“What are they actually doing live?” How many times has this question been posed about DJs or electronic artists? Despite having some of the biggest shows in the world, there are still naysayers – often self-appointed ‘musical purists’ – who scoff at big-name DJs, but even they would have a hard time criticising American Producer, Porter Robinson. Since his debut album, Worlds, in 2014, he’s bucked the trend of some of his peers, performing everything from pianos and keyboards to lead vocals on several tracks live on stage.
Having garnered critical acclaim with one GRAMMY nomination for his Virtual Self EP, it was with much fanfare that Robinson dropped his sophomore release, Nurture. A tour was obviously on the horizon. Following a successful streamed event called Secret Sky, which saw some of the core crew reunite for the fist time since the COVID-19 pandemic, the wheels began turning for The Nurture Live Tour. Midway through the run, TPi caught up with some of the key players of the Porter Robinson camp to reflect on their experience on the road.
Leading the production was Tour Director, Robert Dugan and Production Manager, Zach Snyder. “Porter has really stepped up production value with The Nurture Live Tour, compared to his previous outings,” enthused Dugan. “I can see how much work he puts in each day. Prior to the tour, there were a lot of rehearsals preparing the live set and working on edits of the tracks. Porter really puts his heart and soul into his delivery.”
The recent tour saw Porter Robison and crew go through a variety of venue sizes, from club shows to large outdoor festivals, which required each department to be as flexible as possible, so, no matter the crowd size, each stop would give the audience the full Porter Robinson experience. “Going from a 22,000-capacity festival to a 2,500-cap club is never an easy task,” Dugan commented.
“We thought about this during the design phase around 16 months from tour start. Zach, our PM, and Ben Coker, our designer, thought about the infrastructure and engineering of our rig and how it could be scaled easily in all venues. For instance, the lighting truss can break in the middle to go from our full A-rig dimensions to an easy B-rig while retaining proper aspect ratios for the video.”
Dugan admitted that such a variety of venue sizes meant there were some trying days, but the team “pushes through every hurdle to ensure we can maximise the fan experience!”
Providing equipment for this tour was Clair Global for audio, Jerry Harvey Audio for IEMs, Christie Lites for lighting, with additional equipment from Zenith Lighting. Video was supplied by Fuse, with Taylor Transportation on trucking and NiteTrain for tour busses. While travel logistics was taken care of by Executive Travel. Creating a tour of this nature is never the simplest process, but with the added layers of complexity that COVID-19 brings, advancing a tour in 2021 is more challenging than ever.
“The COVID-19 policies we chose to implement were determined during the pandemic and have held strong as we approached the start of the tour,” he said. The production opted to have a fully vaccinated crew, with Dugan reporting that the team felt the need to “trust science and minimise the risk to all around us”.
Each member of the crew was tested daily and wore masks, while frequent hand washing and sterilisation of equipment with disinfectant wipes was encouraged daily. “All buses and backstage areas have air purifiers that filter up to 0.1 microns with anything trapped in there being killed by a UVC light,” Dugan said.
“On the buses, we have purifiers in the front lounge, bunk area, and back lounge.” The team also brought in a strict no-guest policy in the backstage areas and, more importantly, the buses. “It’s a very sad thing to implement as we have many friends and family around the globe who we haven’t been able to see for 18 months, but this simply isn’t the tour to test the waters on,” he said, upon reflection. “I hope things can be relaxed during future tours regarding COVID-19 protocols.”
Overseeing Robinson’s playback world for the past seven years has been Rayce Stipanovich. As well as playing multiple instruments on stage, Robinson sings throughout his show, often performs vocal lines that are heavily processed, performing female-sounding or childlike leads using a pitch shifter. That and many other tricks are done with the aid of his Playback Technician.
Stipanovich has worn many hats on the tour, running playback, monitors and even system teching so the in-house FOH engineers were ready to go. If that wasn’t enough of an undertaking, for many of the bills Robinson was on, Stipanovich had to be able to adhere to the five-minute changeovers that are commonplace in the EDM world.
“This live setup has been growing slowly and updated over the past five years and has seen us going from quite an old-school analogue route using lots of copper and Radial Engineering switchers to a complex networked system using Dante with more channels and increased flexibility.”
For this run, Stipanovich had thankfully been able to delegate some of her previous roles, with FOH Engineer, Simon Thomas and Monitor Engineer, Chad Byrd joining the fold this year. “It’s been a dream to work with both of them,” she said. Despite having two new faces in the audio department, the production was still keen to maintain the foundations that Stipanovich had created – specifically an infrastructure that was built around an incredibly flexible Dante network.
“The move to Dante came out of necessity to keep up with Porter’s demands for his live set,” Stipanovich explained. “In a tour prior to this one, I moved us onto the system to cater to his wish to play more elements of the track on stage with his Roland keyboards and MIDI controllers, which needs to be played in real time then channelled through Ableton.”
The playback world is so hand’s-on for Stipanovich that for several tours now, rather than being surrounded by laptops like some of her peers, she helms her world with a DiGiCo SD12. “I just wanted more control and as I was also a monitor engineer in the early days, I began to use my desk as a more robust switching system, not to mention take advantage of a far higher channel count.” Over the years, she also began to use the desk to process the vocals using Waves inserts. “It’s great to have some really good faders at your fingertips when you’re soloing something, not to mention the redundancy it offers.”
Stipanovich is using every available audio path on her SD12 and has even adapted some of the outputs into inputs. “The way I work really eats up channel counts,” she chuckled. “All the redundant inputs and ‘playables’ as I call them on stage, I like to have the ability to solo each one, so I have more of a handle on what’s going on. It just means if there is an issue during the show, I can find out what it is very quickly.”
Robinson owns most of the equipment. “We’ve got a decent inventory of gear and we’ve tried to recycle various pieces over the years,” explained Stipanovich. “He really likes to rehearse and noodle about with the live setup, hence it’s been important to own his own gear.”
The backline set up for this tour included a Roland upright piano along with an Ableton Push 2 and an Akai midi controller. “One of my personal highlights of this current setup is the unique-sounding Udo Super 6 and Roland Jupiter-X,” she remarked. To give more playable expression to Robinson on stage, Stipanovich fashioned a pedal board that enabled the artist to interact with the music in a more organic way, with some granular delays and reverbs from Chase Bliss Audio. This addition was only possible with the Dante backbone of the show, which was able to send the mix back through the pedal board before going back to FOH. “My job is all about figuring out cool ways for Porter to have fun on stage,” Stipanovich laughed.
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JUMPING ON BOARD
Not known for working in the genre – having worked with the likes of Ariana Grande, Halsey and Sam Smith in the past – 2018 TPi Award winning-FOH Engineer, Simon Thomas shared his thoughts on his first outing with an electronic artist.
“You have to be conscious of where he has come from,” he stated. “Usually with bedroom producers you find they put a show together in terms of a mix, which is then just sent out to a left and right PA hang and that’s usually it. However, with Porter Robinson, there is a wish to have more control, which has seen us approach this show in a more traditional way of mixing. “In some ways, this project has many of the hallmarks of a traditional pop show in that I’m dealing with a lot of tracks,” he furthered.
“That said, the goal in a pop show is to make what is happening live blend well to the backing tracks, with the vocal on top, whereas here, I’m mastering all the tracks, individually. Each song there can be some rather radical changes in EQ as he might use two different types of kick drum in one song. You have to be conscious of all those different elements and treat them accordingly,” he said. He also explained that the main thing to remember is that it’s dance music. “The main mission is to keep the energy up,” he said.
For those that know Thomas, it was no surprise which brand of console he used to helm the show. “This time round I’m on a Solid State Logic L200,” he said. “It has a great workflow and I have everything I need on the top surface for this one. It also sounds great. I don’t know anything out there that has the depth and width of the L200.” Another highlight of Thomas’ control setup was the SSL Fusion, which was used for the vocal chain. “We’ve also got an Empirical Labs EL7X Fatso for his piano as a variety of sounds come from it. The Fatso does a great job at bringing them all together.”
He also gave special mention to the TC Electronics Finalizer, which was used heavily for the tracked backing vocals, as well as the Rupert Neve Portico, which added yet more width and depth to the overall mix.
The L200 was also more then equipped to be thrown into the Dante heavy show without the need for Thomas to use a third-party controller to interact with the network. He continued to give his thoughts on the flexibility that Dante had brought to this current tour.
“As audio engineers, we’ve used a traditional workflow going from A to B to C when we think about a signal chain,” he furthered. “It’s a bit of a learning curve as with Dante you can go from A to Z then Q to C. It takes a while to get your head around the fact that you can take anything off the network at any time, but it’s the way everything is going. It means less copper is involved and once you have got it all set up, it’s very stable. The trick is to make sure no IP addresses clash at all.”
With diverse venue sizes, the audio team needed a flexible PA that could be manipulated into a variety of configurations. Clair Global supplied Thomas and the team with a Cohesion CO-12 system. When used in its full configuration, the engineer had 12 CO-12s in the main hang, with eight in the side.
For subs, the CP-218 was selected, with six per side and, in some circumstances, three flown and three on the ground. “Some people have mentioned that it’s not much sub but, trust me, the CP-218s are amazing. The power-to-number ratio is outstanding,” he said, using CP-6s for front fill and some P2 boxes in batches of four to fill any gaps.
Aiding in the system design for the first part of the tour was Matthew Van Hook. Due to illness, Van Hook had to step down and was replaced with Josh de Jong stepping in after finishing a campaign with Guns N’ Roses. Thomas spoke of Robinson’s vocal setup, which was slightly more complicated than one might expect. In total, the artist had three different microphone options – two hardwired and one wireless. All three of the capsules were sE Electronics V7s, selected for its ability to deal with spill and tight sound, he pointed out.
For the wireless microphone, a Shure Axient system was deployed. “The audio chain for his voice has been simplified from previous tours,” stated Thomas. “There used to be numerous plug-ins on his voice, but now we’ve got it down to just two, with the rest going through a high pass filter, a levelling amplifier and a PSC prior to the vocal chain, depending on the song.”
During his set, Robinson performs vocal lines which are-manipulated, for example, to imitate a female lead and or choir vocal. Stipanovich from her playback position switches depending on the microphone, so each can go down the same signal chain.
Having known both Dugan and Snyder for many years, Monitor Engineer, Chad Byrd received the call for this project back in April. “I was intrigued by the level of production and gear that was involved in this project,” he began. “I saw this as a new challenge. I’ve worked in all sorts of genres, but never anything like this. Although he’s very much an electronic artist, there are so many moving parts to his show.”
Robinson’s main on-stage audio feed came via IEMs with some side fill for an extra bit of support, although Byrd explained that this was often dependent on available space at the show. “Porter is fairly simple when it comes to his in-ear mix – he mainly wants to hear a FOH mix with a few guides on top and his unaffected vocals,” he stated. “His vocal performance is quite dynamic, going from some quiet moments to times when he’s absolutely railing the microphone, so a lot of my job is controlling the dynamics and getting the vocals just right.”
The IEMs in question were Jerry Harvey Audio Roxannes. “The whole crew is on them now,” Byrd said, praising the manufacturer. “I’ve been a big fan of JH for a long time and Roxannes has been my go-to for years.” For wireless transition, Shure PSM 1000s were deployed, going through his DiGiCo SD12 audio console. “As Rayce was using an SD12 and we knew Simon would be on an SSL, it seemed foolish to bring in another model of desk. But the final thing that sold me on the SD12 was its Dante capabilities,” he explained.
With both Stipanovich and Byrd on the same console and thanks to the Dante network, the team had a further level of redundancy as the playback engineer could be quickly integrated into Byrd’s desk in the event of a mass system error. “It’s astounding how much Rayce knows about Dante networking,” Byrd enthused. “Simon and I had a grasp on Dante, but Rayce knows all the ins and outs of the system and has been teaching us all the way.”
He explained how it had been a steep learning curve for everyone on the tour and joked about how in rehearsals, his Monitor Tech, Hank Fury, was often sitting behind him doing an online Dante course, just to ensure that he was tour ready when the audio team took this networked system out on the road.
Starting out with Robinson back in 2012, Lighting Designer, Benjamin Coker has been with the artist throughout his rise in popularity.
“We’d been working on designs and ideas way before the shutdown,” he said, explaining how everything in terms of design had changed drastically over the past year. “Over the pandemic, we realised that people wanted to get out and have fun, so we wanted his first shows back to be a bit more energetic and in your face. We wanted to create more of a party environment while still maintaining intimate moments to show off his musicality.”
The LD went on to explain what it was like working with the artist. “Truthfully, I don’t have much desire to work with any other artist. Porter is so good; he cares so much about the direction of the show and wants to learn about every stage of the process. There are few artists who will jump on a two-hour call and discuss lighting concepts and theory,” he said.
Another key member of the visual team is Content Creator and Video Director, Ryan ‘Ghostdad’ Sciaino. Coker explained how many of his lighting looks grew from the original content idea but that the video department was incredibly receptive to the work of lighting.
“Both departments are really receptive to ideas,” he explained. “When they are creating video content, Sciaino and the team are incredibly cognitive of lighting and leave certain segments for us to have full control of the visual display.”
With this show, Coker was able to showcase what some of the moving fixtures situated on in the rig were capable of. “In the build-up to the show, I was excited to get my hands on the new Martin by Harman MAC Aura Performance and MAC Aura PXL,” he stated, enthusiastically. Coker cited the aforementioned fixtures as the main workhorses of the rig and, having been a fan of the Aura for a long time, was excited to now have the PXL as it really increased the capabilities of the entire rig.
“Both the Performance and the PXLgive us a lot of creative options. Using the Martin P3 processing system really expands the possibilities to incorporate video content, which is pretty slick,” he noted.
The LD also deployed TMB Solaris Flare Q+ LR, Robe MegaPointes and GLP JDC1s. For followspots, the visual team put its faith in zactrack – a necessity tool used to keep pace with the energetic frontman. “Porter has two ‘actors’ or ‘trackers’ on him, front and back, and about the size of a Zippo lighter,” he explained. “We then have eight anchors on the stage, which are able to plot his X,Y,Z coordinates. As far as a followspot system that doesn’t need operators, it’s just incredible.”
Coker programmed the entire show on an MA Lighting grandMA3 in MA2 mode, which was then taken out on the road by Lighting Director, Jose Rodriguez. “He is fantastic,” enthused Coker. “It’s not easy to turn in a new show for an artist that I have worked with for years, but having Jose on our team gives me the comfort of knowing that the show will always be in the best hands possible.”
LOOK AT THE SKY
With a run of successful shows under Porter Robinson’s belt, the entire team seemed enthusiastic about the future. “We feel this show is going to grow into arenas globally,” Dugan said, reflecting his latest live expedition.
The importance of this show was not lost on him – or the rest of the production, for that matter. “Doing live shows is my passion,” he summarised, speaking on behalf of the crew. “When COVID-19 hit, I didn’t know what to expect and enjoyed the momentary break, which lasted too long.” Dugan said that when he got the news that the dates were going, it felt as if it was his “first tour” all over again. “Everything felt new and exciting, and I was stoked to be back,” he concluded. “Each day I work in live events is the best day ever. I’m thankful I get to call this my job and work with some of the smartest, nicest people around the globe.”
This article originally appeared in issue #266 of TPi, which you can read here.