Geeks at the Gig

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?

UTNE
UTNE
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