Laptops and other high-tech gadgets get a backstage pass
For decades, concertgoers have had a distant yet familiar relationship with 'the roadie.' Stereotypically, he's the scruffy guy in a black T-shirt with matching jeans, fingerless gloves, duct tape and a Mag-Lite hanging off his belt, roaming the stage before and after a show, occasionally checking a microphone or tending to a misplaced cymbal stand. In a tirelessly accelerated culture, the old-school roadie has been an icon of low-tech constancy. Dancing iPod silhouettes come and go, but the road crew remains the same.
Or does it? While it's easy for casual fans to believe that live music is largely immune to the effects of the digital revolution-it is live, after all-the new century has brought sweeping changes to concert production. Tour managers, sound engineers, and video designers are among the key players who rely on digital implements to expedite and enhance their work at all levels, whether audiences notice or not.
'If I lose my computer, I'm screwed,' says Harv Hallas, a full-time tour manager whose clients range from acoustic acts like Seu Jorge to fully wired artists such as DJ Junkie XL. Hallas got his first PowerBook in 1992 as a crew member on U2's Zoo TV tour, when he was responsible for compiling and maintaining four-figure guest lists. He now uses his laptop in tandem with a mobile phone to access stage plots, technical riders, and other vital information at all hours while he's hopping between dozens of countries on various continents. 'It's not as important to have a production office anymore, because of the mobility that technology has given us.'
In turn, 21st-century communication tools make it easier for Hallas to sync up with other digitally enabled concert architects; a recent Black Rebel Motorcycle Club tour involved a computerized lighting plot that was operated by remote control from the mixing desk. He also notes the emergence of fully wired rock clubs like Mr. Small's Funhouse in Pittsburgh, whose entire live-show infrastructure-bookings, stage specs, production requirements, publicity-moves through a centralized database, keeping everyone from backstage personnel to artist managers to booking agents on the same virtual page.
And then there's the sound itself. 'There are trade-offs with digital [mixing boards],' says Bill Winn, piano technician and sound engineer for jazz giant Herbie Hancock. 'But there's a big difference in the time it takes to set your mix for the show. It's an incredible time saver.' Previously, a mix engineer had little choice but to build every gig from scratch, balancing and rebalancing a band's sound every night. Now, all-in-one digital consoles such as Yamaha's PM5D allow pros like Winn to save an entire mix as a virtual document, carry it with them, then simply reload it at the next venue and tweak it to taste.
'For venues and for promoters, a digital console is now actually less expensive than analog,' he adds. 'Like it or not, if you want to mix live, you've got to get good with digital consoles.'
Recording engineers are along for this evolutionary ride, too. From major artists including the Pixies to regionally touring jam bands, numerous acts are now traveling with their own mobile recording units, able to transform gigs into gigabytes on the fly. Texas-based DiscLive and Real Image Recording of Portland, Oregon, are two of the companies that specialize in on-site concert recordings that can be mixed down, mastered, burned to disc, packaged, and sold to concertgoers as they leave.
'The number of copies we produce depends solely on the concert's attendance,' says Steve Beatty of Real Image, who developed a proprietary program called In the House for high-speed CD duplication at concert venues. The quickie live disc has represented not only a technological jump but also a welcome new revenue stream for touring musicians. And for fans, what makes a better concert keepsake: a $30 T-shirt or a recording of the show?
As in any industry, increasing reliance on technology has its pitfalls. 'We've had every possible issue you can think of,' Winn says, recalling a particularly grave incident when Hancock plugged his Apple G5 into a 240-volt European power outlet, accidentally crippling a hard drive that contained synthesizer sounds for his keyboard rig. Artists from U2 to Gorillaz have suffered their own on-stage glitches and been forced to make hurried system fixes that required more than a roll of duct tape. (And then there's poor Ashlee Simpson, who simply fled the stage when a miscued computer sequence left her lip-syncing the wrong song on an infamous Saturday Night Live telecast in 2004.)
For now, whether they're logistical or financial, the benefits of computer-aided concert production are outweighing the risks. As for Joe Roadie, he's still got a job as long as there are physical stages to be built and cables to be connected. But the question looms: How long before he must trade in that flashlight for a flash drive?