Live sound for Madonna’s record-breaking Celebration world tour

Perhaps the most transformative chapter in Burton Ishmael’s career came with the opportunity to work alongside Madonna. A chance encounter at Madison Square Garden set the stage for a collaboration that would push him to new heights, both creatively and professionally. As the front-of-house engineer for Madonna’s tour, Ishmael found himself at the helm of one of the largest concert audiences in history, a moment that underscored the culmination of years of hard work and dedication.

His journey into the world of sound engineering is nothing short of a musical odyssey. Growing up in New York City, surrounded by the diverse soundscape that the city has to offer, Ishmael’s early introduction to music through church laid the foundation for what would become a lifelong passion. From tinkering with microphones and amplifiers as a child to eventually stepping behind the console of his first live show, his trajectory in the industry has been marked by an unwavering commitment to his craft.

On the Madonna tour, Ishmael’s technical prowess and creative vision were put to the test. Madonna’s discography spans over 40 years, requiring much more than a one-size-fits-all approach. With a long list of hit songs with different sonic signatures recorded all over the world, the goal was to stay true to each record while providing a cohesive experience.

Enter the Avid VENUE | S6L. Captivated by its versatility and intuitive interface, he found in the S6L a platform that not only complemented his workflow but also elevated his sonic palette. With its onboard plugins, outstanding processing power, and seamless integration with his preferred outboard gear, the S6L became an indispensable tool in his arsenal.

A meticulous approach to sound design allowed him to curate an outboard gear setup that transcended traditional boundaries. The S6L’s onboard compressor and ability to handle bussing and grouping allowed Ishmael to triage and organize sounds before patching any audio to his outboard rig.

“I love those screens that stare right back of me, and the ergonomic feeling of the fader,” he says. “I also like the simplicity of use and easily navigating everything I need when running a show, while never getting lost.”

Working with Madonna was more than just another tour; it was a transformative experience. “You don’t just do a Madonna tour – you survive a Madonna tour. But Madonna doesn’t ask you to do anything she’s not capable of… she’s not asking us to do anything she’s not doing,” he recounts.

Navigating the complexities of sound on such a grand scale required not only technical expertise but also a deep understanding of the artist’s vision. Ishmael’s setup, tailored specifically for the occasion, ensured that every note resonated with precision and clarity. From the sprawling arenas of Mexico to the sandy shores of Brazil, his mastery of sound captivated audiences worldwide.

One of the highlights of the Madonna tour was the concert in Rio de Janeiro, which became the largest crowd of her career and set records for the largest audience ever for a stand-alone concert, and the largest all-time crowd for a female artist.

Ishmael and the audio team faced the challenge of delivering pristine sound to over 1.6 million ecstatic fans gathered on the iconic Copacabana Beach, while working around the limitations of an outdoor beach venue at temperatures over 90°F with no roof structure to support the sound system.

“This is what happens when you play with big icons: their dreams are to top the top,” he explains, adding “To not only be able to pull that off flawlessly and accurately, but to have one of the best-sounding shows we’ve ever had, is super satisfying.”

As he reflects on his remarkable journey, Ishmael offers a word of advice to aspiring sound engineers: “First thing is, you have to love it. And if you have a skill, your responsibility is to be committed to building that skill. I’m a firm believer that when you are trained for a task, eventually the opportunity comes to show off your ability. I’m a living proof example of that!”