For the first time in six years, married country superstars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are traveling the country with the their Soul2Soul II tour. The country lovebirds are wowing their fans in a concert setting that is different from anything they have ever done before. Totally in the round, the massive set is comprised of two runways that intersect at the center with ramps that circle the stage. And as cool as that might be — and it is way cool — the entire stage is one big video screen.

It's a good thing McGraw is a football fan, or scenic designer Roy Bennett would have had to start from scratch for this tour. The singer saw Bennett's design for the Super Bowl XXXIX halftime show in 2005 and liked it — a lot. “I didn't want to duplicate what I did before,” Bennett says. “But I tried to take it a few steps further and not make it look obvious.”

His tweaked design gave the stage a slightly different shape. “On the halftime show, there were straight ramps, and this had more of an arc to it, like a piece of gothic jewelry, which I used as my inspiration for the shape [of the stage],” Bennett explains. “I wanted to keep it very clean and simple at the same time. Also, because you've got two artists, it needed to be masculine but have a feminine feel to it. Faith didn't want it girly; she likes to have a bit of an edge, but it still had to have a softness and femininity to it.”

The show is in the round, so the only background is the audience on the other side. Since these shows aren't always best viewed from the upper levels, Bennett once again used the stage as a video screen as he had done with Paul McCartney's Super Bowl appearance. “The people with the cheapest seats have the best view in the house as far as production goes,” he says, adding that the people who pay top prices want to be as close to the performers as possible. So if the audience members on the floor get the notion, they can buy cheaper tickets and see a completely different show the next night. “Being in the round, there are so many people with so many different views, and you want to make sure everyone has something stimulating to look at when they can't see,” Bennett says. “You take your background and put it on the floor so they're standing on it.”

During McGraw's set, Bennett uses 38 custom light fixtures with a pantograph that drops them down on a reverse scissor lift mechanism. These fixtures help give the set a more industrial feel to the stage while McGraw is doing his thing. Some of the pantographs have three fixtures, but most of them have six or eight, with a mixture of hard-edged fixtures (Martin MAC 700s) and wash lights (MAC 2000s), along with a selection of Element Labs VersaTubes, KinoFlo fixtures, or Thomas PixelLines. For Hill's set, Bennett created a stylized Plexiglas® chandelier that flies in along with some additional soft goods that add a softer edge to the environment.

The lighting package, provided by Upstaging, Inc., also includes a variety of CM motors, a Motion Labs Motor Server Control System and Motor Racks, Tomcat trussing, ETC Source Four® PARs, Source Four 26° ellipsoidals, and Sensor dimmer racks, Wybron BP2 beam projectors, and Altman CDM PARs. Reel EFX DF-50s provide the haze.

Lighting programmer Troy Eckerman, who used an MA Lighting grandMA console, explains that both McGraw and Hill got about 80% of the entire rig for each of their sets, with the extra 20% coming from instruments dedicated to each performer to delineate the two sections of the concert. “On a show in the round, I feel that it's more important to have moving set pieces than with [traditional] shows,” he says. “It's hard to get the different looks unless things can move and reconfigure.” He added that the Soul2Soul II tour, like Madonna's Confessions tour, was going to be programmed with timecode but was nixed at the 11th hour, since “the show was run so well manually.”

While having to change the mood so drastically for two performers in the same concert may be somewhat more work for a typical concert designer, Bennett takes it in stride and compares it to a typical opera or Broadway show with different acts that simply need a set change. Likewise, each artist has his or her own lighting director: Wally Lees handles Hill's sections, while Jerome Thompson works on McGraw's set.

Bennett is fond of the Martin MAC 2000 washes and the MAC 700s. However, heft was an issue since the show is in the round in the center of the arenas, where many of the venue roofs are not as reinforced as each end. “And you have scoreboards,” he says. “This is only the third in-the-round show I've done…ever.” To overcome these bulky fixtures, Bennett simply constructed the rig in a series of concentric circular rings. If the scoreboard becomes an issue, the center ring can be lowered while the outer rings can be raked upward. Quick refocusing makes the rig adapt nicely to the new surroundings.

A show such as Soul2Soul II where video is such a major component means that the lighting is another dimension that is used to complement it. Also, since the stage is also a video screen that meant Bennett could use more accurate portrayals of the emotions of the songs. He compares the difference to his days of doing Disney on Ice shows. When he had to create the illusion of water, he would use gobos or patterns of water and aim it on the ice. With the stage as video screen, he can use actual filmed scenes of water or whatever is needed to relay the thought or feel of the song. “It becomes a little bit more accurate as far as being able to portray the feeling. You can literally put pictures down there, instead of trying to emulate a feeling of some kind of theme with patterns,” he adds.

As great as the video screen/stage looks, there is the issue of light bleed — think of shining a flashlight at your computer screen as an example. “Drowning out can happen, and we have to be very careful of that,” Bennett says. “It's an issue because of the lensing on the V9s [LED tiles]. What's great about them is they have such a fantastic viewing angle. You can stand off to one side and still be able to see the video. The tile lenses also accept light so you have to work around that. The diffuse lens is going to accept light better than a clear lens. We're trying to find something to balance it so it doesn't quite get washed out so much.”

Video Thrills The Radio Stars

Video was an enormous part of the tour, so that meant that video systems engineer Dave Neugebauer's job during the concerts was much like an air traffic controller's. “My role is to look at the number of displays, or targets, that are involved in the show and how they are arranged,” he explains. “Then I work with the graphics folks and video director, Kate Ferris, to determine the number and type of visual sources. Using this info, I assemble the various video components/racks to achieve the designed goal with a bit of elbow room for tweaks and changes.”

Neugebauer says that, on this tour, he got his information in early January and began researching playback devices and different ways to integrate the HD and SD worlds efficiently. By late February, he was at DeKalb, IL-based Nocturne Productions to prep the core system he had just used on Paul McCartney's tour and build the racks specific to Soul2Soul II as well as learn and operate the new items.

“While finishing up McCartney last fall, I heard rumors about this show and the basic concept of the in-the-round [setup] with a video stage with four video spokes, similar to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville,” he says. “In January, I saw some drawings and realized that the bulk of the video was going to be graphics and textures on the stage and ramps. While we have IMAG, the video stage is a very dynamic part of the overall look and is used for enhancement.”

The video gear, provided by Nocturne Productions, includes: Doremi Labs Nugget HD players for the US/DS, SL/SR Ramps for 1920×1080i HD Playback; Doremi Labs V1bx2 for the center stage and the Barco R-12 PJs used on the Austrian gauze curtain for 720×486 SD Playback; and a Vista Systems Spyder video processor that is used to “integrate these various format signals and present them to the desired targets,” Neugebauer explains. “We fade, cross dissolve, and position the various outputs. In addition to coordinating the various input formats to the various output formats, the Spyder layers the DMX color signal (via a PC-based converter) over the floor outputs, allowing the LD to light the floor up whenever they feel the need. When DMX is black, the playback graphics appear. This is a great tool for LDs.”

Neugebauer is gladly entangled in the Spyder's web, calling it “a great new box that has made the control and matrixing of the various inputs (HD-SDI, SD-SDI, SVGA) to the various targets (HD, SD, SXGA)” much easier. He adds that the Doremi Nugget players are “a great solution to enable the content producers to keep their render files digital.” He also uses Pinnacle Systems' PDS9000i SDI for mixing and effects and as a video switcher where Ferris directs. “This is one of four PDS9000i systems we have and is based around a PESA Cougar 32×32 SDI video router, Cobalt Video Input distribution, Aja A/D and D/A conversion, and distro GVG analog utility distribution,” he explains.

“For the IMAG, we use six Ikegami HL-45 cameras and two Sony DXC-390 cameras, Fujinon lenses, and a Stanton jimmy Jib,” Neugebauer continues. “To coordinate the cues, we use an ARTI (Advanced Robotic Technologies, Inc.) control system that allowed us to build cues to cue the specific video bits and run them at the right time.” The tour's assistant video director runs the cues on both ARTI and the Spyder.

As far as networking the video system, Neugebauer had the switcher/monitor bridge, playback/control/AD monitor bridge, SD/HD multi-rate router/Spyder, transmission rack, and video loading PC all on an LAN. “I can get onto (LED programmer) Dave Panscik's wireless system for the LED floor, but I haven't needed to do this yet,” he says, adding that the programming was pretty straightforward. “I had to develop a driver for our control system to talk to the Nugget players, but after that, I spent some time with the assistant video director, showing him how to build the cues and building frames he could develop into cues that would follow the show timecode we received from Heath Stimmel, the tour Pro-Tools guru.”

All The Stage Is A World

Considering there were 2,800 V9 LED tiles — resulting in 1.6 million separate LEDs — the role of head LED technician was an important job for David Panscik, who is also the head of the screens department for Nocturne Productions. “The stage is basically one huge video screen, so it was my job in the very beginning to take a look at Roy Bennett's design and figure out how to make that a reality every night,” he says. “Video stages are always a challenge, because you're trying to do something that the video device wasn't necessarily made to do: putting video into custom fabricated stage decks that travel with the video in them.” While the number of LEDs is impressive, Panscik isn't sure if it's record-breaking since he did a similar stage for the Dixie Chicks a few years back.

When asked about his biggest challenge as the LED top dog, Panscik replies simply: “Just keeping it running!” With over 300 power and data connections, he says daily failures are inevitable. “It's a pretty lengthy procedure to pack it all out and make sure it's working okay.”

The V9s used in the decks were custom made by Nocturne using Saco's technology. “We can make them any size and shape,” Panscik says of the V9s, “so if a designer has a custom need for a set piece that needs LED video or even DMX lighting, [Nocturne] can custom make any size and shape and make it fit within the set piece.”

Panscik further explains that the V9 tiles used on Soul2Soul II can take a video or DMX input so that a video image can be presented on the stage via the tiles. “At other times, the lighting guys override what video is doing and control the stage with DMX, so the in-stage video screen becomes a large uplight at different points during the show,” he says. “It's actually both a video screen and a wash fixture. We've just started to see designers think of neat ways to use this product, and I'm sure we'll see more ideas as we move forward.”

The signal that is transmitted through the LED tiles is a native HD source, so the video is in high definition, providing the clearest image possible. “We're actually feeding it three video sources just to get everything to map out at a nice high resolution,” Panscik says.

Any DMX channel can be assigned to any of the 1.6 million pixels, but that's not realistic considering the prohibitively large number of universes that would then be needed. “Usually, we'll take a cluster of a couple of hundred LEDs and assign that to three DMX channels: one for red, green, and blue,” Panscik says. “It just depends on what the LD wants. Or we can assign the whole stage to three channels so the whole stage is a single channel for red, green, and blue.”

Eckerman, who programmed the instruments above the stage while Lees handled the programming for the audience lights, says that the LED stages are also controllable from the grandMA console. “We could control [the LED stage] so we could change the color to do color bumps and musical accents, even on the fly,” he says. “But it's always a challenge with the LEDs because you have to get the right mixture of the LEDs and the smoke and haze. If you have too much of both, it looks like a big quasar out there.”

Loading in the video stages on a daily basis takes the team effort of the video crew as well as a huge carpentry crew, which Panscik says is a vital symbiotic relationship. “If the video or carpentry crew is absent, it just won't work,” he says.

When the stage deck was being built, Panscik says that there was a very close working relationship between Nocturne and Tait Towers. The two companies worked together to figure out the challenges and pored over emailed CAD drawings in the initial weeks. Once the building process began, the two teams worked side-by-side as the LED tiles were being installed in order to stop problems before they got too big. “Sometimes when the deck is built, you find out that some things just won't work on a daily touring basis because there's no room for cabling so you do a slight redesign and work out some of the bugs,” he says. “This is probably the best designed LED stage I've seen Tait Towers do yet, and the other ones have been pretty damn good.”