Sonic Spectacle

In a city that defines excess, Celine Dion’s A New Day… ratchets up the spectacle a notch with some mind-boggling statistics. Housed in a $95 million theater that is custom designed to suit the needs of the singer and her director, Franco Dragone, well known for his spectacular work with Cirque du Soleil, the new Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas radically redefines state-of-the-art.

,img src=”../../../../2003/may-jun03/images/savageclose.jpg” align=”right”>Built by Caesars Palace parent company, Park Place Entertainment, specifically to house the show’s three-year run, the Colosseum features the latest cutting-edge equipment, from sound to lights to video. Seventeen-year veteran of Dion’s live and studio work, Denis Savage, and system engineer Francois Desjardins, conceived the show’s 5.1 audio system and oversaw its installation, a joint venture by Audio Analysts of Colorado Springs and Montreal’s Solotech. Entirely digital but for the transducers at either end of the signal chain, the audio system is controlled by an SSL MT Production console in the first live installation of its kind.

The theater’s architectural design, by Sceno Plus of Canada, puts a modern spin on the classical proportions of ancient Rome. Arrayed in a semi-circular layout, none of the over 4000 seats in the house is more than 120 feet from center stage. At 22,450 sq. ft., the enormous stage sports one of the world’s largest proscenium arches, 120 feet wide by 44 feet high. Completing the symmetry, the circular building is 120 feet high and 256 feet wide. Onstage, the centerpiece of the set design is a $6 million Mitsubishi LED screen that, at 109 feet wide by 34 feet tall, is reportedly the largest to be found indoors in North America.

The main challenge, according to Savage and Desjardins, was to deliver uniform and consistent sound levels to every seat in the house. The main orchestra level has a capacity of nearly 2300 seats, with an additional 745 seats in the first balcony and over 1000 in the upper balcony.

The two system designers settled on Meyer Sound speakers for the show, an easy decision for an organization that has been relying on the manufacturer for the last 12 years. “The self-powered issue was a big deal for us,” explains Desjardins. “The fact that we can control each speaker within the 5.1 environment is a big thing. We can apply whatever processing we want to each speaker and normal sound management systems, like BSS Soundweb.”

He elaborates, “The left and right surround scheme is going to the Soundweb and from there divides into eight zones. With the Soundweb we were able to EQ and manage each zone, so the surround scheme ends up pretty much everywhere in the room. If the sound level is not the same, then the frequency response cannot be the same.”

Sound from the side speakers takes approximately 100mS to reach the center of the room. “We time-delay everything, so that the surround arrives from the side, and less and less toward the middle. When you walk to the side you’ve got less speakers shooting at you, but the level is higher so you don’t feel that you are losing power. When you go back to the middle, there’s a lot of speakers, because you’ve got the left and right surround speakers, but the level and the timing is done to make it seamless.”

Meyer Sound was also able to offer more than just the loudspeakers, he notes, including the MAPP acoustical prediction program, which helped with initial system design. “Just in a rough simulation we were able to come up with something close to reality.” System alignment was performed with the Meyer Sound SIM system, and the company’s RMS system continually monitors the health of the amplifiers, which, Desjardins reveals, have not been switched off since they were first fired-up in November of last year. The show opened March 25.

Nearly the entire Meyer Sound range is represented in the system, from the top-of-the-line M3D and the newly introduced SB-2 (used as front row downfills) down through the range. “We have 145 self-powered speakers in the theater, and 12 little MM-4’s under the stage and to do odd spots, so 157 speakers altogether. But they all have the same frequency and phase signature. That’s important when you put a bunch of speakers together.”

There is only one focus of this show, as Desjardins observes. “People pay big bucks to hear and see Celine Dion, so we make sure that everybody can hear and feel everything she feels. The way we did it, with the divergence on the console, anywhere that you sit you’re always in stereo mode and have two stacks of speakers looking at you. Wherever you are, you can hear her like she is right in your face, but never too loud. To do that is tricky, and you cannot do that with many sound systems.”

It seems that no two approaches are the same when it comes to mixing in 5.1. Having mixed a number of live DVDs for artists in the French market, Savage has developed his own philosophy in the studio and is now translating that into the live arena. “I’m not that crazy about having instruments in the back,” he explains. “I find that the 5.1 thing is very good for ambience, not to fill in the middle. But I’ve heard stuff from other engineers who put instruments in the back and it blew me away.

“Mainly what I use the surround for is sound effects and reverbs and stuff like that. Not much music, because of the distances. The distances are so great that it can never be aligned for everybody.”
Carefully considered placement of under-balcony fills and surround coverage has been surprisingly successful, according to Savage. Essentially, a separate 5.1 environment is created under each balcony to reinforce the main PA.

“If you sit under balconies in most theaters you always feel that you are not in the party,” he says. That’s not true of the Colosseum. “When you’re in the last few rows under the balcony you don’t see the main PA, so you hear the delays more than the PA, but it feels very open, you get a feeling of spaciousness.”
Savage creates two 5.1 mixes at the SSL digital console, one of vocals and one of the music. That way, he says, “I have access to music and vocals to feed to other places and I have a relative level between vocals and music. Recently, we did a TV special and I sent them a full music mix plus a wet vocal mix, which turned out quite well. I also post everything after. I record on Pro Tools and can just remix on the SSL.”

Phil Wagner, senior VP at SSL, originally approached Savage with the idea of using the MT Production as a live sound desk. Although using a digital studio console more typically found in broadcast production might seem extravagant, even impractical, the more he thought about it the more it made sense to Savage.

“At first I had two big consoles and a smaller console just for the surround stuff. Then the monitoring and the routing become very complicated,” he says. In contrast, the MTP offered a number of advantages. “The console physically is not very big. I have 96 mic pres, 12 stereo effects returns, and another 96 faders that I can use for whatever I want. It brings the amount of channels available that I can monitor at once to quite a big number — 192 plus 24 — that I can have in the PA at one time.”

Inputs are certainly necessary on a show of this size. Dion is joined on stage by four singers and a seven-piece band, as well as 48 dancers. A total of 104 channels of Sennheiser wireless are in use. The 96 SSL mic preamps are located 200 feet away from the console at the stage, requiring just six coaxial and three Ethernet cables to control them.

Savage was used to using analog live sound consoles with Dion for many years, but says of the digital desk, “It’s easy to operate, and works like a regular console, with the mic pre at the top of the strip, and your filters and dynamics, effects sends, and a fader. You’re not always going through menus or recalling stuff to the center section. There are 96 compressors and 96 good EQs. I have a great compressor on the 5.1 master bus.”

With so many onboard resources on the SSL desk, outboard processing at FOH is kept to a minimum. “I don’t have a lot of outboard gear since I have good — and programmable — dynamics in the console. For vocals I use a Lexicon 960. I have two surround machines that I make with that. For percussion and guitars I have a TC 6000. I have a surround ‘verb plus some stereo ‘verbs with that machine. I have two Eventide Eclipses, one just for spreading the back vocals, the other for effects. I have a TC Fireworx machine for filtered delays.

“Then, on Celine’s voice, I also have an XTA SIDD and a Junger B42 that I use as a de-esser. The XTA I use mainly as a dynamic EQ, so I compress the higher mid when she’s pushing, so it still sounds soft.” A high-end digital Weiss Gambit seven-band parametric EQ completes the list.

Each song within the show has a unique timecode address, which is controlled by band leader Claude Lemay according to Dion’s cues, and which is chased by sound sequences, console automation, and video. “I have snapshot automation and I have dynamic automation, with code running through the show, which I can use to do some dynamics stuff,” comments Savage. “So all of a sudden it gets to be very fun.” Nevertheless, he is still a hands-on mixer. “You don’t want to just sit and look at the console moving!”

Surround Professional Magazine