Recording Live Guitars

For guitar fanatics, it was the event of a lifetime — the best guitarists in blues and rock in one place to raise money for Eric Clapton's Crossroads Centre in Antigua, which treats addictions to alcohol, drugs, and other disorders. During the Crossroads Guitar Festival this past June in Dallas, fans were treated to three days of concerts, guitar clinics, all-star jams, and an auction to raise money for a good cause.

The event featured a slew of artists, including Clapton, Styx, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, and many more. They performed Friday and Saturday at the Village in Fair Park, including a concert area known as the Esplanade, and the big finale Sunday took place at the Cotton Bowl itself.

The Design

David Stallbaumer of Event Resources, New York, masterminded the production. Mick Double, a longtime Clapton collaborator, served as production manager. In fact, many of the primary designers who participated in the event also went on to work the subsequent Clapton tour, which began three days after the event.

One of those Clapton alumni working the Crossroads show was set designer Tom McPhillips, of Atomic Design in Lititz, Penn. He says Stallbaumer and Double asked him to design a set around the concept of honoring the work of guitar greats. The guitar, therefore, is where McPhillips initially began his set design, incorporating the instrument itself into the physical shape of the stage.

“We just took the guitars, the heroes of the event, and basically made them the major thematic element in the look of the show,” he explains. “The body of an acoustic guitar became the thrust for the B stage, with the front of the main stage forming the fret board.”

McPhillips also found other ways to incorporate guitars into the set design — he used the instrument as a graphic element on-stage, which represented a departure from his usual method of working. “I had pictures of the guitars featured in an auction that [New York-based photo agency] Star File made available to me,” McPhillips says. “I tweaked the images and turned them into something like Andy Warhol-style artwork. It's a very graphic stage, and it's very unusual for what I do. I tend to do stuff that's more geometric and not so flat.”

For the main stage, McPhillips designed a backdrop that featured a truss grid that held 10 10'×10' guitar images. In fact, the whole stage was awash in guitar imagery. “We had big, 14'×34' panels on the sides of the stages, and each one featured an important guitar — B.B. King's Lucille, Stevie Ray Vaughan's Strat, one of Pete Townshend's guitars, and three of Eric's, including his gold Stratocaster and the legendary Blackie,” McPhillips explains. “There were also big PA scrims on either side of the stage that featured Eric's Crash guitar, the guitar that not only became the main icon for the event, but was also the guitar that Eric played all through the event.”

The Light

The B stage, which was located stage right of the main stage in what would normally be a sound wing, continued the grid theme. “We also took the same look to the village stage, which, with the TV shoot in mind, helped to unify the look of the different areas of the show,” McPhillips explains. From the graphic images on the stage to the Village and down to the press passes, McPhillips' guitar-based images were used to unify the production.

Working to illuminate the set was Clapton's longtime lighting designer, Dave Maxwell. “Most of the gear that we used for the event was gear that we were going to use on the Clapton tour,” Maxwell explains.

The truss layout was also somewhat similar to what Maxwell is doing on the current Clapton tour. “The touring system consists of a lot of vertical trusses — the set design for this was essentially a vertical box, so I just used the set and hung lights on it,” he adds.

The action was divided between the main stage and the B stage. In fact, it was timed out so well by Double that when one act ended, another started almost instantly. “It just went from one stage to the other, all through the day,” Maxwell says.

Performances on the B stage took place during the day and relied on daylight fixtures. In fact, there were only two acts that performed in the dark — Clapton and ZZ Top, who closed the show. Maxwell designed the overall look of the stage and ran the board for the Clapton show, while veteran ZZ Top lighting designer Chris Stuba handled the board for that band's set.

Maxwell brought a variety of gear to the show, particularly lighting instruments from Coemar and Martin, provided by Upstaging Inc., of Mundelein, Ill. “On-stage, we had about 110 Martin Mac 2000s, about 20 Coemar SuperCycs, and another 20 Coemar Panoramas,” Maxwell explains. “We also had another 80 Mac 2000s on the PA scrims, and 80 High End Systems Studio Colors and a variety of High End PC Beams to do our audience lighting.”

Maxwell also used Coemar Wash and Profile units to light the PA scrim. Overall, his rig consisted of about 300 lights.

Audience lighting was also crucial since organizers are planning to release recordings of the concert in the near future, including a DVD, a PBS special, and a pay-per-view presentation. “Most of the audience lighting was on the front of house tower, plus there were a few delay towers that had fixtures out there,” Maxwell notes.

While Maxwell handled lighting the live event, lighting designer Stan Crocker handled supplemental TV lighting during the show, with help from board operator Rob Smith. “Since the show was being shot for TV, we wanted to keep everything looking good on-stage, so we didn't go wild with too many colors,” Maxwell notes.

Looking back at the event in retrospect, Maxwell admits a few areas where he would have liked to make changes. “The PA scrims were a bit of a struggle to light, and I probably would have done something different with them,” he remarks. “The winds kept changing directions, so sometimes they looked great, and other times we struggled to kept them illuminated.”

Maxwell had about 40 High End Studio Colors on the PA scrims — half on a truss above and half on the floor. “There really wasn't that much room to outrig the Studio Colors, and in hindsight, I probably should have used a beefier instrument,” he remarks.

For Maxwell, the biggest challenge was programming. “We did a lot of work in advance, but we still needed time to do programming, onsite, between the storms,” he notes.

For the event, Maxwell ran the onstage lighting and the architectural lighting on his Wholehog III console. Smith ran the TV lighting, the key lighting, and the audience lights on his Martin Maxxyz console.

The Video

“I think, given the amount of time we had onsite, it actually came off pretty well,” Maxwell concludes.

The production also went well from an IMAG standpoint, according to those involved. Screenworks, Los Angeles, provided three mobile LED screens for the production.

“For the Cotton Bowl, we had two Panasonic 20mm screens, 12'×21' on each side of the stage, as well as a Sony 15mm 9'×16' screen behind the mix tower,” Danny O'Bryen of Screenworks explains.

All those screens were used for IMAG. The ones on the main stage were placed center stage, above the artwork. “We also had two 9'×16' Sony 15mm LED screens at the Esplanade that were [used to broadcast video] in letterbox format,” O'Bryen adds.

In most situations, O'Bryen would have sent cameras and other gear along with the screens. Since this event was being taped for TV by a crew from the PBS station WNET, New York, in high-definition, O'Bryen didn't need to bring along any extra gear.

“Basically, we sat in the video truck and did a sub switch,” he says. “The [TV production company] shot their show, and then we just took their cameras and cut a show for the audience,” he explains.

Presenting an IMAG show-within-a-show being produced for television was the best plan from a budgetary standpoint, but it's not always the easiest way to do things. “You're a little limited when you're doing a screen switch because they're doing a different show that what we'd normally shoot for IMAG, and you have no control over the cameras,” O'Bryen says. “But most directors will set it up so that someone has a tight shot and someone else has a head-to-toe shot, and you just take their primary cameras. But you just have to make sure you cut it off before they change their shots; since you're not telling the camera guys to move, they are.”

Although the production came off flawlessly, there was a bit of drama during the event. “At the time Clapton was on-stage, about 20 miles north there were 50mph to 60mph winds, and they had 5in. of rain in an hour,” O'Bryen says.

Bad weather was moving in quickly, and by the time ZZ Top was performing, the weather was becoming a major issue. “The stage was literally being shaken apart by the weather during ZZ Top's performance, and all of the spotlight operators had to come down because lightning was moving in,” Maxwell says.


Recording Live Guitars

The scrims were taken down, and the show was cut short, which was the practical thing to do at that point. “The people in charge knew what to do in this type of scenario, and they did it,” O'Bryen says.

To record audio on a live concert like the Crossroads Guitar Festival, producers at Warner Brothers called on Grammy Award-winning sound engineer Elliot Scheiner, a veteran of dozens of high-profile live events, including The Eagles' Hell Freezes Over reunion special, the Fleetwood Mac reunion, and work with John Fogerty, among others. For those aforementioned specials, Scheiner worked on a soundstage, and his approach was somewhat different from his approach at the Crossroads Guitar Festival.

“I came in about a month before the event, and went down to do some preproduction at the Cotton Bowl, basically to check out the venue and work on logistics,” Scheiner explains.

Scheiner and his team covered the entire event, from Friday and Saturday at the Esplanade in the Village to Sunday at the Cotton Bowl. While the Cotton Bowl was a standard setup, Scheiner did have some reservations regarding the sound quality at the Esplanade location.

“We were worried about the Esplanade because it was between two lengthy buildings, and we thought there would be a lot of slap back and forth, but as it turned out, it wasn't any problem at all,” Scheiner says.

Although slap wasn't a problem on the stage, it still was a lingering issue at press time, however. “I'm not sure how the audience sounds,” he confided shortly before press time. “We haven't gotten the multi-tracks back yet, so there could be a fair amount of slap in the audience.”

For the event, Scheiner and his team relied on three mobile recording trucks from MTV Nashville, the Record Plant Truck, and Remote Recorders. For the Sunday event, Scheiner located himself in the Remote Recorders truck, while engineer Ed Cherney worked in the MTV Nashville truck.

“I had a Neve VR [audio recording console] in my truck, and Ed's truck had a Neve Capricorn in it, which has instant recall,” Scheiner explains.

Instant recall is a feature that can be extremely helpful in these situations, especially if there are multiple performers, which was the case at Crossroads. Cherney, in the MTV truck, also had a console with instant recall, but it wasn't that much of an advantage. “Unfortunately, most of the bands that Ed was supposed to sound-check didn't show the day before, so he was guessing most of the time,” Scheiner says.

Sound check on the main stage on Saturday went better. “Since I did have a sound check in my truck, we were able to snap out a picture, but it's an analog console,” says Scheiner. “The challenge was, between acts, to get the recall back to where it was because it has to be done manually — it doesn't have instant recall.”

To record the event, Scheiner and his team relied on an AMD64-based Verari DAW64 system that features 64-bit, 96K processing. “The package is incredibly reliable and very stable,” says Scheiner. “It never crashed and the quality is unbelievable — it's better than any system out there and actually sounds like analog.”

A key part of the system was the digital backbone based on technology from AMD, Sunnyvale, Calif., one of the companies that sponsored the event. Dual AMD Opteron processors running Windows in 32-bit mode allowed the sound recording team to work at “crazy” speeds, according to Scheiner.

“[The AMD processors] are so fast and so reliable, there's nothing you can really compare it to out there,” he says. “It has to be reliable. It's a live recording, and you only get one chance to do it.”

In the end, Scheiner was prepared for almost anything. “We made sure that if we encountered any problems, that we would have an answer for everything,” he says. “We had backup systems, we backed up the computers with digital tape, and we were prepared for anything to happen,” he says.

Sharon Stancavage is a freelance writer based in metropolitan Detroit who has written on a variety of industry related topics for publications in both the U.S. and the UK.