The ‘extreme’ gig has become a technically achievable phenomenon over the past ten years. Musicians have played deeper, higher and colder than even before but, as Kevin Hilton reports, there are more records to be broken and more boundaries to be breached
Staging live concerts can be difficult enough, what with the logistics of getting artists, crew and equipment from one venue to another, loading all the gear in and then contemplating the get-out even before the first note is played. Despite these routine, everyday challenges some performers, managers and promoters have pushed the boundaries further to stage ever more elaborate shows on a grander scale, marshalling all the technology and technical know-how available to them.
This has led to a succession of gigs that now nestle in the pages of the Guinness Book of Records as the deepest, highest altitude or coldest musical performances. But the bible of extreme achievement no longer includes an entry for loudest band or performance, presumably because it does not want to be seen encouraging anything that could cause hearing loss and lead to lawsuits.
For many years the Guinness Book of Records recognised The Who as the loudest band on the planet. This was set on 31 May 1976 during the Who Put the Boot In mini tour (pictured below), which played three football grounds in England, Wales and Scotland. The performance at Charlton Athletic's The Valley stadium hit a peak of 126dB, measured at 32m from the loudspeaker stacks. Like Pink Floyd and other bands at the time, the group had set up its own equipment company, ML Executives, to support its technical needs. But with the size of the venues being played ML realised it did not have enough gear and so brought in additional cabinets from Tasco.
Gary Marks is now managing director of ML Executives, but in 1976 was starting out in the live sound business with Tasco. "The two companies both used Martin Audio systems and they put their stocks together for the three shows," he recalls. "This made a four-way rig including Philishaves and 4882s. Because the band and the crew had a lot of equipment, they turned it up. The Who were fairly loud in those days but the aim wasn't to break any records."
During the 70s Pink Floyd began to set a new standard for production, with lasers, projected images, lights and what was for the time a sophisticated surround sound system based on quad. This was used to recreate the soundscapes of albums such as Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. After Roger Water's acrimonious departure, each 'faction' carried on exploiting this technology. Pink Floyd's last major tour, for The Division Bell album in 1994, involved quad stations comprising eight Turbosound long-throw Flashlight cabinets and four wider dispersion Floodlight boxes. These were fed from a custom-built Midas XL3 16-channel desk designed by the band's hire company, Britannia Row Productions. For his stagings of The Wall at Wembley Stadium during 2013 Roger Waters, used Clair i5s in eight arrays; two left and right with six round the venue to create an all-encompassing surround effect. Clair UK managing director Tim Boyle describes this as "like a Mexican wave".
The template for spectacular productions involving masses of equipment and technology was reset by synth noodler Jean-Michel Jarre. He first made the record books with his show at Place de la Concorde in Paris in 1979. He appeared again for Rendezvous Houston in 1986 and for a third time after the 1990 Paris La Défense performance to 2.5 million people. His water-logged Destination Docklands shows in London in 1988 did not set any records but give a sense of JMJ's ambition, featuring eight cranes each loaded with 16 Meyer Sound MSL3N systems and eight sub-basses.
U2 (pictured) took the idea of creating their own environment and made it their own for the big, involved tours they undertook during the 1990s. The Zooropa stadium shows employed a Clair rig of 150 S4 cabinets in two stacks of 75 left and right, with the venues divided into separate foreground, centre and back zones with their own equalisation settings.
Zooropa started a trend for bands to play on two stages during one show, with a smaller performance area located usually in the middle of the audience. Because this put the musicians right in front of the main PA stacks U2 relied on in-ear monitoring, using Radio Stations in the 90s. The band has kept the format for this year's iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour, with the shows at the O2 arena using the length of the venue from one stage to another, linked by a walkway. "It was almost in the round but very long," comments Tim Boyle. Main PA was the new Clair Co(hesion) 12 system, with the band monitoring on Ultimate Ears units.
As the biggest has become something just about any band – with enough clout and budget – can do there have been some notable attempts to push the barriers of live sound production outside of conventional spaces, often in inhospitable surroundings. Ex-Busted member Charlie Simpson and Metallica have taken on the cold at either end of the world, following in the slightly unlikely record-breaking, underwater footsteps of MOR songstress Katie Melua.
In what, even ten years on, appears a very strange brief for a gig, Melua (pictured) and her five piece band performed two 35-minute shows 303m (994 feet) below sea level at the bottom of one leg of a North Sea gas platform. The performances marked the tenth anniversary of the Statoil Troll A gas rig and were given to members of the platform's crew who won 'tickets' in a ballot. Wearing bright orange survival suits, the musicians travelled to the base of the shaft in a small lift, which was also used to transport their equipment. The main PA comprised 12 cabinets of Meyer M1D, arranged as four boxes a side with the others in zones round the space. Mixing was on a DiGiCo D5, with Melua and her players using Sennheiser 3000 in-ear monitors. Melua described the show as "the most surreal gig I've ever done", one that earned her an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for deepest concert.
The following August, Finnish metal band Agonizer set the record for the deepest concert underground by playing at 1,271m (4,160 feet 11 inches) below sea level in the Pyhäsalmi Mine at Pyhäjärvi, Finland. Earlier in 2007, British soul-pop act Jamiroquai went to the other extreme, setting six records for highest concert ever, fastest concert ever, highest concert in an aeroplane, fastest concert in an aeroplane, highest ever recording and fastest ever recording.
The Gig in the Sky (pictured top) took place on 27 February during a flight from Stansted Airport to Athens, via Munich. The 25-minute airborne live performance was relayed to the onboard audience through a small Turbosound rig, supplied by Britannia Row, with one 308 a side, a 115 sub bass and two 308 delays in overhead lockers. Jamiroquai's regular sound engineer, Rick Pope, mixed on a 16-channel Yamaha LS9. Jason Kay monitored on two Turbo 420 wedges, with the rest of the band working with in-ear units. On arrival at Athens International the band played another set, a first for a performance airside at an airport. This featured a Turbosound Aspect rig with Yamaha PM5D consoles.
An initial problem for this gig in the air was powering the professional equipment. Palettes of dry cell batteries and inverters, weighing 1.5 tons, were built to provide the necessary power, which the on-board circuits could not provide. Similar problems faced the technical team behind an earth-bound but no less tricky extreme concert that took place on 30 March 2016. To celebrate the launch of Virgin Radio UK, a live broadcast was made from a train travelling between Manchester and London via Crew, Birmingham and Rugby.
One carriage was designated the performance area. Seats were removed to create a space for the bands, with the audience on either side of them as well as in front. Freelance sound engineer Sam Cunningham, working with rental company Capital Sound Hire, came up with a system that would feed not just the gig coach but also four others in the rest of the train.
"It was straightforward to put the live rig in one carriage, even though we only had half-an-hour to look at the carriage before the day of the show itself," Cunningham comments. "What we had to work out was how to get the sound to the other carriages, because we couldn't run cables from one to another due to the doors. Luckily, even though we had only a short time for prior testing, we discovered that there was an Ethernet backbone running between the coaches. So we built a series of Dante stations using laptops to send and receive. This worked well except for the last carriage, which didn't have the same connectivity. In the end we used Ethernet Powerlink plugs in the mains to get the signal through. I wouldn't usually be comfortable with that in a professional situation but it worked."
The main show rig comprised Martin Audio DD6 cabinets with PSX sub bass, powered by Full Fat Audio amplification. The other carriages were fitted with DD6s for delay feeds from the performance coach. Bands were mixed on a DiGiCo SD11. Cunningham observes that running a live rig, plus radio broadcast and video equipment, from the 5A feeds on board the train was not easy because of the power draw but it did cope.
As most train travellers know, getting a wireless signal while en route is difficult and in this case meant that the musicians could not use regular in-ear monitoring. Instead members of Mystery Jets, Travis (pictured above), The Feeling, Gavin James, Emmy the Great and Walking On Cars wore wired monitor units.
There is the thought that, after playing below sea level, in the air, on a train and in bigger and bigger venues, there is little left to do in the way of extreme gigs. Until someone comes up with the idea of performing underwater. That was the goal of Danish singer, composer and sound artist Laila Skovmand (pictured below), who formulated the concept in 2004 and has spent the intervening years perfecting specially-made instruments and recording/amplification techniques to make it a reality.
Skovmand and her musicians, under the banner of Between Music, have been presenting their AquaSonic compositions live this year, performing in heated, custom-made tanks. Musician Robert Karlsson, who is also co-founder and head technician of Beyond Music, explains that Skovmand wondered how water would act as a reverb effect: "She experimented and performed with this a couple of years, before she tried to sing totally submerged. One thing led to the other and the concept started to develop. I entered the project in 2012 as a violin player. The idea of playing music under water appealed to me as a totally new and challenging environment."
The special instruments include a hydraulophone, an acoustic instrument played using direct contact with water, electromagnetic harp, chimes and percussion. These are picked up through hydrophones built by Aquarian Audio of Washington, with the performers listening to what they are playing on waterproof in-ear monitors. Mixing is on a Behringer X32, which is connected to a PA provided by the venue, although Karlsson says L-Acoustics K Series or d&b audiotechnik T, V or Y Series are preferred.
As Karlsson concedes, electricity and water are a dangerous combination, so a custom-made safety system was designed to bridge between the hydrophones and the tanks to ensure there is no direct power connection. Each performer comes to the surface during performances to breath, usually at predetermined points in the piece. "To sing under water Laila had to invent a whole new technique," Karlsson explains. "If you sing regularly under water, you will get a lot of air bubbles that sound louder then the actual vocal sounds. So the singers keep an air bubble in their mouth and sing through it. When they feel the air bubble is on its way out of the mouth, they suck it in again to sing the next note. They also have a technique where they sing on both exhale and inhale."
As might be expected, the acoustics of this have been a big challenge. "Water acoustics are very different from air and we had many years of trial and error," says Karlsson. "With the help of underwater acoustics expert Professor Preston Wilson of the University of Texas and instrument builder Matt Nolan, we found ways of making the instruments stable, meaning that they sound similar every time."
At the end of the report on Jamiroquai's Gig in the Sky, this correspondent pondered as to what would be next after the deepest and highest gigs. We've now had the coldest, and people are singing underwater. Which probably means a PSNEurope special about a gig on the first passenger flight into space sometime in the future...