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Q&A With Ed Sheeran FOH Engineer Chris Marsh

Q&A With Ed Sheeran FOH Engineer Chris Marsh

Ed Sheeran at Wembley Stadium. Photo by Ralph Larmann.

Ed Sheeran's long-time production manager and FOH engineer Chris Marsh has been working with the one-man-band since his first headline tour. The singer is currently on his x Tour, and Marsh strives to keep it an "up close and personal" sonic experience even in the stadiums and arenas. For Sheeran's five sold-out performances at the 80,000-capacity Wembley Stadium in London and Croke Park Stadium in Dublin, Marsh deployed a Meyer Sound LEO linear large-scale reinforcement system. 

In order to aim the sound directly at the Wembley audience, rather than aiming up from the pitch and hitting off the roof, Marsh and long-time associate Lars Brogaard, managing director of Major Tom, found a 25-meter high structure and hired cranes to hang the front arrays up high.

The system for the Wembley shows was built around 96LEO-M line array loudspeakers configured as 20 for each main front hang, 16 for each side hang, and 12 for each crane-flown upper side hang. For even distribution up and around the tall stadium, 12 LYON™ linear line array loudspeakers, 32-each MILO® and MICA® line array loudspeakers, and two JM-1P arrayable loudspeakers were deployed as delays and fills. Sixty 1100-LFC elements were both flown and ground-stacked as directional arrays. Onstage foldback consisted of four MJF-212A stage monitors and side fills of two MICA loudspeakers and four 700-HP subwoofers. A Galileo® Callisto™ loudspeaker management system with 16 total Galileo 616, Galileo 616 AES, and Galileo Callisto 616 array processors provided signal distribution and precision tuning. UK-based Major Tom, Ltd. was principal audio provider for all five shows, with additional loudspeakers supplied by POOLgroup of Germany. Sheeran used a Sennheiser Digital 9000 wireless system with an MD 9235 condenser capsule on the vocal mic. Marsh mixed Sheeran on a DiGiCo SD7 digital console.

Watch video of Ed Sheeran's performance at Wembley Stadium.

Ed Sheeran at Wembley Stadium. Photo by Ralph Larmann.

The following is a Q&A, conducted by Meyer Sound, with Marsh about the difficult process in creating an intimate experience in the 80,000-capacity stadiums.

How long have you been working with Ed?

Marsh: It’s been almost four years now. I met him at a festival in the north of England when I was mixing another artist and Ed was opening at the same stage. He asked a lot of questions about what I’d done before, and was very keen on learning whatever he could from me.

Shortly after that, when he started on his first headline tour, he gave me a call and said, “Hey, can you help us out with a bit of production? It will only be for two weeks in January.” I thought, sure, January is slow, so I could fit him in then continue on with what I’d been doing. Well, those two weeks never ended. He just kept getting bigger, and the two weeks in the UK went into three weeks in Europe, then off to L.A. and New York. And, well, here we are.

What appealed to you about working with Ed?

Marsh: He was enthusiastic to learn about anything, to know how to better connect with his audiences. I really quite liked that about him. He realized that there were lots behind the scenes.

In contrast, what size venues did you play on that first tour?

Marsh: We did 1,000 to 3,000-seat theatres. I think the biggest was the Brixton Academy. Our first Meyer Sound system was four JM-1P arrayable loudspeakers and three 700-HP subwoofers per side. That was it.

Sense Of Intimacy

Ed Sheeran at Wembley Stadium. Photo by Ralph Larmann.

What did you learn from those early tours?

Marsh: The crucial sense of intimacy. It was important to hear every little detail, to get that sense of closeness even in a crowd—so that when he was talking, and telling stories in his songs, the sound would get everybody intimately involved.

Sometimes the installed PAs in the early venues were very tired, very slow. So when we brought in our own PA, that made it more exciting. The way he plays is very rhythmic, very precise, and you need a system that can respond to it.

Has Major Tom been a key production supplier since the beginning?

Marsh: Yes, Major Tom has provided at least some equipment for every show we’ve done. I started with taking along my own console, from baby DiGiCo SD11 moving up to the SD7 along the way.

Also, regardless of the house PA, we now carry our own MJF-212A stage monitors, so Ed will have consistency in what he’s hearing. And so he can feel the low end properly on stage, we added 700-HPs as side fills. Those are the fundamentals for every show—the desk and the monitoring.

Chris Marsh at Wembley Stadium. Photo by Ralph Larmann.

Marsh: The easy thing is that it’s just Ed! There’s only one personality to deal with, and we’ve become so close over the four years that it’s predictable. I can feel where he’s going to go next with his show, so I can be ready.

But the fact that it’s just Ed also makes it difficult. From a sonic point of view, there’s no room for error. There’s no way to cover up something by turning elsewhere in the mix. Everything has to be exactly right on the audio side because there’s nothing to hide behind.

Now that Ed is playing arenas and stadiums, how do you maintain that sense of intimacy?

Marsh: You need to make sure that every consonant, every catch of breath, almost every falling bead of sweat is heard clearly in the back corners. Also, you want to make sure that, when somebody closes their eyes, the image stays on the stage and doesn’t move to some speaker hanging over their heads. Those are the two big keys. You want it full-range, with a clean high end reaching the back corners, and with attention focused on Ed on stage.

Accomplishing that in a venue like Wembley is extraordinarily challenging. For the first time anywhere, we brought in a massive, 25-meter stage structure. But the audience sits almost 34 meters high. Of course, the more you have to point the energy up at them, the more it slaps back from the room, or gets lost up there. The only way to deal with this is to get the boxes up as high as possible, at eye level or, if need be, a bit higher.

And thus the cranes?

Marsh: Yes, Wembley has huge left and right sections up high, and we decided to bring in huge cranes. It became a major production expense that Ed had to bear, but he wanted to get it right for everybody. We also hung more arrays to cover the very back corners. These are things we wouldn’t have to do at every stadium, but Wembley is particularly high. And the way the roof comes over, if you try to get coverage from down on the pitch with the typical, 20-meter high delay tower, you would hit smack on the roof and lose the initial impact. So the idea was to get the entire PA as high as possible and shoot directly at everybody, instead of pointing it upwards at them.

Is this the largest PA you’ve ever designed, and who else was involved?

Marsh: Absolutely the largest. It was mostly my job to achieve it, but I got a huge amount of good advice from Major Tom’s Lars Brogaard, who has been my mentor since 1999. He emphasized the importance of not compromising when it came to getting direct sound to the audience. If something needed to be flown up high, we had to do it regardless of the expense. It was also Lars who found the staging structure.

Where did you find a stage this tall?

Marsh: It came through a company called European Staging. It’s a structure that normally is used on building sites in Poland to allow high-rise construction regardless of the weather. It had genuinely never been used for a show before as a stage. It’s 25 meters high, incredibly strong, with an open and clear span. It took 15 trucks to get it around, so it’s quite a serious structure.

Now That Sounds Big

Ed Sheeran at Wembley Stadium. Photo by Christie Goodwin.

I understand that Meyer Sound LEO has been your first-choice system lately. When did you first start using it?

Marsh: We moved from the MILO to LEO, which probably became my first choice following one of Ed’s soundchecks. He strummed his guitar three times and I said, “Oh, now that sounds big!” And that’s when I fell in love. The guitar and vocal hit me like never before, because there was no front-end compression that you get with a CD. It was all right there in my face, like he was next to me, rather than 40 meters away on the stage.

How is working with LEO different than with other stadium-size systems?

Marsh: LEO manages to hit every seat as if it were in the near field. Whether you’re at FOH or at the back of the stadium, you feel like you’re mixing with near-field speakers. That’s the difference. Other systems can bring the sound out to you, but with LEO, you genuinely feel like you’re in it. That’s incredibly important with Ed, because there are no dancers, there are no fireworks, there are no other distractions. It’s all about hearing his songs like he’s right there in a small room with you.

Ed’s shows are just his vocal, his Martin acoustic, and loop pedals. Why do you need subwoofers?

Marsh: The total energy is important, and without the low end, Ed’s acoustic guitar playing and percussive effects would lose their power. And for that, the Meyer Sound 1100-LFCs are amazing boxes. They throw far and are very, very quick. Ed’s slapping of the guitar is a low-frequency transient hit that is much faster than any kick drum, and that energy requires that the sub-bass responds in kind. They’re also great from a production standpoint because you don’t need that many of them. They are incredibly powerful, so you can use half as many as typical subwoofers.

Ed Sheeran at Wembley Stadium. Photo by Ralph Larmann.

And what about the front end gear? I assume you’re looking for the same transparency there as well.

Marsh: Yes, and that’s one reason we’re now using the Sennheiser Digital 9000 wireless system for both guitar and vocal. We didn’t use wireless on his guitar before because I couldn’t find a system I liked that didn’t compress. But the 9000 means we can put him on a system that sounds natural and still lets him move around more on stage.

The Guardian noted in its Wembley show review, “It’s a state of affairs aided by the fact that, improbably enough, the venue boosts rather than swamps his sound.” How did you manage that?

Marsh: I really don’t know! It’s kind of a call and response situation—you hang your PA as best you can, get the best coverage you can, follow the guidelines of the design programs, and then listen to what you’ve got. What we discovered was that Wembley would really hold on to 300 Hz and keep delivering it back in bucketloads, so I had to deal with that using EQ as best I could.

After that, you adjust your effects on the console to the situation. But Wembley is what it is, and you need to work with it and not try to fight it. You may not get your reverbs exactly as you want them because of a characteristic of the stadium, so you make adjustments. At the end of the day, it’s Wembley and you have to do what you can do to make it “sing along,” so to speak.

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