Ed Sheeran’s record-breaking international +–=÷X (Mathematics) Tour is as much a display of artistic and technological prowess as a testament to the impact a single performer can have – when supported by the right technology. Which, here, includes an expansive Clear-Com system supplied by Major Tom, one of the preeminent global touring companies.
Typically, artists of Sheeran’s status tend to add more players, more instruments, and a fair bit of backing tracks to satiate their audiences’ demands. As ever, Sheeran takes a different approach, creating a grand spectacle utilising innovative and unique staging and production elements while primarily performing alone, using a custom loop setup to generate accompanying sounds live in the moment, ensuring no show is the same.
Mathematics plays out on five stages placed around the floor of the venue, usually a stadium: one centre stage with a revolving rim allowing 360° visibility for (and of) Sheeran, and four platforms for members of his band who – in a first for Sheeran – occasionally accompany him, each at the bottom of six “masts” that act as counterweights in a sophisticated pulley rigging setup for a 42-ton halo above the main stage. As if that wasn’t enough, pyro also figures heavily into the spectacle, with flamethrowers used multiple times, culminating with a fireworks display as a finale.
Saying there are a lot of moving parts to the technical side of the production is putting it mildly. And that’s where Clear-Com comes in. To pull off this technological extravaganza show after show, city after city, every member of every department – lighting, audio, video, stage management, riggers, and automation – need to be in constant communication, not only from a health and safety perspective but to handle the massive infrastructure deployed for Mathematics.
Designed and implemented by David White, Looper and RF Tech for Sheeran, and Adam Wells, Audio Systems Engineer, the intercom system for the Mathematics Tour consists of five four-channel HelixNet Digital Network Partyline remote stations, FreeSpeak II Wireless Intercom System, and LQ Series IP Interfaces to distribute over the IP Network. HelixNet beltpacks are distributed across six remote camera operators, and an antenna splitter distributes the IP network to three different transceivers across the show grounds. All the various departments utilise the same system on their own dedicated HelixNet channel.
Communications are increasingly integral to any show with multiple departments, even in a traditional single stage setup. Multiply that by five separate stages, and it’s obvious the deployment here is out of the ordinary in terms of scale and the degree of collaboration required. Here, they’re even more critical given that the production crew is spread out, with some beneath the stages, some at FOH, and others not even in the room; among them, follow spot operators controlling spots remotely and video crew working from outside the venue. Put bluntly, without rock-solid, reliable communications, this wouldn’t be possible.
With his background in live theatre, Chris Marsh, Manager for Audio Production Company Major Tom and Production Manager for Sheeran, contributed to a very artistic production style. Beneath the main stage during shows, cues are being given as if this were a theatre performance for lighting, video, sound, pyrotechnics, and operation of the massive moving halo above the main stage. All need to be carefully orchestrated, synchronised, and communicated quickly and clearly.
“All of that is standard to large theatrical productions, but this was the first time we’ve done something of this scale with comms,” said Wells. “It’s the first time we’ve had a show with this many bells and whistles and moving parts, and it’s so busy and loud everywhere, it’s an absolute necessity to have that level of clear communication. With HelixNet and FreeSpeak, it’s crystal clear. That’s a game-changer to have clear communications for everyone, particularly when dealing with elements like pyro and weather emergencies.”
While the team intends to move to a fully digital system in the future, they’ve intentionally maximised efficiency with their hybrid analogue/digital system utilising LQ Series IP Interfaces. For example, each tech station on-site has a port labelled “comms.” Each tech has a HelixNet beltpack, and when they get to a station where they need to service or administer support, they can simply plug in and instantly connect to the network.
“They can sync in so quickly, and it just works,” White said. “It became a more efficient way of working and works quite well. We were even able to put outlier crew like the two techs who monitor the safety sensors for the halo rigging on comms. And that’s a critical safety issue.”
That was extremely helpful at one show where the safety sensors for the halo erred on the side of caution and overrode the command to lift the halo. Sheeran was onstage, but thanks to the crew’s quick communication, they dropped the video feed on the semi-transparent screen so the audience could still see him. “Fundamentally, it’s a live show,” Wells said. “And in those situations, without clear, bulletproof communications, we wouldn’t be able to deal with those situations and weather emergencies as quickly as we have been able to.”
That proved true at Denver, CO’s Empower Field at Mile High (“Broncos Stadium”) in August, where 100° temperatures, rolling thunderstorms, and nearby lightning triggered three separate evacuations before Sheeran took the stage. “Clear-Com was essential in helping us to get back up and running quickly and seamlessly,” White noted. “If something does go wrong, we can solve it very quickly instead of suddenly having to go to a two-way radio to talk to another department. This is a very cohesive tour, where literally everyone and everything feeds off the other departments.”
Wells agrees, emphasising how crucial it was for every crew member to communicate with one another, even if they were running around a stadium. “We looked at it from the point of ‘can this be built together? Can it work together?’”
That comment speaks to the complexity and need for such a system and, more specifically, the benefits of Clear-Com’s scalability, ease of integration of additional components, functionality, and comprehensive product range, which drove the decision to adopt FreeSpeak II in 2018.
At the time, on Sheeran’s ÷ (Divide) tour, only audio and lighting crews used Clear-Com, with the video crew integrated via another system. Autograph’s Ben Turnwell (who has since joined Clear-Com as the UK Regional Sales Manager) visited the crew during the tour and presented the FreeSpeak II demo as an upgrade to their then-analog two-wire system from Autograph Sound. They loved it, and it was delivered two weeks later to finish the tour’s second half.
While that hybrid system worked for a while, ultimately, the crew favoured Clear-Com’s ultra-low latency and crystal-clear sound and decided to expand the system to all departments to unify them for subsequent tours.
The introduction of FreeSpeak II to the tour was also based on a desire for the show to work more theatrically, which requires a good communications system. In the interim, communication evolved substantially, with more people requiring communications overall, discrete channels, and additional automation, which led to replacing analog for HelixNet by using LQ Series to distribute communications entirely over IP on a network that has only increased in scope since that original tour.
Beyond that, the durability Clear-Com equipment is well-known for was also a plus. “Clear-Com’s beltpacks are really rugged,” White continued. “In fact, when Ben first demoed [FreeSpeak II] for me, he literally threw my beltpack across the room. He said, ‘Look, isn’t that great?’ and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve just bought that!’” He adds, laughing, “But it didn’t break!”
“Clear-Com’s systems are robust,” Wells concluded. “It’s set up in a way that it just turns on and works seamlessly every day, allowing all the various crews on tour to collaborate with ease. You just plug it in, and it’s crystal-clear, and it just works.”