he says the day after the sold-out LA dates have successfully concluded. “So therefore if the lighting crew or anyone else runs into a problem above, the rig can’t go up, and then the stage can’t go in.

“With no stage we have no power to monitorworld or to start creating the PA network,” he continues. “No stage also means we have nothing to put the subs under, so we don’t have a full system to configure. The audio team is generally the last to be ready because we are so dependent upon everyone else being set to go.”

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Joining Tucker on the audio crew are system tech Joachim Dewulf, front of house tech Eddie O’Brien, space station wingman/denizen Rob “Snowy” Wilkins, PA tech and support band coordinator Scott Maxwell, and wingman Matt Besford-Foster. Muse veterans Marc Carolan and Adam Taylor take charge of moving faders at front of house and monitors, respectively.

Developing A Process
An Irishman amidst a crew packing plenty of English presence, Carolan offers the chance for this American writer to further his understanding of English dialects as well as how to wring the most out of a Midas XL4 analog console.

Marc Carolan at his front of house station prior to showtime.

“I’ve been using an XL4 on-and-off ever since I began mixing Muse 14 years ago,” Carolan tells me. “I love the preamps, plus it’s an ergonomic thing for me. I ran into a challenge this time because I can only address 127 scenes via MIDI with the XL4. I used those all up on the last tour, so this time I had to come up with a system that allowed me to automate and expand, but not rely on the XL4’s computer as much.”

His solution was to make good use of a Midas PRO2C sidecar, which is not really a sidecar in his scheme of things. But better to let him explain it himself: “The one thing Midas has done with all its digital kit is made the gain structure freakishly identical to their analog stuff. Therefore, in the past when I’ve used a PRO2 as a sidecar with my XL4, it felt just like an extension of the main board in terms of how I set up the gain structure. The interface and busing were just seamless.

The Midas PRO2C at front of house providing automation for the XL4, flanked by a collection of outboard gear.

“Now I’m using half of a PRO2C’s resources to basically serve as automation for the XL4, and the net result of my efforts is that I’ve created an XL4 that’s as automated as a digital board. I can keep my hands on the faders and eyes on the band during the show, and all the automation simply happens in the background. I don’t ever have to think about it. If the purpose of any of these techno-complications we give ourselves is to simplify the mixing of the show, I think I’ve succeeded nicely.”

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