This is not your parents’ cabaret act.
As the music heroes of the ’70s and ’80s enter new stages of their careers, they are finding new ways to entertain audiences in more intimate spaces. Take Bruce Springsteen’s recent run at New York City’s Walter Kerr Theatre, which is now home to the 2019 Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown. Likewise, in support of her latest album Madame X, Madonna has taken to smaller theaters such as the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn, NY, the Chicago Theatre in Chicago and the Wiltern in Los Angeles to give her fans a different experience.
Then there is David Byrne’s American Utopia, with performances six times a week at the Hudson Theatre in NYC. Prior to making its 16-week stop in Manhattan, Byrne took the tour to 27 countries last year, but re-tooled it for the smaller setting. It is still a concert, but Byrne and his troupe, which consists of two dancers and nine musicians, fill the small stage with a nonstop energy that is transferred directly to the audience, who at times has trouble sitting still as is common practice at Broadway shows.
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The staging is simple—the curtain lifts on Byrne, alone at school desk, holding a plastic brain as he sings the song “Here,” from the 2018 album American Utopia, and a curtain of thin metal chains raises around the sides and back of the stage. As the show progresses, more performers join Byrne, all dressed identically in gray suits and shoeless. Eventually the stage is filled with performers, singing, swapping instruments—some wearing complex body harnesses—and constantly moving. Everyone is completely untethered—there is not a cable to be seen on stage.
It takes a wireless wizard to keep the performances running; fortunately, David Byrne’s American Utopia has that in Pete Keppler, the show’s sound designer and FOH engineer. Mix caught up with Keppler at the Hudson Theatre for the lowdown on how it all comes together.
MIX: With 60 channels, how do you keep track of open mics—especially the vocal mics that have to be open and closed constantly?
PETE KEPPLER: To be fair, I have to give John Chadwick and Jamie Nelson [monitor engineer and RF Tech for the 2018 tour], as well as the RF teams at both Shure and Clair Global the majority of credit for getting much of the RF sorted out. They really did the bulk of the work on a system that we’re still using today.
By last count it is actually just over 70 inputs, 54 of them being RF—we’ve added more vocal mics and a few new percussion instruments for the Broadway version. To keep a handle on any open instrument mics, each song has its own snapshot programmed with mutes, fader levels, dynamics and EQ per channel. Vocal mic channels gets a bit more involved: I use a Waves MultiRack system that has a rack dedicated to each vocalist, with a software version of the Neve Primary Source Enhancer (PSE) and the Waves F6 Dynamic EQ. Both plugins are incredibly useful in keeping spill and leakage to a minimum, while also maintaining as much useable gain as possible. These are also programmed on a per-song basis to account for varying dynamics. The Waves hardware and software has become a crucial part of this show. It would really be sonically inferior without it.
The show has a spontaneous feel to it, but is there anything that deviates from performance to performance?
There are 12 musicians, all completely wireless, who never stop moving—that’s enough deviation for me! It is not a track-based show. These are human beings playing music completely live on stage who feed off the audience and various other inspirations, and that makes each show unique. The production itself is somewhat scripted; it has to be from a technical standpoint, especially for the adaptation to Broadway. The song setlist is the same from show to show, but David added a bit more narrative to the Broadway version, and that changes somewhat nightly. After over 200 performances of this show between the 2018 tour and Broadway, I feel incredibly grateful that I get to mix it, and it’s still challenging and fun!
How did you overcome any miking challenges?
It was a lengthy process of trial and error during 2018’s production rehearsals, finding the best-sounding, lightweight and durable mics and mounting systems we could. We use the Shure Axient AD1 transmitter for every instrument. They are light, small and incredibly rugged. Much of this gear takes a literal beating on a nightly basis, and the mics and transmitters have held up amazingly well. And because it’s digital RF instead of analog, it sounds amazing, especially on the drums.
Did the instrument body harnesses create any challenges with placing the body mics?
The body mics and their transmitters (for any small handheld percussion, cymbals, etc.) are actually mounted in the harness. We use the Shure Beta 98AD/C for the harness mics and the AD1 transmitter. All other drum mics and transmitters are mounted on each individual drum, not on the harnesses. The drums have to be quick-changed between musicians from one song to the next. In addition, the Shure TwinPlex TH53 headset mic everyone wears has a very low profile, so there are no issues putting on or taking off the drum harnesses.
How does this Broadway version differ from the tour version of the show?
The set, which is three 30-foot-tall curtain-walls made of aluminum chainmail, is basically the same as the touring set, albeit much smaller due to the size of the Broadway theater. The show itself has changed some: more narrative and a few song changes from the 2018 tour. This version is much more intimate, mostly by virtue of the theater. The Hudson Theatre is a beautifully-renovated 115-year-old playhouse, quite tall and not very deep—the entire audience is much closer to the stage throughout the theater.
David Byrne’s American Utopia runs through February 16. Get more information at americanutopiabroadway.com.
- Drums: Shure Beta 98AD/C, DPA 4099, Audix D6 and D4, Audio-Technica 2300, Sennheiser E904, C-Ducer Contact Mic
- Vocals: Shure TwinPlex TH53, DPA 4088
- Ambient/Audience: Shure VP88, Sennheiser MKH 416
Input/Output RF Systems:
- Shure Axient Digital AD1 Transmitters, AD4Q Receivers (52 channels of inputs)
- Shure P10T Transmitter, P10R+ Receivers (24 channels)
- Monitors – DiGiCo SD-Five
- FOH – DiGiCo SD-Ten
- Both consoles share DiGiCo SD Rack head amps, running on OptoCore fiber loop
- Main FOH – Meyer Leopard
- In-Fills – Meyer Mina
- Under-Balcony – Clair CP6 and FF2
- System EQ – Lake LM44 and LM26