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Aerosmith’s ‘Deuces are Wild’ Residency

Bill Evans • May 2019Production Profile • May 8, 2019

Joe Perry and Steven Tyler — still rockin’ out, 50 years later. Photo by Katarina Benzova

Legendary Rockers Kick Off Las Vegas Residency Series — in Immersive Sound

In the beginning, there was mono…

Oh, wait. You thought this was supposed to be a piece about the new Aerosmith residency in Las Vegas? We’ll get there. This is a show where it’s really impossible to separate the performance from the tech, so bear with us as we attempt to walk two paths at the same time.

The Vegas residency show featured a massive L-Acoustics L-ISA rig, with the speakers intentionally visible to the audience.

‡‡         A Little History…

The origin of using multiple loudspeakers to create an illusion of space is hard to pin down. The actual patent for creating acetate disks with two separate audio channels goes back to EMI engineer Alan Blumlein, who in 1931, filed a sprawling patent covering more than 70 claims, including how to cut stereo disks. While some movies — notably, Disney’s Fantasia—were presented in stereo by the early 1940s, stereo sound only took off commercially after EMI failed to renew that patent in 1959. TV shows were not regularly broadcast in stereo until Miami Vice in the mid-1980s.

In terms of live concert sound, stereo imaging has traditionally been problematic. There are ample tools for placing sound sources into a stereo field but the issue has always been figuring out how to make the stereo “sweet spot” available throughout a venue. The Grateful Dead tried with the much-discussed “wall of sound” system in the 1970s. Three decades later, engineers and system designers for major acts were putting together touring rigs where left/right arrays were alternated in an R-L-R arrangement on one side of the stage and a L-R-L on the other. About the same time, 5.1 surround systems became standard in many homes and even in high-end cars.

Attempts to replicate a 5.1 experience in a large venue — perhaps best illustrated by the Cirque show Love — which features music by the Beatles and surround speakers built into every seat — were largely either unsuccessful or stratospherically expensive. However, this may change as a new generation of immersive sound systems led by L-Acoustics’ L-ISA and Meyer Sound’s D-Mitri are expanding from theatrical presentations featuring largely pre-recorded audio to live acts with an optimistic eye towards the ability to tour with such systems.

View from the FOH perspective with John Shipp at the DiGiCo SD7 (note L-ISA control screen to the left of console). Photo by Zack Whitford

‡‡         Enter Aerosmith

This brings us to Aerosmith. Other acts, notably Bon Iver and Lorde, have recently used the L-ISA technology for live shows. But neither of those acts are what anyone would term “hard rockers.” Now celebrating a half-century playing rock ‘n’ roll, the Bad Boys from Boston are the same five guys who gained mass awareness with covers classics like “Walking the Dog” and “Train Kept a-Rollin” in 1971 and are still making music together. That’s got to be some kind of record. Given the band’s penchant for substance abuse, several periods when they weren’t speaking to each other and the fact that “Jaded,” their last charting hit, came out almost 20 years ago, it’s astounding that they continue to pack arenas around the world with the same five guys who are in their 70’s.

Now, 50 years since the band played its first live shows (except for guitarist Brad Whitford, who joined in 1971), Aerosmith marks the anniversary with multi-year farewell tour that will be anchored by a residency gig at MGM Park’s 5,200-seat Park Theater in Las Vegas, a venue they currently share with Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and Cher. Credit for the kind of vision that led to a multi-media extravaganza goes to Steve Dixon of Fireplay and Roadwerx, who is described as a tour manager, creative director and show producer. His clients include acts like Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake in addition to a lengthy relationship with Aerosmith.

“We knew we wanted to do something that had never been done,” Dixon said at a media event just before the 16-date run, dubbed Deuces Are Wild, which opened last month. “The advances we’ve seen in concert presentation over the past couple of decades — really since L-Acoustics introduced V-DOSC and line arrays became a touring standard — have largely been in the worlds of lighting and video.”

Understanding that no one goes home from a show humming the light show, showcasing actual audio content and how it was presented was an early priority as planning began. The hookup with the L-ISA system came via Dixon’s relationship with L-Acoustics’ touring outreach manager David Brooks, who toured with Steve Dixon many years ago.

The idea of an immersive experience begins before the show, as arriving audience members can do things such as take pictures in front of Instagram-ready backdrops, including the band’s rusting 1964 International Harvester Metro van that was rescued from sinking into a muddy field in rural Massachusetts by the crew of the History Channel’s American Pickers TV show. Yes, it’s the real van and not a re-creation.

For a while now, there’s been a movement to change the live concert audio experience from the classic reinforcement of what’s coming off the stage to something more like a multi-channel, high-end movie. Replacing onstage sound sources like guitar amps and stage wedges with amp modeling and in-ear monitoring have become the norm. And Rod Stewart’s Las Vegas residency, where the only acoustic sound sources on its massive stage are horns and drums, is a clear illustration of that approach. But glance at the Aerosmith stage, and it’s obvious this is not one of those shows. There are a dozen vintage guitar amps just on Joe Perry’s side of the stage and an additional half dozen for Whitford and bassist Tom Hamilton. Unlike acts ranging from ZZ Top to Styx and hundreds more, where the onstage “amps” are dummies there for show while the actual sound comes from either modelers or amps placed in iso-cabinets and miked backstage, the Aerosmith amps are all on — and turned up to 11.

Looking from the stage to the creepy inflatable re-creations of the figures from the cover of the band’s 1975 breakthrough Toys In the Attic LP, suspended from the grid over the audience, one can’t help but notice the L-ISA array. There is no effort to hide the loudspeakers. They’re mounted against a white backdrop and tastefully lit. Also, these look like no concert array you’ve ever seen. There are nine visible hangs mixing K2 and Kara enclosures across the front of the stage with some facing 45° off-axis. Additional surround arrays, fills and overhead speakers bring the total to some 230 enclosures for a venue that seats 5,200 people.

The unique audio experience extends to VIP areas seating about 100 people located on either side of the stage. They can’t really hear the L-ISA technology and instead each get a set of good universal-fit in-ears (which they get to keep) along with an iPod Touch (which they don’t) running an app that lets them switch between a stereo mix or Steven Tyler’s monitor mix. (No pressure for the monitor engineer who has to deal with both the notoriously difficult singer and an additional 100 people who will be critiquing their mix on social media channels after the show.) Fun times.

Steven Tyler literally “Walks This Way” on a massive ramp over the audience

‡‡         The L-ISA Touch

The L-ISA system is driven by a DiGiCo SD7 at FOH and turns the standard L-R or maybe LCR panning into a system called “object mixing” that allows 96 inputs (or “objects”) to be precisely placed in any one of 64 locations defined on left-right, forward-back and up-down planes as well as sound width in space for each object. In this particular installation, the immersive quality of the audio can be experienced in 78 percent of the venue’s seats — a significant achievement.

Before the band hits the stage, the show starts with 30+ minutes of Pixomondo-produced video content that chronicles the band and its members’ history from high school to mega-stardom via rare footage and never-before-heard interview clips. This is where the immersive nature of L-ISA really shines. When they talk about the club and street scene around Boston in the late 1960’s, the audio transports the audience to that street scene in a way that supports and expands the words — without feeling forced or gimmicky. When Tyler talks about meeting Perry at a diner on the shore of a lake where his family vacationed, you’ll feel like you’re right there. It’s kind of magical.

The show itself still needs some audio tweaks. But keep in mind we saw the show on its second night. That might explain what appeared to be missed cues as guitar breaks were sometimes inaudible or came in several bars late. But the big challenge will be for engineers used to worrying more about coverage than sound source placement to get a handle on how to use the capabilities a system like L-ISA.

The best example from the show was an input that’s probably rarely noticed in a traditional L-R array but becomes very apparent due to the wide spatialization capabilities of the system. Aerosmith has added a few auxiliary musicians including a female singer, a keyboard player and a percussionist for at least several tours. On several songs, the tumba (the low drum in a conga set) was clearly panned to house-left in a way that was unusual and attention-grabbing. Ditto the cowbell input which was more present than you would expect in a regular concert. Some fans may enjoy it while others may find it distracting, this is the choice that artists and engineers need to make with a system like L-ISA. Aerosmith itself really hit its stride about 30 to 45 minutes into the set. By the time the Toxic Twins were cranking out “Walk This Way” from a massive platform at the end of a ramp that descended to the stage and was maybe eight feet above my head, the band was still rocking out, even after 50 years.

The show exhibited the band’s first van — a 1964 International Harvester Metro used as a “rolling hotel” and recently rescued from a muddy field in rural Massachusetts and restored. Photo by Steve Savanyu

‡‡         More to Come

This is an enormously ambitious show. One that may not seem so obvious for a band like Aerosmith that has been doing basically the same kind of stuff for a half a century. And this is no one-venue deal. The band plans to bring a version of the immersive show to other MGM-owned venues on the East coast, including in the band’s Massachusetts home base later this year. When Dixon was asked about actually touring with this kind of rig, his tour manager roots come front and center.

“Yes, there will be some additional expense,” he says. “But stacks and racks are the least expensive parts of a touring system. Yes, there is additional rigging, but chain motors cost what, $75 a week? Yes, there is extra gear. But trucking is the least expensive part of a tour. This is doable, and Deuces Are Wild is not going to be the last rock show to use L-ISA. This is the next big frontier for the live music experience.”

After selling out all 16 shows in this series, Aerosmith announced it will extend the Deuces Are Wild residency with a second leg from Sept. 21 through Dec. 4, 2019 in Las Vegas.

Bill Evans is a noted pro audio writer and long-term Las Vegas resident.

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