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Leslie Feist performing in the round on the "wedding cake" stage reinforced by a custom system configuration tailored for the specific venue on the Multitudes tour. (Photo Credit: Antoine Lebrun)

Breaking New Ground: Detailing A Constantly Evolving Surround Sound Approach For Feist On Tour

The Canadian singer-songwriter's sound team on the Multitudes tour shares their process of constant adaptation of a surround sound approach due to dramatically different venues and the gear available on the ground.

Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist is known for pushing the envelope live, and the Multitudes tour is no exception. “It’s an ever-evolving show and system,” says front of house engineer Mark Vreeken, who was asked to work on Multitudes in 2021 owing to his previous efforts in surround applications for King Crimson and Cirque du Soleil.

Multitudes began as a residency at Kampnagel Theatre in Hamburg, Germany, where the audience, Feist, and her band were all on stage with the PA surrounding them. Since then it’s evolved substantially from the original concept, which was a “quad setup; speakers at the corners, no center cluster,” Vreeken explains, to a touring setup with a circular B stage (affectionately named the “wedding cake” – two stacked circular risers, an eight-foot unit on top of a 12-foot) joined by a dedicated sound reinforcement system headed by Meyer Sound loudspeakers deployed in various configurations on a venue-to-venue basis.

For the first 45 minutes, Feist performs in the round, playing solo acoustic in the middle of the audience on the wedding cake, reinforced by the B (wedding cake) PA – loudspeakers facing outward from her position and surround elements. Behind her, a projection screen obscures the main stage. Mid-show, she makes her way to that stage, the kabuki screen drops, revealing the band, and the B PA and house systems are used in tandem.

Creating The Envelope

During our conversation, Vreeken, joined by Solotech’s Antoine Lebrun (system tech since Feist’s 2023 club/theatre tour) and Ableton operator/guitar tech Anna Morsett, describe a process of constant adaptation owing to dramatically different venues and the gear available on the ground, with loudspeaker placement and the process of combining elements of the B and house systems to create an enveloping environment determined daily.

The “immersion,” from the audience perspective, is enhanced by the B PA but starts with Feist: via the iPhone she walks through the crowd with (and hands off to audience members to use while chatting and joking with them) that feeds back to the projection screen and the loop/effects pedals she uses to add vocal stacks and effects (pre-recorded and/or generated in real-time).

Behind the scenes, Morsett is also adding content/effects – some generated/triggered by Feist, others from the Ableton rig, but also from Vreeken and Lebrun via three Meyer Sound GALAXY 816 processors (one at FOH and two on stage).

Left to right, sound team members Mark Vreeken, Ed McGlogan, Anna Morsett and Antoine Lebrun.

Other platforms were considered before the residency, Vreeken explains. “d&b Soundscape, [Meyer Sound] Spacemap GO, and [L-Acoustics] L-ISA, but it was better for me to send auxiliary sends to each surround position and the Galaxies made more sense, operationally, for what I wanted to do.” Particularly for the Hamburg pandemic iteration, “a stripped-down thing, just Leslie and two accompanists, one player routed to the odd-numbered surround boxes, and the other to the even-numbered surrounds; with Leslie mostly in the center cluster and the other players hard panned behind the audience.”

“For those shows, there were eight speakers, and I had eight channels of audio out from Ableton,” Morsett says. “And all of those came out of different speakers. That worked for an onstage seated crowd, but when it evolved from that to people standing and moving around, it changed how we did audio in the room.”

“We used Ableton, not just as a playback thing,” Vreeken adds, “but for harmony stacks and vocal arrangements Leslie made. Some are static. Some move around you. I sent effects sends – one for each of the musicians – and Leslie‘s guitar and vocal to Anna [Morsett]. Then she’d make use of rotating effects and reverbs. With playback, traditionally, you hit ‘go’ and the artist hears the count or the cue track and plays along. This isn’t like that. Anna is running Ableton in Warp mode. When Leslie starts a song, Anna taps in the tempo, and the tracks conform to whatever tempo Leslie’s chosen.”

Feist’s pedals also triggered events – stacks of loops – in Ableton. “They moved clockwise or counter-clockwise around you. It was pretty cool. I’ve never heard anyone do that before. We got into these things where Leslie is doing loops with her pedals, then Anna takes that into Ableton, and then I’ve also got ping-pong delays going through the surrounds. There’s a lot going on, and because there were speakers aimed right at Leslie’s vocal mic, we were on the verge of feedback all the time. It was a delicate balance,” Vreekan says, laughing. He adds that Morsett’s contribution is more like an instrumentalist than a playback operator. “It’s a full-on collaboration between Feist, the band, Anna, Antoine and myself.”

Front of house engineer Mark Vreeken dialing things in on his Allen & Heath dLive S5000 control surface. (Photo Credit: Antoine Lebrun)

“I’d get dry and FX lines from Leslie’s looping setup,” Morsett explains. “Mark and Antoine also sent me returns from FOH for her guitar and vocals, violin and keys. I’d send those around with whatever effect we wanted, wherever we wanted. Since I’m also the guitar tech, if I could automate something I would, but the band generally doesn’t play to click. So I’d be tapping in tempos, using Ableton to warp samples to the BPM we were at. That was cool but hard. Even if you’re in time when you start a sample, everyone humanly, beautifully moves around. So we did use click for some songs.”

Working On The Fly

On tour, every setup was a whole new ballgame. “That complicated things,” Morsett says. “For the standing crowd, we summed what were originally separate harmonies and vocal parts into stereo pairs so people could experience the surround without being blasted by a single high harmony coming from the speaker they were standing nearest to, for example,” she says.

Morsett and Feist’s looping approach evolved as necessary as well – courtesy of a customized Ableton eight-channel Looper setup and a customizable physical pedal built by Joe Richmond, who, Morsett says, was her go-to Ableton wizard. “As the show evolved, we’d need that pedal to do different things, so Joe would send me new code for what we wanted to achieve, and I’d upload that to the pedal.”

“Bigger picture,” Vreeken adds, “we’ve got the A (in-house) PA or whatever we brought in from a local company and the B stage PA we carried. I’d give Antoine an A left/right and B left/right. Then, in Meyer’s Compass software, he’d route those to speakers on the B stage, and/or, in larger venues, to house PA elements we’d use as delays, or to hit balconies/under balconies.”

His choice for the B system loudspeakers was a mix of Meyer Sound ULTRA X-40s, X-20s, and X-23s. In an ideal situation, the X-40s serve as far-field mains, the X-23s were down firing as near-field elements (from three to 30 feet from the B stage), and six UPJs floor-mounted on the stage for front/lip fill.

“The main purpose being to steer the image back to Feist to create intimacy, like she’s right there with you,” Lebrun says. “Without those, it would’ve sounded like audio was coming from above the audience’s heads. The X-23s are 110 by 110-degree [dispersion], so we were able to hit everyone in the near field and make the transitions between those and the X-40s seamless.” Surrounds were X-20s and X-23s: “The X-20s were useful whenever we had a low ceiling because you’re trying to shoot a little further. That gave us something narrower in the vertical field.”

Realizing the sonic vision at each tour stop usually requires putting a lot of loudspeakers in the air (and on the ground). (Photo Credit: Antoine Lebrun)

The systems and rigging in play depended on availability and the demands/limitations of each venue. In 2023, they used pre-rigged truss for the B stage with cabling, lighting and loudspeakers already hung. “That was a big time saver,” Lebrun notes, adding that the central wedding cake stage configuration was used for all but two shows, whereas in 2024, the wedding cake and full B PA weren’t viable in every venue. The various house PA systems were “all different flavors of awesome,” Vreeken says, including d&b, L-Acoustics, and a Meyer Sound PANTHER system at the Fillmore in San Francisco.

The B rig and processing also varied occasionally, notably at the Ottawa’s Bluesfest with six Electro-Voice XLD line arrays deployed as surrounds around the field and for several European shows, in addition to subbing Lake LM44 processors in place of the GALAXY platform.

Different Every Time

The team adapted as necessary, sometimes using elements of the B system and house rig in tandem. “In large venues with huge systems, we’d shut off the house PA except for the top six boxes so we could hit the top balconies with ‘wedding cake’ content – time aligning the B stage PA to the mains,” Vreeken says.
“Then, when we transitioned from the B stage to the A stage, the B PA would become delays or additional surround speakers,” Lebrun adds, noting that in-house subwoofers were used only during the second part of the show.

“There were limitations in soft-seaters,” he continues. “Many North American theatres, if you’re on the balcony, you can see the downstage edge but not the first row. So we’d build half the B stage out into the front few rows with the kabuki screen behind Feist, then use the house PA and set up surrounds.” The first time they did that was a show in St. Louis, earning that configuration the moniker ‘St. Louis Mode.’

Monitor engineer Ed McGlogan at work on his DiGiCo SD9 console. (Photo Credit: Antoine Lebrun)

That said, Vreeken states, “The B rig isn’t that complicated. It’s a center cluster on two sticks of truss and a cable management truss with two motors per truss. That made more sense than a circular point source arrangement. But we did struggle with the two sticks of truss trying to do cable picks because the swag on the cable would tow the truss around. With the center cluster, we’re stretching the limits of the boxes. If you tow them a bit farther out, you’ll have coverage holes. But a dedicated cable bridge alleviated that problem. We landed on that (approach) during the 2023 North American run where we did the B stage almost every day – it was really effective.

“With Leslie on the B stage and a bunch of speakers hung above her converging, there was a massive bottom end bump right where she stands,” he continues. “But Antoine took the upstage and downstage lip fills and used an all-pass filter to create bottom end nulls for her vocal positions. Without that big low end lump right in the middle, I could get much more body out of vocals and guitar.

“Once the kabuki curtain drops, we’re in A stage mode,” Vreeken says, “the side-firing speakers on the B stage become additional surrounds so people off to the side can hear surround content coming from the other side of the venue – there was a lot of trial and error, but Antoine did a great job achieving that every day.”

Using powered loudspeakers was critical: “When we had remote surround positions, we used a Shure PSM 1000 [wireless system] point-to-point, so we didn’t need to think about where to put amp racks. We’d just put a receiver rack near these islands of surrounds and plug them into the wall so we didn’t have long power cable runs.”

Still, Lebrun says: “We were running cables in venues where people may never have thought about putting cables; compromising between finding a spot for the speakers so people could hear them while being realistic about speaker placement, tweaking house systems in order get (full) coverage, and working with the house crew to make it the best it could be for everyone. And the house crews/engineers were excited about the concept,” he says, citing a UK show where “it was impossible to run yellow jackets on the dance floor.”

Instead, “we had to bring in and fly miles of additional cable. But even people who were skeptical about the amount of stuff we were loading in were happy at the end. Leslie’s great on a personal level. Everyone who went the extra mile understood how appreciative she was and loved the show because we were breaking new ground in some places.”

Antoine Lebrun adjusting the angle of one of the Meyer Sound loudspeakers for the B stage.

Vreeken drills deeper into the choice of GALAXY. “In an à la carte situation, GALAXY has 8 ins and 16 outs, but we networked them together via AVB to pool resources. So, if I’m sending surround content to Antoine’s stage left GALAXY, he can take sends from the GALAXY that are hitting the stage and have those outputs come out of the GALAXY At FOH. It’s almost like Dante Controller; every input can go to any output, and, because every gig was so different for surround placement and how we got there with our cable bundles/wireless point-to-point, every day the output routing was different.”

That also provided Lebrun with more flexibility for cabling the system. “In Compass, he could route the eight sends I sent to him. We’d look at the room, map out what content was going to each speaker, then Antoine could figure out the best strategy for cable runs – wireless vs. wired and how we’d manage that, which changed daily.”

“Typically,” Lebrun adds, “we would try to do six to eight zones, so six to eight speakers covering the main area, but we might do four to six zones in venues with less space and hard to reach positions.”

Organized & Creative

For consoles, it was an Allen & Heath dLive S5000 control surface at FOH and a DiGiCo SD9 for monitor engineer Ed McGlogan. Vreeken: “Initially, we had three Avid S6Ls, two operational/one spare, but we needed to be more cost-effective on tour, and the S5000 has wicked connectivity. You could load it up with cards for days. On the last run, we had two Pro Tools rigs (main/backup) for recording via MADI and a Dante card because we had a choir that sang at Massey Hall using wireless handhelds in the audience.

“Our regular kit was 80 inputs but we needed more. Antoine came up with the idea of putting a Dante card in the engine on stage and brought in a Yamaha QL1 console for the choir mics, and additional audience mics because they filmed the last two shows at Massey. I also used a Neve Satellite summing mixer with two stereo outputs, so I could bust out my mix into eight stereo stems to the GALAXY processors and the A and B PA.”

“From the Neve, Mark would essentially be feeding me a stereo mix that I’d re-distribute throughout the house from my GALAXY,” Lebrun notes. “He didn’t want to control everything separately. He wanted to focus on the creative part, and I’d focus on the optimization, which worked great for us.”

Given the nature of the show, redundancy from the source on out was key. Consequently, the Ableton rig had two MacBook Pros and a 12-output iConnectivity PlayAUDIO12 interface to control both – offering a complete backup if one laptop failed – which one inevitably did when a storm caused a large leak in the ceiling of one venue, and the water that came in fried one of the computers.

For overall backup, Vreeken adds, “Ed has a stereo feed that goes to the GALAXIES in case my console crashed (which it didn’t; it’s super stable), and I had a backup of in-ear mixes so we could still get the music across.” In the Multitudes original iteration, the third S6L provided backup for monitors and FOH.

The two-night stint at Massey Hall was a great way to wrap up the tour, “but it was probably the hardest show of the tour,” Vreeken says.

“We had to move that B Stage around so everybody could see,” Lebrun notes. “It was a game of inches moving things around and making everything fit where points were available.

“We also brought a total of 36 surround speakers. Massey has really low overhangs and a lot of seating, so we had to put surrounds on every level – 10 UPJs for the orchestra level. On the two balconies, it was a combination of Ultra X-20s, 23s, and 40s (two per); X-40s for longer throw positions and X-20s for focused vertical coverage. The X-23s were the perfect short-throw solution because you put a stick of truss up, put two cabinets on there, and people are getting that content, but it’s not screaming loud. We aimed them at the ceiling, which is very reflective, to give us a way of not killing people in those seats; everyone was listening to at least two surround speakers so they could hear the ping-ponging, panning, and things like that.”

A closer look at Leslie Feist at work, surrounded by the audience, on the wedding cake risers. (Photo Credit: Antoine Lebrun)

As much as their collaboration was integral to sonically enveloping the audience, the driving force for that was Feist. Vreeken: “Her artistic approach, (saying) every day, ‘What about trying this?’ – my internal voice a couple of times might have been, ‘You want to do what now?’ But we’d just say, ‘Let’s do that,’ and it turns into something cool. Leslie pushes herself harder than she pushes other people. She made it different every day – we were adding new content and trying different things with vocal effects even on those last two shows, and her audience embraces that.”

“Absolutely,” Morsett concludes. “Leslie moved through all the challenges and the technical gauntlet presented as the show developed gracefully and in a genuinely inspiring way – keeping the heart of the show, the artistry, intact within this greater scaffolding of technology, which is a skill in itself.”

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