Live from Toronto to the World: The El Mocambo Rises Again!
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
By Michael Raine
For over half a century, it’s been one of the most fabled music venues in the Canadian music scene, and for the last half-decade, it’s been one of its biggest curiosities. But now, five years after famed “dragon” Michael Wekerle saved it from demolition with a last-minute $3.78-million purchase, the El Mocambo is rising like the metaphorical phoenix.
Just one problem, though: this dammed virus and the eradication of live music. Or at least that would be a problem for any other typical venue that had just invested years and millions of dollars into a radical reinvention only to have its opening pushed back indefinitely because of a global pandemic. For the new El Mocambo, however, the coming weeks may bizarrely be the perfect time to showcase what it can do – even if it’s not exactly what Wekerle and his team envisioned for a grand reopening.
“There’s nothing like this in the world,” declares Jamie Howieson, who has spearheaded the AVL design as the El Mocambo’s executive designer and production manager since late-2017. “The whole building is a complete content factory.”
The “new El Mo” may value and pay tribute to its legacy, but it’s definitely not the same place generations of music fans remember. This is a venue for the future of live entertainment, not one stuck in the past.
Since the late-1940s, the El Mocambo’s neon palm tree sign was one of the de ning images of downtown Toronto, beckoning rock and roll fans to the corner of College Street and Spadina Avenue. But a neon sign is just a neon sign on most buildings. What makes it iconic is the music history that has taken place inside the El Mocambo. For decades, this sweaty club with low ceilings, poor acoustics and worse sightlines, and which held only a couple hundred people, was the place in Toronto to see the next great rock and roll artists. Jimi Hendrix, Blondie, U2, Elvis Costello, Fats Domino, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and of course, The Rolling Stones are just a few to have graced its stage.
“It was the showcase club from about 1978 to ’95,” says Doug McClement, who now heads LiveWire Remote Recorders. He estimates that in the ‘80s, he remote-engineered roughly 120 concerts from the El Mocambo for the three big music stations on Toronto’s radio dial: Q107, CHUM, and 102.1 The Edge. “That was kind of thrilling, knowing that for any of the rock fans in town, that was the place to be that particular night. So, I liked that about it, but I mean, it wasn’t a great sounding room and it didn’t have great sightlines. It wasn’t a very good place to see a band, but I remember going to concerts there before I started recording the shows – seeing The Runaways and Wayne Cochran and Tower of Power – and literally seeing people dancing on the tables. It was just such a great place to be; a hot, sweaty club.”
Fast-forward to 2014 and the El Mocambo was on its last legs. After a few changes of ownership in the 2000s, the upstairs being turned into a dance studio, the building becoming increasingly run-down, and the live music market becoming harder for venues in general, it was set to host its last-ever concert on Nov. 6, 2014. Then Wekerle came to the rescue, and ever since, the speculation about when it would reopen and what it would look like when it did has been endless.
Earlier on in the reimagining of the El Mo, Wekerle was envisioning a live venue that also doubled as a high-end recording studio. For this, he even brought in famed studio engineer Eddie Kramer.
“When we got in there, there was a Neve console that Michael had already bought and a bunch of amazing outboard gear, and it certainly slanted more towards a full-on commercial recording studio. I questioned that, saying, ‘How is that going to live and breathe with an actual music venue? That might not work out well because we’ll have to stop programming to work around it if artist X came in and blocked it out,’” recalls Andy Curran, a record industry veteran who Wekerle brought into the fold about three years ago as GM of the venue and head of the new El Mocambo Records label. “Jamie and I, and also Clifton David Broadbridge, who is also a great musician and an engineer/mixer and part of Michael’s team, the three of us worked with Mike to tell him that it might be better to look at a model that served the artists coming through and performing at the El Mocambo. So, we basically flipped the design on its head… to make sure we had a recording facility and a video capture and a livestream component.”
“The whole building is more of a broadcasting and webcasting studio that happens to have a liquor licence,” jokes McClement about the new El Mocambo – and he isn’t wrong.
The three-story venue now hosts two stages – the 350-cap “Starlight Room” downstairs, which borrows the original name from the 1970s, and the second-floor main stage, which now has capacity for about 450, up from 275 at the original venue – plus a green room/dressing room on the third floor, which is also outfitted for audio and video recording. Also on the third floor is the top-end control room that ties it all together, which itself features an audio control room, a video control room, and an iso booth.
“The whole building is designed to be a studio connected to a control room that has the world’s coolest interior. We take all of these amazing performance spaces and connect them to a control room, much like you’d see in any large-format broadcasting facility around the world,” says Howieson. Now, every performance space has the ability to record and broadcast in 4K video and 24-bit/192 kHz audio.
But before any speaker, console, or cable could be put in, the building needed to be built. But wait; wasn’t this a renovation, not a new build? Sort of. In actuality, a whole new building went inside the partial shell of the old one.
“Ever see the movie The Money Pit about a guy who bought a home and goes, ‘Oh my god, what have I done’?” laughs Curran. “Unfortunately for Michael, when he purchased it, it was not that sound in terms of structure… The building was in a complete state of disarray and poorly kept and maintained.”
The front façade and side and back walls were kept, but a completely new building was built inside the original skeleton from 1910. They even dug down an additional 10 ft. and raised the roof 30 ft. The first and second levels feature floating floors, acoustic rubber insulation in the walls, broadband bass absorbers, and full-range acoustic absorbers. As well, the two stages are made of concrete board and solid brick so they don’t resonate. No sound passes from one level to the next, nor does any noise travel from the venue to its neighbours or from the street into the venue.
“Then the studio is isolated from the actual stage, so we had a drum kit in there the other day and I was sitting in the control room. I turned down the speakers and you couldn’t hear the drum kit at all in the next room because the walls are like a foot thick and rubber-insulated,” attests McClement. “Sometimes you can tell walking into a room that it’s going to sound good just by the sound of your voice in the room. That room sounds really even. Some clubs, you get into the corner and it’s really boomy or you get into spots where you can’t make out the vocals. Jamie has put so much care into this design that it sounds the same everywhere in the room and you don’t really hear the seams in the PA.”
“My god, it’s a fortress. Consider the building completely gutted. When you’re in there, it still feels like the El Mocambo, but the layout is a little different,” adds Curran. “We kept the stage on the north side and it’s the same stage that The Rolling Stones and Blondie played on, though the sightlines are much better.”
Like at any well-designed studio or venue, HVAC noise is a concern. Even still, as is the case throughout the El Mocambo, exceptional care and work went into mitigating it.
“Like any other large venue you’ve been to, even the Scotiabank Arena, when they turn up the air, you can hear it. Because of the intimacy of this venue, we can’t afford any ambient noise. Imagine Diana Krall is playing and there’s a very quiet moment; you don’t want to have any fan noise or turbulent noise,” says Howieson. His solution was to design a wi-fi-connected HVAC control system that provides room-specific control of the fans from a tablet or phone.
“Beside the mixing console is a tablet that has full control of the fan speed and temperature of every unit in the building. So, while the person is mixing and it’s a quiet song, they can reach over and there’s a fader I’ve built in on the screen of the tablet. You just bring it down and the fan speed will slow and it gets really quiet. Then, when a loud song comes on and you want to move all the air in that specific performance area, you can bring that fan speed all the way up and suck it dry and no one will ever hear it. So, you’re mixing the instruments, but you’re also mixing the heating and air conditioning in all the performance spots, even in the control room.”
As Professional Sound speaks with Howieson, getting a rundown of the design and equipment over the phone instead of at the venue because of the COVID-19 restrictions, he keeps reiterating that it’s impossible to do it justice without seeing it first-hand.
“The thing to remember is that the quality is consistent from upstairs to downstairs. There is no room A or B or C in the El Mocambo; they’re all amazing. We didn’t compromise on the tech in any of the rooms,” he asserts.
In the downstairs Starlight Room, the PA comprises one L-Acoustics ARCS-II point-source speaker per side as mains and one per side as delays, complemented by two KS28 subwoofers and four L-Acoustics X8 coaxial system speakers as front fills, all driven by three LA12X amplifiers. The FOH console on the first floor is a Digico SD9, with a Behringer X32 for monitors. Available for the musicians on stage are six L-Acoustics 15HIQ wedge monitors, as well as four Sennheiser EW IEM G4-A systems.
“When you look at the four video monitors, they’re 4K all the way across. On the upstage wall of the stage on floor one is a high-resolution 2.9-mm LED wall from Absen. In that performance area, we can lift 32 SSL pre tracks and record up to three 4K video images.”
In terms of selecting gear, Howieson says the same method and philosophy was used for every item in the building.
“I looked at multiple international technical riders and from that I came up with the items. I took the top three picks from these international riders I looked at and that is basically how I designed it,” he reveals. “When people are coming in, they can go through my tech spec and say, ‘OK, they’ve got one of those and one of those and one of those; those would’ve been my top three picks. Cool, let’s just leave the truck at the border and go up.’”
Moving upstairs to the second-floor main room, there are 16 boxes (eight per side) of the L-Acoustics KARA II for the main arrays, plus 16 of L-Acoustics’ compact KIVA-IIs with Wavefront Sculpture Technology (WST) for side hangs and four KS28 subwoofers, all driven by eight LA12X amplifiers. For consoles, there is a Digico SD12 at both FOH and monitors.
“And here, I have eight channels of IEM mixes and eight channels of wedge mixes. There are 64 tracks of SSL remote pres on this floor, too. It’s a much wider performance space,” adds Howieson. “All the PA is on motors so it can come up and down as we need it to. This room is really, really cool and looks amazing, and we can record up to five 4K video captures at one time.”
For the video wall behind the main stage, there are 92 more Absen D2 Plus 2.9-mm panels.
As well, a total of 48 L-Acoustics X8 speakers are placed throughout the building for surround and background sound on a Crestron system, driven by four more L-Acoustics LA12X DSP amplifiers and a Bose ControlSpace ESP-00 Series II DSP processor.
“I can send discrete audio to any group of two of those speakers in the building via the Dante network that is connected to all the consoles – the control room console, the FOH consoles from floor one and floor two, and the monitor console from floor two. If there’s a band playing downstairs and we’re doing changeover on floor two, I can send the sound from downstairs to the main and background system on floor two and vice versa. A good example is if we did a large-format show up here and we had to use the main floor as the ‘tailgate party,’ I could send video and audio down to the main PA and all the video screens and people could watch the show,” explains Howieson. “And from all the bars, you can walk up to a panel, connect your iPhone, and start playing DJ. It can get you into the main PA and also the background system, and allows you to send video captures to any of the screens on that floor as well.”
Moving upstairs to the third floor, we find the green room/dressing room, which is also tied into the control room. “It’s a beautiful area and it could be used for, say, voice throw-tos [during a broadcast],” says Howieson. “You could have a band playing downstairs and could be doing interviews in the dressing room and doing a throw-to on floor two. Or it could be recording drums on floor two, guitars on floor three, bass or keyboards in the dressing room… We could lift a whole live performance while having complete isolation, down to doing the vocals in our iso booth in the control room.”
Also on the third floor is that beautiful control room, which is split into separate audio and video control spaces and the aforementioned iso booth. “All of these rooms are connected to the whole building. I have conduit running to all the performance spaces, including the basement, and I can lift tracks and video from pretty much anywhere I want,” Howieson adds.
The audio control room is centred around an SSL L550+ console and Pro Tools rig, from which the engineers can get a combined 98 tracks of high-resolution 24-bit/192-kHz audio from any the performance areas.
“The converters, the clock, and the preamps of that SSL are, in my opinion, some of the best I’ve ever heard. And with the remote preamps, I can have the preamps in the performance spaces running MADI from the preamps to the console. Also, it’s a platform that a lot of engineers on the road are familiar with operating. You would see that in a broadcast room or also see it in a live performance,” says Howieson.
For reference monitoring in the audio control room, there are three SCM100ASL Pros, five SCM25A Pros, and a Sub12 subwoofer, all from ATC. “It’s 5.1, so it’s nice and even-timbred all the way around.”
Another important thing to note is that every track is backed up to the TASCAM
DA-6400 recorders. “So, when you’re recording and mixing in the room via the console, you can hear the backup track or the main track. You can switch between whatever you want to listen to. We’re always recording and that backup system comes directly off the preamp.”
As far as outboard gear in the control room, there are a few vintage valve compressors, but mostly it will come in on an as-needed basis.
“We didn’t go into purchasing a bunch of stuff because that seems to change daily, so I have sources for many esoteric and beautiful pieces to bring in as needed,” explains Howieson. “The premise of the design is that it’s a road house, so people can bring their own proprietary equipment in and out and are not stuck with any one piece.”
Of course, all this AV tech and connectivity is purpose-designed for high-end television, radio, and webcasting (i.e. livestreaming) purposes. And actually, for livestreaming, it’s almost too good for most current uses and connection speeds.
“Honestly, the last three to four weeks, we’ve had a ton of interest and inquiries about how artists can get in there and what we have on the technical end. Will the pay-per-view model be something front and centre for the immediate future, given the lockdown of venues and public gatherings?” speculates Curran. “We’d just built [the livestreaming capabilities] on as an add-on to be able to tell artists when they come in that they could do it. I’ve now spent easily like 90% of my days working with the El Mo addressing the livestreaming and how we can make that happen really quickly.”
To test it out, the El Mocambo team recently did a private livestream with blues artist Paul James. “We were spitting out video at 4K and audio at 48 kHz. We were like, ‘Okay, this should be good because we’re ahead of the curve in terms of quality,’” Currans adds. “We’re set for the future and then some, and we’ve got a 10-gigabyte dual core fibreoptic cable out of the back of the building now that is like no other.”
“Unlike a lot of facilities in Toronto that never seem to consult with the people in the broadcast industry about how that place might be used, the El Mo team did,” adds McClement, recalling discussions as far back as four years ago asking him to
come down and give his thoughts on what broadcast engineers would like and need in the venue. “They asked for input from a lot of broadcast people and live touring people. And then as they went along, they said, ‘Well, if we look to the future, a lot of stuff is going to be webcasting, so why don’t we also make it easier to webcast out of here?’”
Since the pandemic started, Howieson says: “I am the guy in the attic running the wires and I’m down on the floor and sweeping and doing it all.” But of course, a lot of people had a hand in a project this big. “Solotech has been an amazing part of this build,” he says of the venue-wide AV installers. “They’ve been there for us since day one. Two-and-a-half years ago when I first got approached for this project, I was working a lot with Solotech on other projects, so I brought them in and showed them what I’m doing… I drew everything in 3D and sent it to them with my equipment list. Then, from my equipment list and cabling drawing, they said, ‘OK, we can do this,’ which was fantastic. They have done nothing but an amazing job since they’ve been here.”
He tacks on praise for East York, ON-based Progressive Interiors for their work in the control room, Glen Murphy of RPM Lights for the lighting design and installation, and Hamilton-based Laundry Design for their interior design work.
“I am hoping that we’re up and running by late summer if the government and city let us,” says Curran in closing. “We are in discussions with probably about a dozen amazing Canadian acts right now that all want to come in and talk about doing livestreaming shows.”
A livestreamed show may not be the big bash that the team envisioned for the El Mocambo’s long-awaited coming out party, but in this new reality we’re all living through, it just might be the most fitting way to launch this legendary venue into the future it was designed for.
Ed. Note: The El Mocambo made its virtual debut on Canada Day 2020 in partnership with the City of Toronto. It hosted performances by rock icon Kim Mitchell, alt-rock band July Talk, Next Generation Leahy, singer-songwriter, actor and speaker Jully Black, hip-hop artist Haviah Mighty, and the legendary Gordon Lightfoot. Garnering more than 100,000 views in a single day, many of the live performances were broadcast/live streamed from the El Mocambo in 4k High Definition via Nugs.net/Youtube, concluding with a sing along to Neil Young’s “Lotta Love” led by Choir! Choir! Choir!.