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Pretty Lights at Red Rocks

DJ, DJ With Band, DJ With Band and Strings

Derek Vincent Smith, aka Pretty Lights, walks out to his DJ equipment atop a riser to a huge roar from the sold-out crowd at Red Rocks in early August. He has already played two sets at this first of two sold-out shows, one as solo DJ and one with his backing group, the Analog Future Band, which includes drummer Adam Deitch, keyboardist Brian Coogan, keyboardist Borahm Lee, trombonist Scott Flynn, trumpeter Eric Bloom, guitarist Eric Krasno, and turntablist Chris Karns.

For these two shows at Red Rocks, Smith, a Colorado native who has continuously pushed the boundaries of electronic dance music, has something special planned: a third set with both his band and a string section from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

The addition of the orchestra changed things a bit for front-of-house engineer/production manager Phil Salvaggio, though he says that the staging at Red Rocks was relatively painless. “Maybe we were more on top of it this time,” he notes. “Last year was the band’s first time playing, and they went into the shows maybe not having a full understanding of what a Pretty Lights show was, and now everybody knows. They’ve had a year under their belt, the rehearsals are a lot smoother, and they go into it knowing what they need to get done.”

Front-of-house engineer Phil Salvaggio

Salvaggio met Smith years ago while the two were playing in different bands in the Fort Collins area, not far from his hometown of Denver; he started working with the DJ in 2008. For these shows, because of the strings, he switched from his normal DiGiCo SD8 board to an SD7.

“You can do whatever you want with it; it’s awesome,” he says of the desk. “You can lay it out however you want, group it however you want, do all kinds of overlays and cool stuff. It’s super-user-friendly once you figure it out, and you can customize it to your own settings.” Salvaggio mixes almost entirely with onboard effects, though he does use one piece of outboard gear: a Tube-Tech SMC 2B multiband compressor, which he puts on the overall DJ producer tracks to warm them up and integrate them into the overall mix.

“It’s like a battle,” he laughs. “You have a full band, you have a full DJ track, and you have to kind of put them together. You can’t cut things out of the DJ track because you don’t want to lose that, but at the same time, it’s hard to bring the band up through it, so you have to know the music and see where it works and where it doesn’t. It took us a bit to get used to it and get it to sound where I wanted it to.

“In terms of the orchestra, I have the Colorado Symphony engineer, Aric Zippy Christensen, on one side of the SD7,” he adds. “On the other side, I’m doing the band, and I have a master control over what he’s doing. Obviously, there are challenges with that. It’s not a quiet show by any means. The noise floor is pretty ridiculous, but we’ve got it handled now. I want it to sound good, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s ears. I want people to feel like they are at a concert.”

The tour uses a GTO Outline line array provided by DSI Event Group out of Denver. The combo also is the house P.A. for Red Rocks, which was an advantage for system tech Eric Satre, who works for DSI and has been touring with Smith for three years. The P.A. comprises 13 boxes a side, plus nine flown subs a side and another nine subs a side on the ground. The front fills are a proprietary DSI box. On tour, the crew also carries four McCauley M421 Quad 21 subs, but wasn’t using them at Red Rocks because of the symphony.

“The file is already built, which is nice,” says Satre of tuning the P.A. at Red Rocks. “Mostly that was done with SIM, but all of us carry Smaart 7 rigs, and we do have that at front-of-house right now to help throughout the show. Really, we rely on Lake and Smaart to get through the show.”

Powering the P.A. are 58 Powersoft K Series amps running the AES Ethernet Simple Open Protocol networking setup. Combined with the Outline line array, Salvaggio says, “It rocks, it’s loud, and it’s clear. I’ve used everything, and it’s one of my favorites for sure.”

System tech Eric Satre

Running monitors is Whit Hawkins III, who got his start in the industry on a live radio show called The Dunham’s Living Room that brought jam bands to Atlanta. He moved on to become an engineer at The Brandy House in Atlanta before starting his own production company, Music Matters Productions. He met Salvaggio and Smith when his company brought Smith out to Atlanta several years ago.

Hawkins is mixing on a DiGiCo SD8. The Analog Future Band, as well as the CSO, are all using Shure SE215 in-ear monitors provided by the tour, while Smith uses Ultimate Ears. Deitch has a proprietary DSI Single 18-inch sub behind him, and Smith has a pair of DSI Dual 18-inch subs, along with a pair of Outline’s iSM 212 monitor wedges to supplement his ears. Smith’s setup changed at Red Rocks, as he had previously been using a butterfly line array to supplement his in-ears.

“We swapped it up,” says Hawkins, who also has a set of the Shure SE215s at the monitor desk so he can better hear what the musicians are hearing. “This is the first time we’ve been able to get him to not have the full line array next to him. We’ve done rehearsals, and whenever the orchestra came out, I told him, ‘Beware, I’m changing the ratio of your ears to your wedges and bringing your wedges to half-volume and then bringing your ears up a few more dB. It’s not what you are used to with your line array, but it’s what we need for stage volume.’ We agreed to it, did rehearsals that way, and we’re rocking it.”

On many of the songs, the players have a click in their monitor mix, but on others, especially where Smith changes things up, the click goes away. According to Hawkins, part of the challenge with a Pretty Lights show is that the songs are different each night.

“It’s really kind of a challenge because Derek never plays the same set each night, and he calls the show as he goes along, down to, ‘Drop out on the one,’ or, ‘Add four bars here.’ Sometimes the arrangements aren’t even the same. Everyone has talkback mics, and he calls it out, so I have to be aware of what all the players want to hear during certain songs and parts of the songs. I have to ride everybody’s mixes differently; I can’t just set a snapshot because it’s different every night. I enjoy listening to Derek talk through the whole thing. What you don’t get to experience in the audience is him calling the show; it’s very much like a Frank Zappa-esque composition thing going on.”

Hawkins records each night to 2-track through a Thermionic Culture Vulture tube mastering unit and a Burl B2 Bomber A/D converter, while Salvaggio records to both 2-track and multitrack. Hawkins uses the recordings as a base for the monitor mixes, especially when Smith plays with the Analog Future Band.

“When he’s solo, Derek gets a whole lot of track,” explains Hawkins. “He likes to hear a lot of the high midrange so he can hear the melody real clear, and not as much low end on the stage as you would think for a DJ. One thing he does when he’s solo that he doesn’t do as much when he’s with the band is our lighting designer, Greg Ellis the LazerShark, has a vocal mic and Derek calls cues to him, and then Greg will talk back to him and talk about the vibe of the show, color palettes and things. He doesn’t do that as much with the live band because he’s calling the show with the band and has too much going on.

Monitor engineer Whit Hawkins III

“This is the first time he’s done something with the orchestra, so in rehearsals, it was tons of strings in the beginning, because he really wanted to hear that,” Hawkins adds. “Today, I brought it back down to a more natural level, where the strings are underneath the band a little bit and adding accents. Besides that, there’s a lot of hi-hat so he can keep time. He doesn’t like the click as much; he likes the natural feel.”