Bigger Than Life: Audio Production for Madonna’s MDNA Tour

by George Petersen
in Production Profile

Madonna system tech Mark Brnich and FOH engineer Tim Colvard. Photo by Steve JenningsA Madonna tour isn’t just an event. It’s an experience, and her MDNA world tour may just be the material girl’s biggest tour ever, breaking box office records and playing to more than 2 million fans throughout the planet and said to be one of the top-grossing tours of all time. And this is truly a world tour, hitting 26 cities in Europe and the Middle East before landing at another 26 North American markets. Add in the shows planned for the South American leg, starting later this month, and the whole tour will have close to 90 shows in all. But for FOH mixer Tim Colvard, the rest of the audio crew and techs from sound company Eighth Day Sound, it’s just another day on the job — wherever they happen to be, whether in Copenhagen or Cleveland.

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsOne good thing about a Madonna tour is that the band and crew all tend to be veterans of previous tours, so everyone has a been there/done that approach, where everyone already knows each other, is used to the routine and can hit the ground running. A little consistency is also a plus on any tour, and Colvard, system tech Mark Brnich and monitor engineers Matt Napier and Sean Spuehler all have a long history of working Madonna tours. Yet there’s no feeling of complacency or “good enough” this time around. The songs might be familiar, but the crew is always trying new approaches and pushing the limits of excellence.

Something New

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsOne thing that’s different on this tour is the mains system. Previous Madonna tours used L-Acoustics speakers; this time it’s a d&b audiotechnik rig. “The d&b system is working out good for us this time around,” says Brnich. “There was a need to change mainly because it’s been two years after the last tour, Eighth Day Sound’s inventory is changing, and you just can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. We’re always looking for a way to take advantage of the technology.”

“We kind of ran our course with the V-DOSC system that was my favorite” Colvard adds. “And in continuing to grow, we decided to go d&b this time. I’m happy with it.”

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsThe main hang is comprised of 24 d&b J8 line arrays with eight cardioid J-Subs on each side. The side array has 12 J8s and four J12 cabinets; the rear hang has 12 V12 enclosures with six V8 boxes in a center hang. Twelve Q7 dual-10-inch, two-way systems make up the front fill, with the sidefills comprised of five V8’s and two V-Subs. Eighteen B2 dual-18 subwoofers are groundstacked for additional LF punch. “Every last speaker is d&b,” says Brnich, adding that the flown cardioid J-Subs integrate well with the B2’s and “really help get more sub and even coverage in the lower frequencies.”

All d&b amps power the system as part of a turnkey package. “There is no choice but to use the d&b amps,” says Brnich, explaining that “this is not a bad thing — the amps are great and we use the [d&b] R1 Remote Software for system control. We use [Rational Acoustics] Smaart to time-align all the various arrays. The system tuning is really done with our ears, using Smaart as a reference tool to confirm what we hear.”

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsHowever, this tour is anything but a static event, especially with Madonna spending a lot of the show performing out in the audience, rather than staying within the typical stage confines. Unless handled carefully, that can create some major feedback issues. “There’s a lot of EQ and level difference in the arrays to accommodate that,” Brnich notes.

Equally important — especially on an major tour of this magnitude — is having redundant systems in place, to make sure the show will go on and all contingencies are covered. “We have two DiGiCo SD7s at FOH with an external Opticore switcher between them,” Brnich says. “The desks are completely independent of each other. The main desk sends MIDI to the second desk to change snapshots so they are in sync with other if we do have to change. We use Dolby Lakes for system EQ. The audio in the system is digital from the desk to the Lakes to amps, with analog signal running to all points also. There are a lot of AES inputs from stage also, backed up by analog. So if there is a way to have options, we do.”

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsMics!

Colvard is definitely opinionated when it comes to microphone selections. “On drums, I will usually have an Shure SM91 inner mic and an SM52 outer mic on kick. And, of course, I can’t go wrong with SM57s for snare top and bottom. I love using the SM98s for toms and [AKG] C-414s for the overheads and ride cymbals.” Guitar amps are miked with either SM57s or Sennheiser MD-409s, with Colvard’s choice depending on the coloration of the amplifier. And there are a lot of synth and keyboard inputs, handled by a combination of Radial Engineering direct boxes — mostly passive, with a few active DI’s.

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsAll of Madonna’s vocal mics are wireless, using Sennheiser 5000 series hardware and ME 505 condenser capsules. That’s enough to keep the RF crew busy, but there’s another twist as well. According to Colvard, “Madonna has about nine or 10 different microphones that she uses. And we assign them to about six different [input] channels. At different points in the show, she might use the white mic with the white costume, or a black mic with the black costume. Or a chrome mic. So there are about nine mics dedicated just to her. On different points on the stage, where she rises up, a mic will come up on a pop-up and meet her there. And then go down. And she’ll walk to the “A” stage, and have another mic pop-up on a stand and meet her at that point. It’s all well choreographed.”

Madonna personal sound tech Demetrius Moore. Photo by Steve JenningsKeeping track of all these mics and in-ear receivers can get pretty involved, which is the job of Madonna’s personal sound tech, Demetrius Moore.

“During the show, I escort her between the quick change and various entrance/exit points,” Moore explains. “We use an in-ear pack for each section of the show, preset in each of Madonna’s costumes, totaling four packs, with a spare in my pocket ready to go at all times. There’s a total of seven mics (in various colors, locations, handheld/headset styles) used during the show with 11 mic changes. At the end of the number ‘Vogue,’ I go up on stage fully dressed in tuxedo and top hat, and I then unplug/pop off a headset mic and give her a new mic. I also dress as an altar boy at one point of the show and give her a guitar on stage.” Clearly, there are a lot of little — but important — details, and a sound tech’s job is never done.

Eighth Day crew (left to right): Wilson Tennermann, Dan Bluhm, Clinton Reynolds, Arno Voortman, David McPhee and Eoin Collins.At FOH

Colvard is no stranger to the FOH role. Besides past Madonna tours, his resume includes names like Usher, Eminem, The Beastie Boys, Whitney Houston, R. Kelly, Toni Braxton, 50 Cent/Jay-Z and Earth Wind & Fire — to name a few. This time, he definitely has his hands full, with 112 inputs on the DiGiCo SD7 at FOH.

On the signal processing front, Colvard is going mostly traditional, with a well-stocked outboard rack rather than the plug-in route. “I have not used Waves [SoundGrid] with the SD7. My outboard gear still consists of a couple of Avalon 737s, a TC 2290, Eventide 8000, Eventide 3000 and a TC 6000. I always like to have a couple of pieces of vintage gear, and that would be the AMS RMX-16s and a couple of Yamaha 990s. So, between that, I try to keep some of the old school mixed in there. I’m not afraid of plug-ins — it’s just a taste preference right now,” he explains.

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsWith a show where the vocals are so important and key to its success, having a quality chain in the “money channel” is essential for Madonna’s voice. “I use an Avalon 737 for tube compression for her vocal. I usually like to use that on her principal vocals. Some of the effects on her voice are reverbs through the TC 6000, delays through the TC 2290, delays through the D2. Some of the chorusing effects and spreading effects come from the H8000, and the H3000. It’s very song-dependent. The H8000 has more of a vintage feel to it than a digital feel to it. So it kind of matches the temperament of what the original recordings were.”

A lot of the effects are the same or similar to what’s on the recordings, but was Colvard under any pressure to make the FOH mix sound exactly like the record? “No, I’ve been given the freedom of producing what I need to do to, and how I feel it should sound, for the last three tours or so,” he says. “She’s given me that freedom.” And given the reaction of the millions of Madonna fans he’s mixed for over the years, it seems like Colvard definitely delivers the goods.

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsThe quest for perfection also extends to full-on daily sound checks — no virtual sound checking here. “There is a sound check rehearsal every day,” Colvard notes. “We start with about 25 minutes to check the band. And about five o’clock, she’ll come in and we’ll run about an hour and a half sound check with her. Every day. And you know, most of it isn’t consisting of ‘sound check’ aspects [audio line checks, etc.] She believes in repetition, and making it natural to you. So that we all work as a cog, and that keeps moving it around and making it perfect. That’s her M.O.”

Colvard’s mix style is to go for a more open sound, without much compression: “I love to treat the audience to a dynamic mix, which is sometimes loud and sometimes soft. I do use some of the onboard dynamics for things, but this particular band doesn’t really require it. They spend a lot of time mastering the sounds that they want, and all that we’re doing is making sure that it’s the right level at that point, and going from there. What they produce onstage transpires the same way in the house.”

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsOn Venues

So far, it seems this tour has played every major venue on Earth. So are there any particular venues that stand out as being really good?

“Over the last three or four tours that I’ve done, the Staples Center in Los Angeles has really come into its own, as far as being a pristine-sounding venue. And Denver [The Pepsi Center] is always a great-sounding venue,” Colvard says. “There are some venues where they have skimped on acoustic treatment, which makes it a lot of work. Or, they might have acoustic treatment,  but [the venue was] primarily intended for other uses like hockey and basketball and from a certain standpoint, they have to be more live than other venues. And that makes it more challenging for what we do in sound reproduction and reinforcement. So, places like the Staples Center really stick out as a happy medium — between basketball, hockey and other entertainments that go on in these arenas — and live performance.”

Madonna MDNA tour photo by Steve JenningsCapturing the Show

Along with the need to manage each of the live performances, the crew is tasked with preserving each show as well. “We record everything, but it’s mainly for my reference standpoint or the documentary aspect.” says Colvard. “That’s part of what we are using it for, rather than trying to make any recording for release. We run the audio at 96k with almost 112 channels for that as well. We run that right from the desk by way of fiber link, right to the computers, with 112 channels recorded a couple solid-state 500 gig drives. We’re using Nuendo, which was one of the first software platforms that interfaced directly with MADI stream that you didn’t need another MADI converter with, back when DiGiCo presented the first D5 console.”

According to monitor engineer Matt Napier, “we also have a multitude of stems and feeds that run back to our programmer Dan Roe. That’s in case we ever need to record things on the fly. Rehearsals are a very intense period and, basically, we set up as a full recording studio. We keep this setup on the road, as occasionally Madonna will change things up or work on a new song. Flexibility is the key, so we try and cover any potential requests.”

Monitor engineers Sean Spuehler and Matt Napier. Photo by Steve JenningsMonitor World

“All Madonna tours present their unique challenges and this one has been no exception,” Napier continues. “Musically, there are eleven musicians on stage and there is a lot of movement, so we have had to use a lot of RF to give the musicians the flexibility they require. With an ever decreasing available bandwidth due to DTV, the frequency management keeps us on our toes. Luckily, the improvements made to RF equipment over the past several years have allowed us to cram the 50 or so frequencies we need into whatever space we can find in the spectrum.”

Wilson Tennermann of Eighth Day Sound handles RF coordination. “All the RF kit is Sennheiser, other than a pair of Professional Wireless GX8’s,” says Napier. “We have 14 channels of Sennheiser System 2000 IEM, 14 Sennhesier 3732 receivers for our 5200 microphones and a bunch of system 2000 receivers for the wireless instruments, which range from guitars to a bag of walnuts used as a shaker!”

All musicians, and Madonna, are on IEMs — Ultimate Ears UE-11. There is a d&b Q-Sub for the drummer and one for the stage left musician riser. Musical director Kevin Antunes monitors via a pair of L-Acoustics 108P powered coaxials and a 115P sub, while a side fill hang of five d&b V8 series with two V-Subs cover the stage for the dancers.

The system rack includes Lake processors, RME MADI and AES routing, an Apogee Big Ben master clock and Cat-5 routing.But between Madonna and all the players on stage and more than 100 inputs to deal with, the monitor mix is complex. “Essentially, I look after the music side of Madonna’s mix while Sean [Spuehler] takes care of the vocals.” Napier explains. “Madonna wants to replicate the sound of the finished album as much as possible while making sure all vocal FX are live and not pre-recorded. To achieve this, there are as many of the album sound FX as possible recreated live. Sean uses Logic 9 as a very powerful FX machine, we use plug-ins from the album and then try and get them to work in a live environment. The FX that Sean manages are also sent to FOH.”

“I split the monitoring duties with Matt,” says Spuehler. “He is the proper monitor engineer, and designed the whole scheme, which is no small feat. He’s in charge of all the music for the band and Madonna. My role is very specific to Madonna’s vocals and the vocal FX. She wants each song to sound like the album, if possible.”

Spuehler comes from a recording studio/album background, having worked on Madonna song productions such as Ray of Light, Music and Beautiful Stranger. “I use Logic, and have a separate session for each song in the set, so that I have EQ, vocal FX, delay times specific to the song,” Spuehler explains. “The FX are routed back to a SD7 sidecar connected to Matt’s SD7, and I mix the raw vocal and FX live to her ears. Having a bright vocal and FX in the live environment presents a constant battle, managing that with the spill that comes down the mic. Riding the delays, ‘verb, and her main vocal, I try to make it sound as good as possible for her, so that she can concentrate on the performance, choreography, staging, etc.”

The combination has worked out well on past tours and is reprised with excellent results on the MDNA run as well. “I am essentially a live sound engineer and Sean is a studio guy,” says Napier. “Having the two of us working in tandem allows us to take the best of both worlds and try and get that studio sound working in the acoustically challenging environment of a sports arena or stadium.”


Madonna MDNA Tour


Sound Company: Eighth Day Sound

FOH Engineer: Tim Colvard

System Tech: Mark Brnich

Monitor Engineers: Matt Napier, Sean Spuehler

Programmer: Dan Roe

RF Techs: Wilson Tennermann, Jason Kirksnick, Ron Sharpless

Madonna’s Sound Tech: Demetrius Moore


Main Hang: d&b Audiotechnik J8 line arrays with J-Subs

Side Array: d&b J8 and J12

Rear Hang: d&b V12’s

Center Hang: d&b V8’s

Front Fill: d&b Q7’s

Side Fills: d&b V8’s with V-Subs

Subs: d&b B-2’s (groundstacked)

Amplification: d&b

FOH Console: DiGiCo SD7

Monitor Console: DiGiCo SD7