When ’90s boy-band icons Backstreet Boys found themselves all grown up and doing a new Las Vegas residency gig billed as Larger Than Life, stepping it up meant all-new arrangements and a new sound system centered on the DiGiCo SD-Series. And it meant an unprecedented degree of control for longtime FOH engineer James McCullagh.
When I started with them five years ago, the playback guy just gave me a left and right. And then the guys would ask for some change—say, they wanted me to boost a specific part of a song—and I would have to tell them that I did not have that degree of control,” he recalls. “When the Vegas gig came up, we originally talked about doing it with a band. The Boys eventually decided to go with tracks. For this show, they got their band to go back in the studio to rerecord and rearrange all their hits specifically for Vegas. We worked closely with Musical Director Keith Harris and made sure that every track was separate and unequalized. Basically, we got the raw tracks as they were recorded and, as a result, we have complete control of a fully live band except that it’s all ‘in the box’ and completely digital with no conversions! Having the tracks raw really allows us to make use of the outstanding audio tools on the SD consoles to really craft the right mix for every show.
The playback rig for Larger Than Life consists of a pair of the latest MacBook Pros, each running more than 60 tracks via Digital Performer at 24-bit/96 kHz (one is a redundant backup of the other and both run simultaneously throughout the show). Each of the Macs feeds a DiGiGrid MGO, which provides up to 64 channels over MADI at 96k. The MGOs then feed into an Optocore DD2FR-FX that converts the signal from Hi-Speed to SMUX MADI in DiGiCo format, allowing it to be seen on the DiGiCo Optical Loop as its own device. The only places where the signal goes outside of the DiGiCo loop is a Phoenix Audio Class A transformer strapped across the main mix, which gets saturated to give a bit of analog warmth and harmonics.
“We are running an SD7 at monitors and an SD5 at front of house, both supplied by Sound Image. Those are fed by two identical SD-Racks and our playback rig is all on an optical loop with shared head amps,” he describes.
The system was put together for touring with a firm eye on the house-provided system at the Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino’s AXIS Theater in Las Vegas. “The fact that we’re keeping everything digital and taking advantage of DiGiCo’s great Gain Tracking feature puts us in a minority,” McCullagh says. “Even when it’s DiGiCo at both house and monitors, most guys are still more comfortable using an analog split and having each engineer use the input gain on each console. And I get that. But we had some downtime between the last tour and the beginning of the residency and I helped out on some Adele shows last year and this is how they were doing things. I knew after just a couple of shows with them that I wanted to go with tracks and keep everything digital and on the same loop.”
The breakout via the DiGiGrid MGOs gives McCullagh and monitor engineer Austin Schroeder 32 analog stems via a DirectOut Andiamo, in addition to the 64 digital tracks, which serves as the emergency backup in case they end up on a gig where they are forced to run analog.
The show is using a dozen Sennheiser 9235 with 9k receivers. “They come out the receiver AES, which means all our signal is completely digital until it hits the speakers, even my reverb—a Bricasti—is connected via AES,” he said. “The only analog signal we use is for the audience mics for recording and for the IEM mixes as well as our talkback mics.”
In addition to the audio transport control offered by the DiGiCo/Optocore combo, McCullagh points to the SD consoles’ macros as a feature he counts on.
“Another simple but cool thing we are doing is sending the FOH talkback to the stage and the monitor talkback to FOH via the Opto send and receive, which eliminates the need for hard patching from the stage box. It’s little things like that—in addition to big things like the unparalleled levels of control, flexibility and sound—that have made DiGiCo’s SD-Series my first choice every time.”