This article originally appeared in issue #277 of TPi, which you can read here. Words by Jacob Waite.
There is a palpable sense of pride in Newcastle that an artist born 20 minutes from St. James’ Park has made it to the big leagues; reaching stadium status with two critically acclaimed studio albums under his belt. Far be it from conventional, Sam Fender’s touring team is reflective of the DIY ethos his band embody – a tight crew who have ridden the rollercoaster ride which has seen them go from operating in 600-capacity venues to 52,000-capacity stadium in a matter of years.
After a stint covering monitor mixing responsibilities on 2019s Hypersonic Missiles campaign, Rob Simpson of Nub Sound stepped up to the ranks of production management in advance of Sam’s first arena tour due to head out as the pandemic hit in March 2020. “The trajectory of Sam’s shows put us in an odd position post-pandemic – we were touring Hypersonic Missiles while 2021s Seventeen Going Under record was released, so we had to amalgamate both campaigns with different designs – the latter being a considerable step up from the first,” he said, recalling the camp’s astronomic rise.
His vendors of choice included Adlib for PA, automation, lighting, video, and communications; Cine-drone for drone filming; ER Productions for pyrotechnics and special effects; KB Event for trucking and logistics; Nub Sound for set infrastructure and audio control; Star Live for staging; The Unlimited Dream Company (UDC) for video content and Vision Factory for production design. “All of our suppliers have risen to the challenge to deliver these shows. Having one point of contact to disseminate information has allowed me to free up time to focus on the day to day,” he said, praising the involvement of Adlib. “I reluctantly got involved in the set element of this design. Sam already owned a riser package, which we bolstered with more deck and custom sections manufactured by Alistage. Thankfully, being part of Nub also allows me to consolidate audio equipment in advance and within budgetary and time constraints.”
As with the supplier roster, the crew has largely remained the same. “We punch beyond our weight,” Simpson admitted. “We don’t quite have the manpower or resources as an established stadium act, so we aim to create a spectacle within those confines. These shows require a devoted crew, which we are certainly blessed with. We front load our resources so often the mechanics or the back end of things aren’t as buttoned up or amazing as you may think from a superficial point of view. However, these two shows are a huge step up for all of us and have been universally praised.”
‘FROM AMBIENT ACOUSTIC TRACKS TO STADIUM ANTHEMS’
“There was always a feeling this was going somewhere, but not many artists can sell out their hometown stadium two nights in a row,” reminisced FOH Engineer, Peter Fergie – who was pinching himself at the prospect of mixing his biggest show to date, in front of thousands of expectant black and white clad Geordies. “While there are some additional logistical challenges associated with St. James’ Park, it simply had to be this place, so much of their iconography – from the rendition of Going Home (Theme of the Local Hero) at live shows to the album artwork – is embedded in the fabric of who they are as a band.”
The L-Acoustics PA system, overseen by System Engineer, James Coghlan, featured 12 K1 and four K2 on the main hangs with 12 K1SB loudspeakers flown behind for ‘low frequency reinforcement’. The side hangs were in an asymmetric configuration with 10 K1 with four K2 flown stage right and left each. A further 38 KS28 were situated on the floor with A10 and X15 chosen as front fills and lip fills.
The ground delays were also configured asymmetrically, with 10 K1 with two K2 down situated stage left, with the stage right ground delay closer to the north seating block, and six K1 with 10 K2 selected as down fill. The ring delay system came in the shape of 68 K2, four hangs of which were eight K2 deep, with flown amplifiers to reduce the cable length, and the remaining six hangs were six K2 deep with amplifiers on the floor, where Adlib could drop cables in pre-existing seat kills due to sightline issues. “The stage is in a particularly difficult configuration in relation to the audience planes, so there has been a lot of thought put into how to make the most of the available floor space for ground delays and making it work with the asymmetry of the venue, and above all, make it sound good,” Coghlan explained.
“I use Soundvision to develop the design, which I export into LA Network Manager, which I’m using to drive control of the amplifiers. I’m also using an Outline Newton as my front-end system processing and L-Acoustic P1 as an AVB break-in into the system. The whole system is driven via AVB, which sounds better and is much more flexible in its routing. L-Acoustics have helped us out by building a working Soundvision room model – their support has been top notch, which takes the weight off our shoulders when we know we have the support of the manufacturer.”
Having formerly mixed in ‘monitor world’, Fergie acknowledged the benefits of ‘relationship building’ with the band during those early shows. “There is a lot of trust between us, so you become familiar with what’s required on stage. This gig has exploded over the years with guitars, mandolins, baritone saxophones, trumpets, trombones, guest and backing vocals all on one stage – which makes for a fun and engaging show to mix. Ultimately, good performances come from happy and content musicians, and [Monitor Engineer] Terry Smith appreciates that my background as a monitor engineer provides us with the flexibility to collaborate to make this the best sounding show possible on both ends.”
Both engineers mixed on Allen and Heath dLive consoles. “I’ve had this desk since the early days, and it’s grown with us. I’m very close to maxing out its capabilities, particularly inputs and buses, but it’s so intuitive. There are not many consoles where you can mix a show of this complexity without outboard or plug-ins, which I don’t have. I’m happy to tour the world with this setup – if I can get my hands on a dLive, I can make the show sound consistent,” Fergie commented.
“Mixing on an Allen and Heath dLive is unusual for a stadium-sized show but it does the trick,” Smith noted. “This gig requires a lot of routing and talkbacks, so I run ‘utility’ scenes behind the cue list to tidy up any discrepancies that don’t affect the setlist.”
Despite these tricks, Smith admitted he was stretching the capabilities of the dLive with no buses and only five out of 128 inputs left. “This is not one of those gigs where you set a mix up and it’s good for the whole show; we go from the quietest most ambient acoustic songs through to stadium anthems with a range of instruments, so there is a lot of snapshotting and doubling up certain instruments to treat them differently and make it work.”
For microphones, Smith deployed DPA Microphones 4099 and 2012s on most instruments; a Sennheiser MD 435 for vocals; MD 445s for backing vocals; SM57s and 4099s for brass and Neumann SH 150 gooseneck microphones for trumpets. In ear monitors were primarily Jerry Harvey Audio Roxannes.
Smith outlined his goals for the IEM mixes: “There’s a balanced in-ear mix with vocals laid on top for Sam with an instrument specific focus for the individual band members’ mix. All the band have worked closely with Sam for years – particularly [guitarist] Dean Thompson, who has engineered and produced elements of his back catalogue and is a fantastic live and studio engineer in his own right, so he knows exactly what he wants and can be specific.”
‘A CHILDHOOD DREAM COME TRUE’
The asymmetry element of the stage design helped connect the band to the audience to recreate indie rock band conventions on the big stage. The concept devised by Sam Tozer of Vision Factory and Set Designer, Flora Harvey, was previsualised by CAD Designer, Tom Cousins of Nub Sound, who collaborated with Tozer using Vectorworks and Syncronorm Depence R3; Lighting Director, Luke Avery; and content specialist, UDC.
“Watching Sam’s live shows grow in such a short period of time is crazy,” mused Tozer. “We wanted to create a stage that was diverse enough to match the different moods and tempos of his music and carry a visual language and aesthetic that grounded the show. I typically start the design process with the shape of the design which in this case led to an asymmetrical design. Once we found the shape, we dug into dynamics, researched theatrical techniques to create shapes with light. Flora and I have an obsession of using heavy looking materials that aren’t typically found on stage. I wanted to evolve the stage as the show went on, so automation was a vital tool to create new positions for lighting.”
Automation was constant throughout the set overseen by Operator, Giulio Ligorio; Project Manager, Mike Blundell and Spotter, Jordan Whyment. “This show is quite simple and safe to operate because there are a lot of 300kg lighting pods spread across the motors.
With the video walls running the full width of the stage we needed to deploy a few solutions to keep things running safely. The automation and backline departments have access to a video feed with four cameras including a [Panasonic UE160] PTZ camera with a controller at the automation position to cycle through angles of the set, as well as having Jordan in the stage left pit as a spotter,” Ligorio said, walking through the Kinesys system with Vector control and LibraCell on every point.
“Most of this show is quite high up, the lowest to stage is around 3.5m, where a pod comes above Sam at a safe distance and Jordan, and I have ‘deadman handle’ which we can use at any point to engage the system.”
The triangular shaped automation rig matched the lighting with five pods situated above the band and one located further above the stage, which is manipulated throughout the set to create steps or fingers of lighting.
“A show like this requires a lot of programming and hours,” Ligorio said, praising the Tyler GT Plus and Total Fabrications truss systems, which made the build “easier and quicker” to assemble. “There’s a vibe at this gig that the crew look after each other, which makes for a nice dynamic, especially as I’m used to being a one-man band.”
The lighting rig comprised a range of lighting solutions in 43 Ayrton Domino LT; 32 Ayrton Perseo-S; 33 Martin Professional MAC Ultra Performance and 45 MAC Ultra Wash; 73 GLP impression X4 Bar 20, 22 JDC Line 1000 and four GLP JDC Line 500; 75 ACME Pixel Line IP; four Robert Juliat Lancelot followspots; 11 Robe Forte with five RoboSpot controllers. Six MDG TheONE units were chosen for atmospherics with a pair of MA Lighting grandMA3 full-size consoles, along with Adlib’s custom control racks of Luminex nodes and switches selected for control and distribution.
Tozer referenced a tunnel of warm light generated by a Mole-Richardson 20K Fresnel as a focal point of the lighting design. “This light creates a large parallel shaft that pinpoints Sam,” he reported. “The other important fixture within the rig was the Martin Professional MAC Ultra Wash. I wanted a large aperture wash fixture that could create four lines of light pointing towards the stage.”
Tozer pointed to contrasting looks such as the all-out visuals of Howdon Aldi Death Queue and Spice through to the stripped-back, theatrical lighting of Alright as among his favourite visual moments of the show. “There’s a clear intensity shift, which makes the crowd go crazy,” he said, praising the on-site influence of Avery. “He’s not just a brilliant lighting director but he also helps design the lighting. He knows the show like the back of hand and is kept busy with the constant button pressing required. As do Adlib, who I have worked with from day one on this project. Our relationship with them is the reason we can pull off these shows. It’s hard work but when you stand there with 50,000 Geordies chanting it’s all worth it.”
SFX Crew Chief, Jasper Sharp collaborated with Tozer to select special effects and pyrotechnics relevant to the show’s aesthetic and colour palette. “This was a long process but ultimately rewarding” Sharp stated. “We brought flames and confetti to the delay towers to immerse the audience in the action and make it feel more like an arena show where you’re closer to the effects instead of a stadium, where you can feel far away from it all. Once the final sequence of pyrotechnics lit up the stadium, it put Sam, his band and Newcastle on the map.”
For a venue that doesn’t often host live events, it was a lot less “stress free” from a production point of view than Sharp had anticipated. “ER Productions has had my back from the start, handling and liaising with the venue regarding health and safety. Time constraints are the only challenge associated with this show, however, while I typically programme and operate shows alone, on this project, I had the support of Galaxis Programmer, Max Webb for pyrotechnics and SFX Programmer, Keiran Frame, leaving me able to concentrate on operating the shows.”
Five firing positions were spread across the Newcastle United Football Club sign. Eight downstage pyrotechnic positions and four IMAG positions. Ultratec, Le Maitre and Wells were the products of choice with Comets throughout the ending sequence; Theatrical Flashes and Mines during Howdon Aldi Death Queue and White and Silver Tails, Crackles and Glitters chasing the on-screen content amid Hypersonic Missiles.
“The energy was unbelievable, when he first walked on the stage, I had goosebumps. I can’t imagine how they felt on stage. To ride this rollercoaster with the crew and the band is special. Triggering flames for special guest, Brian Johnson of AC/DC was a dream come true,” Sharp enthused.
‘THE PROUDEST MOMENT OF MY CAREER’
Project Manager, Nicholas Whitehead, oversaw video systems on site and integration of media servers and sitewide crew communications.
“To be able to provide technical expertise and reinforcement across multiple key departments on a gig of this size is a testament to the company. With the Projects team being able to fluidly work across all departments is crucial to the success of the show, there are elements of integration that we can figure out months in advance of production rehearsals. Equally, this wouldn’t be possible without the warehouse, assets, logistics, and account management teams behind the scenes. It’s a huge show for Adlib to put out with all of Adlib’s Rental departments working in total harmony to meet the challenge.”
On stage LED came in the shape of ROE Visual Vanish 8 Touring with Black Quartz 4.6 panels chosen for IMAG screens completing the 630 SQM LED surface. All screens were powered by Megapixel VR HELIOS LED processors. Live footage was captured by six Panasonic UC4000 with Canon lenses and Vinten legs using a track in the pit, and two Panasonic UE160 remote PTZs.
A fully integrated Adlib Flypack package boasted a Ross Carbonite Ultra, operated by Camera Director, Tom Wearing, as well as Ultrix Routers, Tallyman Control and Skaarhoj universal RCP.
The Unlimited Dream Company’s Harrison Smith and George Thomson headed up content and live camera effects direction, the pair referenced the contrasting looks of Dying Light, which saw Fender playing a solo on a piano with paired down visual content and lighting to the all-out nature of Spice and Howdon Aldi Death Queue as impactful moments of the show. “Pushing the envelope of creative content and experimenting with the shape and dimension of the video surfaces is a pleasure,” they explained.
UDC harnessed a mixture of analogue and digital design approaches, utilising tools like Cinema 4D, Unreal Engine, Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, Notch and frame-by-frame scanning. The latter of which was best demonstrated on the track, The Borders – a journey of two friends growing up becoming different people.
“Frame by frame animation has a reputation for being long winded and tricky, so it was a case of trusting the process. Sam’s music’s very textured and analogue, so having the same level of personal human touch in the visuals as in the music was ideal.”
All the objects scanned during that track were meticulously selected as things you may find in your memory box, packed full of easter eggs like beer mats from a club Sam used to work at, a telephone number for fan engagement and flyers of early gigs.
Play God combined satellite imagery and pre-recorded drone footage of the stadium and transitioned to live drone footage as the content and live drone combined and descended into the crowd revealing the spectacle – piloted by cine-drone’s Shane Hedges with Fran Hedges operating as a spotter.
Meanwhile, Get You Down saw a car driving through a late night in Newcastle. Using Unreal Engine, UDC could trigger, and animate lights based on Fender’s vocal performance. Spice saw UDC take control of five of eight camera feeds with energetic, rock ‘n’ roll zooms showcased in tiles on the LED screen via custom camera feeds.
A Notch block could then manipulate content and add effects as well as keyframe animations, triggered live throughout the set by Notch Designer, Lewis Bailey and Media Server Programmer, Charlie Rushton using disguise gx 3 and gx 2c media servers linked via Avery’s grandMA3 full-size console at FOH. “Walking down the tunnel at St. James’ Park was an amazing and novel experience, everybody involved in this project nailed the brief to create a spectacle,” the designers concluded.
Adlib Project Lead, Jordan Willis reflected on the feat: “Technically, this show was complex – from integrating video and lighting to using fixtures as additional video pixels and automating the rigging for the lighting system. Additionally, we had 10 extra ring delay hangs to cover the ‘gods’ of St. James’ Park, requiring hoists with 45m chains. And yet, despite the complexity, the entire team delivered. Thanks to their expertise and unbelievable mentality, no challenge was too difficult to overcome. Even when presented with challenges regarding space and time, teams across all departments seamlessly interchanged throughout the day and night to not overwhelm the stage and get the show in on time.”
He concluded: “These shows are the proudest moment of my career. I joined Adlib from school as an apprentice and have been here for 13 years. Witnessing the company go from strength to strength to deliver a stadium show of this scale is quite something. So, a massive thanks to the Sam Fender team for putting their faith in us to deliver these two incredible shows.”
‘THESE SHOWS WILL GO DOWN IN GEORDIE FOLK LORE’
Despite being a famed destination for football fans, according to Simpson, there are a multitude of reasons why touring artists don’t often put on shows at St. James’ Park, most notably the one single tunnel with its limited height restrictions to load-in and -out. According to the PM, this was where KB Event’s prior experience of the venue came into play; undertaking site meetings, agreed schedules and operational methods with the technical suppliers, promoter, Kilimanjaro, and St. James’ Park before getting approval for production.
The tunnel in question has a height restriction of 3.67m. Megacube Artics, even with their air dropped, stand at 3.9m. Rather than having to unload everything in the car park or on the service road and run equipment in with forklifts and local crew, KB Event devised a method of operation that managed to get two trucks at a time under the stadium and parallel with the VOM road.
“We could then ramp out onto the VOM ramp or run forklifts to the back of the trucks and load into the bowl, which saved a great deal of time and reduced crew required for the load-in and -out,” said KB Event’s Stuart McPherson.
Despite this plan, access remained tight, and the manoeuvre required accomplished drivers to get the trucks into place and back out again as well as a robust traffic management plan for other delivery vehicles. To compound this, the venue had historic stone plaques and sensitive flooring areas which the artics had to travel over.“ The venue was quite rightly protective of these,” McPherson stated, explaining how KB completed a risk assessment and managed the process to ensure minimal time was spent crossing the plaques. “No plaques were damaged in the production of these shows,” he confirmed.
Space was at an absolute premium. “We had to work very closely with the Kilimanjaro and the SC Productions team to plan arrival times and dates of vehicles, where they parked and how they manoeuvred. We had to hold trucks off while the flooring was unloaded, and the staging loaded in. The available parking space and the ‘boneyard’ was at full capacity until the morning load-in. The arrival of trucks was phased to meet the load-in order. We also had to have some flexibility to call trucks earlier if we got ahead of schedule. Trucks were then parked in a specific order after load in to allow us to call them into position in the correct order for load out,” McPherson recalled.
The logistic specialist also worked closely with Simpson and stage management to configure a way to load-in and -out support acts. “Getting the supports clear before show down and main production load out was imperative,” stated McPherson. “The production load-out is the most challenging part of the trucking operation and not having to worry about the support acts made things a whole lot easier.”
McPherson underlined the collaborative nature of the affair: “The crew and suppliers were an absolute delight to work with. Everybody kept good humour in not the easiest of environments and we all delivered something remarkable.”
He highlighted the work of his fellow Trucking Managers, Richard Burnett, Howard Dearsley; Lead Driver, Alan McKellar and Second in Command, Pete Gregory, who took care of trucks, vans, and splitters – navigating road closures during the show to make sure their arrivals, movement and departures were possible using 15 Megacube Artics.
Peter Holdich, Stages Director at Star Live and the project’s Account Handler, added: “The initial brief was a 25m Vertech system, however, as the production developed, we ended up providing a custom designed 25m system with open sightlines. It is unusual to have a stage in a diagonal configuration in a stadium, but looking out the way the terraces are set it’s the optimum position. The biggest challenge has been the logistics. Having a fully drivable pitch has made such a huge difference, despite space outside being limited. Project Manager Denzel ‘Denz’ Barrett and the team did a sterling job.”
“The other big challenge worth pointing out is that there was a rugby match here before load-in, so as well as the logistical challenges of getting the kit in, the scheduling challenges of getting the stage in and up within a short time frame are compounded,” Barrett added.
Star Live deployed an extended 12ft cantilever on the front of the stage to take the inline audio with the wings extended to account for the array of video surfaces. “This allowed the artist to get right out and up close with the crowd, who saw him from all sides,” Holdich pointed out from the rafters of St. James’ Park.
Over two shows, Fender had shared the stage with his brother, Liam, during a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m On Fire; his former guitar teacher, Phil Martin and fellow Geordie rock royalty, Brian Johnson of AC/DC, for a rendition of Back In Black and You Shook Me All Night Long. “He’s a rock star as well as a lovely human being who’s been through so much and is respectful and appreciative of the entire band and wider crew involved,” Simpson concluded. “This is not only an historical moment for the band but for the city of Newcastle. These shows will go down in Geordie folklore.”