It's a sound designer's eternal dream: to be involved in a production from the very beginning. Of course, it doesn't often happen that way, even for the industry's top designers. That's right, even guys like François Bergeron, the 14-year veteran sound designer for Cirque du Soleil, don't always get in on the early stages; there have been many Cirque shows where his involvement came late in the game. So it came as welcome relief to Bergeron when he was brought on board early for Cirque's latest touring show, Varekai.

“Because I was involved with the show from the beginning, I was able to fully integrate the audio elements into the overall concept and into the set,” he says. “The sound basically reinforces the set design, with the power emanating from the center above the stage. I think this is definitely one of the best-sounding Cirque tours yet.”

Varekai, which means “wherever” in the ancient Romany language of the Gypsies, tells the story of Icarus who, after falling from the sky into a forest populated by magical creatures, is pulled into a series of fantastic adventures while seeking help to return home. All the action takes place inside a portable 50m-long (165') tent with a seating capacity of over 2,600.

According to Bergeron, the tent's flexible PVC skin, when stretched taut, presents a surprisingly hard acoustical surface and is highly reflective at problematic frequencies. “It's really quite reverberant, especially when empty,” he says. “For example, at 1kHz we measured a reverb time of about 5.4 seconds. So you have to be careful with your coverage and alignment of speakers.”

To supply the needed power from above the stage while avoiding destructive reflections, Bergeron devised a system comprising three center clusters and an outer delay ring. The two outside clusters, each with a pair of Meyer Sound CQ-1 wide coverage main loudspeakers, flank the middle cluster of three CQ-2 narrow coverage main loudspeakers. While these clusters anchor the sound high above the stage, supplemental reinforcement is supplied by the delay ring of 10 UPA-1P compact wide coverage loudspeakers. Deep bass power, which for both logistical and artistic reasons also had to come from above, is provided by four PSW-2 high-power flyable subwoofers that are hoisted up in the cupola.

“We chose the Meyer line of speakers for this show first because of the precise control,” comments Bergeron, “but also because we have been touring for years with Meyer self-powered speakers and they are very reliable. Having the amplifiers inside the box eliminates many of the places where things can go wrong in the audio chain.”

Bergeron states that the tight confines of the tent were also a point in favor of the powered systems. “We save space with them. We literally did not have any backstage space for amplifier racks.”

The demands of Varekai quickly put the system to a grueling test. “This is definitely one of the most audio-oriented shows,” says Bergeron, “with wall-to-wall music and sound effects.” Live music comes from a band of six multi-instrumentalists and two vocalists, with sound effects mixed in from a variety of RAM- and disc-based digital replay units. In all, the production fully occupies the inputs of a 56-input Soundcraft console plus two Yamaha O1V submixers.

The day-to-day operation of show audio is under the supervision of Pitsch Karrer, a certified SIM engineer with a background of mixing European tours of Broadway productions. On his first Cirque tour, Karrer reports that the show's sound is helping draw sell-out crowds. “The audiences seem very appreciative of the sound,” he says, “and they respond very well to some of the scenes where we have created images with sound, and where we use surround effects to expand the size and impact of the music.”

Bergeron credits the success of the show's sound to the touring crew — Karrer along with Thomas Duchaine and Stein Guitton — and strong support from Daniel Petit at Cirque du Soleil's technical department in Montreal.

“They have been great from the outset,” he says. “They took over all the technical details so I could concentrate on creating the ambiance, and on working with the composer to glue the whole show together with effects and soundscapes. With their help, I think we've moved to a higher level on sound with Varekai.”

The rest of the design team for Varekai includes set designer Stephane Roy, costume designer Eiko Ishioka, projection designer Francis Laporte, and rigging designer Jaque Paquin. Upcoming stops for the tour include San Jose, Atlanta, New York, and Chicago.