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Madonna’s Live Computer Confessions

Published: Tue May 15, 2007  News Feed

If the sight of a mature lady pole-dancing on stage during a spectacular live set has you trembling, then the technology behind the recent Madonna tour will really have you shaking. For, while the 48-year-old can certainly cut it in the flesh and put on a show to end all shows, it turns out her entire stage production is also breaking ground in the way computers and modelling technology work in a performance environment.

The main ingredient of any Madonna concert has to be her vocal. On this tour, Madge wanted her live vocal to sound as close as possible to that recorded on the original nine million-selling >Confessions on a Dance Floor< album. Two main hits of technology were used, then: a Focusrite Liquid Mix for sonic consistency; and Apple’s Logic plug-ins to replicate the album sound (>Confessions< was recorded by Madonna and producer Stuart Price using Logic). This created an initially confusing signal path for the main vocal. In order to reach FOH it would ideally need to travel through a Logic environment. Sean Spuehler was responsible for Madonna’s vocal and processing and reveals a ground-breaking use of Logic plus some Focusrite Liquid Channel mastery…

“From Madonna’s Sennheiser mic, went through a Focusrite Liquid Channel. We were using other hardware [preamps] in rehearsal and we were fixed to whatever sound they had. Being able to try different settings beforehand is what we wanted and the best way was with the Liquid Channel – it would give us many options. We would have all the different algorithms that could work instead of being stuck with one.

“After finding the right setting for Madonna’s live vocal, the Liquid Channel proved unbelievably reliable. We never had to worry when going from city to city, as it always just worked – 100% reliable.”

So with the Liquid Channel helping to maintain a vocal standard from venue to venue, the real routing fun now starts, with the signal entering the DiGiCo desk, being split and then entering Spuehler’s G5. Now the Logic processing begins to help replicate the original >Confessions< vocal sound. As Stuart Price [on tour as MD] had all of the original Logic files from the album, he could supply Spuehler with the exact vocal processor settings used for each track. Spuehler’s G5 was loaded with Logic and the same effects which could be called up, one by one, as tracks were performed live. The vocal would then simply pass through his computer for processing – an incredible use of Logic and a computer, you might say, and you’d be right. Essentially the G5 was acting as a glorified effects box…

“The vocal would show as one channel on the DiGiCo D5 after going through the Liquid Channel,” Sean says. “Four aux sends [would come out], the same signal four times, and go into Logic, so I was able to add four effects like a reverb, a delay or whatever. Logic was never in ‘play mode’, but used more like a ‘through’. I would have different arrangements in Logic for each song.”

“It makes sense because before with vocal effects we may have been using outboard gear, maybe an Eventide, a physical box, but this is the same thing except with software plug-ins for each song. So it’s the same thing but instead of having your vocal sent to a hardware unit it’s going to an audio interface and then Logic.”

So far, so new, but computers didn’t just help with the vocal. Apple Inc will be pleased to read that more of their machines were controlling the on-stage lights and rigs, and tour MD Stuart Price was also monitoring and controlling the entire mix, again through Logic, on his G5. And where Spuehler had the vocal effects set up in Logic arrangements, Price had the rest of the mix set up as a virtual mixing desk, again complete with the original studio effects so that the new audio from the band could be treated in the same ways as the original record. So, in short, two Logic systems were used as a virtual effects box and mixing desk respectively (and there was even a third system controlling the rest of playback). Monitor engineer Matt Napier takes up the story…

“The analogue inputs off stage went to the DiGiCo stage box and it split the signal so effectively it sent all the inputs to myself, Tim Colvard [FOH engineer] and Stuart Price via MADI so we all saw the inputs on the MADI outputs. Then Stuart did a mix which he sent out onto subgroups which came back to us a second time, if you like. So what we had on the mixing desk was eight stereo groups and all the originals and sub mixes. Tim used his extra inputs to layer on top of that for the room.”

“The advantage was that on certain songs Tim could use just that [mix] to [for example] go through a filter to create a DJ club effect. On other tracks, Tim would do a more conventional mix.”

“We time aligned all the other inputs using SMAART and delayed all the other inputs,” says Napier, “which is why we could only do it on a digital board. There were no phase problems that way.”

And getting the cues right for the musicians would also provide another problem…

“We overlayed more drums for the timing cues sometimes,” says Matt, “Or she [Madonna] pitches to the keyboard so we overlayed that. But Stuart had control as well. If he thought there was too much guitar, for instance, he could just change that – it saved him trying to convey that to a monitor engineer! All the musicians were using Stuart’s mix to a greater or lesser degree. There were two advantages: you’d have to have had racks and racks of outboard to create the same effects, but we had the plug-ins; and it gave Stuart a lot more control, and so he could run the whole mix through a filter bank to give it that club feel.”

Needless to say, with mixes flying in all angles, a whole band performing, computers used as effects boxes and Price controlling everything remotely, the process would be impossible without a digital desk, and one packed to the rafters with connectivity…

“We chose DiGiCo because of the MADI aspect,” says Napier. “It’s got four MADI cards built in, and we knew there was going to be a lot of that on the show. I think it’s a great console with a good ergonomic surface to use. Sean used the first eight faders and I used the rest. I use this [DiGiCo] a lot, I use Yamaha desks a lot, and I couldn’t imagine going back to analogue, just for the ease of use of these and the flexibility. It would scare me!”

And finally, a word on the Madonna mics. The Queen of pop has long been associated with Sennheiser and the >Confessions< tour was no different.

“We had four mics for her [Sennheiser 3072 wireless with SKM 3065 capsule], says Napier "routed through a passive switching unit, so that could never go down. Sennheiser modified the pick up pattern because it was picking up too much of the PA but otherwise we had no hiccups. [Just in case] two of the guys spent the show with spare microphones never more than ten feet away from her. I did a show with her last year and you learn very quickly to have spares of everything! She gives 100% and she expects you to do the same. You can never give her an excuse…!”

Indeed, which makes it even more amazing that the tour techs relied so much on computers for so much in this live environment – an area where your average computer would, once upon a time, have fallen on its arse given a sniff of bitter in a plastic cup. Some day all shows could be done this way...

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