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Art + Tech

Apr 16, 2012 11:30 AM, By Cynthia Wisehart

Integrating Iris by Cirque du Soleil

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I’m sitting in the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in the wee hours of the morning—while Meyer Sound’s Steve Ellison and Pierre Germain finish commissioning a Constellation acoustic system in preparation for handing it over to the creatives.

Over my head—throughout the tiered theater—46 new wired microphones stand ready to pick up the sounds of the 2,500 spectators. At the moment, we are an audience of seven: Ellison and Germain, the show’s sound designers Francois Bergeron and Vikram Kirby from Thinkwell (they also designed all the sound systems); Thinkwell project manager Patrick Janssen; and the Iris head of audio Sylvain Brisebois. The team is getting a new and necessary tool.

When the Kodak Theater opened in 2001 as the new home of the Academy Awards, Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed gave it a “tin ear for acoustics,” and bemoaned the perplexing and primitive sound of a room that is dead at most frequencies discernable to the human ear. Adequate perhaps for the Oscar telecast—in fact it sounds more like a soundstage than a theater. The applause reads as a polite smattering no matter how enthusiastic; naturally that kind of decorum is anathema to the Cirque du Soleil experience where the audience wants to share every laugh and gasp. The room can take that energy away. Right now, tonight, the idea is to give it back.

In fact, explains Steve Ellison, Cirque has been using Constellation’s underlying technology to enhance audience engagement for more than a decade, first on O at Bellagio when producers wanted to give the clowns more feedback and better connect the audience to the shared space. Instead of altering the space physically—with all the cost, permanence, and unintended consequences—Meyer has helped Cirque deploy a system with underlying technology developed by Dr. Mark Poletti called Variable Room Acoustics System (VRAS); most of the team I’m sitting with has used it on multiple shows.

Indeed, the guys still call it “V-ras,” occasionally commenting over Ellison’s shoulder on some user-friendly detail in the formalized Constellation GUI, which they are using for the first time right now.

Constellation is essentially a flexible electronic acoustical treatment. In simplest terms, the room is miked, processed, and played back to itself. For Iris, the processed signals are matrixed through 96 dedicated Meyer Sound loudspeakers supplied by audio provider Solotech, including the CQ-1, UP-4XP, MM-4XP, and MM-4XPD as well as rings of UPA-1Ps that are used for surrounds. Many times, the purpose of a Constellation installation is simply to offset aspects of a room that are not ideal—make the room bigger, more or less absorbent, or more or less reverberant. It can be used for multipurpose venues to adapt the room acoustics to different types of events or even room sizes. But the Cirque designers have something more in mind—something much more dynamic.

They talk among themselves, speculating about what they will do when they get their hands on the system. Sound designer Bergeron and associate designer Kirby had already done what they could in systems design, processing, and mixing to enliven the arid theater. Some of that processing can now be abandoned; now they can leverage the new acoustics and tune the room song by song, even cue by cue. Kirby says the show mix will change, not just technically but artistically in response to this new acoustical palette that opens up as another voice in the mix. They compare notes on previous VRAS deployments and toss around some ideas, Kirby and Brisebois are sure that composer Danny Elfman will want to do even more with dynamically moving the orchestra voices to track the sweep of the performers, creating an “enveloping” quality that Brisebois says is the driving goal of the score and the sound. But, Kirby adds, “We’ll need to damp the VRAS on some of the numbers or we’ll muddy the mix.”

Beyond the mix and the presets, Brisebois will also now have a Constellation fader in his compact mixing position in row R, housed right where he will vary the room’s absorption live, reading the audience’s mood and giving them and the performers a feedback loop to tap into and play off of. So, he says, if the audience is a little mellow on a Sunday matinee, they can be coaxed to life by turning up the gain on the Constellation system, magnifying their reactions to the show.

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