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Extreme gigs: pushing the boundaries of where live music can go

How much further can live music recording and production go? How about playing suspended in mid-air? Or getting 1,000 musos to play at the same time? Or just a few in a hot air balloon? Kevin Hilton takes a deep breath and goes back to the edge…

In today’s challenge-based world people take things to extremes and then actively look to go beyond them. Which is why that eccentric and sometimes downright dangerous sub-genre of the live sound production business, the Extreme Gig, continues to grow and develop. As last year’s PSNLive discovered, the boundaries have been pushed and records set for the deepest, highest, fastest and coldest musical performances and recordings.

There is always further to go, and drinks company Jägermeister continues to push what musicians, technicians and equipment can endure. Its Ice Cold Gigs series holds the world record for the coldest music performance – ex-Busted member Charlie Simpson in Siberia during 2012 – but this year’s trip to the edge promises to add an even more dramatic and potentially stomach-churning twist when electronic dubstep and rock duo Modestep perform at the compulsory low temperatures suspended between two mountain peaks in New Zealand.

This latest adventure is being co-ordinated by Tom McShane, operations director of expeditions and events company Secret Compass. McShane helped organise previous Ice Cold Gigs and says the 2017 challenge came about after discovering a company in the city of Moab, Utah that produces Space Nets for base jumpers. “Once we saw these nets we immediately thought they would be perfect for a suspended gig,” McShane explains.

Having found the ‘stage’, McShane says the next priority was the location. As well as the necessary frostiness, this needed to be a “visually impressive mountain gap” with rock that could accommodate the bolting anchors to support the Space Net. “The gap couldn’t be too wide as we would need to be able to get the PA cables and instruments on to the net,” McShane says. “And we would also need a safe area nearby for the audience to stand.”

This led to Cecil Peak near the town of Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. The aim is for Modestep to perform at approximately 2,000 metres above sea level over a sheer drop of several hundred feet. All the equipment has to be brought in by helicopter; the drums and keyboards will be bolted to clear Plexiglass sheets that will be slung under the aircraft and lowered on to the net.

It will be difficult to set up a drum kit without dropping anything into the abyss, and even more difficult for Pat to play when everything he’s trying to hit keeps moving

AJ Sutherland, sound technician

“We’ll then have a full safety team carefully winch out the backline to the net and tie it in a way that makes it possible to play on,” McShane comments. “Because of natural sag when you put a weight on the net, the instruments will be at an angle that will add an extra element of difficulty for Modestep when they’re performing.”

Modestep comprises vocalist, keyboard player and producer Josh Friend and drummer-percussionist Pat Lundy. Friend is known for his running-about-the-stage performances, with much throwing around of an Audio-Technica AE6100 mic. The band’s sound technician, AJ Sutherland, says the precarious nature of the Space Net will not only constrain Friend’s exuberance but also make life hard for Lundy: “It will be difficult to set up a drum kit without dropping anything into the abyss, and even more difficult for Pat to play when everything he’s trying to hit keeps moving.”

Sutherland explains that Modestep tours with a self-contained show rack and a laptop for all MIDI, playback and in-ear monitor (IEM) mixing. This runs through Ableton and RME TotalMix programs, with the hub also supplying analogue splits for the front of house console. The rack and computer are usually on stage during the band’s shows but as the stage in this case will be a big hammock in mid-air, Sutherland says as little gear as possible will be on the net. “We’ll use a Kenton LNDR line driver to transmit the MIDI signals to FoH over CAT5 and an analogue multicore for the mics and drum triggers,” he explains.

The PA for the gig will be two Electro-Voice ZX5 loudspeakers powered by a QSC PLD 4.3 amplifier. The front of house desk is to be a Midas M32, which will produce three stereo sends for the Sennheiser G3 IEM system. In addition to the A-T mic there will be four Sennheiser 604s on the snare drum and toms and three SM81s for the hi-hat and under-miking other cymbals, plus two Radial Pro DI units.

“We plan to make multitrack recordings of each take via the USB interface on the M32,” says Sutherland. “The unique challenges presented by the cold, high, wobbly environment will make it a demanding gig but one that none of us will ever forget.”

Rockin1000 originally came together as a way of getting the attention of the Foo Fighters so the US rockers would come to play in the northern Italian city of Cesena. The ploy worked…

The location of Modestep’s gig is extreme and while they will have a support team both technically and logistically, there are only two musicians to focus on. Conversely, Rockin1000 have been performing in good weather in the picturesque countryside of Italy. Which is not much of a challenge. But there are 1000 players involved, which creates different problems and is no less extreme.

Now billed as the ‘biggest rock band on earth’, Rockin1000 originally came together as a way of getting the attention of the Foo Fighters so the US rockers would come to play in the northern Italian city of Cesena. Local musicians were joined by players from Canada, Mexico, England, Austria, Croatia, Bosnia and Germany, as well as elsewhere in Italy, to perform the Foo Fighters’ song Learn to Fly in July 2015. The ploy worked – Dave Grohl and his men staged a three-hour concert in Cesena that November – but the initially ad hoc group has become an ongoing project.

In 2016 Rockin1000 performed a full concert at Cesena’s Manuzzi Stadium, which was recorded for release on CD and vinyl. This July a summer camp was held in the Alpine resort of Courmayeur, at the foot of Mont Blanc, creating what was described as a huge rock village where music met nature.

The immediate thought about 1,000 musicians gathered together is how to control the sound and performance so it’s not just a big mess. Cisko of Rockin1000’s sound department explains that the important aspect is microphone placement: “You have to consider the range and action of each single mic and consequently how these all are positioned in a precisely defined block and are equal to each other.”

Another key aspect, Cisko adds, is preparation by the musicians. “We have to provide them with arrangements and material to study,” he says. “We also monitor all the music preparatory stages in the months before each event. Then, during rehearsal and sound checking of individual pieces before a concert, we only have to adjust the volume of individual parts so everything is not at the same volume.”

Digico mixing consoles are used for concerts, typically two systems, which Cisko says have proved versatile for the layout of the live shows. Instrumentalists monitor on headphones, while singers wear IEMs, which Cisko observes is more for aesthetic reasons than anything else. “In any case it is essential for everyone to listen carefullyto the parts in their headphones or monitors so they know when and how to play the song.”

Rockin1000 is planning more events for the future. As well as the summer camp, the organisers want to play in locations around the world, recruiting musicians as they go. “It’s not easy,” Cisko says of making the concerts work, “but it’s a really great pleasure to have 1,000 musicians play together.”

While Rockin1000 has ambitions it seems content to grow almost organically. Those behind the Ice Cold Gigs know there could be a limit to how much further they can go, but are keen to try to top the Space Net concert if they can…

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