Seemingly overnight, Ed Sheeran has rocketed from energetic pub busker to global pop phenomenon, culminating in five recent stadium performances at Wembley in London and Croke Park in Dublin with a staggering total of 400,000 ticket sales. Supporting concert audio since Sheeran's first headline tour has been production manager and FOH engineer Chris Marsh. In this Q&A, Marsh reveals the painstaking preparations required to deliver an "up-close-and-personal" experience to each fan in the 80,000-capacity stadiums.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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