Following the ban on mass gatherings in March, socially distanced performances, seated audiences and drive-in shows have been the order of the day. Diverging from conventional lockdown live offerings, Irish singer-songwriter, Dermot Kennedy joined forces with actor Paul Mescal to deliver a multistage performance, complete with socially distanced musicians, a string quartet and a choir. The technologically advanced undertaking was broadcast live from the Natural History Museum in London by Driift on 30 July – entertaining live music fans and providing an outlet for a talented production team amid the global pandemic.
Midway through the build and rehearsals for Dua Lipa’s now postponed arena tour in March, Tour Director, Peter Abbott and Musical Director, William Bowerman formed Cermony London to produce a range of filmed live music performances.
One of Ceremony’s first productions was Dermot Kennedy’s ambitious Natural History Museum performance. Working in close collaboration with Creative Director, Richard Sloan, Ceremony London oversaw the delivery of the project, liaising between the promoter, management, artist and each of the creative and production departments.
“We wanted to find a spectacular, multiroom space that was relatively used to putting on shows,” Abbott informed TPi, explaining the idea behind the production. “The entire team has a genuine love for the museum, and for natural history, so it seemed an obvious place to do the show. We knew we wanted to incorporate spoken word and another performer; Paul and his command of the camera made for a very complete performance.”
The Ceremony team revealed the ambition of the piece to management, promoters and the museum during a warm day in early July, while walking around the historic venue. “From there it was a case of Zoom talks through the creative with each head of department, further site visits, revisions, budgets, risk assessments, hair tearing, faith keeping, rehearsals, and a very frantic day-and-a-half on site,” Abbott recalled.
All the core team were on tour with Dermot Kennedy Stateside when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Determined to get the show back on the road, when it was safe to do so, Abbott enlisted the support of Dermot’s touring PM, Edd Slaney and SM, Rory Clarke. Technical support came from SSE Audio, Christie Lites, White Light, nlitedesign for video, ProCam Projects, Fly By Nite and Executours for a livestream like no other. Catering was supplied by The Pantry Maid, working in COVID-19 guidance to deliver individual boxed meals to the crew. Jackshoot supplied the satellite uplink for the global online broadcast.
“Christie Lights were supplying a small control and floor package in the US when the tour was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. SSE is the UK and European supplier and supplied the most recent tour. White Light is one of the museum’s preferred suppliers and worked with us to light the museum, and to help us stay within museum guidelines,” Abbott commented. “ProCam Projects provided the film production and support staff; I’d worked with Director, Liz Clare at the 2019 EMAs and had talked to her in April about the possibility of doing something together once filmed live music was a possibility. As soon as the Dermot project came in, we had a chance to do something spectacular. Liz worked with Andy Derbyshire to assemble a wonderful team.”
Drawing inspiration from fossilised giants, Victorian architecture, and an Irish whale called Hope, the ambitious event was pulled off in roughly four weeks. “I think everything is a little harder with COVID-19, but we were able to take advantage of having a completely closed museum, which allowed us a lot of flexibility and some terrifying dinosaur encounters,” Abbott reported. “Although of course everyone prefers performing to an audience, we wanted to create a unique response to the moment, avoiding any lull in which the silence would be overwhelming.”
The Event Safety Shop provided a comprenhsive COVID-19 protocol, implemented by Simon Carr and enforced by Kate Sinden. Temperature checks, suitable PPE, and an online registration and declaration process were implemented for everyone attending rehearsals.
“We had a lot of space to work with, which helped,” Abbott noted. “Some measures taken included departmental bubbles as far as possible, reduced in-person communication and staggered arrival and departure times. Judit Matyasy co-ordinated the large production and additional requirements. In terms of licencing, Gavin Bevan and Christina Wood at the Natural History Museum were incredible. We had no issues that were too challenging and worked within the framework of the venue’s usual events.”
While in some ways the risk assessment was complex, in others, given the nature of the mitigations, Abbott believed that the experience of producing a performance during the ‘new normal’ “wasn’t too onerous”. He said: “The overwhelming efforts fans went to in connecting with their friends and family to create a communal experience was the best reminder of the power of shared experience, regardless of how it is shared.”
Going live to air added pressure for crew and performers. “This was one of the most challenging but also most rewarding shows I’ve worked on,” Abbott said. “Working at home in London, even given the COVID-19 pandemic, allowed us to work with such an excellent group of professionals that in many ways this was more straightforward than some world tours.”
As always, budget was a topic of discussion throughout. “It was carefully monitored and managed. At its heart, the show was very traditional and so costs were well understood by the various heads of department.” Although not being able to have audiences is relatively new territory for Dermot’s team, curating live experiences for broadcast output is familiar.
“Drawing on the right teams to deliver live-to-air events, and combining them with experienced touring crew and musicians, made the process a little hectic, but not impossibly stressful,” Abbott said, explaining that the most significant challenge was to adapt the structure of an existing live show to create a compelling piece of television with just a week of rehearsals and within an evolving budget. “By bringing together excellent, open and collaborative people on both the music and filming sides of the project, we were able to produce something really extraordinary.”
In closing, Abbott described the experience as a “hugely enjoyable rollercoaster”. He concluded: “We’re currently working to put together some more streaming shows, promo and chewing over other ways to create live music experiences given all the barriers COVID-19 puts up.”
‘SUBMERGING INTO NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS’
Lighting Designer, Owen Pritchard-Smith worked closely with DoP Nat Hill and the visual team to translate the vision of Dermot Kennedy and his team through the lens. “Dermot is extremely good at conveying his ideas and thoughts regarding overall aesthetics and direction, trusting his team to use their knowledge, creativity and experience to translate that into the show,” Pritchard-Smith explained.
“Something that is very prevalent in Dermot’s music, and our live shows is the passing of time; day, night, sunrise and sunset. Representing this through lighting is something we always strive for,” he noted. “Most colour schemes generally follow an overall arc of time over the course of the show and in some cases an individual song. These temporal differences are synonymous with nature and its beauty – another strong theme in Dermot’s music – and a driving factor for the choice of venue.”
The show was built to reach a crescendo, adding more musicians as the performing artist cycled through his back catalogue. “We supported this with the lighting, keeping smaller and more static looks in the first two acts, and the third opening with bigger states and increased architectural depth,” Pritchard-Smith regaled TPi with a colourful account. “Just as the beginning, the end of the show drops right back down to Dermot on his own, isolated in the middle of the hall, shadowed by the whale, and their immense architectural and natural beauties, respectively.”
Delighted to be back onsite, Pritchard-Smith praised the tour’s technical suppliers. “Andy Strachan from Christie Lites supplies the tour for me; we have worked together on other projects so there is a very good relationship there. They are great at ensuring the seamless transition and continuity of packages across the Atlantic. Dave Moorcroft is our Chief LX and I have known him for years, which makes our onsite experience extremely smooth.”
The LD’s traditional touring setup comprised a pair of MA Lighting grandMA3 light consoles run on grandMA2 software. For this show, Pritchard-Smith upgraded the main console to a full size to add more faders to keep access to key and broadcast lighting on hand.
“It was a little tight in our socially distanced gallery, but we made it work,” he explained, adding that due to the limited rehearsal time, everything needed to be flexible, allowing him to react in real time. “For this reason, and to eradicate needless points of failure, I decided to not use timecode and operated the show manually. Programming was done offline using my own capture suite, with a console provided by Christie Lites.”
One of the main briefs for the project was to retain the live gig element. To aid this, the LD kept the bulk of the lighting synonymous with the artist’s touring rig, relying heavily on GLP impression X4 Bar 20s and JDC1s. The postponed tour was to mark the arrival of newly deployed Martin by Harman ERA 800 Performance fixtures on the lighting rig, having upgraded from Vipers. “They certainly gave a desired punch through the rest of the rig,” he remarked.
White Light provided architectural lighting and balcony lighting with ETC Source Fours for key light and Martin by Harman MAC Auras for backlight, with broadcast lighting for the B and C stages provided by ProCam Projects. The LD dubbed the addition of Astera LED Titan Tubes as an “absolute go-to” with broadcast, waxing lyrical about the fixture’s output and flexibility as camera candy and practical light sources.
One of the main challenges, Pritchard-Smith said, was achieving a balance between live gig and broadcast, within the constraints of a museum. The inability to rig anything more than a few boom arms on the balconies due to time and building restrictions meant that a floor-package-heavy show was required.
“We had to ensure that at every part of the show we were using the building and its architecture to the max; from singularly lit display cabinets, and uplit dinosaurs, to squeezing the last bit of natural light through stained glass windows, every part of the museum tells a story. I love making long transitions – sunrises and sunsets are a favourite for submerging Dermot into natural environments,” he noted. “The whale speaks for itself!” Marking the LD’s only onsite work since the tour was cut short in March, Pritchard-Smith summed up his experience. “Being back with most of the normal touring party was pretty emotional. When you spend months on end working and living together, to then unexpectedly part ways for an unknown period can be quite difficult,” he said.
“It is incredibly important for both audiences and artists to be able to experience something as close as possible to live shows now. Livestreamed performances and gigs with high production values allow audiences to continue to enjoy watching, and to connect with artists and their music during these times,” he added. “The show was brilliant to be part of; the reactions have been incredible, and it was great to be back with the team again. I really hope that we can make these experiences happen in venues with live audiences again soon.”
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‘RELIEF FROM THE ISOLATION OF LOCKDOWN’
The audio package for the Natural History Museum livestream was larger than the team’s typical touring package. FOH Engineer, Will Donbavand explained: “Monitor Engineer, Simon Lawson and I have used a DiGiCo packing in some form or other from January 2018. Normally, we share one DiGiCo SD rack with an SD12-96 each, but the channel count for this, given the string section, backing vocalists, Paul Mescal’s mics and ambient mics, an expanded solution was called for.”
Firstly, due to the additional channels and different sounding rooms that A and B stage were in, Donbavand needed to be able to access everything quickly, so a bigger work surface was required. In the same respect, Monitor Engineer, Alex Cerutti, who was covering for Simon Lawson, who was self-isolating in the US, had to deal with a lot more mixes than the touring show, both for musicians and technical crew.
Dermot had requested that Lawson be involved in the project as much as possible regardless of geographical restrictions, which led the audio team to discover and utilise the Audiomovers application. “Audiomovers is a high-quality, lossless, low-latency internet transmission plugin for your DAW, enabling transmission of audio back and forth over the internet from one location to another,” Lawson explained.
Utilising Audiomovers, Cerutti and Lawson were able to talk to each other in real time during rehearsals, as well as Lawson having a talkback mic to Dermot and the band and being able to listen in on the PFL bus and Dermot’s mix. “This was a great tool for smoothing the transition between engineers, allowing the artist to feel comfortable and for Alex to have a real time sounding board for any questions he might have. I would certainly recommend this to anyone in a similar situation,” Lawson said.
“This was my first show with Dermot,” Cerutti said, joining the conversation. “I have worked with a number of artists on the same management company as Dermot and, having known Simon and Will for a long time, it worked out well,” he added. “Like everyone in the touring industry, I have been missing work a lot and was incredibly grateful to be involved. What was particularly gratifying about this post was working with talented people that I have known for a long time and an artist and band who were easy to work with.”
Both monitors and FOH used DiGiCo SD5s with an analogue split into two SD racks each, loaded with 32-bit cards. A third desk and SD11i was used by Andy Scarth, who mixed Paul Mescal’s spoken word mics, sound effects and the final mastering chain. “My mix went to Andy and then he sent out a mastered mix, for which he used a Smart C2, a Manley Massive Passive and a TC Electronic M6000 for limiting and metering. Taking these extra elements out of my hands took additional pressure off me, and it undoubtedly improved the final sound of the show,” Donbavand explained.
“Bringing in someone that I trusted with my mix meant I didn’t need to stress if my mix was being EQ’d or compressed in a way I didn’t like. Andy is a great person to ask for advice as his experience and knowledge in a live broadcast environment is vast.”
Cerutti chimed in: “Thankfully, there was a good amount of room at the Natural History Museum. On the camera left side of the main room there were a number of rooms and corridors where we split up the monitor and broadcast systems relying on longer than average cable lengths to tie everything together.”
Donbavand’s FOH rig featured a UAD Live Rack, which was used on Dermot and Paul’s vocals, on a “music bus” and the final mix bus – supplied by Tom Waterman and Universal Audio, who the engineer said had both been “super supportive” over the past few years.
Cerutti and Donbavand harnessed ProTools rigs to record rehearsals and the show multi tracks for backup. The IEMs were Shure PSM1000, vocal mics used Sennheiser 6000 series transmitters and receivers. While the strings players all played Bridge Instruments with Shure Axient Digital.
Two-thirds of the performance took place in the museum’s main hall, which has a natural reverb of just under seven seconds – something the engineer said was “not the best for live drums”, but managed to work around this using room mics more for some sections, such as the acapella songs and the less reverberant B stage area. “During the main band performances, the ambient mics were quite tucked, however, during the gaps of silence, you could hear this reverb tail sang out,” the engineer added. “Despite being so long, it sounded quite musical.”
As the internal walls of the museum are so thick, not to mention dealing with many areas needing RF coverage, the venue added additional problems. Donbavand praised RF Tech, Sapna Patel and Rob Cook, who deployed a “faultless” package. Rounding up a positive return to work, the engineer said: “I hope when we’re able to, the DK team can reunite to put on the shows that have been postponed this year. It really is a wonderful bunch of people to experience life with. Until then, I’ll be mixing whatever I can, running and sleeping for eight hours a night while I still can.”
A key player in getting the livestream off the ground, Donbavand was involved in the early technical planning stages, working with SSE Audio to help overcome the obstacles presented by the venue and COVID-19.
“Massive thanks to Jamie Tinsley for additional recording and tech during the rehearsals and show. As well as Dan Bennett at SSE Audio along with Phil Collins, Stef Phillips and Keith Sujeen, who helped Rob prepare the show in very little time and while much of the workforce was furloughed,” he added. “Also, thanks to Marcus Blight for the extra RF assistance. None of this could have happened without them, and it goes without saying that there were so many more people outside of the audio team that made this show.”
Lawson concluded: “Over the past two-and-a-half years, it’s been a real pleasure to work with everyone in the Dermot camp. It feels like a real touring family sharing milestone experiences all along the way with talented people who thoroughly deserve all the credit and recognition coming their way. Hearing everyone’s voices and chatting to people during rehearsals was well needed relief from the isolation of lockdown.”
This article originally appeared in issue #255 of TPi, which you can read here.