A Feast for the Senses: Mixing Phish at Sphere with Lawo & Holoplot

Headliner discovers how a seasoned audio team mixed front-of-house, monitors and a live broadcast for Phish’s four-night, 68-song run at the Las Vegas Sphere – delivering an enhanced concert experience that left audiences captivated…

American rock band Phish formed in Burlington, Vermont in 1983, and are known for their musical improvisation and jams during their concert performances, as well as for their devoted fan following. The band consists of guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman, and keyboardist Page McConnell, all of whom sing, with Anastasio being the lead vocalist.

Phish’s music blends elements of a wide variety of genres including funk, reggae, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, folk, country, jazz, blues, bluegrass, electronic music, and pop. The band is part of a movement of improvisational rock groups, inspired by the format of the Grateful Dead's live performances and colloquially known as "jam bands", that gained considerable popularity as touring concert acts in the ‘90s.

Bringing them up to speed and delivering a show at one of the Western world’s newest, most innovative venues however would undoubtedly have its challenges. FOH engineer Garry Brown was poised and ready to use the latest AV technology to execute the show, including the venue’s comprehensive in-house audio routing and mixing system from German manufacturer Lawo and Holoplot’s revolutionary immersive speaker system.

One of the unique things about a Phish show, he tells Headliner, is that they tend to do multiple nights in certain locations, but if this means doing four nights in one building, every show is going to be different. He’s clearly the kind of engineer who likes to be kept on his toes.

“I don’t think I could go back to a pop show that was the same show every night,” he says. “Being in this world for 19 years and not having a setlist is quite unique.”

The audio team consists of four mixers: Brown takes care of front-of-house and there are two monitors engineers, along with broadcast engineer Vance Powell who webcasts and uploads every show from the OB truck. During the show, signals are sent from Brown’s mc² 56 FOH console to Sphere’s audio system, which is based around an extensive Holoplot speaker array.

“For Sphere, all I did – apart from the summing mixer – was duplicate my stereo bus insert,” explains Brown. “So I have eight more channels of Rupert Neve master bus processor and eight more channels of the Kush Audio Clariphonic. The mix is the same; my console, my faders - all that is the same, but how I’m driving it out of the console is now different. I basically had to direct assign from inputs to arrays. I had to sit down and decide where I’m placing these instruments and where I want each of them to have their home position; I now have the ability to take them out of that home position and put them into an object, and that object will then move it around the room.

Credit: Alive Coverage

Credit: Alive Coverage

Because of the sonic quality of the mc² console, I’m not doing a lot in terms of EQ-ing, and I don’t have a lot of outboard gear. Garry Brown, FOH Engineer

“Sonically, the Lawo mc² 56 console is far superior than what I was on before. The workflow is amazing and I really enjoy mixing on it; finding my way around the surface is easy. I switched to Lawo because there was a noticeable improvement in the sound quality of the show. Every input opened up, it breathed, it became natural sounding – the summing and width was great. Trey the guitarist is a perfectionist and is always pushing the boundaries to get as good as we can get; he does it with his guitar playing so I have to do the same. It’s all about sound for me, and Lawo gave us a massive step up sonically.

“Because of the sonic quality of the mc² console, I’m not doing a lot in terms of EQ-ing, and I don’t have a lot of outboard gear,” he adds. “You’ve got to make it right at the source; the band has great instruments and plays amazing, so I’m basically just capturing what they’re doing and making it work for the room.”

Robert ‘Void’ Caprio, monitor engineer for Anastasio, says that mixing monitors for Phish and Trey’s solo band is “a moving target. There’s no setlist with the band; everything is always just ‘who knows what’? Trey will call an audible for something and a five minute song can turn into a 25, 30, maybe 40 minute jam.”

With the Lawo mc² 56 console, the team are able to use many of its features to overcome the challenges faced in every environment, not just at Sphere. Brown uses a mc² 56 with 48 faders at FOH; Void has a 32-fader version on monitors, while broadcast engineer Vance Powell utilises a dual fader layout with a total of 80 faders.

Credit: Rene Huemer

Credit: Rene Huemer

“The fidelity of the console itself is the main attraction, and being able to really focus on each individual instrument to build a mix as a whole really makes a whole lot of difference,” Void remarks. “We’re able to use the flexibility of the console – the dynamics, the EQ, everything else that’s built in – to really accentuate what needs to be focused on in terms of each element of the band. They’re so dynamic, so there’s always changes, and there’s always a movement going on.”

Void goes on to highlight how Lawo consoles in particular allow the team to achieve the fidelity required to make all these individual parts speak, and poke out of the mix where they need to.

“Also, for me as a monitor engineer, width is very easy to achieve,” he continues. “The left-right balance is relatively easy to get going. For me, giving my artist the depth of their mix within their ears is paramount, and so the Lawo console in particular – mainly due to its dynamics – enables me to give that depth to the mix, and really layer things up. I can get the vocal way out front with everything else sitting in the back, with some stuff somewhere in the middle. That’s the key.

Handling the broadcast mix for the Phish show at Sphere is also no mean feat. The OB truck, housing broadcast engineer Vance Powell, sits at the end of a long piece of fiber; the signals are split so that each of the engineers has direct access to his own set of mic pre’s. I/O is based on Lawo’s Power Core with AOIX Audio I/O Extenders. The entire I/O – with a total of 480 Lawo-grade mic I/O (160 per console) – amounts to only 9RU of rackspace, a significant improvement for a touring band aside from the sonic upgrade.

Credit: Alive Coverage

Credit: Alive Coverage

“We all have control individually,” says Powell. “I need a different gain structure to Garry because I don’t have 45 or 50,000 watts of power behind me. I have little tiny speakers going out of a little tiny tube, called the Internet!

“Then I'm processing the sound with some analogue gear, and we have a Waves SoundGrid that does some of the effects. I’m basically approaching it like I'm mixing a record, a live record being played live by live people - and that’s my vibe.”

Powell has a few go-tos in terms of outboard gear, whether he’s making records, mixing records or creating a live broadcast. These include API EQs on kick and snare, a Teletronix LA-2A on the bass, and a Looptrotter Monster – a Polish-made stereo compressor that has a saturation circuit.

“It’s kind of like an 1176 with a saturation circuit, it’s really nice,” he affirms. “We’re using the API 2500 as a stereo bus compressor followed by a Kush Audio Clariphonic, which I’ve been using a little bit since Garry turned me onto it – it’s cool. And then we have an EveAnna Manley Enhanced Stereo ‘Pultec’ EQ – one of my favorite people on the planet!

“One of the interesting things about the Lawo console is that it’s unlike other digital boards where things are very much in place with a center section, a groups section, a mute section - and there’s all these different banks. The Lawo is a little more open-ended. Any fader can be anything; any fader can be a VCA; any fader can be a group; any fader can be an input – it’s incredibly powerful. The EQ sounds great and the compressors sound great. I’m really blown away by it; I’m an analogue guy, so it’s not easy for me to say that I really love the way it sounds – but I do!”

Lead Image Credit: Alive Coverage