17 minute read

Flight of the Conchords

PRODUCTION PROFILE

FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS

TPi’s Ste Durham caught up with the tight knit crew at Manchester Arena as they stared down the barrel of the tour’s climactic run of shows at Eventim Apollo, London, where the band were due to film their long-awaited HBO special.

Musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords [FOTC], otherwise known as New Zealanders Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, had their theatre run in the UK cut short earlier this year when McKenzie inadvertently broke his hand, leading to all remaining shows being postponed. Despite this setback, the band returned in June to finish the job with a run of arena shows leading to a 4-night run at Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo, wherein a TV special for US network HBO was to be filmed.

Monitor Engineer and Backline Tech, Matt Shane, first met FOTC in 2006 while he served as a staff engineer at the recording studio in New York where a lot of the music for the TV series and albums were recorded. He began: “The band and their producer, Mickey Petralia, came in to record and craft all the music for the television series’ 2 seasons, as well as the band’s debut EP and subsequent albums.

“After the second season the band and their management asked me if I would be interested in going on the road with them and doing live sound. The first tour I mixed FOH & monitors and it was a lot of fun. We started that

tour in small theatres and ended it in a basketball arena, so it was clear that the next time we went out on the road the crew would grow.”

This latest UK tour came about in the same way as those past ones, as Shane explained: “The management reaches out for availabilities and then schedules are confirmed. All the while I’m in contact with Bret and Jemaine trying to get any insight I can into what the show may look and sound like from a stage set and backline perspective. As I receive or decipher info I will pass it on to Mike Leach (FOH Engineer) and Marc Janowitz (LD/PM) so they’re looped in on the latest info from the band.”

Having spent years building his relationship with the artists, it made the most sense for Shane to stay on stage and handle all of their backline / stage tech needs while mixing monitors.

He continued: “The band is really fun to mix for, and our working snapshots have held pretty true tour to tour, which is wonderful considering our production rehearsals are real shows - there’s not much in the way of traditional prep / rehearsal time for tech.

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“The band still keeps me on my toes, but we do have snapshots for each song (and sometimes multiple variations depending on whether Bret plays piano or guitar on something for example) to keep open mics and channels locked down pretty tight. Sometimes guitar tuner mutes or switches get hit accidentally (or not hit) when moving from one position to another, so I try and stay on top of it all and keep anything they’re not using on a song muted from the ears and wedges.”

McKenzie opted exclusively for IEMs for the arena / apollo run in June of this year, while Clement was wedges only. Although the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Nigel, typically makes use of IEMs and a traditional wedge mix, he stayed on his wedge for the duration of the UK run.

“The tour is wonderful to mix since we get to use our rig night in and night out,” Shane explained. “FOTC doesn’t really do one offs or TV shows, but I prefer mixing a tour where we can get the rig customised so everything is exactly where I want it when I reach for something. “Every room sounds different and every stage too. The band is really sensitive to spill from the PA, or slap from the back of the room on stage. They are also especially sensitive to low end build up on stage. This is part of the reason we do not carry side fills and the system techs and FOH engineer work really hard to get the sub energy steered off stage as much as possible.”

Since the initial FOTC tour, Shane has used an Avid Profile and d&b audiotechnik M4 wedges, as well as a Shure PSM1000 wireless system and the Jerry Harvey Audio JH13 IEMs.

The engineer commented: “I stick with the Profile because my large show file is ready to go with snapshots and presets for different songs and scenarios. I also know how the M4 wedge sounds and I know what the guys like, so with minimal production rehearsal time, myself and the FOH engineer can get the system and mix sounding pretty close to what we anticipate will be comfortable for the band.”

On stage, all of the instruments are run through Radial Passive DI boxes, with the exception of the cello, basses, and acoustic guitars. Shane explained: “The acoustics go through Radial ToneBone PZ-Pre preamp/ DI’s, while the Hofner bass and cello pickups are run through the Radial ToneBone BassBone preamp pedals and an Avalon U5 DI handles the Fender P-Bass that Bret plays during the show.

We chose DPA cardioid mics for the acoustic guitar mics in front of each member, as well as their miniature piano stereo mic set and cello bass mic. The vocal mics are all the Sennheiser e 935, which sound really nice and smooth even as Bret or Jemaine may drift, turn off the mic or back away for effect.”

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FOH Engineer, Mike Leach; System Tech, Billy Bryson; PM and LD, Marc Janowitz; Video Director, Alastair MacDairmid.

FOH AUDIO The PA system for the tour consisted of 14 boxes of L-Acoustics K1 per side, with 4 KARA down, for the main hangs, as well as between 12 and 16 K2 per side for side hangs, depending on the venue size. 4 additional KARA were deployed for lip fill, and 8 ARCSII were used as outfill to bring the image back down to stage level.

System Tech Billy Bryson talked through the system: “We stepped up to K1 for arenas - the L-Fins built into K2 are perfect for minimising overlap between the main and side hangs. On the floor, we have 2 stacks of 3-high KS28 subs per side, with the inner 2 spun in cardioid mode to reduce low end on stage. The show doesn’t require a lot of bass; it’s more used as an effect in 2 or 3 songs.”

Despite the relatively low volume of the show, 3 hangs of 9 KARA were hung on a delay truss above FOH to ensure maximum intelligibility - key for the spoken word portions - even at the back of the bowl. These delays were initially flown by Monitor Tech, Jim Patterson, who then traded off with Bryson so he could get them to height and configured.

PA drive was handled by 40 LA12X amps, with 2 Lake LM44’s at FOH (as a matrix) and 2 LM26’s per side of the stage for zonal processing and control. All PA bumps were equipped with KSG Lasers, while the motor controller racks were fitted with rack mount KSG Inclinometer readers and a CAT5 Remote unit.

“The rackmount readers are an elegant solution for viewing data from multiple sensors at once,” said Bryson. He tuned the system using Rational Acoustics Smaart v8, and the Smaart API for tablet control, along with Room EQ Wizard.

He continued: “I use an Earthworks Audio M30BX on a Lectrosonics system so I can walk the room with my tablet. I’m certainly conscious when I tune that there’s less low end and less impact needed from the PA, because the gig is all about intelligible vocals in a big room. I use the Array Morphing tool in LA Network Manager to size the boxes down so they’re not producing as much 100-200Hz. This just assists Mike when he is making the vocals as intelligible as possible.”

Mike Leach began working with FOTC in 2009/10, initially becoming involved through the outgoing FOH Engineer. He said: “People often think that it’s a comedy duo, so how intense could it be? The truth is that these guys keep you on your toes! There are around 40 channels but the guys are constantly moving around the instruments throughout the show. It’s fun to chase them but, at the same time, it’s a lot more complex than staying on top of a few guys playing the same instruments all night.”

He continued: “I try to make it as loud as I can but it’s not the kind of show to force down people’s throats - it’s all about intelligibility in the vocals. All these acoustic instruments can only go so loud, and the introduction of guitar pedals complicates things further. I just have to rein it in and figure it out!”

Leach also opted for a Profile, citing the sound of the desk and the plugin ability of Pro Tools as key factors in this decision. “Snapshots help, and they have really song-specific effects they need,” he said. “We never get production rehearsals so there’s no time to learn a new desk or rebuild scenes. We need to be able to load an old showfile, adapt it to the new input list and go.

“We kind of know the set but to be able to have all those snapshots in the list is reassuring. They’ll set up the song with dialogue, and now we’re deep in the tour it’s pretty locked in. Some nights they aren’t comfortable to play a certain song or decide to leave it until later, so we rely on snapshots for that as well.“

Aside from the band’s mic etiquette being somewhat unconventional - a common theme in comedy performance - Leach’s biggest concern was the move into arenas. “They’re great singers and, the more comfortable they get, they begin to lay into the vocals a bit more. The spoken word is trickier, but the Sennheiser e 935’s are robust, tight patterned, and it’s easy to get good levels in the monitors with them. The major change for this tour was the addition of a Helpinstill contact system to get piano over everything else.”

The band also had a DPA pencil condenser each in front of them as a catchall solution, which is particularly useful for instruments like the toy piano used for Albi the Racist Dragon. Leach added: “Matt had to do a little last minute surgery on the ‘rockenspiel’ to insert a mic - he always has to adapt quickly but he’s a master at figuring that stuff out. It’s amazing how he balances those backline duties alongside everything else.“

He then went on to discuss how the PA lent itself to FOTC’s own audiobased idiosyncrasies: “We had a choice from Marc about the PA. In theatres we had K2 but bumping up to K1 has been ideal for clarity. Andy Russell and Billy Bryson have traded off as PA Techs, and both have been great at getting the system dialled in for me so I can do minor tweaks.

“I don’t treat the spoken word that differently than singing, but when it comes time for the music it has to feel as rock ‘n’ roll as possible, with full fidelity. Tweaking out the resonances of acoustic instruments or the room itself is key, as is keeping the subs down. There’s a couple times where it has to be full on but it can’t be overpowering and swallow up what they do.

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That’s the beauty of cardioid subs man!”

He added: “You can’t forget those people at the back of the room either. Billy has been great at walking the room, getting to what looks like the worst seat, and ensuring the coverage is as uniform as it can be. I really can’t say enough about the rig and what the guys have done to make it a great experience. People who’ve never seen the Conchords don’t realise how much of a rock experience it actually is, particularly when people are expecting two guys doing mainly stand up. Their range of stylistic influences is so fun, and it’s awesome to be able to mix in different musical styles.”

Shane gave a round up of the tour from an audio point of view: “It’s gone really smoothly, the guys were happy and they played really well. The gear held up and was solid and reliable night in, night out - and that’s as important as how it sounds. Consistency is a huge thing for me when we’re doing back-to-backs, and the techs we had from our vendor, Adlib, were extremely professional. I couldn’t have been happier with how we were looked after. Our touring crew is pretty tightly knit for the size venues the band is doing, so everyone gets along and works well together.”

LIGHTING & VIDEO Lighting Designer Marc Janowitz, who also served as the tour’s Production Manager, began by discussing the surprisingly intricate processes behind the look of FOTC latest outing: “Just taking practical illumination out of it for a second, and there are 2 worlds being represented; firstly, you have a pair of musical comedians on stage, who are interacting with each other in their self aware, fourth wall-breaking moments, and essentially setting up characters that are a bit more real than their HBO caricatures.

“The other world is the way that they use musical genres to create parodies and comedy and, essentially tell a story. The visual aspect of this second world morphs so that the stage can become a place where that song could exist in reality. If they do a ‘folkier’ song we mellow to a ‘folkier’ look, and the same goes for rock or hip-hop. The difference is we can never truly lose sight of their faces and reactions, because that’s where the comedy is.”

Janowitz has spent 10 years with the Conchords perfecting this trick - a trick that often leads to comedic moments in and of themselves. The LD explained: “The world around them can’t just change and then they play,

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it has to happen as they play. There are times where they look out at FOH and ask me to create these looks, which was a little nerve wracking at first! The original joke before they had an LD was they’d ask for a certain look and nothing would change,” he laughed. “Now it’s more whether the things they say can be interpreted visually. There’s a moment where they ask for medieval lighting for their ‘old song’, 1353, where we fade to black for 10 seconds. Sometimes it gets a chuckle or even a laugh, and they usually comment that ‘our LD gets one joke a night and that was it’.

“Then when we return, I can move into a far out, textural gobo look that you’d never get away with jumping straight to in a comedy show. It’s just a case of coming up with organic ways of creating these worlds.”

The rig itself was relatively generic in terms of fixture placement and was geared towards utility. DS truss for specials and audience lighting, US truss for profiles and washes and floor package with a handful of both. That’s grown over time. There’s only 2/3 stationary guys. This included 12 Claypaky Scenius Unicos split equally between the downstage and upstage trusses, and 3 per side behind the IMAG to cut through the high side angle.

Janowitz explained: “We chose the Unico for its feature set and camera friendliness. It’s got a lot going for it - it can be used as beam, wash, and profile, and has great gobos. We also used 8 GLP impression X4’s on the upstage truss and 6 on the downstage. Those are your profile / wash system. On the floor is 8 Robe MegaPointes, which gives you that great beam texture over the band. It’s really useful visually and, because we rely for their expressions on IMAG, it’s nice eye candy for the cameras.”

There was no scenic backdrop or any set pieces for the show, mainly due to the way in which they could stifle the band’s potential for ‘world building’, but the white upstage cyc did provide an opportunity for Janowitz to get his gobo on.

“With this particular UK and Ireland run, we worked with notion of the HBO special at the end,” he said. “Basically, we don’t want the cameras to be shooting into black for 75% of show! The band and the director went back to iconic concert films of ‘60s, ‘70s, and even early ‘80s. Borrowing stylistic cues from things like The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense, which make fair use of coloured cycs. We’ve talked about things other than light, but having scenery almost shows your hand too soon. Spontaneity is key to their storytelling, and too much foreshadowing could damage that.”

Video Director and Project Manager for VER Alastair MacDiarmid’s history with the band dates back to 2013, where he began a protracted game of musical director’s chairs with TPi Awards winner Jon Shrimpton.

This collaboration, also benefitting from the input of Arran Busk, has resulted in an organically evolved video setup for this latest tour.

MacDairmid began: “We have an independent 2-screen show, both of which are made from our very hi-res ROE VR3 3mm panels. It’s a really nice modern screen, with great black levels and colour saturation. It’s also a fine enough pitch that it doesn’t really trigger moiré effects in the cameras when they’re looking back at the screen, which is ideal for TV work.

“We have Sony 2500 hi def cameras, which are full broadcast spec, with Canon hi def x95 and x85 glass lenses. There’s also Panasonic HE160 robocams, and a Sony MVS-3000 broadcast switcher, which is a cut down version of 6000’s you see in TV studios. Behind the stage there’s a fully built up 3-rack PPU with a big shader station on one side and a director’s station on the other. With the 2 screens it has to be a 2ME switcher, as you’ve got to be able to have 2 full mixer-fed busses so you can do full fade, wipes and effects on both screens independently.”

The show is entirely made up of live camera footage to screen to ensure the essential spontaneity to which Janowitz had previously alluded. “The guys themselves project this persona of being 2 slightly naïve kiwis that haven’t quite got it together,” MacDiarmid smiled. “It remains an element in the live show but it’s obviously play-acting. They’ll still goof around on stage and mess things up from time to time but it adds to the ‘clunkiness’. There’s a certain amount of this to my and Johnny’s video show; nothing’s ever quite perfect. At the same time it’s a real high quality show, just without over-glossing it. It’s certainly an interesting challenge.”

He continued: “The personas they’ve developed are still front and centre. You have to enhance the experience for everyone at the back, to ensure they see all the tiny things happening on stage like the toy pianos and nuances of visual humour - their facial expressions in particular. This creates the atmosphere in the room, which then feeds back to the guys on stage. The show is basically a circle of positive reinforcement that the video component is integral to.”

While the high quality LED certainly looked the part, VER had to work to ensure the product remained tourable. MacDiarmid said: “They’re not exactly designed to tour, but we have them shock mounted to protect them. Video screen is so much more reliable than it used to be in the old days. There’s less head scratching now, even for a 3mm screen!”

As well as providing the live footage for the show, MacDiarmid’s shots also served an alternate purpose, as he explained: “They’ve already cut together isolated recordings from earlier in the tour to create a kind of

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guide for the DVD shoot, which is a nice compliment to the show we’ve developed. We had fun feeding them shots and it will be great to see the final result.”

SUPPLIERS As well as discussing the lighting-based world building that goes into a FOTC tour, Janowitz also found a moment to find his Production Manager hat and talk to TPi while he was wearing it. He began: “The suppliers for this run are a mixture of established relationships and a few new partners. VER handles all of the video, as we have a long-running relationship with them in the US. They provided lights and audio for last few tours as well; not to mention the fact that Alastair is Project Manager there as well. It’s not easy to get that level of broadcast equipment at this time of year, but VER’s inventory is vast in that way and they made it affordable.

“We have used Adlib on all of our Europe runs. They’re a high-quality, reputable company, who guarantee you attention to detail at every corner.

“Neg Earth Lights is a new choice. There are so many great lighting vendors in the UK but they provided right combination of price and personnel to go with their worldwide reputation.

“Our trucking vendor, Fly By Nite, are awesome and, even though it’s

only a 4 truck tour, they’ve been perfect. To go with this low maintainance approach, we haven’t even used bussing, as we have enough hotel backto-backs and drives aren’t so bad. We’ve used Beat The Street day coaches to hop cities on days off. Tour Manager, Rebecca Travis, who is one of the long-time core crew along with Matt, Mike and myself, has made all of these logistical calculations. Finally, I will go back to the States with a few extra kilos thanks to Popcorn! The food is unbelievable and the crew are so good as well.”

Following the success of the tour and its triumphant peak at Eventim Apollo, the hour-long show recording, Flight of the Conchords: Live at the London Apollo, is due to air in the US on HBO on 6 October. TPi Photos: Shirlaine Forrest www.flightoftheconchords.co.nz www.adlib.co.uk www.popcorncatering.com www.negearth.com www.ver.com www.flybynite.co.uk www.beatthestreet.net

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