21 minute read

The Rolling Stones


The legendary rockers brought a striking new production along for the gathered masses at Prague’s Letňany Airport. TPi’s Ste Durham was on site to meet the crew.





Although TPi wasn’t exactly early to the No Filter party - we appeared for the penultimate show of the tour’s second leg - it certainly was evocative to witness this production in a setting where the usual artist / fan connection has been irreversibly transcended. In 1990, as some of the more distinguished TPi readers may remember; The Rolling Stones played in this very city to mark the symbolic end of the Velvet Revolution. The tanks rolled out, and the Stones rolled in, and the people of Prague have idolised this band ever since. What better place to become immersed in the phenomenon that is the world’s biggest rock act coming to town?

In the 28 years following that monumental performance at Strahov Stadium, both the landscape of concert touring in Eastern Europe and the technological bedrock that supports it have developed immeasurably. To that end, it is heartening to see a band like The Rolling Stones - still firing on all cylinders at 56 years young - return with a production that’s as sleek and contemporary as it is old school rock ‘n’ roll.

AUDIO In terms of the band’s audio setup, the latter ethos was present in spades. As System Engineer, Jim Ragus, put it: “The Stones are old and so are we, so if it ain’t broke, then why fix it? We stay with the old tried and true stuff and roll on down the road.”

This meant a healthy dose of one of Clair Global’s most seasoned PA systems, a selection of bulletproof analogue gear, and the humblest of microphone packages.

The main left and right arrays in Prague each consisted of 8 Clair i-5’s at 2.5 degrees, 8 at 5 degrees and 2 at 10 degrees, with 18 i-5B cabinets to cover the low end. The side left and right arrays were 14 deep, with 8 i-5’s at 2.5 degrees, 4 at 5 degrees and 2 at 10 degree cabinets. The crew also used a pair of i-5’s at 10 degrees for front fill, while the 4 delay arrays each consist of 8 i-5’s. The entire system was driven by 20-amp racks each consisting of 4 Crown Macro Tech 3600VZ Amplifiers.

The main system was controlled overall by 2 Lake LM44’s and a Lake LM26 processor located at FOH, while its individual zones were controlled

by 10 Lake Contours (as crossovers and delay only) located under the stage. The delay system was controlled by an additional 4 Lake Contours located at FOH. EQ for the main, front fill and delay systems was taken care of by TC Electronic TC 1128’s.

Ragus appraised the setup from the sweltering FOH structure at a sundrenched Letňany Airport: “We’ve had real good luck with the system, and it helps that we’ve got one of the best crews on planet earth right here. It fits well with The Stones and lends itself to what Dave [Natale, FOH Engineer] wants to do.

“This venue is very different that what we’ve done earlier on it the run, which was mostly large football and rugby stadiums, like Old Trafford and Twickenham in the UK. It’s more of a flat spot here with a few bleachers either side. We use a version of EASE Focus that’s been specifically modified for us to model the venue, which is very accurate, and easy to get around on. Another member of the audio crew, Thomas Huntington, generally does the computer modelling, and both him and the model have been spot on.” He added: “The rest is just good, old fashioned copper snakes; the standard 40 pair and 14 pair. Much like the rest of our gear, it’s absolutely bulletproof and works perfectly every day. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, we just took what was working and ran with it!”

FOH Engineer Dave Natale - whose CV reads like its own miniature Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - has been on the road with the band for 15 years, and claims to have only changed “a couple of mics” in that time. Discussing his relationship with the band, he began: “They never told me what to do. It’s nothing flashy - we have drums, bass, guitars, 2 keys, 2 sax players, and some vocals. We just get on with it, and the setup we have here is perfect for that.”

Natale opted for a battle-hardened Yamaha PM 4000 as his main and backup at FOH, each containing 40 mono and 12 stereo modules. To supplement this, he brought a pair of 30-space racks that housed 2 Aphex 612’s, a dbx 900 rack, a Lexicon PCM 80 or 81, a Lexicon PCM 90 or 91 and a Bricasti reverb.

A separate 17-space rack housed 2 Alesis 9600 Masterlinks, 4 dbx 160XT’s, 2 Lake LM44’s and a Lake LM26, while his another rack contained



6 TC1128’s, 2 TC MM24’s, and an NC-14 Switcher. He also travelled with 2 4-channel RTS distro amps, 6 Lake Contours and a pair of PM 4000 PSUs.

The engineer commented: “Particularly when it comes to consoles, if it’s got brains, then it can start thinking for itself or somehow fuck up. I’m afraid of something not working for any reason, and it’s not an option to just say sorry to 80,000 people. I have 2 identical desks, just in case. The worst has never happened, but that’s only because we have a backup! We have 2 weeks of rehearsals, and I do 7 days on each so they’re set roughly before we head out on the road.”

He continued: “I mix all night long, with both hands on desk at all times. I know how to mix on digital desks for TV and stuff - and they’re great - but they’re constantly changing. Computers pack up from time to time; even in an air-conditioned office, so imagine what could happen when we’re out here in the middle of a dirty airstrip, bouncing the shit around in a truck for months!”

The engineer gave TPi a tour of his desk, which is constantly rebuilt and maintained by the team at Clair Global: “We’ve got Shure SM57’s on Keith and Ronnie’s guitars, with just a little rolled off the top, but that was more due to the last stadium we played in. There’s no compression, no gates on the drums, and not really any effects. I have the stuff here but I don’t use it - if you don’t ask for it, they won’t give you these nice racks to put the desk on!”

On stage, the crew deployed a beyerdynamic M 88 TG for the kick drum, 2 more SM57’s for the snare, Neumann KM 184’s for hi hat and ride, a Sennheiser MD 409 and Telefunken M82 for toms, and AKG C314’s for overheads. As well as the 57’s, there were Radial JDI boxes for guitars, while Electro-Voice RE20’s served as mics for the bass amp and brass instruments, and Shure Axient units with SM58 capsules were used for vocals.

In concurrence with Natale’s Spartan mixing style, the band forgoes all manner of timecoding or click tracks, and the only playback comes in the form of the percussion loop at the beginning of Sympathy For The Devil, which is triggered at the side of stage and comes through the PA and into

the headphones of drummer, Charlie Watts.

Natale said: “I mix the show how I’ve known it to sound for years. I’ve used this desk since 1996, and I just focus on what’s coming out of the speakers. There are limits of a PA and a desk and you have to know where to go. There’s nothing to bounce off of here, so this will be the best sounding gig of the tour!”

MONITORS AND REC For on-stage monitoring, The Stones carried what Ragus succinctly called “a metric shit tonne of wedges” - more specifically, a total of 98 Clair 12AMs that lined the perimeter of the stage, thrust and B Stage. These were driven by Lab.gruppen PLM20000Q amplifiers and supplemented on stage by Clair R4 sidefills, which relied on Crown Macro-Tech 3600VZs.

To stay on top of this fearsome arsenal, new Monitor Engineer Stephen Carter inherited a setup based around a Midas Heritage 4000 and sidecar, with TC 1128’s inserted on wedge outputs and a Yamaha SPX 990 for backing vocal and guest reverbs. A Lexicon PCM 80 served as the main vocal reverb and delay unit, while a Rupert Neve 5045 was inserted on main RF vocals.

“It’s not changed much in terms of the actual desk setup - my snapshots are 140-odd flash cards,” he laughed. “I have a big, laminated wad of them just written out for analogue recall and gaffer tape buttons on different sends, on and off. I don’t even mind because it sounds incredible, and we’re getting really close now. I worked for Sting for a long time and these guys - the old school engineers - are the people I learnt from. It’s a straightforward rock band, and a great one at that. It’s such a fun show to mix.”

Elsewhere it was Shure PSM 1000 for IEM, an AD4Q wireless microphone system and Clair RF antenna combiners for in-ears. The RF mic antenna distribution system was Shure UA845 UHF.

Carter commented: “I use a Portico 4050 on Mick’s lead vocal, which I got turned onto during the Guns N’ Roses tour. It’s essentially a magic box and really helps to keep all the noise out of a loud mic. He sprints around that stage and out onto the thrust, so there are always things like ripping



guitar rigs on stage, a crazy amount of monitor wedge ambience and a massive PA out on the thrust.”

Singer Mick Jagger opted for Jerry Harvey Audio Layla IEMs, while backing vocalist Sasha Allen used JH7’s. Carter is another JH Audio fan: “I believe so much in that product, their ears are unreal. We have to get this show pretty loud at times and they always hold up. They never break, and the company gives us great service too.”

Elsewhere, it was Sensaphonics for bassist Darryl Jones and percussionist Bernard Fowler, while Carter employed 2 12AMs and 2 i-5Bs for drum fill. The Monitor Engineer continued: “It can be intimidating to come into these crews, but it keeps you on your toes, it keeps you honest and it keeps you striving to be better. This is the first full tour I’ve really mixed for them - coming from being a tech – but my previous tour with GN’R really drilled me into paying attention to the small details. Getting a job like this is a massive vote of confidence in your abilities; it means a lot. This was the only band you’d ever leave GN’R to do - you want for nothing out here, and we’re taken care of so well. It’s an ode to Opie really. Everyone is so professional and so good at their jobs. If someone says something’s going to be done, you know it’s going to get done.”

The curveball of the audio setup in Prague presented itself as Carter invited TPi into monitor world, situated behind which was a rare sight - digital technology. In order to archive every soundcheck and show, the crew carried a ‘rec rig’ that consisted 2 Avid S6L-24Ds, with 2 48-channel stage racks and 2 laptops running Pro Tools HD 2018.3. The first machine was an Apple Mac Pro recording 128 tracks over AVB Ethernet with a Sonnet xMac Pro Server expansion and a pair of 4TB hard drives for split track recording. The other machine, a Mac Mini, received 96 tracks of MADI directly from the stage rack, using a Sonnet RackMac mini, a Sonnet Echo Express III-R and 2 more 4TB hard drives. The rec rig computers and expansion chassis was supplied by Diablo Digital’s Brad Madix and Greg

Price, while Clair Global provided the consoles and tour packaging. System Engineer / Stage Left PA Tech Thomas Huntington, who managed the rec rig, explained: “The whole console could crash and as long as we have power the to stage racks it’s all good. We’ve had no issues so far. At the end of the tour I’ll just pop the drives and give them to archive people. They can potentially be used in the future - all the audio for the Cuba and South America documentary came off of this rig - but it’s not necessarily going to be the case. It’s a little harrowing, as we weren’t planning on anyone using it!”

Monitor System Tech/RF Jordan Turner, Stage Tech Matthew ‘Minty’ Woolley, Monitor Wedge Tech Brent Edgerton, Stage Right PA Techs Trystan Forbes and Sean Baca, Stage Left PA Tech Johnny Brook, and Delay Techs Falco Knueppel and David Enderle completed the audio crew.

SHOW DESIGN Renowned Lighting Designer and Creative Director, Patrick Woodroffe, was behind the striking look of the Stones’ latest production, working with Ray Winkler of Stufish and Jeremy Lloyd of Wonder Works on the scenic design, alongside Stageco’s Project Manager Hedwig De Meyer and R&D Engineers Tom Frederickx, Patrick Martens and Kai Eppinger, to create the steel, tower and roof systems for the tour.

From the outset, the band’s main wish was for a tidy and streamlined production, with sleek contours but absolutely no hint of behind-thescenes steelwork. Spreading 60m wide, the resulting set features 4 monolithic 22m high x 11m wide LED video screens, a 28m long T-shaped catwalk and B-stage, and a bespoke, cantilevered, transparent-skinned ‘roofette’ that appears to hover above the band.

Stefaan Vandenbosch, the leader of one of two outdoor Stageco crews (Kevin De Meyer managed the other), commented: “Each system fills 17 trucks. Working with our own team of 14 along with 15 local climbers and 15



stage hands, it takes 2.5 days to load in with 6 fork lifts and a pair of cranes, and we are averaging about 18 hours to pull it all down and put back into the trucks to head to the next venue.”

When planning began, PM Dale ‘Opie’ Skjerseth invited Belgian engineering company WIcreations to team up on the project. “Hedwig and I went to the first meeting together, and advised on aspects of the design,” said WIcreations founder Hans Willems, who gained his early industry experience as a Stageco employee.

“It’s a genuine collaboration with WIcreations and it works very well,” observed Vandenbosch. “All the pieces came in and connected with our systems perfectly. Of course, it helps that Hans has worked for Stageco and knows our procedures so well. They developed and fabricated the aluminium-clad transparent band roof that has its own drainage system to cope with rainy conditions. It’s formed from four curved 12m long steel roof beams that each break down into 2 sections.

“The roof travels with us and we build it for each show, along with our towers, pulley beams, lifting cables and the trussing support system for the video screens, while the wind bracing system and motion control hoists [connected to the black steel base of the towers] are provided by WIcreations. The way the screens are rigged means that any wind pressure on them is borne by their supporting black steel towers. Personally, I love the 3D effect of the screens - they give the impression that the band are playing in front of four tall buildings.”

The 4 video screens are pulled up the tower via a pair of 2.5 tonne Liftket motion control hoists, double reeved for a 5-tonne capacity, 2 per tower - 8 in total - which are connected to the black steel base of the towers, sitting on the upstage edge. The roof connects to the black steel superstructure of two of the four central video towers on the outdoor shows, and is flown on the indoor ones, albeit with modified construction. For these arena performances, Stageco assigned an additional crew led by Martin ‘Tinus’ Beckers.

As usual with productions of this scale, Stageco handled all the scaffolding and stage decking requirements, and also supplied and built the spot/delay towers, platforms and covered FOH risers - for this tour, lighting / video control and audio each had their own structure.

Onstage, 2 rolling sheds - stage left and stage right - are built from modular decks with heavy duty castors to offer size variation; complete with detachable one-directional mesh fronts allowing a clear view out across the stage and an opaque view in from the stage so they blend into the blackout.

These are 6m long x 2.5m wide in the largest format and can be broken down in 2m x 2.5m sections to accommodate variable stage spaces the crew might encounter on the indoor shows. The sheds house the monitor position on stage left side and the band’s entourage on stage right side. WIcreations designed and engineered all hardware from a touring

perspective, with quick and efficient deployment at each gig on any possible site in mind, using bespoke dollies into which all equipment packs down for travelling. The company is well known for this characteristically practical approach.

In his role as technical design co-ordinator, Jeremy Lloyd was perfectly placed to appreciate the interaction of Opie’s chosen task force. “It’s been a great collaboration all round,” he said. “We didn’t spend a lot of time in meetings. A lot of it is about trust and knowing what can be done in the time. I know these people, so I know what we can achieve.”

Andy ‘O’ Omilianowski, Stage Manager, added: “It’s a very straightforward job from my point of view. We always have a load-in day prior to the show day and have had the same rig out for a while now. Going from a stadium show to a greenfield one varies from country to country, but you generally have more driveable area around stage for machinery and vehicles. Today they gave us a lot of space to drive trucks and forklifts for a quick setup and, hopefully, a quick tear down.”

The roof structure and exposed nature of the towers meant that only a small portion on the kit and personnel around stage were covered in the event of inclement weather. Omilianowski said: “We have to employ certain protocols to make sure equipment and people are safe but, bar dehydration, today is quite easy from that perspective. You’ve got to be aware of your surroundings on a site this busy and, as Stage Manager, one of my jobs it to make sure they do. Thankfully, everyone out here is great at their jobs and have brought great rock ‘n’ roll values to the tour. The emergency planning is always there but we’ve been lucky so far. It also helps that Stageco carry the best stages out there; we wouldn’t settle for anything less.”

As well as the world-class equipment, the Stage Manager was similarly full of praise for his colleagues on the road: “I’ve been with The Stones for 3 years and it all starts from the top; Opie runs the best crews in the world and he likes to create a relaxed and professional environment. We like to have fun out here too - we’re all away from our families for a long time so its important to make it enjoyable for the guys. It doesn’t get bigger or better that The Rolling Stones. Everyone is honoured first off, and to work with the same crew makes everything even smoother.”

LIGHTING & VIDEO Patrick Woodroffe designed the lighting for the No Filter tour with assistance from Woodroffe Bassett Design’s Terry Cook. “Unlike previous tours with the band that typically ran for a year or 18 months,” he began. “We had to create a show that would justify the budget with only 14 shows, limiting the amount of custom designed pieces available.

“The only piece of scenery that was made for this show was a very elegant and contemporary roof structure that played in front of 4 monolithic video screens. These were portrait format and had the added



feature of a 1.5m return of video panels on each side, giving a vivid sense of large blocks of animated images. We also committed to having nothing at the top of the screens, so all the rigging was hidden behind an additional fascia of video panels.”

The lighting rig, provided by long-time supplier Neg Earth Lights in Europe, included of 12 Vari-Lite VL3500 Washes, 172 Martin by Harman MAC Viper Air FXs, 14 MAC Aura XBs, 24 Claypaky Mythos, and 60 Robe BMFL Wash Beams.

“Every Stones show design over the years has been different,” said Woodroffe. “But the common feature has always been to integrate the lighting, video and scenic elements in a seamless form. This is something that Mark Fisher and I had focussed on ever since 1989 and the latest tour was no different. Our long-time Lighting Director and a key member of the team, Ethan Weber, worked closely with Roland [Greil] and Nick [Keiser] to make a completely immersive experience that is much more than the sum of its individual parts.”

The LD also specified a total of 168 molefays, 75 Philips Color Kinetics iW Blasts, 4 ColorBlast TRXs, and 180m of LED X-Flex. Atmospherics were taken care of by 6 Hazebase Base Hazers and 12 Reel EFX DF-50 Diffusion Hazers, while 8 Robert Juliat Lancelots served as followspots. Show control for both lighting and video came from, 2 MA Lighting grandMA2 Full Size consoles and an MA Lighting grandMA2 Light.

Woodroffe continued: “The number of fixtures was not particularly small for a typical stadium show but the placement of the lights was critical. We used a typical mix of large format spots and washes with some smaller fixtures tucked in the roof structure where they wouldn’t be seen or noticed. Most of the fixtures were rigged inside and underneath the roof structure but we also fitted 9 powerful spots into slots built into the video panels. So the venues were indoors but these were in large, covered stadia so the indoor and outdoor systems were much the same.”

He added: “Ironically, considering the length of the band’s career and the stage that they find themselves at now, this is probably the most contemporary design that they have performed with. It very much placed The Rolling Stones as a band of its time, still looking forward both musically and in terms of production, and it is gratifying to see them selling out stadia with a spectacular production after nearly 60 years together.”

The lighting crew was completed by Andrew “Fraggle” Porter, Crew Chief; Luke YC Radin, Head of System; and Lighting Techs Steve Belfield, Barry Branford, Damon Coad, Keith Johnson, Peter Horne, Gus Wimmer, and

Charly Strangeways.

Treatment Visual Productions’ in-house team, headed by Sam Pattinson and Lizzi Pocock, created most of the video content and background material, with additional individual pieces commissioned from outside video artists.

Woodroffe Bassett Design’s Screens Director and Media Server Programmer, Roland Greil, detailed the hardware that served as this dynamic content’s canvas: “To get this modern look, the 4 towers were created, the front parts of which were fully covered with 12mm LED panels. Additionally, the returns of the towers were covered with LED to create an architectural look, add some depth and avoid letting the towers just look like 4 LED screens.”

Solotech supplied Saco SLine S12 LED panels (12mm), along with the corresponding Nano Processors, and a Ross Carbonite Switcher with Ross Open Source Gear. The crew also specified 6 Grass Valley LDX 86 Cameras (3 handheld, 1 jib, and 2 long lens) and Panasonic Robo PTZs. For playback, there were 2 disguise 4x4 Pro media servers and a 2x4 Pros.

Greil gave his appraisal of the setup he had on the tour: “The Saco LED wall elements, as well as the Ross kit, are Solotech stock products but have proven to be a great choice. All the provided equipment is reliable, even under rainy outdoor conditions, and is easy to handle during load-in and -out.

“When we knew we were looking for something to control the whole system, playback content and create effects on the fly, we ended up choosing disguise pretty quickly. The rig does exactly what we want it to in a very efficient way and has been 100% reliable so far.”

He added: “Reliability is a key factor for a show of this calibre. We wanted to use some custom-made Notch effects, especially for IMAG, so the integration of Notch in the servers was another plus. Last but not least the disguise support was second to none, which is key on a project of this scale.”

The show’s video content, consisting of treated and untreated IMAG as well as the bespoke visuals, could be combined in multiple ways. Said Greil: “The key with shows like this one is to keep the balance between the different elements. Furthermore, you always try to avoid overrunning whatever happens on stage, especially with a band like this one that has a great stage presence.”

When it came to the direction of the show, Greil took a collaborative approach. He said: “It’s true teamwork between myself and Camera Director Nick Keiser. He directs 9 cameras and mixes them into as many as 4



different feeds, which are then fed into the disguise system. Those feeds are formatted in the servers, treated and combined with content. The servers, much like the rest of the show, are controlled 100% manually by me using my MA Lighting grandMA2 Full Size console.”

This manual approach is crucial for the Stones’ show, given the organic nature of the band’s performance. Greil continued: “Even with multiple very high-resolution video layers playing back simultaneously, showing various IMAG feeds and treating them in real time - at the same time - we had no performance problems with the servers and there was very little latency.” The video crew consisted of Graham Holwell, Engineer; Josh Keys, Engineer / disguise Tech; Ben Rader, Crew Chief / Lead LED Tech; and Abe Main, Scott Grund, and Austin Colby. Tina Skjerseth was Lead Camera Operator; Scott Lutton, Robbie Lawrence, Mario Juarez and Simon DiFazio served as Camera Operators; and Ryan Woods was Jib Operator.

Greil summed up by saying: “I think we ended up with a very balanced show, which created a good-looking picture frame for one of the biggest rock bands of all time. It was an enjoyable and entirely painless experience thanks to a great team effort with all of the people and crew involved. It’s a lot of fun, not to mention a very rewarding experience, to operate such a show for this legendary band every night.”

Creative Director Woodroffe added: “We had very little lead time once the tour had been confirmed but we worked with a great team from Neg Earth on lighting and Solotech on video. Stufish and Jeremy Lloyd put together the scenic design and concentrated very much on the detail of rigging and mounting all these elements to produce a composition that was both stylish and practical.”

To transport the illustrious band and its hard working crew around

Europe, Opie trusted the equally renowned Beat The Street, while the sizable amount of production was ably transported by Transam Trucking.

CONCLUSION In 1990, the Czech crew that was cobbled together to put on a show for 100,000 people - in a country where the infrastructure to do so didn’t exist - performed nothing short of a miracle. In 2018, it was another day at the office for one of the world’s most professional touring crews. That being said; the changing times and altogether more (dare I say it) banal conditions surrounding this show did nothing to dampen the fervour of The Stones, their Czech (and wider European) faithful, or those working behind the scenes. It was a master class from front to back, and hopefully just another milestone in the career of this most imperious of touring machines. TPi Photos: Manfred H Vogel http://mhvogel.de/ www.rollingstones.com www.woodroffebassett.com www.negearth.com https://clairglobal.com www.diablodigital.com https://solotech.com www.stageco.com www.wicreations.com www.treatmentstudio.com www.stufish.com www.beatthestreet.net www.transamtrucking.com