This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
Story & photos by Michael Raine
Imagine a “Best of Rap/R&B” playlist on Apple Music. Now imagine bringing it to life, and having the genre’s biggest star emcee the show. That is OVO Fest.
For eight years, the self-declared Six God has bestowed on his city one of the most unique concert events in modern music. It’s a labour of love for rap/R&B superstar Drake, who envisioned and funds this annual gift to his hometown fans. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving, growing bigger year-over-year to where it’s now much more than a typical concert or music festival.
Held this year at the 16,000-capacity outdoor Budweiser Stage (formerly the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre) on Lake Ontario near downtown Toronto, OVO Fest is regularly the hottest ticket in the city. It’s a relatively intimate setting for an event of this magnitude, as organizers could surely pack a bigger venue if desired, so it’s no surprise that tickets to this year’s event sold out in minutes while resellers were fetching well over $1,000 per ticket on the secondary market.
What makes that stunning is that aside from Drake himself and the opening acts taken from the roster of his OVO Sound imprint, the people paying big money for tickets don’t even know who they’re going to see on stage. Unlike a typical festival that unveils its lineup well ahead of time, OVO Fest is all about the element of surprise, as every year, Drake brings out the who’s who of rap and R&B hit makers for surprise sets.
“For me, this is my eighth one, and I’m amazed every year. Whether it’s the guest artists, the set, it’s something that you’ve never seen,” enthuses Drake’s long-time FOH engineer, Demetrius Moore.
The event began with a bang in 2010 when, for its first year, Drake brought out Jay-Z, Eminem, and Rick Ross, among others. Seriously, how do you top that? Well, how about in OVO Fest’s second year, when Stevie Wonder made a surprise appearance and played for a half hour, overshadowing other surprises from the likes of Nas and Lil’ Wayne. Then there was OVO Fest’s fourth year when Drake brought out TLC, Puff Daddy, Mase, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, The Weeknd, and Kanye West.
“It’s just one of those things where you never know what you’re going to get. Are you going to get an R&B singer, are you going to get a rapper, are you going to get Rihanna, are you going to get Kanye? You never know. It’s just one of those things. You buy a ticket to come see a Drake show, but with a twist. Whether you see one guest artist, two guest artists, or 10, you never know,” says Moore. “The thing about OVO Fest is it is run like an awards show. The only person that does any mixing is myself. [Guest artists’] engineers might come and say a thing or two, like ‘Can you do this?’ but other than that, it’s like I get to mix people that I never thought I’d get to mix. For OVO Fest, I have mixed Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, Puff Daddy, TLC, Stevie Wonder, Kanye West… Anyone who has touched that stage, whether it’s for one song or whether it’s a mini set, we mix them all.”
When Professional Sound had the first of two conversations with Moore, it was only two days before the show and he still didn’t know what the final lineup would be. “This is the thing; sometimes people don’t make their flights [or get added last-minute], so you just never, ever know,” he laughed, though assured Professional Sound this year was going to be a big one.
And he was right.
The eighth annual OVO Fest was one of the biggest yet in terms of the sheer number of guest artists, and also stage spectacle.
On the spectacle side, Drake’s stunningly detailed CN Tower replica made headlines and set social media abuzz around the world. The craziest part of this crazy set piece? It was only commissioned three weeks before the show. Drake told the crowd that he called 19 companies with the idea who all turned him down because of the ultra-tight deadline until Show Group Production Services (SGPS) in Las Vegas accepted the challenge.
In a moment that fans aren’t soon to forget, when the curtain came down to start the main event, Drake was perched atop the CN Tower, recreating the cover image of his 2016 album Views. “As of now, it was created only for OVO Fest. Will we ever see it again? Who knows,” says Moore, emphasizing Drake wants to make OVO Fest something special.
When it came to the music, when all was said and done, Drake had brought out and made peace with one-time rival Tory Lanez, while Nelly stormed through his modern classics “Ride Wit Me,” “Country Grammar,” “E.I.,” and “Hot in Herre.” The rap trio Migos played “Bad and Boujee” and “T-Shirt,” two of the biggest songs of 2017, while Rae Sremmurd was not to be outdone by performing “Black Beatles,” another of this year’s hottest tracks. Cardi B showed why she is one of rap’s most hyped new arrivals, and then there were the likes Playboi Carti, French Montana, Baka, and PartyNextDoor. The climax, though, was Drake’s fellow Toronto-bred superstar, The Weeknd.
In between and sometimes with the guest artists, the star of the show performed recent hits like “One Dance,” “Jumpman,” “Controlla,” “Passionfruit,” and “Know Yourself.”
“Midnight the night before was the final roll call,” Moore tells Professional Sound a few days after the Aug. 7th show. “I wasn’t worried about any of them technically. Migos and Travis Scott, you know, we don’t rehearse any of the guest artists, so when I get to their snapshots, the only thing that can be programmed is the EQed microphone and that’s about it. I’m adjusting gains on the microphones on the fly, I’m adjusting gains on the tracks on the fly, and Migos and Travis Scott, they both use Auto-Tune, so not only am I adjusting the gains and getting their mics right, whether it’s going up or down – up because it’s not loud enough and down because they’re clipping – plus I’m routing it to Auto-Tune and sending Auto-Tune back to the stage. It does become a lot.”
A show like this needs big sound to match the big spectacle and lineup. For this, Eighth Day Sound, which is headquartered in Cleveland, OH with offices in LA, London, and Sydney, supplied a massive Adamson Systems Engineering system. Moore says going with the Adamson PA was an obvious choice after his experience with it the last time OVO Fest was held at the amphitheatre in 2015 (last year’s event was at the Air Canada Centre). “The last time I was at [Budweiser Stage] I used Adamson and it was the first time I’d ever used the E119 subs. When I say I was blown away by the low-end of the subs, and the mixture of the E15 [three-way, true line source arrays] and the E119 together, I mean, it was so powerful and so punchy, yet the vocal was so clear. So it was a no brainer for this year.”
The Adamson rig that was used at OVO Fest, though, was significantly bigger than one would expect for an amphitheatre of this size. “OVO Fest seems to be louder than a typical Drake show because, I mean, it’s a very loud crowd at OVO Fest and you have to compete with that. Our motto is: ‘Be loud but be clean.’ We don’t want people to be walking away with their ears ringing,” says Moore. To accomplish this, the rig consisted of, per side: 24 Adamson E15 boxes on the main hangs; eight E119 flown subs; 18 of Adamson’s smaller S10 boxes on the side hangs; and four S10s for front fills. Additionally, there were 24 E119 subs per side on the ground.
“It is, relatively, a bigger PA because when these guest artists come out, the crowd is so loud that if you don’t bring a stadium-sized PA, you’ll lose it. If Eminem comes out on that stage and 17,000 people scream at the top of their lungs for three minutes and you only have a small PA, you’re never going to win,” says Moore. “A lot of people on the technical side will look at the PA and say, ‘Man, that’s a big PA!’ but the show is a very dynamic show. So it’s not like when you see it you’re like, ‘Oh man, I need earplugs. This is loud and this is going to be torture.’ No, it’s not like that. People say, ‘Rap shows are just loud and it’s just a bunch of bass and you can’t hear the vocals,’ but it’s really the complete opposite. It’s a dynamic show and it has low-end, but it’s not rip-your-face-off loud, and you hear the vocal mic. You hear every sibilance of what Drake says throughout the whole night.”
To help achieve that clarity, Drake is using a Sennheiser SKM 9000 transmitter with an MD 9235 capsule. “Everyone who touches the stage uses a 9000. We have eight channels of it and it’s all run over AES to the front of house console,” says Moore, before emphasizing the simplicity of mixing Drake’s vocals. “Drake doesn’t cup the mic and he doesn’t yell. Like, he raps and it’s laid back so there’s not much work I have to do. He puts himself in the pocket, so I don’t have to deal with yelling. And he’s consistent! I can tell you that my gain on my console for his vocal mic has been the same exact same since we switched to the 9000. Before the 9000, we used a [Sennheiser SKM] 5200 and my gain was the same exact gain for years. I’ve never changed my gain on his microphone.”
Over at FOH, Moore is working on a Digico SD7 console with a selection of outboard gear. “Drake wants it to sound like the record so I try to give a record sound, and I don’t mean album, I mean a record sound. Like if you could play a 45 at a concert, this is what it would sound like,” he explains. And getting that 45 record sound requires every person and piece of equipment working in unison, Moore says. “It’s not just one thing; it’s a combination and it starts from the stage. It’s our mixing channels plus 18 channels of playback. It’s the AES microphone, it’s the vocal performance that Drake gives, the Dante to the amp racks, it’s running everything at 96 KHz,” Moore emphasizes. “It isn’t just one piece of gear or it’s not me as a front of house engineer. It’s all of us working collectively and every piece and moving part of audio that works together to make the sound. If Drake’s in-ears are off, then the front of house mix is off, and if front of house is off, then Drake’s in-ears are off. We’re all working together collectively to get this sound. Our musical director is also our playback guy, so we have timecode so we’re all on the same page. When we get to the next song, Sean [Sturge, the monitor engineer]’s snapshot fires, my snapshot fires, Ableton snapshots fire, everything moves collectively together and that’s how we achieve what we achieve.”
As far as his gear, in combination with the SD7, Moore has two of Avalon’s VT737SPs – one for Drake’s vocal and another for the guest artists. There is also a TC Electronic 2290 dynamic digital delay because, he says, “There is just no plug-in that will replace a 2290.” There are also two DBX 120A subharmonic synthesizers. For outboard gear, that’s pretty much it, as much of the work is done in Ableton on Moore’s MacBook Pro.
The MacBook is run to a MOTU 112D Thunderbolt/AVB/USB interface and routing matrix and then out of that into the console. “I have an Ableton set-up where I have scenes and what happens is when my console scene changes, my Ableton scene changes so that the tempos change because it’s all tempo-mapped,” Moore explains.
For plug-ins, he uses an Eventide Ultra Channel and a Waves Doubler, two AMS RMX16 reverbs from Universal Audio, the Eventide Blackhole reverb, TC Electronic’s M30 reverb, and Waves’ H-Delay analog delay, plus a couple of the stock distortions in Ableton. “Per scene, you’ll see when I go to certain songs, certain plug-ins turn on and it’s all MIDI-mapped within Ableton. It’s just coming out of my console via BNC into a MOTU 112D thunderbolt, which has almost no latency – the latency is the bare minimum – and I use 16 stereo effects channels.”
In concert, Moore is in service to the creations of Drake and the superstar’s longtime producer, Noah “40” Shebib. The distinctive “Drake sound” has become so identifiable that 40 is now one of rap and R&B’s most talked about producers. “For me, if 40 came to a show and I didn’t replicate what he had on the album, I would feel bad because this is what he has created. This is the sound that he has made, so I try to make sure I am replicating the sound that he has made in the studio and just bring it to life live,” says Moore. “I’ll call 40 if I hear something on the record and I’m like, ‘What is this that I need to duplicate?’ I’ll call him and say, ‘Hey, what did you actually do on this?’ He’ll tell me how he did it and I’ll replicate it live, but sometimes the way he does it in the studio, you can’t do live, so you have to figure out another way, but I start with the way he did it in the studio and if I can’t replicate it that way, then I start tweaking it to where it is replicable.”
As an example, Moore picks out the vocal sound on the track “Marvin’s Room” from Drake’s 2011 album Take Care. “The vocal on ‘Marvin’s Room’ is really innovative. As he’s singing, there is a reverse vocal going on at the same time. ‘Feel No Ways’ on Views has the same feel. It’s like a reverse delay. So that’s the thing; when I hear it, it has to be done.”
When it comes to monitors, much like the FOH mix, Sturge says the aim is to make Drake’s JH Roxanne in-ears sound like the album. “The recording process is one thing, but the live aspect is another. When he’s recording, he listens differently than when [he’s performing] because it’s not a finished mix. When he’s doing the show, he wants to listen to the finished mix, so we have 16 tracks stemmed out of Pro Tools and my job is to recreate the mix,” explains Sturge, who pulls double-duty as an employee of both Eighth Day Sound and Drake.
Unlike, say, a rock band in which the players typically like their own voice and instrument at the front of the monitor mix and the rest of the band much quieter, Sturge says a more album-like monitor mix is typical in rap. “I do a lot of effects changes because, as you know, he’s also a very good singer,” he continues. “I have channels of reverb. I use the onboard reverb, I also use the [Waves] IR-Live, as I have two Waves servers connected to my [Digico] SD5.
“I am very impressed with his talent, his skill, his capabilities of being able to remember, I would say, 95 per cent of his songs. In my history of working with several different artists, a lot of times people need teleprompters for help. Sometimes they need a reference track in their in-ears. Drake, more or less, he just remembers his songs,” chuckles Sturge. “He works hard to give a good show. He’s very self-conscious about giving the audience what they want and what they’re there for. If it is that album cycle, if it’s the hits, if it’s what’s popular on social media, he’s very aware of what he needs to deliver and how he needs to deliver it.”
At the eighth annual OVO Fest, fans certainly got what they were there for and more. What made it even more special for those Torontonians lucky enough to get tickets was that this was clearly a show unlike any other to come through the city. This was a gift to Toronto from one of its own. Someone who, no matter the stratospheric heights his pop stardom reaches, always comes back home to share the spoils. And as Drake and fellow hometown superstar The Weeknd reprised their 2011 collaboration “Crew Love” in the shadow of the CN Tower, it was hard to imagine how the Six God could top himself next year.
We’ll just have to wait and see…
***Michael Raine is the Senior Editor of Professional Sound. ***