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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Taylor Swift "Speak Now" Tour Gear Wrap-up

On Wednesday, August 24th I was given a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes of the Los Angeles Staples Center, to check out Taylor's Audio setup. This was an exciting, informational, and inspiring night and I am excited to share it with my peers.

Lead by Taylor's personal Monitor Engineer Vito, I was given Row 16 center floor seats, and a Guest Pass which allowed me full backstage access with an escort. Within moments of walking up to the Staples Center I was greeted by hordes of women aged 10 and up, carrying signs professing undying love, support, the #13, and self made custom T-Shirts. The reality of a superstar is staggering, as at one point during the show Taylor came off the stage and walked through the crowd. I was literally climbed over by pre-teen girls vying for a closer look, and Taylor hugged as many as her bodyguards would let her. 

To say that Taylor Swift stands out among the true super stars as a genuine artist is evident in two places. First, did you know that Taylor wrote her entire album by herself? This is not only impressive, but if you look at the Country Music industry or Pop, this is quite simply rare. This goes further into a true artist if you look at her catalog of writing hits for others like Colbie Callait, and the multiple Grammies she herself has won on her own songwriting and performing.  Second, as I breached the Velvet rope and was introduced to my guide Vito, I looked to the right and noticed a few crying females leaving a "meet and greet" with Taylor. I was told that Taylor's Mom goes up into the cheap seats at every concert and looks for small groups of girls who put huge effort into shirts, signs, and custom made fan-gear. These girls are personally escorted by Taylor's Mom backstage to have Tea with Taylor... which is now known amongst the super-fans as the "T-Party". 

As I looked to my left, I was greeted by the calming glow of LED, the crisp logos of Avid and Midas, and the very organized audio cables powering the show.  For those of you new to the world of Professional Tour Sound, there are two camps of Engineers, the "Monitor Engineers and Techs" and the "Front of House" guys. Taylor had two opening acts with her at this show, Josh Kelley and "NeedToBreathe".  This means that each opening and had their own Monitor Console with Monitor Mix and in Ear sends, and a Front of House Console to mix the sound coming out of the mains. Doing the math, this means 3 consoles backstage and 3 front of house. While Josh Kelley prefers AVID "Venue" for both Monitor and Front of House mixing, "NeedToBreath" and Taylor both chose to go with MIDAS "Venice 160" as their first stage Monitor console... and "NeedToBreathe" chose to use another MIDAS "Venice 160" to mix front of house. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the "Venice 160", it has often been called the touring musician's best friend, as the ultra small footprint, ultra high headroom, and Professional Recording Studio grade Mic-Pre's and Electronics are considered better than 90% of the "Studio Mixers" at less than $6000 brand new. Vito was telling me that if he was building a studio, he would buy a new Firewire enabled "Venice" and track Drums through it, and then sum mixes through it.  Not bad considering 16 Focusrite ISA Mic Pre's would cost about the same, and you would still need to buy something like the Dangerous Audio 2-Bus, and buy 16 channel EQ's.  The footprint is so small, it sits smartly atop a standard 19 inch rack. 

Vito explained to me that every piece of Audio equipment is installed twice, and that they have a redundant rig for every instrument. This means literally two of everything, in case one suddenly goes down, or if they need to ship an entire rig to another Country ahead of time. Taylor records her Vocals to Tape in the studio, and that she was very sensitive to latency caused by the digital consoles.  She solves this is two ways. First, Taylor's vocals go into an AVALON "737 sp" Mic-pre. She uses the on-board EQ and Compressor. This gives her the warmth and compression she likes to hear when tracking in the studio. This is routed into the MIDAS "Venice 160", which feeds the "In-Ear" monitors for every band member and for Taylor herself.  All the background vocals are processed directly using the MIDAS' on board Mic-Pre's and EQ's, and separate Monitor Mixes are sent to each background vocalist.  It was then that I turned my head to the left and saw the first of two DiGiCo SD7 Consoles.

DrFord and Vito, at the DiGiCo DS7 Monitor Engineer's Console

Taylor's personal PH HD 6 rig featuring 96 channels of the new AVID HD I/O
The first DiGiCo Console does three things; handles all the audio routing to and from the stage, sends "In-Ear" mixes to the Musicians and click to the drummer, and sends a complete stem mix to Taylor's personal Pro Tools HD 6 rig located under the stage.  The PT rig under the stage does another three jobs. First, it sends Timecode to the lighting techs for lighting ques, second it records every show, and third it provides playback of "click track" and backing tracks not performed by live musicians on stage.

I am told Taylor is not a fan of "freebies" and does not accept anything for free that she does not personally endorse. In speaking with Vito Taylor bought this system at full retail. Note the use of the Presonus "Central Station" for headphone monitoring during the show.  It was from here that I would be ushered beneath the stage to see Taylor's white Grand Piano and the Bell Chimes, but for this blog, lets stick to electronics.  Rounding to Stage Right, I stepped into the guitar tech's domain.

Taylor Swift's personal guitar rack featuring the famous sparkly Taylor.

Taylor Swift's Guitar Tech hard at work.

With a private stage entrance from stage right, it is here that Taylor is handed all of her guitars, which change every song, so that they stay perfectly in tune.  All Guitar peddle changes are made by the Guitar Tech for the entire show, and he was flawless in his work. Watching the show, the Guitar hand offs are so well executed that Taylor doesn't even look back. She just reaches out and Guitars magically appear and disappear as if from nowhere.

A 1 in 135 hand painted by Eddie Van Halen Strat.
"What's your favorite Guitar in the rack?" I asked. "This vintage $25,000 Eddie Van Halen" he replied.

Hannah Anders and Josh Kelley backstage.
As we left the the Guitar Tech's domain, we ran into Josh Kelley and I snapped a photo seconds before he went onstage to perform cuts off his album "Georgia Clay".  As Josh went on stage to open up to 13,500 screaming fans, I went to the front of house mix location to check out the gear. 

Josh Kelley's Front of House Venue Console.
NeedToBreath's Front of House Mix Engineer in session on a MIDAS Venice 160
Taylor Swift's Front of House DiGiCo SD7 Digital Console
Taylor Swift's Front of House Mix Engineer in Session prepping for Taylor's show.
  As I entered the Front of House Mix position, I met the Video and Lighting Engineers, and then met Taylor's Mix Engineer. I asked him what was in the rack he was working on, and he said they had another set of Redundant Avalon 737sp Mic Pres, and a redundant set of Drawmer "1960" Channel Strips to process the Bass DI for the Mains. As far as Microphones, Taylor and her background vocalists all use Audix wireless Microphones. 

I would like to say a very special thank you to Vito, who was incredibly accommodating, and kind. The overall impression I got from all the crew in Taylor's camp was cool, calm and collected. I believe this reflects Taylor's attitude, her professionalism, and talent. In closing, I would like to say that whether Taylor Swift endorses Avalon or not, Taylor's Vocals go through an Avalon 737 sp (stock tubes). I was not surprised by this as it is one of the most common Mic pre's in today's studios, and for good reason. I was surprised however, and hugely impressed, by the MIDAS "Venice 160" console. This is no small show to trust your sound to a $6000 Mixing board as the first position of sound. What you do there affects everything that comes after it. I guess MIDAS is doing it right!


1 comment:

  1. Taylor Swift does not write her own songs. Lyrics yes, but those are incredibly simple "Billy broke my heart" type lyrics anybody can write. You as a producer should know that Dr Luke, Max Martin, and a host of other mega producers compose the 'hook'. This is comprised of the beat and melody. I'm not saying she's not talented, but keep it real...she is the Justin Bieber of country music.