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AXPONA 2017

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Just got back from a busy weekend in Chicago, where my side business, 608 Sound and Light was hired to provide sound and lighting for two nights of live music production at the Axpona 2017 conference.

Axpona draws thousands of people from around the world, along with hundreds of world-class audio equipment manufacturers. To give you an idea of the type of gear that was at this event, I saw a $30,000 record player (er, I meant "turntable") and a speaker that cost well into the six figures (for just one speaker). There were cables that started at $3,000 and so on... not small potatoes by any means.

As part of the Axpona conference, there were two nights of live music. Our primary speaker manufacturer, JTR Speakers sponsored the live music auditorium and hired us to run sound and lights for both nights of music.

If only the story were that simple... but it's me, so you know there's going to be a hitch, some challenges, and some good stories. So, let's go.

We loaded-up the trailer, packed the Flex, and hit the road on Thursday afternoon. Why on Thursday? Because the auditorium that was hosting the live music was also hosting seminars during the day.

We discovered that there would only be about 1.5 hours of time between the end of each day's final seminar and the start of the live music; not a lot of time for us to set-up equipment, calibrate it, line check, and sound check.

So, we negotiated the option to drive down on Thursday, unload, set-up, calibrate, mark positions for speakers, gear, etc., and then hide everything back stage so the room could be used for seminars during the day.

Shortly into our drive toward Chicago, the GPS told us to exit onto Hwy N (just about 10 miles outside of Madison) and to take back roads until we reached Stoughton. We checked multiple mapping systems and all suggested the same thing. When we checked for traffic, construction, or issues along the interstate, everything turned-up clear.

At the last minute, we decided the GPS was nutty, and continued on the interstate.

Big mistake. Like YUUUUUUUGE mistake. Immediately around the corner from the suggested exit, traffic came to a complete stop. And we sat in traffic for the next 47 minutes. Why? The DOT was working on the shoulder about 5 miles away, and our wonderful State Troopers were forcing people to merge into a single lane about 4.9 miles from that shoulder work. Oye. Not cool.

Now thoroughly behind schedule, we did our best to make decent time to Chicago.

We arrived to the Westin O'Hare hotel and conference center about 1.5 hours later than hoped, and ran into obstacle number two: loading in.

The hotel wouldn't allow us to use the most direct route to the auditorium (through a set of doors and across a hallway); instead, we had to use their official loading dock area, which was: (a) designed for semi trucks (i.e., it had a very high loading dock area) and (b) was located about .25 miles from the auditorium, required an elevator trip, and wound through a crazy labyrinth of halls and passages, all hidden from the public (and all of the hallways were dark, poorly lit, and very unevenly paved/covered).

We got the trailer unloaded and the gear to the auditorium, and that's when we encountered challenge number three: a sunken auditorium, with about 15 rows of stairs down to the stage area.

Now... I'm not sure if you've tried to haul a 200-pound rack of amplifiers down a dozen-ish rows of stairs, but if you haven't, trust me... it's not exactly fun.

We eventually got everything onto the stage area, as shown here.

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It was now about 6:00pm, and there was an industry mixer/meet-and-greet taking place just outside of the auditorium. We had hoped to shmooze, eat, and imbibe, but alas, we had work to do.

Thanks to a ton of help from Tony (my helper/partner) and Jeff (owner of JTR), we eventually had things set-up and calibrated. Jeff supplied us with some prototypes of his newest subwoofer - the JTR Captivator 212 Pro. He also supplied us with his top-of-the-line main speakers (which we use), the JTR Noesis 3TX, and a prototype of a new stage monitor, the JTR 2AX.

The subwoofers were self-powered, which meant that we didn't have to plug them into an amplifier, but rather into a 120-volt power source (i.e., the wall).

And that's where challenge number four came in... the auditorium had a total of four (4) 120-volt circuits available at the stage. That may sound like a lot to you, but we require approximately one circuit per amplifier or system. In an ideal world, we would've had 6-7 circuits for this show (lighting, backline, main amplifiers, subwoofers, monitor amplifiers, and mixing console), or we would've had a 60-amp 240-volt circuit and used one of our power distribution centers to convert the power to 120-volt circuits.

Alas, we made it all work. And when we fired-up the new subwoofers (Jeff brought three of them), our collective jaws hit the floor. Holy beastly mother of low-frequencies!!!!

The new Captivator 212 subs are small and light - they weigh just 70-pounds and feature two 12" subwoofers and a 700-watt amplifier. In the subwoofer world, those specs would be considered "cute," but these subs are anything but cute. They are monsters that hit hard, played low, and went louder than I would've imagined, all with complete clarity and accuracy. Wowsers!!!

Here's a quick picture of three of these super subs as they were loaded in to the Westin O'Hare:

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They were so efficient and powerful, that we immediately decided to strike one of the subwoofers from the line-up, and run the weekend with just two of them. Even the two were borderline too much for the size of the venue (it seated around 250 people).

We smiled the rest of the night as we played background music at obnoxious levels, finalized our calibrations, marked locations of equipment, and then semi-disassembled everything so the seminars could begin at 10:00am the following day.

We drove back to Madison and called it a night at around 1:00am.

Friday came, and it was time to head back to Chicago to provide live sound and lights for our first evening of production.

Friday night featured Frank Catalano, a world-renowned tenor saxaphone player. Frank brought his band, which consisted of an upright bass player, a keyboardist, and a drummer. Frank just released an album that he created with David Sandborn and Jimmy Chamberlin (from the Smashing Pumpkins).

Everyone in the band was incredibly nice and even more incredibly talented. My goodness - what amazing artists. Jenny ran the lighting for me and did a great job with it, despite challenge #5 - the venue didn't allow us to place any lights in front of the stage, as the seating was far too close to the stage to allow for any equipment.

Front lighting is critical to being able to see the performers. You can't "up light" (i.e., place a light at the foot of the stage, because the person will look like a shadowy ghost), and we couldn't fly any lighting (hang it from the ceiling or use trussing), so we had to make due with what we could. I've never been more happy to have T-bar lighting stands available to me. :-)

Here's a view of the stage as seen from where I mixed the show from:

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Challenge #6 came by way of a lighting laptop that decided to quit working just before the show started. Holy cats... could things get any more crazy? Thankfully, I had a spare laptop, so we quickly swapped it out and things were up and running again.

The auditorium was full of people, and we received a ton of compliments from them about the sound and production. It really couldn't have gone any better - those JTR speakers are insanely clear and accurate; that's why we love them and use them for all of our shows.

Frank and the band played two amazing sets and by 9:00pm, we were starting to tear down the stage for Saturday's seminars. Frank chatted with us for a bit and commented about how awesome things sounded. He really liked JTR's new monitor and even gave us a few of his albums as a thank you. He then made his way to O'Hare, where he was catching a flight to Paris to play in an event overseas.

We were done cleaning-up the stage by around 10:00pm, so we went over to a local brew pub for a beer and a bite.

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On Saturday morning, we grabbed breakfast and then took a quick stroll through the Axpona show. Here's an example of one of the more extravagant turntables we saw - this one was *only* $15,000...

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There were 12-floors of exhibits and demonstrations that we could've explored, but instead, we opted to take the EL into Chicago and hang out downtown. We stopped at Millenial park where we saw the infamous chrome "bean" sculpture, along with a more unconventional set of sculptures that were made from old tires.

Can you spot our reflection in the bean?

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Old tires turned into sculptures:

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After walking around for a few hours, it was time for lunch. And what better place than Big Star for some of their infamous tacos?

Pro tip: if you're ever in the Chicago area, take a trip over to Wicker Park and go to Big Star. Their street tacos are *ridiculously* good. But be warned - the place is always packed to the gills. We were super lucky to have scored a seat at the bar; service is fast, so we had our tacos in no time at all (we split these, by the way - I didn't have all six of those on the right).

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It was now around 3:00pm, so we headed back to prepare for the Saturday night show, which was presented by the Jazz Foundation and featured some true A-list jazz music legends including: Ronnie Baker Brooks, Billy Branch, and Mud Morganfield, along with six other incredibly talented blues musicians.

Trying to get 9 people and their instruments onto that small stage, with less than 1.5 hours of time before the show started proved to be challenging, but we made it happen. My partner Tony came down from Madison to help us get set-up in time, and what a help that was.

The Jazz Foundation hired a local backline company to provide the drums, amplifiers, keyboards, and other backline gear, so coordinating our set-up while they did their set-up and the musicians noodled on instruments was a bit stressful. Jenny did a great job of getting the lights situated while Tony and I set-up the sound gear.

We only had about 5 minutes to sound check before the auditorium was packed to the gills with attendees. The room was so full that people were lined-up in the asiles, and even more people were outside of the room trying to listen through the doors.

It was an experience of a lifetime, though, as the band was simply unreal. They were insanely good and a ton of fun to watch, listen to, and work with. The show was a little louder than I would've liked for it to be, but that's the price you pay with 9 fairly loud musicians packed into a smallish auditorium. Once again, Jeff's JTR speakers were incredible, and we received *a ton* of compliments. It was really humbling and extremely rewarding.

Here are a few photos from the night:

View from the mixing/lighting desk, at the start of the show:

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Billy Branch made his way out into the audience so that he could play his harmonica for his friend and mentor:

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A view from the center aisle (left to right: Ronnie Baker Brooks, Mud Morganfield, Billy Branch), photo courtesy of Leonard Caillouet from AV Nirvana:

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Getting the thumbs up from the band after their final encore:

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As soon as the show ended, Tony, Jenny and I tore down and packed the equipment as best we could. We raced through it so that we could grab another beer and a bite with Jeff from JTR.

While we were tearing down, the band thanked us for the awesome sound, and that really meant a ton, because I had heard that some of them were really picky about their sound. Knowing that we nailed it without much chance for a sound check was really cool.

As we were walking out on Saturday night, we stopped by JTR's demo room, where they had a seven channel surround sound system set-up. Jenny liked the speakers, even if they were slightly larger than she is:

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(I believe that speaker costs around $3500, which is actually a bargain, as I know what goes into the engineering and building of them)

After stuffing my ever-expanding gut with some Chicago-style pizza, we called it a night. Sunday arrived far too early - we had to load out from the auditorium, pack the trailer, drive back to Madison, unload the trailer at the storage space, and park the trailer.

By 1:30pm we were back in Madison, enjoying a beverage in the wonderful spring weather.

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On Monday, I drove out to Watertown, where Amy (and Mommy) had been graciously watching Flea for me.

**Huge thanks** to both of you for taking such good care of the little Fleaselton. Flea was rather happy to see me (I can't figure out why), and she absolutely didn't move from my arm or side for the rest of the night. Here she is in the car as we were about to head back to Madison:

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So there you have it. A detailed recap of an incredible weekend of providing live sound and lighting production for an international festival in Chicago, Illinois.

To Jeff from JTR - thank you for the incredible products and for hiring us to provide sound and lights for your event.

To Joe and Bridget from the Jazz Foundation - thank you for working with us and for all of the kind words and support. It was a pleasure to meet you and we hope to work with you soon.

To Liz and the crew from JD Events - thank you for the awesome coordination, planning, hospitality and assistance. Everything went super smooth and we can't thank you enough for taking such good care of us.

To Tony - you're a life saver. Thank you for all of your help and assistance on Thursday and Saturday.

To Jenny - thank you for running lights and doing such a great job, given a ton of stress and uncertainty with that system. It's finicky at best, and you ran it well. You're hired whenever you want to be. :-D

It looks like 608 Sound and Light is becoming a player in the live sound and lighting production area. If you are running a festival, a club, a bar, any type of event, or are in any type of band, give us a shout. We'd love to work with you.

Oh, and for videos of the performances, check out these YouTube clips:

Frank Catalano sample from Friday night at AXPONA 2017

Ronnie Baker Brooks playing "Times have changed" on Saturday night at AXPONA 2017

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