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Tech, superstars, and new talent: Inside JBL Fest 2022

One Las Vegas hotel, a handful of top-drawer artists, three big concerts, influencers-a-plenty, and a core pro audio backbone were just some of the key ingredients at this year's extraordinary JBL Fest. Headliner was on the ground to take it all in...

Pulling up outside the Virgin Hotel (formerly the Hard Rock) just a half-mile or so from the Las Vegas strip, it's immediately evident to any onlooker how big a deal this week-long festival is. JBL Fest branding is in prime location outside the main doors, as well as inside the main doors, splashed across the lobby walls which surround the casino, along the corridors... you get the idea. It's a takeover, all bar the casino tables themselves – and less said about those the better, which is a story for another day.

The JBL presence is, of course, unsurprising when you consider the calibre of artist that will be performing throughout the week: Bebe Rexha, Doja Cat, The Kid Laroi, Tigerlily, and Martin Garrix.

Day 1: House of JBL

We begin our journey pre-soundcheck outside House of JBL with emerging artist, Bella Moulden, who will be opening for Bebe Rexha here this evening. Moulden was selected to perform at JBL Fest as part of Headliner’s ongoing Emerging Headliner initiative to champion standout up-and-coming artists who are making waves in the industry, after impressing at the NAMM show in June.

“I haven't even been able to think about the show, so it hasn't really clicked in for me yet,” admits Moulden, with a smile, as the stage is prepared behind us for soundcheck. “I was at Dunkin' Donuts earlier with the JBL guys discussing it, and they were like 'yeah, Bebe already approved you [for this show]', and I was like 'what?!' [laughs] and then I started getting nervous! So now I have to make sure my performance is perfect because I can't let her down, you know?”

Soundcheck is solid, and Moulden's innocence of youth allows for several more pinch-me moments as she spots herself on the various big screens, working with the house engineers on establishing the right tone for her backing tracks and vocal mic, as audio begins to fire through the JBL A8 and B18 ground-stacks and her VP 7212 MDP stage monitors. 40 minutes later, she's all set, and retreats to her hotel room to prepare for the evening ahead.

It's 8.15pm, and Moulden has her red carpet moment, which she takes to with ease, posing for photographs with team members and fans alike as she's snapped by a string of photographers, before heading into the venue, which is filling up nicely.

9pm, and Moulden is on stage, cutting shapes with her trademark double-neck guitar and accompanying synth, utilising her loop station to maximum effect during a three-song set that comprises two cover versions: Eurythmics' Sweet Dreamsand Grimes' Oblivion; and her very own Season of the Witch, which went viral with over 100,000 creations on TikTok.

Of all the performances I've done, that's the best sound quality I've had. Bella Moulden

It's a slick set, which at one point sees Moulden work her audience into a clapping frenzy, but for the most part she just does her thing: she's vocally sound, and musically on point. And she is received warmly, which is fully deserved.

“Out of all the live performances I've done, that's probably the best sound quality performance I've ever had,” Moulden declares, post-show. “I remember performing at a different event and the audio was terrible, but this was phenomenal. I was also able to hear myself clearly through the monitors – everything just sounded really nice.”

At 10pm-ish, Bebe Rexha dons the stage and proceeds to nail her hour-long headline set – she's the kind of artist whose songs you might not think you know, but then you hear them and soon realise, 'oh, she did that song!' This happens to me at least three times during her set...

Day 2: AV Masterclass + JBL Live!

Day two begins with the Harman Tech Conference, which covers a wide variety of technologies – my highlight is without doubt listening to a great interview with Tesla co-founder, Martin Eberhard, an inspiring and humble individual who reveals how Tesla came to be:

“I'd always wanted to buy a Porsche, but I decided I didn't want a 19 miles per gallon vehicle, so I decided to design my own,” Eberhard smiles, adding that the process began effectively on a scrap of paper. “That's kind of how the idea of Tesla was born.”

Eberhard goes on to discuss the driving experience in general, and how it's important not to lose that human touch within the technology. He also discusses the importance of delivering quality audio into vehicles and how Harman is at the cutting edge of that side, and the potential of immersive systems. It's a fascinating insight.

Next up is the AV Masterclass, hosted by Saben Shawhan, director of audio applications and support group at Harman. Before Shawhan dives into the various JBL product lines, FOH engineer Daniel Reed (5 Seconds of Summer, Troye Sivan) takes some questions from a packed room of engineers, influencers, artists, and audiophiles.

He answers a great question about how he takes his mixes into brand-new venues and spaces he hasn’t been to before:

“It all starts in rehearsals and the very beginning of pre-production; that’s where we do all of our mix-building,” Reed reveals. “We live in a digital world where I’m able to save all of my settings on USB sticks. I’m able to have my console, whether I’m bringing my own or having one supplied; and I essentially want the mix to be as close to a record mix as possible.”

The mic is then handed over to Shawhan, who talks the audience through the EON ONE and PRX ONE speaker systems on offer from JBL. He’s very excited to introduce the “brand new product” that is EON ONE, with lots of demos to be shared with the crowd over the two hours of the masterclass.

The first song to show off the capability of these speakers is Lorde’s Royals, which sounds more stunning than ever, and crystal clear.

“Pretty cool for a little portable box,” Shawhan notes. “I wish these had been around back when I used to perform in parking lots!”

Shawhan then takes the attendees through the new JBL SRX900 series.

“This brand new series is scaleable, very affordable, and the features are crazy,” he says. “It has a really innovative three point rigging system, and it's lightweight, so it keeps all the costs down for transporting it. It uses our top of the range VTX system, which you heard last night at the Bebe Rexha show... You’ll also have heard it at the Grammys and the Superbowl!”

Garrix, an accomplished producer, is more hands-on than I've ever seen a DJ

It’s interview time again as Gary Scott, principal of the Ridgeline Hospitality Group, takes the stage to answer questions about his work on refurbishing the venue at which JBL Fest 2022 takes place, the Virgin Hotel Las Vegas.

“It was a case of making sure every room, whether that be a restaurant, room or casino, has the right sound quality,” Scott explains. “And we’ve had a longstanding partnership with Harman and JBL, a really wonderful relationship. So we worked together to really spec out the whole building: the podium, the bedrooms, the suites... And it’s been a brilliant experience.”

As evening draws in, it's time to head outside to The Lawn main stage for JBL Live! featuring The Kid Laroi and Doja Cat. Both artists deliver seamless sets with The Kid Laroi getting the audience riled up just enough for Doja Cat to send them over the edge with a powerhouse headline performance. It's at this point that the scale of JBL Fest really does start to hit home: these guys are performing through a main stage rig centred around JBL's A series: two flown hangs of 8 x A12s complemented by a pair of A8s as main array extension (for the VIP area), 9 x A8s for front fills, and a further 12 x A8s for side fills. And sonically, it's sublime.

And even above the stage in the VIP area (where I watch the majority of the Doja Cat show), it's kitted out with delays which provide ample coverage: 8 x A8s, 4 x B18s, 4 x VRX 18SPs and 4 x VRX 932LAPs. Power for all these JBL Fest shows is via Crown Amplifiers: a scaterring of 3500 and 12000 Amp Racks are deployed throughout the venues.

Day 3: Club JBL + Morgan Page Masterclass

The third day's first highlight is an insightful masterclass led by Morgan Page. The electronic producer and DJ uses bespoke Quick Tip Cards to achieve 'the flow state' in front of an audience of influencers, emerging creatives, and audio professionals.

These cards were born after Page started writing 'tips' down for music production. That led to a 900-strong spreadsheet of tips, which he then took to Twitter, randomising the tips and firing three out per day as Tweets. That gave him valuable market research, and led to the creation of a 56-card deck of Quick Tip Cards, which he is using as his mantra today to help create a song from scratch.

“These [Quick Tip] Cards are like knowledge compression,” opens Page. “Boil them down so they're in your hand with no distractions; take them on a plane or into the studio, and get into the flow state faster.”

“It's a wholistic process that repeats itself,” he continues, adding that to achieve that in his workflow, he created six categories [for his Quick Tip Cards], which started out in music production world, although their reach is far more wide and varied, and can help anyone in any industry, he claims.

To Page, the flow state is when you're working in such a state that you don't think about eating, going to the bathroom, or even time as a 'thing'. Time slows down, in fact – as most creatives will acknowledge when they're in their 'zone':

“I remember before I did music for a living,” Page smiles, arms wide. “I was 12 years old and doing a bit of remixing, and I got into a flow state for the first time. I remember thinking, 'I can feel it in my blood, this is what I was born to do!' I was up all night doing a remix in my parents' basement. Music unlocked a flow state.”

For the next 60 minutes, Page runs through a great number of his cards and provides valuable and indeed authentic advice, some of which really resonates with me due to my music production background. The whole time he is implementing these ideas into actual creation – making a song up as he goes: he applies loops, bass lines, leads, pads, pianos, and plenty of side-chain compression “to make it pop.”

As this inspiring masterclass comes to an end, Page reiterates the importance of practice:

“You need to practice perfectly; it's easy to get lost tinkering, making small changes, kicking the can down the road. So dive in fully, practice and fail; and it's usually not as scary as you think. Consolidate sessions, delete files, check your batteries – get rid of the maybes. Batch them together and it becomes fun. Find a theme for each day of the week for regularity, and you'll be rewarded by better flow in the process.”

The finale of JBL Fest takes place at Hakasan in the MGM Grand – Martin Garrix headlining, with support from talented Australian DJ, Tigerlily. The venue is epic, as is the sound: Ground-stacks of A8s (8) and B18s (4) flanks the DJ booth, with 4 xVTX S25 and 8 x VTX V20 DJ monitors.

At numerous DJ sets I've seen over the years, the DJ's hands are often seen flailing in the air celebrating more often than they're on the DJ decks and mixer itself. Not the case here – Garrix, an accomplished music producer in his own right, of course – is more hands-on than I've ever seen a DJ. He is working three elements (at least) at any one time, skilled crossfading, using mutes to great effect, and his actual mixing is quite brilliant.

What's also remarkable about Garrix is his ability to take a popular song and make it his own – even Radiohead, and I mean a dark, piano-led Radiohead track off of Kid A (I think...). That little gem somehow makes its way into the set, and he has it pumping. It's a real skill, being able to adapt art like that, add your magic sauce, while respecting the original. As I say, he is not your atypical DJ.