Starting its road journey in November 2013, Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience tour – of which he is the Creative Director – was a truly captivating technical masterpiece. The Nick Whitehouse-produced show was playing live in support of not one, but two studio albums, and has become a critically-acclaimed box office hit. TPi’s Kelly Murray spoke to the ground crew on the tour’s UK leg and the creative team in the US, to hear the insider thinking on the intricate details of this extensive live project.
Walking into Manchester’s Phones 4U Arena to behold Justin Timberlake’s magnificent stage set for the first time was quite a moment. Dominating the arena back wall was a honeycomb shaped white wave of technology-ridden design. More akin to a Hollywood film set, the almost Space Age-looking structure was a beautifully artistic temporary install, complemented by carefully positioned PA hangs…But what was to be revealed as the show got underway was a real triumph for exploring technology in live concert touring.
This solo tour was billed as the 20/20 Experience with a lineup of ‘JT and The Tennessee Kids’ – the latter being a retro style band of 16 slickly dressed musicians, in an all singing, all dancing, expertly choreographed live performance.
Sat backstage in a busy production office, Justin Timberlake’s Production Manager, Robert Mullen – Hydro to his friends – was at the helm of the proceedings for this technically challenging, boundary-pushing tour. Having worked his way up through the ranks over the years, it’s certainly not a bad seat to be in. Not only has it been a problem free, phenomenally successful sell-out hit wherever it’s been so far, it was also the kind of production that garners gushing attention from the world’s commercial press.
“I started unloading trucks a long time ago and have done a lot of different roles since. I was the Stage Manager for Justin’s last tour seven years ago. Since then I’ve been Production Manager to a few artists but this is my first time PMing for Justin, and I’m very happy about it,” explained Hydro. “When you see the show out there, it looks big, and it is big, but it’s not actually that difficult to put up and take down.”
This was in part enabled by the smooth rigging enlisted by main tour vendor, Solotech, which also, unusually, has supplied the 20/20 Experience’s audio, lighting and video with laser components from Pyrotecnico FX. Perhaps what also allows this seamless approach to continue was that the kit remained the same for UK and European audiences, meaning that US fans wouldn’t get a bigger, glitzier show compared to the rest of the world. This was a core sticking point from the very beginning, meaning that JT fans all over were all buying into the same tour, without exception.
“In Europe it hasn’t been downscaled from the US at all,” said Hydro. “You’ll get the exact same production quality everywhere we visit because we produce the full show every time and that was a very important element in the initial design. A big factor was to ensure that we’re able to give the same touring values each time. It took about eight months to finalise the show, but when we did, we knew that no matter where JT’s fans were, they’d be getting the exact same experience. The only difference is that in Europe we have 28 EST trucks, where as in America, only because US trucks are bigger, we only needed 23!”
Technically speaking, 20/20 was a wildly intricate beast, the kind of stage design that just to momentarily look upon infiltrated every bit of curiosity in your body. With no easy task ahead of him, the origins of the tour’s technicalities needed some first class suppliers. Alongside the Solotech – Pyrotecnico FX partnership, Nick Whitehouse and Hydro had chosen TAIT Towers for the set, stage and automation. Geodezik was looking after (the breathtaking) video content, Beat The Street and EST on bussing and trucking duties, respectively, 2014 TPi Award-winning Rock-It Cargo handling freighting, Cat Entertainment Services looking after transformers and, in Europe, Sheffield’s own Snakatak were cooking up a storm in the arena kitchens.
“We are thrilled and honoured to be part of this great team, it is a real pleasure to work with Hydro and his crew. We supplied seven 150kva transformers and a cable package to the tour as well as 400amp RCD disconnects. We also supplied one 6kva UPS for backline to convert 50 Hz to 60 Hz and a 6Kva UPS for Justin’s dressing room. We congratulate the success of the tour to date and look forward to the remaining legs,” expressed Vincent Campion, European Regional Manager, Cat Entertainment Services.
Hydro concluded: “We have the best people on board, and I like working with all of them – that’s all it comes down to.” As people pop in and out of Hydro’s office, it’s obvious that after a mighty seven months into the touring schedule, the backstage team had become a friendly, dynamic and close-knit bunch.
THE CREATIVE DESIGN
Speaking from his home in the US, British born Nick Whitehouse was one of the main non-touring creative team to have worked on the mammoth show. “I was the Lighting Designer and Co-Production Designer for Justin’s FutureSex / LoveSounds tour in 2007, but I started working with JT after he saw a 2006 Coldplay show I worked on in Japan. He contacted me straight away and we started working together almost immediately,” he told TPi.
“We really clicked as I have a very musical style of lighting and that’s very important to him, really following his music visually from the slow, intimate acoustic numbers to full-on huge pop anthems is vital. At the start of the 20/20 tour cycle, I took on a larger ‘creative producer’ role for him by putting together every aspect of the visual and creative elements, and brought in the right creative team to fulfill his vision,” Whitehouse stated.
As JT was the Creative Director for this show, the artist worked very closely with Whitehouse on every aspect of it, alongside Stage / Set Designer, Josh Zangen. “Just from listening to the new albums, you can hear that each song sonically, really is very different and we were all keen to follow this very closely with the visuals for the show,” continued Whitehouse. “We would propose concepts and content ideas and then adapt them based on JT’s notes. The end result visually is something that was really closely related to the music and actually personalised by JT himself.”
This hands-on approach to touring is only seen in a handful of high calibre artists, and JT’s two new albums and the music have critically inspired every part of the creative design. “JT described his albums as ‘visual music’ that’s why he named the albums the 20/20 Experience,” Whitehouse furthered. “It was very important that we continued this into the live shows. Another important factor was that we wanted the stage itself to look different to anything else out there – almost like a clean art installation – and we worked very hard to hide much of the technology required to run this show, in order to keep the sight lines clean.”
As with every technical element of this show, the lighting design had to be very precise. “Everything we did had to be done for a reason; either musically or to be in sync with something else visually. All the hits really had to be tied into the music and bring something additional to the look. If it didn’t make sense or make it look better, we took it out. We spent a great deal of time making sure everything really fit together and worked in harmony.
“In fact, we took more out of the lighting than we put in at times; to give the projections and lasers space to breathe. Sometimes we had just a single spot – other times the whole lighting rig was used, but we made sure this was adapted to solely reveal what was needed for individual songs,” said Whitehouse.
Due to the careful design and planning during every aspect of the show, and with JT always being personally involved, Whitehouse commented that very little, if anything at all, as far as lighting was concerned was altered during rehearsals. The 20/20 Experience team had about around six weeks of production rehearsals, but while they were designing the show itself, they also undertook a full worldwide promotional tour and a US stadium tour with Jay-Z. Busy indeed!
Whitehouse continued: “The projection was probably the easiest part of my role. I brought in Content Creator, Gabriel Coutu-Dumont [Gab for short] from Montreal-based Geodezik very early on in the design so that we could put together the set list and visual ideas from scratch and we would always bear in mind how lighting and video would work together in each song.
“Once we got into rehearsals it naturally worked together, when there was an issue we would either tweak video or lighting to get to where we had imagined we would be, and often, just simplifying what we were doing really made a big difference.
“Because JT was his own Creative Director, Josh, Gab and I worked very closely with him in order to deliver his vision from the very initial concept. As everything was planned by this core creative team, everything else slotted in nicely. Our Video Director, David Boisvert does a great job of capturing the show and integrating a lot of the live content into the pre-created content. Again, all this was part of JT’s vision, which was refined by Gab as we moved forwards.
“The experience was incredibly hard work but very rewarding, it’s always amazing to work with such talented artists like JT. Hydro’s remarkable team and our crew from Solotech and TAIT stopped at nothing to deliver what we were asking of them – even if it seemed impossible at the time – such as the bridge element from TAIT which tracks to FOH. They all worked so hard to help the creative team deliver this show. It’s in no way simple to execute some of these groundbreaking design elements, but these people are so talented at what they do, that they make it look easy! The 20/20 Experience tour has really allowed us to push the boundaries of live touring,” said Whitehouse.
The 20/20 Experience was the first time Stage / Set Designer, Josh Zangen (part of the tour’s creative but non-touring team) had worked with JT. In the early conversations with the artist, he explained how several ideas of modern art installation, futuristic environments, EDM style visuals and a ‘fly’s eye’ were discussed. The latter being where the geometric pattern for the wall and ceiling actually came from.
Zangen said: “Justin really wanted 20/20 to be a very sensory experience where upon walking in you see this architectural structure with no band and don’t really know what to expect. Nick and I discussed early on that we wanted to hide the entire lighting, video and laser rig behind the scenic elements to keep a really crisp and clean look throughout.”
Because of this notion, the rear wall and decorative ceiling was designed to allow ‘an immersive digital environment using projections on its surface’ and also featured perforated metal panels for the lighting to pass through. “We came up with the bridge which is one of the largest elements of the show while discussing how to connect with as much of the audience as possible, but in a completely new way – not using any wires or flown elements. Our goal was to take the front row experience out to the entire audience and reverse their perspective. The cabaret style of the VIP lounge at the opposite end of the arena contrasts with the modern main stage and is set up for the more intimate songs later in the set, making for an up-close and personal cotton club style experience,” furthered Zangen.
The scale of the show and how the elements worked together in the arena was a big challenge needing precision on placement. “Working with TAIT is always loads of fun and lends itself to a lot of creativity in development. We spent many weeks experimenting with shapes and different materials for each element to make sure we had the right look and finish and that it all worked well together. The final version is much more refined than the initial concept but the main elements remained pretty constant through development. We wanted to create a unique and standout experience for the audience that will never be forgotten.
“It’s been great to see such a positive response to the show and I am definitely really proud of everything we were able to achieve. Justin is a fantastically creative person on all fronts, working with him and the other people involved made this project a lot of fun in a very openly creative environment.”
Whitehouse continued: “As with everything in the design, we demoed, tested and re-tested everything to make sure that what we were doing was the perfect choice for this particular part of the design. The size and weight of the lights in the set was a large factor; also trying to be environmentally efficient with the fixtures where possible. I had tested the Clay Paky Sharpy Wash during the promo tour and really loved the power and beam that it produced, especially for the size and weight, so this is the fixture that I’ve used most in JT’s rig.”
Certainly in the Clay Paky camp, presence of the Sharpy products on the tour has been noted. Francesco Romagnoli, Clay Paky Area Manager for North and Latin America commented: “Our lights have been on Justin Timberlake before and we have worked with Mr Whitehouse numerous times. We’re proud to be in the company of such artists once again.”
Whitehouse continued to explain his fixture choice: “I paired the Sharpy with the Philips Vari-Lite VL3000 and VL3015 spots, as these have always been my favourite, and I can’t find a fixture that would give me the same features and quality in a smaller size. For some of the effects in the show, I wanted a certain amount of beams so the original Sharpys were again the perfect choice for me. Finally, I had come across the Solaris Flare earlier in the year and decided that for efficiency I would try to use this as a wash / strobe and audience light. The Flares turned out to be one of the most used fixtures in the rig; I love them! They look great and did everything I asked of them and much more.”
The lighting rig is fitted around the concept of the stage and set design. Whitehouse continued: “We wanted a really wide screen effect with the projections and stage and I naturally wanted the lighting to be just as big at moments, I worked very hard with Josh to create the perfect set in which every single light was hidden from view and not seen when it was not being used. The structure and design of the set really dictated where we could put the lights, but essentially I wanted to spread these out all over the stage.
“I switched to the MA Lighting grandMA2 desk about five years ago, and I’ve used this console on many different sizes and types of shows, yet no matter what the situation, I find it the most versatile console for the way that I work. It was a natural choice for this show as it combines many different elements of control in the one console. Parts of this show are synced totally to Timecode and this console has the best Timecode interface of any that I have used. We also took advantage of the 3D positioning system on the console – the Photon media server reported JT’s position back to the console, so we could use this moving position as a focus for any of the lights.
“Plus the support from MA Lighting and their distributors ACT [US] and Ambersphere [UK] is also superb, so I always feel like I am in good hands with this desk. The show in its current state runs at about 12,000 lighting cues, with each one perfectly synced to the music either manually or on the Timecode system. Some of the things that we wanted to do were so compacted that in some songs two or three cue lists run simultaneously, like different instruments in a band, this console handles all of this with ease,” he said.
Operating the lighting on the road was 20/20 Experience Lighting Director, Jason Gangi. “Justin likes every accent to be hit, so for example, on the song Tunnel Vision, it’s ‘kick, snare, kick kick snare’ and there’s a cue on every one of those. He’s big on accents for every single beat, or bass line or snare which is why there are so many cues, and why we’re using this desk to handle it,” said Gangi.
“The creative guys have done an amazing job; it’s a very cool concept in general. The Sharpy Washes and Sharpys themselves are in groups of four to give that big rock ‘n’ roll ACL look, up in the ceiling. There have been no real challenges on this tour, despite how intricate this design is. It’s just all worked really well, and I feel honoured that Nick asked me to do it.”
Gangi also commented on Solotech’s tour support: “For me, this is the first time in 16 years on the road where one company has been the main equipment supplier. It works really well, I like the concept because everyone is working together, and I really like the benefits of the situation. Solotech is a great support too. We did have a console go down in Las Vegas and, within two hours, I had another one sent out. So although that very rarely happens, and we always have a back-up, it’s nice to know how responsive they are and to know that their tech support is very good if you do need it.”
STAGING AND AUTOMATION
TAIT developed a multifaceted set with four major features to achieve the high artistic standards and logistical requirements put forth by JT’s creative team. The set’s back wall and ceiling were made up of vacuformed hexagon panels that created a projection surface for the show’s vast projection content. Certain panels consisted of perforated metal, which revealed an intricate lighting display with a larger-than-life pinhole effect, while masking the show’s lighting fixtures and trusses from the audience.
There were eight lifts incorporated into the stage itself; six slip stages, which were tasked with revealing and concealing the band from view and two additional lifts provided entrances for the JT and his pianos. A custom B stage, complete with VIP seating and bars, provided a unique performance area at the rear of the house.
At the centre piece of TAIT’s design was a custom, automated bridge, which measured at 37-metres wide, two metres deep and 5.6-metres tall, at its highest points. The 1,3608 kg element acted to seamlessly carry the performers from one end of the arena to the other, over the crowd, where it was met by a staircase that elevated from the B stage. The bridge was automated by two pontoons that sat 24 metres apart and ran down the aisles on each side of the venue floor.
TAIT’s Director of Design, Tyler Kicera, said: “Working closely with Set Designer Josh Zangen, we were eager to take on the challenge of driving a portion of the stage over the audience. With the bridge, an effect that had never been done before, we saw an opportunity to push the boundaries and redefine what is possible.”
The design and build of the stage set took around six weeks to complete. With the initial ideas for the design coming from Zangen and Whitehouse, the bridge was one of the few effects that remained throughout the various design iterations during pre-production. The crowd’s reaction to the bridge movement was certainly testament that it should have been kept in the final design.
Kicera continued: “The centre span with the two drive pontoons were tested at our Lititz [Pennsylvania] facility independent of the rest of the show. Once at rehearsals, the full scope of the bridge could be tested including the wireless power, laser guiding, and cantilever trusses.”
This effect of the show design was spearheaded by TAIT’s staging team of ground-based automation designers and fabricators. The bridge was controlled by TAIT’s Navigator Control System and used two rotary lasers to scan the room and maintain its position and speed. “It was important to everyone that the bridge didn’t drag any cables in its wake, so the unit had to be wireless,” stated Kicera. “TAIT’s Navigator control system worked beautifully in conjunction with the laser guiding system to drive 250ft out to the B stage and back within an eighth of an inch of accuracy.”
TAIT’s Navigator is a software program, but every show that goes out gets customised for that tour, so whether you’re using mechanical lifts or hydraulic lifts; it can be programmed months beforehand. Driving the bridge for the tour was Automation Lead, Raphael Buono. He told TPi: “I’ve worked with a lot of TAIT equipment over the last six years. They’re very good, it’s a huge mix from a personal standpoint now – from Fisher and Stage Technologies – it’s people from other companies that we’ve worked with along the lines at some point, so there’s a lot of familiar faces behind the equipment.”
Looking after the lifts built into the stage was Automation Operator, Aaron Levy. “We run half the automation moves in the show from Timecode, then half are taken out manually. The Timecode cues are done with an enable release, so I’m still activating the cues about five seconds before Timecode will take over, meaning there are a lot of safety measures in place for a tour like this,” he highlighted.
“We check that all of those mechanics are running correctly for the touring environment. It’s definitely been a big learning curve, but when you think we’re the only tour in the world doing this, it’s all worth it.”
US special effects expert, Pyrotecnico FX, used proprietary technologies and techniques to realise a touring laser system for the tour. The company supplied 25 custom laser projectors and a proprietary control network. Richard LaChance, Director of Touring for Solotech explained: “Pyrotecnico has been an integral part of the Solotech / JT team and has provided some of the most innovative and stunning laser effects that we’ve seen – their creativity and attention to safety is second to none.”
Pyrotecnico worked with Emiliano Palumbo, Laser System Design and Programmer and Whitehouse to create a control system and laser design. “Nick came to us with very specific requests for controlling the lasers – he wanted a high degree of resolution from his board,” said Kelly Sticksel, Chief Development Officer for Pyrotecnico. “Our team developed a powerful programming system and Vision-Safe laser frames that allowed Nick to really integrate the lasers into his production. The final effect is simply stunning – the lasers become an integral part of the audience experience – nothing feels force fit.”
Rocco Vitale, Creative Director for Pyrotecnico, said: “This production sets the bar for Pyrotecnico – it truly exemplifies each of our core values: longstanding commitment to innovation and creativity, unwavering respect for those involved, tireless dedication to the production, and a strict adherence to safety. We are honoured to be working alongside Solotech on such a ground-breaking tour.”
Pyrotecnico supplied the tour’s laser package in its entirety and for the European leg, supplied 16 Pyrotecnico Lasercube A/S 11’s, full-colour, Vision-Safe Laser Projectors, six custom Kvant Spectrum 20’s, full-colour laser projectors and a Pyrotecnico Eclipse scalable interlock safety system.
Describing his role as “keeping it all running safe every night”, the 20/20 tour had Laser Tech AJ Seabeck manning the laser department. The laser effects were run from the MA Lighting grandMA2 console at the lighting HQ, and were cued with Timecode. It was DMX controlled for positioning and focusing.
An interesting aspect of the Pyrotecnico laser set up was the audience scanning lasers. “As far as I know, we have the most audience scanning lasers on a tour like this, it looks very cool to watch and the crowds seem to love it!” said Seabeck.
The company is one of a small handful of production companies worldwide that can legally scan lasers into and throughout the audience. Pyrotecnico has made audience-scanning both safe and legal for its clients, creating a spectacular visual dimension for the on looking audience.
Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the 20/20 Experience was the video content which was projection mapped onto the incredible art installation style structure.
Gabriel Coutu-Dumont, Creative Director at Montreal-based Geodezik (which he co-owns with partner Olivier Goulet) was brought on board in the early stages of the project by Whitehouse. “A recurrent theme in my visual art projects is music and coming from a family of actors and directors I have been drawn to film making ever since,” said Coutu-Dumont.
“Since day one of this project, JT expressed the desire to create a show that, on the visual side, was all about three dimensional environments and Nick had planned everything to create a total synergy between lighting, video and the stage set. After a few meetings with JT, it was clear we had to develop a mapping show we could tour with and so we called in VYV, the creators of Photon – a very powerful video server and programming tool – to build an auto-focus system for the tour that allowed us to precisely add the video layer onto the set in record time,” explained Coutu-Dumont.
A lot of the video was created before production rehearsal but nothing was set in stone when Coutu-Dumont entered the Landers Centre, Memphis, for the full production rehearsals. “We had lots of looks prepared and shootings done, ready to be remixed,” he told TPi. “The video content was then tailored to the set. The symbiotic relation between lighting, video, choreography and the set design is a very good indicator that the show had time to mature and grow naturally into its own shape.
“As a Creative Director for video content in the touring music industry, I always let the music drive the content creation. Of course, there is a general conceptual system that can be applied to creating content for a tour, but every song is special and requires a visual life of its own. JT’s music moves a lot between genres and so to me, the video had to follow his artistic lead,” he said.
According Coutu-Dumont, there were two types of content in the 20/20 Experience: scenic looks that played with the physical architecture of the stage set, mapping gags, and looks that enhanced lighting (existing to give a solid stage onto which JT & The Tennessee Kids can perform). And the second type was ethereal content, which is less scenic and more cinematographic, allowing dramatic arcs in the show.
He continued: “JT was involved in every aspect of the show, and brought a lot of excellent ideas to the table. Justin is a very creative person and knows exactly what he wants. Once all the elements were in place, he defined what would be brought forward in the mix, whether this would be predominantly lighting or a video or even a laser moment, exactly when he wanted it to enhance the music.
“I would say that the most valuable item necessary to create a project like this is the infinite talent of all the people involved. People we have chosen over the years for their ideas and precision. Geodezik’s studio counts about 20 fantastic designers, editors, animators and 3D artists but the nature of our company pushed us into developing strong relations with great designer-artists. We can roughly count 100 people who have participated in creating the video for the 20/20 Experience, and although the technical tools are very important, they are nothing compared to the talents of the people using them.
“We’re all very proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s actually been the greatest, fullest and most rewarding experience I’ve had so far!” concluded Coutu-Dumont.
PROJECTION MAPPING AND LIVE VIDEO
Alex Barrette, the tour’s Video Server Operator (who also did the programming of the time line for the video wall and integration with the live content) had been touring since leaving VYV some years ago. Barrette bills VYV’s Photon media server as the only product for a job such as this: “We have a total of 15 servers running, one control and two back-ups in ‘pods’ within the stage. There are seven on stage left and eight on stage right. Each panel of the huge back screen and roof is detachable so everything is built one hexagon at a time, and it’s all magnetised.” The wall part of the set came in three parts: a central section and two side wings, and a further four sections made up the roof.
Photon’s new software allowed for uncompressed video playback at tremendous resolutions. The resolution in this instance was immense, 8,000 by 1,920, which is close to 16 megapixels. Photon was able to display video using an unlimited number of projectors. The video content came from 22 Barco FLM-HD20K projectors on the wall, (11 double stacked). Two Barco HDX-W20Ks in the roof and a further six Barco HDF-W26Ks were used in the remainder of the roof, which worked in conjunction with the Photon media servers.
Barrette continued: “On the wall itself, we have light sensors embedded that are seen by cameras mounted on each projector. Photon works out the 3D relationship of the projector and screen and auto aligns from this. It’s actually the biggest progress I’ve seen with media servers in my career so far: to be able to align 30 projectors in less than 30 minutes is incredible, and it gives us a lot of flexibility.
“Technically it’s been a challenge to get the auto calibration to work in a touring environment. To make it all happen, we worked very closely with VYV and they’ve been great; they’re very supportive,” he concluded.
Over in the live feed department, David Boisvert was the 20/20 Experience Video Director, taking the live content and incorporating it into the existing video content. To capture the live images from the show, Boisvert had a selection of five man-operated cameras, and three robot cameras.
The 3D mapping and projection used in conjunction with the live feed is something Boisvert believed hadn’t been done before in a setting such as this. Using the art installation style set as a surface area. The design allowed for the unique ability to use the contours of its shape as a creative, architectural canvas.
Boisvert said: “The content on the wall and ceiling structure is a mixture of 3D mapping and effects and the live video effects which is done with a motion tracking system.”
At the rather impressive FOH position was JT’s FOH Engineer, Andy Meyer. I say impressive because his mixing position was what we’ve affectionately agreed to call his ‘man cave’ and with Meyer keen to show TPi the best seat in the house, we even watched the gig from said ‘man cave’. Encasing his sound world was part of the B stage, which during the second half of the show became a platform from which JT sang the slower, more intimate songs in the set (including a stunning cover of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature).
“I’ve been Justin’s FOH Engineer since 2005, since his FutureSex / LoveSounds tour and he’s a very hands-on sort of musician. He can actually produce himself; he knows exactly what he wants to hear,” said Meyer.
For his vocal needs, JT used an Audio-Technica Artist Elite 5000 Series Frequency-agile True Diversity UHF Wireless System paired with an AEW-T6100 transmitter (wireless iteration of the AE6100 Hypercardioid Dynamic Handheld Microphone) and AEW-R5200 Receiver. “We tried out a lot of different microphones until we knew we had the one,” explained Meyer. “It took a lot of research, but we got there and we’re very happy with the results on tour.
“The AE6100, as well as its wireless counterpart, is an amazing-sounding microphone, and it really works for Justin’s vocals. The sound quality is superior – it sounds like we’re taking the studio out on the road.”
Meyer was also using Audio-Technica microphones in other applications on the tour, including the ATM25 (limited edition) Hypercardioid Dynamic Instrument Microphone on toms, and the AE5400 Cardioid Condenser Handheld Microphone – normally a handheld vocal microphone – on the top and bottom of the snare drum.
Once the microphones had been sussed, Meyer chose to bring JT’s vocal (analogue style) to FOH into a Rupert Neve Designs Portico II buss processor, a Dangerous [Music] Bax EQ, and a DTC MindPrint inserted on the master buss. He continued: “I have a lot of cool analogue outboard gear with me, so it then goes into Apogee Symphony, which converts it to digital.” The vocal then went AES into the console, a much-loved DiGiCo SD7, chosen for its effortless ability to handle whatever Meyer tasks it with in terms of inputs, outputs and file size. “And crucially,” pointed out Meyer, “it has the best sound quality I know.
“I’ve been using an SD7 for three years now, because I knew that I needed to be working on something that could handle more than 96 inputs. I heard it, wanted to try it and when I did, I just fell in love with its sonic properties straight away; it sounds great,” beamed Meyer.
In the console, Meyer was also using the Waves C6 and H-Comp plug-ins. Snap shots were used throughout the performance – which was originally nearly three hours long, and played out at around 2hrs 20. An Antelope Audio 10M, Orion and Trinity combination clocked the entire system. “That combo just works, it glues it all together nicely,” concluded Meyer.
“Originally, we were only supposed to have one show. We started rehearsing in January 2013 for one month for JT’s performance at The Grammys,” explained Monitor Engineer Dan Horton about coming on board the tour. “Then we heard that we were needed for the next two years as there was an album coming out. Nobody knew, so it was a nice a surprise!” Horton was recommended for the job by Meyer to take over previous Monitor Engineer, Kevin Glendinning 18 months before, and the audio pros had a few similarities in their equipment preferences.
“Like Andy, I’m using a DiGiCo SD7. I’m four years into using this console, simply because there is no other console that can handle the amount of mixes. There is no other desk that can do this show, output wise. I’ve always had an issue in that I typically mix monitors for bands who have a large amount of output mixes, of in-ear mixes and wedge mixes, tech mixes and so on…This is the only desk that can do what I need it to. The only other desk that even came close was the SD5, so it’s still a DiGiCo console design.
“It’s my favourite mainly because – apart from it actually being able to do what I need it to – it also sounds the best and it’s got that authentic analogue console design. I’ve been using it for four years now, so I’d like to think I know it pretty well at this point; it has the best functionality for this show,” stated Horton.
This sentiment was echoed by Horton’s assistant, Monitor Tech Matt Holden, who was part way through his first JT tour experience. “I’m learning a lot from Dan out here, and everyone gets along so well that it’s a really good time to be learning as much as I can,” he said. “The SD7 is the nicest-sounding desk out there. We’re using both desks – the main and back-up – in mirror mode, so it has two engines and if one crashes, it’s instantly backed up and you don’t miss out on any of your audio requirements.”
With a massive amount of mixes to create, Horton had 16 band members and six dancers to take care of, as well as JT’s vital mix. “I used this desk for Justin and Jay-Z’s Legends of the Summer tour, and I maxed the desk out. I couldn’t have had another stereo mix even if I’d wanted to!”
As at FOH, Horton used an Antelope 10M Trinity combination to clock his system and added API 512c microphone preamps into JT’s mix, along with Retro Double Wide compression for further depth. The wireless system was 24-channel Shure PSM 1000, with singers and horns on Shure Axient. Horton said: “One of my main needs when I’m out here is RF, and Éric Marchand is the best I’ve ever had. Shure’s PSM 1000 has always been my go-to wireless, and Éric does an amazing job. It’s very important for a monitor engineer to trust the RF department; you can’t be mixing an artist – especially of this calibre of show – and yet be second guessing the RF all the time. We’re lucky to have him doing his thing.”
Everybody on stage had a stereo in-ear mix and there were no wedges or side fills. Horton continued: “I always use JH Audio molds, because they’re the best products. Most of the band is using JH 16’s, 11’s and 13’s, and Justin is on JH 16’s too. Everyone is really happy with them!” he concluded.
RF Technician Éric Marchand has been a touring wireless specialist for six years, and as Horton noted, is well-versed in his role. “A major tour uses so many frequencies these days, and production designs have become so demanding, you don’t want to leave anything to chance,” Marchand said.
The tour employed 10 channels of Shure Axient wireless for backing vocals and the horn section, plus four dual-channel Shure UHF-R body pack systems on all guitars and bass. With the exception of JT’s Audio-Technica vocal microphone, Shure gear was specified for the entire band, dancers, and much of the backline crew, who were covered by 26 channels of Shure PSM 1000 personal monitors, with 24 of them running through a single pair of antennas using a series of four Shure PA821A wideband antenna combiners. It was mandated that nothing could interfere with the audience line of sight, severely limiting the options for antenna placement. The B stage was located beyond the FOH mix position and offered another wireless reception challenge.
“The arenas we play are always sold out, so there was no way I could bring cables and antennas out closer. It was crucial to get good line of sight to the B stage, for both the receive antennas and the transmit antennas for the IEMs. So we designed the system to cover everything from antennas discreetly hiding in plain sight on stage. The actual wireless racks, along with me and my scanners, all live under the stage,” Marchand said.
This was also the reason why JT and his band were all on in-ears, and not stage monitors.
This tour was Marchand’s first time using Shure Axient. “A friend of mine was out with Bruce Springsteen for Solotech last year. That was all Axient, and he told me it was great,” said Marchand. “Plus, I’ve been trained on Axient, so I was excited to use it.”
The ShowLink access point made it easy to make quick adjustments on audio and RF levels. “It also saves me a lot of time when I do my RF coordination in the morning. I don’t have to sync a single Axient pack. I just turn them on and, boom, they’re done.” Axient’s full remote control of all transmitter functions through ShowLink came into play when Background vocals move to the second stage, which was more than 100ft from the antennas. To compensate, Marchand boosted the output power of the Axient transmitters.
“That allows me to optimise my system for the B stage. JT is a different story since he is using the Audio-Technica mic. I keep an extra transmitter on an alternate frequency for him, just in case. I know if I can get that happening, everything is going to be fine, because the Shure systems, both Axient and UHF-R, plus the PSM 1000s, are all going to be solid.”
Like Horton, Marchand is also a fan of the PSM 1000, which offers the security of diversity receive antennas on the body pack and precision front-end filtering for maximum range and signal reception. “The RF stability is outstanding, and I really like the CueMode feature. That allows me to walk both the stages with just one pack and listen to every frequency,” he explained. “It shows that Shure really designed the system for major tours,” he said.
Axient’s interference detection and avoidance system and frequency diversity feature was proven helpful, even though Marchand routinely uses two scanners to monitor the RF landscape. “My main attention is on Justin’s mic, so I have the Axient channels set up in prompt mode instead of automatic. That way, it alerts me whenever there’s a channel with issues,” he said. “I also use the Spectrum Manager, which has a listen option, which is really helpful. That way I can check it personally and decide whether to change channels. I like to have my hand on the wheel,” said Marchand.
Carrying around 60 channels of wireless on tour, Marchand cited one of his biggest day to day challenges was setting the free space for the radio settings. “Here in Europe, especially in the UK, it’s a bit easier because all frequencies are licensed so the frequencies are safe. In North America, it’s more of a free for all! Some major cities can give you some headaches, but at the end of the day, everything has to work. Each and every day, we must make it happen, and that’s what makes this job a challenge. I just know that I have the equipment I need to do my job, no matter what is thrown at us.
“It’s always a very loud tour, no matter where we’re playing! But I really like this gig, JT is a really fun guy and the crew is a good group of people to be out here with,” he smiled.
THE NEW PA
Over in the PA department, Étienne Lapre, the tour’s System Tech had been with vendor Solotech for 10 years and touring for eight. “Solotech has always been good to me,” he highlighted. “I started rolling up cable in the shop in Montreal a decade ago, and now I’m system teching for JT! It’s the kind of company where everyone helps each other and there’s no ego, so you can just learn from the others around you and because of that, you have the opportunity to progress into roles and go on these great tours.”
Solotech had chosen all L-Acoustics products for the PA rig, which in the UK also includes the new K2 line array system. “We used it for the first time in Sheffield, and Solotech is also touring the K2 in the US right now for Arcade Fire’s shows so they’re using it where they can.”
For JT’s tour, the system comprised 44 boxes of K1 for the main PA and side hangs. A total of 32 K2’s were then utilised as down fill. An extra 24 KARAs and four SB18’s subwoofers are used for the back of stage. “We’re the first tour to be trying this many boxes of K2 as down fill, so it’s exciting for us,” commented Lapre. The system is completed with 20 L-Acoustics SB28 subwoofers on the ground and 24 flown K1-SB [a flyable, high-power subwoofer]. We also have eight L-Acoustics 8XTs for front fill. Towards the back of the arena, 18 boxes (nine per side) are in the delay position. “It’s quite an impressive L-Acoustics rig!” smiled Lapre. The system amplification came via 22 L-Acoustics LA-Raks.
Not only was JT’s show an incredible visual journey, but it was an aural feast too. For almost 2.5 hours, arena-filled audiences were treated to the faultless sounds of Solotech’s audio combination. Not only is JT an incredibly seasoned, genre consuming, energy-packed performer, but the sound, despite its environmental demands, didn’t dip once. The K2 boasted a heavy low end sound, allowing the entire room to have a beautifully balanced, bassy feel.
Whereas a lot more of the KARA system was used on the US portion of the tour, it had been replaced where possible with K2 in Europe. Lapre continued: “For the last four years, my system preference has been with L-Acoustics. I like this system for its simplicity, it’s easy for us because it goes up really well and it sounds great, so you can do whatever you want to with it. Saying that, you have to know your job out here, because in fact, this system is so clear, that if one thing goes wrong, you will hear it.
“I noticed a difference straightaway with the K2 sound, as soon as we got it. The highs are really bright and it can throw the sound way more than I ever imagined it could. The signature transition between the K1 and the K2 is really nice and smooth. For the average person in the crowd, as long as it sounds clear for their favourite artist, they don’t notice anything like that, but for us, it makes a big difference. We’re the perfectionists!
“The tonality of L-Acoustics boxes has always been amazing; they got it right in the past with the V-DOSC, and the K1, now the K2 is a complete product range for whatever you need,” continued Lapre.
Indeed, it was the K2 that stole the show on the PA rig. “It is truly unbelievable for the size and weight of the box. They’ve really outdone themselves! It’s still a very new product so I’m sure it can be improved somehow but it’s already perfect for me. Plus the fact that it is very easy to rig is a really important feature; it makes all the difference for a big production like this. Seriously, it takes 10 minutes to get in the air!”
Bill Rengstl has been the Head Rigger for all three of JT’s tours, doing his 2003-4, 2007 and now 2013 / 14 run of shows. “I’ve also worked with Hydro on many tours throughout the years, and it’s great having him as Production Manager now. We most recently worked on Lady Gaga’s tours together, so it’s a small but high profile world!” he told TPi. On JT’s shows there was a mighty 110 rigging points maintaining 127,000lbs of equipment in the roof. This is distributed with 110,000lbs in the main stage area and the other 17,000lbs around the FOH / B stage position.
Rengstl continued: “Every day is a different scenario; we’re in a different venue every day and our rig must accurately fit in not only with the main stage but with the B Stage too. This can alter because the travel distance with the bridge can be shorter, when we play US hockey arenas for example. Then when we come out to Europe, the venues can be longer so there’s been a lot of well thought-out advancing with every aspect of this design.
“The CAD drawings had to be spot on, with the engineering in the roof and the placement of the show conscious of the amount of seats we’ve sold for each of the shows,” he added.
As well as the tour’s three travelling riggers – completed by Russ Keith and Alex Bolduc, an additional 20 local riggers were provided.
Rengstl continued: “Solotech is the all-inclusive tour vendor, so all of our rigging kit is provided by them. The best way to do a tour of this size has been to have Solotech as our sole vendor, absolutely, it’s made everything safer and easier.”
To enable the kit to be flown, Rengstl and his team were using Liftket chain hoists, which are traditionally associated with the German industrial sector. “We have 80ft chains on average with these LiftKet motors, they’re all D8 and double brake inclusive, so as far as the safety regulations go in Europe, all our gear is up to the correct standard. Liftket is the first choice due to the amount of rigging points that we do; the motors are lighter weight than the average. It has meant that we have less weight in the roof and when we’re talking about 60 tonnes of gear, these factors are important – especially when getting the weight of the show approved for some European venues,” added the Head Rigger.
Rengstl also commented on the immediate success of the L-Acoustics K2 boxes: “We’ve just integrated the K2 into the PA system, so again, we’re moving in the right direction by conserving weight where we can.”
After the equipment was freighted over from New York by Rock-It Cargo, trucking for the European leg of the tour came via EST. With an incredible 28 trucks in tow, each DAF manufactured truck clocked up 10,000 miles. The trucks were led by lead driver, Roger Thomas. EST’s relationship with JT’s camp goes back some years.
Co-Founder of Edwin Shirley Trucking, Del Roll highlighted: “Hydro is our client and we’ve worked on many tours for him over years. We’ve provided transport for everyone from Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Madonna to mention just a few. We have a great working relationship with Hydro. He’s someone who knows what he wants, and his suppliers know how to deliver, therefore we’ve been working together for a long time. He also respects our knowledge of logistics in Europe.”
For the European leg of the tour, Austrian company Beat The Street supplied bussing needs. It provided one Starbus (double decker), one bus for the security and entourage party, three vehicles for the backing band and dancers, and an incredible seven crew buses!
Beat The Street’s Joerg Philip said: “From the conversations we’ve had and the preparations we undertook, you can tell straight away that this is a very professional camp. We’ve worked with Justin Timberlake on all of his European tours so far, and we are very proud of that on-going relationship.”
“The tour has been going great so far, all the crew and band are lovely and seem to be enjoying having us on tour with them!” commented Snakatak’s Emily Cribley who had been helping out with the nutritional needs of the tour. “We’ve been catering for JT tours for over 12 years now, so we know the routine, and they know us,” she said, in the backstage kitchen of Manchester Phones 4U Arena.
There were nine people on the catering crew cooking for a staggering 180 personnel including all the crew, drivers (of which there are 40!), band, dancers entourage and of course JT himself.
“They’re generally healthy – especially the band – so we’re cooking lots more fish portions per service than is typical. Teriyaki salmon has been their favourite fish dish but beef and chicken are also very popular.”
Snakatak was catering for a real mixture of tastes, with crew from all over the UK, the US and of course, the huge Solotech team from Quebec, Canada. Other popular dishes flying out of the tour kitchens included bourbon braised beef with creamy mash, fish and chips and various pasta recipes. “The usual request is lots of green, healthy vegetables. Oh, and peanut butter… some things never change!” smiled Cribley.
Snakatak started with JT on March 27 in Sheffield, Yorkshire and finished on 10 June in London. Although the catering team does have a touring break for 10 days when the tour goes to Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Rabat and Lisbon, the luxurious tour comforts re-joined the 20/20 Experience for the last leg of the European tour with the run of sold-out shows at London’s O2 Arena.
Photos: Ralph Larmann & Kelly Murray
See the full Issue, on pages 20 to 33 in our May 2014 issue, available here: http://issuu.com/mondiale/docs/tpimay14_digitalopt/1