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RE/P Files: Showco Doing The Audio For The Rolling Stones At The LA Coliseum

Stadium concert sound reinforcement for 100,000-plus, circa 1981

By Robert Carr November 19, 2013

The scene for the Stones at the LA Coliseum in 1981. All photos by Mel Lambert

From the archives of the late, great Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, this feature provides an in-depth look at the sound reinforcement systems assembled for the Rolling Stones on tour in 1981. The text is presented unaltered, along with the original graphics. As a point of comparison, go here to read about the systems for the Stones tour earlier this year.

It’s safe to say that the recently completed Rolling Stones tour of America was far from being ordinary.

This was the legendary Rolling Stones who, without question, have been the premier rock and roll band for generations of teenagers, and constant companions to the present middle-class America since the band’s initial introductions during the rebellious, formative years of the Sixties.

The Stones are the super-group that everybody thought rode to fame and fortune on the coat tails of the Beatles, but who are still going stronger than over 11 years after the Fab Four’s disintegration in 1970. Today, the Rolling Stones comprise one of the few remaining acts whose albums go Gold and/or Platinum on, or before, the day of their release.

Legend has it that nothing connected with the Rolling Stones is normal, or matter-of-fact. The band members are consummate showmen both on and off
the stage, and everywhere they go a certain aura of craziness exists. R-e/p’s brief encounter with Rolling Stonedom proved educational, for sure, but was not without its frustrating aspects as well.

Apart from maybe one day, Showco had no rehearsal time with the band prior to going out on the road. So much equipment had to be transported, set up, and torn down, that “relaxing” was a forgotten word on this tour. Equipment checks and system tunings were reduced to a minimum, if not eliminated altogether. Ninety to 100,000 fans flooded the larger outdoor venues show after show. And, in light of all that, the Stones played the largest dollar-grossing tour in the history of rock and roll.

Showco was chosen to not only to provide sound reinforcement for the tour, but also to contract most of the other services, such as lighting, staging, set construction, trucks, buses, and so on. Since all the outdoor shows were done primarily in massive arenas where no stages exist, United Production Services, which specializes in outdoor shows, was called in to supply the scaffolding, stage construction, and crew. Showlite, a company not affiliated with Showco, was responsible for all the lighting equipment and their support crew.

An oversized stage area, vast amounts of scaffolding, and large number of lights necessitated the provision of two complete sets of stage and lighting gear. The alternating sets were leap·frogged to every other town on the itinerary, thereby allowing sufficient set-up and travel time between shows.

Monitor mixer B.J. Schiller at Interface Electronics console.

Showco used only one PA system, however, which was added to or subtracted from depending on whether the show was being held indoors or out. Fortunately, with so many capable subcontracted firms participating to pull the show together, Showco was able to reduce its manpower to a nucleus of five people.

The outdoor shows, being more demanding than those indoors in terms of a substantial increase in equipment, required the addition of four more crew members, who were flown in specifically for those dates.

Stage engineer B.J. Schiller handled the house mix for the 1978 Rolling Stones tour of America. He explains the change in attitude between then and now: “On the last tour the band did 12 outdoor shows, and about 15 indoors at small theaters. They wanted to scale down the tour and present a more intimate show. This time they pulled out all the stops. They booked about 15 or 20 huge outdoor shows, with the idea that if the first one is sold out, they’d add a second. This whole tour is a money maker.

“Our sound reinforcement philosophy has remained pretty much the same,” Shiller continues. “We’ve just made the system a lot bigger, with much higher quality. So far I’m very happy with it and the sound.” 

House mixer Jack Maxson
at the Series 2400 console.

What is that design philosophy? Jack Maxson, one of the principals behind Showco—who also mixed house sound for the tour—sees the primary focus as being to “keep it simple, and get the volume out there with very few effects. There’s nothing really sophisticated; we just need to reproduce the sound. That’s what the band wants.”

However, these kinds of large, outdoor venues are not the most ideal place to hold a concert. A ‘sound analysis of the Los Angeles Coliseum before the show revealed a 1.5-second slap echo out of the arc farthest from the stage. Being an outdoor stadium with sections of concrete seats around the entire perimeter, there was really no place to hang damping material for acoustic control; Showco sound engineers were at the mercy of the architect’s original plan.

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