Rockin' the Blues Everything else about Blue Man Group Live at Luxor is unorthodox, so why should the sound design be any different? The main "vocals" are the PVC tubes the Blue Men play throughout the show (the only human voice is heard via voiceover). Because of the heavily percussive nature of the show, there are an impressive number of inputs - nearly 200. And it's a theatre piece designed by two sound veterans with years in the recording and touring fields, but virtually no theatre experience.
In fact, the project was the first of its kind for Todd Pearlmutter and Ross Humphrey. Pearlmutter, who started out as a drummer in the Boston show, later produced the Blue Man album and has served as the group's music director; Humphrey handled the sound for such rock groups as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Goo Goo Dolls before turning Blue. "It's the first time I've worked as a theatre sound designer," says Pearlmutter. "Ross has never done theatre sound design either, but I wanted him to be involved because what I felt the Vegas show really needed was for it to have a kick-ass rock-and-roll feel to it, as opposed to regular theatre design."
"Luckily, the show is much more rock than theatre, so there were no surprises as far as that goes," adds Humphrey. "It was just a matter of keeping in mind that it's a wide demographic that comes to see this, from little kids to bluehairs, so you have to take that into consideration, without losing the balls."
Providing the pair with the requisite theatre design background was Mike Cusick and his company Specialized Audio-Video Inc. (SAVI), veteran of nearly a dozen major systems projects in Las Vegas, including the original audio installation of the Luxor venue. "They helped us bridge the gap from the rock and recording world to the theatre world, which was huge," Pearlmutter says. "They were able to foresee situations we had no idea about."
Working in tandem, the trio conceived two discrete systems that also worked in tandem, one with a standard left-right stereo configuration with the other offering a unique twist on the surround-sound format. "The sound design strips away layers of system complexity that had been building up with each new production. It's back to basics, based in large part on analog components," Cusick explains. "Blue Man Group's sound, at its essence, is more about drums and rock and roll rather than ethereal sounds moving all over the place."
Cusick, already quite familiar with the space as the designer of the venue's original system, notes that its acoustic signature has always been acceptable: "not too live, not too dead." Some of the previous system's Eastern Acoustic Works (EAW) loudspeakers were retained, such as SB-600s housed in special chambers under the stage to supplement the new system's low end.
Both the main/stereo and surround loudspeaker systems are fueled by approximately 180 inputs supplied by no fewer than five consoles at the house mix position, located centrally just behind the primary aisle. "Drums take up most of the inputs," says Pearlmutter. "If you have one drummer, you have 12 inputs, because they're big kits. There are four kits on this production; that's 48 inputs right there. And we had to figure out how to get all the inputs managed." Basically, the main system provides playback of the band, while the surround system handles myriad tracks and effects that enhance a particular mood or environment. But there's also some interchangeability to the approach as well.
The stage is flanked by left and right arrays made up of EAW KF700 Series loudspeakers that provide complete coverage of the lower seating section. Each array includes three KF750 three-way loudspeakers above three KF755 specialized downfill modules. Below each array, four SB1000e subwoofers are subtly stacked vertically onstage, incorporated into a custom concrete bunker SAVI constructed to reduce low-frequency resonance.
At midpoint of the room, approximately above the main aisle, two more stereo arrays are flown left and right. They include four SB750 subwoofers topping four KF755 downfill boxes. "I found that the 750s were the best-sounding subs I'd heard in a long time," Humphrey says. "Even hanging in the air they're tight. I wish I could have used all 750s instead of the SB1000es, but with the constraints of the scenery and lights, they wouldn't work. The SBs worked better physically than sonically."
The surround system takes a unique twist on the 5.1 format. Rather than offering a center channel at the front of the listening area, this channel is fed to a grouping of loudspeakers flown from the ceiling at the midpoint of the theatre. The group includes four EAW ASV7923 three-way loudspeakers, each firing diagonally across each "quadrant" of the listening area. These loudspeakers are mounted together with four EAW BH822 "SuperSubs" configured in a block and firing straight down. The other surround channels are fed to pairs of EAW ASV Series loudspeakers (one long-throw, the other short-throw) flown in each corner of the theatre.
"Everything that happens on the stage, such as when Blue Man is playing, comes through the mains," Pearlmutter explains. "But when there are things happening in the audience, especially at the end of the show, the surround system is used, because that's where the action is. There are other times when the two work together, such as when the voiceover comes through the mains, and the incidental music comes through the surround."
All loudspeakers are driven by Crown Macro-Tech Series amplifiers exclusively, which are distributed among six locations, putting them as close to the loudspeakers as possible. "We used the entire MA line. Reliable power and plenty of it," Cusick says. "They also offer good reserve power, which is handy in this application, because you're dealing with transient drum sounds."
An Otari Radar multitrack unit, backed up by a Tascam DA-88, delivers the surround soundtrack to a Yamaha 03D digital mixer, one of the few digital pieces incorporated into the design. Located at the front of the mix position, the 03D drives the surround system, handling levels, distribution, and programming. The main system offers a rather extensive mix situation, with two Soundcraft K3-32 consoles and a Midas Heritage 2000-48 console working in tandem with a Yamaha PM3500-48 console that essentially functions as a master section for all of these channels. The Heritage 2000 is dedicated to drums only, with the K3s handling all other instruments and performing auxiliary submix capability.
The only other concession to digital technology came in the form of XTA DP226 processors, utilized for all house loudspeakers. Distributed among the amplifier racks, the DP226s are networked (via RS-485) on a loop established in the multicable subsystem. Additional main system tailoring can be done at any time with a Klark-Teknik DN3600 digitally controlled analog equalizer inserted at front of house. This can be done within specific zones or system-wide.
The other challenge on the Vegas production was the same facing other versions of Blue Man: miking the unusual collection of "instruments," which this time around range from backpack tubulums (a musical application of PVC pipe), to Airpoles to the three-story-high drum wall. "Those instruments don't generate a huge amount of acoustic volume," explains Pearlmutter. "And when you have a band that's making a lot of sound, you really have to make sure these instruments can be heard."
"Todd and I talked about what they should sound like," adds Humphrey. "He did a lot of the musical part of it and would tell me what it was to sound like, and I'd do my best to achieve it through mics, equalization, etc. I found the hardest thing was to get them to sound how they should sound through a microphone, because they're actually pushing air through them, especially the tubulums. Those are difficult because all the individual PVC tubes are different lengths, and they try to bring them together into a cluster. But just trying to get an even balance between them and then get them loud enough to be heard over the band was difficult, because they're essentially the lead vocals."
Luckily, previous productions had generated a huge amount of research already, so after conducting their own tests in New York, the designers opted for a combination of Audio Technica 4051s, Audix SCX1s, and beyerdynamic M88s on the PVCs. For the tubulums, they drilled little holes in the reeds where the instruments are hit and placed Shure SM98s.
In addition to the various Blue Man instruments, the band, usually made up of a trio of musicians, has been expanded to seven, all of whom have been placed on two platform areas behind a scrim stage right and left. A guitar, zither stick, and one drum kit are perched stage left; another drum kit, two percussion stations, and a bass are located stage right. Both the musicians and the three Blue Man performers are outfitted with Shure in-ear monitoring systems.
"There are a few songs where the drummers and percussionists go onstage, while the strings stay up top," says Pearlmutter. "if we didn't have the in-ears, there'd be complete soup due to the delay."
The end result is a show that serves up its rock and roll in doses equally at home in the theatre and the Las Vegas showroom. "It's a rock show, and it should sound like rock, but you can't have it at 120dB," says Humphrey. "For me, that was the hardest thing: trying to make it sound like a rock show without scaring anyone off too badly. I think we might have achieved it. You still have people saying, `Oh my God, that was loud,' but not too many people saying it wasn't loud enough."