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Blue Man Group’s “Speechless” Tour

John McJunkin • February 2020Production Profile • February 10, 2020

Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Immersive Sound System Takes the Troupe to the Next Level – and Beyond

Globally renowned for performances that incorporate music and art in fresh, new approaches, the Blue Man Group debuted in 1987 and has continuing shows in Berlin, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, New York City and Orlando. Reaching out to even wider audiences, BMG’s current “Speechless” tour kicked off last September and continues well into 2020, slated to play at more than 50 cities throughout North America in its first season. And based on the critical and popular response so far, this is destined to be one very long tour.

The set resembles a dystopian sci-fi film with various technology pieces stacked behind the players. Photo by Evan Zimmerman

‡‡         What Is This Strange Place?

The set looks like part library, part home theater and part high-tech control room from some dystopian sci-fi film taking place in the not-so-distant future. There are video displays, loudspeakers and other technological trinkets that seemingly span the entire history of such technology; ancient television sets and modern wide-screen displays, old-school hi-fi sets and contemporary loudspeakers. These curiosity-inducing items are scattered throughout a framework that also features bleeding-edge lighting technology and video displays, ladders, lofts, a drum riser and lots of things that make neat noises when they’re struck with drumsticks. Sometimes the lighting is dim and bleak, and sometimes it’s dazzling. The video displays show us both static and moving images that are sometimes artistically compelling and sometimes hilarious. There’s also a giant video wall that moves about the area. This two-story tall space could be described as a high-tech setting for the amusing fever dream of a suburban boy who is learning about the world.

This whirling array of PVC pipes is just one of the many bizarre instruments featured in the show.. Photo by Evan Zimmerman

‡‡         Bold, Blue, Bald

Learning about the world is what the Blue Man Group does. They’re friendly, innocent, fun-loving, and above all, curious. A strong sense of childlike wonder has been a very central attribute of these characters ever since Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton donned blue masks and led a celebratory procession in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1987. Their performance art found its way into theater, and over the past three decades evolved into a global phenomenon, with a total audience of over 35 million people in 25 countries. There are around 70 Blue Men at any given time, splashing over 18,000 buckets of paint annually and accounting for some 23,000 broken drumsticks since their inception. Indeed, naiveté in the face of complex, modern life is the essence of their being, and it’s eminently compelling — enchanting audiences the world over. Their productions examine life and the world by incorporating motion, dance, sound, lighting, comedy and non-verbal communication. Oh — and they hit things with drumsticks and make fascinating and pleasant sounds.

FOH engineer Justice Bigler at the helm of the DiGiCo SD-10 console

‡‡         Speechless

The current Blue Man Group tour — “Speechless” — debuted September 24th, 2019 at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater. This tour features new instruments, new compositions and a healthy dose of audience interaction. The show’s director, Jenny Koons, says that the show pushes the boundaries in numerous domains, very deliberately incorporating new musical instruments and large-scale audience participation.

The Blue Man Group brand is now owned by Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, and chief creative officer Diane Quinn says that this tour forges “a path for future generations of the Blue Man tribe to explore.” Traditional Blue Man Group instruments like the Drumbone are still featured, but there are also percussion instruments resembling a yagi-type antenna and a starburst of PVC pipes that spins, played by touching the spinning pipes with wands, creating a low-frequency oscillation that’s altered by signal processing. Another fascinating instrument in the production takes on the topology of a fishing pole — literally a pole with a “fishing line” that’s stretched to achieve different frequencies. The “fishing reel” component spins a disk with a dozen or two guitar picks attached, each plucking the line in rapid succession. A pickup passes the vibration along to a moderately sophisticated suite of guitar-type processing to achieve a panoply of sounds.

According to tour A1 Justice Bigler, the rule of thumb is that the audience is hearing MIDI-triggered samples and other synthetic sounds unless the cast members actually strike instruments with drum heads, in which case microphones are deployed to capture the actual drum sound. Ableton Live is incorporated to provide a click track and otherwise manage and control MIDI triggering and synchronization. At the show’s climax, the three Blue Men are at center stage facing directly toward the audience, playing drums roughly the size of 55-gallon containers. The DMX-512 protocol is used to trigger a pump attached to each drum at the right moment to flood the surface of the drum head with colored paint. The paint is launched straight up by the vibration of the head, as colored overhead pin spots further increase the color saturation of the erupting paint — a truly exciting effect. In addition to the three Blue Men on stage, the Speechless tour features two additional musicians; drummer Corky Gainsford and multi-instrumentalist Jerry Kops. These players are stationed on a platform at stage right, and their instruments are brought into the FOH mix in the traditional way.

L-ISA setup for the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA. The frontal system has five hangs, each with 10 Karas (plus flown subs in two cardioid arrays).

‡‡         Adding an Immersive Touch

Initial development of L-Acoustics’ L-ISA immersive audio system commenced around 2010, according to Marcus Ross, L-Acoustics’ head of application, touring for the U.S. and Canada (and a former sound supervisor and sound designer for the Blue Man Group). The system was developed to correctly localize sonic elements within a three-dimensional space as directed by a designer, with the goal of helping the audience to feel as if they are “inside the music”. In most cases, this localization will reflect what an audience sees visually, but audio objects can be placed virtually anywhere with the system, and also moved in three-dimensional space in real time. Ross stated that the initial discussion of the Blue Man Group leveraging L-ISA to accomplish an immersive audio experience started at the 2017 AES show, and in January of 2019, the group contacted L-Acoustics and wanted to deploy the L-ISA system for the upcoming “Speechless” tour.

The L-ISA processor provides the mixing engineer with five parameters for each object. They include panning, which determines horizontal location; width, that determines the perceived size of an object, ranging from point-source to panoramic; distance, to control perceived proximity and reverberation; elevation, which determines the vertical location of the object; and finally, the system offers a traditional auxiliary send. The system is indeed object-based, and objects are mixed to locations, not to buses or physical speakers, so the properties of the mix are independent from the speaker complement and configuration. The L-ISA processor facilitates up to 96 objects and up to 64 physical speaker outputs at a sample rate of 96kHz, and a patent is currently pending for its room engine. Reverb and ambience attributes are assigned to each object, and follow it if it moves within the three-dimensional space. L-Acoustics’ Immersive Hyperreal Sound deploys a specialized configuration of speakers in order to achieve precise localization within three dimensions. Although physical surround speakers can be deployed in the system, three-dimensional mixing is also accomplished with a frontal system consisting of a minimum of five line arrays, a monophonic array of subwoofers, and potentially — extension speakers as well.

Serving as the hub for all the show’s LISA functionality, the LISA Controller software enables intuitive object-based mixing along with comprehensive control and programming capabilities.

‡‡         “Speechless” Tour Audio System

According to Speechless tour sound designer Tony Pittsley, the original plan was to travel with seven line arrays, but in consideration of the relatively shorter local runs and smaller venues, the decision was reached to take five L-Acoustics Kara arrays, and to grant the option to A1 Justice Bigler to deploy outfills as necessary for wider venues. Subwoofers are flown above the main arrays at center stage, and front fills, time-aligned from center stage and delivering a mono feed, are also frequently deployed. The FOH console is a DiGiCo SD10 and Q-Lab is used to manage cues. Lighting is synchronized with audio, as are certain physical cues, such as the aforementioned pumping of paint onto drum heads for the Blue Man Group signature paint splash effect. The show is remarkably light on RF, with only 12 channels of wireless. No monitor speakers are deployed — monitoring is 100% in-ear.

‡‡         Programming and Sound Design

Pittsley stated that when it came time for him to sit down and program the audio for the tour, he was able to do so without any formal L-ISA training. The placement and adjustment of objects within L-ISA’s three-dimensional space is something that can be done by any reasonably accomplished audio professional without formal training, which is an appealing attribute. Pittsley had served as a sound designer in the employ of the Blue Man Group prior to this tour, and had a good handle on the group’s previous stereo mixes, so he was an obvious choice to set up and program the 3-D setup for the “Speechless” tour. Pittsley, Ross and Bigler all agreed that having the capacity to move mix elements in a three-dimensional space has the effect of clarifying the mix. Panning has always been an obvious mixing tool to move an element “from on top” of another, but three-dimensional placement decidedly extends this notion and offers new creative possibilities that stereo simply cannot match.

Ross mentioned that the L-ISA immersive experience has been deployed for other tours as well, including Mark Knopfler, Lourde, Childish Gambino and Bon Iver — among others. He stated that the immersive nature of the audio, the additional clarity and the creative opportunities offered by the system have all contributed to its growing popularity, and the expectation is that more tours will choose to use L-ISA in the years to come. He added that L-Acoustics is very open to developing partnerships with organizations that present particularly creative offerings — the kind of shows that can really get the most out of the unique system. Clearly, that plan is off to a good start and based on the show’s critical and popular response, “Speechless” is destined to be one very long tour.

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