Metallica Worldwired Tour: ‘A High Tech Family Gathering’

Pollstar spoke to Metallica show director Dan Braun and Adam Davis of Tait, the company providing the stage technology for Metallica’s current European tour, which includes the first drone swarm for a major touring act. 

– Metallica
Worldwired Tour, with stage technology handled by TAIT

Metallica has never been afraid to push technical production boundaries. The Worldwired tour, which launched its European leg in September, is no exception: 52 kinetic LED cubes that display dynamic video content and move individually, timed to the music, courtesy of the winches and control software provided by Tait.

The show-stopper, however, are 120 autonomous micro drones that emerge from the main-stage prop lifts during the song Moth Into Flames and swarm into several formations over the band’s heads.

“The show has a lot of interesting technology in it, not for the sake of technology. It’s a hugely different show than anything we’ve ever done,” Braun said.

Whenever Metallica put out a new album, it’s Braun’s job to work out how to translate the music into a live show. For this tour, he had approached the band with two variations of the same concept. “In true Metallica fashion they picked the more complex of the two,” he recalled.

The cube design is inspired by an art installation Braun saw in New York, which used color and movement to turn simple shapes into very complex shapes. He wanted to achieve the same effect on stage to underline the contradictory themes of Metallica’s latest album Hardwired…To Self Destruct.

It’s a very unobtrusive design, the audience will only notice the cubes once they descend from the arena ceiling. The same is true for the PA system – provided by Meyer Sound – which doesn’t take up prominent space. This results in a stage that does not take the focus off the band.

“We want you to walk out and say, ‘It was the best-sounding concert I ever heard,’ and not necessarily understand why after studying all of the speakers. We took the lighting out of the traditional trusses. We tried to get rid of as much of the cliché stuff you’d expect at a show,” Braun explained.

“The stage is very small. It’s intimate, as if the band is playing in a 20,000-seat club. It becomes difficult to see the barricade line, which was a very important part of the design. The fans seem to come right into the stage. It feels like a family gathering. A really high tech family gathering.”

Providing the engineering prowess to turn the artistic vision into reality are Adam Davis and his team at Tait. Since the show’s moving elements are synchronized with the music, “it allows us to make the show dynamic, soaring full of energy or bringing it down and make it intimate. It’s a fair amount of science and art that makes that happen,” said Davis.

Tait also provided its patented magnetic modular stage system, the system of trusses holding up the grid and containing the company’s winches, and all of the electronics and drive systems. Almost every aspect of the show is computer controlled, including the cubes and the video animations displayed on them. Tait’s Navigator software synchronizes the media, the motion and the lighting. And 120 drones. 

“James [Hetfield] has been interested in drones for a long time,” Braun said, adding, “we’ve been cautious not to end up in a situation where there was some risk to either band, crew or audience members.”

The drones are flying above stage only. The software’s decentralized fail-safe mechanism ensures any drone that breaks down will fall to the ground harmlessly, as opposed to wandering off all over the place.

– Metallica
photo courtesy of TAIT, which is handling stage technology on the band

“When we ask a machine or a unit to do something, it has to do that,” Davis explained. “We’re talking about over 100,000 pounds of equipment that is dynamically moving. The precision of that is very important to guarantee the fans’ and the artists’ safety.” 

Not everything at a Metallica show can be automated since the band plays live. There’s no time code to sync the cubes and drones to. Said Braun: “Our operators are running the show live. The cues are manually triggered. The band play very consistently night to night. Not exactly the same, but consistently. So we know when to hit the manual cue during a verse or a certain part of the song.”

Braun’s priority when designing a show is to “first eliminate any barrier between the band and the audience. I try and make the entire arena the stage. There’s a lot of attention to audience lighting and participation. A Metallica show is 50 per cent band, 50 per cent audience. It’s about the exchange of energy between the two. Everything we’re trying to do with sound and lighting is trying to encourage that exchange of energy.”

Both men agreed that it the team approach it took to accomplish a project like this was “fascinating.” Besides Braun, Metallica’s production team included production manager John “Lug” Zajonc and lighting designer Rob König. Tait partnered with Verity Studios for the latest drone technology.

Said Davis: “If you think about Metallica and the production team, all the way up to the band and management and the vendors like us. This is a team that has gone through now decades of experience together. What comes with that is a tremendous amount of trust. It allows you to take risks, because there’s trust that we can push the boundaries a little farther but will still get to an end result.”