The following article by Robert Wright appeared in a July 2000 issue of The Toronto Star
Behind-the-scenes team ensures Sting stays sharp.
Gordon Sumner looked remarkably at ease as he ran through his seamless two-hour set before 15,000 fans last Friday night at the Molson Amphitheatre.
Perhaps too at ease.
It might be because the surprisingly buff 50-ish frontman known better as Sting has essentially been on cruise control since shortly after his creative years with the Police.
But it might also be because a good portion of the veteran popster's stage show is quite literally on auto pilot, thanks to some nifty behind-the-scenes computer programming.
I had an opportunity to take a backstage tour prior to the concert, courtesy of tour sponsor Compaq. Even as an ex-musician, I found it to be an eye opener.
Danny Quatrochi handles the digital sequencing and sampling duties, while Nick Sholem takes care of the lighting rig. Both have been with the Stingster since the early '80s, when the Police were the hottest act extant.
Quatrochi sits just off stage with a Compaq Armada notebook and 19'' TFT8000 liquid crystal display monitor and operates the Logic Audio sequencing software.
Everything is pre-programmed, so Quatrochi's main responsibility is making sure the sequences are synched to the live players - which is usually done via a click track sent to drummer Manu Katche's headphones.
"It's amazing what you can do with this stuff that you couldn't do even five years ago,'' he said.
"We program all the songs we need before we go on tour, then if Sting wants to change a few things around, we just have to take the notebook to the hotel room at night and it's done.''
Sholem agrees: "We couldn't have dreamed of doing most of this in the past. We used to have to control each light manually in real time. Now, I just push a button and the computer basically does everything.''
Sholem, who sits beside the main mixing console half-way back in the arena, uses a Compaq AP400 professional workstation, which runs on two 500MHz Pentium III processors.
The rig is running software is called WYSIWYG, from Toronto-based CAST Lighting, which enables pinpoint control over several hundred stage lights. Only the three main overhead spotlights are not controlled by computer - and that's mainly a union issue.
Although the lighting is automated for the entire show, Quatrochi estimates the sequencer is used in only about 25 per cent of the songs.
But that's still a lot of responsibility to put in the hands of the notoriously fickle computer gods.
With the tour starting last September, and due to run for two years, I asked both whether they've had any glitches or crashes?
"Not so far, touch wood,'' said Sholem.
"Thank god for that,'' added Quatrochi.
Mind you, it doesn't hurt that the band uses its own power generators and backups, as well as banks of line conditioners to make sure the power supply is clean and consistent.
Compaq would like to think its computers have something to do with that as well.
Although Compaq is the main sponsor of the tour, which accounts in large part for the use of Compaq computers, it's still a tribute to the IBM-style PC that mega-stars like Sting would agree to trade in their trusty old Apple Macintoshes - for years the platform of choice for most musicians - for a PC. After all, Sting can use any equipment he chooses, and if he had one shred of doubt about the equipment's reliability, he wouldn't use it.
It's the first time Compaq has sponsored a pop tour. But why Sting?
"We looked at a number of artists,'' said John Challinor, communications director for Compaq Canada. "But Sting just fit the bill perfectly for what we are trying to do as a computer company. He's innovative and edgie without being controversial or over the top. And he's never been arrested,'' he added with a laugh.
Compaq also provided notebooks for each musician in the band, and runs a tour Web site. The concert itself? A little too flawless for my liking. Not enough passion or chance-taking, musically speaking.
Though that undoubtedly had less to do with the tech behind the concert and more to do with the mindset of the adult contemporary music icon who once stood at pop music's vanguard.
© The Toronto Star