A visit backstage at the Beatles LOVE Show
What’s the best thing you can do in Las Vegas...? Well, if you aren’t much of a gambler and you enjoy well-crafted (and nostalgic) pop music, supported and enhanced with spectacular visuals you should check out the Cirque du Soleil production of The Beatles LOVE in Las Vegas. Any Cirque du Soleil show is an adventure, but if you add the music and personality of The Beatles you have something that is truly mind-bending.
A few months ago I ran into Perrin Meyer at the Dead Presidents Society breakfast in Berkeley. He is the son of John Meyer, the founder of Meyer Sound, and a quality DSP guy in his own right. We were talking about Meyer and somehow got on the subject of IP protection. He mentioned the most amazing IP protection scheme he had heard of in our audio industry, which happened to be at The Beatles LOVE show at the Mirage in Las Vegas. Meyer Sound is a core part of the amazing sound system used during the show. He was kind enough to put me in touch with the Cirque office and they were kind enough to arrange a backstage tour with the Head of Audio, Jason Pritchard.
A Love Parade
First and foremost the LOVE show is an incredible artistic and technical feat and I heartily recommend it to anyone that wants an entertaining night at the theater. It has been running for five years (a great accomplishment for any theater piece). In fact June 8th is the 5-year anniversary of the show. The company is throwing a party and Paul McCartney will be in attendance.
To quote the press guide: “LOVE is a Rock 'n' Roll poem, a magical mystery tour into the heart and soul of The Beatles music through an exploration of the aesthetic, political and spiritual trends of the 1960s. Inspired by the poetry of the lyrics, the creative team designed a series of scenes inhabited by colorful characters in extravagant costumes.”
Beautiful imagery from the LOVE Show
What this translates to is an absorbing spectacle, a series of visually fantastic scenes that depict the (all too short) career of The Beatles as a group and the environments that shaped their journey. The stage is divided into quadrants, which are occasionally partitioned by translucent curtains that also act as screens upon which graphic images are projected. There are clever costumes, imaginative choreography, and the sound provided by the Meyer system is remarkable. What goes on around, above, inside, and below the stage is a state-of-the-art technological ecosystem.
The idea for LOVE actually began with a friendship between George Harrison and Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, who shared a mutual interest in Formula 1 racing as well as an admiration for each other’s achievements. George passed away in 2001, but his wife Olivia, knowing how important the project was to him, took it to other Beatles and their families and convinced them to support it. Paul McCartney was already familiar with Cirque having seen ‘Alegria’ himself when it was presented at the Royal Albert Hall, so it wasn’t a hard sell. The show opened in June 2006 in the Mirage Theater, which had been vacated by ‘Siegfried and Roy’ and completely renovated for LOVE. No cat hair was seen anywhere though.
Cirque du Soleil shows are highly collaborative at every stage of the production. Before starting the design for the show Director Dominic Champagne did a vast amount of research on The Beatles and their lives so that he could immerse the audience not only in the music and the characters, but also the places, historical, and cultural events that shaped the group.
In most cases the visual scenes were set to the music, but there was some flexibility because the tunes were being remixed (more on that later) by Sir George Martin and his son Giles Martin. Some of the scenes started with Champagne’s visual ideas, and in some cases the music grew organically when everybody was in the same room. Giles Martin was present during the entire pre-production and production process at the Cirque facility in Montreal and then later in Las Vegas.
All the music in the 93-minute show is from the Beatles master tapes with a couple of exceptions. There is a solo acoustic guitar piece by George Harrison and some orchestral music written specifically for the show by Sir George Martin. There have been several articles already written about how the music was done by the Martins over a 3-year period and there was a soundtrack released as The Beatles LOVE, so I won’t go into details. Here is a Sound on Sound article and a YouTube video about how they put the musical collages together using bits and pieces from the original master recordings. We’re talking about Paul McCartney’s bass tracks as well as separate vocal tracks, individual guitar parts, used on completely different songs than the ones they were recorded for.
Jason Pritchard is a self-described “dropout trombone player,” who started engineering sound at the age of 16 in local venues. His background is pretty typical of recording engineers in this day and age. He went to school for commercial music in his native Illinois and worked whatever jobs he could find (dinner theater, college AV, Texas theme parks, cruise ships, touring Broadway shows, etc.) until he landed in Alegria, an earlier Cirque du Soleil show that was being toured in Europe and Biloxi, MS. From there he made his way to Las Vegas and eventually to LOVE in 2005, when one could still see Caesar’s Palace from the stage. He has been involved for the life span of the show.
Jason Pritchard - trying to stay out of the way
The entire LOVE Production is about 220 people. There are 70 artists on stage and a staff of 110 technicians behind the scenes plus support staff that keep the show running day and night. There are 140 different set pieces that can move during the show ranging from bungees and lifts, to things that defy description (see below). Most of these movements are automated from three different board operators. One of them controls offstage movements (making sure each object is ready for its time on stage), one of them controls everything that flies, and the third controls everything on the stage floor. At the very beginning almost all of them are moving at once so the logistics are more complex than any other time during the show.
I was really struck by how calm Jason (and everyone else we saw) was during the actual show. After five years of performances I guess you should expect that they would have it down. But the level of activity is overwhelming to a visitor, even one who has spent a lot of time inside theaters.
I have been going to Cirque du Soleil shows since the 80s and one of my favorite characteristics of the productions is their colorful, witty, slightly bizarro, and always incredibly creative approach to costumes and props. The props are worn, carried, dragged, dropped, kicked, squashed, blown-up, thrown, or controlled remotely like this one:
Remote Controlled Tricycle thingy
and this one…
Still looking for the mouthpiece on this one…
Wow!! Who comes up with this stuff…?!!
With a show this complex things will occasionally go sideways and that is when an elaborate communications system is absolutely necessary. This generally means figuring out how to buy some time while the problem is corrected. After five years there is very little that the staff hasn’t seen and therefore isn't ready to deal with.
The Communications Center – Transmitter chargers on the left.
The computer monitors everything.
There are 65 artists in the show, ranging from dancers, aerialists, to clowns, and gymnasts. (Guy Laliberté, started as a circus performer himself). Forty of them receive on two different channels through in-ear monitors. The stage manager (huge job!!) can communicate with one group, or the other, or both at the same time. For example, extensive use is made of bungee chords, which are controlled both by computers and humans. The communications system allows the aerialists to communicate with the people that are keeping them aloft.
Most Cirque shows have a live band that can easily vamp and/or adapt to cues from the audience or characters on the stage, but LOVE relies on recordings of the Beatles music, so you can’t just tell the band to keep playing until a problem is solved.
The logistics even include the elevator. The second show was starting as Jason was giving the tour and we needed to use the elevator. Posted on the wall inside the elevator is a schedule and we had to consult it to make sure that we weren’t going to be in it when the elevator was needed for a particular cue.
This is the elevator schedule during a performance
Although there is very little dialog during the performance there are several wireless microphones in use. For example, the “Fool,” a character who dances around on skates with a kite and a tricycle, has a Countryman microphone attached to his shoe so that you can hear his skates rolling on the stage.
The skate of a ‘Fool’
Another character called the Sugar Plum Fairy has three microphones attached, two on his boots and one in his hair, so you can hear the complete effect clearly as he does a modern tap dance and shouts.
The ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ in mid-dance
The microphones attached to people’s heads for yelling and other vocalizing are DPAs. The mics and their transmitters are integrated into the costumes so the audience can’t see them.
The Audio Control Station
Jason drives his part of the show with his staff in the Audio Control Room. The operator who actually sits in the control room chair (below) is a combination audio engineer and bandleader. He is surrounded by 5 Meyer HD-1s that allow him to monitor the show in 5:1.
The 5.1 Audio Control operator. He has his finger on the Lemur to start the show
The audio system is on the second generation. There are two completely redundant Rain Recording computer systems (synchronized all the way to analog) running Ableton Live under Windows. Live is particularly useful to the show because of the way it allows ‘Scenes’ to be triggered. There is a Max Object in its own window below the normal Live GUI that displays what the operator needs to say on comm regarding his status during the show. The Max Object also helps with the count-ins. When the next song is ready the object displays “3… 2… 1…” on the screen so that he can count it in cueing the light board operator to push the appropriate button at the correct time.
Audio Control Computer running Ableton Live
In the photo above the Max object is displaying ‘(Because standing by)’, which is a song at the beginning of the performance. We happened to be in the room as they started the second show that night, so this was queued. A track of Live also provides the critical SMPTE time code that is used to synchronize the music with the projections.
Two Jazz Mutant Lemur touchscreens with custom software are used to run Live. Either Lemur can talk to either or both computers so if there is any software or hardware failure along either path they can switch seamlessly. Jason and his staff are continually updating their equipment. For example, they are starting the process of replacing the Lemurs that are no longer being manufactured as of January with generic touch screens. Before moving to Ableton Live they were running Realtime Music Solutions Sinfonia using GigaStudios with Playback 1.0. You can still see the Giga label on the time code display.
Rosendahl Timecode displays. Crucial to the synchronization of all
the bits of media throughout the show.
There are only two plug-ins that run on the Audio control machines, Live’s Sampler and Native Instruments Kontakt. Kontakt has a specific use that we were fortunate enough not to hear during the performance we attended. There are a number of places in the show where audio loops are running so that all the stage can be changed. When the actors and stage are ready the loop is replaced by the next audio piece. The loops vary in length and the stage manager coordinates all this.
Let’s say that while switching scenes there is a problem with the stage that is critical enough to require a show stop. Of course they don’t want to detract from audience’s enjoyment so their goal is to stop and then restart the show without the audience noticing. The first back up is to continue to run whatever audio loop is already playing, but if the problem is big and it occurs at a time when the loop is short (like 8 bars) it is going to be noticed.
The solution is provided by Kontakt, which is loaded with samples of six different 2-3 minute songs called “bonus tracks” that are not part of the regular show. They have their own associated visuals for the audience and can be inserted almost anywhere in the show. The Lemur is set up to spit out a MIDI note that plays one of the sampled bonus tracks, which doesn’t require the transport in Ableton Live to be triggered. They’re one shots so that when the sample reaches the end it stops. If the problem is really huge they also have a 12-14 minute sampled orchestral piece from Yellow Submarine, but it requires the MIDI note to be held while it plays. In this case the Lemur is programmed to latch the note and release it when the button is pressed again. Ableton Live is particularly useful here as well because one Scene can be loaded with Kontakt instantiated and nothing else.
As the playback systems have evolved Jason’s team has written more custom software. In general the audio playback for the show doesn’t require much horsepower from the computers beyond some occasional occasionally Ableton crossfades. At the moment the system they are running is called ‘Playback 2.0’ and they are in the process of moving to ‘Playback 3.0’, which will include 2 Rain Recording Ions. It’s the first computer hardware upgrade in 5 years!
The audio work was begun at Abbey Road Studios in London. To enable Sir George and Giles to work on-site after the stage was built for the show a Pro Tools studio was constructed within the Audio Control Room of the LOVE Theater. It was built to the exact specification as their studio at Abbey Road so they could easily transfer between the two rooms. The studio remains set up exactly as the Martins left it in case they need to make any more changes to the show. The Pro Tools computer is a Mac loaded with a huge assortment of plug-ins. The Martins have a special relationship with Waves and they used Wave’s 360º Surround Tools when they reworked the mixes for 5.1. Here’s a pretty good interview with Giles Martin from the Waves site.
The Pro Tools files are hundreds of tracks that are mixed down to a maximum of 29 that are actually bounced down to Ableton Live and played during the show.
All of the mixes were done specifically for the speaker set up in the LOVE venue. During pre-production and rehearsals the Pro Tools system was patched into the speaker system and using various remote control surfaces they did the mixes from actual seat zones within the theater. Because of all the security concerns these seat mixes were all done between midnight and 5:00AM so there would be a minimum of activity and traffic.
All this required access to the original tracks of the Beatles recordings and since the Beatles masters have been insured by Apple Records for over $400 million some pretty extreme precautions have been taken.
Here is where things get really interesting. The security is astonishing. Let’s start at the beginning. If you are permitted to be in the backstage area by the security guards you are in Security Level 1. Jason uses his RFID tag to get into the Audio Control Room, which is Security Level 2.
Security level 3 is a series of interlocked doors into the Martin’s studio itself and a camera in the vestibule between them. It can only be accessed by biometric authentication on the HandKey System and there are only a few people whose hand prints are in the memory of the machine. Only one door can be opened at a time and there’s a HandKey machine at either door meaning you authenticate to get into the vestibule and authenticate again to get out.
The studio is basically a remote control facility. The final Security Level 4 is the vault where the actual computers and audio hardware are running and the master files are archived. Only a select few even know the location of the vault much less have access.
The Handkey machine
During the production process as the show was set up and rehearsed the room was on total lock down. There was no Internet connection. You couldn’t bring a cell phone or any kind of storage device anywhere near where the master hard drives were. No CDs of any kind were allowed in or out. There was only one stage door and it was was set up similar to airport security with metal detectors and security guards with wands. Everyone was checked upon entry and departure. During the actual mixes there was electronic countermeasure surveillance with bug sweeps and remote control cars running through the ductwork. Everything was checked multiple times. A big part of Jason’s current job is to: “be entrusted to look after it. Make sure that it works. Fix it when it doesn’t.” Fortunately no one is following him home at night.
The sound system
The sound of the show is gorgeous and state of the art for any kind of theatrical venue. The sound was designed by Jonathan Deans who has worked on many Broadway shows (including a Tony nomination for La Cage aux Folles) in addition to his work on at least ten different Cirque shows.
All the audio for the audience is derived from the 29 inputs of the playback system, mixed through a Meyer Sound LCS, and sent to over 6,000 speakers located throughout the venue. Included in this number are 150 Meyer M1Ds, and 70 or so CQs. The rest of the number is filled out by three custom Innovox speakers for each seat, one on either side and one on the back of the seat in front of so that everybody in the audience can get the intended audio effect. (note: Meyer Sound acquired Level Control Systems (LCS) in 2005). The LCS Series has been replaced by D-Mitri. LOVE hasn’t moved to the newer d’Mitri system because in order to do so they would have to reassemble the team of the Martins and Jonathan Deans back in the building to approve it)
Some of Meyer LX300s in the Machine Room
There are actually two LCS systems in place; one is for mixing the music and the other is the VRAS (Level Control Systems) to manipulate the acoustics of the room. There are 60 microphones placed throughout the theater that pick up the ambient noise in the room. The feeds from these mics are sent through two different algorithms (Reverberation and Early Reflection) and then sent back to the speakers so that they can change what the room sounds like rather than processing the tracks themselves. With the main mixing system having 88 inputs and 288 outputs, LOVE has the second largest LCS set up in the world next to Tokyo Disney theme park.
There are several monitor mixes that go out from a Yamaha PM5D. The monitor mixes are sent to the playback engineer, as well as a bunch of other back stage areas; light console operator, stage manager, and other booths that control projection, lighting and automation, as well as special mix for hearing impaired as required by federal law.
The health of this massive array of speakers is gauged from Audio Control Room using the software below, which measures the impedance of each speaker zone to make sure it is functioning properly (e.g. making sound). Certain impedance thresholds are set for each seating zones and if these thresholds are exceeded they know they have a problem and approximately where to find it.
This particular screen is showing the speaker arrays inside the stage.
Reliable power for all this comes from a 40kVA (That’s big folks!) uninterruptible power supply. The temperature in all areas is especially important to monitor, especially in the vault, which is rarely visited and takes lots of time if it is. If there is any kind of problem with temperature in this are an email is automatically sent to Jason, who never sleeps…
I could go on but there have already been lots of articles written about this mind boggling set up. So, why should the KVR community care…? Because it’s music, it’s audio, it’s tech, it’s pushing the envelope, and it’s cool!!!