In March 2022, Glaswegian singer-songwriter Amy Macdonald walked out to a packed hometown crowd at the OVO Hydro. The loyal fans that filled the venue that night had held on to their tickets after the show was postponed from December 2021 due to the pandemic, but the journey to get to this show goes back far further and represents a true milestone in Macdonald’s live career. Winding the clocks right back was her Manager, Chris Kiely, who regaled TPi with the tale.
Kiely’s journey with Macdonald started back in 2007 as her Guitar Tech, before becoming her Tour Manager in 2009 and ultimately taking the title of Manager in 2015. “When I became her manager, my number-one goal was for her to sell out the Hydro,” he stated, proud to have achieved this milestone.
With Macdonald releasing the album Human Demands in 2020, there were several postponements of her biggest ever show, with the Hydro performance eventually set for December 2021. However, while pulling the pieces together in Fly By Nite Rehearsal Studios, the team waited anxiously to hear how the Scottish government was going to react to the emergence of the Omicron variant. “On the Tuesday before the show, Nicola Sturgeon said that events would not be cancelled but that the government were advising people not to go to them,” explained Kiely. “It was a hard situation to be in. Amy was getting messages from fans saying they wanted the show to go ahead as they had already made travel arrangements. Not only that, we were very aware that our decision either way would create ripples within the rest of the industry. If we were to cancel, it might affect smaller venues who would be keen to make money before Christmas.”
In the initial days, Macdonald and her team stood strong that the show would happen. However, with cases increasing and numerous positive tests within the touring party, it soon became clear that the show would have to be postponed again – this time until March 2021. “In hindsight, it was the right decision to make; it would have been irresponsible to go ahead in December. When we finally got the show into the Hydro, it was everything we and Amy wanted it to be and the feedback in the room was reflected. It was a real homecoming moment for a true Glaswegian artist.”
View this post on Instagram
Steven Down from Only Helix handled production responsibilities. “Amy has done lots of tours over the years that have been rather similar from a production standpoint,” began Down. “So, when we started on the concept for this show back in 2019, both Amy and Chris wanted to take her show to the next level.” At that point, the creatives from Cassius Creative were brought in to oversee the design concept of the show.
“Over the years, her shows have often incorporated a simple backdrop and floor lighting package,” stated Down. “Geoff Hall, her long-time Lighting Director, has never really been given the budget to design and program a big show. However, with Cassius Creative, along with Amy’s new MD developing a new setlist, we had the foundation to create a much more ambitious show.”
The team was keen to incorporate video – something that had never been a focus on Macdonald’s previous campaigns. Instead of using a large rear LED wall or even a plain projection surface, the team opted for a more elaborate solution. “We call it the spaghetti curtain,” explained Down while describing the tasselled drape which, for the Hydro show, was hung in a semicircle around the stage. “As great as it looked, it could be a bit of a pain in the arse,” joked Down, who described the challenges of untangling the 10m-by-10m material using an AstroTurf rake. “After much research, it seemed like that was the best tool for the job,” he laughed.
Although Cassis Creative was new to the production team, many of the suppliers on this project had worked with Macdonald previously, including SSE Audio, Siyan, Phoenix Bussing, and Fly By Nite. The only other newcomer was Really Creative Media (RCM), which supplied video content as well as the camera and projector package.
“We also managed to get most of our regular crew,” enthused the PM. “That said, we have had several dropouts in the lead up to the Hydro on the proceeding European leg due to COVID-19. Three people tested positive, thankfully all in different departments. When it came to freelance crew from suppliers, it was very last-minute to get final names as, I’m sure most are aware, suppliers are really struggling to get the right people into shows due to many people leaving the industry.”
View this post on Instagram
Dan Hill, one half of the show designers, Cassius Creative, reminisced about the early conversations he and Chris ‘Squib’ Swain had with Macdonald’s team. “They were looking to modernise her show, and change the visual direction from previous tours, giving it a contemporary and sleek finish ahead of her debut into arena touring,” he began.
One way in which the team looked to modernise the look of the show was to move away from the simple backdrop upstage to incorporate video into the overall stage canvas. “The use of video came as a development of the show through festivals ahead of the headline at the Hydro,” stated Hill. “It evolved from a monochromatic live camera treatment we used to lift festival performances. From this, the contemporary, graded feel of live video extended into the content created by RCM to provide dynamic, scenic backdrops to songs.”
Hill went on to discuss the unique projection surface and what he thought it brought to the show. “With the minimal feel of the stage aesthetic, we wanted a large-scale, panoramic surface that looked good under both projection and show lighting,” he explained. “We also wanted to be able to lift the show with the reveal of hidden lighting for the more energetic songs in the set. The translucency and delicate nature of the unconventional spaghetti curtain met all of these requirements. Despite needing daily maintenance to keep it looking fresh, it kept the impactful yet minimalist feel we were aiming to achieve.”
As well as collaborating with content creators RCM, Hill and Squib also got to join forces with Lighting Director, Geoff Hall. “Geoff’s involvement as Lighting Director was fantastic throughout. His attention to detail and musicality throughout the process lead to us achieving a refined and accurately implemented performance.”
When it came to the specific fixtures used, Hill stated that it was kept “simple” with lots of the same type of unit to help create a cleaner, more minimal aesthetic. Supplier Siyan provided 43 Ayrton Diablos as the visual team’s main lighting source, with key light coming from Vari-Lite VL2600 Washes. Meanwhile, side light was created by Martin by Harman MAC Aura XBs, with the drapes being lit from ChromaQ Colourforce 48 and 72s. There were also numerous Martin by Harman Sceptron to outline stage risers.
“Alongside these, we needed moments of the show to break from these cleaner looks and have the energy and feel of more ‘classic rock’ moments,” stated Hill. “We utilised an array of CHAUVET Professional Strike-Array 2 LED Molefay units, hidden behind the scenic backdrop to add this punch as required.”
View this post on Instagram
A NEW ELEMENT
Nick Dew and Jack Fox of RCM continued the visual conversation, discussing the video deployment on the show. “Cassius came to us in the summer of 2021 and outlined what they wanted for the show,” stated Dew. “They requested a video package that could be flexible and able to move from theatres to festivals and arenas.” The team at RCM got to work, testing various different tasselled drape options and assessing how they would work as a projection surface.
“Eventually, we opted to use Panasonic Laser projectors, either the PT-RZ21K 20k or RZ31K 30k depending on the size of the venue.” Along with projectors, RCM also provided a camera package of four manned and one remote operated. The manned cameras were Blackmagic URSA Broadcasts with 4k Canon lenses. “Amy is not the type of artist to jump around the stage and she maintains her position in the middle of the stage,” stated Dew. “When it came to the live footage, the goal was to get as much movement with camera movements.” For this reason, two of the cameras were on a tracking dolly at the front of the stage. There was even a slider on the drums to add some dynamics.
Representing RCM on the road was Jack Fox, who talked TPi through the IMAG style of the show. “The creatives wanted a sophisticated black and white look while mixing it in with the pre-rendered content,” he explained. RCM produced all the original content, which included several shots of the Scottish landscape. “This content was then mixed in with the sophisticated black and white IMAG content. It was good to have this all then projected onto the spaghetti curtain as the surface provided more texture than a plain projection surface.”
It was a sentiment that was echoed by Daniel Williams, Video Playback Engineer. “It was a great texture to work with,” he enthused – although as the self-proclaimed ‘rake technician’ who was responsible for untangling the drape during the preceding European run, he didn’t shy away from highlighting the challenges of touring such a drape.
The back end of video world was run on Resolume with the IMAG cut being put together on RCM’s new twin unit PPU setup. “The Twin PPU setup was a creation of the lockdown and has already been out with Steps,” stated Dew. “It’s been designed so that you can slot in any vision unit. For Amy’s tour, for example, we used a Blackmagic surface.”
Williams explained how the video – both IMAG and pre-rendered content – had to be treated to get the best result on the surface. “We had to max out the intensity so it would appear on the drape,” he explained. “The surface has some imperfections by its very nature, but in many ways that’s what made the show look so unique.”
View this post on Instagram
Discussing the audio side of Macdonald’s landmark show were the trio of FOH Engineer, Tom Wiggans; Monitor Engineer, Jasen Hattams; and System Tech, Craig Burns. The three audio specialists have had a long history working with each other – not just with Macdonald, but also numerous tours with Bloc Party. Starting on stage, Hattams explained that he had not changed too much from his previous runs with Macdonald.
“My view is always to keep things constant wherever possible,” he began. “With this run, the size of rooms fluctuated from smaller theatres to venues like the Hydro and tackling spill from the PA down the microphones was one of my main concerns.”
To keep this consistency, the Engineer once again put his faith in an Avid S6. “I’ve also once again been working with the Shure PSM1000,” he added. “They’ve been rock solid and Amy had been happy with them.”
Aside from a wedge for her bassist, the stage was completely free of speakers with the musicians relying solely on IEMs. “We’ve been using DPA for a long time, which have a really open sound, so it often helps to keep the stage volume as low as possible, so Tom out front doesn’t get any spill.”
Jumping on the DPA conversation, Wiggans explained why they have been his go-to solution with Macdonald.
“The off-axis sound of the microphones is really nice,” he stated. He used the drum mics as an example, stating how he was able to differentiate between all the toms. “The coherence is amazing,” he continued.
“I started using DPAs back in 2013 and I found I started relying on gates less and it changed the way I mix. With everything being more coherent, I started mixing into groups and the console became a matrix mixer.” The desk in question this time around was a DiGiCo Quantum 225.
“I don’t tend to use snapshots as I want to produce a mix that best suits the venues, which fluctuated an awful lot on this run,” stated Wiggans. “I find that when you rely on snapshots, you can predetermine how you’re going to mix the show, but you really need to mix for the room.”
Other than a few pre-set effects that often act as nods to something from the records, Wiggans explained the importance of keeping an element of ‘live’ in his mix.
“It’s the real difference when you compare the tonality of IEM compared to that of a PA system. If you treat a PA in the same way you do an in-ear mix, you end up having a very sanitised sound. It would sound great in your ears, but your live sound has been sent down an evolutional cul-de-sac.”
System Tech, Craig Burns outlined the PA deployed for the Hydro show, with SSE Audio providing a full d&b audiotechnik system including an 18 drop of GSL with a side hang of 16 KSL, with SL-SUBs on the floor. “Some might think that a hang of 18 GSL is excessive for the Hydro, but I think it provided better resolution and also meant I didn’t have to rely on the in-house delay system.”
Burns was also complementary of the lack of rear spill on the d&b boxes. “When you’re working at a show in a venue like the Hydro, you don’t want to add any more sound than is necessary. I also went for GSL for the main hangs over KSL, as I was keen to have some more low-end in the air.”
He went on to complement his working relationship with Wiggans. “Some engineers can get lost in their toys and expect the PA to sound like it did in the studio,” he stated. “The art of mixing to a room has sometimes been lost with people simply blaming a PA system for a bad-sounding mix.”
To close, Wiggans reflected on the long journey to the Hydro. “I stayed in Glasgow after the show and laughed about the ‘full circle’ moment as some of the first rehearsals for this run took place just down the road from the Hydro in a small studio space. Then finally in 2022, we got to play a sold-out headline show down the street.”
View this post on Instagram
ON TO THE SUMMER
Exuberant after their successful hometown show, all members of the production were excited for what the future holds for Macdonald. “Like everyone else, we are playing catch-up on the postponed shows from the past two years,” Down concluded. “We also have a busy festival season ahead of us and we’re currently in conversations to see how we can transfer some of this production to some of those dates.”
This article originally appeared in issue #269 of TPi, which you can read here.