David Guetta Takes America by Storm
April 2012 Issue 152
With a raft of hits under his belt, the music industry’s biggest names queuing up to work with him and the recent launch of his record label, it seems David Guetta can do no wrong. As the French house music producer and DJ tours the globe with a cutting edge live production, yet more of his releases are dominating the charts. TPi’s Zoe Mutter covered the tour that packed a sonic and visual punch as it completed a special four-date jaunt in the US.
“In years gone by, a DJ show wasn’t always that interesting to watch so with David’s tour we’ve tried to bring video and lighting together and introduce a more rock ‘n’ roll side to it by including vertical towers with blinders, strobes, LEDs and moving heads,” explained Alan Green, who has been the DJ’s Tour Manager and Production Manager for the past three years.
With ambitions to create a charismatic and visually striking production, Green and his team set about planning a show that would put the Guetta blaster at the centre of a breathtaking video and lighting experience. “We wanted to surround him with unusual video graphics, whilst aiming for quite a neon look,” he continued. “What makes it different to other shows is the content of the LED and the unique pixel-to-pixel software - it’s unlike that used by other artists on tour.”
Green is well versed in what makes a show stand out, having toured with Carl Cox and Sasha, worked with the biggest names on the DJ circuit as the PM at the club Cream, Liverpool, for seven years, and taken on varying roles at predominantly electronic dance based events; from Creamfields through to The Warehouse Project and Bestival. “The planning stages of this tour revealed the touring package had to be flexible to fit in different sized venues, not only for the U.S. dates, but across the world. Some venues had low ceilings and others had pillars, so it needed to be able to adjust accordingly. This was made possible in part due to the fantastic visual software from Pilot,” said Green.
The ‘mini tour’ of the east coast of America saw Guetta’s crew visit the Washington Avenue Armory and The Oncenter in New York before heading on to The Borgata Center in Atlantic City and the Whittemore Center in New Hampshire. “Unusually for us, we were able to tour all production with us; using New Hampshire based supplier Rainbow Production Services for all video, lighting, audio equipment and even special effects such as CO2 cryo jets, confetti cannons, snow machines and UV lights,” said Green. “A local promoter who was with us for several shows had previously used the company and had been very happy with the results. I have to agree - it was such an easy and enjoyable experience.”
MAKING SOUND DECISIONS
Although pre-production was carried out, no rehearsals took place because - as Green highlighted - the past few years have been a natural progression that have allowed the live show to develop over time. The PM added: “What David does changes from night to night, so that’s been the basis of how the production is put together.”
However, the three months of pre-production were necessary before Guetta’s show could be taken across the globe. For the U.S. dates, this involved Green liaising with Rainbow Production Services’s audio team (Audio Crew Chief / FOH Tech, Joe Larsen, and Monitor Engineer, Ryan McGonagle) to compile a suitable kit list. Explained FOH Engineer, Hassane Es Siahi: “David’s production is unique and has so much amazing content that has to match his music, which takes a long time to prepare.”
Before being asked to join Guetta’s crew, Es Siahi toured extensively with acts such as Lost Prophets, Paolo Nutini and Texas as a system engineer and was a crew chief at UK festivals. He also gained experience in all aspects of sound, live concerts and system install in venues as a result of 16 years spent working in the audio industry, mainly for UK-based Adlib Audio.
For the four dates dotted around the U.S, Es Siahi worked with a maximum of six inputs, comprising two DJ mixer outputs on XLR, two spare DJ mixer outputs on RCA and two radio microphones. All four DJ mixer inputs were then duplicated to use to send a sound feed from an AUX output to the Pilot video software, which changed visuals to match the music.
“It is necessary to have someone who is familiar with the music but can also make sure the system delivers the correct sound. I have been working with David for more than a year and we’ve had shows across the globe and systems are not always optimised to the music. My background as a system tech has been a great advantage to my work and together with the audio tech at the show, we try to achieve the best sound for the audience,” said Es Siahi.
“When I’m certain the system is optimised and all speakers are in good working order, I do a little EQ and then wait until the venue is packed to walk across the room to adjust the level and the EQ while the support is on.”
With a preference for working on a desk that is well maintained, has an effective AD/DA converter and offers the EQ controls required, the FOH engineer used Avid’s Profile system with a Waves plug-in bundle. Added Es Siahi: “Digital has the advantage of allowing files to be created and saved, which is useful on festivals and venues with installed systems. Numerous internal FX or dynamic processing are included too. I recently started to use a digital dynamic compressor called C6 available as a plug-in - it offers more control to the mid and high range without compromising the lows and doesn’t introduce phasing issues like analogue will.”
Unless a vocal guest is performing, Guetta’s show does not require audio to be mixed as all special effects are created by the DJ. Explained Es Siahi: “David mixes all kinds of sounds and likes to feature special guests occasionally, who can need a bit of a push to stand out and be heard by the crowd. We also make use of a Shure SM58 mic, which is plugged straight into the DJ mixer and it does a perfect job. David is really good at using it - I don’t need to have it on my console first to add compression or EQ.”
From Es Siahi’s FOH console, the signal was sent on to the processing device - Meyer Sound’s Galileo loudspeaker management system. It was then fed to individual powered speakers, which on the U.S. dates were solely made up of Meyer Sound products. The PA system comprised 26 Meyer Milo high-power curvilinear arrays, two Meyer Milo 120 loudspeakers, 30 Meyer 700-HP subwoofers configured as a cardioid array and four Meyer UPA-1P cabinets - all supplied by Rainbow Production Services.
Added Es Siahi: “Galileo helps the system engineer to tune the array and add EQ and delays. I also use it to check interference with each zone by listening to the main array with subs, frontfills, delays and side hangs.”
Rainbow Productions Services Monitor Engineer, Ryan McGonagle, used a Yamaha PM5D. A total of six Meyer Micas were positioned three per side as booth monitors, along with a pair of Meyer 700HPs.
The biggest difference between working with a DJ such as Guetta and previous artists has been producing bass evenly throughout a venue, explained Es Siahi. “Speaker manufacturers have improved the coupling in the mid and highs section and now we can predict their level accurately from any point the listener will be standing. The solution I’ve found to give people a close feeling of the bass is by using delays.
“Those 15-inch drivers have to be felt moving with the music. For a band, everyone knows the vocals are the most important part of the mix and what we generally do first before listening to the vocal is put a HPF above 100Hz and we therefore don’t listen to the bass. However, this is often a mistake because a clean bass will help the vocal to stand out even more. The same applies for monitors - they must be punchy and clean. We underestimate the sound of the monitors because a DJ has his headphone to mix and control his own level. However, the monitors are essential to share the feeling of the music with the crowd and therefore need to be as close as possible to the sound they listen to.
The position of the speaker to the audience on the floor is also incredible important to a successful audio set-up. To maximise the pressure and to avoid energy loss, it is essential to make sure the array is high enough to allow a maximum tilt so that everyone - small or tall - will hear the same thing. Added Es Siahi: “Often the mixing position is higher than the audience and when you step down you lose the crispness and the sound seems distant. Mixing on the floor is mixing for the audience and if you have the array high pointing down you will get more energy reaching the crowd.”
BESPOKE AND FLEXIBLE SHOW DESIGN
It was back in 2009 that Pilot - the company behind the software running the screen visuals on David Guetta’s current tour - was approached by the artist and his management to produce a show design that was both bespoke and flexible enough to enable the use of local production. The only creative limitations put on Pilot was that management did not want any traditional or picture content included.
“At a very early stage, myself and my partner Nick Briggs decided to keep the physical design of the LED layout as simple as possible,” said Visuals Designer, Ben Brett. “This gained us the flexibility required due to David’s non-stop touring schedule, the show being a mixture of his own shows and festivals, and the LED being supplied by the local production.”
As a result, Brett’s team experimented within the software to create virtual screens to replace the need of a complicated physical screen stage set-up. He added: “We ended up making over 100 of these virtual screens. On to these we developed a look that has become synonymous with David’s show. By treating each LED pixel as an individual light, we could create a visual palette closer to that of neon than video. With this look established, we started to programme different behaviours for these pixels.”
By treating every pixel independently, the software needed to know exactly where each pixel was on the screen. However, the screen pitch and physical screen size would change from show to show depending on what the local production were holding and the stage size. “This meant the pixel count was different for every gig, meaning we would be unable to pre render content,” explained Brett. “On top of this, due to David never playing the same set and there being no time code or midi information, every show would have to be done blind.”
To solve the problem, Pilot treated each show as bespoke and every look had to be generated on-the-fly to the exact pixel count of the screen set-up. As a result, each design was made up of 80 layers of Pilot-generated content, which were all rendered in real-time. “All of these layers are sound triggered to some degree by a live sound input. This enables the content to be in sync with the music,” added Brett.
AN ORGANIC DEVELOPMENT
Guetta’s live shows have been able to develop over time as a result of the organic nature of the Pilot software. Up until March 2010, a Pilot operator toured with Guetta and worked with in-house lighting operators. After this, LD, Mikey Harkin, joined the touring team and Brett assigned DMX values to each Pilot look. Harkin then designed a lighting set-up around each Pilot design and toured without a Pilot operator, triggering all visuals via DMX over ArtNet protocol from the console. This enabled the integration of both mediums to be taken to new levels of seamless collaboration.
In February last year, LD, Jonathan ‘Leggy’ Armstrong, came on board and 40 GLP Impressions were incorporated into the lighting plot on towers behind the screen. Said Brett: “The control of these lights was configured through ArtNet merge, enabling both Pilot and the lighting desk to operate them.”
In the studio, the GLPs were placed in the Pilot simulator and certain layers within a look could then control the lights, therefore syncing the lights and screen to display real-time information generated on-the-fly.
“When turning up to the gig all that is needed is to tweak the GLP positions in the software to their ‘real life’ positions and the software will know where they are. Using a Chamsys desk, Leggy designed the lighting around each Pilot look and triggered the show via DMX over ArtNet, with the GLPs being triggered by Pilot or the Chamsys via the ArtNet merge,” added Brett.
EVER CHANGING VISUALS
Due to David’s touring schedule, the crew either uses a dedicated Chamsys desk or - as was the case in the U.S. - LED and lighting are separated and a Pilot operator controls the LED manually. After working at Pilot for the past 14 months, Guetta’s current production had been Video Operator, Louis Walters’, first experience on the road with a touring artist.
“I had been working on his show design in Pilot’s studio, so I’d come to know the show well. The show is ever changing, with new directions often coming from software developments,” explained Walters, who was supported by Rainbow Production Services’ Video Crew Chief, Collin Johnston, and Video Tech, James Williams.
Whilst on tour, the screens used by the video crew are constantly evolving and are selected according to what is available locally. On the American gigs, an LED wall measuring 24ft by 50ft and an additional DJ booth LED wall, both made up of Barco MiTRIX 24mm LED modules were used to display the visuals. “We stipulate a semi-transparent screen of between 16mm and 30mm pitch, with the main screen measuring around 16 metres by seven metres and a DJ screen of around seven metres by two metres,” continued Walters.
The visual magic was produced by a live audio input that generated the LED content on-the-fly within the Pilot software, which was running on a MacBook Pro. The signal was then output directly via DVI fibre to the screen processors pixel-to-pixel. “This offered near zero latency, no image loss and - uninterrupted by any scan conversions or other devices - the data signal gives a pure pixel-by-pixel reproduction of the unrendered content,” said Brett.
IMPRESSIVE FIXTURE FUNCTIONS
Although smaller than some of the other venues the crew have visited, the four American dates ran smoothly. Explained LD for the current tour, Alex ‘Junior’ Cerio [Beardyman, Hot Chip, Snoop Dogg]: “It was a lovely little tour to come back into the northern hemisphere with. Having 30 odd coppers wandering around the gig was pretty weird, I must say, but at the same time it’s always nice to see a bobby giving it a little foot tap to some French pop house.
“The venues were cool to work in. Some were quite white, which can be a vibe killer, but there weren’t any hitches. We nipped into Atlantic City and did a show in a casino in a carpeted room that was very bright, so that was quite a different experience to the rooms I have played in before.”
Junior’s role on the tour started in May 2011 and he has since been touring extensively with Guetta, operating the lighting rig. Whilst on the road in Europe with New York band Sleigh Bells, Junior was called in to run the DJ’s shows by Leggy. “Video is the leading aspect of the show, so between Ben and Leggy, a show was designed that included lights and video. I started when the show ventured around the planet, so inevitably elements changed and adaptations had to be made day-to-day,” said Junior.
“The main change to the design was David’s evolving set - we were sent additional content as new tracks came in so between myself and Matt Doughty - who ran video at the time - we developed more looks and ideas as we went.”
Specific designs were created for certain tracks - normally Guetta’s biggest hits. “Some had elements of text for example, but the show is predominantly built with lots of live play too. I was going for a look with plenty of strobes. That can obviously be slightly difficult when you’re in a huge white arena,” said Junior.
The variety of lighting fixtures used on the show was vast, with local production company Rainbow Production Services stepping in to supply lighting equipment. Junior received support from Rainbow’s Lighting Crew Chief, Joe Eager, Dimmer Tech, Bill Whitney, and Lighting Techs, Brady Lord and Brian Haddad. The technical specification included a large number of Philips Vari-Lite - 41 VLX washes and 18 VL3000 Spots - and Junior asked for 40 GLP Impressions behind a semi-transparent LED screen. “That’s a large number of units so, as you can imagine, it changes a bit. Different countries, fixtures, manufacturers and of course budgets,” he said.
Also factored into the lighting set-up were 44 Martin Professional Atomic 3000’s with colour scrollers and 22 DWE molefay squares as crowd blinders on large vertical towers. A total of 12 Vari-Lite VLX’s were positioned in two clusters of six on the stage left and right downstage edge.
Another six Martin Professional Atomics and six VLX’s also sat behind Guetta’s DJ riser and the remaining fixtures could be found on three trusses, with a larger number of units from back truss to front. Made up of a mixture of Tomcat and James Thomas, the trusses sat at three different heights. Two extra VLXs then sat on the mid truss as key light.
“Obviously, over a three hour set things get pulled back and punched in. I love the VLXs - they have such a great colour mix and even whilst mixing into darker colours, like pure green and red, it’s got such intensity that is quite balanced across its colour range. This is something that’s hard to get from CMY blade units,” said Junior.
“It’s the LED unit I’ve been most impressed by - it seems like a real work horse. The attributes of the fixture are great, a really nice control over the beam and shutter functions, and a great zoom to get a relatively narrow beam out of. The Atomics and GLPs are fantastic too and most of the high-end fixtures have a decent poke and move about quickly. Having them on mass creates a really impressive look.”
CONTROL AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
The mix Guetta creates one night might never be heard again, meaning there was not a single cue stack on Junior’s desk. He added: “David keeps me right on my toes all the time, exactly like Beardyman did, so I’ve programmed the desk in such a way that I can change data as close to immediately as possible.”
The LD chose to bring his favourite desk on tour with him - MA Lighting’s grandMA. Using the console frequently over the past year has made operating it come as second nature, said the LD: “For Guetta, it’s perfect. There’s so much at your fingertips and so many ways to change information easily with executor buttons, faders and the secondary button screens.”
“The two things that really stand out for me though are the programmer and executor fade times and how easy it is to live update effects. If they made a flat pack or inflatable full size MA that I could fit in my bag I’d be happy as Larry!”
Choosing the best desk for the gig was as important as incorporating LED into the show’s design. “For us, it’s paramount - it’s the feel of the show. The speed of most of the LED units that are available now is amazing, not only in the yolk, but with data transfer. So for us, it’s the way to go and, of course, David is a DJ - there are no breaks and less chitchat, so it’s nothing like a band. Smooth colour change is also a real must on this show.”
Green was thrilled with how smoothly the U.S. tour dates ran with Rainbow Production Services entrusted to supply all equipment. Junior agreed: “I loved working with them on the four shows in the north east corner of America around New York. It’s been the first time in ages that we’ve had repeating crew and the guys from Rainbow were right on the money - easy going, very friendly and knowledgeable guys. It’s just a shame the tour with them didn’t go on longer!”
Aside from the lighting, the audio and visual team was more than satisfied with the New Hampshire supplier. Added FOH Engineer Es Siahi: “Scott Tkachuk, Production Coordinator, was our initial contact and he was very helpful in making sure we were happy with the equipment provided. Using the 700HP Meyer Sound subs specified in cardioid mode helped keep the stage clean from rumbling and reduced the subs overpowering the monitors. The techs from Rainbow did a great job and sometimes with very little sleep!”
With a creatively and technically gifted team behind him, Green was able to achieve a tour that married the visual and aural elements in the way he had envisaged. The tour manager concluded: “Previously sound, light and video have operated separately and been a little disjointed on tour, but for the first time in my career, I’ve been able to see them brought together and synchronised perfectly.”
www.davidguetta.com, www.rps.us.com, www.meyersound.com www.malighting.com, www.pilot.uk.net, www.barco.com, www.glp.de
www.martin.com, www.vari-lite.com, www.chamsys.co.uk