For most of us, the Broadway musical represents a very traditional, distinctly American, form of entertainment, something we don’t associate with high technology, let alone the kind of music technology used in contemporary music production. That rather quaint notion of musical theater is apparently giving way to the type of high tech spectacle we’re now used to experiencing in a typical concert performance. I had the opportunity to see Spiderman – Turn Off the Dark while visiting New York City this week. In spite of the mixed reviews and a very public reorganization of the show’s creative direction, the revised show I saw last night was spectacular.
To anyone familiar with superhero scenarios, the story line is familiar: geek kid, bullied in school, accidentally gets fortified with supernatural powers that he uses to battle the forces of evil, and gets the girl of his dreams. The music here is by Bono and Edge, and while it has a strong U2 flavor, ii’s really their take on musical theater, familiar to both avid theatergoers raised on radio, and to a younger generation used to music videos and iTunes. While the set and lighting design was decidedly high tech, employing massive LCD video panels, the technology never distracted from the storyline. In fact, for a generation that is coming of age in an era of sensory overload entertainment, the level of visual immersion here is probably essential to keep a large portion of the audience engaged. This is no Annie Get Your Gun….
The real treat for me was a backstage tour and conversation with Hiro Iida, a friend and former colleague at Berklee who was deeply involved with implementing the music technology used in the show. Hiro is truly passionate about electronic music and is an absolute wizard at anything to do with synthesizers. For Spiderman, he worked closely with the show’s lead keyboardist Billy Jay Stein on the electronic music design for the show. Stein is a journeyman New York keyboardist and producer whose resume runs the gamut of popular music. For Spiderman, Bill and Hiro spent months creating each synthesizer patch used in the show. That currently runs about 200 for the main keyboard parts Stein covers live as well and perhaps another 150 used by a second keyboard player and an electronic percussionist. As the show matures, these are revised and updated to match changes in the music.
The system Hiro and Stein designed to support this is made up of eight Power Macs, four running the show and four as backups, ready to step in at the first sign of trouble. Like any major concert production, the technology supporting the show is "mission critical," as nobody wants to tell an audience to hold on while a computer reboots…. All performance patches are made in Apple’s Mainstage using Native Instruments’ Kontakt sampler and Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere as the uber-synth of choice. In addition, the keyboard rig includes a Moog Voyager for special touches of analog beef at select times during the show. All patch switching is done using foot controllers to simply scroll through the Mainstage presets sequentially.
The Spiderman keyboard rig.
While the music for the show is performed live by a band that includes two keyboardists, three guitarists, two bass players, drums, two percussionists and a small pit orchestra, Ableton Live is used throughout for some loops, sampled effects and to provide a click when needed. Tempos can be set by the conductor using Live’s tap tempo function. While Live has many powerful tools for performing, the conductor and music director in the pit only use a handful of these during the show or in rehearsals. Changes often need to be made immediately to a few key parameters, such as transposition and loop length. To make this as easy and intuitive as possible, the show commissioned New York Max for Live wizard David Linnenbank, a Berklee alum, to create a custom interface for controlling Live in the "heat of battle." Linnenbank made great use of the Max4Live API to gain deeper access to the program than available using the standard MIDI mapping functions. The result is a full screen interface tailored to the exact needs of the Spiderman music crew.
Max 4 Live user interface.
My backstage tour included a visit to the band room. While a typical show has an orchestra pit directly in front of the stage, where the conductor has a clear view of both the actors and musicians, the amount of isolation needed to create an effective, studio quality live mix of the music demands that the musicians are in a completely separate studio space, isolated from the stage. The conductor watches the show from a video monitor and the actors, in turn, follow the conductor from LCD video monitors in front of the stage. The amount of technology used to effectively produce the live music and sound for the show is quite impressive, and really demands a completely separate set of skills of to mange the show on top of traditional musical skills from the key musical players.
The Spiderman conductor podium.
I also had the opportunity to chat with one of the guitarists, Ben Butler. Being a guitarist myself, I was fascinated by his work in the band. The show uses the entire gamut of guitar sounds and techniques found in current pop music, so his guitar rack was filled with everything from a Gibson Les Paul, a Martin acoustic, a Jerry Jones baritone guitar, and a Rickenbacker twelve-string electric made for the Edge especially for the show. Both Bono and the Edge were deeply involved in producing music for the show, and Ben said the Edge helped develop some of the specific guitar parts.
Spiderman guitarist Ben Butler
The technology surrounding the music for Spiderman was truly a tour-de-force of techniques and strategies used by modern musicians both on stage and in the studio.