Twenty-two years after their groundbreaking gig at Spike Island in Warrington, the Stone Roses are back, and now in the midst of an extensive reunion tour. Most significant of all, perhaps, were the three mind-blowing shows held at Heaton Park in their hometown of Manchester, where the band proved to 75,000 people each night that their ‘third coming’ is set to be nothing short of phenomenal. Paul Watson reported for this TPi exclusive.
There are few shows I’ve ever attended that have genuinely got the hairs up on the back of my neck, but Sunday July 1st did just that – and more. After getting over the fact that I was actually there, about to listen to the songs I grew up to as a lad, a number of factors gradually came to light. Firstly, has there ever been a production run so smoothly and professionally? Not that I’ve seen, for sure; every department was not just tuned in, each appeared to seamlessly interlink with the next, and perhaps most incredibly of all, there was a sense of total calm throughout. This is not normal!
Much of this, I was reliably informed across the board, was down to the meticulous hand-picking process carried out by SJM’s Simon Moran. From crew to catering, audio to video, lighting to set design, everyone was most definitely at the top of their game.
Robbie McGrath, whose credits include The Rolling Stones, ACDC and Kasabian, was brought in to work FOH, and was responsible for creating what can only be described as a ‘wall’ of sound from the stage – if you closed your eyes, you’d never believe The Roses were a four-piece.
“We mic up the drum kit fairly extensively, and there’s six-or-so channels on the guitar and the bass respectively,” he revealed, pre-show. “Because there’s only bass, drums, one guitar and vocals, you have to use a few little tricks, to give it a kind of image.
“There’s a DI that comes straight from the bass guitar itself, and a DI that comes off his FX, then there are DIs that come out the back of the amps, plus we have microphones as well; you know, it’s all of that, and they’re all compressed, delayed, phased, out-of-phased – there’s quite a lot going on really.”
A Midas fan for many years, McGrath utilised 56 inputs from a PRO6 at FOH position and multi-tracked each show onto a Klark-Teknik 96/96 unit with the help of renowned system tech, Pete Hughes.
“Pete’s great – he has a great angle on the whole thing so he handles the multi-tracking,” he explained. “And the PRO6 for me is one of the best sounding digital consoles out there; I had a huge affair with the [Midas] XL4, and from a sound point of view it still gets my vote, but the PRO6 is the closest thing to it – it’s also small, and although it may not have facilities for plug-ins and things, we’re not producing an album here, it’s a live gig; people should try and remember that when they’re mixing, these days!”
McGrath favours Lexicon’s PCM91 and Yamaha’s SPX990 to create his reverbs, though assigns the respective units to very different applications.
“Yamaha reverbs are cost-effective and they sound great; they’ve got that rock ‘n roll feel, if you like; I use them on the drum kit as it needs more of an attitude,” he said. “And the Lexicons are really nice and smooth, which for me makes them absolutely superb for vocals.”
Ballantine certainly has a point there – and what’s nicer still is that Paul Normandale worked one-on-one with John Squire when designing the show; Squire’s artwork is used throughout, and, according to Normandale, is all relevant. “When Simon Moran asked me last October to get involved with the show design, I met with John [Squire] and we messed with his artwork on the catalyst,” explained Normandale, who put together both lighting and video. “It was very secretive at the time, and they were keen to use a lot of IMAG rather than content.”
Normandale says Heaton Park is unique in that they took a core system and then let it all come together. After 10 days of rehearsals at Wakefield’s LS-Live, the way it was set up was to allow fellow-operator, Glen Johnson, to take the reigns should Normandale be unavailable at any point. This, however, is yet to happen.
“All the content goes through Glen on the catalyst, the whole idea being to get one big picture, and really that’s not a challenge anymore because I have an overview,” he continued. “The band has been very keen to have me there at all times, and what’s interesting about this show is that it’s not just a series of cues; really it’s not that structured, so we are making bits up as we go, to a certain extent. There is a lot of manual stuff going on, which I think is very unusual these days, and personally I find it a pleasure to work like that.”
Normandale also commented on how relaxed the atmosphere was on site, and puts it down to the right people working together in the right environment. “It was very much a case of hand-picking the team,” he insisted. “And we like them where we can see them, so we can all work from the same place together – in this case, that was all of us under the same roof at FOH position, which worked a treat.”
Glen Johnson was the first operator to take out a grandMA2 console, two of which are used to control lighting and video. A previous Hog user, he simply ‘fancied a change’ and has never looked back. “I’m a big fan of the grandMA – I have used them now for four years,” he said. “I really like the feel of them, and they work very well with the software.”
Johnson says the whole system at Heaton Park is slightly upscale to everywhere else; there are 30 Universes of data and 32 Layers of catalyst (with tracking backup), and because of the amount of screens, they are actually over 5,000 pixels wide, so a custom catalyst had to be written to accommodate them.
“We have an exact map that sends it to every screen correctly, then I have individual control of each screen. When you see each screen split apart and then join together during the show, I am then able to overlay an image over both screens while they’re moving and then map them correctly so the heads appear in the right place, for example, and stuff like that,” he revealed.
Despite controlling the lights and video, Johnson reiterates that it’s not a big undertaking, purely due to the way it was all put together. “It’s done in such a way that it’s all on one show file; I split Paul [Normandale] separately to the lights, and then I can just run the video, call spots, and do other stuff; and if Paul isn’t here, I have the ability to run everything off just the one desk; that’s very easy to do on a grandMA,” he said. “The whole thing’s just so smooth; it’s a very nice team that all want the same thing, and it’s why video’s right out here at FOH tower, so we’re all together. Paul can just turn round and give the nod, because he knows where everything and everyone is.”
Normandale’s own lighting company, Lite Alternative, provided the vast lighting rig, which consisted largely of Martin Professional fixtures: 80 MAC 101’s; 12 MAC IIIs, 24 MAC 2000 Wash XBs; six MAC TW1 Wash 80Vs. There were also 18 Sharpies; 12 iBeam iPix fixtures; 26 Sunstrip Actives; 20 Philips Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash FXs; 12 Thomas Par 36 2 Lites (and 12 36 4 Lites); 15 Mole PARs; 12 Colorado 2 Tours; 10 Svoboda 2250s; six Atomic 3000s; four 2.5k follow spots; and two Hungaro strobes.
XL Video provided the video kit which comprised of 1054 tiles of Pixled F-12 LED (totalling 380 square metres), four Sony HXC 100s, and three Bradley Engineering Camball 2 Robocams (all HD). There were also 13 channels of record, which was carried out by Warp Films.
Matthew Vassallo was Video Engineer on site, and worked under the direction of Phil Woodhead. Also present at the pre-production period in Wakefield, he spent much of this time working out the setup, programming the [Kayak] desk, and working out the right way to route everything around the various screens.
“We are using the system to provide a mix output and we also run six auxiliary outputs into the catalyst system, but the outputs can be placed anywhere over the LED and can be textured with content or special effects at the same time,” he said. “All presets on the video side are being triggered by Phil [Woodhead] from the Kayak desk, who is actually choosing the different outputs and effects that go out of the six aux busses, and then the content gets layered over with the catalyst system, which is located downstream of us.”
In terms of challenges, Vassallo says although it’s always a challenge of sorts to achieve a gig of this scale, the equipment has made it fairly straightforward. “The band and the creative direction has been quite demanding, but luckily we’ve got a flexible system here, and to be fair, working in this nice enclosure at FOH means we haven’t had much of a problem with the weather either,” he explained. “Normally those issues depend on our exposure, as it’s broadcast equipment, and it likes to be treated as such, but it’s all been quite robust, especially the Bradley [Engineering] Robocams, which are actually very weatherproof. It gives you real peace of mind when you don’t have to worry about the kit – it’s very reliable and resilient stuff.”
Two more key members of personnel in this magical backstage line-up were Tour Manager, Steven Chapman, and Production Manager, Tony Gittins, both of whom were physically involved since the warm-up in Warrington. Chapman revealed that the initial prep for Heaton Park goes back to late 2011, and official site meetings with SJM were well underway by February 2012.
“At that time, Heaton Park was just a blank field, but these meetings initiated the event becoming a reality,” he explained. “Most elements are the same as when you’re touring from venue to venue, but there is certainly more production and increased personnel which affects transport, catering, security, hotels – all sorts.”
Although Simon Moran certainly drove the project from the very start, selecting core crew members (Normandale, Gittins, and himself), Chapman said there are other members of the team that go back some way with the band.
Photos by Loo Stickland, Pennie Smith and TPi