Unlike Broadway theater and its detractors, Cirque du Soleil never questions the importance of sound design in creating their art. In fact, every single facet in the design process of a Cirque du Soleil show is given the full respect that it deserves — from the props artistry and the automated systems, to the costuming, makeup and sound design. This collaborative approach is a hallmark of Cirque du Soleil and one of the keys to their phenomenal success. In speaking with Las Vegas based sound designer Jonathan Deans about this philosophy he points out that “a team — your boss, your managers, producers, director, artistic director, all the areas within Cirque — have as much respect for sound as any other department. It is to them a straightforward, obvious thing. To a lot of other productions and organizations around the world, it's not.”
Deans met some of the creative team from Cirque du Soleil in the early ‘90s after receiving an award from LDI as Sound Designer of the Year. His first opportunity to work with them was through his sound design of their 1992 tent-based show or “chapiteau” Saltimbanco. The match between Deans and Cirque du Soleil was nothing short of kismet. Here was a ground-breaking circus troupe reinventing the medium paired with a sound designer who knows no artistic or technical boundaries. According to Deans, Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, “has created a unique style — a signature that is Cirque…a window into the Québequois culture and this is part of the magic and appeal of their shows.” KÀ, the latest of Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas spectacles, began previews November 26th at the MGM Grand Resort and Deans is once again at the helm as sound designer.
The creative process for KÀ began in Montréal over two and a half years ago. On any Cirque production requiring a renovated or purpose-built facility, this is considered a fast track approach. Meetings are held to discuss the initial concept and the level of collaboration is unprecedented within our industry. Initially, Deans is the sound system designer for the venue and it is his job to provide a comprehensive sound, intercom, and video system which will serve the needs of the new production. At the same time, the show is just beginning to take shape and in many ways it will not fully evolve until the performers and creative team enter the new facility. The Cirque venues are designed to be integrated into the performance and much of the development of their shows takes place there.
Deans creates an equipment list complete with system-flow drawings as well as what he calls “intention drawings” that, while conveying the design concepts, leave a lot of the details out such as cable sizes, lengths, conduit, racks, etc. At that point, Paul Garrity and Matt Ezold from Auerbach • Pollock • Friedlander (the theatre and electro-acoustic consultants on the MGM Grand project) began a process of consulting with Deans to take his design concepts and realize them in architectural drawings. Deans describes the main goal as “making sure that the equipment that you have put in is capable of adjusting — that it just doesn't do one thing. You need to put Swiss Army knives in everywhere, so that you can adapt it and know that it will all connect together.” The expense of putting in empty conduit or extra copper is not acceptable and fortunately the advent of fiber and Ethernet-based transmission of audio and data has made life a lot easier.
Bearing in mind that the average production period for a Cirque du Soleil show has a minimum two-year timeline, Deans urges manufacturers to keep designers as informed as possible of emerging technologies. “Too often, when the press gets wind of the fact that Cirque is doing a new production, I am barraged by phone calls from distributors and manufacturers offering up new products. It is too late at that point. The specification is done well before the press is aware that a new show is happening.”
Deans spends much of his spare time seeking out new technologies often fed by tips from coworkers and friends who share that passion. At the same time he has “a passion for technology in order to use it creatively. I have no passion for sitting in front of my computer being a geek just to do something because it is cool.”
For KÀ, Montréal-based company Solotech won the installation contract and, according to the entire sound team, have done an excellent job of installing what is probably one of the largest sound designs ever attempted for a venue of this size. I can't resist rhyming off some of the specs. The venue, comprising 1,951 seats, contains a total of 1,980,000 cubic feet of air space covered by the 43,868lbs. of PA. Total wattage of the system (at maximum published output) is 524,150W. Deans tells me that this is 689 horsepower which, when converted to kinetic energy, could propel a 175-lb. person straight up at 1,477mph, or mach 2! (The things that you think of while watching the lighting being programmed.) The sound design for KÀ utilizes a total of 4,774 individual loudspeaker drivers placed in a total of 2,139 boxes. The mixing console, which is a large LCS system utilizing the Cue Console, includes a show file which, to date, has 1.5 million control points. The RF system is immense. There are 246 carriers used in the show which, when added to the building and other local RF brings the total frequency coordination to 622 carriers! Telex mentioned to me during the recent ETS-LDI show in Las Vegas that KÀ is using 44 drops of their BTR-800 systems, which is unprecedented.
For this new show, Deans is most proud of his use of a seat speaker system and probably also the use of interactive sound effects. Each of the seats in the auditorium is equipped with a custom module in the headrest consisting of a stereo pair of drivers. The seating area is divided into zones of between 100 and 140 seats for the sake of time aligning these speakers. The addition of a comprehensive surround system as well as a ceiling system which is actually the entire PA from EFX allows the movement of sound to and from the listener in many directions. The seat speakers can also be used to add ambience or to misdirect the perception of where a sound originates. The possibilities are endless and for the traditional theatre this is a completely new concept.
Using software developed by David Rokeby known as VNS or “Very Nervous System,” Deans has been able to integrate interactive sound effects into a Cirque show for the first time. A video picture of the performance area is processed via the VNS software and allows the user to designate a grid-work of zones within the live picture. If movement is detected within a particular zone, the software is able to transmit data to the LCS system which triggers audio. The creativity that this software inspires is endless and it is a perfect fit to a Cirque show.
LCS itself is about as cutting edge a mixing and playback system as you can get. The main Matrix3 hardware resides in a rack in the basement and during the production period at the MGM Grand there are often as many as four users logged onto the system at once. One person can be fine-tuning a spacemap while another is mixing the band and vocals, another is running sound effects and still another person is mixing monitors for the band. Every piece of hardware within the LCS setup has an IP address and communications take place over CAT5 cable. Each user can configure the control surfaces that they use to optimize their own way of working without interrupting or changing the setup for the other users — it is totally adaptable. Truthfully, an entire article should be dedicated to describing the way in which LCS is used by Deans in KÀ but suffice it to say that it is an intrinsic part of what allows such a complex sound design to be achieved.
Certainly there have been challenges in mounting KÀ. Rumors within the industry raise speculation about the long delays which are often the price of attempting something so technologically advanced and certainly the budget, purported to be well over $100 million is unprecedented. It is the first time that Cirque du Soleil has created a show with a “book” and so the challenge of telling the story affects many artistic decisions in all departments. Due to the layout of the room as well as the scenic design, Deans has had to work hard to find suitable placements for speakers. However, this is something that any sound designer can relate to.
When asked what his main challenge has been during the production period for KÀ, Deans says that it most certainly has been to create an extraordinary sound environment, an audio experience, which can be paired with such an astonishing show. Again he credits visionaries, such as Guy Laliberté, who provide an atmosphere where talents are appreciated and encouraged to flourish.
David Patridge is a sound designer, production sound engineer, and audio consultant based in Toronto. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.