This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Professional Sound.
By Andrew King
Photos by Mike Homer
A collective gasp could be heard from Victoria, BC to Victoria-by-the- Sea, PEI, from Cape Columbia, Nunavut to Point Pelee, ON, when the word about Gord Downie hit the national newswire. It was May 24th, 2016, and the “Important Message from the Band” on The Tragically Hip’s homepage revealed that Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, but nevertheless, that he and the band he’d fronted for over 30 years decided they’d be hitting the road once again for the Man Machine Poem Tour, supporting the Hip’s 13th full-length studio album of the same name, later that summer.
It was a bittersweet time – albeit largely the former – for the band and their legions (and Legions) of fans afflicted by the fate of such a beloved national figure, but at the same time, being given a special opportunity to celebrate The Tragically Hip’s catalogue of treasured hits together one more time.
Tickets for the initial handful of concerts, hitting arenas from Victoria to Kingston, ON, sold out within minutes of being released. Across the country, fans were taking to social media to share their stories of ticket triumphs and, seemingly far more prevalent, tribulations, igniting the debate about ticket scalping to a level that belied Canadians’ stereotypical penchant for passivism.
Spawning from those stories and debates were posts about how the show should be televised – aired to appease what we now know to be millions of Canadians from coast-to-coast who, for whatever reason, weren’t among the elite that scored a seat at one of the 15 shows on the tour.
Where the idea first came from and how it made its way up the ranks at the CBC to become a reality isn’t really important; what is, however, is that on June 17th, it was announced that the CBC and the band, in partnership with Insight Productions, would be presenting The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration on August 20th – a live broadcast of the band’s homecoming show in Kingston, ON and the final date of the Man Machine Poem trek.
That meant the onus was on some audio industry veterans to help deliver a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience to audiences in the 10 cities on the tour route and the nearly one-third of the country that ultimately tuned in to the live broadcast across the CBC’s television, radio, and digital platforms.
ON THE ROAD
The initial audio production meetings for the Man Machine Poem Tour included, among others, longtime Hip FOH engineer Jon Erickson, systems engineer and designer Jamie Howieson, and soon after, tour production supplier Solotech’s Senior Audio Project Manager, David Brazeau, and Senior Project Manager for Tours and Special Events, Lee Moro.
Solotech’s professional relationship with the Hip camp goes back several years, with the nationwide vendor having most recently supplied audio and video production for the band’s Fully and Completely tour in early 2015.
Brazeau and Howieson worked closely on a PA system design that would cover the variety of arenas on the tour – ranging from the approximately 20,000-capacity Air Canada Centre in Toronto to the roughly 6,000-capacity K-Rock centre for the final date in Kingston.
“It got really interesting when they added in all of the seats in a full 360-degree configuration,” Moro shares. “Basically, we had to cover every seat in every venue – actually some we never even knew existed. Demand for tickets was that strong.”
Erickson had selected an L-Acoustics K2 system for Fully and Completely, which essentially became the starting template for Man Machine Poem, adding from Solotech’s expansive L-Acoustics inventory for the 360 set-up. Erickson reports that Moro was able to draw from his experience with similar configurations in the past to help round out the design.
The main front-facing left-right hangs were comprised of K1 and K2 elements with flown K1-SB subs while K2s handled the downstage sides and KUDO arrays handled the upstage sides. KARA boxes with SB18 subs covered the rear seating and groundstacked SB28 subs and X15 and ARCS boxes for fills supplemented the flown systems. Meyer Sound’s
Galileo processors were deployed for EQ and routing. At FOH, Erickson opted for a Digico SD7 with the Waves DigiGrid server to accompany his usual outboard racks and recorder; however, adding some more disheartening news to a tour that was virtually born of it, Erickson was diagnosed with cancer himself and was hospitalized to begin his treatment just days ahead of the first date.
Veteran engineer Mark Vreeken, who has mixed the band on several past tours, was tapped to take over at FOH for the majority of the run. Due to some pre-existing commitments that conflicted with the tour routing, though, he would eventually have to hand over mixing duties to Moro for the five final dates.
Vreeken kept the rig that Erickson had specified largely intact, opting to ship in a few units specifically for vocals – a Manley Voxbox, BSS 901s, and a Bricasti reverb. “I also brought a Rupert Neve summing mixer that I fed with stems from the SD7,” he adds. “I stuck with pretty much the same approach I’ve used in the past, though did some effects programming to try to mimic the vocal effects on a couple of songs from the new record.”
His approach is primarily based on the idea of just reinforcing what’s coming off of the stage. “Their sound has always been pretty organic in that it’s a five-piece rock band with no track playback,” Vreeken offers. “The fans want to hear every word, so that’s the first goal. I think their trademark sound has always been the sum of all of the unique parts.”
While the set list for each and every show was different, in the end, at least one track from every studio album was performed over the course of the run. Considering the first of those LPs, Up to Here, dropped in 1989, that’s nearly 30 years’ worth of material spanning nearly 30 years of recording techniques and technologies, making for a much different sonic experience when you jump from, say, 1991’s Road Apples to this year’s Man Machine Poem.
That said, Vreeken – like his peers that have manned the FOH console for a Hip tour before and after him – didn’t get too caught up in recreating any particular album’s distinct sound, save for a few key vocal and guitar effects. “I try to keep the whole set pretty consistent, sonically speaking, and try to aim for a clean and punchy mix, like [album producer] Don Smith’s approach for Up to Here and Road Apples.”
As for Moro, who mixed the later two of the three dates at the ACC in Toronto as well as the Hamilton, Ottawa, and Kingston dates, he says his approach was equally as simple and straightforward – to deliver the artist’s show as close to the original concept as possible. “But with this tour,” he adds, “the biggest challenge was getting the mix over the audience. Think 20,000 folks singing every word as loud as they could. It was amazing to be a part of.”
Over in monitor world was Andrew “Juice” Werlick, who has been mixing the Hip from stage left for about four years. For Man Machine Poem, he was also mixing on an SD7 for a complement of 15 L-Acoustics X15 HiQ wedges with a pair of ARCS as sidefills. The only new components of his rig for Man Machine Poem were the X15s – “first time, and I love them,” he enthuses.
During his years with the band thus far, he’s seen a few changes relating to the monitor package and the performers’ preferences. example, drummer Johnny Faye was using an Avid Performer Q controller when Werlick was mixing on a Profile but has since ditched it along with the drum sub. Guitarist Paul Langlois made the switch to in-ears two years ago, and Downie, who had long been using a single IEM with only vocal to supplement his wedge mix, went exclusively IEM last year ahead of Fully and Completely.
“Eye contact is more important than mixing with this band,” Werlick reveals, delving into his approach and workflow. “They will get it to how they want it to sound during soundcheck, and then they just need an attentive person to their left during the show.”
Speaking about the set lists during Man Machine Poem, Werlick says the band has always favoured a mix that spans their entire career. “So this was a fairly normal Hip tour for me mix-wise,” he shares, “I grew up listening to these songs, so that makes this a really fun gig for me”
ON THE AIR
Veteran engineer Jay Vicari and his team from Music Mix Mobile were commissioned by the CBC and Insight Productions to handle the broadcast mix for The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration. Vicari, whose credits include live recordings for the likes of Bon Jovi, Foo Fighters, and Justin Timberlake in addition to productions like Saturday Night Live and The Grammy Awards, took some time around the 2016 VMAs to share his experience on the tail end of the Man Machine Poem Tour.
PS: Tell me about how you and Music Mix Mobile got the call to handle the remote recording for the CBC broadcast. Had you done any work with the band in the past?
JV: I received a call in June from [Insight Productions’] Lindsay Cox informing me of the situation with the band. During that conversation, I was asked if I would consider mixing the band for the live CBC broadcast. Lindsay said that the band remembered me from engineering the 1995 SNL episode with John Goodman, when they performed “Grace, Too” and “Nautical Disaster.” I said, “Absolutely, without a doubt.” In turn, the idea of having Music Mix Mobile supply the facilities was icing on the cake for me, because that’s my home and I knew I could complete this show without compromise.
PS: Did the band or its team have any input as far as the sonic experience they were looking to deliver from the broadcast mix? If so, how did those discussions transpire?
JV: The band, through their manager Bernie Breen, who is now a good friend, told me to do what I thought appropriate for the broadcast. They basically gave me free reign to mix the band the way I heard it – a trust that I will never forget. Bernie was in the truck with me for both the Ottawa and Kingston shows, helping me with cues and basic ideas for each song. I took it from there and expanded on it. Weeks before the event, I listened to studio and live versions of songs to get a handle on it. I knew from the start my experience with mixing a rock band like The Tragically Hip was a perfect fit.
PS: While mixing on the fly for live broadcast is par for the course for you and your team, were there any unique challenges presented by this particular application?
JV: The only real challenge was the size and capacity discrepancy between the two arenas. Our first chance to hear the band was in Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, which is a 20,000-seat arena as compared to the TV broadcast arena in Kingston, which had only 5,500 seats. Pete Gary, one of our engineers, decided that an audience plot should be the same in both arenas for consistency. We had a 12-microphone system placed in the same positions in both places. This placement worked out flawlessly. Obviously, the Ottawa audience was a little louder and the room ambience was larger.
PS: In hindsight, how did you and your colleagues find the experience of mixing such a special show for a national audience?
JV: I have done quite a few major gigs in my time – quite a few… When Music Mix Mobile and I signed on to do this show, I looked at the medical interview and realized the severity of Gord’s problem, but never understood how Canada would respond. When I saw the prime minister doing an interview in the arena that afternoon, I realized deep down that this is one for the history books. The courtyard was full, somewhere around 20,000, and the police posted a message on the Internet that Canada was closed. Unbelievable! The four days I spent in Ottawa and Kingston took my breath away. I don’t think this could ever happen in the U.S. My hat’s off to everyone involved.
According to the preliminary audience figures, the commercial-free broadcast of The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration reached 11.7 million people, with the TV broadcast alone averaging four million viewers.
From the opening riff of “Fifty Mission Cap” through to “Ahead by a Century” closing out the third encore, Canada’s band had the audience inside the K Rock Centre and around the world eating out of their figurative hands. The set list was representative of their revered catalogue and the band – with the help of some fine audio professionals – sounded simply impeccable. It was a live music experience like none before it, and one that especially resonated with those who’ve been a part of The Tragically Hip camp for years.
Erickson was able to attend the last of the Toronto dates and says he was “thoroughly impressed” with how it looked and sounded. “I’m glad that I was able to play even a little part in this event,” he humbly shares. “I’ve known the band for over 20 years and am thankful that I was able to be a part of this Canadian legacy throughout their career.”
Moro, Erickson’s longtime friend, says that although the day-to-day was emotionally challenging for everyone on the trek, that the team “stuck together and did the job to perfection with some serious pride every single day.” He also shares some praise and well-wishes for his friend. “I just can’t say enough about the support and friendship over the years from Jon. He’s helped me and taught me tons and for that I am forever grateful. It was truly an honour to fill in for him on this monumental tour.”
Werlick bluntly calls the Man Machine Poem Tour the “highlight of his career” – particularly the opportunity to “make Canadian music history” on August 20th.
Vreeken takes over about the band’s legacy at large: “They never stopped evolving and challenging themselves. I think one of the reasons they have such a connection with Canada is they’ve always been true to themselves and not tried to be something they’re not. They’re a rock band with interesting lyrics that resonate with Canadians. They also started playing hockey rinks 25 years ago and managed to keep doing it for all of this time. How Canadian is that?”
Andrew King is the Editor of Professional Sound