It’s no secret that the NFL Super Bowl is America’s biggest television event. Yesterday’s game between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots was watched by an estimated 103.4 million people in the USA and was broadcast to 180 countries in 25 languages. Advertisers paid up to 5 million dollars for a 30 second commercial spot and production costs skied into the 10’s of millions. Equally as popular as the game itself is the Super Bowl halftime show. The show, which begins its lifecycle nine months prior to the event, is one of the biggest stages for some of the world’s most popular performers. With the massive viewership, time, cost and effort put into the production there is little to no room for error. The pressure of getting it right is enormous, and this is no more evident than in the stage setup which must be completed in around 6 minutes!!
The time-lapse of Super Bowl 51 (Lady Gaga) below gives you an appreciation of the shear scale and number of people required to put the performance together on the day. Hundreds of set builders, audio engineers and casted audience members all scrambling to get to their positions and setup in a matter of minutes.
In a recent interview with the Verve, Super Bowl sound engineer Patrick Baltzell shed some light on the challenges associated with setting up a performance of this scale in such a small amount of time. Of particular note was Prince’s historic 2007 show, most commonly remembered for the epic rendition of Purple Rain amidst a torrential downpour. The heavy rain, while undeniably magical was not nearly as fun for production staff and sound engineers as it was for punters. As Baltzell recalls, “we made a quick wooden structure out of boards and wrapped it in visqueen. We kept it down low during the game, but during the halftime show I had two guys hold it up over me so I could see but the rain wouldn’t hit the [mixing board].“
What were some of the more challenging halftime shows you’ve worked on?
The most difficult was Prince. The way I do the Super Bowls are these speaker carts. There’s 16 to 18 of them and they’re placed in this big ring on the sidelines aimed up in the stands very carefully. We spend days tuning them and optimizing what energy gets to the top.
I use these for each Super Bowl and I don’t change the type based on the artist. That’s not that critical. But I will make changes based on the stadium. Some might be taller and some are flatter. Some I can get my speakers further away, and some they’re right up against the sidelines, which makes it trickier. But, Prince was the most difficult because he’s nuts about sound. His team didn’t want to do the speaker carts. They said, “We’re not doing that. That doesn’t work for Prince. We have done stadiums for decades. We know how to do it. You need these big giant speaker arrays.”
So I had to talk them off the ledge. Like, I know what you want to do and what you normally do. Keep in mind that this first and foremost is a championship football game. Also, I don’t even know if I can design something that can fit through the stadium tunnel, which, by the way, is 10-feet wide maximum.
Would towers like that actually sound better if it could theoretically be done?
It would sound as good. Maybe a little bit better. Certainly, you could use fewer speakers because there’s efficiency when you couple them together. When you break them into little piles of four or five on the carts you sacrifice a lot. So I do agree with that part, but, this is a TV show. How are you going to shoot this with cameras when you have six big towers with speaker clusters?
And people at the Super Bowl are looking at the show from 360 degrees.
Correct! Everybody sitting down low would be looking through a tower at his performance. My little speakers are about six feet tall; 99.99 percent of the people with my design are going to see the entire show. Nobody could assure me that we could do towers and make it work and I was starting to run out of time.
So I went back to the Prince guys and I had to do a whole acoustic modeling study where you take each frequency band and what the sound pressure level would be. I had to prove to Prince’s team that it would work, that I could deliver the same sound pressure level that the big towers could do. Also, the towers would wreck the field.
How many speakers do you use in total for the halftime show?
It’s probably 120 of those full-size line array, and 36 subwoofers. Sometimes I’ll put additional piles of subwoofers for effects just along the sideline that aren’t traveling out on the carts. Like if there’s a big thunder or earthquake effect built into the tracks and they really want the seats to rumble.
How much of the artist’s sound are you controlling during the performance?
A lot. For most of them, we get the tracks. It’s about 16 to 24 tracks from a Pro Tools session. And they will be divided into drums, sometimes kick drum, snare drum, bass, guitars, keyboards, special effects, background vocals in stereo, and a protection lead track. Some of them we go back and forth on how much of the protection track is fed in. I’m mixing quite a lot even in just those 14 minutes.
What is your process to tune a system for a stadium?
Well, there are two types of stadiums and they’re very different. One is the open-air stadium, which most of them are. So all I have to deal with are my speaker carts on the field and maybe speakers that are in suites. Sometimes in a nicer stadium, the suites have speakers built into the ceiling. I’ll take those over for the halftime show and I have to send a signal to them.
In those open-air stadiums, it’s pretty basic. I’ll take a quadrant and set up 10 microphones near the field, then at the top of the lower bowl, then the next level up, and then the next level up, and take a sampling vertically. It takes me usually eight hours… sometimes two sessions. I book two evening sessions from 6 at night to 2 in the morning when everybody else is done working on the field. It’s got to be quiet. If it rains, or it’s very windy, I can’t make measurements. It’s a bust.
What speakers do you prefer to use?
The best speakers out there now are the JBL VTX speakers and the L Acoustics K1s. Those two are both great speakers.
Our Top 5 Super Bowl Halftime Performances
- Prince (2007)
- Beyonce & Destiny’s Child (2013)
- Michael Jackson (1993)
- Lady Gaga (2017)
- Bruno Mars & Beyonce Cameo (2016)