Happiness loves company
Over 15,000 people from across the region packed the Beirut Waterfront for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first concert in the Middle East. James Ling reports from front of house
After nearly 30 years of performing and numerous different line-ups, the Red Hot Chili Peppers chose a sultry September night to make their debut in the Middle East. Unlike many acts that have trodden this path before them, the band decided against the regular hotspots of Dubai or Abu Dhabi in favour of Beirut.
For many in the Lebanese capital, this was ‘the concert of the year’. And with a reported influx of tourists from around the region coming to Beirut, there was huge anticipation in the build up to the show. In contrast, at front of house the mood was much more relaxed. While it was clear that this was not ‘just another gig’ for the technical team, there was the air of confidence that comes from working together on countless shows.
This was most clearly personified by FOH engineer Dave Rat. With a different audio setup from other legs of the tour it would have been easy for Mr Rat to be apprehensive about the performance, but this was very much not the case. ‘My first priority is achieving a very high quality sound with worldwide sonic consistency, so having the same equipment for every show really helps. That said, there are times when logistically we just cannot get the touring gear to a city for one reason or another,’ he explains. ‘For Beirut, I knew we were going to need to hire in a sound system and there were several options. One option was to bring in gear from another country. After some thought and thinking back to when Rat Sound was growing, I remembered how important it was to us growing as a sound vendor when bands would hire us for a local gig rather than bring in a larger company from far away. I decided I would rather support a local Beirut company and mix on a different equipment type, than ship in gear from afar.’
With only his regular Midas H3000 analogue console and outboard gear travelling with the tour to Beirut, the rest of the PA was supplied by local rental house Loud N Clear. ‘Like always, we are using Martin Audio speakers,’ says Roger Bou Farhat general manager for the rental company. ‘There is no L-Acoustics rig in Beirut, so when they had a choice they chose the Longbow. It is a quality product.’
The setup for the show saw 12 Martin Audio W8L Longbow cabinets per side hung with a further 32 W8LC cabinets were used as outfill either side and for a central hang. Loud N Clear also supplied 16 W8Ls for delays and 16 W8LMs for downfill. Low end was courtesy of 40 of the manufacturer’s S218 double 18-inch subs.
Power for the system came via Lab.gruppen and Crest, including 30 FP+ 10000Q amps, and 12 Crest Audio PL 8200s. Processing was via 12 XTA DP448 DSPs. To complete the setup, the company supplied a Midas Pro9 which Mr Bou Farhat used at FOH to mix the support act Pindoll, and a Pro2 to mix monitors.
Away from the sound system, Aya Holding supplied 100 sq-m of 16mm Vis LED screens, Nordic Staging for the stage and FOH position and Vari*Lite lighting, while Al Laith provided the roof. ‘The LED screens are new, they are curved, but here we have used them straight,’ says Aya Holding president Sultan Thomas. ‘They are semi-transparent and it is the first time we have used them.’
‘I felt I had enough gear, everything worked well,’ says Mr Rat. ‘It was a clean, pro and dependable setup that performed well.’ Buzz Productions, the production company responsible for putting on the show, was also quick to complement the system. ‘I was pleasantly surprised with the sound quality, and have enjoyed working with it,’ notes production manager JeanCarl Saliba. ‘We had enough boxes to have the intensity needed without pushing it to its limits. Loud N Clear did a great job, and the sound engineers from the band tuned it to their liking.’
This tuning process is something the touring production has down to a fine art now, as Mr Rat describes. ‘We don't really sound check, I do carry a sound console and it stays setup so I do not change much. Pretty much my main focus is tuning the sound system/venue combination to the tonality I seek,’ he explains. ‘I do that by playing music and EQ'ing the system to sound like my headphones. Other than that, as long as there are no equipment failures, everything should come up sounding good.’
The major difficulty for getting this combination right came in the form of the dimensions of the audience area. With a second stage area setup for the visit of the Pope a few days later, the space was short but wide, meaning that ensuring even coverage throughout became a priority. ‘The main challenge is it’s so wide as a venue,’ says Mr Bou Farhat. ‘We have enough boxes to cover it though, so it is not a problem.’
‘With the centre fill, left-right and outfills, we managed to reproduce the performance to every corner of the arena,’ continues Buzz Productions’ Mr Saliba. ‘I walked all across the site during the concert and was happy with how it sounded in all positions. There was no hole in the subs or uneven distribution at the front or the back. I liked the system’s warmth and intensity. All the preparation was done correctly in that respect and I have to acknowledge the sound engineers both local and international for this.’
The sound of the show was very much down to the way that Dave Rat sets up the mix. ‘One of the most unnatural aspects about live reinforcement is the comb filtering that occurs when the same sound is reproduced by multiple sources,’ explains the sound engineer. ‘To minimise this, I do all I can to send differing signals to each side of the system whenever possible. I do things like use two kick mics and send one to the left side and the other to the right. This helps minimise power alley as well.’
The result of this was a performance that sounded more interesting and was natural to the ear. Different places in the crowd received different sonic images which meant everyone will have experienced something unique to where they were. Mr Rat believes this idea of creating an experience is key to the role of a sound engineer.
‘I see connecting the band to the audience as the most important aspect of my job as a sound engineer,’ he explains. ‘To achieve this I do many things, including mixing with the console sideways so it is not between myself and the band. That way I feel more like an audience member. I also turn off all the lights at the sound board so I can stay focused on the show rather than the gear. I memorise where everything is so I don’t need lights.
‘Many engineers become so immersed in the audio gear that they forget that the audio gear is just tool we use to connect the audience with the band,’ he continues. ‘So I try and keep my focus on that connection and use the gear to assist with that goal.’
Judging by the crowd reaction from first note of Monarchy of Roses to last strains of Give it Away, and the way the band lingered onstage as long as they could to take in the atmosphere, this connection was made. It also seems to have been shared by the FOH engineer too. ‘I really enjoyed Beirut on many levels. I found it fascinating to experience so many strong contrasts: luxury hotels and high-end shops, yet high security everywhere. And while I am not really interested in high-end luxury, nor very comfortable around a strong security presence, the true magic is the people I met,’ reflects Mr Rat. ‘I have mixed a lot of shows around the world and the common factor to a wonderful and amazing show is the audience, and I love that I will always enjoy remembering the Peppers in Beirut. Sound wise, it went smoothly without issues, the band played well and the audience rocked!
‘We have done a wide range of venue sizes and types, ranging from small clubs with a few hundred fans to massive stadia with 80,000 people,’ he continues. ‘I personally prefer the mid-sized gigs as they are big enough to have that rock show feel, yet small enough to feel the intimacy of the crowd. I thought the gig was really cool and felt very organic and natural fun.’
Leaving the show with 15,000 happy fans it is clear that this view was shared. For all the technical advances made in the pro audio industry to improve sound quality, sometimes it is nice to be reminded that the real reason we do it all is for the entertainment of others. The warmth and happiness created by this performance and the role of both the equipment and the engineer in achieving it is testament to this.