Geeks at the Gig

Laptops and other high-tech gadgets get a backstage pass


| September / October 2006


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.'

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