It was 1996 when Placebo released their eponymous first album; since then, the band have sold more than ten million records. Hard to categorise, from originally being labelled as alternative or glam-rock, the band have developed musically throughout their career to attract any number of labels from critics. If a goth-rock, brit-pop, post-punk, electronic, experimental, industrial, grunge rock band is your thing and you trust the judgment of the late David Bowie (and who wouldn't?) then it's a safe bet Placebo will be right up your strasse. And recently, that's where Placebo have been (or pretty nearby) having embarked on a world tour to celebrate their incredibly productive and highly respected career.
That tour rolled through the UK in the latter part of 2016, taking in a number of familiar arenas and attracting large audiences. The band's commitment to revisit every part of their back catalogue, including songs they swore they'd never touch again, proved popular, during a two-hour plus performance of epic proportions.
From continental Europe through Russia and back, the tour audio was delivered by Liverpool's Adlib Audio, who, as well as being one of the country's leading rental outfits, are exclusive distributors of CODA Audio in the UK. Adlib chose this tour to throw CODA's AiRAY system into the fray. Having taken delivery of AiRAY early in 2016 and been suitably impressed by its credentials on outings with contrasting artists Ella Henderson and Public Service Broadcasting, as well as one or two notable summer festivals such as T in the Park and Latitude, the system had earned its stripes and took to the road in the hands of system-tech George Puttock and Adlib's regular Placebo FOH engineer, Ian Nelson. Given the distinctly eclectic nature of Placebo's set, plenty of thunderous assault but also liberal and measured use of violin, piano, keys and even a theremin, the band offers the perfect vehicle by which CODA's “revolutionary” rig (see extensive PSNEurope profile, February 2017) can be reasonably assessed.
Catching up with the team at Nottingham's Motorpoint Arena on a gloomy December morning, the usual collection of trucks is poised outside the home of Nottingham Panthers Ice Hockey stars, waiting to decant a cargo that's seen action from Moscow to Manchester. Of immediate significance is the number of trucks. They have covered 14,000 miles and it's a theme warmed to by system tech George Puttock:
"AiRAY really is a compact system. Whilst box for box we used a near-identical count to the PA on the previous tour, we used one less truck. You can't really overstate the implications of that. The AiRAY system was around one third lighter than the previous one, so we didn't need the same lifting capacity of chain hoists (less truck space), cabling and amplification requirements were significantly reduced (less truck space) and of course the boxes are physically smaller (again, less truck space) Having one less truck probably saved in excess of £7k worth of fuel alone. That's not just a financial saving either, it's an environmental one!”
Of course it's one thing saving on transport costs, quite another ensuring that no corners are being cut in respect of delivering world-class sound for a world-class band on a world tour. Any question of this “ultra-light, ultra-compact” system providing anything other than optimal audio is quickly dispelled by Puttock: "We've had a couple of promoters walk in to some pretty massive arenas and raise an eyebrow at the PA during set-up. It's clear that they were doubtful about whether we had enough power...and then at the end of the gigs they can't quite believe what they've heard! "
In Nottingham as AiRAY is fired up in the empty barn, a tour of the venue reveals a remarkable clarity and consistency in every location – and that's just the raw sound of the system. At showtime, as Placebo take the stage, any lingering doubts that this much vaunted system might be undercooked for the Arena circuit are swept away at a stroke.
Placebo – that’s core members Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal, with Matt Lunn on drums – come on strong and stay there. The sound is huge and punchy and gives the firm impression that FOH man Nelson could comfortably find more headroom if he wished. There isn't any need. Another tour of the venue reveals a remarkable consistency of power and balance in every area of The Motorpoint. Placebo's set is going over a storm and everyone, including the fans high on the sides are getting the full weight of the band's delivery. The sense that Placebo have reached a significant milestone is palpable and there is also a distinct feeling amongst the audio-cognoscenti that CODA's AiRAY is also setting down a notable marker of its own.
The band’s 20 Years of Placebo Tour took in 37 arena shows in 12 weeks, playing to 280,000 people in 16 countries. The choice of AiRAY for the tour was, by all accounts, an “easy one”. The vastly experienced Ian Nelson took a considered view that every conceivable benefit, sonically and practically, pointed towards something special for this historic tour. He was not disappointed. Reflecting on the system's performance he sums up: "Let me start with the audio quality which is quite simply phenomenal. I didn't walk away from a single one of [those] 37 shows feeling anything less than happy. By every criteria I can think of, AiRAY makes everything easier.
The linear nature of the system from phase to dispersion makes my job easier. It's very predictable in terms of what the audience hears: it's the same on-axis as off-axis, so I'm confident that the audience at the side is hearing what I'm hearing at the mix position. We were able to create loud, coherent sound in rooms that had previously been a real fight and on many occasions we were running the system almost flat – again – making life a lot easier.
“When you factor the compact nature of AiRAY into the equation, the advantages keep on stacking up,” continues Nelson. “A box with stadium performance that weighs less than 40kg allows us to get enough PA into even the smallest gigs we do, without compromising coverage or level. Saving an entire truck on the Placebo Tour made a significant dent in production costs – I'd estimate something of the order of £30K in total. Taking everything into account, AiRAY ticks every production box from the truck to front of house – even the lighting and video crews are happy because the compact nature of the system means there's less to get in the way!"
A final note from Adlib: the hire outfit reports that the AiRAY’s use on this tour has served to confirm that confidence in the system was very well-placed. In fact, that the company has recently added another significant quota of AiRAY to its inventory, to meet growing demand. Or, as Placebo might put it, for “every you and every me”…