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David Byrne’s “American Utopia” Comes to Broadway

Bryan Reesman • November 2019Theater Sound • November 13, 2019

Byrne leads up to 12 musicians on stage throughout the show. Photo by Matthew Murphy

To riff on a familiar cliché: Impossibility is the mother of invention. The idea of David Byrne fronting a 12-piece group of well-dressed, barefoot musicians with minimal staging certainly sounds like a fun and presumably stress-free event. The musical production — currently running on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre — takes the title of and combines songs from Byrne’s recent Top-5 solo album American Utopia with a couple of Talking Heads hits, and the show’s focus is to spread positivity in troubled times. Groovy. But then factor in the fact that the stage is framed by three walls of hung chains 30 feet high and everyone is miked via wireless, and that changes the game.

Little did Byrne’s troupe know that Shure’s Axient Digital wireless system would surprise them with the solution.

The Broadway production combines music from David Byrne’s 2018 American Utopia album with tunes from his Talking Heads days and solo works. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         The RF Challenge

Two years ago, when American Utopia sound designer and FOH engineer Pete Keppler and John Chadwick, the monitor engineer for the 2018 tour, first heard that the chain walls would make up the staging of the set, “we were initially concerned that they might wreak havoc with the RF signal, causing odd reflections, dead spots or other issues,” recalls Keppler. He says that in August 2017, a mock-up of the stage was constructed at Clair Global’s shop in Pennsylvania, and they began experimenting with antenna placement, performing tests of both the input (instrument) and output (IEM) signals inside and outside of the chains.

“We found that there was significant loss trying to broadcast through the chain, but other than that, the RF seemed quite stable,” remarks Keppler. “The main antenna placement for the performers inside the chain was determined, and then a few local antennas were added for performers and crew to cover areas outside the chain where needed.”

Keppler admits that prior to the arrival of the Axient gear, the game plan for the show was very loose and that there was not a full understanding in 2017 of what the show would eventually become. They became unexpectedly lucky when the tour was postponed, then heard that Axient Digital was coming. By the time the tour was officially announced, the gear had become available.

“To be clear, this show never existed before Axient Digital was released,” stresses Keppler. “In large part, this show became what it is because of Axient D. It wouldn’t have been possible in this format without it.”

With all “untethered” performers, the show’s wireless needs were complex. Photo by Matthew Murphy

As Keppler and his team were sorting out a solution to their audio dilemma, Shure sent him the new TwinPlex mics. They proved to be a godsend. The omnidirectional mics can be used very close to people’s mouths without wind noise or pops or specific placement, and the quiet boom has an extremely linear off-axis response. As a result of this success, Shure fast-tracked TwinPlex mics to Keppler and his team prior to their scheduled release in fall 2017.

Subsequently with Axient’s RF transmitters, the tour had no issues with RF even in such an extreme working environment. Axient Digital has two modes: the commonly used standard mode with 17 channels per 6 MHz TV band, and the high-density mode where 47 channels can be used in the same amount of space, which is what the American Utopia team has selected. They are using low output power but getting high-quality audio.

While Shure SM58 and SM57 mics have been workhorses that are used on many shows, the Axient system and TwinPlex mics are providing a gateway for the company into the competitive Broadway world. The Axient system is also being used on the Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill, which officially opens on Broadway in December.

For American Utopia, Keppler picked a variety of microphones, including Shure Beta 98s, TwinPlex TH53s and VP88s, along with models from other manufacturers, including DPA, Audix, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser and C-ducer contact mics. For the essential input/out RF, Keppler selected Shure Axient Digital AD1 transmitters, AD4Q receivers (with 52 channels of inputs), Shure P10T transmitters and P10R+ receivers (with 24 channels).

Keppler is mixing on a DiGiCo SD10 board with 70 inputs from the stage and a few more local feeds at FOH. While he is not using any physical hardware processing, “I’m running an outboard Waves MultiRack system: Waves Extreme Server, Mac Mini and Dell touch screen. They’re extremely valuable to this show.”

With an extensive FOH career in live music — his many tour credits include Katy Perry, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith and a long history with David Byrne — Keppler has brought his experience into the fold here. “While this is a different version of the show than we played on tour in 2018, many of the same mixing techniques are still in play for me,” he says. “Much of David’s Byrne’s music, while perhaps not always rock and roll in the most traditional sense, definitely still rocks. The main difference in coming to Broadway is the size of the venue. Given that I have six drummers on stage — who at times are within a few feet of the audience — and all the other instrumentation and vocal are processed without any stage amplification, I sometimes have to treat it more like a reinforcement gig than a full mix.”

The stark background of hung metal chains created an RF challenge. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         Dealing with the Venue

Moving from the road to Broadway, specifically the Hudson Theatre, proved to be one of the biggest challenges for Keppler and his team. They had been playing to larger venues on tour (between 3,500 to 8,000 capacity houses), whereas the 115-year-old Hudson seats around 970.

“It is quite tall and not particularly deep, so the un-amplified sound of that stage could easily reach the rear of the room and the balconies,” explains Keppler. “For me, it meant converting a show where everything was fully in the mix to becoming more of a reinforcement situation. We have as many as six drummers on stage during a song, and many of those instruments are quite loud. The vocal monitoring is all IEM, and the other instruments — bass guitar, keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars — are being processed virtually through Kemper amp modelers and a variety of keyboard software, so there is no other stage volume. Some of the drums are kept quite low in the mix or sometimes taken out altogether to keep from overpowering the audience, especially when the drummers are fully downstage. It’s not always easy to blend direct off-the-stage sound with the sound from the P.A., so that’s probably been the biggest adjustment.”

The six percussion players in American Utopia play kits that hang in front of their bodies via harnesses, allowing for easier mobility. “Everyone on the stage is always mobile and wireless, so three or four of our drummers are forming one ‘drum kit’ in the traditional sense on many songs,” explains Keppler. “One person playing bass drum, another snare and hi-hat, another playing toms, another cymbals. It would be impractical, not to mention extremely heavy, to have one person walking around playing a full drum kit.”

He says that the trickiest piece of percussion to mix is one of the Brazilian drums called a Surdo Virado. It serves as both a bass drum and backbeat (where one might normally use a snare drum) all in one. Both the low and high heads are miked.

“The drum has a fair amount of sustain, and its voices cover a wide portion of the frequency spectrum, so carving out some EQ and controlling the drum’s dynamics took some work,” says Keppler. “The rest of the drums are relatively easy to involve in the mix, save for the previously noted issues about the theater size.”

Multiple drums can often be hard to mix without overpowering the other instruments onstage, but both this ensemble’s accumulated experience, along with that of the sound team, has led to a serendipitous sonic strategy. “Since we’ve moved to the Hudson Theater, the drummers have become very adept at managing their dynamics as they move about the stage too, playing more quietly as they move downstage towards the audience and louder as they move upstage,” says Keppler. “That makes it much easier to keep most of the drums consistently in the mix.”

Sound designer Pete Keppler has a long history of working with Byrnes and other top artists.

‡‡         Issues and Answers

Another major issue at the Hudson is the stage setup, which encompasses the entire width of the stage proscenium, and “the theater has no space outside of the proscenium to hang a sound system,” says Keppler. “The minimalistic, uncluttered look of the set is just as important as the sonic signature, so we had to experiment with a few different sound systems that were small enough to satisfy the creative team visually, yet powerful enough for me to handle the dynamics of the show.”

The main FOH speakers are Meyer Leopard, which were provided by Sound Associates in New York. The in-fills are Meyer Mina, the under-balcony are Clair CP6 and FF2 and the system EQ is Lake LM44 and LM26.

American Utopia sounds robust, and by the end of the performance I attended, the crowd was on its feet, dancing and clapping to the music. It seems to be a win-win for the crew and for Shure, who are venturing further into the Broadway market.

“We were incredibly happy with all the Shure mics, the Axient Digital system and the PSM-1000 IEMs that we used on tour,” declares Keppler. “Since moving to Broadway, we’ve also changed most of our vocal headset mics over to the Shure TwinPlex TH53s, and everyone couldn’t be happier.” Keppler says that they have added seven more headset vocal mics to the group, so everyone in the band now sings, and they have changed a few percussion instruments as well.

In the end, the Shure solution allowed American Utopia to become a reality.

“The Axient D was flawless on the road, and has been on Broadway as well, and NYC is a notoriously tough RF environment,” says Keppler. “On the road, we had the benefit of two amazing audio crew on stage: John Chadwick, our monitor engineer, and Jamie Nelson, our RF tech. They did an amazing job of finding the bandwidth we needed every day in whatever city and RF environment we happened into. They really made the show from the stage end.”

Keppler also praises his Broadway crew, “especially considering they’re adapting a full-on rock show to a Broadway theater. It’s a bit unusual compared to what they normally see.” He also thanks John Born and the people at Shure for their invaluable support.

According to Keppler, the Axient Digital analog RF systems were essential. “Sonically, the Axient D is far superior to any analog RF system I’ve ever heard,” he declares. “The show that we’ve been able to bring to David’s audience over the last two years could not have happened without it.”

The Broadway run of American Utopia officially opened on Oct. 20 and has been extended through Feb. 16, 2020.

American Utopia on Broadway 

AUDIO CREW

  • Sound Designer/FOH Engineer: Pete Keppler
  • Monitor Engineer: John Chadwick
  • RF Tech: Jamie Nelson
  • Sound Co: Sound Associates (NY)

GEAR

  • Mics: Shure Beta 98, TwinPlex TH53, Shure VP88; DPA 4088, 4099: Audix D6, D4; Audio-Technica 2300; Sennheiser E904, MKH 416; C-ducer
  • RF systems: Shure Axient Digital AD1/AD4Q (52 channels); Shure P10T/ P10R+ (24 channels)
  • FOH Console: DiGiCo SD10
  • Outboard: Waves MultiRack; DiGiCo SD Rack stagebox
  • Mon Console: DiGiCo SD5
  • Main P.A.: Meyer Sound Leopard
  • In-Fills: Meyer Mina
  • Under-Balcony Fills: Clair CP6 and FF2
  • System EQ: Lake LM44 and LM26

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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