JBL’s Daniel Reed on the art of live sound: “It’s all about the illusion that everything is perfect”

Daniel Reed is the production application support specialist, production audio at Harman Professional Solutions, but in a past life, was a FOH engineer for artists including The Kid Laroi, Avril Lavigne, Fifth Harmony and 5 Seconds Of Summer. He has just wrapped up working at Coachella 2023, which was headlined by Bad Bunny, Blackpink, Frank Ocean and Blink 182.

Here, he reveals how JBL Professional line arrays were used on the Gobi tent at Coachella 2023,, how he adapts to engineering for different artists and genres, his worst ever live tech mishap, and his personal favourite Coachella headliner of all time.

This year at Coachella you were representing JBL at the Gobi stage both weekends (JBL Professional’s VTX A12 line array loudspeaker system was used on this stage at the festival.) How was the festival this year for you?

Coachella has been amazing. We've had the ability to come out there and support RAT Sound with our VTX A12 and VTX A8 systems with B28 subs on the Gobi stage. All the feedback from the front of house engineers has been super positive. 

It's been a really great experience in terms of getting to connect with other engineers, getting to hear other people mix and get the variety of music genres that come through each stage every single day – it’s so vastly different from show to show.

It was a wonderful opportunity to get these broader audiences exposure to JBL products, as well as being able to connect with people as a manufacturer and let them know that this is us – we're here; we are people that you guys can talk to if you ever have any questions or if you ever need additional support about the products. 

Coachella has been a really great opportunity to support one of the biggest festivals in the world at the highest level. It has been nothing but a success.

JBL’s VTX system prides itself on being one of the most easily deployable systems on the market due to our rigging systems.

Before we dig more into your FOH and live sound work, can you explain how you wound up at Harman as the production application support specialist, production audio?

I was a full time touring FOH engineer, monitor engineer and production manager. On my most recent tours, I was working with an artist that did a few JBL events. I've always loved using their systems and I hadn't had a chance to really get to know anybody over there yet, so when the opportunity presented itself, I took it. 

As a touring FOH engineer and production manager, we really rely on our network in terms of who we can reach out to when certain specific issues come up. Or if we have an event coming up that we know a specific product will be good for, it gives us a leg up to have someone within the company to be able to help support us in certain deployments.

We need to ensure the best quality, so having contacts within a company like Harman was important for me as a touring engineer so that I knew that if I'm going into a show that's going to have VTX, I can reach out to someone and say, ‘Let's talk about the system, what we're actually using and what I can expect’.

I couldn't imagine a better opportunity for me to learn a different side of the industry in terms of manufacturing and being more of a systems engineer. For me, it's always about expanding my horizons, growing, finding new opportunities to keep learning, expanding my network and staying involved in the industry. I've dedicated most of my life to the industry at this point!

There's been opportunities for me to really earn my paycheck on certain days!

What does your role as production application support specialist, production audio at Harman Professional Solutions entail, and what does your unique perspective as a FOH engineer bring to the role?

My role at JBL entails a variety of things – I’m a wearer of many hats! One thing that I do at JBL is pre and post-sales support, meaning that when we have existing or prospective buyers for VTX systems and VRack systems – which are the amplifier systems that are made specifically to be used with VTX speaker products – we are providing the sales team with technical support.

If a club or any size venue or a promoter of a festival, or someone who's looking into deploying a system or has just purchased a system, we provide specific guidance on how to design it for the best deployment. Then we go into the software that we have for VTX and some of our other products called Line Array calculator and Performance Manager – these are the control software that we use to deploy these systems.

On the other end of it, I will actually go on-site, similar to Coachella, where I will be there to physically optimise the system and actually deploy it – boots on the ground – flying it up, taking measurements, using the control software and then handing the keys over to whatever company it is. In this case at Coachella, it was RAT Sound, who were the ones controlling the system and interfacing with the front of house engineers.

The same thing goes for any regional national sound company – if they're purchasing that equipment, they need to get trained and certified on how to use it. So myself and two of the other application support specialists go around the country and we will do certification courses and will train the new buyers and their staff.

So it's a combination of a bunch of different things. It's also a little bit of business development, where I can use my network that I've developed over the years from my touring experience as a front of house engineer to be able to give other engineers a perspective as someone who's actually used these systems and to have real world experience. I talk to them about how our product varies versus other products out there and how they all stack up.

At the end of the day, we can't just be talking about things from reading things like ‘this has this amount of output,’ – these are all specs that everyone has access to. The real world experience is where the applications team really comes into play, because we're the ones that actually use it and have the most experience on it. We're an all-inclusive, one stop shop for every bit of guidance on the VTX and Crown amplifier systems.

All of a sudden, the entire show went completely silent in front of 10,000 people...

You have worked as a FOH engineer for artists across a variety of genres. From an engineering perspective, are there certain techniques that apply to all styles?

I definitely have to adapt all the time. As an engineer, we all have our tricks that we come to rely on in general, but you're always having to adapt. There's no one size fits all approach to mixing. For some artists you are going to need to have a little bit more nuance to the way that you approach mixing.

For instance, if I was mixing a pop artist, I would make sure that the vocals are at a level where it's crystal clear, there's no buried vocal, there's nothing that's going to hinder the audience from singing along to the songs that they know. 

You don't need things to sound exactly like the record, because people can just listen to the record, but you need to have that vocal quality at a point where there's no mistaking anything and you can tell it's live, real and authentic.

For the larger scales of touring, everyone is using click tracks and time coded sets, meaning that everything is pre coordinated, all rehearsed, everything is as buttoned up and uniform as possible to make everything as consistent as possible. Then there are some artists that just rely on click tracks, and then the rest is just what you get on stage – so you have to approach everything a little bit differently.

Touring and concert production is all about the illusion that everything is perfect.

Do any specific examples spring to mind?

I was on a tour mixing for Tom Morello, the lead guitarist for Rage Against The Machine. Yes, there was some track in the background, but what is everyone there to hear? They're there to hear him shred that guitar! There's nothing that I can do to avoid that aspect of that tour in terms of what the fans are expecting.

So as a front of house engineer I have to know that this is a show where people are coming to watch this guy play the guitar, so I'm going to make sure that everyone knows there’s no guitar track. No one is going to be wondering if that's actually just him playing a backing track. It's like, ‘Nope, everyone needs to hear him.’ 

And people are sitting there with their phones, zooming in on his fingers, so I for sure need to make sure that that guitar is crystal clear.

The approach is, always be adaptable, always be willing to also take direction. All these tours have musical directors put in place to help convey the artistic vision of the artist. One of the tools as the front of house engineer is to be able to accomplish the artist's visions.

As a touring FOH engineer, especially going into festivals, sometimes you don't get the opportunities to soundcheck

You can prepare for every live sound eventuality, but sometimes things can still go awry. Have you had a moment during a live show where things have gone wrong?

Absolutely. Unfortunately, that happens to the best of us. There's always situations where gear just fails – there's so many components to concerts that can hinder the ability for it to be exactly what was envisioned.

There's been opportunities for me to really earn my paycheck on certain days! One thing that comes to mind would be when I was doing a tour with a lot of amphitheatres. I had my outboard rack at the time – I was using a digital audio workstation to host a lot of plugins – and unfortunately, I didn't have a redundant backup unit in case one goes down. That was a hard lesson to learn…

We were out in the sun, all day long, the gear was getting just beamed on all day. And it's something that actually happened at Coachella, but thankfully we were able to catch it in time.

My digital audio workstation was hosting all these plugins, and it failed. All of a sudden, the entire show went completely silent. When you're doing a headlining show in front of 10,000 people and all of a sudden while the artist is still performing it just goes mute after being around 100dB – to zero – is extremely jarring. It's unnerving.

You get this rush of adrenaline and you have to immediately assess what it could possibly be, as fast as humanly possible in order to get things back up and running. In this case, I realised that my hardware unit that was hosting plugins, had failed.

Knowing that this is something that was possible, I built in a macro on my console to immediately bypass these inserts, so as soon as I bypassed it, all the audio came rushing back. That five seconds of muted audio at that concert made me feel like I was gonna die for a minute [laughs]. But at the end of the day, that didn't make anybody have a bad night; people seem to be pretty understanding that, ‘Hey, this is the real world; things happen.’

Essentially, we always have to have backup scenarios to be able to fight against the issues that could arise. I learned the hard way that I need to have a redundant unit.

Technology is technology, it doesn't always work. It just doesn't. All we can do as touring engineers and systems engineers is find ways to have redundancy and find failsafes to combat the potential bugs that can get into any system. 

No one is immune to these things from happening, especially when you're dealing with being out in the sun and having dust blowing everywhere in and out of very expensive hardware.

If you're spending all day long floating a PA or rigging system, that's wasted time.

How did the VTX A12 line array loudspeaker system perform at Coachella 2023?

The system that we deployed is a traditional system: it is 14 boxes of VTX A12 and 15 B28, subwoofers and a cardioid deployment with six A8s as front fills / out fills for the front stage. Then there was another deployment of six A8s for our delays because the stage extends pretty far back – the crowds get pretty large!

What we've found is that these artists are coming in from being on tour or they're coming from rehearsals. Some of them have a pre-built show file that they've been touring with for months, while some are coming in having never mixed on that actual show file. Some of them are building a show file, some are carrying consoles, some aren't.

Then there's a whole wide variety of engineers in terms of experience levels: there's guys that are coming in having never mixed on VTX, there's people that have a tonne of experience on it and really know the nuances of the system.

As a touring FOH engineer, especially going into festivals, sometimes you don't get the opportunities to soundcheck and you don't have the knowledge base of what to look for in that particular system. We try to make it as easy as possible from the systems engineering standpoint of giving them a frequency response curve to make this as agnostic as possible in the sense that it's open for you to be able to make what you want out of it.

One of the tools as the front of house engineer is to be able to accomplish the artist's vision.

What are common audio scenarios you will assist with here to guide FOH engineers?

We want the frequency spectrum to be completely open, to have no degradation in certain areas, and then obviously treat certain frequencies that might be problematic due to the space that we're in. 

We want to make it so that all these engineers will have an easy starting point from when they open up their show that they can easily craft it to what they need within a minimal amount of time. We found that every engineer has been able to come in and have a relaxing, stress free show, and that's key – we want them to have fun.

The system has been tuned excellently and the team at RAT Sound has done an amazing job at helping accommodate these front of house engineers. The feedback that I've got from the engineers that have mixed on it has been nothing but positive.

There's no one size fits all approach to mixing.

How did the JBL line arrays make your job and that of the various tech teams easier at Coachella?

It makes it a lot easier in terms of the way that the system sounds and in the way it's deployed. JBL’s VTX system prides itself on being one of the most easily deployable systems on the market due to our rigging systems. 

The way that we're able to circuit multiple boxes together and have the amplifiers all networked together in a way that's easily controllable makes it immensely easier for us in a time crunch to be able to go and deploy a system like that. The system is perfectly optimised with those amplifiers and that system itself.

How does this JBL line array excel in terms of rigging in particular?

Rigging used to be heavier with older systems all across the board. Various manufacturers have dealt with refining how to make things go up and down as quickly and seamlessly as possible. 

If you're spending all day long floating a PA or rigging system, just to be able to hopefully pin it in properly and have a bunch of guys wrestling with the system and banging it to get in and out, that's wasted time, especially when you're dealing with local hands and stage people that don't have experience with that system.

You have to make things as easily optimisable as possible. That's what JBL has done with the VTX system. It is as simple, smart and intuitive as you could possibly be when it comes to rigging and deploying their system. If you've ever flown any VTX system, once you've done it once, you know how to do it. For us, that's a huge win.

We don't want to be spending time dealing with the manual labour of flying; it goes up and down so easily and they've designed the product to come in on carts that are already in a position where you can set your angles before it even goes up in the air. It's all done in the control software or line array calculator. Then you're able to scan a QR code which gives you all the actual points on your cell phone.

seeing Beyonce do her performance was the pinnacle of production

What’s been your personal favourite Coachella headliner so far?

That's an easy one for me. My favourite was Beyoncé. I could have said Radiohead because they are my favourite band and I did see them headline. However, seeing Beyonce do her massive performance was the pinnacle of production in terms of the time and the preparation that went into that. Stephen Curtin was the front of house engineer on that and I was blown away by how great it sounded.

From watching her set from your perspective of knowing what goes into a show of that scale, what impressed you the most?

As someone who's mixed some pretty big shows over the years, that first note that leaves the system as soon as you open it up, sometimes you're not exactly sure, ‘Is it going to be too loud? Is it going to be loud enough?’

What Beyoncé did was she went out there and was just: power stance, silent, overseeing her kingdom – or queendom – of Coachella, with over 150,000 people watching her. She just took it in and then when she finally put her mouth to the microphone and sang those first lyrics, it cut through so perfectly.

Stephen had it dialled from the first note, and I was just like, ‘Oh man, this is gonna be so awesome!’ It was amazing. I was there at Coachella that year with the band Fleet Foxes doing monitors on that tour. 

Our tour manager is as ‘80s punk as it gets. He was not a Beyoncé fan – not that he didn't like her – but it's not his thing. All of us, the whole band and crew went out there to watch and even he said, ‘That was the best performance I've ever seen.’ It was amazing and by far my favourite. 

It really meant a lot to see how something like that can translate. You don't have to love a specific genre to go and see someone at the pinnacle of entertainment in production.

It looked like there were 200 people on stage! I was in awe of the technical acumen of everybody involved.

There's so many times where people try to throw every gag and trick out at these headlining performances, and every single one of them hit on the mark. She brought out the Destiny's Child girls – so to have them come out and have everything just be perfect was awesome.

I'm sure the front of house engineer for Beyoncé knows all the nuances of her voice to find the right place to do dynamic compression and EQ and the right effects to put on them and the right products to use, like the right microphones. 

So when you're dealing with things like two guest vocalists, an entire orchestra and choir – it looked like there were 200 people on stage! – from that standpoint I was in awe of the technical acumen of everybody involved to be able to bring all those things together.

Touring and concert production is all about the illusion that everything is perfect, and it's meant to be this way all the time. You want to trick the crowd into thinking that this is just normal. 

When an artist and a production is so dialled in and so buttoned up to where it takes even the production folk out of all those technical aspects and we're just in awe of the performance, you can't ask for anything better. It was a big tip of the hat to the Beyoncé crew for Beychella.