This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
By Tom Wood. Photos by Jeff Wuerth.
In the second installment of this Professional Sound exclusive, U.K.-born, Canada-based FOH engineer Tom Wood checks in from various dates on the second half of Shawn Mendes: The Tour, which finds the artist and his team trekking the globe throughout most of 2019. The five-leg outing began in Amsterdam on March 7th and is expected to wrap in late December with a trio of dates in Mexico City.
That’s my favourite song to mix. It has everything I crave as a sound engineer: a delicate and exposed piano introduction; a tom pattern that is so deeply tribal it feels practically genetic... It stirs something inside, something that has been sleeping for millennia. The vocal melody is desperate and haunted. It’s at war with itself. Low-fi delays with the feedback cranked to 200 carry the fight through the masses within the arena. To anyone walking in now, this is a colosseum. The FX track pours out suffering, chains being whipped form a dark and dissonant bed within the mix. The tension escalates into near chaos. The only thing controlling this beast is a calculated intent to deliver pure evil into the hearts of those brave enough to listen. The VCA fader all but flies off the board as a guitar solo to make Slash himself weep blood pours from the fingers of our MD, Zubin Thakkar. Shawn fills his lungs, hunting for his next note with a dedication that would rival an animal stalking its prey, focused and prepared to exhale a melody of pure hellfire. This, the answer in harmony to the climax of Zubin’s solo. Shawn leans owards the microphone…
And then, nothing.
Portland. Show 1. North American Leg.
Now, I must beg of you some poetic justice here. The truth is we didn’t even make it that far into the song. Not even close. On reflection, that’s probably for the best.
After two months on the road in Europe, we finished three back-to-back nights at London’s famed O2 arena with a feeling that we had delivered a well-executed, minimal-issue tour – certainly nothing close to a showstopper.
The end of the Euro leg tour party happened at a bowling alley situated amongst the various bars and restaurants that line the exterior of the venue. It was better than it sounds. Alas, I don’t remember much of that evening, but I do remember discussing with our monitor engineer, Mike Flaherty, how much we were looking forward to getting back to North America. After all, everything is easier for a Canadian artist there – the local crews speak the same language, the arenas are in themselves far more consistent than some of the wildcards Europe can deliver. Given the relative ease of the last two months, the upcoming three-month stretch should be a dream!
Well, dream on, team audio. Dream on…
The moment I realized something was wrong was shortly after hitting my next snapshot button to fire “Bad Reputation.” Several bars passed in the intro. That’s when I heard our MD, Zubin, in my shout speaker: “GUYS! GUYS, WHAT IS GOING ON!?”
It became evident quickly that what was going on existed on the monitor side of the snake. FOH was still alive and well, but the band members were reporting white noise and a total loss of signal in their ears.
Having done nothing differently from 27 shows in Europe, this was starting to feel like an Apollo 13-style disaster. Dealing with the explosion would be one thing, but getting the ship home would be quite another. I can tell you now, with some serious sound-guy-to-sound-guy respect that our Mike, some fella with a funny accent from up north, astronauted the shit outta this one.
Square Peg, Round Hole
Mike employs an SSL 550 at monitors with three ML 32.32 analog stage boxes. After a lightning fast process of elimination aided by our monitor tech, Adam Field, it was determined that the loss of signal and subsequent noise was localized to the first of Mike’s stage boxes.
This would fit nicely into the timeline as the point that I realized I was missing any channel within our first 32 that required phantom power. Things were adding up. Phantom power was being supplied by monitors and the outputs of the first SSL stage box were feeding the band’s in-ears.
Meanwhile, up above the heads of the multiple techs and engineers now troubleshooting below him, Shawn was proving just what a pro he really is. Now stood on a band-less stage, armed solely with an acoustic guitar, his in-ear monitors out and dangling pensively from his shoulders, Shawn led the audience in an acoustic rendition of the halted song. Instinctively inspiring confidence in everyone watching that the problem would be rectified quickly, Shawn put his well-earned trust in Mike and Adam, who were not about to let him down.
As I punched in phantom on the missing channels, the boys on the stage end simultaneously re-patched outputs to the next stage box. With no gain control over the broken box, Mike managed to get the ship home. On fire. Backwards. With his eyes closed.
We all learned something from that failure. We implemented a back-up plan so that I can send my mix to some easily-deployable wedges in the event that anything similar happens again.
And it did.
Vancouver. Show 2. North American Leg.
That’s right, show number two. This time, my end of the snake. The fourth song in the set and my Avid S6L begins to sporadically air painful digital noise through the system –thankfully intermittent enough that we didn’t have to stop the show, but trust me. It sucked.
It took a long time to locate a fix after this incident as we couldn’t recreate the problem until it happened again a month or two later. The solution turned out to be a very minor update to Waves that solved an issue with one specific plug-in I was using. Go figure.
It Will Make You Powerful, but It Will Also Make You Weak
This was quite clearly not the start of the tour any of us had hoped for. The problems we were experiencing felt infuriatingly out of our control. I found myself praying that things would settle back in before we brandished our Achilles heel for a third time.
As much as I quite like the notion of “sound engineer” being interchangeable with “fearsome Greek warrior,” that legend didn’t work out so well for old Achilles, when the heavily discounted plug-in “arrow” buried itself just above his ankle. Bummer. (Or, as he would say, βάλλ› εἰς κόρακας.)
Naturally, the end of the European leg saw our longtime head of security, Jake, tear his Achilles tendon while lifting a suitcase up some steps. Tour over. Sometimes no matter what you do, you just can’t foresee every single problem. You definitely can’t let the fear of failure dictate your equipment choices, or the way you mix your show.
(Thankfully, Jake rejoined us midway through the U.S. run and let me tell you, he ain’t afraid of no suitcases.)
It would be easy to bury our heads in the sand and play the blame game for both of our problems. In my case, a Waves issue – a company who I believe have unfairly become the whipping boy for half of our industry. Ninety-nine per cent of the problems I’ve had with Waves have been user-driven screw-ups: an audio vendor implementing the software and/or server incorrectly, a flawed installation on the part of the user, etc. The bottom line is, Shawn and the band have never been happier with their in-ears. Anytime I have heard the mix through the SSL, it sounds outstanding. I also truly believe I have the best tools at my disposal with the S6L. While the problems on both ends of the snake were due to equipment failure and (thankfully) not the operators, I can’t help but feel that the pursuit of progress and a better-sounding show was an adequate price to pay. We didn’t put a man on the moon by being conservative with plug-ins and preamps.
There Are No Pacts Between Lions & Men
Our prayers were answered swiftly after the second show. Now armed with several back-up plans and a renewed respect for our equipment, we began to put the problems behind us. We got incredibly lucky that out of both issues, we never ended up on the receiving end of terrible reviews or scolding press – a fact largely attributed to quick action taken by a great crew.
A look back over the past few years highlights the media’s growing lust to jump on an audio issue faster than a fly on shit and then publish a story that is completely removed from the facts. Some headlines:
• “Radiohead’s Coachella set besieged by audio problems” – Consequence of Sound
• “Fleetwood Mac fans leave Wembley Stadium concert early after complaining about ‘horrendous’ sound” – Metro
• “Spice Girls tour suffers ‘awful’ sound problems for second night” – CNN
The third is particularly notable, as the engineer at the helm is someone I look up to as the industry standard of live mixing. He has mixed the only show Shawn Mendes has ever raved to me about for its sonic excellence. Ever.
It’s nauseating the role that social media now plays when things go wrong. Various theories are thrown around groups on Facebook like “Bobnet,” “Live Sound Engineers,” and “Riled-Up Roadies: A Safe Space for Those Who Don’t Tour and Weren’t Actually There to Explain How They Would Have Done Things Better.” (I might actually start that last one…)
I want to be absolutely clear about this: NEVER will you find an engineer destined for success, re-posting a sonic horror story on Facebook with the caption: “I wonder what happened here?” or worse yet, “Somebody is getting a Greyhound ticket home.”
Why? Because any decent engineer or member of a touring crew understands that these horror stories are just that: stories. The general public and the news outlets they hold dear typically don’t have a clue about how a show goes together. No amount of theorizing or guess work will put you in the shoes of that engineer during that issue. Your public inquest makes you look like an inexperienced twat.
Many of us have been to see artists we love and left feeling that we could do a better job of the mix. Yearned for a shot at the gig. Having been there and then been offered a shot at mixing a band I listen to for pleasure, I immediately understood why things sounded the way they did. I realized that my previous opinions had no basis in fact.
Salt Lake City. Show 21. North American Leg. (The Issues of This Magazine Are Too Far Apart)
While I’m lucky that Shawn and I hear ear-to-ear and I’m able to mix the show in a way that I find thoroughly enjoyable, this is not the scenario with every artist I have or will ever mix. What the boss wants and what the audience wants overrule my taste and enjoyment every time. I firmly believe that being conscious of the differences in taste within your audience, be it gig to gig or even song to song, is vital to continued employment.
One of my greatest fears is to find myself loving a mix that everyone else thinks is shit. I regularly use Ticketmaster to keep track of audio reviews on this tour. Every few days after load-in I will sit with our Systems Engineer and flick through the website. I love it because you can only leave a review of the show if you actually purchased a ticket. So far, this is the best source of information I have found to keep track of what the fans think of the show.
The vast majority of people think that we rely on the venue to provide the PA every day. Next, most of the negative reviews that we do receive focus on coverage issues; however, the reviewers in question typically aren’t able to differentiate a coverage problem from something like feedback – or the mix just generally sounding crap.
For example, we did a show in Salt Lake City midway through the tour. Jeff Wuerth, my SE, told me way in advance that due to the ludicrously high ceiling, there was only so much we could do to cover the extreme top seats. We have a generous amount of PA on this run and we deployed it in a way that would have been comparable to any other major tour in the same venue with great techs and engineers. We did everything to the best of our ability and 99 per cent of the reviews from that day were great. One was not.
Here are four reviews from Salt Lake City in the exact order they were posted:
Well, April from Salt Lake City, I did his soundcheck. Guilty as charged. Allow me to take this opportunity to formally apologize for the shit sound and ruining your fucking Christmas. Frankly, I have no idea why Shawn didn’t make sure it was good? What an arsehole. Our bad.
Now, it is fair to assume that April and her family were in the worst seats in the house for system coverage. Next time we’re in Salt Lake City, April, you can come and stand with me. Promise.
I invite anyone to go to Ticketmaster and read the reviews for Shawn Mendes. I’m proud of them and everyone on the tour should be. I’d rather send a link to this any day than attach a resume for a new gig. The problem is, it only takes one negative review in the wrong context to light the fuse on a shit storm of ignorance. Imagine the headlines reverberating around Facebook if only that one review got out…
“Mendes’ FOH engineer destroys family’s listening experience while pissing on Xmas presents.’’
All of this, generated by someone who has no practical understanding of how a show goes together.
The learning point is to remember that not only do we all hear differently by human design, but also by room design, particularly in larger venues. Taking time to embrace, listen to, and understand the negative feedback will make you a better engineer overnight. So will understanding when not to listen. It’s a confusing balance to get right. Half of the people within the music industry that got a pass to come out and see your show will relish the opportunity to blow smoke up your arse about how great it sounds, even if you know it sucks that night. Find a reliable source of feedback that you can trust. It’s probably not your account rep at the sound company. Sorry.
Who the Hell Is Shawn Mendes?
The entire North American leg has been leading up to a sold-out, hometown show headlining the Rogers Centre in Toronto. My first run with Shawn featured a whole lot of stadiums when we opened for Taylor Swift on the 1989 Tour. Granted, things were pretty different then; the show was quite literally just Shawn and an acoustic guitar. I had barely mixed an arena at that point in my career, so to say I was nervous on the first day walking into Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA would be an understatement. One bus with a trailer, playing on average to 50,000 people every night. What a ride that was.
I got very lucky that we had such a minimal set-up – maybe five channels. After I settled in on that tour, I was able to start thinking more about the acoustics of the different spaces we were in. It was the first big realization of the impact the space could have on your day. We were also doing our own headline tour at the time in sheds and theatres, so the differences became even more apparent.
The first day of rehearsals for that run was at the Great Hall in Toronto. I wanted to make things sound really full. These were pop songs after all, regardless of the fact they were being conveyed acoustically. I put Shawn’s acoustic into the subs and his face just lit up. We both wanted to be able to create something that sounded as big as possible from very little. We wanted people to come to the show and be blown away by the fact we were moving so much air with so little – in many ways, the Ed Sheeran concept.
That’s what got me the gig in the beginning. It was either that, or not laughing at Shawn’s eye allergy relief glasses when we went outside to get lunch. What a fucking superstar. It takes a level of maturity as an engineer to know when what is leaving the board is great and should not be touched. Taking a show file through so many different spaces really reinforces the idea of working on the system and not the mix.
Toronto. Load-In Day. The Stadium.
I was searching for some great quotes about stadiums when, believe it or not, I stumbled across the perfect one from this guy:
“No matter where you play, a stadium or an arena, when you’re present on stage, it’s going to feel like a theater.” - Shawn Mendes
Pretty much the mission objective right there.
The summer-long experience of opening for Taylor, in addition to a few festival slots in stadiums, really relaxed me when it came to Rogers. While the expectations were obviously world-class, I knew what to anticipate from the venue. Sadly, it sits at the lower end of my “great-sounding stadiums” list, but I know I have a good-sounding mix coming from the board. The game plan leading up to the show was very much to get the system side of things correct.
As is usual on a show of this size, it’s not as simple as the audio team picking where we want to hang PA and going for it. Various things changed from the first PA design to what we ended up doing on show day. Factors such as how many seats were being sold, where we could position delay towers, and indeed, where FOH would go were all subject to change.
The system was designed by Paul
Cervenansky from Clair Nashville. Our touring systems engineer, Jeff Wuerth, worked with Paul to ensure we were keeping up with the various changes presented by production. The goal: to create a powerful system with great coverage.
We had a full day before the show to work with virtual soundcheck and the band. We took our usual arena software template for EQ and Jeff built in the additional PA elements. This was our starting point. Paul, Jeff, and I quite literally walked as many seats, from top to bottom, as was physically possible within the time constraints. In reality, we didn’t really change that much.
By coincidence, Luke Bryan happened to be in town and his FOH engineer, Frank Sgambellone, stopped by to hang out. Stadiums can offer up long bass notes that seem like they will go on forever. It’s remarkable how quickly the brain will adapt to this in order to allow you to focus on the source sound, but if you’re not careful, you can really over-sub the situation fast and dig yourself into a hole.
Frank suggested that instead of running the PA full range as we do in arenas, we should try utilizing a system profile with a low-end filter at 60 Hz. This, in addition to a little work on the array shading, really tidied things up.
The final challenge came down to the position of FOH. Due to the design of the show, audio and lighting were spilt far house right and left. Despite this not being ideal, I believe in the ethos that if there are people watching the show in that location, then there is no reason FOH can’t go there. It should sound as great as possible everywhere. I ended up on a small riser directly in the middle of the main and side hang. We made a few EQ tweaks to get me a little closer to what things sounded like on axis with the main and with Shawn’s listening approval, we were off to the races.
I have no shame in admitting that leaving that night, having mixed that stadium twice before, I was surprised by how great it sounded. A massive thank you to Paul, Jeff, Frank, and the entire Clair crew for killing it on the system front.
Toronto. Show 49. The Stadium.
Sure, Mike’s desk exploded again hours before doors and sure, my outboard rack died with minutes ‘til the show started. If it was all plain sailing, this article wouldn’t exist. We fixed it. We came out of the gate swinging with all the energy of a Blue Jays home crowd in 1993.
The intro of the set has been composed perfectly by Zubin to lure the audience in softly. Dreamy piano and floating strings tease what is to come several bars later: the musical smackdown of guitars and drums to announce Shawn’s imminent arrival onstage. I have one hand spread across the VCA faders, the other hovering over the master volume in Lake, ready to combat the incredible roar of the fans. Shawn takes his first steps into a crescendo of screaming adoration. A small tweak of half a decibel and I’m trimmed perfectly to deliver the most anticipated show of the tour.
The top of the set is fast-paced and offers up rocky hits that are just meant to be played in a stadium. After a quick walk out to listen, aware that this is a vast space and I can’t venture too far from FOH, I begin to relax. It sounds great, the sub is nicely managed, we’re at a good volume, and Shawn is clearly having a blast. After his first scream of “Toronto!”, I can’t help but grin from ear to ear.
Then we hit it. Song number seven: “Bad Reputation.”
Shawn filled his lungs, hunting for his next note with a dedication that would rival an animal stalking its prey. Focused and prepared to exhale a melody of pure hellfire. This, the answer in harmony to the climax of Zubin’s solo. Shawn leans towards the microphone.
And then… everything.
We came, we saw, and we conquered. Take that, Achilles.
Originally from the U.K. and now based in Canada, Tom Wood is an in-demand FOH engineer currently touring the world with Shawn Mendes on The Tour. He has also worked with Florence and the Machine, Liam Payne, Protest the Hero, and many others.