How better construction and digital apps are upgrading artists' "home away from home."
The modern tour bus is often tricked out with technology that allows bands to record while on the road. But sometimes the most important questions aren’t digital. Like where can The Mavericks frontman Raul Malo put his shoes? Or the rest of the band, for that matter?
In the tight confines of a tour bus, on the road for weeks on end, keeping musicians from tripping over their footwear is but one small example of the attention to detail tackled by the team at Pioneer Coach, the entertainment coach leasing company.
Touring artists “love the shoe storage in the bunk area,” says Wayne Linder, GM at Pioneer Coach, which counts The Mavericks among its many clients.
For The Mavericks, currently on a 20th-anniversary tour behind their album In Time, Pioneer also has the tech side thoroughly covered as well, equipping the band’s coach with a Control4 system to manage all media aboard from one remote control. And Pioneer’s designers created a workstation in the seat beside the driver, like a rolling office at the front of the bus, with a highway view.
When it comes to designing and maintaining entertainment coaches, safety, comfort and economy are the top priorities, generally in that order.
Hemphill Brothers Coach president/CEO Trent Hemphill says innovation always keeps the client’s comfort top of mind, “while searching out new materials and technology for effective efficiency.”
The use of new, lighter materials and better insulation for wall construction ensures the inside of the coach is warmer in winter and cooler in summer, while at the same time reducing costs and wear and tear on the generator, motor and roof air--conditioning units.
“This also provides a lot less road noise when the bus is traveling down the road for a sounder sleep,” says Hemphill, adding that some artists “have even been able to record albums and demos on the bus while it is in motion, just like they would at a recording studio.”
Indeed, much writing is done on a tour bus and, increasingly, quality recording as well.
“With a lot of time spent on the highway during a tour, this allows an artist to multitask on a new album or track a song they have just written in a professional way,” says Hemphill. He notes that The Band Perry and Lady Antebellum are clients who have publicized how they’ve spent time on their buses writing and recording.
In fact, the members of The Band Perry have proudly given fans a video tour of their bus on the Travel Channel show "Extreme RVs" (below).
It’s “our home away from home,” said vocalist/-guitarist Kimberly Perry as she moved from the coach’s high-end compact kitchen (with a cabinet stocked with Lucky Charms cereal) to the rear bus lounge. “We try to write some songs back here.”
The leading entertainment coach companies are always looking for ways to provide tech-savvy artists functional toys and cutting-edge electronics. Hemphill Brothers, for example, recently upgraded the control panels in its coaches to a touch-panel system — a rolling “universal remote,” if you will.
“This allows passengers to control air doors, shades, lights and other electronic devices with the touch of a button,” says Hemphill. “Some star buses are even equipped with an Apple iPad operating system. Clients can control features of the bus from anywhere in the bus from a single Hemphill app.”
Hemphill constantly updates TVs, game systems, air cards and stereo equipment with the newest features. “Installing Apple TVs on our coaches is now a standard,” he says.
Pioneer Coach not only is focused on aesthetics and comfort as it continues to build its fleet internally, but it’s also concentrating on improvements under the hood, says Pioneer president Doug Rountree.
Service is everything in the entertainment coach business, as the primary objective is to get the client from Point A to Point B safely and on time, and today’s coaches can let the owners know if something needs attention even if they’re hundreds of miles away from the shop.
“One of the biggest innovations we’ve seen in the last few years is with the engines on our coaches,” says Rountree. “The new engines will send fault codes back to the home office notifying us of any irregular behavior, even before our drivers observe it. These alerts allow us to be proactive in resolving equipment downtime issues.”
The advent of new and improved materials aren’t the only changes in the transportation game — modifications in transportation laws and tolls also have an effect. Time is everything, and stopping at toll booths can take its toll on tight schedules. But Pioneer is one of a few coach companies with buses that move to the front of the line with an E-ZPass.
“We have E-ZPass transmitters in all of our buses that allow us to roll through toll booths,” says Pioneer’s Linder. “The designated lanes for these passes are designed to keep traffic moving as they charge your account. We have had great feedback on this from tour managers and drivers.”
Of course, where tour buses roll, semi-trucks filled with gear are not far behind.
For those semis, the addition of more onboard generators is reducing the noise and fuel expenditures for outdoor events, specifically at music festivals.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “are pushing for all tractor trailers to use ‘SmartWay’ verified aerodynamic technology, and the use of ‘low-rolling resistance’ tires,” says well-traveled tour manager/festival producer Eric Mayers. “This improves the aerodynamics of trailers, therefore tours will see more efficiency and less cost.” [President] Obama is supporting the National Clean Fleets Partnerships, and this is a good thing.”
And once everyone’s at the gig, communication, especially at an outdoor festival, can be challenging.
Mayers, who is now with Red Light Management and My Morning Jacket, is impressed by the performance of today’s long-range radio coverage.
“BearCom [the walkie-talkie company] had Valley-wide coverage for Coachella starting last year,” says Mayers. “That greatly assists in festival logistics, communications to runners, off-site locations, remote box offices, et cetera.”
Mayers says the increased use of targeted and regional weather alerts sent to staff through email and SMS text messages also greatly assists in the prediction and planning for weather affecting the safety of outdoor concerts and events. He also cites apps and websites like MyWarn and WeatherOps.com and weather alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as particularly useful.
Mayers adds that such software companies as Master Tour and Eventric offer effective desktop tour management apps with free smartphone integration.
“They now have push notifications to immediately alert band and crew to a schedule,” says Mayers. “You can also see when someone checked the notification. No more excuses for blown bus calls!”