Following a difficult year of dormancy, live music returned to the masses in New Zealand in October. Marking a world first, indie-pop phenomenon and rising global superstar Benee livestreamed the closing night of her first headline tour with production to a global audience. The touring campaign covered eight shows – ranging from theatre to arena level – across four cities, wrapping up at the Spark Arena, Auckland, playing to a sold-out crowd of 13,000 overjoyed fans.
Tasked with bringing the vision to life was Production and Lighting Designer, Ben Dalgleish of Human Person. “I am lucky to have started my career in New Zealand and have had the opportunity to come back to work on a few shows, Benee being one of them. Being a small island nation, New Zealand has had the fortunate opportunity to attempt to beat COVID-19 with reasonable success.”
Commended for its remarkable stringency and timeliness in response to the COVID-19 crisis, at the time of writing, New Zealand sits at ‘level one’ of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which permits concerts at full capacity with no masks or social distancing required.
“As soon as the crisis hit, the region got it under control quickly and shows were soon happening. I was looking for a good reason to return to New Zealand after a lengthy spell in the United States, so when I was approached by the artist and management to submit some design options for an upcoming tour, I brought on board the Human Person team [a creative studio which Dalgleish, Ian Valentine and friends founded in 2019] to come up with some concepts.”
While the measures in New Zealand are bordering normality, QR codes in each room of each venue on the tour helped the team with contact tracing, should the need arise. “We had to check in to each room of the venue like backstage, FOH, and dressing rooms, with our phones to make it easy to contract trace,” he explained.
Despite the natural nature of the project, the gravity and importance of playing a key role in the first major tour to take place in New Zealand since March was not lost on the crew. “We are unbelievably privileged to be doing this show at a time when so many of our friends and colleagues are not able to work,” Dalgleish said. “The production aimed to share the work around as much as possible, using several vendors for different shows; and on the Human Person side, bring in as many of our collaborators as possible.”
At the heart of the project was a team of longstanding collaborators, including: Visual Content Director / Animator, Ian Valentine; Art Director, Frances Waite; Notch Designer, Ryan Sheppard; Content Creators, The Valdez; Editors, Matt Clode and Matthew Cummer; Lighting Programmer, Nick van Nostrand; Lighting Director, Eliot Jessep; Lighting Crew Chief, Gavin Phlipot; Production Manager / FOH Engineer, Daniel Warwick; and LN Production Manager, Tom Anderson.
PA was picked up locally in venues, bringing in a floor package and lights in others, using video screens and overhead lighting from several vendors, including TomTom Productions in South Island, Spot-Light Systems in North Island and Big Picture in North Island. “We made the executive decision to share the work around given the fluctuating circumstances; New Zealand had a long six-month period with no shows, so we decided to use several vendors across the country in order to spread out the gear hire geographically.”
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‘A UNIQUE VISUAL IDENTITY’
A focal point of the show design, the team devised a set design based on scenic trees that were rendered on Cinema 4D, 3D printed, and hand built en masse. “Benee is an artist with unique style and flair; the goal of the production design and building moments in the show were done to accent her personality and the way she performs her songs,” Dalgleish explained. “We wanted to present a playground for her to interact with her band and the audience.”
With six months of show design ideas squirrelled away, the team wanted to start strong with the inverse of a curtain raiser. “I had the vision of starting the show with a kabuki moment,” Dalgleish said, explaining the idea behind the introduction, which saw the artist perform the first half of the opening number in front of a white cyclorama backdrop, complete with lighting project and ‘shadow play’ – the band planted firmly behind the cyc.
During a key moment in the opening number, Benee dips behind the curtain, which is lit by a single spot; the audience is faced with a silhouette of her natural dance choreography – a staple of her on-stage performance. Once the curtain drops, the arena, for the first time in months, is met with screams – “a simple but incredibly effective technique,” Dalgleish underlined. [It appears the old ones, really are the best].
The creative capabilities of real-time graphics tool, Notch were introduced during the third song of the set. This included but wasn’t limited to unique frames that moved throughout the song and were purposely designed to interact with content; filters and effects, which sat in and behind certain looks using alpha channels on the video content, each referencing a scrapbook of influences – “classic, ’90s, British electronic music, not too dissimilar to Groove Armada concerts,” Dalgliesh pinpointed.
Dalgleish described the amount of Notch deployed across the eight shows as “unprecedented”. He attributed the uniqueness of the content to the time spent devoted to programming. Notch Designer, Ryan Sheppard, linked up with Dalgleish again following a series of high-profile Travis Scott projects, among others, and was coined an “integral” cog in the machine.
Based in Toronto, Canada, Sheppard was unable to attend the show in person. However, with respective time zones separated by just three hours, the team collaborated for seven days on TeamViewer and FaceTime to build the show in a virtual capacity – something which Dalgleish dubbed ‘a feat of internet speeds’ – defying the typically unreliable bandwidth of New Zealand internet connection.
“We really wanted to use Notch to avoid bringing in traditional IMAG screens,” Dalgleish explained. “We felt that controlling the overall look of the canvas of the arena was important and if we had to bring in the classic, projector IMAG screens that were originally specified, it would have degraded the entire experience. So, we made a pitch to lean heavily on cameras in a way that matched the content to become a unique part of the show,” Dalgleish commented, adding that above all, the aim was to ensure that Benee was visible for fans at the back of the room in a way which was artistically pleasing.
When it came to selecting the fixtures for the lighting rig, Dalgleish factored in the speed and musicality of each unit. “A lot of Benee’s back catalogue, especially the newer material, is very beat driven – she has songs which span drum and bass and hyper-pop genres, so I needed fixtures able to operate at the BPM of each track,” the LD explained, pinpointing Robe LED Beam 100 as a ‘workhorse’ fixture of the lighting rig. “It’s a simple fixture, but the speed it operates at and the beam it does for a small profile unit took a really front and centre role in this show.”
The lighting also comprised an array of fixtures including but not limited to Robe MegaPointes, something he described as a “must-have” hybrid fixture for the floor package.
Eager to spend more time with the lights in the rig, Dalgliesh was pleased with the results. “I always try to put the extra effort into the programming. A real effort was made to invest in building the show with full production rehearsals, which is something that isn’t normally done in New Zealand – most tours typically go out with a day of rehearsal beforehand at the venue if you’re lucky.” The team spent five, 24-hour sessions programming everything.
As well as professionalism, national pride was also on the agenda. “As a New Zealand native, it’s always been my goal to improve the standards of technical production in the country. Everyone involved in this show has put their all into it for a deserving artist who, in a short time, has been able to find her own voice and create an album and a unique visual identity.”
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‘HAPPY AND LUCKY TO BE DOING WHAT WE LOVE’
As Production Manager and FOH Engineer, it was Daniel Warwick’s job to review and assess all existing systems, then develop and design systems to ensure reliable arena-grade performances. He presided over everything from custom built pedalboards with inbuilt multi-pin and a switch talkback system, to new JH Audio in-ear monitors, redundant Radial SW8-USB playback system and Antares autotune via a UAD Live rack.
Having made the decision to pack up life in Los Angeles and move to his native New Zealand amid the COVID-19 crisis, Warwick, like Dalgleish, was pleased to return to work. “It was quite surreal getting back to work and being around live music again. As we are one of the only countries in the world able to do this, it felt quite emotional.”
In fact, leading up to the Benee tour, the team were waiting for news on whether the country would be out of lockdown in time for the shows. “When we finally got the green light, we were about three weeks out, so we had to put the pedal to the floor to get it all together. It felt like one of those home improvement reality shows where you are racing against the clock to get everything done,” Warwick reminisced. “Once the tour began, the crew immediately grew close, and there were beers in the hotel lobby after every show to decompress and reflect on how happy and lucky we are to be out doing what we love.”
Having grown up loading trucks and hanging around the Western Audio workshop, working with the supply team was somewhat of a reunion for Warwick. “They have always delivered an incredibly high standard. The best equipment is a given, but it’s their workplace culture and care for their crew that elevates them. When this most recent Benee tour came up, there was no doubt that they would supply. I have been out of New Zealand for the past couple of years, so it was nice to come back and see my old friends.”
All shows were sounded out by d&b audiotechnik PA systems. From the J series – both ArrayProcessed and not ArrayProcessed – to the final big shows, which rolled out the new GSL and KSL supplied by Western Audio. In Auckland, the d&b audiotechnik PA system comprised 32 GSL loudspeakers on the main hang, 24 KSL on the side hangs, 16 SL Subs in a sub array and eight Y7Ps as front fill.
“For a small country, we are really spoiled for good PA. I am constantly looking for ways to get the stage level down. The new SL series is so impressive, it’s almost witchcraft like with its rear rejection of noise,” Warwick enthused. “We also wanted to share some of the love and rental revenue around different companies. So, we toured our control package from Western Audio and took racks and stacks from local suppliers.”
The touring control package comprised a DiGiCo SD5 console at FOH with a Waves Extreme Server / SuperRack and a UAD live rack. The latter was a new addition to Warwick’s workflow and handled the autotune component of the show. The rider also comprised an Empirical Labs distressor, a Rupert Neve 5045, a Bricasti M7, Waves MaxxBCL and a Smart Research C2 computer. In monitor world, a DiGiCo SD10 with a Waves Extreme Server / SuperRack was the console of choice, with Shure PSM 1000 IEMs and UR2 Handheld Transmitters among the setup.
The microphone package featured Warwick’s personal collection of Royer R-10s on guitar amps, Neumann KM184s on underheads, Beyer Dynamic 201s on snare top and DPA Microphones d:facto chosen for Benee’s vocal.
“Something that is slowly creeping into my input list are all the talk back channels, and this tour was no different,” Warwick explained. “I wanted to create a solution for Benee to be able to easily talk to monitors and the band without changing microphones.” To this end, Warwick specified a Radial Xo relay box and Radial JR1-M foot switch. “The Radial Xo is patched on the output of the main vocal wireless receiver. When the footswitch is engaged, the relay box switches the wireless receiver output to a talkback channel and mutes the main output. It worked a treat!” he exclaimed.
Working with Benee, who showcases a wide variety of genres in her set, posed unique challenges for those behind the faders – keeping engineers on their toes between songs and bracing to react to the dynamics of each song. “I was using the Waves MaxxBCL inserted over my L/R,” Warwick reported. “Being able to adjust my compressor/limiter and subharmonics to taste between songs really helped.”
Having spent a great deal of energy designing the stage to reduce noise, Warwick selected four clear sound baffles drum shields for the drums. “I use a pair of Radial Engineering SGIs to send guitar signals to a pair of Fender twins out the back of stage to keep amp noise down,” he stated. “The only thing I can’t control is the screaming girls in the audience getting into the vocal mic!”
Warwick was pleased to be among the “dream team” on this tour. “Despite it being a short run, the crew WhatsApp chat was filled with post-tour depression tips and tricks. Based on all the new elements and crew introduced for this tour, I expected a couple of road bumps but, as it turns out, we couldn’t have had a smoother run.”
He attributed the success of the run to the crew, band, and management. “We are just about to kick off summer touring here in New Zealand,” he said, looking to the future. “I can’t wait for our outdoor shows as well as visiting all New Zealand has to offer between shows.”
‘AN IMPORTANT STEP FOR LIVE MUSIC IN NEW ZEALAND’
Marking a series of firsts, the final show of the tour at a sold-out Spark Arena featured a paid-for livestream, providing work for additional crew – a video director and camera team – amid the global pandemic. Production value was also increased with a large curved LED wall brought in to add an extra visual dimension.
The live broadcast was a full split with OB truck out the back of the venue. Ratu Gordon from Western Audio assumed the role of truck mixer. “I was able to send a multitrack in advance so on the day he already had it sounding great on the first pass,” Warwick stated. “It’s the best feeling knowing you have an engineer you trust mixing the broadcast. Especially when management comes and tells you how great it’s sounding!”
Striving to make the livestream as ‘Benee-fied’ as possible, the offering was hosted on a unique platform for fans. “A lot of effort was made by management, the Director and I to highlight authentic moments of the performance for the livestream,” Dalgleish recalled.
Dalgleish was busy programming until doors to make the content as engaging as possible for viewers self-isolating. Among the several plates spinning, the team also had to contend with recording a set for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert as well as three additional New Year’s Eve televised performances, with separate lighting edits, making for a busy final day of the tour.
However, modern day lighting designers are no strangers to lighting for broadcast nowadays thanks in part to the invention of the little computers in most of our pockets – mobile phones. “We’re always pulling out our phones and taking photos during rehearsal to see how it looks like on camera and how it translates to social media,” Dalgleish informed TPi. “Livestreaming is an extension of that in a lot of ways.”
While the first song of every arena set is lit up by 10,000 mobile phone lights, social media is where artists and management look to for immediate validation – how their shows are captured and look in a rough Instagram photo is as important as an official photograph. “It’s key to know that it’s a big part of the job,” Dalgleish acknowledged. “It’s important as a designer to tune into the artist’s vision. People are consuming content which can be passed by quickly if it’s not authentic. What Benee does is incredibly authentic to her, and Human Person’s goal was to remain authentic to her as a performer and an artist.”
Summing up his experience, Dalgleish concluded: “This was Benee’s first headline tour with production and we were lucky to set the benchmark for her show moving forward, presenting her with a production which matched her personality. This was an important step for New Zealand’s quest to return to live music to fans.”
This article originally appeared in issue #256 of TPi, which you can read here.