Music

Sugababes Grace The O2 with a Powerful Production

In a year that has seen some notable pop group reunions, TPi checks-in with one of the most anticipated noughties comebacks – the Sugababes, who reformed with their original line-up at The O2 following several months of touring.
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This article originally appeared in issue #278 of TPi, which you can read here. Words by Stew Hume. Photo by Luke Dyson.

Every month or so, we check through the events listings at The O2 in London and Manchester’s AO Arena to work out what our next production profile might be. What has been amusing is that the listings for 2023 could have been torn straight from the early noughties with the likes of Busted, S-Club and JLS all reforming to provide some nostalgia to crowds in the UK and Europe. It’s almost as if people might be wishing to look back at simpler times…

One of the reunions which caught our attention at TPi HQ was the on-stage comeback of the Sugababes. The return of the original line-up of Mutya Buena, Keisha Buchanan and Siobhán Donaghy has not been an easy road with the trio being embroiled in a battle over the use of the Sugababes moniker. The three singers have all discussed in the mainstream media how they have taken control following a chequered history of labels owning the brand. Now firing very much under their own stream, the band seem determined to bring their music back to the fans – a passion that has also filtered down to the production behind the group.

Picking up the story was Production Manager, Chris Parker, who was last seen in the pages of TPi holding down FOH duties for Arlo Parks. “Working with Arlo for the past couple of years has been busy!” he began, giving an insight into working for one of the UK’s most hotly anticipated artists of the past few years. “Sugababes has been a different change of pace; the schedule isn’t on the road for as long as global campaign touring, which means the artist, band and crew have more time to be at home with family. I joined the team back in 2022 as the girls built up for their comeback Mighty Hoopla and Glastonbury shows,” stated Parker who at the time was handling audio for the show. “There was clearly an excitement to see the girls back on stage, as expressed by the screaming crowds of fans across festival stages and on the headline UK arena tour.”

Following the wave of excitement, the Sugababes took off for a tour of Australia, after which saw Parker take on production management duties.

“I was juggling being a PM and a monitor engineer, which was a full-on role with two busses and a truck-full of audio, backline and lights. I looked to move away from the desk so I could focus on being a PM,” he chuckled, reflecting on the tour so far, which he noted was building up towards a large performance at The O2 arena in London.

As the show drew near, aiding Parker in the production office was Production Coordinator, Elisabetta Alfonso and Stage Manager, Richard Preston. For The O2 show, Patchwork London continued to provide the audio control as it had done for the entire campaign, with Adlib supplying the PA and Colour Sound Experiment providing lighting and video.

“We had All Access providing us with the staging and Strictly FX doing our lasers, confetti and streamers,” added Parker.

Trucking was handled by Stagetruck, helping take the show from rehearsals at Millennium Studios to The O2, and onwards to an EU tour directly afterwards. “We were really happy with the production we pulled together,” explained Parker. “It was a large endeavour for a one-off show, but the energy in the room was electric from front to back for the whole show, and the feedback has been overwhelming.”

The PM went on to praise the various suppliers he’d brought on to the production. “The team from Adlib were fantastic,” he began. “As for Colour Sound Experiment, I have a long-standing relationship with Alex Ryan and Paul Gilzene and knew they would look after us.”

OVERLOAD

Overseeing the design of the show was Ed Warren. The TPi Award winning LD explained that joining the production team was somewhat of a nostalgia trip. “I have been a massive fan of the band since their first album, One Touch came out in 2000,” he began. “I used to DJ quite a bit back then and would always play Overload in among my usual Britpop and indie stuff as it fit really well.”

Warren explained that he was hired as the production wanted to work with someone with more of a background in rock ’n’ roll rather than pure pop. “With that in mind, I set about delivering something dynamic, exciting, classy and a little bit weird. I wanted the three ladies to be the focus but I also wanted to make a spectacle of their incredible live band who perform along with them.”

With many of the shows in the campaign being festival appearances, Warren created a show that could be adaptable to varying stage sizes and be rolled on and off with ease. “I then developed and expanded the show for The O2, adding plenty of new tricks and gags. My main goal was to keep the audience engaged and excited, without distracting too much from the three Sugababes,” he explained.

“There were some great moments where the girls were using the steps as a performance space and the whole stage was framed beautifully. The B-stage was a huge success and brought an intimacy to the giant arena, with the girls lit only by a mirrorball suspended low above them. I loved the video content created by the guys at More Eyes, along with the confetti, streamers, and lasers from Strictly FX.”

Warren described the “most notable lighting element on the rig” – 56 GLP JDC1s split between four long horizontal strips. “They illuminated each step of the staging leading up to the live band as well as creating a frame for the girls to perform in and worked as an extension of the video walls at times.”

With the live band being on a stage behind them, illuminating the steps helped connect the Sugababes with the musicians. “I wanted to highlight that this was a ‘live’ show rather than strictly playback,” stated Warren.

Also on the rig were CHAUVET Professional Strike Array 2, Robe BMFL Spots, Robin MegaPointe, Martin Professional MAC Aura XIP, Ayrton Karif, Huracán Profile TC and GLP impression X4 Bar 20 lighting solutions.

The lighting designer’s desk of choice was the ChamSys MagicQ MQ500M. He was keen to share the advantages of the ChamSys workflow and why it was ideal for this production: “Free time is precious, so I spend a lot of time between shows on trains, planes and waiting rooms updating show files. I also spend a lot of time at home on my MQ250 updating shows. The fact that I can load the show between the various pieces of hardware without any problem helps me work on the move.”

As the whole show was on timecode, Warren created his cue list in CuePoints software, uploading the cue stacks into ChamSys along with the relevant audio.

“It made programming on the timeline so simple – especially being able to playback audio out of the desk as I was programming,” he noted.

Supporting the visual team was Colour Sound Experiment. “Paul Gilzene and Alex Ryan are always accommodating and willing to offer solutions to some of my whacky ideas,” laughed Warren. He was also keen to shout out in-house CAD Drawer, Alfie Hursthouse; Lighting Crew Chief, Neil Smith, and Lighting Technicians, Tyler Paxton, Cem Hurrell and Simon Robertson.

“They were all brilliant as well as Matt Bull and Paul Spencer from All Access Staging, who helped us develop and build the stages.”

Strictly FX were on board to provide confetti, streamers and lasers for the production. “We were first approached by Ed Warren to add even more spectacle to an already spectacular show,” stated Strictly FX’s Scott Eales. “After an initial brief, we were given a fair amount of creative control over the laser programming with Ed signing off on the final design. He is with-out a doubt, one of the nicest guys in rock ‘n’ roll. It was great to work with him and collaborating on this one was no different.”

For lasers, Strictly FX opted for four Lightline 40W lasers along with its arsenal of eight Magic FX XL Super Blasters, and eight Magic FX Stadium Shot MKIIs. “The biggest thing I personally took away from this gig was how friendly and welcoming the whole crew behind this show were to us,” he concluded. “Production Manager Chris Parker and his team pulled off an impressive show.”

Also representing the Strictly FX on the show was Raefn Weather and Laser Technician, Lavine Reindorf. “This was my first arena show so that in itself is a big deal, it was inspiring to be a part of such a big production and for a group like the Sugababes was a nostalgic experience for me,” stated Reindorf, who helped aid Strictly FX with the load-in and-out for the show.

“The visual team did a great job of creating an infectious atmosphere for both the artists and the audience alike, each element complimented the other well,” Reindorf added. “Ed [Warren] is a cool guy and was great to work with from a lighting perspective. He was very communicative and had a great creative vision.”

Prior to the production Reindorf had been a participant of the 3T (Tour Tech Training) course, which looks to address the imbalance and provide visibility and confidence for black women in the live events industry by teaching a broad set of technical skills and knowledge required to break into the sector.

“3T has been a massive help in my live career,” enthused Reindorf. “It has opened my eyes to a world of opportunities within the realm of live production that I did not previously know about or have access to. Through 3T, I went on tour for the first time in 2022 and I have been keeping busy and learning as much as I can ever since. Thankfully, I have a strong community to lean on as I continue my journey.”

CAUGHT IN A MOMENT

While the show design had evolved from the initial run of performances back in 2022, the video content was a brand-new element for The O2 show. “It took a lot of back and forth to get it right as the band were very particular about some of the content used for the show,” mused Warren. “However, the video team of Matt Sharp and Pete Thornton from More Eyes and our Video Director, Steve Price absolutely nailed it!”

Much like Warren, Matt Sharp also admitted to being a fan of the Sugababes back in the day. “To be given access to all the archive material was such a privilege,” reflected Sharp. “I remember watching all the performances on TV when I was younger and all these years later finding myself editing and curating for the band was really quite surreal.” The project also gave the More Eyes team its first chance to collaborate with Warren. “We have wanted to work with each other for some time, but the stars really aligned on this one,” explained Sharp.

Much like the LD, the brief that More Eyes received was that this performance was “not a typical pop show.”

Sharp furthered: “One theme we all stuck to from the start was ‘the poppier the track, the edgier the visual.’ From our first discussions with the band, we decided to blend archive filmed content and never before seen behind-the-scenes stuff with up to date bold CGI content and motion graphics. All the while keeping far away from the realms of your standard glossy pop show. I think we delivered a fantastic audience experience for those at The O2 that stood up against other ‘pop’ shows currently touring.”

Sharp continued to point to some of his favourite moments of the set, including the Push The Button, Red Dress, Hole in the Head medley, which saw More Eyes take three different concepts and blend them into another as the track progressed. “Thanks to our partners at blinkinLAB for bringing this to life on a very tight deadline,” he added. “Freak Like Me was also a highlight. It was another track where we built a world behind the band with a grimy concrete bunker with neon lighting panels timed to work with the Gary Numan synth line and Ed’s real world lighting rig and programming to bring the stage alive.”

Colour Sound also provided the video equipment for the tour which included
ROE Visual CB5 LED panels. Holding down directorial duties was Steve Price. He explained that this project was quite an undertaking as he only had three operated cameras to work with and no rehearsal time.

“I watched a run through from Millennium Studios the night before which gave me some idea of the shape of the show,” began Price, who then spent two days learning their music playing close attention to which band member took the lead vocals for each song. “My visual mix was required to be functional, making sure I had the featured vocalist on screen throughout the show while also finding a way to add a layer of creative impact.”

Price had one camera at FOH with two further cameras situated on sticks in the pit and an additional two robotic cameras on both sides of the stage. “I always thought you prove yourself as a director not when you have lots of cameras but when you have few. It’s a lot harder to make a show look interesting and beautiful when you have your hands tied like that but I’m fortunate that I had good operators offering up winning shots throughout the show. I was amazed by the result,” he explained.

Price discussed the collaboration with More Eyes. “I had never worked with More Eyes before, but it was an absolute pleasure. Matt and Pete are lovely people, not to mention very creative, and we hit it off straight away.”

It was a feeling that was shared by the team at More Eyes. “We’re so glad that Steve came on board,” stated Sharp. “He was the perfect choice for the job. We really tried to stick with more traditional in-camera techniques and simple looks and concepts for the IMAG content. Steve was able to play with the lighting and LED setup when filming the girls on stage with some fantastic results like intense feedback effects and crash zooms to give this a really individual feel and audience experience.”

PUSH THE BUTTON

Despite jumping on and off the sound desk throughout the summer, for The O2 show Parker focussed on the PM role – leaving mixing duties to Charles Bidwell at FOH and Tom Whitbread in ‘monitor world’. Although Patchwork continued to supply audio control – as it had done for the past year – for The O2 production, Adlib was brought in to provide an L-Acoustics K1/K2 PA System.

“I was brought on at the beginning of the year,” reflected Bidwell, while discussing his time mixing for the Sugababes. “They wanted to maintain their iconic ’90s R&B ‘wall of sound’ vocal blend.”

He explained that another interesting challenge was that with the three singers constantly interchanging who had the lead in parts of the song, each vocalist mix needed to be able to be prominent in the mix while at other times act as support providing harmonies and ad-libs. “This could be tricky especially when you have 20,000 fans nostalgically singing the lyrics,” he laughed, noting that with a combination of communication, equipment choice and programming, they were able to make it work.

Talking of equipment, Bidwell used an Allen & Heath S7000 mixing console. “I like a hybrid mix,” explained Bidwell, who walked TPi through his use of the dLive, UA Audio and outboard equipment. “It means I can mix ‘little and often’. Where the dLive cleans up input sources with high and low pass frequencies and source expanders, UA Audio adds the analogue colouration and groups the inserts through outboard. I run multiple scenes and send MIDI information to trigger external units.”

The engineer shared his thoughts on the PA system: “After using L-Acoustics on most summer festivals, it offered the grunt and smooth high frequencies required for this show. The show is a nostalgic pop show booted home by a slamming rock-gospel band. When the girls sing those anthems, people just lose their minds and the K1/K2 system helped to deliver that.” On the topic of vocals, Bidwell discussed the microphones the singers used. “We used Shure Axient Digital with sE Electronics V7 capsules. The V7 is super tight and punchy, which was very helpful in arenas – particularly when they moved to the B-stage with the mics minimising unwanted spill.”

Whitbread took up the conversation outlining the three singers’ IEM mix preferences. “They like to hear a bit of everything, but they have each of their vocals front and centre with the other two vocals panned either side and slightly lower in their ears. After that, they all have a pretty balanced mix of the band.”

Whitbread explained that he spent most of the show cycling through the girls’ mixes. “I like to take a more ‘hands on’ approach to mixing,” he furthered. “Depending on the song, there may be a partial detail that one or more of the artists might like to hear, so I would add it into a snapshot to cover all three mixes at the touch of a button – the snapshots only triggered fader movements.”

For IEMs, the production utilised UE11s. “They were on a different brand when they first reformed onstage last year before moving to Ultimate Ears,” stated Whitbread. “The difference was immediately noticeable. We’ve also had great support from UE. For example, we needed to get hold of some spare cables between shows in Belgium and Amsterdam, which UE were able to get out to us the very next day.”

The entire band was also on Shure PSM 1000s “which sounded great,” according to the engineer. “I’ve done several A/B tests with many artists using other brands and the Shure system has always been the clear stand out. Add to that the RF Stability and you have a clear winner,” he remarked.

Whitbread mixed the show on a DiGiCo Quantum 338. “DiGiCo consoles are outstanding,” he stated. “They sound great and allow for so much flexibility. This show started out on a 225 then outgrew it so the next logical step was the 338. The Nodal processing is fantastic. With people on different IEM models and brands everyone is going to hear things differently, so I can send someone their instrument exactly how they want to hear it, and then I can process the same channel differently to sit within the mixes that I am sending the girls, without having to make multiple duplicates of the same channel.”

He also complemented the desk Spice Rack where he’d been using the Chili 6 on vocals and the Naga 6 on some of the tracks. “I’ve never been one to use external plugins when mixing. With the additional latency, it’s just not something I’ve ever got into when mixing live. So, having some of the options that would previously have only been a plugin, now available inside the console is great.”

On the topic of the control setup, Whitbread complemented the audio package put together by Patchwork. “They provided a great audio package that had been prepped immaculately – as they have done all summer – as well as an excellent crew.”

Along with the control packages Patchwork also provided crew to aid in delivery of the show – namely Megan Collier, who was responsible for overseeing patching the stage, supporting with RF as well as aiding in the movement of chairs and mic on and off the stage. Having been involved with the production since their Mighty Hoopla performance in 2022 she explained what it was like taking the production into The O2.

“It was a large production to give up in a short space of time and to make sure it was all working,” stated Collier. “I prepared all the equipment at Patchwork beforehand, so I know the inside of that rack like the back of my hand. A lot of time was saved by the organisation of equipment before it arrived on site.”

Collier was also integral during the B-stage portion of the production. “I used a talkback system to relay any monitor adjustments back to Tom and to cue the playback team,” she added. “It was amazing to see a room full of 20,000 people singing along to Sugababes classics – which I’m sure a lot of us still remember.”

In a time when multiple pop groups are reforming on the arena level, there’s no doubt that the Sugababes’ revival brought with it an elevated sense of excitement, not just within the fan reception but also those working behind the scenes. The reincarnated Sugababes are clearly not just a nostalgia trip, but a band reforming on stage for the love of performing; and with the group bringing out new music in the past few months, this revival looks set to continue for many years to come.

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