Towards the end of 2014, superstar producer/singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams embarked on his first ever headlining tour, during which he made extensive use of Shure wireless microphone and in-ear monitoring systems.
The six-week Dear G I R L tour ran from September to October and took in major venues in Western and Central Europe, including the UK's O2 Arena. Shure’s Axient wireless microphones and PSM1000 in-ear monitoring systems, as used on the European dates, were sold by Shure Distribution UK, and supplied by Wigwam Acoustics in Heywood, Greater Manchester.
Pharrell's regular monitor engineer, Jeremy Peters, informally approached US-based RF Engineer and Stage and Microphone Tech Matthew Bock, of Nashville audio technology vendor Sound Image, early in 2014 for advice about which wireless systems to use on the planned live dates.
Pharrell had played the two-week-long Coachella festival in the States in April and had endured continual RF interference during the first week, which resulted in the crew resorting to using wired microphones for much of the band. After that, there was a determined effort among the tour crew to improve the wireless systems, as Jeremy Peters explains:
"When I started talking to the FOH guy, it became obvious that Pharrell wanted the best of the best. From the beginning, there was no resistance to simply getting the very best gear. I knew what ears I wanted to use… I love the PSM1000s: they sound terrific, the RF on them is great, and they have a lot of gain… so that was a no-brainer. And for the mics, I wanted to go Axient from the beginning."
Peters continues: "I've worked for and with Sound Image many times before, everything from FOH to System Tech, and have worked with Matt on some really big gigs where he was handling the RF side. So I asked him about Axient, because he was the only person I knew that had really toured with it and built a rig from scratch, who knew what we would need. He basically put the whole rig together for me then, before he even came on board properly. Then we took on Sound Image officially, and I was asked, 'should we get Matt?' and I said, 'yes, you bet!'"
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Bock specified six channels of Axient - two for Pharrell's vocals (one main and one backup, both running in Frequency Diversity mode), two for main support vocalists, and two guest vocal channels. 10 channels of PSM1000 in-ear monitoring were also used for the members of Pharrell's band, with Shure's UHF-R wireless microphone systems supplying four more channels for supporting instruments.
Following successful one-off dates in the US, Sound Image was asked to provide the systems for Pharrell's main European tour in the Autumn. In order to ensure that the wireless systems were correctly specified for use in Europe, Sound Image approached Wigwam Acoustics' parent company SSE, with whom they had previously worked in the UK, to supply an exact copy of the wireless equipment used on the US dates. Wigwam supplied the equipment; Shure Distribution UK fulfilled the order and carried out tech support for the tour as it moved around Europe.
As the main part of the tour got underway in Europe in the Autumn, Bock had further cause to be glad of his choices. "Some of the venues were very noisy in RF terms. In one country, I decided to use the PSM1000s in 100mW high-power mode, and I had to get special licences for that.
That limited me to certain carefully defined frequencies for those, but I was able to ring-fence those by using the inclusion groups feature in Wireless Workbench, and then tuning all of the other wireless equipment to different frequencies around the in-ears. That was a really cool feature that I haven't been able to use with other programs I've used for wireless coordination. And in Italy, where I've had RF noise problems in the past, I was able to put the Axient transmitters in high-power mode, and pad the inputs down on the Axient AXT630 Antenna Distribution system to lower the RF noise floor. Axient was really useful there, in terms of making the most of the available RF spectrum."
Jeremy Peters was equally pleased with the performance of the Axient and PSM1000 systems. He says: "From a monitor engineer's standpoint, once we took on Axient I didn't have any problems with RF during the whole tour — and that's pretty rare."
And, as Sound Image is now confirmed to be on board for Pharrell's forthcoming US live dates, Bock plans to continue the successful arrangement, confirming: "We'll be continuing to use the same gear that served us well in Europe".