JBL VTX Series rocks MTV Video Music Awards: “we really push the rigging system to its limits”

JBL’s VTX Series loudspeakers were deployed for the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards ceremony, which saw Shakira taking the Video Vanguard Award, Taylor Swift garnering nine wins, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and a surprise appearance by *NSYNC.

Music stars, industry VIPs and 18,000 excited attendees filled the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, for the awards. Producing a show of this size and complexity is a huge undertaking and the demands on equipment performance equal those on the crew itself.

Sound is critical for an MTV event and production demands combine with the need to deliver audio performance that is as clean and intelligible as it is powerful. To meet all of the many, varied, and stringent requirements, the show’s longtime audio coordinator, Mark Dittmar, VP of Red Hook, NY-based Firehouse Productions, once again turned to JBL’s VTX Series loudspeakers.

For the September show, Firehouse filled the house using a main system of 108 VTX V25-II-CS three-way loudspeakers.

“We love the V25 and think it’s an absolutely amazing box,” Dittmar enthused. “From the day it came out, it has been a great performer for us. It’s all about power and intelligibility. The power that comes out of the V25 means that we can get intelligibility even when we have difficult circumstances.”

VTX S28 and G28 subwoofers supplied the very low frequencies, and more than 1.5 million watts of Crown IT4X3500 and IT12K amplifier power drove the whole system.

This year, Firehouse moved to some different JBL models for fill loudspeakers. “We switched to the VTX A8 (Dual 8-inch Compact Line Array) for down fill, and the VTX A6 (Sub-compact Dual 6.5-inch Line Array element) for front fill, which made intelligibility extremely strong,” Dittmar explained.

The VMAs have a very open look: the middle of the room is kept clear and I can’t have big hangs cluttering up the camera views.

“I think the A8s are spectacular, although we’re still getting a feel for the right way to use them. We were certainly asking a lot from the A6s for front fill, but they handled it easily.”

Though designed as a multipurpose space, the Prudential Center was not built with shows like the VMAs top of mind. “There are huge weight restrictions in the room,” Dittmar revealed. “The Pru is asymmetrical: you can hang much more weight on one end than the other. But the VMAs aren’t a rock-and-roll left/right show, it is in-the-round, with three stages on the floor: a North stage, a South stage, and a production stage on the east side. So, the first and biggest limitation we were up against was weight.”

That was just the start of the deployment challenges Dittmar faced. “The principal thing on this show is that the look is very important,” he explained, “so I can’t hang speakers at trim height like a rock show. The VMAs have a very open look, so the middle of the room is kept clear and I can’t have big hangs cluttering up the camera views. The people down in the pit are the ones right on camera, and there’s no place I can put piles of subs down there. Plus, there is a cable cam under the scoreboard, so I can’t rig there.”

With these restrictions, rigging capable of handling taxing deployments was necessary. “One of the reasons we’ve been loyal to JBL is that doing a standard, left/right rock hang is easy to do with any system, but when we do 20-box hangs, trim at high heights, and use extreme angles, we really push the rigging system to its limits. We rely on JBL’s software to confirm that we are still safe.”

The scale of the production is staggering; Dittmar’s audio team alone consists of 56 crew members. Time and again, he returns to emphasising that pulling off a production the size and complexity of the VMAs can only be accomplished by carefully choosing exceptional crew members, organising them immaculately, and then letting them do their jobs.

“Clearly, the system design is important, but it is irrelevant if we don’t have an incredible team,” stated Dittmar. “I can’t speak highly enough of the team we put together.”

In the end, Dittmar’s greatest pride in how Firehouse executed on the VMAs comes in having more or less worked himself out of a job by show day.

“You know, in the past, I did more micromanagement, but now, during the show I’m mostly sitting and monitoring four channels of intercom and marvelling at how smoothly it all unfolds. I now realise that if I’m still doing stuff on the day of the show, I haven’t set it up right.”

the VMAs aren’t a rock-and-roll left/right show, it is in-the-round, with three stages on the floor.