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What’s It Like to Mix for 4,000 Fans in a Pandemic?

As the U.S. gets vaccinated, concerts are starting to come back—but what’s it like to mix for 4,000 fans during a pandemic?

Tracy Lawrence (pictured) coheadlined with Justin Moore on April 10, 2021 at the Sioux Falls Arena, playing for 4,000 fans.
[/media-credit] Tracy Lawrence (pictured) co-headlined with Justin Moore on April 10, 2021 at the Sioux Falls Arena, playing for 4,000 fans.

Pro Sound News is known for its live sound coverage, from the national level all the way down to local audio providers. Since the pandemic swept in last year, I’ve talked with a lot of pros, both on and (more often) off the record, about how COVID-19 has slammed the industry and many people’s livelihoods. There’s folks who joke and act cavalier, while others say up front that they’re struggling to hold it together. Inevitably, every conversation has ended with us sharing what we’ve heard about things getting back on track and how it’ll get better soon—but that has always felt very far away.

Now, finally, the conversations are starting to change—and for the better. Events are getting planned, tour pros are getting tentative emails asking about their availability, and major festivals are staking claims in September and October. It’s early days yet, but it’s slowly happening.

Still, the moment that drove it home for me that we’re finally turning the corner happened on April 10 in a supermarket parking lot. Out of the blue, I got a text from audio pro Ralph Mastrangelo, sharing that he was at the Sioux Falls Arena mixing Tracy Lawrence on a co-headlining show with Justin Moore, playing to 4,000 people. I’ve been happy for everyone who’s found work during the pandemic, so that was good news, but 4,000 people?! This was something I wanted to hear more about, and a day later, I was on the phone with Ralph and Jeff Oliver, Moore’s FOH engineer/production manager.

The show was one of a handful of 2020 make-up dates for the two artists, but what made it special—and what made 4,000 people in one room possible—was that a regional healthcare network bought the show and made it free to frontline workers, filling the place to a required half-capacity. Since the crowd had been vaccinated, the masks were few and far between.

Given that the make-up shows were a string of one-offs, regional production was used, so for Sioux Falls, Ichabod Productions of North Mankato, MN, fielded a P.A. of JBL VerTec 4888s and VTX 28 subs with VRX932s for front fills. Special Event Services supplied Avid S6L-32D consoles for Moore’s FOH and monitors, while Lawrence had a DiGiCo SD12 in the crowd and an SD8 at stage-side, both provided by Digital Console Rentals in Nashville.

Talking gear is always fun, but what was it like to get back behind a mixing desk? “It’s amazing how your fingers know where to go, even with a year off,” said Oliver. “I’ve been mixing Justin for 10 years now. As soon as I get my hands back on the desk and the lights go down, it’s just muscle memory—you fall back into it.”

There was a reduced crew due to the economics of a one-off, but Mastrangelo predicted, “That’s gonna be the shape of things to come for a while. Floodgates aren’t going to open and everybody’s right back to work. Tours that might normally take out six lighting guys are going to deal with four, et cetera.”

Another new norm will be crowds going unusually crazy. “I think every person in that arena was excited to be there,” said Oliver. “Just to step away from life for a few hours and have something that moves the soul? Music has that power, and to be able to bring that to people who have worked for the past 14 months to keep our population alive and healthy, putting in countless hours—to be able to give that back to them was a great feeling.”