When it comes to the livestream format, artists, managers, show designers and technical crew across the globe have had their own approach to the medium. From DIY home setups all the way to high-tech LED studio sets, streamed events certainly exist within a spectrum. Having watched our fair share of stunning shows over the past 12 months, few have boasted the level of stage production of Lindsay Ell’s #LiveRedesigned show that was broadcast out of PRG’s Digital Studio, Nashville.
The performance began with an opening shot of Ell and her band silhouetted in a field of haze. Then when the first song, Hits Me, kicked in, and the automated lighting rig behind the band began to raise, it felt almost as though we were back in an arena or stadium tour.
It was a level of production that, frankly, has not existed in most virtual productions due to either budget constraints or simply not having the crew available. However, there was a very clear reason why 250 men and women were brought into this production: to shine a light on an industry that had been so drastically affected by the halting of live events – and to raise money for a number of industry-affiliated charities including Crew Nation, The Roadie Clinic, and Music Health Alliance.
Before the stream began, there was even a five-minute segment where crewmembers who worked on the show introduced themselves to the folks at home, truly portraying the sheer volume of talented individuals that go into creating a performance of this scale.
‘STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS’
“I have to admit, many of the livestreams I have seen throughout the year have just seemed like pop videos to me,” began Baker as he discussed how he and Whitehouse’s overarching goal of this project – even before they brought in Lindsay Ell – was to create a show that encapsulated the excitement of a true stage show.
“It was with this goal in mind that I wanted to bring in William,” said Whitehouse. “He has been behind some of the best live shows ever created. I always point to his work as Show Director for Kylie’s Aphrodite: Les Folies Tour in 2011, which to this day many big names in the industry still point to as their best tour. Will’s approach to the story is unlike anyone else and he really dives into the album and the content to create a show.”
The duo was also keen from the outset to ensure that this show was live rather than pre-recorded. “We didn’t want to film the show and then fix things in post,” stated Whitehouse. “It meant that we had the energy and feel of a live show and I think all the crew had the same type of nerves you would have on opening night.”
With these broad strokes in place, the question of which artist would lead the charge remained. The solution came from streaming and ticketing partner, VYE. “Maggie Seidel-Laws from VYE, who was Executive Producer of this project, had done a show a few months prior where Lindsay was the support and commented how she had worked really well with the virtual crowd,” stated Whitehouse.
VYE was officially launched by Seidel-Laws in March 2020 with its first pay-per-view show airing in July. “Starting in Nashville, we’ve been working out of two streaming studios prior to Lindsay’s stream,” she began. “We’ve hosted events for artists like Jason Aldean, Needtobreath, Hardy, Lauren Alaina, and comedians such as Trey Kennedy, Heather Land and Josh Wolf.”
The VYE Founder went on to sum up her experience of the rise of streaming throughout the pandemic. “In the beginning, everyone assumed that the pandemic would last a month or two and we saw every artist jump on Instagram or Facebook Live. Then we saw a big influx of livestreams go on sale in November and December. Some managers liked the idea of it from the get-go but couldn’t wrap their heads around the best way to promote them and everyone seems to look at the downside rather than the upside – and there are so many upsides… No cap on ticket sales, not to mention you can do a world tour in one night and sell tickets anywhere!”
Speaking specifically about Lindsay Ell’s stream, Seidel-Laws explained how everything came together “pretty quickly”. She continued: “Right before the holidays, Nick and I were discussing the need to show what the industry can do live. We’d all seen some cool livestreams, but there have been very few actually done live – especially with an elevated production aspect to them.”
Another aspect that was key to this project was the need for a virtual crowd. Throughout the show, between songs, audio from the at-home audience cheering could be heard with their video feed displayed on the large rear LED wall. There were even times when Ell picked out some audience members to have a one-on-one conversation.
“I wanted to showcase to the rest of the industry the technology we have in place for virtual crowds that can lead to a fan connection,” stated Seidel-Law. “I also wanted people to see the quality of streaming when it’s done with partners like Brightcove, state-of-the art production equipment and a brilliant crew. It makes all the difference.”
SETTING THE VIRTUAL STAGE
Key to this production’s success was PRG Nashville Digital Studio, which was able to accommodate all the on-site crew not to mention the technical backbone to make the event a reality. The Nashville location is one of the latest PRG Digital Studios which have been designed to produce both pre-recorded and live content to cater for productions of any scale. Along with the ability to livestream, each one of the studios follows the strictest of COVID-19 protocols, with separate control rooms and green room facilities.
“For our project, we had both the audio and video teams in two separate trucks outside to cut down on the number of people inside the building,” outlined Whitehouse. “Will was overseeing things from his end via FaceTime and simply tuned in along with the virtual crowd once it was showtime. In total, I think it was 65 people on site during show day of the 250 people that made this event a reality.”
Whitehouse’s fellow Fireplay employee, Brian Vaughan, handled lighting design for the show. Like Whitehouse and Baker, Vaughan was keen to use this project as a chance to show “what is really possible in a livestream setting.” He continued: “We wanted to demonstrate that we can still bring the large-scale concert to the small screen and bring the same amount of energy to keep it engaging for the viewers.” With this in mind, the LD explained how it was important to keep the lighting rig “fluid and dynamic”, meaning that the configuration could continue to change throughout the performance. “It needed to be capable of the large looks as well as the broken down small acoustic looks,” he stated.
The rig Vaughan had at his disposal comprised Martin by Harman MAC Viper Profiles, MAC Quantum Washes, Claypaky Sharpy Washes, TMB Solaris Flares, PRG Best Boy Spots and Bad Boys, which were controlled by a pair of MA Lighting grandMA2 lighting consoles.
“The Viper Profiles are a great light for that size of room and offer really nice colour options as well as a nice set of gobos for aerials,” stated Vaughan. “The zoom range on them is one of my favourite things about that light. It can be a tight beam or a huge zoomed-out gobo look and stay consistent across them all. It gives you a lot of options to make the show feel really large without having a tonne of fixtures.”
Like most of those working in the industry, the past year has not given Vaughan a great number of opportunities to work on site at a show. “It felt amazing to sit behind a desk again and go back to doing what you love. I think everyone has the jitters of “maybe I forgot how to do this” but it’s like riding a bike. It was amazing to be working as a crew again.”
During the performance, the lighting department had two consoles set up, with Vaughan concentrating on show lighting and Whitehouse watching the monitor and focusing on key lighting, as well as calling the show.
Along with the in-house lighting rig, the studio also offered the Fireplay team a sizable backdrop – namely a ROE CB5 LED wall measuring in at 48ft by 24ft. “The space is huge and can easily support an arena-sized show,” enthused Whitehouse. “All the lighting trusses are automated, which means things can be moved out of the way as and when you need them and allows you to drastically change the visual landscape of the studio.”
While on the topic of LED screens, Whitehouse was keen to complement the work of the content creators, who were able to turn around brand-new content in a two-week time frame. Creatives brought into this project included Tom Colbourne of Blink, Sebastien Grenier-Cartier from Normal Studio, Olivia Sebesky and Kyle Lollis.
“We had amazing feedback, especially from the content creators such as Tom from Blink, who expressed their joy at working within the events space again,” commented Whitehouse. “A lot of us have been doing some corporate work to tide us over, but we love the music shows the most. A few days after Will sent his treatments, Tom sent me a message expressing how much he had missed this type of work.”
Although the visuals of the show looked as though they could have been taken from a live shoot from an arena tour – the creative team was keen to implement some elements that took advantage of the streaming format – specifically, during one of Ell’s songs, which addresses her own experience of sexual abuse. During her performance, video feeds of other survivors from across the globe were beamed into the stream in real time using Fireplay’s Virtual Crowd technology and appeared as an AR halo above the singer.
Capturing the live footage was a state-of-the-art PRG 35LIVE! camera video package. “We used cinematic cameras and lenses, which is how we were able to create a depth of field in the shots that would not have been possible with a standard live camera setup,” said Whitehouse. “It made such a difference being able to shoot on full frame 6K cameras, giving us the possibility to shoot in super low light. It elevated the entire look of the show and stopped it looking like a standard live TV performance.”
Taking on the role of Live Camera Director for the shoot was Pat Tracy, who worked alongside Live Video Switcher, Nate Fountain.
Adding the final pieces to the visual offering was Pyrotecnico. “We’ve worked with Fireplay a number of times for two to three years,” stated VP of Live Events, Rocco Vitale. Having begun the conversation with Fireplay in December, the SFX specialists supplied a number of ground fog machines, along with overhead confetti machines, which produced two effects – a rose petal drop and then a gold mylar drop.
“The show was unbelievable,” he enthused. “We’ve done some livestream work, especially from our LA office, but Nick and his team have done a sensational job pulling this scale of show together. In a positive way, COVID-19 has pushed artists and creatives into this broadcast world and I don’t think they are likely to go away,” he continued. “They give such good visibility for the artist and I’m sure we’ll see more of them in the future.” Handling all of Pyrotecnico’s kit on site was Jenny Donaldson.
Although the majority of the set comprised a house rig, Gallagher Staging was brought in to provide the plexi top band risers for the shoot.
“Like other production vendors, getting through the shutdown of the live entertainment industry has been tough,” commented Chris ‘Rock’ Glatfelter of Gallagher Staging. “Many of us here in the Nashville shop are former touring personnel and realise the struggle when the work disappears. With a limited staff, we have been fortunate enough to keep the power on and doors open to this point. Any time we have an opportunity and are able to help out with events like this that benefit out of work industry staff, it’s a no-brainer.”
Rock went on to express that Gallagher Staging was very appreciative for the opportunity to partner with Fireplay on this project, where the net proceeds were donated to The Roadie Clinic, Music Health Alliance and Live Nations Crew Nation Global Relief – “All of which are doing good things for great people in the industry,” he concluded.
Overseeing the audio requirements for the show was Stream Audio Mixer Programmer, Chris Rabold; Operator, Kenny Sellars; Monitor Engineer, Lawrence ‘Filet’ Mignogan; with Matt Payne carrying the title of Musical Director. Filet, who is also Technical Audio Project Manager at PRG, spoke about his experience on the project.
“Doing any kind of gig during this time feels great and I’ve been lucky enough to do a variety of shows, many of which were pre-taped,” he began. “What made this one special – as well as it being a benefit for Crew Nation – was having the online virtual crowd. It definitely added a bit of excitement for everyone, getting to see and know that you weren’t just performing in front of a camera, but that there were actual humans on the other side that you could see grooving to the music and responding in real-time.”
For control, Mignogan used a DiGiCo SD10. In total, he oversaw 16 channels of Shure PSM1000s for the band, backline and techs. The virtual crowds streamed utilised Dante over IP both up and down using Rednet devices to convert to Dante. All the musicians utilised IEMs, forgoing the need for stage wedges.
“At PRG, there is a medium-sized side fill setup, which we turned to act as a small PA for the room,” stated Mignogan. This small PA setup comprised four Meyer LEOPARDs over 900 Subs. “Even though conventional thinking is to have no speakers, giving the cleanest sound for broadcast, when projecting what is supposed to be a live show, I believe you still need to move some air in the room,” expressed Mignogan. “Psychologically, it gives a bit more excitement and the band feeds off that, which is only then better for the audience at home.”
Having worked as FOH Engineer for the likes of Bruno Mars, Kenny Chesney and Lady Gaga in the live arena, Audio Engineer Chris Rabold explained how the experience of a livestream compared to that of a live show. “I’ve really enjoyed the shift to broadcast mixing,” he began, explaining how during this time he’d done some work with the PRG team as the A1 mixer for some of their other livestream endeavours.
“I obviously never would have wanted to find myself undertaking this career shift, but for me it was a pretty seamless transition in terms of how I approach a mix. For years, my client base has had me providing broadcast mixes for networks or video creation. More often than not, I’m simply in an advisory role onsite with the broadcast mixers for various TV shows, but it wasn’t wholly unfamiliar territory for me.”
When it came to Rabold’s gear selection, he revealed how it was almost a carbon copy of what he would select for a live concert, from mic selection to plug-ins and hardware – which in this case was a DiGiCo SD7. “PRG was fantastic in putting together a package that worked for us all, so, aside from the elements that were specific to streaming and broadcast, it was business as usual for everyone audio wise.”
Despite feeling confident he could pull off the job, Rabold explained some of the challenges that this style of performance brings. “I see it as twofold,” he began.
“It’s mixing to picture as well as knowing that any little flaws in the mix can no longer be lost in the din of a roaring crowd. The latter is a bit of a crutch that we all know can exist in live sound. Your work is far more exposed and under the microscope in the broadcast world.” However, the Engineer insisted that he likes this aspect of broadcast mixing. “We should be operating at that level of detail anyway and I’d like to think I do. Now, with high-end streaming productions like this one, it’s not just an ideal, it’s quite literally what’s being asked of us as mixers.”
On the subject of adding extra pressure, Rabold also had the task of incorporating the at home audio feeds into the overall mix. “With the inclusion of live audience reaction and interaction, this now becomes part of the show mixer’s real time performance,” he stated.
He also explained that this is where the SD7’s routing capabilities really shined. “The sending and receiving of audio to and from Fireplay’s Virtual Crowd, which is supported by Clair Global’s VLA (virtual live audience) team, was fairly complex,” said Rabold. “It wasn’t an overly high channel count being sent back and forth but keeping it all tidy and bulletproof in its operation took some thinking. There were busses going into multiple matrices going into even more matrices and there’s no room for error in a situation like that. You also have to stay really on top of it with regards to what feed you’re monitoring throughout the show.” He expressed how between the team at Fireplay, PRG and Clair’s experience with VLA, it worked flawlessly.
Despite programming the mix, Rabold could not be on site for show day, handing over the files to Kenny Sellars to take the mix over the finish line – a job that Rabold said he “did with flying colours and to much acclaim”.
To close, Rabold gave his two cents on the livestream format and how he thought Lindsay Ell’s performance measured up. “To me, there are two types of livestreams that are effective; either it’s as bare bones as you can possibly get, shot through an iPhone, or it’s a production on par with this one. All the middle ground attempts in between fall short. I can’t tell you how impressed I was with Lindsay, her band and Matt Payne’s music direction. It was so nice to do what felt like a real gig with so many familiar faces in the various departments. It felt like normality and it felt like home.”
He was keen to pay his respect to Whitehouse and the team from Fireplay for pulling the pieces together. “To see Nick take on this call to arms is a demonstration to all of how we find relevance and adapt with our skill sets when the deck is stacked against us.”
It is rare to come across a show that ticks so many different boxes. Not only did the show raise money for various industry-affiliated charities and raise awareness in the general public about the plight of the sector – it also pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved with a livestream and proved why going virtual doesn’t necessarily mean having to sacrifice production values.
“I feel super fortunate to work with Nick and the Fireplay team because they’ve been the answer to my production prayers,” enthused Seidel-Laws. “One of the biggest takeaways after reading feedback from Lindsay’s fans was everyone saying, ‘this was so amazing, I can’t wait to see you live.’ I’ve been saying confidently that livestreaming will not take away from live sales as nothing will replace live music. However, streaming is a completely new avenue that everyone should fit into their touring plans and I believe it’s going to help promote live shows.”
For Whitehouse, despite demonstrating the outer limits of what could be achieved with a livestream, one of his biggest takeaways from the project was that for a few weeks, he got a number of his fellow crew members back to work.
“The amount of people on site that just said ‘thank you’ was astounding. Many of the crew expressed how they had almost forgotten why they loved their job and this has given them some hope for the future.”
This article originally appeared in issue #260 of TPi, which you can read here.