While Cirque du Soleil's acrobatic performers are central to the experience of Love, it is The Beatles' own music which is the true star of the show. A skillful combination of creatively embroidered remixing of the group's recordings, teamed with a carefully designed sound system, undoubtedly give audiences a thrill, surrounding them with the voices of the world's most popular rock group.
“Everyone knows The Beatles' music, and everyone knows Cirque du Soleil,” says sound designer Jonathan Deans, a 14-year veteran of Cirque. “The idea of marrying those two entities meant making sure that Cirque would be able to enhance The Beatles' music, and that the music would enhance the performance. It had to go both ways.”
The music itself needed to be something fans could hear nowhere else. “It couldn't just be a simple playback of the Beatles' catalog,” Deans notes. The original concepts discussed featured — in some cases — live musicians, perhaps playing orchestral content to playback of the group's music, others with soloists. “The problem was that some of the ideas would have made it not The Beatles. It would have been a tribute show. And we knew that we wanted to have The Beatles be there as much as we could. And to do that, they had to play the music; they had to be the ones whose voices we heard.”
Everything changed once The Beatles' original record producer, Sir George Martin, and his son, producer Giles Martin (the “Martin” interviewed here), were brought onboard as music directors for the show. The two arrived with another valuable asset: access to group's original multitrack recordings made for their record label, EMI Records, from 1962 to 1970.
“We sat down with Neil Aspinall, the head of Apple, who told us they didn't want anyone performing Beatles music,” the younger Martin explains. “I said to him, ‘You know, we could do something which is almost like The Beatles playing live, by using the session tapes, because the tapes are a live recording.’ I thought, ‘Why don't we just try and create a sort of surround experience from the tapes?’ And off we went.”
The Martins actually began work on the project two and a half years ago. “The music had to be sorted out before everything else started, to make sure The Beatles were happy,” says Giles Martin. The assignment was a tricky one. “Cirque music is very different from Beatles music. They use pads, ambient effects, and so forth. The Beatles' music, by its nature, is very direct and very economical.”
To provide some direction, Deans made the trip to England to meet with the Martins to detail Cirque's needs. “I went over and explained, ‘This is how we handle sound at Cirque,’ and discussed the multiple layers that would be available in the sound system and how many tracks would be available.” That number was 32 — more than ample for The Beatles' music — the majority of which was recorded in four-track.
The Martins were also given a book put together by show concept writer and director Dominic Champagne, which offered a story line of the running order for the show. As for the songs to be represented, “Dominique had a wish list, and The Beatles had a wish list of songs they wanted to be in the show,” Martin says. “Pacing is very important, as are song keys, and that took a little while to get right. You can't have “She's Leaving Home” going into “Yesterday,” because you're going from the key of E into F. But once that got worked out, then I just worked from the beginning of the show to the end.”
To start, Martin, working at a room built for him at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, went through the multitrack recordings for every single Beatles song, in order to prepare for creation of 110 minutes of music for the show. Eventually, only about 90 minutes worth was used, a total of 28 songs (“She's Leaving Home” and “Girl” were created but not used).
“I went through everything and made notes, looking for anything that looked interesting,” says Martin. Session tapes for “Cry, Baby, Cry” from The Beatles (aka The White Album), for example, revealed an unusual accordion not used on the album. “I made note of it, and then, when I was working on ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,’ from Sgt. Pepper, which has a weird, circus-y sound, I said, ‘Ah — this is a good place for that.’”
Working in ProTools HD, Martin carefully wove in individual tracks from different songs into the basic song being worked on, importing them onto separate tracks in the base song's session file. For “Octopus's Garden” (from 1969's Abbey Road), for example, Martin created an introduction using strings from The White Album's “Good Night.” “Then, the drums are from “Lovely Rita” (from Pepper),” he notes, “but those were on top of the drums that were already there,” with percussion also added from Abbey Road's “Polythene Pam,” all added without making hard edits. “There are no cut points,” he adds. “It's not like a ‘mashup.’ This is really the first case of a band sampling themselves, actually.”
Martin kept constantly aware of the delicacy of the project. “It's kind of like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. People won't like the idea of anyone doing anything to these historical and beautiful songs” — except, of course, by the recordings' original producer.
Giles' father kept a watchful eye on the entire proceedings, offering his son direction and feedback throughout as the two worked. “He obviously knows everything they did on the original recordings,” says the younger Martin. “It was fascinating going through this stuff with him. And talk about an honor to be able to work on your dad's work.”
Martin continued work at an identical studio built for him by Deans at Cirque's offices in Montreal. (“The same four walls followed me,” he says). Once the compilations were completed, 5.1 surround mixes were then created by Abbey Road engineer Paul Hicks. The mixes were essentially prepared for playback to The Beatles, who gave their final approval in December of last year.
While Hicks' 5.1 mixes were appropriate for studio listening, a more elaborate mix — and playback system for it — was required for the in-the-round presentation in the theatre. The system, designed by Deans, allows importing of finished mixes (see below) from ProTools, played back on cue through a powerful, yet simple, audio system.
Once the mixes were completed, playback operator Gavin Whiteley used Magix Sequoia V8 high definition digital audio workstation to break the files into manageable pieces before loading them into TASCAM GigaStudio. Each of the show sequences is then stored in Realtime Music Solutions Sinfonia MIDI sequence controller, which triggers the playback from GigaStudio through Level Control Systems (LCS) CueConsole desk, which has 88 inputs and 280 outputs.
“We use Sequoia because it's able to look at samples in terms of bars, beats, and measures,” explains Cirque's head of audio for the show, Jason Pritchard. “And when you're doing a sequence with Sinfonia, everything is in bars and beats, in order to allow us to have non-linear playback without any latency.” Slight adjustments to mixes can be made in LCS, though major changes to mixes have to be made back at the ProTools level and re-imported through Sequoia, a process which can take up to three days per sequence.
As for the playback system, Deans' speaker system is dominated by self-powered Meyer M1-D and CQ-1 speakers. “The Meyers have the power, clarity, and definition, as well as the dynamic, that I needed,” he says. “They're able to reproduce the sound with the same quality every single show.”
30 M1-Ds are set in arrays in the front of the stage. “That's two PAs in most places,” says Pritchard. “There's a lot of power that comes off the front of the stage, and that's all in an effort to keep the image low, so that it doesn't sound as if The Beatles are always singing in the grid.” Additional M1-Ds and M2-Ds provide surrounds, along with JBL 4825s and 4853s (left over from the previous Siegfried & Roy installation). “The JBLs create, essentially, a wall of sound that comes from the ceiling,” Deans explains.
Most interesting, though — and important to the sound picture — is the inclusion of 6,039 custom Innovox Audio speakers, installed in each of the 2,013 seats in the theatre (left, right, and a third in front of the patron). “The first thing was to find a company that could build a speaker that could not only fit in the seats, but that could be built out of cardboard and magnets,” Deans explains. “I wanted those speakers to be of the same material that the music was originally mixed on, not DSP-driven cones.”
Does having those three speakers that close to the audience cause a distraction, or does it enhance the sound picture? Deans says no. “If you were to ask an audience member, I would say 50% of them would say, ‘Oh, there are speakers in the seats?’” Martin agrees. “It actually brings the image down. And it means you can stick John's or Paul's voice in your head.”
The resultant sound pictures hit the audience with, not a 5.1 mix (with six sources), but, as Deans says, “25.5” — about 25 or 26 individual sound sources.
The sources, though, come from the complicated mixing — or remixing, in a sense — of Martin's compilations, accomplished by Martin, Hicks, Deans, and Deans' assistant, Leon Rothenberg.
An identical ProTools rig was once again constructed at the Mirage, this time in a secure location, along with the drives containing the invaluable Beatles multitracks. The mix team would then sit, connected through a Cat 5 line, at any location within the theatre, to the ProTools system, and create the most appropriate mixes for each song.
Starting, typically, with the 5.1 mix, the team would slowly identify elements of the recording to extract out and place in the sound picture — either forward in the M1-D front arrays, in speaker seats, surrounds, or elsewhere. “If there was a sound or a voice that corresponded to a character onstage, we might place it lower, higher, in the air — we'd focus the voice in the area where the audience would expect to hear it,” Deans explains.
It was a learning experience for both sides. “Things are different in the theatre,” Martin says. “And they also learned how we treat things differently, as well.”
The theatre was divided up into eight different sound zones. “The theatre is, to some degree, symmetrical,” says Pritchard. The team would create a mix in one zone, and then, essentially, copy and paste the mix into its corresponding zone across the theatre. “The room isn't absolutely symmetrical, though, so we spent many, many nights walking around the theatre, sitting down in a chair, listening for 15 or 20 minutes, evaluating, and then making individual tweaks for the sections.”
Such tweaking had to be done with care. “The mixes created by Sir George, Giles, and Jonathan are very, very precise,” adds Pritchard. “In this theatre, if we make 1/2 dB adjustment, it's noticeable.” And slight anomalies hardly went unnoticed, even with weeks of fine tuning. Even at a late date, Martin says, “I think I've challenged them as much as I can. I'm still going, ‘Row K doesn't sound very good.’ I'm a real nightmare,” he laughs.
The key, he says, is quality. “You can't bluff your way through it. Paul [McCartney] hears everything. And Yoko really cares whether she thinks John sounds good. With my bosses, they just really care about whether it's good or not.” It's been a long haul and a lot of hard work to produce the result. “If it's not too corny,” Martin says, “it's been a labor of love.”