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Behind-the-scenes of Coldplay’s live broadcast show in Jordan

Veteran broadcast audio mix engineer Toby Alington provides an exclusive account of this extraordinary event

Behind-the-scenes of the live broadcast

The global broadcast on YouTube of Coldplay’s Everyday Life album-launch, live from the Citadel in Amman on Friday, November 22, was an extraordinary artistic and technical achievement. Performing live from this historical site, Coldplay’s dawn and dusk shows reflected the two halves of the album: Sunrise and Sunset.

As the sun hovered under the horizon that Friday morning, the muted dawn atmosphere of Amman merged into the orchestral strings opening of ‘Sunrise’, the first track on the album. Directed by Paul Dugdale, cameras and drones captured Coldplay’s live performance while in a white tent a few hundred metres from the stage, Rik Simpson (Coldplay’s producer and engineer), Dan Green (producer and FOH engineer) and I mixed the broadcast audio.

As the city slowly came to life and the sun appeared over the horizon, birdsong, distant traffic and street noise could be heard between numbers. When Chris Martin closed the Sunrise set with ‘When I need a Friend’ another Friday had come to life in Amman. Later in the day, as the sun went down on Jordan, the band performed the Sunset half of the album with the title track ‘Everyday Life’ finishing moments before the evening call-to-prayer echoed around the city.

The setup

A few days later the band performed the album (including a few other favourites) to a live audience in London at the Natural History Museum, with the audio once again captured by the team and I, this time in Floating Earth’s Lawo-equipped mobile recording truck. Rewind to September and the first phone call I received from Tony Smith, Coldplay’s audio designer, FOH tech and crew chief: “We’ve got this gig in the Middle East… 192 inputs… live broadcast… probably a tent… maybe we should meet up…!” Within days, planning was underway and a team of experts had started to come together. Dirk Sykora, my colleague on the MTV EMAs for many years who now works for Lawo was tasked with securing a Lawo console and peripheral audio gear for Amman.

Meanwhile, I enlisted SR Films – who were supplying the video OB equipment for production company JA Digital – to provide shipping, technical support and infrastructure for our mix room. Well, mix tent. A fortnight before heading to Amman, Dirk and I were working together on the MTV EMAs in Seville. This allowed us to work face-to-face on planning and safety nets for the forthcoming trip to Jordan. There aren’t many options on the top of the Citadel in Amman if you don’t have something you need – every bit of fine detail needed to be covered ahead of the 10-day shipment of equipment to Jordan.

“It’s not like we throw things together, but the goalposts do move, sometimes more rapidly, other times at a leisurely pace,” Smith says. “The last call with Toby was from our third location option, 31 days before Live to Air. I was within the Amman Citadel walls with Andrew Craig (Live Nation) and Simon Fisher (Paul Dugdale’s producer) looking for two stage positions, along with possible locations for a studio, gallery, toilets and so on, with our respective teams. I had an archaeological site to draw into a .dwg format site map so we could make this work. On a job like this, Toby is at the top of my list. We have had a long relationship with him, and his experience, ears and the team of experts he can pull together were all essential for this project. This was not only a live-to-air album launch but also three days of rehearsals where the brief was to be prepared to record up to 128 channels for possible remixing and recording of overdubs and transitions between tracks for the live performance, along with 64 channels of broadcast stems that come via our FOH Neve Shelfords and 500 Series analogue preamps.”

On the subject of planning and equipment, Sykora elaborates: “I was looking at 192 channels to be received from the FOH console to the Lawo mc²56 via MADI. There were also two Pro Tools workstations and one Reaper system we needed to feed, because everything was to be recorded. Renting any kind of equipment locally at short notice was going to be virtually impossible, so I decided to pack everything I could possibly think of. Even though the mc²56 was scheduled to receive MADI and AES3 signals, I also included three Lawo DALLIS I/O stage boxes for all signal formats, including analogue I/Os for Rik Simpson’s effect gear – just in case. We used the Dallis stagebox for the connectivity of the outboard in the control room, but thanks to Tony Smith’s excellent preparation we never needed any additional stage boxes for ambience mics since his team took care of those and included them in the MADI streams.”

Tony Smith liaised with Rik and Dan regarding their requirements and outboard equipment – some of which would come to Amman with Coldplay’s backline equipment. Every audio connector and power lead had to be defined, and emails went around the world refining the equipment list. I visited Coldplay’s rehearsals at Air Studios in London a few days before we all left for Amman to cross-check everything with the team. Tony requested two 192-channel Pro Tools systems which I commissioned from Matt Phillips at FX Rentals in London. These were shipped to Hilversum to join the rest of SR Films’ equipment heading for Jordan. My long-term colleague Leaf Troup came on board to look after these rigs in Amman.

Everything arrived in Jordan on November 16, and many tonnes of audio-visual equipment were transferred to the Citadel site and also to our rehearsal venue, the Cultural Palace at Malika Aliya where our control room was built in a backstage area. When Tony had seen (and heard) this proposed space a month prior, he knew some substantial acoustic treatment would be needed to turn it into a viable audio environment.

“There are very few options in Amman to find a rehearsal space that can fit the band, guest musicians and all the techs, and also be a recording studio to capture a local choir and facilitate any overdubs. Rik Simpson, Dan Green and Bill Rahko (just voted into the top five Rock Producers of 2019) are lovely guys but they do have very high expectations,” Smith explains. “You need to trust what you’re hearing to mix well. Our lovely room in the Cultural Palace did not fit into the so-called ‘Bolt-Area’ – it needed serious TLC. After some research into acoustics and acoustic properties I came across ASC TubeTraps, good for bass absorption between 55Hz and 250Hz and treble diffusion or absorption 250Hz and above. Placed correctly, these totally transformed the room, along with Auralex ProMAX v2 and some thick quilted Sound Control Services studio blankets, and we had a studio. My expectation was to improve the room – we did more than that.”

In practice

After a few days of rehearsals, the entire control room was packed up and taken overnight to our tent on the Citadel hillside. By the following morning, a high-tech audio installation was in place, complete with acoustic baffling, mood lighting, 45-inch TV monitor, three 192-channel multitrack machines, UAD Apollo outboard equipment, two TC System 6000’s, and various wonderful vocal effects for Rik Simpson to work his magic on.

It was surreal to walk into a tent in the 3,000-year-old ruins of the Citadel and be confronted with the very latest audio technology – lights blinking in every corner of every room. And it sounded great. With Barefoot and Auratone monitors to work with, a brand new Lawo mc256 and all the toys we’d asked for, we had no excuse but to make the shows sound perfect.

All the live inputs, including Tony’s ambience mics, came down six 96kHz MADI streams via an M12 Optocore system provided by Wigwam to our recording tent, where we converted them to 192 channels at 48kHz. It was during the first rehearsal of Sunrise at the Citadel I heard this very weird whining sound over everything, and it took me a few seconds to realise that Dugdale’s drones were going to prohibit us using many of Tony’s ambience mics. Dirk’s team rapidly rigged some more mics for me at the other side of the hill, allowing us to capture the ambience of the city waking up without the drones. The drone footage was an amazing addition to the filming, but as every engineer knows, they aren’t very compatible with recording.

Guest acts in the performance included Femi Kuti on sax with his amazing band in Arabesque, Palestinian singer Norah Shakur, a gospel quartet and string section, a children’s choir, and Belgian singer Stromae returning to the public eye after quite some time away. The additional microphones needed for these guests alone numbered around 24 channels; over 200 channels were used for the live shows in total. Delivering sound for online is very similar to TV broadcast. YouTube and other online channels have different loudness requirements to TV broadcast, generally R128 minus 16 LUFS, compared to minus 23 LUFS for TV. The team tested the broadcast chain through YouTube’s distribution, and managed to clear up some audio level confusion resulting in a perfect digital experience for the viewer.

On YouTube distribution, Sykora says: “As cinema cameras had been specified for this project, two versions of the audio mix were prepared concurrently: a straight one with no delay, and a delayed one for perfect lipsync with the video footage (cinema cameras with live colour grading tend to induce a latency of up to eight frames.) This audio version was embedded into the video footage and aired to YouTube. “Getting the audio and video elements to the YouTube facilities proved surprisingly straightforward. The redundant satellite uplink worked flawlessly, and delivering the material to the worldwide audience was a simple matter of sending it to YouTube’s live webstream encoder.”

Press repeat

Come Friday morning, the crew were called for 3am transport to the site. With the temperature outside just above freezing, the warmth in the tent from the people and equipment was very welcome. Knowing that we had pretty much every Coldplay fan tuning in on YouTube and that we were broadcasting live to the world made for a focused mindset. We went into the tent in the pre-dawn darkness and came out to bright daylight after the Sunrise show. A welcome daytime break for the crew was followed by the Sunset show. The hugely positive social media reaction contributed to the euphoria of completing two perfect broadcasts. We knew we had delivered something magical, and the immediacy of Twitter and other social media confirmed that we’d achieved the emotional responses we were hoping for. On Saturday, the day after the Sunrise and Sunset shows, Coldplay again performed at the Citadel, this time to a live audience. And Tony could finally turn on his PA. This show was also delivered for radio and online broadcast.

With the Citadel shows complete, the equipment was returned to its flight cases but not before Dirk had trimmed and copied the production file from the Lawo console, ready to import it into Floating Earth’s Lawo-equipped mobile in London for Monday’s Natural History Museum show. All the essential additions of outboard effects travelled with the band’s backline, arriving at the museum in the afternoon. Mike Hatch and Dirk imported the production file into Floating Earth’s Lawo, and without a soundcheck the Monday night recording was completed successfully using the same settings from the 10 days in Amman.

Sykora comments: “Technically speaking, the London gig was the third time the mc²56 settings had been used: in the rehearsal room in downtown Amman, in the tent at the Citadel and, finally, outside the Natural History Museum. As such, this is nothing new, of course, but considering how much was at stake and how well everything worked, I cannot help feeling grateful.”

Smith adds: “The joy of having a team of experts around is you don’t always need to state or ask for things, they just happen. “The NHM show was slotted in just two days after the Amman Citadel Gig. Toby had engaged the Floating Earth mobile, another long-term partnership with Coldplay as well as Dirk. All was perfect: Lawo desk, Mike Hatch, Dirk, Toby: sorted. Right, next, the twohour load-in.”

I have to say I totally agree with Dirk’s sentiment: “Coldplay’s Sunrise and Sunset gigs at Amman’s Citadel are among the absolute highlights of my professional career.” The Sunset and Sunrise shows were real highlights of my 30 years working in live broadcast. Only made possible by the expertise of Dirk and his crew, the attention to detail of Rik, Dan and Tony, and the acceptance by Coldplay and their management of our proposals to get it right with specific equipment, people and approach. Fond memories, and if you haven’t watched it yet, find the shows on YouTube, knowing it was live and how we approached it.

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