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Live Sound

Wrangling the RF of David Byrne’s American Utopia

David Byrne’s American Utopia tour is playing Broadway through February, featuring a massive band that is mobile throughout the performance, thanks to RF wizardry.

New York, NY (November 20, 2019)—In the 1980s, Talking Heads presaged modern multimedia concert production with its landmark Stop Making Sense tour, preserved in the documentary of the same name by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme. Each night, the concert began with an empty stage and frontman David Byrne performing alone acoustically, and over the course of the show, would build song by song, slowly adding the rest of the band, additional musicians, projection screens, set pieces and more.

Touring the world for the last two years, David Byrne’s American Utopia heads in the opposite direction, aiming to simplify and remove much of the hardware now commonplace in concert production. No screens. No risers. No cabling. No distractions. The result is an unexpectedly intimate show, bypassing the ironic detachment of Stop Making Sense, even as American Utopia occasionally recalls that previous production. Instead, Byrne and company revel in more heartfelt, sincere engagement with both the audience and the material, bringing new shades to his back catalog, even when a song is composed of nonsense words like “I Zimbra.”

Currently playing an extended run on Broadway in New York City, the American Utopia production focuses on a bare stage, too, but this time around, it stays relatively empty, placing greater emphasis on the 11 musicians who join Byrne—six percussionists, bass, keyboard, guitar and two vocalists—all of whom are mobile throughout the performance. While that might sound like a variation on a marching band, it’s nothing of the sort; untethered from cabling, mic stands and other production accouterments, the performers have space to enact interpretive dance, striking interactions and more, all while playing a choice selection of songs from Byrne’s solo career and Talking Heads.

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Allowing the musicians to roam freely requires an extensive RF microphone system, not only due to the number of performers involved and the surroundings (there are dozens of theaters simultaneously active on Broadway every night), but also because of the show’s staging. The perimeter of the performance area is lined by hundreds of draped 125-foot metal chains—a visually compelling arrangement that nonetheless creates an additional technical hurdle in terms of handling RF and avoiding signal dropouts.

After some research, the production ultimately went with Shure Axient Digital RF systems, fielding 48 channels of wireless mics in addition to the multitude of in-ear monitor systems in use. “Axient Digital is amazing. This tour wouldn’t exist without it,” said sound designer/FOH engineer Pete Keppler (David Bowie, Katy Perry). “I don’t think it would be possible—A, because of getting the bandwidth that’s necessary for that many channels of wireless, and B, because it just sounds so much better than the analog side.”

A typical day on the worldwide tour has found the audio team using Shure’s Wireless Workbench software to monitor and manage wireless systems leading up to and during the performance. With the production fielding in the neighborhood of 66 wireless packs a day, keeping tabs on frequencies has been a must. Hand-in-hand with that, the touring production has also been making use of rechargeable lithium ion batteries—a decision that is loosely estimated to have saved 21,000 AA batteries over the course of the world tour and Broadway engagement.

The Broadway portion of the tour makes use of Shure’s new TwinPlex headset on stage, having received the first production models of the product before previews began Oct. 4. As for the performers themselves, the wireless miking has proven solid enough that Byrne revamped part of the show mid-tour. In a statement, he noted, “People were saying, ‘This sounds too good for you guys to be playing this. You’ve got tracks, you’ve got playback happening, right?’ And so now we do a thing where we start a song instrument by instrument and people hear how the whole thing fits together.”

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With a packed house taking in the 100-minute, no-intermission show nightly, American Utopia has extended its run at the Hudson Theater through Feb. 16, providing an opportunity for many more theatergoers to see for themselves exactly how it all fits together.

Shure •

American Utopia •