By Tom Wood
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
In this Professional Sound exclusive, U.K.-born, Canada-based FOH engineer Tom Wood checks in from various dates leading up to and during 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.
You wanna know what’s worse than having a terrible show in front of 80,000 people? Having an incredible one 24 hours later with absolutely no idea why. That was 2018. Fuck 2018.
365 days of promo and we played PA roulette until the wheel fell off. The
reality is, I have a list of theories as long as my arm to account for the day-to-day differences in sound propagation across another shitty field in rainy Wales: the temperature, the sub configuration, the system engineer...
The lesson that came from all of this? My mix was actually pretty good, and that has been the hardest pill to swallow thus far in my career.
Fast forward to March 2019 and here I sit, beer in hand, sun on my back, having swapped a muddy field in Swansea for a bohemian corner of Barcelona. Perspective is everything. I can confidently speak for the band, crew, and Shawn when I say that we have been longing to be back in a headline touring environment like this since 2017’s Illuminate world tour ended.
Each instance of the same console packaged by a different vendor last year allowed me to weigh up multiple pros and cons – small things like the height of the doghouse or the position of the drive rack. It all allowed me to put pen to paper on the design of my dream FOH package. Before we knew it… POOF! Just like that, the metaphorical genie granted our wishes.
Now, stood at rehearsals in Redditch, England, all the gear we could possibly want at our disposal and an ever-growing list of destinations around the globe to conquer, it was game on.
Photo by Jeff Wuerth
It’s interesting to look back at what touring was for me in the beginning. In particular, I realize that what I thought were good gear decisions actually sucked.
If I was to start a club/theatre tour tomorrow with a low budget and no time,
I would prioritize a means to multitrack record with some reliable reference monitors. I would never have been left guessing about where my mix sat in relation to the 30-year-old Turbosound system shooting down my hopes and dreams via a bullet horn. (Disclaimer: I actually fucking love some old-school Turbs.)
After that, a Lake. I see a lot of tours at this entry- to mid-level that would rather take out a Waves and/or Universal Audio setup over anything else. If you think for one second that you can rely on consistent PA throughout a club run, you are in trouble; moreover, if you think that your emulated SSL channel strip is going to make showing up late for soundcheck after your bus broke down outside of Thunder Bay any better, you have lost your mind.
Photo by Josiah Van Dien
“It’s All Happening”
The U.K. phase of production rehearsals lasted for two weeks. In that time, we utilized the purpose-built facilities at Fly by Nite Rehearsal Studios to start crafting the musical side of the show. For those 14 days, we quite literally ate, slept, rehearsed, and repeated, all within the same building.
Between weeks one and two, we transitioned from a setup that consisted of FOH in an isolated room with a small PA and reference monitors into a small arena-sized room with our full touring PA system.
My main weapon of choice: the Avid S6L. I’ve long been an Avid fan since the Profile. As one of the most successful live consoles in history, it’s rare to find an engineer who isn’t familiar with its workflow. In response to advances in technology and an increased demand for flexibility, Avid has come up with a console that marries productivity and sonic quality brilliantly.
Shawn has a fantastic musical director (MD), Zubin Thakkar, who understands the technical side of audio just as well as he understands the musical side. Every project is different and the unique challenges that come with them make you better as an engineer. In this case, Zubin’s attention to detail can be a challenge, but that is the difference between “world-class” and not. You either embrace it and give your all, or you don’t. Resistance is futile. (And will probably get you fired.)
Zubin and I worked very closely throughout the rehearsal process. I can’t tell you enough how much I wanted everyone to feel invested and proud of what we were doing musically this time around. I made a point of becoming an open book. I invited everyone to take a listen to what we were working on. That shit is straight up scary, but a milestone on the route to better mixing.
As Yoda once said: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to backline.”
Part of the beauty of working in audio is that the technology you choose really does have a direct and immediate impact on your life. Without AVB and Virtual Soundcheck, the rehearsal process would have sucked. I’m not talking about virtual soundcheck in general; I’m talking about the proprietary Avid way. I’ll give you some quick examples because I could write an entire magazine about it:
• Recalling a snapshot adds a marker to Pro Tools while recording.
• Recalling a snapshot in Virtual Soundcheck snaps to the corresponding marker!
• Control events within the S6L software allow you to trigger Pro Tools to record when recalling a snapshot. (If I had a dollar for every time I forgot to hit that satanic space bar before AVB…)
• There are transport controls ON THE DESK!
I digress. Zubin and I sat long into the night looping individual sections, asking for each other’s thoughts on certain parts. Often, Zubin would stand to my right at the helm of Pro Tools while I listened to gates opening and closing or auditioning different drum compression. I was adamant that I wanted to start using drum triggers to key the opening and closing of gates on this run. We had already started adding some triggered samples anyway, so all we needed were a couple more physical triggers.
Boy am I glad we went in this direction. Gate phobia is a thing of the past. The band has long been amp-less, instead favouring Kemper Profilers for guitars and an Avalon DI on bass. This is backed up by a keys and track rig, leaving the drums as the only element actually making noise on the stage.
Not gonna lie. For a “pop” gig, this rocks.
We’re blessed with a truly incredible bunch of musicians. I have never once had to worry that, if something doesn’t sound right coming from an instrument, the band would not move heaven and earth to change things. In addition to Zubin on guitar, we’ve got Mike Sleath on drums, Dave Haskett on bass, and Eddy Ruyter on keys. All Canadian and all very apologetic about it.
Knowing myself and Zubin were leaving rehearsals on the same page about where the mix was sitting made the route to success that much easier to walk – I hope, for both of us.
Photo by Josiah Van Dien
What Came First? The PA or the Mix?
Having dedicated time like this is the audio dream. It’s what we all long for when we’re sitting in the back seat of a 12-passenger van picking soggy fries off of our arses: the ability to actually work on a new mix before the show.
Well, fair warning: while this time seems god-sent, it can easily be the devil in disguise.
When building a mix on reference monitors, you have to trust in what you’re doing and hearing without the fear that it will translate poorly to a given PA system. If your mix is together in this medium but you don’t like how it sounds over the big speakers, then you should start addressing the PA, not your mix.
This is where confidence and experience are key. It’s not the ability to make your snare drum sound better; it’s the ability to know the exact point in the process that’s negatively affecting it. EQing your master bus to fix that bad snare drum is like a doctor fixing constipation with CPR. I’m a much better engineer for being forced through this learning curve. This knowledge would have saved my mental state weeks of torment trudging through those muddy festival fields in 2018.
To Infinity & Show Number One
With this prolific message now etched into my brain and U.K. rehearsals coming to an end, we set off for Amsterdam and show number one.
We are at the beginning of our relationship with Clair Global, and it’s exciting to be working with an audio vendor that shares the same end goal of great sound first, bottom line later. Or at least that’s how they make me feel!
In addition to this new partnership comes a new PA in the form of Clair’s Cohesion box, a new SE for me to form a working relationship with, and an entirely new audio crew.
I love chatting with PA crew. You often find that even the younger additions to the team have been on some pretty big, or at least interesting gigs. You wanna know what it’s really like mixing FOH for your dream artist? Chances are your fly team can fill you in on the gory details.
In this case, we have two fantastic crew members from Clair Global flying the system: Sarah Blakey and Ed Peers. They are headed up by Systems Engineer Jeff Wuerth. It can be enlightening having a conversation after a gig over a beer about their thoughts on the show. These guys see a wider spread of shows in arena environments than I likely ever will. They are as useful a tool as Smaart. If you get the chance to pick your own team, then understand the benefit good choices can really have here.
It can be quite daunting assimilating all of this at once. With three days of rehearsals in Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome before two back-to-back sold-out shows, I was feeling the pressure of so many moving parts. I spent every spare minute of the day (when audio was not offensive to other departments) working through virtual soundcheck, agonizing over different PA profiles and shadings to get to the benchmark I had set for myself: a world-class mix for a world-class tour.
It’s easy to look back today after 12 great shows and say, “Hey man, 12-shows-ago-Tom should relax!” But the truth is, I was feeling exactly how I should have been feeling: nervous. Not just that, but willing to work harder than anyone else to make the show sound great. Truthfully, maybe somewhat neurotic!
Frankly, having spent such extended amounts of time in the same space, surrounded by people who thrive on constant movement, it was time to get a gig in the bag and start rolling. You have to be honest with yourself and know when to step back and stop mixing before your results become a blur.
Show one went off without a hitch.
The hard work from everyone had paid off and I like to think that my stress was well worth it. There are things that we continue to refine day after day, but that’s the entire point! To say I was happy with every single sonic element would be a lie and, frankly, fucking boring. As I continue to learn the personality of this PA, day after day, things are constantly improving, including my ability to discern between a bad mix element and a bad system element. With 12 shows left in the European leg, I’m truly excited for what the rest of the tour will bring – especially as we move into the States this summer and really blow the roof off this thing.
You wanna know what’s better than having an awesome show in front of 80,000 people? Absolutely nothing.
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.
Banner photo at top of page by Josiah Van Dien