Live Sound

U2 360 Tour Profile

SEEKING INTIMACY ON A GRAND SCALE 12/01/2009 7:00 AM Eastern

The 170-foot-tall steel structure and stage at University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.)

The U2 360° tour that recently ended its first leg in the U.S. has taken the stadium show to a new level. The sheer scope of the production is mind-boggling. It took two years to design and develop, travels on 180 trucks, employs more than 400 people — including 12 system engineer/techs — and uses an astounding amount of audio and video gear. The best thing about the show is the communication and contact between the band and the audience provided by the 170-foot-tall steel structure perched over the stage.

Originally inspired by the Theme Building at Los Angeles' LAX airport, the four-legged “spider” incorporates all of the lighting, some of the 12 manned cameras and spots, massive speaker arrays and a huge 360-degree vertically expandable LED video screen. And as ridiculous as it sounds, once the show starts, you forget it's there: Instead of being the elephant in the room, the structure focuses attention on the band and how they interact with the crowd, both near and far. The inner ring nearest the main stage gives more than 3,000 fans close proximity to the band, while the outer ring gives the band access to standing and seated concertgoers farther out. At different times during the show, The Edge, Bono, Adam Clayton and even drummer Larry Mullins Jr. use two moving bridges to perform between the areas and are followed by video and audio all the way.

Of course, you'd expect the audio system used for such a massive setup to be huge — and it doesn't disappoint. The setup comprises the latest in digital tech offered for live sound and, surprisingly, some tried-and-true analog gear. The tour's look and systems design was a collaboration between the band and audio director/front-of-house Joe O'Herlihy, show designer Willie Williams, production architect/designers Jeremy Lloyd and Mark Fisher, and Clair Global R&D and engineering teams.

Front-of-house engineer Joe O'Herlihy (left) with senior systems engineer Jo Ravitch

Front-of-house engineer Joe O'Herlihy (left) with senior systems engineer Jo Ravitch

The speakers used are all Clair and comprise FOH left/right hangs of 36 i5 and 36 i5B; 24 i5 and 24 i5B rear; 16 i5 and 16 i5B at house left; and 16 i5 and 16 i5B at house right. Main stage front-fills include 24 FF2 and 24 BT218 subs, while the “B” stage area carries 72 S4 subs. There are also two towers carrying 32 iDL delay cabinets. That's 336 separate enclosures, all powered by Lab.gruppen PLM 10000Q and PLM 14000s and Powersoft K10 amps that are positioned at each leg of the structure and are fed audio from the stage racks. All EQ and control is via Lake/Dolby I/O software Version 5.3, with most of the processing resident in the Lab.gruppen PLM 10000Q and PLM 14000 amplifiers; system tuning is via EAW Smaart software.

Consoles at FOH are redundant DiGiCo SD7s, each running identical shows. Jo Ravitch, senior systems engineer/Clair Global crew chief, says, “There are two main stage racks, one of them distributes AES to each leg and there's a backup system of analog feeds to each amp, as well. If we have an issue with anything in this setup, I walk over here and switch to analog and Joe [O'Herlihy] walks over to the other board and picks up the mix.”

The front end for Bono and The Edge's vocals and some of the compression for the guitars called for some unusual gear choices. Ravitch says, “When the tour started, there wasn't very much [processing] available on the board so we're using outboard stuff.” For Bono's vocals, O'Herlihy calls on the Manley Vox Box; The Edge's vocals take an Avalon 737. Compression for the guitars is on a Summit Audio DCL-200 comp/limiter, with the rest of the limiting provided by the SD7.

In monitor world, from left: Niall Slevin, Alistair McMillan and Dave Skaff

In monitor world, from left: Niall Slevin, Alistair McMillan and Dave Skaff

The system was a game-changer for O'Herlihy, who has been with U2 for more than 25 years. “The approach to the mix in the context of the way the sound is distributed has been enlightening, to be perfectly honest,” he says. “The size of the system has created an experience that is incredibly responsive. We now have something that's almost touch-sensitive. When you make a move, there's a large physical element of immediately hearing what you do.”

Because of the staging's scope and design, the textbooks had to be thrown out and a system designed that would cover everyone. O'Herlihy says, “From the mix perspective, you have to get your head around the whole concept of having an inside column and an outside column, and how you distribute your gain structures accordingly.”

The players' audio experience onstage was an essential element in the system design. “Any time you do things in 360 degrees, the apex of that circle is right where the drummer is,” O'Herlihy continues. “It would normally be a difficult place to perform while being hammered with all that bass.” This is where the use of the 72 Clair S4 cardioid subs around the outer ring comes in. “The cardioid movement works extraordinarily well in nullifying bass, so it's a clean, clean stage that is a good performance area,” the FOH engineer adds.

O'Herlihy has seen an exponential evolution in tour sound technology. He had his digital education on the DiGiCo D5, which was innovative at the time. On the Vertigo tour, he had the benefit of the D5 being around for a few years before he took it out. He did not have that luxury with the SD7, but trusted that it was the only console that could get the job done. The SD7 was the only solution that let him put each and every individual channel where he wanted it without using external equipment that would have meant another link in the chain that could possibly fail. Still, the SD7 was a leap of faith and trust in DiGiCo. “We've had our glitches along the way with software updates, but like everything else, we're in virgin territory here and we felt that that the SD7 is what made this whole thing work.”

Underneath It All

Monitor mixers Dave Skaff, Alistair McMillan and Niall Slevin make their home under the massive stage, which is also where offstage keyboardist Terry Lawless plays. Because all three mixers don't have a view of the stage, they watch what's going on via TV monitors at each station. And as the band is moving around so much, each station gets a four-camera split specially switched for their benefit, resulting in the band being visible at all times.

Skaff mixes for bassist Adam Clayton, drummer Larry Mullins and Lawless on a Digidesign D-Show Profile. The tour's redundancy mantra carries on below stage with Skaff mixing on one Profile with another right next to it ready to go. “With just a couple of switches hit at the same time, I'm fully up on the second rig,” says Skaff, who worked for Digidesign on the VENUE console project from the beginning. In his mixes, he uses a variety of plug-ins from Waves, McDSP and the Phoenix plug-in from Crane Song, and also records every show to Pro Tools HD.

Using digital consoles has made it easier to provide specific mixes for each bandmember. The Edge has six guitar amps onstage and two under, while Clayton has five bass guitar feeds, and they rely on the team to provide the specific balances they need for each song. Skaff points out the advantage: “Without digital, it would be a madness of markers and 3×5 index cards. At soundcheck, Bono will do half a song, shout out another song, do 12 bars of that song and shout out another. It would be impossible to get all that to come back without the digital consoles.”

Mixers Slevin and McMillan provide audio for The Edge and Bono on two DiGiCo SD7s, each running dual engines fed via MADI. Each desk runs both mixes, the thought being that if one console quits, the engineer can jump to the second engine on the working console and continue to work until the downed desk can be revived. The stage racks and local racks used for processing are also duplicated and can be quickly switched if needed. McMillan is recording the show to Steinberg Cubase on two independent Apple G5s, which top out at 90 tracks, 20 of which are ambience. “I feed [Bono] quite a bit of ambience,” says McMillan. “He enjoys hearing the audience reaction.”

To help with latency, McMillan keeps Bono's vocal on an analog path by getting a split from the stage, which he sends through a Rupert Neve-designed Amek preamp and then into a channel on a Midas Verona analog console. The rest of the band and effects are sent to a second channel on the Verona, which all go directly to Bono. For the singer's reverb, he's using the Bricasti M7, McMillan's favorite new toy. “It's more like glue than a reverb,” McMillan says. For Bono's delays, he uses a TC Electronic 2290 and a variety of verbs from Lexicon and Yamaha across the rest of the band.

McMillan, who has mixed monitors for Van Morrison, came primarily from a studio background, having worked extensively at Windmill Lane in Dublin. “These guys have made me raise the bar within myself,” McMillan says. “After 20 years, you get set in your ways. Here, I had to start again and I love that.”

For The Edge, Niall Slevin runs 40 inputs per engine into his SD7, sharing the same rack feeds with McMillan. He uses an AMS reverb and a Lexicon PCM 80 for his mixes but duplicates his rack effects with onboard equivalents in case of failure. He also has duplicate analog processors in his rack for McMillan's mixes should Alistair need to jump over to his console. Slevin feels the SD7 is a big sonic improvement over the SD5, but he is realistic about its abilities. “It still has a few reliability issues, but we're pushing it to the max, especially with the redundancy. Effectively, we're throwing it out the top floor and seeing if it will fly. At the moment, it's gliding, but it's getting there. No one has had these consoles and pushed it as much as we have. When we find things out, DiGiCo has been very good about fixing it. I can't imagine a situation at the moment in a rock 'n' roll theater or any other audio application that this couldn't deal with.”

The band is using Future Sonics in-ear systems transmitted over newly upgraded Senn- heiser G3 wireless systems, which the crew credits with adding more definition and top end. With this large of a setup, RF is a big challenge and the team has found themselves going back to old-school techniques of placement using line-of-sight and shorter cables. Skaff says, “The wilder it gets, the more we seem to go back to basics to make things happen.”

A show of this scale being launched during tough times is easy to pick on. But it's hard to argue with its success both in record-breaking attendance and integration of new technology. At a time when album sales are not driving revenues, live performance has stepped into the spotlight and blazed a trail where other methods have failed. Did the band achieve “intimacy on a grand scale” as Bono proposed during the show? Only you can be the judge, but from my seat, it was dazzling.


Kevin Becka is Mix's technical editor.