(Photography: aLive Coverage)
From a lifelong love of jam bands to the energetic rap of Pitbull to mega DJ shows with Bassnectar, production designer, lighting designer and director Michael Smalley has always been impassioned by the energy lighting creates when matched with great music. While loading in at a recent Bassnectar show in Atlanta, just a few blocks from his loft, Michael shared his story, which began with staging shows in his father’s basement theater and led to illuminating some of the biggest arenas and festivals in the world with mind-blowing configurations of color and rhythm.
[MM] It sounds as if you grew up in an extremely creative environment.
[Michael] On my father’s side, my grandparents and aunt were really cool, open-minded, artistic folks. I grew up in Atlanta seeing theater and ballet, going to the art museum and attending camps, where I was able to experiment with different mediums. In middle school, I got involved with the tech crew, had access to a few PAR cans and simple PA gear and began playing around with them. At the same time, I started messing with my grandfather’s old cameras and slide projectors. I would put on shows for my family, and it kind of spiraled.
Then, it was really cool; my dad moved into a house with a sound studio in the basement and turned it into a theater with a stage and lights. My bed was literally underneath the stage. He had approximately 250 feet of electrical cable in this tiny room with little dimmers. He brought in extra power, wireless microphones and fog machines. It was incredible; I knew it was what I was supposed to do.
[MM] When did you make the leap into music?
[Michael] I went to college to study technical theater, but quickly realized music was much cooler and more visceral. This was when the Internet was still in its infancy, but I downloaded every instruction manual on intelligent lighting I could find. I took out a $5,000 loan from the bank and used $2,500 of it to buy some gear—a few lights and a tiny DJ console—then used the rest to pay back the loan for a while.
I started doing shows in local bars and eventually began managing and working with a group named Green Light Council. One night, they opened for a bigger band, Moonshine Still, who I ran lights for. Afterward, Moonshine Still asked if I would like to “drop out of college and go out on the road.” I didn’t need to think about it twice. My grandmother gave me money to buy a Martin Light Jockey, which I used for three or four years and at my first show at Red Rocks, more than a decade ago.
[MM] You’ve been working with Bassnectar for a while now, how did you first connect with the EDM scene?
[Michael] I had moved back to Atlanta to start promoting concerts with my friends. We invested in more lights and audio gear, and our idea was to make money to pay off the equipment while booking artists we wanted to work with who didn’t have lighting or sound guys. We figured that if we set up really cool stuff, they would hire us to go on the road.
We became pretty popular and, sure enough, the third concert we promoted was with Bassnectar. We set up a bunch of our new gear for his show. He thought it was cool and hired one of our audio guys. Then, when it came time for a lighting guy, he hired me. The company we started back then—Music Matters Productions—is now providing some of the gear for this show in Atlanta and many others on the East Coast.
[MM] It sounds like Music Matters has done well.
[Michael] It has. We promoted more shows and bought more gear. Now we have a sizable warehouse, do lots of shows in the region and sub-rent anything we don’t stock. We have 24 Martin MAC Vipers and MAC Auras, video walls and audio gear. Our company’s intention has always been to do incredible cutting-edge projects. Even if we’re sub-renting 90 percent of the gear, our goal is to create a dynamic where artists want to work with us because of our design aesthetic and commitment to their show’s success.
[MM] How did you begin working with Pitbull?
[Michael] In 2012, I left Bassnectar for a while to work on other types of music. One day, I got a call from my buddy Gabe [Fraboni], saying there was an opportunity for us to work with Daughtry. I had no idea who Daughtry was, only that he had been on American Idol. We had three days to prep for a tour that was already five shows into it, create video content for every song and time-code all the content and lighting. I had two shows in two different states during those three days but, somehow, we did it. It felt like quite an accomplishment and before the tour ended, Daughtry’s manager called us, said we had done an awesome job and asked if we would be interested in working with Pitbull.
At the time, we didn’t really have the skill set to do what they wanted, but said we did. We had a month to completely design custom video content and time-code the show. By the time the contracts were signed, we only had two-and-a-half weeks. I was still on tour with Daughtry and, while the other act [Goo Goo Dolls] was on, I would pull out a console to work on Pitbull’s show. We didn’t really have a proficient grasp of the video editing and creation software, but had to make it happen. Now, two years later, we’re super proficient and, looking back, a lot of that content turned out really great, borne out of necessity.
Once we started working with Pitbull, Gabe and I launched a company called Twin Designs and have since designed a wide range of concerts and events, including the latest Pitbull tour. It has been an incredibly symbiotic relationship for both of us and has allowed us to grow immensely as artists and professionals in a competitive industry. Our working relationship is best exemplified by the most recent Pitbull tour, which we production designed—top-to-bottom—including the set, lighting and video.
[MM] Bassnectar and Pitbull seem like completely different kinds of artists. How is that reflected in your lighting?
[Michael] I think it’s good to have both the skill set of punting and improvising shows, the way we do at DJ events, and the skill set of completely designing a show and using detailed time-coding in the way an artist like Pitbull works.
Bassnectar’s lighting is 100 percent improvised and, when designing a rig for an improv show, I use a lot of spot fixtures. With the EDM jam band approach, the actual beams are really important, because it’s where you get all your texture and depth. I always try to employ a few different but impactful fixture types. The gig we’re loading in today features Martin MAC Axiom Hybrids, MAC Vipers, MAC 101s and MAC Auras. Earlier in the year, we did a similar gig with Bassnectar that also used the MAC Quantum Wash.
We have found the Axiom to be an insanely flexible light. Having a spot fixture that turns into a beam and can still provide a solid wash is really sweet. You could use just those on a tour and get every look you would want. Having the color mixing be so compatible with the range of fixtures I use is epic. And, because it’s Martin, we know it’s going to be available practically everywhere in the world!
[MM] How is it designing more planned out, cue-stacked shows for artists like Pitbull?
[Michael] Although there isn’t any improvising, I approach the lighting similarly from a visual standpoint. My aesthetic is still the same. If you look at a picture of one of my shows, it’s going to look like what I do, regardless if it was planned out or punted. I tend to use a lot of spot fixtures, some backup wash stuff and then Martin MAC 101s or small LEDs for flash and flare.
My approach to building cues and moments in shows is all about the buildup into the actual cue. Chris Kuroda, the lighting designer for Phish and other artists, has been a huge inspiration for me. When he builds a moment, it’s not just about the cue hitting on time; it’s about the journey as well. A lot of electronic music crescendos up into the actual cue and a lot of my lights are moving five to 10 seconds before the actual drop to follow the energy of the build visually. With a cue-stack show, you make your nice looks, but it’s all about how you get from one thing to the next.
[MM] Working with a DJ like Bassnectar, where there’s only minimal focus on an artist, does lighting become more vital to the event?
[Michael] Definitely. Even more than video, lighting brings the show into the crowd. If you’re on the dance floor, video can’t be projected directly to your left or right, but a beam of light can. It’s that immersive element that connects an audience to the stage and artist and becomes a huge part of what the audience takes home after the show.
[MM] How are you approaching your lighting for tonight’s show?
[Michael] We’re doing a convention hall show for 10,000 people. It’s not an arena or the size venue we usually play—our maximum trim is like 26 feet. So, we’re going for a dancehall vibe and moving all the lighting into the crowd. The only thing is I don’t normally approach lights like that, so it’s going to be a big adventure.
Before I start setting up the lights, I always close my eyes, listen to music and try to imagine what it will look like with lights. I usually do a very symmetrical design with an architectural focus so, in a location like this, it’s difficult to get into a mindset where the architecture is not as important as the rhythm and the color.
I communicate a lot of intention with the physical focus of the light. Then, color combinations on top of that seal the deal. With a show in the round, it’s difficult—especially if the artist is not in the round. If they’re at one side of the hall, you can structure a bit of a light show at their position. But, over the crowd, it’s a big open chandelier of video, lighting and lasers. So, in the round, you have two converging different sets of elements instead of just the one.
[MM] You really seem so passionate about lighting, what is the most enticing part of the process?
[Michael] It’s about having ideas that are just squares on a sheet of paper or squiggles or something on your computer. Then, over the course of months and months, ups and downs, little micro defeats and working on so many different sections, suddenly the show comes on and all these kids are there who have no idea you’ve spent six months working on this single two-hour experience for them. It’s super visceral.
Going back, I was that kid. Concerts allowed me to get out of my shell, become self-confident and develop a sense of community with like-minded people. Being able to contribute to that is extraordinary. What better way is there to spend six months than working just to give people a good time?
Many thanks to Michael for sharing the great insights into his work. Are you a lighting designer or director who goes between punting shows and precisely time-coding them? Share the style of work you find more satisfying in the comments.