Live Sound

Tracking At the Crossroads


It was nearly seven decades ago when Robert Johnson recorded his talisman tune in a Memphis hotel room onto wax cylinders. If he were still alive, I'm sure he would have been an honored guest at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival, held July 4 to 6, 2004, at the Fair Grounds Park and Cotton Bowl in Dallas. More than 65,000 people saw it live, the DVD on Warner Home Video is already out and there are plans for a December PBS special.

The stellar Sunday stadium show opened with Neil Schon and Jonathan Cain of Journey, and ended more than 11 hours later with ZZ Top. In between, the incredible lineup included Steve Vai, Sonny Landreth, Booker T & The MG's, Larry Carlton, Pat Metheny, David Johansen with Hubert Sumlin, James Taylor, Vince Gill, Joe Walsh, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan & Tilt-a-Whirl, Larry Carlton, Robert Cray and, of course, several performances with Clapton with a special appearance by Jeff Beck. Saturday performances on the Fairgrounds Esplanade stage featured such artists as John Mayer, Robert Randolph, Tommy Shaw of Styx, Eric Johnson and, again, several drop-in jam appearances by Clapton.

The Guitar Center Village, with performance stages, vendors and workshops, rounded out a virtual guitar players' amusement park, which included a display of instruments owned by Clapton, Pete Townshend and Vai. Clapton organized the show and the subsequent auction to benefit The Crossroads Centre, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center that helped him and many others get back “on track.” Commenting on how many blues musicians experienced tremendous difficulties because of alcohol addiction, Clapton thanked all of the artists that volunteered to help him. “I wrote to a list of people that I wanted to hear play, and they all showed up.”

A far cry from Johnson's bone-simple recording, Kooster McAllister's remote truck was there to capture the Esplanade performances on Saturday, and David Hewitt with the Silver Studio truck from Remote Recording captured the Cotton Bowl all day Sunday, along with the MTV truck. New York PBS affiliate WNET took care of the video capture. Elliot Scheiner was in charge of audio recording as executive producer, with an all-star crew headed up by Fred Maher and Ed Cherney. The venue was set up with two stages to the center and left of the audience, which facilitated quick act changes for the enthusiastic crowd. At the time of this writing, final mixing in 5.1 was being overseen by Scheiner, with the Clapton portion of the show being mixed by Simon Climie (Clapton's producer) and the rest by Neil Dorfsman (Dire Straits, Sting, Paul McCartney) at the Record Plant in Los Angeles.

Before the show started, Scheiner says, “I've got Ed [Cherney] and David [Hewitt] here, so I know it will all go well.” When asked how he's going to make choices with so many guitars onstage at once, he responded, “I hope they are going to make those choices.”

Carlos Santana delivers a blistering set.

Sound Image president Dave Shadoan took Mix inside the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, where the JBL VerTec system sounded punchy and tight. Yamaha's PM1D served as the main mixing console, with Climie mixing Clapton on a DiGiCo D5 digital board.

Meanwhile, Hewitt, Scheiner, Cherney, Maher and crew set up all of the inputs and outboard gear and met with each other numerous times during the day. On Sunday, acts would switch from the more casual front porch stage area to the larger portion of the stage that was dedicated as the main stage. While the acts readied on the opposite stage, the crew called in all of the inputs again. Scheiner stated that the setup would work similar to what he and Cherney had done at Woodstock '94, with one truck getting a quick line check on the stage that was being set up for the next act while the other stage was in use.

No one seemed to notice Saturday's heat and humidity when Santana played a full, jaw-dropping set during soundcheck. Outside the Cotton Bowl, the festival stage at Fair Grounds Park pumped out the sound of numerous acts, including Clapton's many walk-ons. The promise of great music on Sunday would materialize into what Scheiner later called, the “greatest show I've been a part of.”

Several corporate sponsors stepped up to help optimize the recording environment, with Guitar Center and AMD having high-profile participation. The AMD64 Opteron Processor provided the power in Remote Recording's Silver Studio with the Verari DAW64 and 4 Terabytes of SAN storage supplied by Studio Network Solutions. SNS' Gary Holladay and Eric Neubauer were both on-hand to lend assistance. Steinberg's Nuendo 2 was used as the tracking medium in all trucks and at the mix position in the stadium. Analog/digital conversion was handled by Euphonix AM713 analog-to-MADI and MA703 MADI-to-analog converters. Backups were done to Sony 48-track digital tape and Sony DAT.

From left: Ed Cherney, Studio Network Solutions’ Gary Holladay and Elliot Scheiner

I asked Scheiner what was absolutely essential, what he couldn't live without. Unequivocally, Scheiner considered Nuendo as one of his can't-live-without items for this show, describing it as “so good, it's amazing.” He also pointed to the Neve VRM console in the Silver Studio as mainstays, with speed, reliability and support boosted by AMD and Studio Network Solutions.

In studio recordings, most engineers tend to focus on mic selection and placement as the bedrock of tracking. For Scheiner, one of the main concerns during a remote recording is keeping the signal chain clean. “We didn't want to complicate things by placing dedicated recording mics onstage,” he says. “We'll split the signal from the stage microphones and use the preamps in the truck as needed. With the line mix being used for so many things — the SBC Web broadcast, the Sirius Radio broadcast — it's pretty important to keep it clean; that's the hardest thing to do. My main concern was the drum mics and the vocal mics — with remotes, soundchecks are always about making the drums and vocals sound right. I was pleasantly surprised that the drum mics all sounded good at soundchecks.” As for vocal mics, Scheiner adds, “We aren't pushing anyone to use what we want; we'll take what each artist specifies and make it sound good for us. The biggest thing I learned from working with Phil Ramone was to make what you have work for you.”

At 11:30 a.m. on the bright, muggy Sunday, Schon's Les Paul cut through the air with a rendition of “Star Spangled Banner.” As the day of great rock 'n' roll and blues went on, the recording crew stayed in constant communication with their designates inside the stadium, checking lines and radio'ing input assignments to the truck during set changes. Scheiner watched the camera feeds for cues.

An enlightened Buddy Guy practically had to be dragged off the stage at the end of a nice long jam with Clapton, B.B. King, Vaughan and Mayer. “I thought James Taylor was incredible,” Scheiner says, giving high marks also to Walsh's set during the day. The evening went smoothly, although a testy connection during Vince Gill's set ruined the vocal during one song. The edge of a major rainstorm that dumped five inches of rain north of Dallas showed up in the last half-hour of the show, and cries of “bag everything” went out over the walkie-talkies. The impending rain and lightning cut Jeff Beck's appearance to only one song, and ZZ Top's set didn't include a planned Beck/Clapton/ZZ Top jam. Minor glitches aside, the November DVD release is loaded with plenty of guitar boogie and blues.

In the Silver Studio, David Hewitt (left) with assistant Garth “Gaff” Michael

While Scheiner was the overseer on location, during post-production, his role turned to a true executive producer. “I've been getting the mixes back for approval [Clapton's portions from Climie, the rest from Dorfsman], but really don't have to do much here at the end.” Scheiner says he doesn't usually think about the 5.1 format during the recording process, aside from hanging ambience mics out in the stadium. He also doesn't believe in using stems, as giving the video engineers choices in the sound portion is not his preferred way to work.

For this type of show, Scheiner leans toward a more conservative surround mix. “There's basically two guys doing the final mix, and I know Simon prefers the effects to be a little aggressive in the back, so there is plenty there in the back, but it's not overdone.” PBS came up with the rough cuts of video for them, and the result will most likely be a PBS 90-minute show format, with a longer DVD release.

“It was one of the greatest shows ever; the talent of everyone playing was amazing. And just as we thought would happen, everyone kept out of everyone's way in the playing,” Scheiner says, referring to the times when there were as many as six world-class guitarists onstage. “Working with such professionals onstage, along with the Remote Recording Silver Studio crew, makes my job much, much easier.”

Craig Dalton is a contributor to Mix.

A shot of the Crossroads stage with B.B. King on the giant video screen
Seated, from L to R: Buddy Guy, Jimmy Vaughn, BB King and Eric Clapton Standing, with guitar: Billy Pitman, from Vaughm's Tilt-A-Whirl band
Ed Cherney at work The JBL VerTec line array
Joe Walsh

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