LOS ANGELES, CA—Building on 15 years of EDM hits, remixes for high-profile artists like Madonna, big-ticket DJ shows around the world including a sold-out gig at New York’s Madison Square Garden and more, UK trance trio Above & Beyond pulled a hard left in 2013 when it suddenly went acoustic. The result was an ambitious live show that toured through a limited number of dates, as the group brought along a 15-piece band and three vocalists to perform acoustic renditions of previous A&B hits. That in turn spurred the 2014 album, Acoustic, and the appropriately named follow-up, Acoustic II, released this year, backed by a more extensive world tour throughout May.
Expanding on the premise of the 2013 shows, the high point of this year’s U.S. leg was a concert at the famed Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, where the production’s 17-piece band was joined by a 33-piece orchestra for a barnstorming show shot for posterity.
Throughout the U.S. run, the tour was carrying a control package from Delicate Productions (Los Angeles/San Francisco, CA), mirroring a Capital Sound (London, UK) package the tour used for rehearsals, warm-up shows and the official kickoff at the Royal Albert Hall in London. House PAs were used throughout the North American run—for instance, the JBL VerTec system at New York City’s Beacon Theatre—but the occasional local system was brought in, like a stop at Boston’s Wang Theatre, and a twonight stand at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, CA, where Delicate supplied an L-Acoustic K2 rig.
Throughout the tour, FOH engineer Ben Findlay (Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, Jeff Beck, Goldfrapp) mixed on an Avid Venue Profile. His counterpart at stageside was veteran monitor engineer Tom Howat (Morrissey, Franz Ferdinand, Paolo Nutini), making use of an Allen & Heath dLive digital mixing system.
Even without the L.A. show’s addition of an orchestra, Howat had plenty to look after throughout the rest of the run, he explained: “The ‘regular’ tour is with a string quartet, there’s also stuff on track with brass and one of the other musicians is a multi-instrumentalist who plays a bit of trombone and French horn, so there’s live versions of all this stuff going on at all the other shows; with the LA show, we’re just fleshing it out with this extra orchestra.”
By its very nature, even the 17-piece version of the show was complicated; while a more typical tour might have a lead singer or star of the show, this production featured all three Above & Beyond members—Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness and Paavo Siljamäki—along with four singers who alternated as lead or background vocalists as needed. They were all backed by two drummers, the multi-instrumentalist, bass player, another guitar player, and others.
“From Above & Beyond proper, Tony is a guitar player, so he’s playing electric, acoustic, mandolin, ukulele and he sings a song as well,” said Howat. “Paavo, he mostly plays grand piano, and Jono plays Rhodes, so they’ll swap places between piano and Rhodes. With them, the four singers and the string section, there’s plenty of change going on from song to song. In terms of the monitors, that’s where the number-one challenge comes from: people having different roles in different songs, moving positions on stage, playing a different instrument and so on.”
To tackle that challenge, the monitor arrangements included a number of Allen & Heath ME-1 personal mixers and a plethora of in-ear monitors. According to Howat, it was the adoption of the ME-1s that made the difference, especially when it came time to accommodate the orchestra in Los Angeles.
“Using the ME-1 for the string section has been very cool, because it’s a system that we can tweak without messing with my automation,” he explained. “Within the D-live structure, there’s a patching page which allows you to put 40 channels of your choice on to this ME-1 network, because the ME-1s just daisy-chain down a piece of Ethernet cable. For those 40 lines, you can choose inputs, direct out from inputs, aux mixes and so on. So I create a mix for both the drummers, the MD and the String section, and then we add other bits on to it, like a click on its own or some stems as well which can sit on the network. It means that those four positions, that those folks can tweak their own mixes as the show goes on, and they’ve all got little routines down. The easy example is a drummer who needs the click; they can do it easily at hand rather than having to find me.”
Musical director Bob Bradley had his own ME-1, which routed back to monitorworld only to be sent to his IEMs via a wireless pack. Conversely, the string section’s ME-1 broke out into a four-way distribution amplifier, allowing the players to share a mix and stay in the same frame of reference while being able to tweak the volume on their own individual hardwired IEMs.
All that, in turn, solved the dilemma of accommodating the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl without massively reworking the monitor arrangement. “You just daisy-chain on more ME-1s,” Howat said. “There’s four sections to the small orchestra—a violin section, a low-string section, a French horn section and a trombone section—so I add an ME-1 for each of the different sections, providing headphone distribution for the right number of people from each one. I haven’t changed anything about my show file at all; you just add on those MEs, program them up really quickly and the fiddly bit is running all those headphone cables out.”
A benefit of having the upstage half the band looking after itself on ME-1s every night was that Howat could focus on the downstage half, tackling scenes and automation. The downstage members heard themselves via Sennheiser G3 wireless systems for their IEMs, with a variety of JH Audio JH16, ACS and Ultimate Ears earbuds used.
Tom Howat mixed every show of the Above & Beyond Acoustic II world tour on an Allen & Heath dLive mixing system.
Everyone in the production had their roles down pat by the time the Hollywood Bowl show came around, but there were still some additional technical wrinkles beyond adding ME-1s. The show was captured on a multitrack, 96 K recording on an Avid Pro Tools rig, because while Findlay multi-tracked every show on the tour for archival purposes, having another recording was obviously key. “We have a close to half-million dollar film shoot going on, so we made the point that we should also have a redundant multitrack, just in case,” said Howat.
On the live side, there was another change at the FOH position, said Howat: “We’re adding a DiGiCo SD10 console at FOH to submix the orchestra channels down to left/right, which are just sent then to FOH and to me and then we can almost do a normal day’s work.”
Accomplishing a normal day’s work was key for the band, too, because whether working in electronic or acoustic mediums, Above & Beyond was on the road to reach multiple generations of fans. “We’re getting younger people, but we’re getting middle-aged couples, too, because these guys have been doing it for a long time,” said Howat. “I think there’s an element of people who used to go to their do’s and have grown up a bit, settled down and are going out for a bit of a blast from the past in a different, more grown-up way. Which is good…a lot of their tunes start with a guitar or a piano when the guys write them and then become electronic tunes. [With this show], it’s nice to see it come full circle and become a fully fleshed-out song. A lot of the comments we’re hearing from the crowd are how emotionally involving it is. Quite a strong thing goes on at the shows—it’s a tangible thing that happens.”
Above & Beyond
Allen & Heath