New York, NY (December 24, 2020)—With the end of 2020 upon us (and not a second too soon), we look back at the year that was, presenting the Top 10 Pro Sound News articles of 2020 that appeared on prosoundnetwork.com, as ranked by the site’s Google Analytics readership statistics. Intriguingly, while the biggest news of the year was the pandemic, virtually none of these articles even mention it. Instead, audio pros like yourself were mostly interested in either looking ahead to when things would get back to normal by checking out the latest gear, or looking back at great moments in audio, whether it was the recording of classic albums or the earliest known stereo recordings. No one knows what 2021 will bring, but for now, enjoy the most popular articles from our site, and we’ll see you in the new year.
8. The METAlliance Report: The Recording of Steely Dan’s Aja By The METAlliance. Widely considered a pinnacle of recording excellence, Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja had an occasionally tortured gestation—but it won the Grammy for Best Engineered Album. Now METAlliance members Al Schmitt and Elliot Scheiner share the inside scoop on how…
6. Inside the Live Sound of Live Aid, Part 1: London By Steve Harvey. We look back at the live sound effort that went into the legendary charity concert Live Aid, held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. With 60+ acts on the bill and 160,000 in attendance—not to mention 1.9 billion watching it…
3. Tool Tours with Intricate, Immersive Sound By Steve Harvey. Touring the world behind Fear Inoculum, Tool’s first album in 13 years, the prog-metal heroes are filling arenas with a massive audio system that takes a new approach to immersive live sound.
Philadelphia, PA—By the time the US half of Live Aid kicked off at noon on July 13, 1985, the UK edition [See Part 1] had already been rocking for five hours, but given everything that had happened before the show even started, it was as if they entire production had been running a marathon for days.
From there on out, performances would alternate between the UK show in London, and the US concert in Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium until the UK called it a day at 10 PM in London / 5 PM in Philly, with the US then continuing on until 11 PM. During the overlapping hours, broadcasters worldwide alternated performances between the shows, giving crews on each side of the Atlantic extra time to set up and tear down while the other continent’s acts were performing. However, just getting to that point was already an accomplishment for the live sound pros on hand, given that the entire gig had come on short notice.
“I think they were contemplating who’s gonna do the sound a week before,” recalls Roy Clair, co-founder of audio provider Clair Brothers (now Clair Global). “At that time, there were only two companies in America that could have done that show—us and Showco—and obviously sometimes it had a lot to do with how many of your groups were going to be on the bill. The promoter, Bill Graham, was open as to who was going to do the sound, but in the long run, it may have had to do with location, location, location, because we’re based in Pennsylvania. We’d like to think that it was because we were the best. I’m kidding, of course, but you know, it meant a lot to us, because it was a huge show, there were a lot of groups on the bill, Live Aid went well and we actually gained some momentum because of that show.”
It helped that the Clair team was familiar with JFK Stadium, having provided audio for a Peter Frampton/Lynyrd Skynyrd show there in 1977, but being picked as the sound vendor so late meant there was little time for the Clair team to prepare. “That is what we’re good at—getting a show together fast,” said Clair. Sound for 89,484 people? No problem.
A team of 12-15 pros from Clair loaded into the site three days before the show, and since there was little in the way of pro-grade audio equipment available commercially back then, virtually all of the sound gear was proprietary. That included roughly 120 Clair S-4 speakers and eight prototype P boxes, powered by Clair’s Phase Linear 700B amplifiers. All that PA was loaded into scaffolding on either side of the stage, with long-throw boxes placed 50 feet up in order to peg the stands on the far side of the stadium. When it comes to recalling the front of house mix position, memories and accounts vary, but there were up to six Clair CBA32 mixing consoles there, all summed into a Harrison SM-5 console used both as a matrix mixer and for media inputs from the White House, the Space Shuttle and other outside sources.
The Clair engineers weren’t the only audio folks who wound up on-site on short notice. While today he’s a veteran sound pro at Carnegie Hall, with 20 years of mixing Broadway shows under his belt, back in July 1985, Andrew Funk was a 23-year-old tech who had been working less than two weeks at the Manhattan office of German pro-audio manufacturer Sennheiser. Two days before the show, Funk was told to bring his classic Cadillac convertible to the office, load up the trunk with wireless microphones and test equipment, and take it all to directly to JFK Stadium. “When I pulled up in Philly, everybody was like, ‘Who is this guy in the convertible?’” he remembers.
Funk and Sennheiser sales support pro Tony Cafiero set up their wireless receivers—EM1036 Rack Frames—at stage left behind the stacks. Normally six of the bulky receivers would have taken up eight rack units, but with rack space at a premium, only a few frames got racked, and the rest were simply piled atop a case next to them.
“These days, everyone would have their own wireless handheld,” says Funk, “but back then, it was very much magic when it came to wireless mics. There was no such thing as RF coordinators, there was no frequency agility; everything was on a set frequency, so if you had trouble, you had to actually get another mic. It was the very infancy of wireless microphones.”
During the show, Funk’s job would be not only to babysit the receivers, but also hand-off the six SKM 4031 wireless handhelds to musicians and celebrities like the show’s host, actor Jack Nicholson, and then collect the mics when they came back offstage. The significance of the concert quickly became apparent to Funk: “We got set up and they immediately went into rehearsals with Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, so right off the bat, with headliners like that, I got a nice introduction to what the show was going to be like.”
Also taking up much of the stageside area were multiple monitor mix positions, which were centered around two Harrison SM-5 consoles and a Midas Pro4 desk. In order to speed up downtime between performances, the stage itself had a rotating center turntable; while an act performed out front, the next act’s gear was set up in back and then rotated 180 degrees to face the audience when it was time for the next performance. As a result, the two Harrison consoles, used for different halves of the turntable, were located on opposite wings of the stage and were looked after by Clair’s Dave Skaff and Rick Coberly, who were the respective desks’ system engineers and monitor engineers for acts that didn’t bring their own. Meanwhile, the Midas desk, used for front line duties like monitor mixes for presenters between acts, was overseen by Clair’s Henry Cohen (now senior RF systems design engineer at CP Communications).
As with any load-in, there were problems along the way, but a true potential showstopper happened less than 24 hours before showtime. Skaff, who after decades of mixing monitors for acts like U2 and Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion is now part of Clair Global’s engineering design and tour support teams, recalls, “The night before the show, the turntable motor broke—it just burnt up and it was too late to take it out. Between Bill Graham and [legendary stage designer] Michael Tait, they decided it would have to be manually turned—but how? Tait came up with a great solution where they cut pockets around the turntable and put in these metal ‘receivers’ [where you could put in] a Schedule 40 aluminum pipe and now you had something you could push on. Well, they put about 20 of those in and then Bill Graham made a call to the Philadelphia Eagles and they had 20 guys over there as quick as they could get them. The Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive line came in and turned the turntable all day—that was pretty wild. That was one of the ones that impressed me the most, that we could get anything done that we needed.”
Spinning on that turntable providing sound to the acts were a slew of Clair LP floor monitors, supplemented by flown S-4 loudspeakers at stageside. In-ear monitors, while commonplace today, were still in their infancy and wouldn’t go mainstream within live sound for another decade—but they were there at Live Aid.
Marty Garcia, founder of Future Sonics, was on tour with The Hooters, who had three top-40 hits that year. Given that the group was from Philadelphia, it was quickly tapped to be the first band of the day, which meant Garcia’s in-ear monitors—a wired pair worn by drummer David Uosikkinen—were seen around the world and by curious artists backstage for the first time. “I was just finishing up a whole bunch of custom ear monitors when The Hooters got added to Live Aid,” Garcia recalls. “I said [to Uosikkinen], ‘Let’s get you on ears for this—that way, you don’t have to worry about not having a soundcheck long enough to get what you need. I’ll dial it in with the monitor engineer.’”
The Hooters’ set was significant for Skaff, too, as he’d become friends with bassist Andy King over the years as they both paid their dues in the regional club scene with a band called Jack of Diamonds. “That didn’t go, he ended up in The Hooters and now they were opening up Live Aid. So the two of us standing on stage right before it started was like kind of a ‘pinch yourself’ moment. It was pretty cool.”
The stage itself was a hectic place, but the audio team kept everything moving onstage. Key to that team was patch master Kathy Sander, who kept the show on-time for 11 hours, ensuring that every mic and DI box was correctly patched not only for the show onsite, but also for the multitude of radio and TV broadcasters as well.
“As soon as somebody went on stage, I would hold my breath for about a minute,” she says. “If there were any microphones not working, that’s when you would hear that something needed to be addressed. Then I was already starting soundcheck for the next act in the back.”
Every artist wanted more than their allotted 17-minute set in front of 1.9 billion people watching worldwide, and with that plus celebrities introducing acts, endless crates of gear and massive egos to appease, the show was practically guaranteed to not run on time—and yet it did. “How the sound engineers coped with the amount of bands and changeovers on the day is beyond me,” recalls Midge Ure, co-founder of Live Aid. “The equipment, monitor and FOH boards, albeit the best available, were analogue so there were no preset patches or recall available. It was old-school ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ mixing.”
That kind of mixing was necessary, too, because even when the audio team knew what was happening next, there were still surprises—like R&B legend Patti LaBelle. “She came out and literally blew the console apart,” laughs Skaff. “Before she went on, we did as much as we could to turn the damn thing down and pad it down, and [late tour director/production manager] Mo Morrison said, ‘That ain’t gonna be enough.’ I’m like, ‘Why not? There’s no—’ and she just lit the desk up red! The whole stage was her voice, dialed up through all the monitors. It was like the voice of God was there that day, and it was Patti LaBelle!”
While MTV broadcast the entire show, ABC aired the final three hours live starting at 8PM, which meant that the concert had to be running on time to the split second, eight hours after it started. “England was running so far behind schedule that it didn’t quite work out the way ABC wanted it to, but we were on time—I was so proud of that,” says Sander.
It was no simple accomplishment, as bands wanted all their usual touring gear set up, regardless of whether they needed it for their set. “Bands wanted to have people be impressed by their gear and their performance, because this wasn’t just putting on a performance for charities—it was exposure,” says Sander. “So the TV people, they’d be looking at their screens, see a synthesizer that’s not being used at all, and then call up and say, ‘Hey, I don’t have the synth!’ That’s because they’re not playing it.”
The US show closed out with all the artists back onstage for a massive sing-along of the USA for Africa charity single, “We Are the World,” and that moment summed up the day for Sander: “The thing that I remember the most was running out to line up microphones across the front of stage, and then going over to the side, looking at my watch and it was just right at 11 o’clock which was our end time. I was so relieved because we hit it on time, and watching all those artists perform ‘We Are the World’ was awesome. And as soon as I realized that it was essentially over except for the rest of the song, I had a migraine. That’s how stressful it was. I recovered from that nicely, but it was just shocking to me.”
For Sennheiser’s Funk, the grand finale was his most memorable moment, too—because the show nearly ended in disaster. “During ‘We Are the World,’ all of our wireless mics are out there on the stage,” he says. “I’m off to the side at stage left behind the stacks and the two wireless racks are right next to me—one is in the case and the other one isn’t.
“All of a sudden, I start feeling water or something dripping from overhead. I look up and there’s this stage guy up on the scaffolding watching the show and he has this big can of beer. It’s the biggest can, too—like a Colt 45 or a Fosters. The can’s in his shorts and the thing’s pouring out directly into the wireless rack frames. The show’s going, the beer is pouring in, the wireless is going and I’m like, ‘Those mics are going to go dead on the final song of the night!’ I’m yelling up to the guy and there’s no way he can hear me over the show. Myself and Troy Clair from Clair Brothers start throwing things up at him to get his attention. Doesn’t work and the beer’s just pouring out. And you know what? The mics didn’t stop at all—even with the beer, they still worked, still made it to the end. I thought that was pretty cool.”
Whether good fortune, good German engineering or outright divine intervention, the result was a grand finale that’s remembered for all the right reasons, bringing to an end a momentous, landmark day that even 35 years later, all the production pros involved still see as a highlight of their careers.
London, UK—To say that the Live Aid benefit concert was ambitious is an understatement. Held simultaneously at London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium [See Part 2] on July 13, 1985, it was broadcast live to an estimated 40 percent of the world’s population and featured an all-star roster of artists who had to be shepherded on and off stage with almost split-second timing—whether they were ready or not.
And just to make things more difficult, the first time anyone really heard the PA, supplied by Malcolm Hill Associates, was when Status Quo kicked off proceedings with “Rockin’ All Over the World.”
In October 1984, a BBC News story on the under-reported famine in Ethiopia generated a worldwide outpouring of donations to relief agencies. It also inspired Band Aid, a group of about 40 musicians assembled by Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats and Midge Ure of Ultravox, to record a timely charity single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Then Geldof had the bright idea to organize a bi-continental concert event to continue the fund-raising drive.
Owner Malcolm Hill’s company already had a reputation for handling very large events, including the likes of AC/DC’s Back in Black world tour and the U.K.’s Monsters of Rock festival, using its own Hill Audio products—mixing consoles, amplifiers, crossovers and speakers. On paper, the audio production for Live Aid was just a regular festival spec, according to Hill, with dual A/B desks and associated control gear at front of house and monitors, and dual sets of mics—the only items not manufactured by Hill Audio—and wedges. “Just a normal day at the office,” he says.
In total, 48 Hill M4 4-way cabinets were flown per side, with a stack of four per side for in-fill, controlled by a Hill 3-way stereo crossover. The M4 housed three long-coil 12-inch ATC speakers in a direct radiating/folded horn configuration and a pair of 10-inch dual-concentric Tannoy speakers plus, passively crossed over, a Renkus-Heinz horn and SSD 3301 compression driver. A combination of Hill TX1000 3-channel and DX3000 2-channel amplifiers provided power to the rig. TX1000 power amplifiers also drove two systems of tri-amped wedges, which used the same speaker components as the M4s. Hill C3 cabinets were available for side fill and drum fill use.
Out at the front of house mixing position, a pair of 32-input Hill M Series 3 desks were used, while with a pair of 32×10 versions were onstage at the monitor mix position. This was long before computers and plug-ins, of course, so the duplicate FOH racks were loaded with hardware such as AMS RMX16 and Roland SRE555 reverbs, Roland SDE3000 delays, Drawmer noise gates and compressor/limiters, and Eventide 910 and 949 Harmonizers.
While it was a typical gear list for a festival, things started to get complicated fast in the weeks leading up to July 13, when it was decided to broadcast the event live to TV viewers worldwide. Initially envisioned with 10 or 11 acts performing for the 72,000 concertgoers at Wembley Stadium, Live Aid’s bill soon mushroomed to nearly two-dozen artists as the enormity of the event and its charitable potential—not to mention the marketing benefit of a global TV audience—started to sink in.
The production was somewhat hamstrung by the smaller than optimum size of the stage, which was donated by Bruce Springsteen, who had performed at Wembley days earlier. For Live Aid, a revolving stage divided into three sections was added—for the current act, setup of the next act and breakdown of the previous act—and left little space for the cameras, monitor rig, band gear and hangers-on. A strict show schedule was imposed, with five-minute changeovers and sets of 10 or 15 minutes adhered to with clockwork precision. Later in the day, as the Philadelphia show got underway and TV coverage ping-ponged between performances at the two locations, changeovers were able to stretch out.
Savvier artists prepared themselves for the tight timing. Queen, famously, put together a 17-minute set that helped launch them to an even higher level of stardom. Others, like Ultravox, were more practical.
“I distinctly remember Ultravox choosing songs to perform which used the least equipment in order to eliminate the chances of something crucial not being patched in,” recalls Midge Ure. “Unlike regular guitar, bass and drums bands, we depended on hearing the DI’d synths/drum machines through the monitors, so we stuck to more traditional instrumentation for the majority of the set.”
He adds, “Both the live sound crew and the broadcast crew did an amazing job.”
Indeed, Hill puts the smooth running of the Wembley show down to the selfless contributions of volunteer Steve Dove, who had been working with Sony on Angus Young of AC/DC’s wireless guitar set-up. “Without him pacing backstage, fetching, coordinating and organizing the artists, the whole crazy venture would have totally fallen apart,” he says.
Problems with the mains power and generators during the several days of set-up prior to the Saturday show meant that the PA system was never checked on its own. Rather, the Hill crew were simply able to confirm that everything was at least passing audio during a handful of artists’ soundchecks and line checks.
A delay tower at FOH was hastily added and powered up on the Saturday morning of the show, at which time the PA was also covered by scrims painted with the Live Aid logo. But the logo was painted using emulsion, forcing engineers to drive the M4 rig’s high-end flat out to compensate for the lack of acoustic transparency.
During the show there were mercifully few hiccups. A mis-patched mic sent Paul McCartney’s piano and vocal to the two separate FOH consoles when he launched into “Let It Be” almost before anyone noticed he was on stage. That came in the wake of a blown power breaker that took The Who off the air for a short time.
“Was it perfect?” says Hill. “No, but it was magnificently better than doing nothing.”
Indeed, looking back, it’s the charitable impact that has had lasting effects, Hill says. “Friends of mine who run Hope for Justice, the modern-slavery charity, insist that Live Aid changed the mindset of the West to be more aware and pro-active in meeting the needs of struggling nations. And when a team from my church went to Ethiopia a few years ago, they were able to report that the relentless force that is Bob Geldof could be seen in the way aid is distributed, the road systems and even the political scene.”
For Hill, Live Aid was almost exactly half a lifetime ago. “Thirty-five years? That means I’ve lived for three more years after Live Aid than I had lived before.”