Keith Urban is getting set for the January premiere of the 14th season of 'American Idol,' and he says there are some big changes to the iconic reality singing competition this time around.

Urban and fellow judges Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr., spent much of the summer traveling around the U.S., auditioning aspiring singers for the upcoming season. Once they had their top 48 in place, they used a very different process to arrive at their top 24 than in years past.

"We sent over 200 people through to Hollywood, and we narrowed it down, and then even further down to get to our top 48," he told a group of reporters on a conference call Wednesday (Dec. 10). "And those 48 guys and girls we took into the House of Blues in Los Angeles to put them into a live club setting, where the band was set up, and they got up onstage and did a song each in front of the audience in that club."

It was the first time the show had done that, and Urban says it really helped separate the more seasoned performers from those who still need time to grow.

"For me, it was a really important part of the process, because in years past we've seen them in these various audition environments, and then they go straight to the TV studio in front of a live audience. I really wanted to see what they're like in front of a club setting -- can they perform, do they know how to perform live, do they know how to move and connect with an audience? So that was a really telling environment to have them in, and I'm glad that we got to do that. We then narrowed it down from there, but that was a really helpful part, to make sure that we have solid performers going into the live shows."

Despite the grueling schedule he keeps during the auditions, Urban says the process is actually fun.

"They're long days -- you're often hearing sometimes a hundred people or so in a day," he relates. "But getting to be on the set with Harry makes it a really fun day," he adds with a laugh. "Half the stuff we talk about and engage in with Jen and all of us ends up on the cutting room floor! Those audition cities are a blast. That whole part of the journey is really enjoyable for me."

'American Idol' returns in a special two-night premiere beginning January 7, 2015 on FOX.

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