"A Case Study in Upscaling": Daniel Caesar's Back-to-Back Nights at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
By Andrew King
Shortly after dropping his widely-acclaimed debut LP, Freudian, Daniel Caesar took over Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall in December 2017 for a series of five consecutive homecoming shows. Every one of them was a sell-out, packing the venue to its 1,500-person capacity and generating even more hype for one of the city’s most talented and talked-about musical exports.
In the short time since, the velvet-voiced R&B phenom has maintained his impressive trajectory with increasingly bigger shows throughout North America – including a slot at Coachella in 2018 – plus some high-profile collabs with the likes of Jessie Reyez and Free Nationals and a few new tracks of his own.
Then, on June 28, 2019, Caesar seemingly came out of nowhere with his follow-up full-length, CASE STUDY 01, which only served to further propel his profile around the world. While centred on a similar, albeit more diverse and evolved sonic character to its predecessor, the 10-track effort hits new highs and boasts an impressive guest list in terms of pure star power, including the likes of Pharrell, Brandy, John Mayer, and fellow GTA ambassador Sean Leon.
It was only fitting, then, that Caesar’s subsequent Toronto performances would come with higher stakes and – literally – a higher stage.
This time, in late September 2019, the gifted, somewhat enigmatic performer headlined a pair of dates at Budweiser Stage, packing the longstanding amphitheatre to its full 16,000-patron capacity on the first night. That marked a wholly new milestone for the artist and his crew, which adapted a show and production package typically staged in clubs and theatres for its biggest iteration yet in a headlining scenario.
Professional Sound recently caught up with FOH Engineer Cameron McLellan, Monitor Engineer and Tour Manager Mike Rowland, and Production Manager Karen “Keeks” Weigold to talk about the experience.
McLellan has been behind the FOH board for Daniel Caesar since day one. Back in 2016, he got a call from Riley Bell, a recording studio acquaintance who co-produced and engineered Freudian (and subsequently won a Juno Award), asking if he’d like to mix the artist’s first-ever show – a sold-out night at Toronto’s Mod Club. Needless to say, McLellan was intrigued.
“That’s obviously no small feat,” he says, considering the venue’s 600-plus capacity. “The experience from day one has been nothing but amazing, and almost four years later, we still can’t get rid of each other.”
Rowland came into the fold the following year, and the two have locked into a synergistic workflow in the time since. For the two Budweiser Stage shows, that was facilitated by the Avid S6L-32Ds anchoring their respective workstations.
“I’ve been switching between consoles for the last two years now,” Rowland reveals. “During our rehearsals for the CASE STUDY 01 album cycle, I was actually on [a Digico] SD7 and simultaneously spun up on the Avid. Our first run of shows was through Asia, and since I now tour manage for Daniel and am very conscious of our budget, I wanted Cam and I to have files we were happy with that we could take on the road straight away, without taking on any additional costs. After 10 days of programming on the Digico, I started playing back into the Avid and one night, in preparation for the next day, I switched all outputting to the Avid. I didn’t tell the band, and the next morning after a few songs, they commented on the clarity, space, and the way the mix sat together, and they loved it. The biggest thing I noticed was the difference in headroom, but there indeed was a separation that seemed much easier to achieve in the Avid.”
McLellan adds: “The way Avid lays out their consoles has always been great for me intuitively, having used Pro Tools in the studio for roughly 15 years. The workflow just makes sense. I’ve always liked walking up to a Profile or SC48 on the road for that reason – especially if I’m dialing in something from scratch – and the S6L is a nice, natural upgrade from that.”
McLellan isn’t carrying any outboard gear or external plug-ins on this run, instead opting for the S6L’s stock tools. That was also the case for the Budweiser Stage shows. “Honestly, not much has changed over the years in terms of how I approach each show,” he says. “Whether it’s Coachella or the Horseshoe Tavern, the principles of my mix stay the same.”
On that note, he says that his approach to mixing Daniel Caesar is, interestingly, informed by his formative experience in the rock and metal scenes. “The drums are the foundation of my mix and what I get the most comments on when people hear him live,” he says. “For an R&B artist, you might expect to hear duller and more tame-sounding drums to cater to the more laidback energy you’d anticipate from this sort of music, when in reality, if you listened to my drum mix soloed versus any of the metal guys I used to mix, you wouldn’t find too much of a difference sonically – smooth overheads and punchy shells being the base of the mix.”
The rest of the instruments are mostly driven by in-the-box sources, so for any given show, he’ll finetune their sonic character and carve out any problematic frequencies that a given venue “doesn’t particularly like that day.”
Of course, central to it all are Caesar’s unmistakably smooth and serene vocals, which, in true modern pop fashion, McLellan sits prominently on top of everything. “He’s got an insane amount of low-mid information in his voice, so he’s high-passed unusually high for the most part, changing from room to room,” McLellan explains. “Toss in a few reverbs and a couple of FX throws and that’s the meat and potatoes of it all.”
While they’ve been relying on house systems to relay that mix for the vast majority of the CASE STUDY 01 dates, for Budweiser Stage, Weigold sourced a substantial d&b audiotechnik J-Series system from her frequent collaborators at PRG Toronto.
Weigold joined the Caesar camp about a year prior to the Budweiser Stage shows in the summer of 2018. As they progressed to larger venues and festival stages, the crew found themselves increasingly busy and in need of some logistical support, which prompted Rowland to put in the call.
A consummate professional, Weigold says the only key difference or consideration between these shows and the others on the tour was scale. “The body and soul of the show remain intact regardless of the size of the venue with all the different variations we’ve come up with over the past few months on tour,” she shares. “The main thing to account for is ensuring we have adequate production in place to deliver a clean, clear, proportionate show. If you’ve seen the show, it’s very modest in terms of the production on deck; we want to create an experience that relies on energy, atmosphere, and feeling that isn’t overshadowed by any of the production – only heightened by it.”
That said, the increase in scale made managing the local crew and ensuring her team had the support they needed to get up and running even more of a priority; however, she says once everything was loaded in and in-place, the days ran “like clockwork” in terms of “patching, programming, and perfecting the small details.”
Speaking to the choice of the J-Series, McLellan says that goes back to the concept of a more rock- and metal-style mix. “I’ve found the d&b J-Series gets me closest to home in that respect – that scooped punchiness that I’m after with low-end that hits you in the chest, rather than low-end that brushes by your shins.”
The first of these two shows marked McLellan’s first time behind the console at Budweiser Stage, and he admits it’s not an easy venue to mix – lots of concrete, a high roof, and, at least for sound check, a sea of plastic seats. “That said, it’s night and day compared to a full house in there for showtime,” he says. “Everything tightens up and warms up nicely, and the endless decays that haunted you during soundcheck seem to disappear.”
Flying and overseeing the rig was PRG systems tech and touring vet Jon Halliwell, who McLellan asked to work with by name, and he, Weigold, and Rowland all offer praise to the local crew that supplemented their efforts. Of course, with all three based in Toronto and deeply rooted in its live production community, there weren’t many strangers onsite.
“It’s always such a comfort to come back to a place that has familiar faces and an unparalleled work ethic,” Weigold says about the Budweiser Stage and its typical Nasco Staffing Solutions crew. “Their crew chief, Biscuit, is a Toronto staple and his team matches his skill, problem-solving, and humour. Stage hands are the pillar of the industry and without them, we wouldn’t be able to achieve the scale of production we do. A good crew makes for an even better day, and Bud Stage’s is among the best.”
Having a solid crew to lean on also helps to mitigate some of the inherent challenges with this iconic venue.
“This is a tougher shed to mix,” Rowland states outright. “I find I’m talking with FOH and our systems tech a lot more on these kinds of shows. There’s a point where the room can be ‘excited’ too much and all of a sudden, you’re reaching for your mixes, trying to clear out what FOH is pushing back onto the stage, so you have to stop and remind yourself to keep up communication with FOH.”
He reports that halfway through the set on the first night, they hit their stride, and the second show was mostly seamless from start to finish. “Cam and Jon had pushed and pulled the system into what they needed for Cam’s mix and the room, and we had a J-Series rig, which is actually my favourite to stand behind,” he laughs.
Unlike McLellan, Rowland supplemented his S6L with some external tools – namely, a suite of Waves plug-ins. “For Daniel’s vocal, I use the C6 [multiband compressor] and API 2500 [compressor]. The C6 is my go-to for every vocal. I reach for it before my channel EQs.”
On the RF side, he deployed a complement of Shure PSM1000 receivers with Sennheiser 6000 mic transmitters and Shure UR4D systems for backline wireless. Speaking to the PSM1000 platform, he says: “In the pursuit of headroom and clarity, the PSM1000 definitely does the job. I’m also a fan of [Shure’s] Wireless Workbench [software] and how you can get relatively detailed – or not – about your RF configuration.”
As for his approach to mixing Caesar and his band, Rowland notes that the singer is still navigating the transition to IEMs. “He has a dedicated crowd mic channel, and depending on how they are along with the room – whether it’s being forgiving or not – I’ll adjust it from song to song.”
He adds that his mix gets heavily EQ’d each day to account for those kinds of variables. “All in all, every mix is very musical and exactly what you would expect it to be. We stole [drummer] Adrian Bent from Drake, and he is often saying how happy he is with his ears, which I’ll take!”
Daniel Caesar’s back-to-back nights at Budweiser Stage were successful shows amidst a successful tour supporting a successful album; as Weigold jokes in hindsight, the only downside was a notable lack of ducklings in the Ontario Place Channel next to the venue’s well-worn loading dock. Otherwise, she praises her longtime partners at PRG for their unparalleled support and her fellow crew members for another job well done.
Both McLellan and Rowland mention Meaghan McEachren, the A2 on the tour, as being indispensable – especially with the higher stakes at Bud Stage. “The show just doesn’t happen as smoothly without her,” McLellan reinforces.
Ultimately, Caesar had the thousands in attendance eating out of his hands on both nights, and even had guests like Kardinal Offishall and Sean Leon elevate the excitement on the first. Both proved that the artist’s seemingly meteoric rise from a first-ever show in 2016 to back-to-back nights on an iconic stage has been well-earned, and as Rowland told Professional Sound at the tail end of his interview: “Hopefully we can talk again after he sells out Scotiabank Arena!”
If the artist continues on his current tangent, that won’t be too far off...
GEAR AT A GLANCE
• 12 x d&b audiotechnik J8 & 4 x J12 (per side)
• 12 x d&b audiotechnik J8s (per side)
• 24 x d&b audiotechnik B2s (6 stacks in cardioid configuration)
• 8 x d&b audiotechnik Q7s
• 8 x d&b audiotechnik D80 Amplifiers
• 1 x Avid S6L-32D Control Surface
• 1 x Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 V1 USB Interface
• 1 x Meyer Sound Galileo Galaxy 816 AES Network Processor.
• 1 x Lectrosonics Venue 6-Channel Modular Receiver (470.1-691.1 MHZ)
• 1 x Avid S6L-32D Control Surface
• Waves Plug-Ins
• 14 x Shure PSM1000 Receivers
• 8 x Sennheiser 6000 Mic Transmitters
• 4 x Shure UR4D Wireless Receivers (Backline)
• Telefunken M82
• Telefunken M80s
• Telefunken M81s
• Beyerdynamic M88
• Beyerdynamic TGD58C
• Neumann 184s
• Neuman 102s