As the pandemic made its way across the globe in early 2020, the world fell to a hush as it became devoid of live events: the heartbeat of the music entertainment industry. People collectively ached for the emotional highs of live concerts and entertainment. Feeling the music pulsate in their ears, reverberating throughout their body and permeating their soul, merely entertaining the notion of not experiencing that again was not something people wanted to conceive.
Then on May 14, at the Stardust Drive-In Theatre in Watertown, Tennessee, country star Keith Urban showed up for an unprecedented event of a drive-in concert event. It was just what a nation starved of live event entertainment was hungry for. Chris Demonbreun, system tech for the production, commented, "It was put together on the fly, so last minute—I'd never heard of anyone doing a concert at a drive-in movie theatre or even thought about it until COVID came along." Despite the eleventh-hour decision to power a novel concert production, the setup went smoothly with some adjustments.
A scaled-down L-Acoustics K2 system, a version of Urban's original stage show, supplied by the Nashville office of Sound Image, was deployed for the drive-in concert. Initially, with just the artist and ProTools engineer Jeff Linsenmaier onstage managing backing tracks on a flatbed trailer in front of the theater's outdoor screen, Urban's second guitarist and keyboard player Nathan Barlowe joined in at the last minute, all standing 10-feet apart.
Working with front-of-house mixer Roz Jones and monitor mixer Joe Calabrese, Demonbreun used L-Acoustics' Soundvision software to position a K2 rig comprising five K2 tops and four SB28 subs per side, stacked on either side of the flatbed trailer. "There was no rigging," he said, "so we had to stack them, and we were going to go with six boxes per side, but there was a limit to how high we could go with just the three of us moving the boxes onto the trailer."
Before the shutdown, Demonbreun, who had been scheduled to go on the road with Rage Against the Machine followed by a fall tour with Keith Urban, says the drive-in venue posed some challenges - including adjusting the sound area coverage to account for any reflections from the parked automobiles. "What helped, though, was that we were on grass; it might be different in a [hard surfaced] parking lot," he says. "If I could do the show again and could do whatever I wanted, I would have a flown PA with some delays around the parking area."
Demonbreun says predictive software helped lay out coverage designs - he usually uses Soundvision for L-Acoustics PAs - and in this case, each box had its own amplifier beneath it, so he made extensive use of the LA Network Manager's Air Compensation EQ tool, designed to provide a single gain setting to control the shape of a linear phase FIR filter, re-establishing the original frequency response of the loudspeaker enclosure. "In long-throw applications, high-frequency propagation can be strongly affected by air absorption. The Air Compensation tool smooths it out so that no one close to a box gets annihilated by the high end because you're not overworking the high-end drivers in the PA."
And in true drive-in fashion, the audio was also being delivered via an FM transmitter that radioed into the audience's cars. "The front-of-house mix was on a matrix, so we had PA control and FM control," Demonbreun explains. "The real challenge with that was, at what point to delay the FM to the PA? What Roz and I did was delay the FM transmission to where the PA coverage started falling off. That way, people in the back could tune in and not have too much of a time smear. We figured most people in the middle to the front would be outside their cars in their sectioned-off area. In a perfect world, we would have been able to fly a system and then have some delays around the venue, but the drive-in did not want to block the big screen that was behind the stage."
The event has become a template for Live From The Drive-In, a limited-run concert series made for social distancing: Shows that would include Brad Paisley, Jon Pardi, Nelly, Darius Rucker, and others at drive-in theatres and other various venue parking lots in Nashville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and elsewhere. In many ways, these new concert arrangements have become 'business as usual,' though often scaled-down in particular ways. Singer Jon Pardi did a Live From The Drive-In show from the Ruoff Music Center's parking lot near Indianapolis in July. Front-of-house mixer Colin Street had a respectable 24-box L-Acoustics left/right K1 system to work with, provided by Mid-America Sound, with as many smaller K2 boxes for two rows of left-right fills, necessary for the widely spaced assembly of cars that made up the audience.
Drive-in style concerts aren’t the only live event on the entertainment menu during the pandemic. “Drive-up” concerts have also made a small home for themselves during these odd times. Brad Paisley rocked the Tennessee Titans' Nissan Stadium parking lot in July —and with plenty of sports venues as empty as the music venues, they offer the opportunity for a big stage with a flown PA and video walls flanked left and right.
The key priority of these new concerts, however, is keeping musicians and crews safe. "The challenge we faced was, first and foremost, safety," said Demonbreun. "Everyone wore a mask, we social-distanced as much as possible, and we made sure hand sanitizer was everywhere. We all took as many precautions as possible."
To read more about how the crews and performers executed these innovative pandemic-friendly concerts, check out the article in Lighting & Sound America's September 2020 issue.