A Blue Work In Progress
LIVE SOUND! January/February 1999
by Anthony McLean

You may have heard about Blue Man Group (BMG). Perhaps you already know that BMG is a theatre-based production that includes elements of rock, modern art and performance art.  With long-running success on America's east coast, BMG's extracted vignettes have received ample television exposure.

These days BMG has an international fan base.  So maybe you've already seen BMG and experienced their substantial doses of suspended disbelief first-hand.  If not, you need to get yourself to New York, Boston or Chicago where BMG has been resident to the 625-seat Briar Street Theater in Chicago since autumn 1997.  It will be like nothing you've ever seen.

Photo #1: Lobby at Brair Street Theater

Polyrythmns, Humor, but No RF Mics

The Three Blue Men's spew of paint, goo and toilet paper-esque, crepe paper is borrowed from the shtick of American comedian Gallagher.  There is ample audience interaction and plenty of props.

Photo #2: Interior at the Briar Street Theater

But Blue Men never speak.  They do, however, play instruments.  Many times these instruments are serious floor drums played as trio, tom-tom style, while a spray of paint is broadcast across the stage with each mallet strike.  (Think: Martin Chambers/The Pretenders circa 1983!).

Other times these instruments are as non-traditional as the production itself. The blue Men frequently play custom constructed and precisely tuned PVC creations which are hammered on in a fashioned which is best described as Lionel HAMPTON on steroids. This tube-playing extends the ensemble's overall "Tubes" theme which is established at the front door and continues through curtain (see Photos #1 & #2).

Don't Forget the Band

There is also a pit band, perched, above the stage. Costumed as skeletons via black light, this combo includes drums, a guitar and a neo-zither. Additional long-format music is played back from hard disc. This playback music often expresses Blue Man humor. One such example is when Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" flies into a scene while the three Blue Men play the PVC instrument with a trio of scrolling message signs which poke fun at audience members based on their ability, or inability, to recognize the tune.

The performance is beyond dynamic. Its mood swings from subtle, to swoops and soars. BMG has created a dynamic one-of-a-kind theatrical experience, and they expect their show's sound to evolve with them over time. So BMG is a flood of serious sound effects, with some strategic surround sound filling a hostile environment for audio gear.

The show is played back from Windows '95 computer hard disc via a show control sequencing software program called SFX (see sidebar beginning on pg #40). A myriad of sound effects and music playback are prepped as one of the first-ever delivered Soundcraft Series 5s (40mono/12stereo). The series 5 is configured the so that the engineer can mix the show from the desk's 10 VIA groups. The, when spatial routing is required, win Yamaha O3D automate the special sonic effects.

The Big Idea

Jim VAN BERGEN designed the BMG-Chicago audio system.  VAN BERGEN's formalized design criteria read as follows: "The sound system shall provide both Broadway-quality clarity and rock concert power, with an evenly matched coverage.  The system must be even sounding under a wide range of dynamics, with an extremely lo self-noise at full power. The system must be capable of expressing massive LF/sub impacts.  Additionally, all elements must be monitored and controlled by the FOG engineer."

According to VAN BERGEN it was later determined that the system should have a maximum tolerance of 3dB within any seating area regarding SPL/coverage, a dynamic range of approximately 40dB and a minimum of 2:1 sub to mid0high power ratio in the mains system.

Given this criteria set, non-existent backstage space for traditional processor/amplifier racks and a BMG prejudice against fan noise, the Meyer self-powered loudspeaker series seemed the right choice to eliminate eleven separate amps and processors.  Equally important, the Meyers could be monitored and controlled remotely.

The Nuts & Bolts

The house system consists of MTS-4's MSL-4's, and CQ-2's for L/C/R orchestra mains plus four PSW-2 and four 650-Ps. Seven active UPAs complete the self-powered system (for the six-point surround system and one special effects playback speaker).  Four UPA-2Ps act as win pairs of L/R balcony delays.

Meyer's Remote Monitoring System (RMS) provides bi-directional communication with each driver in the system.  RMS gives the BMG engineer vital status information on a color CRT and full remote control of the amps. This is vital because BMG does not staff a full-time A2 for this production.

Perhaps most valuable to the BMG engineer, usually Lilly WEST, is the ability to monitor sub power, a driver's excursion damping and the amp's thermal status.  This data verifies consistent signal and the integrity of the speaker components - optimizing performance and minimizing potential driver damage.

Show Control and a Better Mix

Blue Man Group audio show control is executed by SFX Version 5.2 resident to two redundant Windows '95 PCs. After a year of some show control inconsistencies, these two computers are now independently controlled by a MIDI GO button which seems to have produced a rock solid control interface (see Figure #1).


[Figure 1]

Only one computer physically runs the show and triggers a cue list of songs and show control effects. The second computer is a fail-safe device. SFX software also automatically loads the NEXT events sequence, giving WEST or the other BMG engineers more time mix the show in finer detail. The results, when LIVE SOUND! visited BMG in late December 1998, was a delicate blend of precise sonic control which showed off the talents of Ms. WEST and the significant dynamic range of the Meyer sound.

The Serious Side of Control

What it is?

Stage Research, Inc. of Cleveland Ohio manufactures the software application SFX for theatrical, sound playback. Designed to aid sound designers and mixing engineer in creating, maintaining and executing sound effects or music for live performance, SFX can be used in place of traditional sound playback gear. Stage Research also offers a variety of version of SFX including Standard, ProAudio and Show Control.

SFX Standard, Pro-Audio and Show Control will play Wave files (.wav) and tracks from an audio CD in the CD-ROM in.  In addition to sound effect files, SFX Standard will playback MIDI Commands and special Trigger cues. Trigger cues are cues that target other cues in the same or different cue lists in SFX. For example, you can have a Trigger cue target, a cue in another cue list, that will the cause the targeted cue to play.

SFX Show Control will play MIDI Show Control messages and MCI commands. MIDI Show Control message follows the MIDI Show Control 1.0 standard that allows MSC capable devices to send messages (such as GO, STOP, etc.) to each other. MCI commands are commands use to communicate with MCI-compliant devices such as some laser discs and video tape recorders.

SFX offers Autofollows and Wait cues which link cues together to form automated sequences. If one adds an Autofollow between two cues, the following cue will playback as soon as the preceding cue is completed. A Wait is similar, but delays a user-defined number of seconds before playing the following cue. Because a Wait is time based, playback does not depend on the completion of the preceding cue.

The Automated Fade

With SFX, you can automate fading and stopping of cues with Fade and Stop cues.  When you add a Fade into your cue list, you select a cue to fade, the final volume for that cue and the time of the fade.  When you play the Fade cue, it will perform a smooth, logarithmic volume change.  A Stop cue simply halts the targeted cue or cues.

SFX can playback multiple, overlapping sound effects to one or more DirectX sound cards.  Even if you have a single sound card, SFX can mix multiple effects to it.  Each effect can be assigned to one or more outputs on your sound cards.

This allows automated overlapping sound effects and patching to multiple channels or speaker locations such as fading an effect across a number of channels. The number of channels available, and the amount of mixing depends on the exact SFX product.

In addition, you can have multiple cue lists open at the same time.  For example, you can use one cue list as background, ambient effects while another cue list is your main show.  With SFX standard and above, the number is only limited by system resources.

Interface

SFX 5's interface (see Figure #2) contains many customizable features.  For instance, in the view containing the cue list, you can specify the type and amount of information you want to see about each cue.  In the simplest form, you can show just the cue number column and description column.

There are other columns can be added that show the type, current playing status, and/or the time code value for each cue.  Colored circles preceding each cue tell whether the cue is cued, playing or paused.   SFX is also capable of generating/chasing MIDI time code.

 
[Figure 2]