Diving Into Drive-In Concerts with Brett Kissel & Crew
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
By Andrew King
Drive-in concerts. Anyone even remotely involved with or interested in live music is familiar with the concept these days: a live performance in front of parked cars instead of packed crowds; honking horns instead of clapping hands; audio from car stereos instead of multi-array systems.
At its core, the concept is crystal clear; how such an event logistically comes together, though, isn’t. And while artists and promoters and production companies have learned a lot from each other the more these kinds of events are staged around the world, when Canadian country star Brett Kissel announced the first of what would ultimately become eight sold-out Live at the Drive-In shows in Edmonton, AB (with more added in Regina and Saskatoon, SK, on subsequent weekends) drive-in concerts were basically the wild west of what live productions might look like during and following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professional Sound recently caught up with members of Kissel’s touring crew to discuss all the moving parts that went into what was essentially a proof-of-concept series of events – and how it felt to bring live music to an in-person audience again after months of inactivity and uncertainty. The first Live at the Drive-In show was announced in late May 2020: a 7 p.m. performance in the parking lot of the River Cree Resort & Casino as a fundraiser for Food Banks Alberta via the Safeway Community Action Fund. To say the news was well-received by the entertainment-starved public would be an understatement. Tickets sold out almost instantly at only $50 per vehicle, leading to a second show, then several shows, and ultimately culminating in eight sold-out, hour-long concerts over two days, June 13th and 14th.
The following weekend, Kissel and his band, crew, and the production they carried travelled to Regina for three sold-out shows in the parking lot of Mosaic Stadium before heading north for another three in Saskatoon on June 27th.
For the initial round of eight performances in Edmonton, 180 vehicles spaced several feet apart filled the parking lot for each show. By tuning into 89.5 FM, fans
heard the live feed from FOH through their car stereos and were invited to honk and wave – even hang out of windows and sunroofs – while staying in their vehicles through the hour-long performance.
Onstage, meanwhile, Kissel had full reign over a Stageline SL260 with a big extension – an 8 x 16-ft. runway down to a 6 x 24-ft. T-thrust – while his band was anchored to the stage with each member surrounded by Plexiglas partitions. While that part may have been strange for the performers, it wasn’t the most unusual aspect for the wider crew.
“The biggest difference for us on the technical side is that there was no PA,” begins Colin Moore of CJM Productions, Kissel’s longtime lighting director and, for the drive-in shows, production designer and co-manager. “Of course, me being an opportunist, I decided to hang lights where the PA would normally go [laughs] so the stage just looked incredibly massive, which I think played a big part in the excitement and experience. We knew from the start that, since you’re relying on sound from people’s car stereos, this had to be a very visual show. I mean, obviously the music and sound are important, but the big energy would come from the visual aspects.”
In addition to his work with Kissel and other clients, Moore maintains a close working relationship with Hamilton, ON’s Soundbox Productions. As Kissel’s longtime provider, Soundbox was approached about supplying production for the drive-in shows; however, that meant sending gear halfway across the country for a series of fundraisers with a very tight budget and an array of variables and unknowns.
“Soundbox agreed to send one truck, and however much gear we could fit into that one truck, we were gonna make it happen,” Moore says with a chuckle.
To supplement the audio, lighting, and onstage video wall provided by Soundbox, the team connected with River Cree’s go-to AV provider, Production World, to supply a camera package and a massive LED screen to the right of the stage for IMAG. For the Saskatchewan dates, Saskatoon’s IKS Media & Technology took over that role, opting for a pair of IMAG screens flanking the stage. In both cases, Moore says, “It was great having partners that skilled to fill those gaps.”
Back to the audio set-up, Kissel and his band usually rely solely on IEMs for their monitoring; however, the absence of a PA – coupled with the absence of a typical audience – meant an absence of onstage energy and impact from a typical live show.
“When I was first talking with Joel [Bird, FOH] and James [Bundy, monitors] about the shows, it was, ‘If the band’s not into it, Brett’s not into it, and if Brett’s not into it, the crowd’s not into it,’” Moore recalls. “So what could we do as a crew to support our family onstage so they’d feel as connected and energetic as they normally would?”
The solution was to not only deploy stage monitors for Kissel – in this case, a complement of M15 wedges from Adamson Systems Engineering – but also sidefill stacks comprised of two Adamson S10n narrow-dispersion two-way, full range sub-compact enclosures atop two complementary S119 subs on each side of the stage. Two of the wedges were loaded beneath the grated floor of the thrust to ensure Kissel got a bit of a punch to the chest when he was closest to the crowd, helping to build some of that crucial reciprocal energy.
“That whole artist-fan connection is something we were all concerned about, but when the time came – especially with the nighttime shows – the vibe was definitely there, and once we all felt that the vibe was right, we were right at home,” Moore enthuses.
“Brett usually wants to hear everything,” Bird takes over. “He wants to hear the audience, he wants to hear the room, he wants to hear the PA… Being able to incorporate some Adamson array elements and a few subs just filled everything in and made everybody feel at home onstage.”
Bird has been touring with Kissel as his FOH engineer and production manager for nearly eight years, essentially splitting the PM role with Moore for this unique series of shows, and says that the topology of his setup for the drive-in dates largely matched his typical touring rig. Anchoring that rig is a Digico SD12 running at 96 K with a Waves SoundGrid server.
“I was definitely using less processing through it, because everything’s right there for the FM broadcast; you’re not worrying about the room and reflections, not worrying about the size or style of PA,” Bird explains. “It was pretty easy to dial things back and then bring other things back into the mix organically; everything we did transferred really well to the FM broadcast.”
Bird sent a two-channel mix to the FM transmitter (as well as to local and national broadcast partners for certain dates) first hitting an Avalon VT-747SP tube EQ/compressor and then a Lake LM 44 processor for smooth, musical limiting.
To reference his mix, Bird relied on a pair of Adamson’s CS7p intelligent pointsource ultra-compact loudspeakers with built-in DSP and processing from the newly-launched CS-Series, along with his trusted Shure SRH940 professional reference headphones for isolation.
“Using the Adamsons, it was like mixing through a PA,” Bird notes. “They just sound so good – I pretty much left them raw and was really happy with the output and outcome; I didn’t have to do much to get something really pleasing and effective.”
He remembers eventually getting to hear his mix through an actual car stereo once everything was dialed in and having a smile creep onto his face.
“I was so happy with the mix, truly happy,” he beams. “Just being able to mix again was really special, let alone hearing everything come together so well after so much work. Like everyone, we’d been off for months, so just being there and watching on my monitor and mixing it and hearing all of these car horns honking, it was just unbelievable.”
Moore builds on that: “It was an incredible- sounding product, really. Even for me running lights at FOH, I’d take my in-ears out and just listen to the cars closest to me, and wow. It’s obviously just a standard stereo on a [Toyota] Yaris or whatever, but it sounded really good.”
Over in monitor world, Bundy was also mixing on a Digico SD12, running at 96 K with SD Racks over an Optocore network. “For the last three or four tours, I’ve been on an SD9, so this was my first time with Brett on an SD12 and my first time doing 96 K, which was really nice,” he offers.
Going over his RF set-up, Bundy points to a complement of Shure PSM1000 and 900 units – the former covering Kissel and the band and the latter for tech mixes, MCs, etc., since there’s no FOH system – “which can get a bit weird, sounding like you’re basically talking to nobody,” he puts in with a laugh. Kissel also has an endorsement with Calgary-based IEM manufacturer Plunge Audio, so all of the in-ears onsite were theirs.
Bundy echoes the fact that while they hadn’t used wedges or side fills in the past, they were particularly effective in this application. “Brett feeds so much off of that FOH mix,” he shares. “On some of our past fly dates, if FOH was underpowered, he’d come to me side-stage and ask about getting more energy, so that was definitely a big consideration for these shows.”
He elaborates: “We were initially thinking of just putting some subs on the stage, but then went with a few full-ranges to get a good mix of instruments and Brett’s vocals, which would be the loudest elements coming back from FOH on a normal show.”
That, combined with the M15s blaring up through the grated floor of the thrust, worked flawlessly. “He loved it,” Bundy says about his client. “It definitely gave him that FOH PA experience without creating any issues for the cars.”
Bundy says his mix was relatively simple despite having a few more moving parts with the wedges and stage fills – “typical cross-fill with a bit of panning to place things onstage. It was definitely different than our usual set-up, but with the same end goal as any other show. It was such a breath of fresh air when those subs kicked in!”
As far as what stands out about working with Kissel and his band compared to other clients, Bundy muses that their collective attention to detail is notable, and
makes his job easier and a little more complicated at the same time. After all, Kissel’s band is comprised of well-known studio session players and producers from the Calgary area, and subsequently have high standards.
“They know that I know what they want and can really tailor it, so that means really leaning into the console to get them the mixes they’re used to,” says Bundy.
Bundy, Bird, and Moore all concur that, between the first Edmonton show at noon on Saturday, June 13th through the final notes of a Saturday night performance in Saskatoon two weeks later, there were virtually no hiccups – at least from a technical perspective, as they did get thrown a curveball from mother nature for the final two of the eight Edmonton shows.
A total downpour hit the site for the 7 p.m. Sunday performance, complete with thunder and lightning. “Everyone’s in their cars, so we at least knew our crowd was safe and didn’t have to clear the site,” Moore says; instead, they got creative to continue the show and brought Kissel into the audio trailer with his acoustic guitar, put a pair of basic switch mics on him and his instrument, brought in a camera, and kept the music coming.
While the rain continued up to the final 11 p.m. performance, the thunder and lightning had ceased, so Kissel sang for a full hour with his guitar on the thrust with the grated floor, soaked but smiling from ear-to-ear.
“We had these LED strip lights lining that thrust, so Brett was well-lit and it looked really cool,” Moore tacks on. “It was definitely a standout moment.” And there were many of those – not just for the audience, which everyone acknowledges is the primary concern, but also for the musicians, crew, and other professionals that made it happen.
“We were just so hungry to be back; it felt like everyone was at the top of their game through the whole thing,” Bundy recalls. “The most surreal part was the first note of the first show. Just the idea of being back and doing a show was so emotional for everyone involved. It’s one thing to think of the performers onstage as having that emotional experience, but I remember looking around at our team all sharing this look like, ‘We’re doing it!’ I can’t wait for other techs to feel what we felt with that first note.”
“All in all, everyone had a great attitude, and was obviously excited to be back to work again, even though we didn’t know if this would be the first of many or last for a while,” Moore adds with a laugh. “The level of collaboration throughout the tour was incredible, and I’m really proud of what we did.”
Of course, being at the forefront of this growing trend, at least in North America, meant there was a lot of industry attention focused their way.
“When the first few Edmonton shows were done, we were getting all kinds of messages from our friends in the industry saying ‘congratulations’ and ‘thanks.’ It really shows the true colours of the crew and touring world, that as much as we’re competing for gigs, everyone’s just so happy to see somebody else out there doing something.”
What’s more, thanks to the various livestreams and third-party broadcasts, Kissel was even getting calls from some big names down in Nashville asking how they pulled it off, and there’s no question the shows will serve as an archetype of sorts for future iterations of the drive-in concept.
“At the end of the day, we found doing these shows – especially with the scale and everything we put into them – provided a lot of hope for the music industry, whether that’s the artists or the crew, the rental companies, the trucking companies, all the way to the fans,” Moore shares. “It was like, ‘We’ll call this a pretty good appetizer for now until we can get to the main course.’”