Ed Sheeran's 'Divide' World Tour

by Steve Jennings (Photos & Text)
in Production Profile
From Left, FOH Engineer Chris Marsh and System Tech Charlie Albin. 2017 Ed Sheeran World Tour photo by Steve Jennings
From Left, FOH Engineer Chris Marsh and System Tech Charlie Albin. 2017 Ed Sheeran World Tour photo by Steve Jennings

Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran is out on his world tour in support of his latest album ÷ (Divide), a title which follows in the footsteps of his previous releases, 2014’s X (Multiply) and 2011’s + (Plus). The albums were released, respectively, in March 2017, June 2014 and Sept. 2011.

ED SHEERAN 2017 tour photo by Steve Jennings

Sheeran, who performs alone on stage, is a talent to behold. Unaccompanied by bands, backup singers, dancers or orchestras, he relies on just his acoustic guitar and a custom loop pedal to keep arena-sized audiences in thrall, selling out A-level venues months in advance.

Though working solo onstage, Sheeran is supported by an offstage crew headed by production manager and FOH engineer Chris Marsh, who has held both posts since the earliest arena-touring days.

FRONT of HOUSE also spoke with Charlie Albin, system tech with U.K.-based Major Tom, another mainstay on Ed Sheeran’s tours, and also guitar tech Trevor Dawkins and “Chewie” tech David White on the nuances of managing this simple-yet-large scale production.

ED SHEERAN 2017 tour photo by Steve Jennings

Chris Marsh
FOH Engineer, Monitor Engineer and Production Manager

Marsh has been a DiGiCo user for Sheeran’s tours for some time, first having used the SD11, SD10 and then moving over to the SD7, he notes.

“I’ve been very happy with the SD7, and why change something that has worked so well and been so reliable for the last four years? We still have very few channels, actually up to 16 but who’s counting! The only addition to the FOH setup this tour is the Waves BCL unit, which is inserted over the L&R bus. Mixing Ed is a very hands-on affair — he plays and sings very dynamically, and no two shows are the same. I’ve learned to use dynamic EQ and Multiband compression to great effect; they are my two favorite tools on the desk.

Charlie Albin and Chris Marsh. Photo by Steve Jennings

“I use very little outboard. The Maxx BCL is used to control the low-end frequencies. There is a big difference in how I want the P.A. to respond to the big looper songs and the acoustic ballads. I use two Bricasti M7 (guitar and vocal reverbs) and an Eventide Eclipse (vocal harmonizing and pitch shifting). Ed’s main vocal goes through an Avalon 737.”

For the Oakland, CA show pictured here (Aug. 2), Marsh and his audio team were visited by John and Helen Meyer, co-founders of Meyer Sound, based in nearby Berkeley, CA. Sheeran has been touring with Meyer systems for the last five years. (For more on the Meyer setup for this tour, see sidebar, page 32.)

“I love the consistency in the coverage of the Meyer systems. It really does sound good from the farthest nosebleed seat to the front row. Also, I hear a lot more detail in the mix than with any other system. It’s controlled by Callisto and Galileo processors, and we tune with SIM 3. I’m using a JoeCo 1u recorder to multitrack-record the show everyday, then use this as playback for virtual soundcheck each day.

“Charlie [Albin] leads the team in flying, cabling and testing the system. Once everything is in place, he time-aligns and tunes the P.A., measures the room, plotting those measurements into MAPP, which is Meyer Sound’s proprietary system design software. He and I then walk around the venue making sure we’re getting great coverage everywhere. During the show, Charlie walks around the venue again with his wireless tablet control and listens to the room again. It can change so much once the audience is in that it’s very important that we make any necessary changes to the system in order to keep the show sounding as close as it does at FOH, everywhere else.

ED SHEERAN 2017 tour photo by Steve Jennings

“As an FOH engineer, the show is challenging. Having so few inputs to work with, there is really no margin for error. There are also a lot of variables with an acoustic guitar. As the one and only instrument on stage, it can create quite a busy time at FOH. Acting as his monitor engineer as well, it’s much easier. All Ed asks for is for the mix to be consistent, so I very rarely get asked to make any changes. We just check that the monitors are ‘safe’ every day. The monitors on stage are very loud and pointing directly at an acoustic guitar, so on initial setup we had to be quite creative about the placement of monitors and the EQ.

“I have communication with Trevor, Ed’s guitar tech, via a shout speaker system. Ed changes guitars every song, so if there are ever notes to feed back to me, Trevor is able to relay them. We’re using the Sennheiser 9000 series RF system for Ed’s vocal and guitars, a Sennheiser 9235 capsule on his vocal and a 935 capsule on the loop vocal.”

Major Tom Ltd provided the Meyer Sound system.

Charlie Albin
System Tech

Major Tom system engineer Charlie Albin, like Marsh, is another veteran of multiple Sheeran tours.

“Since the last tour, we’ve added both Leopard and Lina Meyer Sound cabinets to our inventory, both of which are compact yet powerful boxes. The Leopard arrays at the upstage corners give us much improved coverage of the far edges of the upper bowl, often a tricky area to reach effectively with a side hang alone. The LINA make a superb front fill box where the small format and wide dispersion mean I can get a really smooth transition across the down stage edge while giving the audience the best possible view of Ed.

“As a starting point for the PA tuning, I use the Meyer delay integration and U-shaping EQ curves to accurately phase alignment the different speaker models, and also adjust for the low frequency build up inherent in large arrays. Using the SIM 3 system, I can then walk the venue, time-aligning the flown arrays and ground package, plus make any EQ changes to correct for the tonality of the room. Working with only Ed’s guitar and vocal onstage, we’ve found it useful to reduce the low-mid frequency content in the arrays more than if we had a full band onstage, which serves to improve clarity and minimize potential for the guitar to feedback.”

The outboard setup at FOH

Trevor Dawkins
Guitar Tech

Trevor Dawkins, who handles guitar maintenance, also sets the stage, finalizes the set list pre-show with Ed and advises of any set changes that Ed chooses to make during the show.

“Ed’s very good at “reading” the audience, and if he feels that a song a few numbers down the set may not work as well as another at that moment, then he’ll often change it. It’s my job, therefore, to make sure that all the various departments know of these changes during the live show, which I’ll do via radio.

“We currently use a ‘stable’ of nine guitars, and all are custom in one sense or another. The LX1Es, although being Ed’s third signature model from Martin, rather than having the factory fitted pick-up and controls, actually still have the discontinued Fishman “Mini Q” pickups fitted that we’ve been using since day one. We managed to obtain a stock of them during the + (Plus) campaign [2011-2013] and have been using them ever since. Unfortunately, we’ve not yet managed to find a pick-up that will stands up to Ed’s rather ‘robust’ style of playing, so we keep coming back to the ‘mini-Q’ time after time.”

Guitar tech Trevor Dawkins

Most of Ed Sheeran’s guitar effects are handled by Marsh at FOH, but Chewie Tech Dave White does apply some reverb to the guitar for the opening track of the set, “Castle On The Hill,” as Dawkins notes.

“I was tech for the Chewie 1 guitar pedal board as well, but to be honest, the guitar setup was a lot simpler back then. A decision was made to get somebody else in when it became apparent that there were going to be more guitars involved in the show, as well as the fact that we needed to try and streamline the Chewie board and to try and make it ‘stand alone,’ which it now is. It’s made a big difference to me having David around, as he’s now the person that the pressure will be on to sort any issues with the Chewie II during showtime. Thanks, David!

“Although the Chewie II is pretty future-proof (there’s another bank of four channels that Ed’s not used yet……), I’m really looking forward to seeing just how far we can take the entire ‘One Man, One Pedal’ scenario. Who knows, there might even be a need for a Chewie III at some stage…”

Chewie tech David White

Dave White
Chewie Tech

The Chewie II is a complete new creation based on Ed’s original Chewie Monsta loop pedal. The pedal that Ed uses onstage is a remote control for a larger system that sits under the stage.

“With this remote, Ed can record, play and stop the loops, and select which tracks to record onto, which are a mixture of vocal, guitar, percussive (also known as ‘Boom’) or both with a total of eight tracks that can run simultaneously. The pedal can also mute individual tracks as well as undo layers, which is track specific. The system in hosted in Ableton Live, which runs the plug-ins as well as patches some Choral and Delay plug-ins for certain songs. It’s completely digital, with all of the inputs from Ed’s guitars and vocals being wirelessly transmitted via a Sennheiser 9000 system.

“Matrixing and switching is controlled by the DiGiCo SD7, then fed into the Chewie II via AES. There is nothing in this system that stores sounds or loops. Once the Clear button has been hit, the machine is ready to record on a completely blank canvas. As the system is custom build for Ed, maintenance on the road has sometimes been a challenge with updates and new hardware being added as we progress on the tour.

“There is one patch built into the Chewie to add FX to a couple of channels for one song. All the other FX and production is added by Chris at FOH. It’s been a pleasure working with Ed and the team. The idea of a loop pedal has never been taken to this extreme and has presented some very technical challenges, but what has been created here is a marvel which only sounds the way it does due to Ed, the man with the guitar in his hands and the pedal at his feet.” 

The Chewie II updates Ed Sheeran’s original Chewie Monsta loop pedal.

The ÷ (Divide) Tour’s Tech Setup: A Closer Look

Along with Chris Marsh, who is serving as FOH engineer, MON engineer and production manager for Ed Sheeran’s + (Divide) tour, a Meyer Sound LEO Family linear reinforcement system supplied by UK-based Major Tom, Ltd. is traveling with the solo artist as he tours the world in support of his latest album release. It’s the fifth consecutive year that this speaker system has been supporting Sheeran’s shows.

“Ed pretty much entrusted production to me since the beginning of our relationship,” says Marsh, “and one thing that we’ve proven over the past four years is that the Meyer Sound LEO Family is the way forward.” As FOH engineer, Marsh depends on the system’s long throw and uniform response and credited the setup for its consistency. “I am entirely confident it will sound the same everywhere. For example, in Barcelona, where it was a 105-meter throw to the back seats, it sounded the same there as at front-of-house.”

The audio crew got a visit from the Meyers in Oakland. From left, Brian Thorene, PA Tech; John Meyer, Meyer Sound; David White, Chewie Tech; Chris Marsh, Foh Engineer; Helen Meyer, Meyer Sound; Charlie Albin, System Tech. Photo by Steve Jennings

Wearing his production manager hat, Marsh also appreciates how LEO Family’s rigging accommodates the tour’s up-tempo schedule: “My guys load in the PA and it’s up and out of the way inside an hour, and it’s loaded and on its way in 40 minutes.”

In most respects the main Meyer Sound system is similar to past tours, with a couple exceptions to deal with managing bass frequencies.

“As production manager, I was able to specify a stage only 40-feet wide,” he says. “That’s plenty of room for Ed, but it gave us space to place end fire arrays with three by three stacks of 1100-LFC [low-frequency control elements] at either end. With Ed, I need frequencies around 50 Hz to be really punchy and uniform everywhere, and this design works extremely well with the 1100s. They are fast and responsive where some other subs can get slow and ‘phasey’ in that region.”

ED SHEERAN 2017 tour photo by Steve Jennings

Another departure for this tour is running the main arrays full range, rather than splitting bass off into a separate aux send. “I’ve discovered that letting the LEO boxes go all the way down really assists in delivering a tighter low end consistently around the auditorium.”

The tour’s typical configuration comprises twin front line arrays of 14 Leo loudspeakers flown over four Lyon loudspeakers, with extended wide-angle coverage provided by — per side — 16 Milo line array loudspeakers and eight Leopard compact linear line array loudspeakers. Twelve flown 1100-LFC low-frequency control elements supplement the 18 in the end-fire floor arrays, and eight UPA-1P loudspeakers supply front fill. The rig is optimized before each show by Major Tom system engineer Charlie Albin, another veteran of multiple Sheeran tours.

Foldback on stage is via MJF-212A stage monitors augmented by two 900-LFC low-frequency control units, while at FOH Marsh listens in the nearfield with a pair of Amie monitors.

System tech Charlie Albin keeps the speaker systems tuned for clarity.

Although the relatively new Leopard arrays play a secondary role in the current arena tour, Marsh has found them a welcome addition. “I’m blown away by what comes out of such a little box,” he remarks. “Last year we did private charity shows with Ed in smaller, conference hall venues using Leopard as the mains in ground-stacks. They were phenomenal, and perfectly matched to the 900-LFCs.”

Working with Sheeran has been a dizzying ascent for Marsh, a situation he finds gratifying if somewhat perplexing. “I’m still impressed every day that we’re selling out these huge venues,” he says, “but we don’t take it for granted. We are trying our best to give audiences the same exciting and intimate-feeling experience as when Ed was still out trying to prove himself. We have that same energy, though now it’s not trying to impress people but rather demonstrate that they were right to be impressed in the first place.”

At FOH, Marsh mixes for FOH and monitors behind a DiGiCo SD7 console supplemented by an Avalon VT-737 input channel for vocal plus a pair of Bricasti M7 reverb units, one each for vocal and guitar. Ed’s primary vocal mic is a Sennheiser 9000 Series with a 9235 condenser capsule, while a secondary 9000 mic — expressly for vocal loop-building — is equipped with a 945 dynamic capsule.

The subs for Ed Sheeran's 2017 tour.

In the six years that Marsh has been supporting Sheeran’s sound, he has an intimate understanding of what he wants and needs. Sheeran, who had been using Sennheiser microphones from the very start, switched to Digital 9000 during his 2014 U.S. tour for his vocal, loop vocal and guitar.

“We had Ed’s guitar on a cable and DI for four years, because I simply couldn’t find a wireless system that gave us the sound that we needed to deliver his performance,” Marsh says. “On first listening to the 9000 system, we discovered it was the most transparent sounding system we had ever heard. We were only meant to be checking it out on a soundcheck, but Ed and I both agreed we had to use it that night, and we have ever since.”

Four mic channels are dedicated to Sheeran’s acoustic guitar, including one channel for electric guitar and three channels for vocals — main, spare and loop vocal. “For the loop vocal I use an MMD 945 super-cardioid capsule,” Marsh says. “As this vocal gets looped and repeated throughout the songs, I can’t risk there being too much background noise, so the tight pickup of the 945 is perfect.

“Ed’s main vocal is a cardioid MD 9235 dynamic capsule which captures a lot of detail. Importantly, it copes very well with being handled heavily and cupped a lot, which is Ed’s style,” Marsh concludes. “I use the Sennheiser 2050 wireless in ear monitors as they are rock solid, which is all that really matters to Ed.” —FOH Staff

The ÷ (Divide) Tour: A Solo Artist’s Marathon

Ed Sheeran’s ÷ (Divide) tour, the artist’s third major tour, is now traveling through North America, and it’s just part of a marathon, multi-year global trek.

The tour began with a leg in Europe and the U.K., starting in Turin, Italy on March 16, with 34 shows capped by three consecutive nights at the O2 Arena in London. The Latin American leg followed, with 14 shows South American, Mexico and the Caribbean. Then after a couple of shows back in the U.K. in late June, the ÷ (Divide) tour hit the U.S., starting with Kansas City’s Sprint Center on June 29.

By the time the current North American leg is completed with a show in Nashville on Oct. 7, Sheeran will have filled arenas for 60 dates. From there, he’ll be off to Asia (Oct. 22-Nov.23). The tour then continues into 2018 with shows set for Australia and New Zealand (March 2-April 1) and the U.K./Europe (May 4-Aug. 12). —FOH Staff

ED SHEERAN 2017 tour photo by Steve Jennings

Ed Sheeran 2017 ÷ (Divide) Tour