For the past 15 years, Chris Shepard, chief engineer and owner of American Mobile Studio, has been responsible for the music mixes broadcast over a variety of streaming platforms from some of the biggest festivals in the United States, including Coachella, Stagecoach, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. His intention is simple: “It’s so important for it to sound exciting,” he says.
The broadcast audio from a televised event such as the annual Grammy Awards or an HBO music special is some of the best quality you will hear, and the production teams behind them have the Emmy Awards to prove it. But that audience is often watching in the family room with 5.1 audio, Shepard observes, whereas his typical listener is quite different.
“I’m mixing for a 15-year-old’s Bluetooth speaker,” he says. “When people are using computer speakers, phones or an iPad for playback — because these are young kids who don’t have control of the television set — it’s got to come through that speaker nice and loud. I want to hear that crowd. It’s important for it to sound exciting, for the person on the other end to make that connection, instead of dead, dry, perfect-sounding audio.”
Shepard’s first foray into mobile production came in 1992 while he was general manager at Chicago Recording Company (CRC) and he purchased a remote Pro Tools rig. Hank Neuberger, CRC’s executive vice president and a longtime manager of the studio complex, established Springboard Productions in 2007 to consult on and create HD video and streaming productions for major music festivals, artists and brands. The following year he called on Shepard to handle audio for some of the stages at Coachella and they’ve been working together ever since.
“This was our fourteenth year doing Coachella. We’re doing 22, 23 festivals this year,” Shepard reports. The festivals come thick and fast through the summer. “Right after Lollapalooza in Chicago we go do Outside Lands in San Francisco. The truck has to be there in two days and it’s a long drive,” he says, more than 2,100 miles.
When Shepard, his crew — which often includes fellow CRC alumni Steve Weeder and Jonathan Lackey — and the truck roll onto a festival site, he says, “I hook up with the sound company and see how we’re going to get connected. These days it’s a lot of MADI. The problem is, there’s a lot of guest [front-of-house] mixers, so the head amps really get moved around. Somebody will load their showfile and the kick drum meter is two centimeters tall, and the next guy loads up and he’s kicking it all the way, using every bit of headroom possible on every channel.”
Control room rack (left) with 64 inputs of RedNet HD, 8 analog I/O, PT-HDX2, and Mac mini in a Sonnet Modo chassis for easy swap. Stage rack (right) with 64 remote preamps and 64 MADI channels. “Both racks have Cisco SG300 managed switches with ST fiber panels on the back. We also pass video so we can see our ’spy cam’ in the control room. All racks see regulated power with backup.”
The American Mobile team has learned to deal with it, of course. “But sometimes it’s just easier to plug in your own preamps, so we bring a stage rack with 64 Focusrite RedNet preamps that are remote-controlled from my Avid desk,” Shepard says. “The preamps get you onto the Dante backbone then you’ve got to get out of the backbone,” so the setup also includes RedNet boxes that bridge into the Pro Tools HDX cards.
That stage rack is duplicated at a festival like Coachella, where American Mobile mixes multiple stages for broadcast. “I own a little over 100 RedNet boxes now,” Shepard estimates. “I have pods set up at each stage and a mixing team at each with all the same RedNet gear that we’ve been using for the last five years. When I started with RedNet it didn’t even talk to Avid. Now I can plug a rack of preamps into an already recording Pro Tools system and the preamps snap to the correct level.”
Happily, the temporary control rooms are easy to load into, he continues. “A lot of our roadcases weigh 400 pounds each. Everything is on battery backup, which adds 100 pounds. We feed everything regulated power all the time. That makes a huge difference for making your gear last.”
In terms of signal flow at Coachella, Shepard says, his mixes from the truck at the main stage and from American Mobile’s satellite systems at the other stages are fed over fiber to Kevin Caslow, the broadcast A1, in an NEP truck. “There is a director for each stage and 10 cameras for each stage. Kevin’s fantastic; he takes all the audio streams and marries them with the correct video. And he doesn’t just output one stream — he has a lot of different streams with their own watermarks and different intros and outros,” as well as the show host and guests to insert between live performances.
Several platforms support the U.S. music festivals, including YouTube, Twitch and Amazon Prime Video. “Amazon is in this game big-time. They’ll be doing Coach next year,” Shepard reveals. Hulu, which streamed Lollapalooza 2021, recently announced it would broadcast Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Music Festival this year and next.
Shepard, who receives the broadcast video cut, also monitors the audio mix going to the cloud and back through the streaming platform’s processing. “I just want to make sure that I’m loud enough,” he says. He also receives a feed from the front-of-house mixing desk at his stage. “I’ve got their mix on a toggle button. I’m always referencing, because this is a guy who knows every song; he’s done it every night. I’m listening to make sure I’m not missing something.”
He will typically also listen to the four latest songs released by each artist he’s mixing. “I usually know their older stuff because I probably recorded them last year,” he laughs. “It's great to know all of a band’s songs as you’re mixing them and know what’s coming. If I can make it sound close to the record, they’re happy. They spent a lot of time making it sound like that.”
Shepard gets a lot of guest mixers in the truck, he says, and they are always welcome. “We always get along great, and they have a great experience. They call me afterwards and say, ‘How did we get such a great sound in your little truck?’ It’s monitoring. If you can tell what you’re hearing, you can make good decisions. I’ve got it to the point where I feel it’s a very comfortable environment to mix in. It’s built for an engineer, not a bunch of fancy-pants managers.”
The American Mobile Studio truck parked at the shop where they generate 30-50Kw of power per day with 31 solar panels.
That said, there is a comfortable leather couch if any of the artist’s people want to sit and watch. But they’ll need to be quiet, he says, using a more colorful phrase.
“The most fantastic thing to have is somebody holding a roadmap. You can do the overall mix and they can give you little cues — here comes this, here comes the solo.” It does get loud in the truck, though, especially when it’s parked near the stage, so sometimes Shepard and the guest mixer communicate via white board. “They can point to ‘up,’ ‘down,’ ‘drums,’ bass.’ You don’t want to have to shout over the music or take the headphones off just to hear them say, ‘Sounds great!’”
Harry Styles headlined the main stage on the first night of Coachella this year, and brought in Chris Lord-Alge, the multi-Grammy-winning producer and mixer of more hits than some people have had hot dinners, as a guest music A1. “Having Chris in the truck for Harry Styles was fantastic. He was there for the rehearsals, for every note of every bit, and he was so well prepared,” Shepard says.
He admits he was a little nervous about having him in the truck. “I kinda expected Chris to come in and say, ‘Where are my plug-ins?’ [Lord-Alge has developed a Waves Audio signature series plug-in bundle.] But he said, ‘You don’t have my plug-ins loaded? That’s OK, we’ll use yours.’ He listened to the ‘verbs and the different delays and he didn’t change a thing.”
Lord-Alge had apparently had some bad experiences previously with less than helpful engineers in other trucks, Shepard reports, but was complimentary about American Mobile’s team — and very polite. “I was in the seat, and he said, ‘Maybe I’ll push a few faders.’ I invited him up to the board and only then did he take the seat. He didn’t rush in, assuming. I helped mix some of the elements into the masters, so I could catch the little stuff, and he was in front of the masters and could focus on the overall mix. The mixes sounded so live and explosive, where a lot of people would have played it safe. Chris did not play it safe!”
The next day, Shepard says, he got a call from the manager of The Weeknd, who was headlining on Coachella’s third and final night. “He said, ‘We want our mix to sound just like Harry Styles.’ So Chris really had an influence me on this last trip at Coach, because Harry was Friday night, and then we got to do Saturday and Sunday.”
Uniquely among U.S. festivals, Coachella repeats itself one week later. “Imagine, you have the input list from last week with everything saved, all the levels, and you’re starting from there for all the bands. It’s fantastic. We don’t get that treat at any other festival,” he says.
The week after Coachella’s second weekend, the location transforms into the two-stage Stagecoach country music festival, which Springboard and American Mobile also handle. “For Carrie Underwood we had 128 inputs. Luckily, we had a guest mixer for her, and he was awesome,” Shepard reports.
That’s a few too many channels for him, he says. “I like it when it’s around 60 inputs. But the best situation is when somebody says, ‘Let me give you the stereo stems.’ If they get it right my faders are straight across on the console. Then they are guaranteeing themselves a great mix.”
For all the talk of audio gear, however, there is only one item that is truly indispensable, according to Shepard: “I have a huge vacuum cleaner hanging on the wall. Believe me, that’s the most valuable piece of equipment in the truck.”
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