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Powering David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’

Pete Keppler, system designer and house engineer for David Byrne's 'American Utopia' on Broadway, discusses the show's audio system.

Despite a pandemic interruption, David Byrne’s American Utopia has been wowing crowds on Broadway since mid-2019. PHOTO: Matthew Murphy

New York, NY (March 11, 2022)—Despite a pandemic interruption, David Byrne’s American Utopia has been wowing crowds on Broadway since mid-2019 (and before that on tour around the country). Highlighting music from throughout his long and intriguing career, including his time leading Talking Heads, Byrne and his ensemble of 11 fellow musicians/vocalists use choreography, performance and musical ideation to take audiences on a journey that veers alternately from amusement to paranoia to, ultimately, joyous release.

For both Broadway runs—first at the intimate Hudson Theatre, and now at the larger St. James Theatre through April 3, Meyer Sound Leopard line array loudspeakers were selected to anchor the main audio systems. Sending sound to the PA nightly is Pete Keppler, who has been involved with the production since it toured the US. When American Utopia transitioned to the 970-seat Hudson Theatre, Keppler sought a loudspeaker system scaled to a new set of demands.

“There was essentially no room beside the proscenium, and the creative team was adamant that the arrays stay out of sight lines,” says Keppler, who took on the dual role of sound designer and production sound mixer. “I needed a powerful system suited to rock levels but with a slender profile. I consulted with the crew at Sound Associates, and they recommended Leopard. I had heard Leopards before as delays and in some smaller tour venues, and I liked them. I immediately agreed.”

The main hangs at the Hudson were relatively straightforward, with left and right arrays of 12 Leopard line array loudspeakers. “That was far more power than I needed, but I needed the array height to cover the vertical,” says Keppler.

David Byrne: Big Performance, Small Stage

The follow-up production at the 1,710-seat St. James Theatre was more complicated as the location of box seats required a split array configuration, with six Leopard loudspeakers on the lower hang and eight on the upper. A half-dozen Leopard loudspeakers were set three per side as infills, with 10 more as balcony delays. Meanwhile, eight 900-LFC low-frequency control elements filled out deep bass, while five UPJ-1P and 11 UPJunior loudspeakers were deployed in fill and delay systems. A quartet of Galileo Callisto processors provided system drive and optimization.

“Leopard is the best smaller PA I’ve ever had my hands on,” says Keppler. “What I’ve gotten out of it at both the Hudson and the St. James is absolutely wonderful, exactly what I wanted to hear. And I’m also a big fan of the 900 subs. They impress me as being very musical. I can hear the full spectrum of bass notes from keyboard, low guitar strings, and drums tuned to specific notes.”

Keppler was equally pleased with the integrated suite of design and optimization tools. “The [Meyer Sound MAPP] modeling software was great. When we set up the system, the coverage went exactly where it was supposed to be. The Galileo processors sound really good, and I love the Compass software. It’s easy, intuitive and boots up on a tablet in seconds. Domonic Sack from Sound Associates did the time alignment, showed me a couple things with it, and I just took it from there.

“I also have to give credit to Sound Associates, definitely one of the best sound companies I’ve worked with. Domonic, Peter Fitzgerald, Greg Reif, and Bob Hanlon, along with Matt and Joe Maloney, all greatly contributed to the success of this show.”

Front-end equipment for the Broadway production includes 70 channels of Shure wireless with Axient digital for microphones and PSM-1000 systems for IEMs. Keppler mixes on a DiGiCo SD10 console equipped with a Waves outboard processing package.