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Justin Timberlake


Photo: Kevin Mazur

Last year, Justin Timberlake worked out a diverse repertoire to perform along with the densely layered songs on his latest album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, live on tour. With longtime collaborator and musical director Kevin Antunes, Timberlake developed a “theater-in-the-round” live production that immersed his arena audiences in FutureSex-style surround sound. In September, HBO brought this concert into living rooms, broadcasting Timberlake’s August 16 New York City Madison Square Garden show in high-definition and Dolby Surround.

Timberlake and Antunes developed the FutureSex/LoveShow as a surround sound experience from the start. “When I first met with Justin to write this concert, he knew he wanted to do a theater-in-the-round show, one that brings the whole crowd together as if they were coming into his living room,” Antunes describes. “At that point, we decided to set up the arena with four designated speaker outputs and subs, and design the show — with Andy Meyer at front of house — to be mixed in surround sound.”

Antunes programmed the show in MOTU Digital Performer, incorporating sounds from the album multitracks for output to samplers onstage, and developing surround sound design elements inspired by the stage setup and the show’s strong visual content. The speaker arrays were hung out over the four corners of the stage and acted as the surrounds for Antunes’ sound design. “Right from the top of the concert, at the start of the song ‘FutureSex/LoveSound,’ you hear the words ‘future,’ ‘sex,’ ‘love’ and ‘sound,’ which I’d cut up and assigned each to speakers one through four, and then set to alternate between the different speakers,” Antunes explains. “I put stutter and echo effects on each word, and programmed the SMPTE code with our lighting designer, so as it would hit each speaker the crowd would be lit up in that area.”

Throughout the show, Antunes’ surround sound design accented the integrated video and lighting design, and often served to segue between songs to keep the show’s nightclub pace. “At the end of one song, there was this whole twisted, Salvador Dali-style grandfather clock ticking at the song’s tempo and then slowing down,” he explains. “Then, a kind of stopwatch ticking counterclockwise around the arena, one speaker at a time, and then the grandfather clock hitting each discrete speaker with the lights by section again.”

In pre-tour rehearsals, Timberlake, Antunes and Meyer worked out the most effective spread for all of the show’s audio stimulants, starting with Timberlake and his 11-piece band and backup singers. Meyer mixed on a Digidesign VENUE with 96 inputs; a minimum of 86 inputs were going at any given time. “During rehearsals and later in soundcheck, Justin would sit with me, and because it was a recallable console he’d actually move the faders to show me what he was feeling,” says Meyer. “Obviously, he has the best understanding of the music, but he also really gets how it represents in the P.A. He’d turn up a drum loop and turn down the snare because he thought it felt better, and it did. He knows what he hears and what he wants, and he’s always right when he makes changes.”

Sealing the deal for an HBO special at the outset of the tour, Timberlake saw the opportunity to create a unique experience for HDTV and DVD, pulling at-home viewers into the show by immersing them in the rush and roar of the crowd, with the dynamic sights and sounds in high definition. “The people at HBO believed in Justin’s ability and his musical vision for this ‘in-the-round’ live mix that we could re-create in 5.1 surround in the studio,” Antunes notes. “HBO and the director, Marty Callner, were totally behind him all the way. When Marty saw what Andy was doing at FOH and when they found out we were getting Jay Vicari onboard, they had no doubts about it.”

It was an HBO concert reunion for Timberlake, Antunes and Vicari, as well as Callner and producer Randall Gladstein, who’d all worked together on the 2000 HBO broadcast of *NSYNC at MSG. An independent audio engineer who mixes the musical performances on Saturday Night Live, and that of many a 5.1 awards-show broadcast with the XM Productions/Effanel Music team, Vicari tracked the FutureSex/LoveShow on August 16 from Effanel’s ICON-equipped L7 truck outside the venue. With 102 tracks traveling via fiber to dual Pro Tools HD6 rigs inside the truck, Vicari and co-pilot Joel Singer got a live stereo mix going on the ICON D-Control.

To suit the arena setup and capture the audience and room in a way that would translate in the 5.1 television mix, Vicari notes, “We miked the whole arena to capture that ‘in-the-round’ feeling. We set up audience mics at far-front, far-rear and two sets in the middle, halfway back from the stage.”

While the production moved to the Canadian leg of the tour, Vicari brought the tracks back to XM Productions/Effanel Music’s Studio A at Jazz at Lincoln Center (New York City), and began assembling the 5.1 mix. After a few days, Timberlake, Antunes and Meyer flew back down between shows to work with Vicari and co-mixer/editor Rob Macomber, chief engineer at XM/Effanel Studios.

As with the live sound design, Timberlake was extremely hands-on in the 5.1 mixing process. “By the time I inherited this project, everybody had a real good idea of what they wanted to do,” says Vicari. “We were going full-on 5.1, so I set up and pre-built everything on the console so that we could make anyone’s 5.1 ideas happen in a split-second.” They mixed off of a 48-channel D-Control on a Pro Tools HD6 Accel system, and monitored on five ADAM S4A monitors with four Sub10 subwoofers. A stereo mix was simultaneously created with 5.1 monitoring through the Waves M360 Surround Mixdown.

The in-the-round arena show, with all of its swirling effects and sound design, translated successfully to 5.1 surround, though the process to get it there was far from seamless. In total, this session spanned seven days, three of which Vicari and Macomber spent solo. “We did this as one long-form session that was automated from beginning to end,” says Macomber. “When Justin, Kevin and Andy got here, we started at the beginning and worked our way to the end over just a few days.”

Having Timberlake, Meyer and Antunes in the studio eliminated a lot of guesswork. Macomber notes, “A lot of the mixing, in terms of balances on particular songs, were really driven by Justin because he knows what he wants to hear and at what levels. Also, with the complexity of this session and the time limitations, it was invaluable to have Andy Meyer there telling us what he’d been doing and using on the VENUE. In a lot of cases, we were able to get the exact same sounds using the same processors.” They used Meyer’s settings in Line 6 Amp Farm on Timberlake’s vocal on “Sexy Back,” for example, and his settings in Trillium Labs’ TL EveryPhase on his vocal for “FutureSex/LoveSound.”

The ultimate success of the 5.1 mix for HBO hinged on how close the team could get to re-creating the “FutureSex/LoveShow” experience for a living-room audience. “Our goal was not to produce a pristine mix,” Vicari points out. “And though the parts were there through Kevin’s arrangements, we weren’t trying to emulate the record, either. We were taking a whole other step in trying to visualize the experience of being in that arena and then go with our gut in re-creating that feeling for a 5.1 surround setting.”

For the most part, Antunes’ sound-design elements transferred swimmingly. “The intro had sounds sweeping through the entire interior of the arena, and it did exactly the same thing in the mix for television,” says Vicari. “We were able to utilize those ‘surround’ elements similarly throughout the entire show mix.”

Timberlake insisted that the team take a fresh approach on every song and, in general, try all kinds of unconventional panning and placement. Vicari expresses, “There is an overall sound-design continuity to this show, but after that there are no rules — different elements come out in different places at different times. Justin was the main proponent of us doing things so differently.” Macomber recalls, “On ‘FutureSex/LoveSound,’ Justin sat here and flew his vocal all around the room. This particular live show setup, and the visuals, really opened the door for all kinds of creativity.”

With bandmembers playing both live instruments and sampled sounds, there were so many elements to spread out across the surround field, not to mention all of the surround-oriented live show effects. Take the synth section alone, says Macomber: “There were three large keyboard rigs, each of which held several synths that each generated five, six different sounds per song, which allowed different placement for each sound.” As creative as the 5.1 mix got, however, Vicari kept a foundation locked down to match the camera’s focal point; Timberlake’s vocal, bass and kick drum anchored the mix pretty consistently in the center channel.

Timberlake wanted the 5.1 surround mix to include as much crowd noise as possible, which presented the session’s biggest challenge. “Getting our audience mics and all the panning aligned in the right location in the room was very difficult since our audience mics were picking up the whole room sound,” says Vicari. “I would do passes of just audience, trying to keep it consistent as Justin moved out on the arm of the stage into the audience. I gave him the most amount of audience without his vocal sounding like it was drifting off, and he’d still want more.”

Meyer adds, “We had to time-align the audience mics with the actual mix so that when we added audience, it didn’t wash the mix out — it actually added greater definition to what was going on in the Garden. In those audience mics, you’re hearing the P.A. and the crowd and the room, which, with the right placement, makes you feel just like you’re standing in the arena.”

Macomber configured the mixes for delivery to HBO. “We delivered 5.1 and stereo prints — 24-bit, 48k WAV files of continuous show,” he notes. “The show wasn’t edited down in any way, so there was really no conforming to do on our end. We mixed off of a reference standard-definition video and printed everything down to the session, and delivered them time-stamped audio files.” At Timberlake’s request, aside from broadcast compression, the audio was untouched after it left JALC Studios. “There was absolutely no audio sweetening or mastering done to the files,” says Macomber. “Justin was really particular about this, and the HBO producer was adamant about adhering to his wishes.”

According to Antunes, following the HBO broadcast there were accolades all-around. “We all got e-mail from one of the big VPs over at HBO telling us that this was one of the best mixes they’ve ever heard for any of their music specials — ever.”

Janice Brown is a freelance writer based in New York City.