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Though it lasted under a month and spanned just 17 shows, this past summer's Area:One Festival proved to be one of the most exciting and intriguing tours

Though it lasted under a month and spanned just 17 shows, this past summer’s Area:One Festival proved to be one of the most exciting and intriguing tours of the year, a wonderful pastiche of different musical styles that hearkened back a bit to the early days of the eclectic Lollapalooza touring fests. Area:One was the brainchild of the New York techno/dance musician/collagist Moby, whose magnificentPlayalbum was the best-selling disc in England in 2000, and has sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S.

For the tour, which Moby headlined, he put together an adventurous lineup of some of his favorite acts, including party-down rappers Outkast, modern rock favorites Incubus and Nelly Furtado (on the East and Midwest legs of the tour only), Philadelphia alterna-rap sensations The Roots, and veteran British dance club mavens New Order (on the West Coast only). Those groups played the main stage at the various amphitheaters and stadiums the tour traveled to, but another popular and compelling aspect of Area:One was the separate dance/rave tent, where a procession of top DJs, including The Orb and Paul Oakenfold, whipped up to a thousand people at a time into a dancing frenzy for hours on end. Between the tent and the main stage, there was something for just about every taste in dance music — and there were many people who danced for nearly all of the eight hours of music that the generous afternoon/evening show offered. At the San Francisco Bay Area show I attended (Shoreline Amphitheater), the vibe was definitely “up” and friendly, the crowd a happy mix of ages and races who seemed to enjoy every act, though there’s no question that Outkast’s raucous party and Moby’s mixture of hot dance grooves and soothing ambient textures were crowd favorites.

From a sound reinforcement perspective, the demands of this sort of music are a little different than those of conventional arena rock bands, because there is so much emphasis on the bottom end in dance music. Also, most of the groups blend live instrumentation with taped elements, MIDI parts and turntablists, who did everything from traditional scratching to firing sequenced rhythm tracks. It was often difficult to know who was playing and singing what, and what was live and what was on tape. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter much, because that thump in the chest from the bass drum was real, the grooves got everybody moving and, like the crowd, the musicians worked up a decent sweat. And hey, all those taped backing vocals sounded good.

Clair Brothers handled the audio aspects of the tour, with the company’s Steve McCale responsible for designing the touring system and coordinating the sound elements. “This was one of the most difficult tours I’ve done in terms of physical work,” says McCale, whose long resume includes eight years touring as Steve Miller’s live engineer, managing Clair Brothers’ Nashville office and a zillion gigs in between. “We loaded in at 6 a.m., and the show was done loading out at 2 a.m. We started out with four shows in a row, so when you do the math — that was six bands on one stage plus the other stage…eight-hour shows…it worked everyone to a frazzle. There weren’t enough of us to really take breaks, so we were working a 20-hour day. It was pretty grueling. But then, it’s always some different degree of grueling no matter what tour you’re on,” he adds with a chuckle.

The sound system for Area:One was based around Clair’s proprietary loudspeakers and the Showconsole — the extraordinary live sound desk developed by Harrison and Clair’s former rival Showco (which Clair absorbed in a surprise move last year). According to McCale, there are only 10 Showconsoles in existence, “and there aren’t a huge number of people qualified to take those consoles out, so that’s how I got involved.” He was trained extensively on the console by Howard Page at Clair’s Lititz, Pa., office, and then McCale, in turn, gave a crash course to each of the mixers on the tour.

“Every band had their own mixer,” he notes, “and what I did was I set the console up with a blank template — all the effects sends and returns and the subdrives and everything were the same for everybody — and I entered in each act’s input list lined up on the console as it needed to be. All of this work was done before I saw the individual mix engineers. When those guys came up, they didn’t have any computer work to do whatsoever. The only thing they had to realize was, ‘I have to push the Select button over the input and then the center section becomes that input’; that was the most computer they had to worry about. Other than that, it worked like a 4k [Yamaha PM4000]. There are 16 remote faders that can be programmed like VCAs, right in the middle of the console. We bring everything down individually for each act, however they wanted to see it. All their faders were right there, all the metering is right there, everything’s got a gate and a limiter on it, and all they had to do was get a little comfortable with pushing Select and adjusting it. They all fell right into it; nobody had a problem — even the ones who were a little skeptical or scared of it at first. After one show, they were totally happy.

“The nice thing about it is that, every night after it was done, I was able to save that version of their show, so as we went through the tour, if, for example, somebody didn’t like the show they did last night, they didn’t have to use that. They could start with whatever show they wanted to start with. A lot of times, if we were going to a big outdoor type of venue, they would call up a preset that might go back as far as Jones Beach [N.Y.], if they felt that was the kind of sound they were looking for. If you went into a nasty shed, they might call up something different. By the time they were done, we had 120 or something different stores in the console, and every act could pick whichever one they wanted to start with.”

According to Moby’s FOH mixer, British engineer John Pennington, who has worked sporadically with Moby in the studio and onstage since his groundbreaking 1995 release Everything Is Wrong, “That desk ended up being just about perfect for the requirements of this tour. I would have liked it better if I’d had my own desk apart from the other acts, just purely in terms of setup time and soundcheck time, but it was fine. It had the total recall we needed, which cut down the change-over time, but as the headliner, I like to be able to check my stuff all the way through the day. But it was very easy to learn; we all learned it immediately. We had a couple of minor problems along the way — pan knobs and automated faders breaking down a couple of times, but other than that, I was very happy with it.”

For speakers, MacCale says, “The basis of it was a Clair Brothers I-4 24-cabinet rig; 12 I-4s per side. Then I had four Clair Bothers R-4s, which are more traditional, hanging as sidefills, covering the offstage 60 degrees. The I-4 is a 90-degree box, and in most of the sheds, you’ve got to wrap a little farther around the sides, so that’s what the R-4s did. Then, on the ground I had four S-4 subs per side, and we had four P-2s for the front fill, across the front of the stage.

“The whole design in the tent was unique, too. There were as many S-4 sub lows in the tent as we had on the main stage — eight — and there were 24 R-4s, too; it was a huge rig in there. That’s what they wanted and it did well; everyone seemed happy with it. It was rave music loud. That tent went over really well; in fact, sometimes it was a little too popular. It got pretty hot and crowded in there at times.”

McCale says that the heavy emphasis on bass and percussion in this music posed a special challenge to him as the audio design engineer for the tour. “To be honest, I was a little skeptical that I-4s would be the right [main] speaker for all that low end,” he says. “I-4s are well-known for coverage, but when it comes to low-end thump, they can be a little light. But what we did have — which I had only heard at Madonna’s rehearsals in L.A. — was the new I-4B cabinet, which is the new low-end extender box for the I-4. Area:One was the first tour it had ever been out in the sheds, and it’s only the fourth system of I-4Bs to be built so far. I know Madonna has them, U2 has them and one other act, but those are arena tours. The ‘Bs’ made a huge difference in the amount of low end that was coming off the I-4s — it really changed them and made them much more present. Then, with the S-4 subs, we played around for the first three or four gigs, finding just the right placement and just the right time-aligning techniques with the sub lows, so by the time we got to Shoreline, we had that worked out. I was impressed with the amount of low end that system produced. The places it suffered a bit was when we would take it outdoors and had no baffle behind it; when there was just a P.A. hanging in space — that was not as good. Other than that, it was a matter of EQ’ing and tuning to maximize the amount of low end that was available.”

John Pennington maximized the bass drum thump on Moby’s set by putting two Shure SM91 mics in the bass drum: “I won’t tell you the configuration,” he laughs. “That’s a trade secret. But it worked quite well.” (Moby’s band used Shure mics and RF units exclusively; besides the SM91s, their arsenal included SM57s, 58s, 98s and KSM32s.)

By sheer coincidence, Area:One was the last event ever to play in cavernous Mile High Stadium in Denver (the new stadium there is called Invesco Field at Mile High), and even with the event neatly tucked into just one end of the stadium, the altitude affected the sound more than the size of the stadium did. “It’s amazing how much the atmospheric conditions affect the sound up there,” McCale says. “Also, it’s unusual that you have a show where you’re rocking the house at four in the afternoon, when the sun is beating down and it’s maximum heat. We really felt it on [openers] The Roots and Nelly Furtado on that show, because with the thin atmosphere and the heat, it sounded like the P.A. was broken or something. The sound just wasn’t there enough. As the night went on, I ended up changing levels. We had 6dB gain difference in the high end between the afternoon and when the sun set. It was pretty dramatic. By the time Moby or Outkast came on, it sounded like a P.A. again. I added 30 Audio Analysts S-4s to the bottom deck and then flew the I-4s up above it, which added a lot of presence and oomph to the low end that we needed. But the I-4s, which normally cover really well — at Jones Beach, for example, it was amazing coverage, but that was at sea level — didn’t work the same a mile up.”

Most of the musicians worked with a combination of wedge monitors and Shure in-ear systems. “Moby had five or six channels of in-ear,” says McCale. “Most of the acts had one or two or three sets of in-ears running. The Roots was all wedges. It’s common now to have a combination.” John Pennington adds, “Moby likes it to be very loud onstage because he’s got to feel everything, and Steve Walsh [Moby’s longtime monitor engineer] has done a fantastic job supplying that loud sound he needs at every show.”

Working with Steve Miller, Steve McCale was an early proponent of using an all in-ear systems, but he recognized that with so many bands on the bill for Area:One and a short time to prepare an all in-ear stage was unlikely. “To get that purity [of the Miller tour], you’ve got to have a common goal to solve all the little problems that different musicians will have. Most of the time in today’s market, when you have different hired musicians, you end up with everything out there. So many musicians are scared to leave the wedges completely, so they end up with a combination of both, which, in my opinion, as a monitor guy, is hardly the best way to work. What’s ideal is when you have a chance to work with a band from the beginning and they’re putting together a whole tour — like we did with Cher. We went in at a production level and dealt with everybody’s issues, had a month-and-a-half of rehearsals to work out all the problems, and by the time we hit the road, it was a pure in-ear show, as it should be. But most of these younger bands don’t have the time or budget to put that together.”

For all of the acts except Moby, monitoring was through a pair of Yamaha PM-4000s. Moby’s monitor engineer, Steve Walsh, used a Midas Heritage 3000. In the rave tent, the FOH console was a Harrison HM-5 and the monitor board was a Harrison SM-5.

On the issue of live vs. taped music on the tour, McCale says, “Almost every band had either a 360 Systems Digicart or a MiniDisc or something running top to bottom, and then things were filled in around it. Now, I don’t even know exactly what was live and what wasn’t, and I was there! I know Moby had stuff on MiniDisc.” John Pennington says that Moby had some additional drums, string parts and other tracks on tape “to bolster the sound onstage and to try to fill in some of the parts that are on [Moby’s] record that we couldn’t reproduce live.”

“If I was the engineer,” McCale comments, “I probably wouldn’t use MiniDisc, but it’s not my choice. It’s very handy format and it’s very reliable. However, we spent more time EQ’ing the high end on the I-4s to compensate for the quality of the MiniDisc than anything else we did on the tour! They have a pretty nasty high end. But in the case of a group like Outkast, the tracks were so nasty anyway, it didn’t matter,” he laughs. “With Outkast, the microphones sounded pretty bad because they were wrapping their hands around them and yelling into them, and the tracks they had coming off the stage sounded horrible, but man, they put on a great show and they rocked the house every night! So it just goes to show you that you can spend your time on fancy widgets, or you can get out there and entertain the crowd. That’s what they were all about.”

And no one in the crowd was complaining about the quality of Outkast’s prerecorded tracks (because their overall mix, by an engineer named Meaux — pronounced Mo — was superb), or the fact that Moby ended his portion of the show with a song that was entirely on MiniDisc — it became a showcase for dramatic poses from Moby and an incredible light display (by Dan Hardiman); the line between humanity and technology blurred again, one serving the other. Indeed, the blend of those elements was the real triumph of the whole tour.

Blair Jackson is Mix’s senior editor.