October 2008 Issue 109
Mark Cunningham & Louise Stickland report from Luxembourg & Manchester on the accelerate tour: Michael Stipe, Mike Mills & Peter Buck’s new, Op Art-influenced live production...
Twenty-eight years after their formation in Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. continue to be as daring and cutting-edge as they ever were. Despite approaching their fifties, iconic lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills, refuse to mellow and their latest album, Accelerate, has the band screaming their core political and spiritual beliefs from the rooftops.
With back-up guitar and keyboard player Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin on drums once again, R.E.M. opened their Accelerate tour in late May with a month of North American dates before moving on to an extensive set of European festival, stadium and arena dates over the summer and early autumn.
With PM Bill Rahmy and TM Bob Whittaker at the helm, this is arguably one of their best-sounding and certainly most visually creative productions to date — one that wasn’t seen in all its glory until the latest European leg, it should be noted.
Making it all happen is an entourage that features such top suppliers as Rat Sound Systems, Skan PA Hire, Upstaging, Bandit Lites, Beat The Street. Transam Trucking, XL Video’s UK and US offices, and Toni Leen’s recently-launched catering company, Upbeat Food. Freight and travel are expertly handled by Rock-It Cargo and Dave Brock at Rima.
After catching a first glimpse at Lancashire County Cricket Ground in Manchester, TPi returned to the tour last month at the Rockhal in Luxembourg — a venue that could be variously described as either a studio theatre or boutique arena.
It was here that Peter Buck was finally reunited with his treasured Rickenbacker 360 guitar, 11 days after it was brazenly stolen from the stage in Helsinki. Consequently, there was a certain feelgood mood as we arrived during set-up.
In the audio department, both FOH engineer Brett Eliason and monitor engineer George Squiers were preparing their Midas XL8 consoles to deliver the mixes that night.
“I was looking for more than just the flexibility of digital; I wanted a great-sounding digital desk and it was immediately clear to me that the XL8 lived up to the Midas name,” said Squiers.
“It’s a fantastic piece of kit. It’s too expensive, but Midas know that which is why they’ve come up with the new Pro6! But the XL8 sounds amazing; the layout is really neat and all the dynamics work very well. It’s got the most analogue feel of any digital desk I’ve used and that’s what makes it fun for me because I still like to feel that I’m mixing and not at the helm of the Starship Enterprise!
“One thing I love about the digital domain is it makes it possible for a monitor guy like me to mix on faders, instead of turning pots. It feels so much more organic. The area A&B simultaneous functionality is also great.”
Eliason described how the XL8 is streamlining audio production for the tour while keeping the hands-on side of mixing a show intact: “I’ve been an XL4 fan for a long time, and on the last R.E.M. tour, that desk was packed. We also had some issues with the 300ft analogue snake run.
“Knowing that we could cure all that with the XL8 was a key part of the decision process. Having things muted when they’re not being used, cleanly, easily, and effectively was very appealing to me. And features like the VCAs [Variable Control Associations] and POP (population) groups help keep things organised yet right at your fingertips — there’s no need to sift through pages to find what you’re looking for, at the risk of missing a cue.
“Up until now I haven’t been pleased with the sound quality of most of the digital desks I’ve used, and I’ve always loved the sound of Midas pre-amps and EQs. Having it all available in a digital package was very appealing.”
From the same technology camp, the Klark Teknik DN9331 Rapide moving-fader graphic EQ controller is another detail that brings hands-on user-friendliness to the digital realm. Said Squiers: “Once again, it takes you back to the analogue feel, though it’s digital. It’s every bit a graphic EQ that you can reach and grab — another thing that was missing from the digital domain.”
Renowned for his groundbreaking work mixing Pearl Jam’s ‘official bootleg’ live recordings, Eliason described how the new KT DN9696 hard disk recorder is working out: “The DN9696 is integrated into the XL8 as an I/O option. It’s so simple to use. I can start the recording using the KVM switch on the XL8 work surface, without any of the usual concerns about outboard recording equipment.
“That it’s a 24-bit/96kHz system is also extremely attractive, and as it mirrors to external hard drives during the show the content is archived immediately; I don’t need to spend an hour backing stuff up. I took my hard drive recordings back to my studio; they seamlessly pulled into Pro Tools and sounded excellent.
“The virtual sound-checking feature on the DN9696 is also really useful. I used it to programme the console during pre-production rehearsals in Vancouver, which saved time getting the tour ready. After rehearsals I sat down at the console and in three milliseconds I was playing back the information they had given me earlier in the day.”
R.E.M. were Clair 12AM wedge users for several years until Squiers came on board for their last tour and replaced them the first version of the EAW MicroWedge MW12.
The MW12 offers a coaxial driver arrangement that pairs a 12” woofer with a 3” (diaphragm) HF compression driver on a horn delivering full yet tightly controlled 90° horizontal dispersion. A large port on the front of the cabinet serves to enhance LF response in coupling with the floor.
Squiers commented: “We’re now using 17 of the latest version across the whole stage, including a pair on Bill’s drum riser. Dave Rat [of Rat Sound Systems] re-designed it and took it to EAW for engineering and manufacturing. They re-ported it, re-tuned it, installed better components and it blows the previous version away.
“It’s got a lot more low end, the high end is smoother, it pushes a lot more air and is generally an improved listening experience for the performer. I think they handle instrumentation, especially drums and bass guitar, better than any other wedge I’ve heard.”
Augmenting the MicroWedges are Sennheiser G2 in-ear systems with personalised Future Sonics ear pieces. These receive signals via Professional Wireless PWS helical antennae. “They all mostly rely on wedges but the like to supplement them with the ears,” informed Squiers. “Mike Mills uses one ear piece just to help with vocals and Michael does things in much the same way, only using the ear piece when he really needs it for pitching.
“Overall, though, we don’t have a whole lot of RF going on. I had some Shure UHF mics modified so that I could put Audix OM7 capsules on them. Mills has a wireless pack for his bass but everyone else is wired.”
Rat Sound Systems of Oxnard, California is the tour’s global audio contractor, however, for European dates it acquired the support of UK-based Skan PA Hire, who supplied a fine-sounding L-Acoustics system, with Rat continuing to travel with the control package.
At the compact Rockhal, the PA was trimmed to fit and included eight flown V-DOSC and six dV-DOSC downfills per side with eight of the (“absolutely excellent!” — Bill Rahmy) new SB28 subs run in cardioid mode on the floor per side. An extra six to eight subs would normally be flown, but this was deemed unnecessary in Luxembourg.
The L-Acoustics system is powered by further new equipment in the shape of the LA8 amplified controllers, OEM’d for the company by Camco. Good results were reported by all.
The audio crew also includes Rat Sound chief and system engineer Lee Vaught, Peter Baigent (monitor and stage tech), Greg Mahler (PA tech), and Skan’s Lloyd Williams and Ben Silwinski. Looking after all things backline are Bob Weber, Simon Joyce and Dewitt Burton.
When R.E.M.’s manager/advisor Bertis Downs originally spotted video director Blue Leach’s work at the Move festival in Manchester in 2003, and thought he’d be a good fit for the band, it was a defining moment in the engineering of some very special visual chemistry. The move united Leach with lighting designer, director and programmer Susanne Sasic has already been onboard with the band for two years.
“It’s somewhat less challenging to work with R.E.M. compared to some other artists because Michael, particularly, is such a creative and visually-oriented person, and very articulate about what he wants to see,” explained Sasic.
“Just an hour’s conversation with him can really get you rolling in the right direction. So, for me, it’s a real treat.”
As a creative team focused on the same imaginative canvas, Sasic and Leach’s super-sized melting pot of artistic talent has energised into a striking, inventive and intensely potent tour de force for Accelerate. Uniting two individuals with so much creative insouciance has produced some stunning, provocative results, an incredibly strong show identity and a highly memorable aesthetic.
It’s also an illustration of how the combination of two radically different creative sources brings dynamics and vibrancy plus an almost unspoken harmony to an equation.
Stipe himself was also integrally involved with the look and feel of the show. Prior to the tour, the three discussed ideas and aspirations, and how these could be translated onstage. Stipe had several ultimate flavours in his head, and in terms of shape and form, Op Art kept weaving its way into the conversations.
Optical Art is a genre that translates well on to stage, especially in terms of defining the space and presenting strong and positive forms, shapes and patterns that simultaneously challenge and engage the viewer. It makes use of optical illusions, and the interaction between ‘seeing’ and ‘understanding’ is one of its leading theories, along with overall design and entire composition.
Many classic Op Art works involve monochrome, so that provided an immediate conceptual platform for Sasic and Leach to develop in their creative evolution of the show. Their research for the project included examining and taking inspiration from several Op artists — in particular the work of Brigid Riley and Victor Vasarely — and exploring the idea of ‘perceptual experience’ related to how vision functions.
The other element that Stipe requested was that video should be extremely visible onstage, a departure from the 2005 tour, where screens crowned the stage but stayed physically on its perimeter. In terms of content, words like ‘unrefined’ and ‘raw’ were central to the brief.
It was Sasic’s third tour as LD with R.E.M., and she came up with the ‘set’ and configuration of the five differently sized and trimmed Barco MiTrix screens to resemble the city skyline artwork of Accelerate. Horizontally crossing the stage behind these, she added two 30’ x 8’ strips of SoftLED, offset from one another by about 2’.
The idea of mixing the two screen types was to add texture by contrasting the different resolutions and to expand the depth of the picture and maximise the transparency of the Mitrix, through which you can see the SoftLED, creating a suitably ‘dirty’ contrast.
Keeping the centre stage clear for video, Sasic’s gently asymmetric lighting design involved lighting fixtures being positioned around the top and sides of the stage. It was carefully crafted and based around three cross stage and two side stage trusses.
The touring system consists of an upstage truss featuring Martin MAC 2000 Wash lights. This truss is also used to hang the five MiTrix screens, all of which are 5’ in width and in different lengths varying between 10’-20’. The mid stage truss contains three Zap Technology 4.5kW Big Lites, 12 MAC 2000 Washes, four Vari*Lite VL2500 Spots and eight Atomic strobes with colour scrollers.
On the side trusses are three more 4.5kW Big Lites — two on stage left and one on the stage right. Also rigged on to these are three Coemar Infinity Wash XLs and two VL3000 Spots on stage right, plus two Infinitys and a single VL3000 Spot on stage left.
Sasic really likes the Big Lites and their chunkiness and presence, commenting that they move extremely quickly for their size, have a nice pan/tilt function, an interesting ‘blocky’ square beam and certainly held their own against the luminosity of the video.
On the front truss are six MAC 2000 Washes, four VL2500s, eight 8-lite Moles and six JTE PixelLines which are used for high level colour effects.
For larger shows, eight additional Infinitys were positioned on both sides of the stage wings. It’s the first time Sasic has used Coemar moving lights — she specifically wanted a selection of fixtures that would complete with the brightness of the video without interfering or distracting.
She particularly likes the Infinity’s colour mixing system which allows excellent shades of green and red, which is often a challenge for moving lights, and something she really misses from using conventionals.
For the floor, another six MAC 2000 washes are located upstage of the backline, plus six MR16 battens on vertical stands in between each of the MiTrix panels, and six 4-lite Moles on stands behind the MiTrix, again taking advantage of its transparency, blasting through at different heights.
There are also four Infinitys upstage of the MiTrix and another two downstage right and left, used for low level cross lighting along the monitor line. The floor quota is completed with six more Atomics.
Whilst not a massive lighting rig for the size and profile of the shows, true to style, Sasic injects plenty of magic and a vigorous variety of interesting looks and scenes throughout the two-hour set as she pilots her grandMA console.
“We’ve carried a grandMA full-size desk for lighting control on all of our shows this year, and one of the great advantages is the easy cloning and copying of fixtures, as well as the ability to pre-programme on grandMA onPC.”
Sasic runs the grandMA onPC in parallel on her laptop so she is able to quickly patch and program different fixtures and make changes to the show on a daily basis before arriving on-site.
“I enjoy the stability and reliability of the grandMA’s operating system, the easy and dependable file management, and the ability to carry around a year’s worth of shows on a pocket-sized USB drive,” she said. “The overall flexibility of the desk layout and the ability to change the function of individual executor buttons and faders is great and makes running shows a pleasure!”
Clearly pleased with her personal choice of console, Sasic added: “I love the grandMA. The Wholehog was always the default moving light desk for the last 10 years or so, although I was an Icon user through much of the ’90s and was sorry to see that go away. But now, I really feel that the grandMA has so much to offer in terms of it being like a much improved continuation of that desk. I started using it last year on The White Stripes and haven’t really looked back.”
Sasic has “really enjoyed” working so closely with Leach who she finds “highly creative”. She’s particularly liked the freedom of not having to light the stage “for video” in the conventional flat/balanced sense. Instead, Leach has made use of idiosyncratic lighting constituents like the harsh key lighting and the acute angle of the two downstage truss-mounted follow spots, adding these into the edginess and high contrast buzz of his overall mix.
The lighting equipment for the tour has been delivered by Upstaging in the US, Nordic Rentals in Scandinavia, and Bandit Lites in the UK and the rest of Europe.
Bandit UK, which also looked after the 2005 R.E.M. tour, is a rental company Sasic is particularly happy to work with. Bandit also supplied a floor specials package to R.E.M. for their festival headliners throughout the summer, which was tech’d by Rob Starksfield, also a regular Bandit crew member, although on this occasion he was working directly for the band.
Bandit’s crew are Steve ‘Stona’ Ruisling, Roger Grybowicz, Nigel Julien, Martin Garnish and Phil Kerwick, and the tour was project managed by Lester Cobrin at the Bandit UK HQ.
Leach’s second tour with R.E.M. has been one of his most rewarding projects to date. After listening to the new Accelerate album and embracing the Op Art vibe, he saw the potential for plenty of black and white and stark, independently colourful duotones, which could then explode into bursts colour and kaleidoscopic multi-geometrical effects.
Making all of the new songs appear on camera as the music sounds was another major visual objective. Fusing this with the desired crude multi Xerox-copied/original VHS feel, he produced a gritty, degraded texturing for the cameras that referred back to Stipe’s original brief.
Certain songs immediately suggested specific camera effects. To capture the “phosphorescent” feel of the song ‘Electrolyte’, Leach coloured the images in a very precise way and had LED glow sticks held in front of some of the feeds to produce wacky, organic, multi-colour 3D oscillations. Holding 3D objects in front of cameras is one of Leach’s stylistic trademarks.
His enthusiastic zeal for the experimental was clearly some way to being sated in this show which really opened the floodgates of opportunity to play. He examined some of the very meticulous technical interactions of colour in Op Art — simultaneous contrast, successive contrast and reverse contrast — and used this as inspiration for elements of his own picture creating methodology.
The screen content was split approximately 80%/20% between cameras and playback. The jittery, fast cut camera mix amalgamated with Sasic’s intelligent and coherent lighting design, Stipe’s dramatically graceful mime-like movements and the band’s rocky confidence and meaningful lyrics, swirling together in a heady montage of visual literacy.
Leach contacted graphic designer Chris Bilheimer (the Accelerate album cover designer) and asked him to produce some lithographic/Op Art spirals, Avatar man animations, moire patterns, and other animated phrasings (such as ‘WOW’, ‘YEAH’, etc). He also Bilheimer to forward a number of political statements (from Leary and others) for him to use as textures and as statements on the screens.
“Some of the more concentric moire-inducing circles came from the Catalyst itself,” explained Leach. “I generated some other material myself or lifted from the R.E.M. website, such as Vincent Moon’s graphics for the lyrics of ‘Superserious’.”
The video footage is stored on two Doremi hard drives and a Catalyst. The tinting and colour effects were applied in Catalyst along with the chasing effects and image shaping
Leach said: “The system is fine tuned to give me the widest and wildest selection of camera looks. It’s all about the camera looks, what you can do with them and how effects, clips, playback and other elements can be layered on top of these.”
Additional playback sources included band promo videos that were re-edited and mashed up by Leach, along with further clips he made for the show.
Leach designed the camera set up and specified a control system based around a Ross 3 ME switcher, chosen for maximum flexibility, fast access to lots of buttons and to facilitate his action-packed, high energy show, which was run completely live, ‘freestyle’ and improvised each night.
Dotted around the stage are three Sony robocams and eight Sony minicams, fitted with a variety of lenses and magic arms. They are joined by three Sony D50 operated cameras — two in the pit, one hand-held and one on track and dolly, a third at FOH... and a ‘polecam’.
In true Leachesque style, there is also a minicam pointing at his bank of monitors in the control area, for additional camera craziness, plus a pure feed into the mixer from the vectorscope waveform monitor normally used by the engineer to display a plot of signal vs. time — for cool radar effects.
More wackiness emanates from an LCD monitor laid flat beside Leach’s switcher with another minicam shooting directly on to it from above, used as a lightbox table. This could be fed with any camera source and 3D objects of every conception added on top, including very simple ones like his waving fingers.
“There’s a similarity in the way I use the minicam like this, and how you mike up a guitar amp,” Leach argues. “Rather than pick up sound, it ‘amplifies’ a very deep and earthy, reportage look.”
Leach’s lateral thought processes don’t end there. “I bought a $29 convex truck mirror in Arizona and I mount it on a stand downstage left. Michael sings and stares into it during various songs, and I point one of the robocams into the mirror which reflects him, the band and the screens in the background. It’s a great look and very R.E.M.”
All the cameras are fed into a second hyper-charged Catalyst, initially specified and programmed by Hugh Davies-Webb and (on-site) Clarke Anderson. Leach triggers all Catalyst effects himself via Medialon touch screens, giving instant accessibility in a very similar style to a lighting console.
Since Anderson left the crew to attend to paternal duties, the “magnificent” Philip Haynes has taken up the on-tour Catalyst programming role. “I draw out my ideas in the form of storyboards, pass them to him and he interprets these ideas and drawings into what I want, effects-wise,” Leach explained.
All video production worldwide has been supplied by XL Video, with the control system coming out of XL Inc. in Los Angeles. The UK and European sections of the tour were project managed by Des Fallon from the company’s Hemel Hempstead HQ.
Fallon said: “As always, working with Blue is interesting, challenging and completely visually inspiring. I think the results speak for themselves.”
Leach’s engineer is Seth Sharpless and XL’s crew are Rob Wick (head of cameras), Danny Sheldon (polecam/robocam operator), Sean Harper (MiTrix tech and hand-held operator) and Kyle Brinkman (SoftLED tech). Las Vegas-based SGPS/Showrig is also worthy of mention — the partnership built the rigging for the MiTrix and SoftLED to support and make construction easier on a daily basis.
For the larger outdoor UK shows, XL dispatched an additional team, led by Carl Martin, to install two portrait format Lighthouse R16 side LED screens each measuring 4 x 12 modules.
The show is without doubt one of the most striking, innovative and artistically ambitious of the year so far — not in physical scale or size, but in visual intelligibility, ideas and sense of adventure.
Louise Stickland & Mark Cunningham
With special thanks to
Bill Rahmy, Natalie Drillings
David Belisle & Rangi Williamson
"THIS INDUSTRY NEEDS TO CHANGE"
Otherwise known for his on-the-road work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, this is the first full R.E.M. tour for production manager and wrestling fan Bill Rahmy, who pulled no punches when asked about how the industry should respond to the pressures of the current economic squeeze...
Tours are now specifying (and carrying) too much production for the available budgets. Fuel costs and legislation have destroyed everybody’s budgets. It’s especially noticeable in Europe where the driving regulations are tighter and demand that drivers take more breaks. In practical terms, that means we have to employ extra drivers.
Eastern Europe has opened up and offered large guarantees, which is fine, but those places are very far away from the rest of the live circuit. You’re taking those gigs for cash but you’re also adding double or triple drivers for buses and trucks, as well as haemorraging money on the fuel, so where’s the profit? Vendor prices are high, too, because of these factors, so it’s a ridiculous situation.
The production crews are getting beaten up with these distances — days off on a bus are only fun one time; after that it’s a prison sentence.
For the last few years I’ve been saying that for the straight rock’n’roll guitar bands, we carry way too much production. Every act at a festival wants their own show now and, again, that’s hitting profit. So I’m hoping that people will smarten up and realise that if they really want to tour and make money, they’ll travel lighter.
That doesn’t necessarily mean stripping a show down to its bones because there are a lot of very creative people out there who can do amazing things with minimal production, maybe one or two trucks instead of seven, and rely more on a network of local suppliers. It can be done. We did it 10 years ago... I mean, what’s the difference?
You could say that audience tastes have changed in the way they listen to and view music, but rock’n’roll bands are rock’n’roll bands. If you’re Madonna or a kids’ band where it’s a bit of a circus atmosphere and it’s more about the spectacle than the music, then there’s a good argument for all that production sideshow. But not for the likes of R.E.M., the Foo Fighters, Chili Peppers — they don’t need it.