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Storage on the Fly: Iron Maiden Takes Sonnets F2 on Tour

Over the three decades that have passed since Iron Maiden signed its first major worldwide recording contract, the heavy metal band has become a legend, playing sellout tours across the globe, continually breaking attendance records and unleashing its blazing productions on cities that have never before experienced such a spectacle. Iron Maiden took full arena production behind the Iron Curtain in 1984; performed gigs in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia; and in 2007 made Dubai, UAE and Bangalore appearances that drew fans from across Asia and the Arab world.

With the first leg of its 2008 tour, “Somewhere Back in Time,” the band once again broke with convention, becoming the first in history to transport musicians, crew and equipment on its own Boeing 757, piloted by the band’s charismatic lead singer, Bruce Dickinson. With Dickinson, a fully-trained commercial pilot, at the controls, “Ed Force One”—named after the band’s iconic mascot, Eddie—touched down in a remarkable 21 cities over 45 days. No other band has been able to tour like this, treating countries like cities over a six-week trip.

The tour took flight with a Mumbai show on Feb. 1 and continued on to India, Australia, Japan, the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Puerto Rico and Canada. While media outlets such as Sky News and CNN sent their own crews to document the historic tour launch, the band’s videographer, Johnny B, shot the tour in HD (1920×1080) with Sony XDCAM EX camcorders. In addition to concert video, Johnny B and Dave Pattenden, the band’s project manager, filmed everything from the packing of the plane to interviews with the band and fans in every country to Dickinson’s final landing as the first leg of the tour came to an end. Acclaimed rock photographer and portraitist John McMurtrie also recorded Iron Maiden’s history-making world tour, ultimately shooting 35,000 RAW digital images with his Nikon D3 camera.

“Technically, this was a very challenging tour because limited space on the jet required that we miniaturize everything,” says Johnny B. “Leading into the tour, we thought a lot about how we would capture footage and photos onto hard disk every night. I needed a portable storage system that could play back that HD footage seamlessly, and just weeks before we left for India I learned about Sonnet Technologies’ Fusion F2 portable storage system. It proved to be a complete godsend for the tour.”

Tapeless on Tour
For many longtime Maiden fans, “Somewhere Back in Time” revisits a seminal period in the band’s history and in the history of heavy metal music. The 2008 tour’s songs and stage set were inspired by Iron Maiden’s 1985 “Powerslave” tour and the chart-topping Live After Death DVD showcasing that tour. Johnny B convinced the band to capture, edit and distribute footage of this revolutionary look back using a completely tapeless workflow. When Ed Force One took off for India, it carried 11 Fusion F2 systems, used not only by Johnny B and McMurtrie but also by Pattenden and Iron Maiden founder and bassist Steve Harris, who used their flight time to watch footage from earlier shows and see how the staging, lighting and pyrotechnics played out.

Each Fusion F2 unit provided the band and crew with 640GB of storage in an aluminum enclosure about the size of two stacked CD cases. The Sonnet storage system draws its power through a notebook computer’s FireWire port and transfers data through a SATA host controller, such as Sonnet’s Tempo SATA ExpressCard/34 with sustained data transfer rates up to 126MB/s. Powered by the attached MacBook Pro, the units enabled the band and crew to record shows, edit daily footage and review images for world press publication during the tour’s demanding travel schedule, anywhere and anytime. As the band progressed through its show dates at breakneck speed, Johnny B and others were able to edit new footage for display on arena Jumbotrons and send creatively crafted specials to Sky TV, Fox TV, CNN and MTV on short notice.

“On a normal tour, we’d transport all of our equipment in flight cases, which limits size somewhat, but in this case we literally had to be able to carry all our gear—our drives, cameras, lenses and the rest—with us onto the plane in a camera backpack,” says Johnny B. “The very small size of the Sonnet drive essentially provided us with a portable studio, which was especially important on this tour because we began filming the band just as soon as we landed in a new city. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who turned out on runways just to see the band get off the plane.”

While reporters from Sky TV and CNN traveled with Iron Maiden on Ed Force One’s flight to Mumbai, international regulations forced them to leave their camera equipment behind. Johnny B provided both networks with full HD footage, stored on the Fusion F2s and delivered directly to reporters’ notebooks via a FireWire connection. Each network subsequently incorporated his pristine HD content into television and Web specials showcasing the unique dynamic of Iron Maiden’s latest tour.

Perfect Photo Finish
While the band’s on-the-fly editing workflow relied on the Fusion F2 and Mac notebook pairing, the massive volume of RAW digital still photos acquired by McMurtrie was stored on the Sonnet drive with fast, fluid access provided by Adobe’s Lightroom. When all was said and done, McMurtrie had stored half a terabyte of data on his Sonnet systems.

“I had thought that trying to store and retrieve files throughout the tour was going to be a nightmare, but the Sonnet system let me access images right there and then, whether we were in the dressing room or on the plane,” says McMurtrie. “I have used a lot of drives and image directories, and most lock up and freeze with more than 100 photos. We wound up with 35,000 images of 35 or 40MB, compressed slightly to 12MB for storage, and the speed of the Sonnet system made it just as easy to access an image on the last day of the tour as it was on day one.”

Easy access to photos was critical for McMurtrie, who had the responsibility of meeting crushing press demands for concert images. As the band hit the tarmac in Costa Rica, for example, McMurtrie was able to send concert photos of the six Australia gigs back to media outlets in Sydney, Perth and Brisbane. At the end of each day, he uploaded a dozen new shots to the band’s server in London.

“I’m typically a location photographer, but the nature of working with a band means that I go where they go,” continues McMurtrie. “In this case, mobility was a must. I couldn’t be reliant on power or held up by equipment that couldn’t handle the abuse that comes with continuous travel and long days on the road. Sonnet’s Fusion F2 was a new system for me, and I half expected that I’d have to scrap it after two weeks. Instead, I’ve been able to leave all my tour photos on the drives and simply label them ‘Iron Maiden.’”

Working on the Fly
Iron Maiden added to its reputation for showmanship by touring on a jet emblazoned with its name and a picture of its mascot, Eddie. Dickinson is known to make half a dozen costume changes over the course of a show, and his appearance in commercial captain’s stripes proved to be just as intriguing as his on-stage attire. Though it added glamour to Iron Maiden’s global tour, the decision to transport 50 tons of gear, stage elements, the band, crew, family and friends on the band’s own plane proved to be a practical and economical undertaking as well.

The Maiden voyage of Ed Force One covered 56,000 miles. The tour traveled light and at an unprecedented pace simply not viable with conventional transport trucks and shipping containers. Space and weight limitations forced the band to be inventive with its equipment, and the tapeless capture and storage of video and photos on the Sonnet Fusion F2 and MacBook Pro was a risk that paid off for the band.

“The Fusion F2 changed the way we work during the tour,” says Johnny B. “We used it so many places where we had no power, and it allowed us to check edits immediately. We were able to cut videos on beaches in Puerto Rico and miles up into the Andes. The ability to work with a MacBook Pro notebook and a Fusion F2 just about anywhere—whether we’re at the venue, hotel, airport or on the plane—was instrumental to the success of documenting the ‘Somewhere Back in Time’ tour.”