This article originally appeared in the September, 2017 issue of Pro Sound News. Innovations is a monthly column where different pro audio manufacturers are invited to discuss the thought-process behind creating their products of note.
Imagine hitting a footswitch and having all of a concert’s playback audio, lighting, and background video run automatically throughout the duration of a live show. Imagine this, and know that this sophisticated level of customization is not the future; it’s happening now.
Automated playback rigs are transforming how a live show is managed by a sound engineer, performed by a band and experienced by an audience. Now, audio playback, video, lighting and more can be programmed into a rig before a show begins.
To make this functionality available to the industry, veteran audio designer Viggy Vignola and myself as CEO of Tour Supply teamed up to launch Playback Control, the first automated turnkey playback rig. We wanted pro sound engineers to leverage all of the new industry innovations that were not previously available a few short years ago. Now, bands can pre-program their show to automate not only their backing tracks, but also MIDI commands (guitar rigs, keys and electronic percussion), lighting, video, pyro and more.
Filling in the gaps: Unlike before, automated playback rigs such as Playback Control can incorporate a song’s original recorded Pro Tools Stems to “fill in the gaps” throughout a live performance. This might include background vocals, extra guitar tracks to provide depth, and extraneous noises and percussion loops. Using the same tracks from the original recording makes the live sound experience closer to what the listener is accustomed to hearing, helping tours to put on a better show.
Flexible fader banks: MOTU’s Digital Performer software allows rigs like Playback Control to provide a separate set of fader banks for each song, which is unparalleled in the industry thus far. Traditional playback systems provide a single set of faders, making it difficult to customize individual tracks that get sent to front of house; meanwhile, separate fader banks enable song-specific plug-ins and effects.
For example, with many other systems, if you make a change to “Channel 5” during song one, this change will affect every song in the set thereafter. Thus, the level might be perfect for song one, but when you get to song three, the level could be too low or too high. That is no longer a problem.
Similarly, in traditional playback rigs, many track files are often stored as one giant file with markers for each song. It can be rather cumbersome to change the setlist, and the associated levels of each individual track. With automated playback rigs, and Playback Control specifically, each song is a separate file or “chunk.” Thus, we can easily drag and drop the setlist minutes before the show starts, offering a new level of flexibility for bands and audio engineers.
Subtle song switching: Audio technicians can program multiple versions of the same song into their automated playback rig, allowing them to toggle between tracks on-the-fly during a show if need be. If a singer is struggling during a live performance, an audio technician can instantly change to a half step-down version of the song. It takes as little as five to ten seconds to switch to an alternate version of the song during a live show. Similarly, the band can deviate from the predetermined set list at the touch of a button. Calling “audibles” like this has never been easier.
Bulletproof reliability: In order for an automated playback rig to work, it has to be reliable both technically and physically; it needs to immediately recover from an unforeseen glitch, as well as tour wear-and-tear. Today’s playback rigs are more reliable than ever before. Between the advances in software, and the increasing strength of the hardware, audio techs and performers can rest assured that their playback rig will work without fail.
For example, Playback Control has developed a ‘bulletproof’ formula, made up of several components, to automate a rig: two 13” Macbook Pro computers, a Radial SW8 switcher and multiple MOTU Interfaces with DP9 Software. The physical components ensure that no calamity will ensue. For example, Playback Control backs up the MacBooks power cables using a Neutrik 610XLR connector that physically locks in when you plug it into the rig; if someone walks by and knocks out the cable, the computer won’t lose power.
Playback Control’s software also incorporates a new patented Dual RTR (Real Time Redundancy) technology that eliminates the standard “Master-Slave” computer system that fails to protect shows against undetected glitches or outages during a live show. Instead, Playback Control can incorporate two Apple computers to operate independently but in sync with one another, thereby creating two masters.
SIDEBAR: Mötley Crüe’s Playback Control Rig
Mötley Crüe’s 2014-15 Final Tour—which earned $86.1 million and was attended by more than 1.3 million people—made use of a custom-built Playback Control rig. Co-founder, bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx said that the Playback Control rig built by audio designer Viggy Vignola made it seamless for the band to be creative on stage. “Our ‘Final Tour’ show was about pairing musical textures with visuals, like lighting and fire,” Sixx explained. “The Playback Control rig automated these theatrical features, and incorporated sound effects created in the studio that couldn’t be replicated on stage. Playback Control helped us to bring our studio on tour, and get elements like the pyro and the music to work together automatically.”
The playback rig for the ‘Final Tour’ show was custom-built in collaboration with Playback Control co-founder and CEO Lance Wascom to include automated audio playback, as well as stage video, pyro and lighting. All features were programmed into multiple MOTU Playback Interfaces with DP9 Software on timecode, so that audio and MIDI effects would come into a song automatically when needed without the band’s involvement, while pyro and lighting features were configured to work with the show’s set list.
“The playback rig is another instrument in itself, and it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves—similar to a DJ’s turntable. Viggy developed this system knowing what artists need,” Sixx said. “It takes all hesitation away from the band on stage. We know when the pyro is going to fire, we know when the audio effects will come in. Playback Control is really great for performers.”