With audiences joyfully returning to live events, aficionados of theatre and music in downtown Los Angeles are finally getting to again experience the artistic and technical magic of CAGES, presented in L-ISA immersive audio from L-Acoustics.
Part rock opera, part German Expressionist cinema dressed like a McQueen runway, this innovative story-based musical production presented by Woolf and the Wondershow is a uniquely surreal two-hour live experience that begins the moment audience members are ushered through the unmarked door of an anonymous Arts District warehouse. Once inside, visitors first discover CHEMIST, a fully operational speakeasy focused on emotional mixology. The venue is open prior to the show and engulfs guests into the world of CAGES through detailed set design and projection mapping, with landmarks and clues placed around the space that foreshadow the theatrical experience.
The show itself, described by the producers as “future theatre,” serves up a visual feast of animation, illusions, dancers, and real and virtual actors. These visuals are paired with a 360° soundtrack of live and recorded music, narration, and sound effects delivered through an immersive 19.1 L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound technology configuration.
The stage was first set for CAGES several years ago when show creators Benjamin Romans and CJ Baran began working together as producers and songwriters for a multitude of pop artists. The two musicians’ mutual appreciation of Kanye West, Bon Iver, Tame Impala, Miike Snow, and classical music alike helped them quickly establish a solid songwriting partnership that not only supplied hits for other artists, but ultimately led to the creation of unique material that would become the foundation of CAGES. The story is set in Anhedonia, a dystopian world where emotions are forbidden, and everyone’s hearts are locked in cages. After meeting Madeline, his muse, Woolf—played by Baran—is determined to write a symphony powerful enough to set everyone’s hearts free.
“We love the shows on Broadway, but there’s such a huge opportunity to do modern music,” says Romans. “And when you do modern music with songs, that means production.” Romans and Baran had labored together over the songs in their respective home studios, layering soft synths, vintage analog synths, piano, Mellotron and a 50-piece orchestra, recorded remotely via Skype in Prague. But the pair was disappointed when the sound system they had initially installed at the warehouse failed to do their production justice.
“We were ready to go with our stereo tracks and we demanded that everything be as sonically-driven as it was in the studio. And it wasn’t there,” says Romans, who performs live music throughout the show. “We got really frustrated, because our visuals were on point. It’s a powerfully visual show and very immersive—not in a traditional sense, but there’s a sense of escapism.”
Enter L-Acoustics. “We were working with Mike Sassano, who was helping us out with some front-of-house details,” Baran recalls. “He was really impressed with our visuals but agreed that the audio just wasn’t on the same level, so he said, ‘You need to get in touch with L-Acoustics. They have an immersive technology called L-ISA that will be perfect.’”
Romans and Baran had not initially considered anything other than a stereo sound system. “But we always said that one thing we were after was making the theater sound like the records that we make and the records that we love. And the records that we love are always cutting-edge, sonically, whether it’s hip-hop, alternative or modern jazz,” says Romans.
The pair reached out to the Westlake Village-based US headquarters of L-Acoustics, and were put in touch with L-ISA Labs Applications Engineer Carlos Mosquera, a sonic wizard, who invited them into the manufacturer’s L-ISA studio for a demo of what 360° L-Acoustics technology could potentially bring to CAGES. Baran and Romans brought their music, sound design and Foley files with them in Pro Tools, and handed everything over to Mosquera, who began mixing them for playback on the L-ISA studio’s immersive technology.
“It was very frustrating to consider that we might have to take out our entire PA and start over,” Romans shares. “But I got emotional over the sonics the first time I heard the L-ISA technology. I was misty-eyed, going from where it was and how frustrating it was, to then hearing the music the way we wanted to hear it. There was so much clarity; everything was breathing. It was a game-changer, and we knew that Mike was absolutely right—L-Acoustics loudspeakers with L-ISA was the solution we desperately needed.”
Once the decision had been made official, Woolf and the Wondershow worked closely with the L-Acoustics US team in designing the ideal loudspeaker configuration for its performance space. Camarillo-based Rat Sound was brought in to integrate the new audio setup for CAGES, which opened for previews after a months-long creative process in the warehouse. Delivering an immersive 3D environment that puts the audience into the same space as the performers, the ultra-high definition 19.1 configuration now includes five arrays each comprising one ARCS Focus and one ARCS Wide flown across the stage proscenium, plus nine coaxial X8 surrounds distributed along the side and rear walls. Five more X8 overhead support the soundtrack’s height elements, while four flown SB18 subwoofers provide the low-end impact that the show’s creators had previously been unable to achieve.
The original mixes had distilled various stereo stems that were themselves mixed down from hundreds of tracks. Upon diving into the project, Mosquera—who helped design, mix, and tune the show— had suggested that they separate everything out for better clarity, and also create a virtual pit orchestra. “It was music to my ears that he wanted the orchestra to be in the room exactly as it would be if you were the conductor,” says Romans.
It was a meticulous process involving numerous mix sessions, he recalls, not least because the show was still being edited as the story arc was being fine-tuned. As the show evolved, Romans would have to return to the original session files and conform them to the latest version of the show for the immersive mix sessions.
“We ended up cutting some stems that just weren’t needed once we heard it on the system,” Baran also reports. “You would think you’d want to keep adding because you have all these speakers. But we found that the barer we could get it the better it sounded.”
Romans described the results as worth the effort, especially where the separate sound design elements enabled the creation of realistic environments. For example, he says, “When Woolf is in the clocktower, you’re actually in a clocktower. And there’s subtle stuff that you might not notice, but if you take it out, it’s a world of difference.”
They had fun with the immersive sound field, he says: “Stuff like arrows zipping across the room, or arpeggiating a synth through every single speaker. But to everyone’s credit it wasn’t all-on all the time; we really wanted it to be tasteful.”
The power and clarity of the L-Acoustics loudspeaker setup also helped deliver the music with the production quality that the pair had always envisioned for their show. “Dynamically, there are parts of this show that are exceptionally quiet, where it goes down to just a vocal and a real piano. Then there are parts with an 808 drum machine, every analog synth you can imagine and the orchestra, all at once,” says Romans. “As much as we want it sonically rich, we also want you to feel it in your chest.”
Posted signs at the venue warn the audience that the show can get loud. But there is no need for the ear protection that’s offered. “That’s the thing about L-Acoustics,” says Baran. “There’s no harshness. It can feel so loud and powerful, but your ears don’t ring when you leave, which is such a testament to their loudspeakers. Everything also feels so incredibly clear, natural and full—and yet so intensely and breathtakingly intimate. When combined with what’s going on visually, even the most experienced theatre patrons are absolutely taken aback by how immersive and impactful this production is. And that wouldn’t have been the case without L-ISA. It’s everything we had heard in our heads, and more.”
Reviews from audiences and the press alike have been highly effusive. As an example, Peter Csathy contributed the following comments to Forbes.com:
Perhaps the single most exciting immersive entertainment experience at the moment also lives in LA’s downtown Arts District. It’s called CAGES by Woolf & The Wondershow. How can I describe an entertainment experience that is one part Les Mis, another part Kanye West, a dash of Broadway here, and a sprinkle of cinema there – all mixed together in an entirely new kind of immersive blender complete with earth-shattering sound and holographic actors that interact seamlessly with live ones on the stage – and, oh yes, all grounded in beautiful music and a glorious story. A story of heart. A story of shared humanity. A story for our times right now. How can I describe CAGES? I can’t. And that’s the point. YOU must experience it for yourself. THAT is the power of immersive, experiential entertainment when done right. Shared, sensory, memorable, and lasting. And there is nothing else like it.
For more details on CAGES, visit www.cagesdtla.com.