Updating Axis To Bring In Britney

LAS VEGAS, NV—When it was announced that dance diva Britney Spears would take up residence for three years at Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood with her Piece of Me extravaganza, Caesars Entertainment chose to gut the old Aladdin Theatre right down to the shell to create a new venue: The Axis, a facility ready for modern-day productions.
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To house Britney Spears’ three-year residency in Las Vegas, the old Aladdin Theater was gutted down to the walls, getting a new digital backbone, extensive acoustical treatments and a d&b audiotechnik PA system. LAS VEGAS, NV—When it was announced that dance diva Britney Spears would take up residence for three years at Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood with her Piece of Me extravaganza, Caesars Entertainment chose to gut the old Aladdin Theatre right down to the shell to create a new venue: The Axis, a facility ready for modern-day productions.

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Michael Cusick of audio consultants Specialized Audio Visual Inc. (SAVI) noted that show creator and director “Baz Halpin’s immaculate design for Britney had some very reasonable requirements for the audio system, but Caesars Entertainment quite rightly had us to look into the future to ensure the system we designed would be capable of accommodating any production, be that a touring act, Broadway show, or TV broadcast event.”

SAVI proposed a hybrid fiber optic backbone, implementing a full digital network of fiber optic cable that would transport digital audio at 48 and 96 kHz, HD-SDI digital video, Ethernet control networks for AMX and DMX lighting control, dark fiber (SMOF and MMOF) for future video use and intercom. The fiber optic backbone interconnects seven nodes throughout the theater. Digital audio is transported via redundant Dante Gigabit networks from the DiGiCo SD5 console at FOH to d&b amplifiers, utilizing Lake LM-44s as a gateway device at each amp location to provide an automatic, three-level fail-over should the Dante primary and secondary networks fail for any reason.

The Dante network also interfaces with the lobby and backstage systems via a direct Dante port connection on the BSS 826 London processor which is used to manage the audio needs of the backstage paging system, the lobby program and page system, and the lobby rotunda local PA system. An AMX system allows local operation over lobby audio and video functions. The Dante network transports digital audio at 96 kHz from the DiGiCo console to the d&b amplifiers; it also transports 48 kHz audio between Auvitran ToolBox units at each node, enabling a variety of audio signals (analog, AES, MADI) to be transported around the theater.

The final step of transporting audio— to the audience’s ears—meant finding the right PA. Said Cusick, “Baz had very definitive ideas [and] oversize line arrays hanging down in the stage picture were not going to be accepted.” With Halpin using huge panels around the stage opening for large-scale projections (64 projectors in all), SAVI managed to hide four flown arrays of d&b J-Series SUBs and a center cluster of d&b V-Series behind the acoustically transparent projection panels. The mains and side systems are J-Series and V-Series respectively, rigged high and well to the sides of Halpin’s lavish projection areas. The center cluster uses V8s to cover the VIP area and the general admission pit in front of the stage. The hidden arrays of flown subs (four hangs in total) cover the balcony, while down on the floor, hidden in the apron, are more J-SUBs and JINFRAs, as well as some d&b Q10s concealed there for frontfill. The floor subs and frontfills are nested in custom- built frames that are also home to d&b M4 and M2 wedge monitors that project audio up through stage floor grills.

The original Aladdin was, by reputation, not the most friendly environment for sound reinforcement, as Spears’ house engineer, Robert ‘Cubby’ Colby, confirmed: “We all played the old Aladdin and know what that presented—not least that low-end boom from the domed ceiling right down onto the mix position.”

Cusick summarized, “In short, this is a large space and the reverb time was intolerable; there were also some troublesome flutter echoes from the sides, so we approached David Kotch of Criterion Acoustics to advise some acoustical modifications before the interior reconstruction work was begun. In the initial analysis, the reverberation time was disproportionally high in the low mid bands, which David identified as lack of broadband absorption in the theater.”

After Criterion designed new treatments for the facility, Colby remarked, “The dome ceiling is still there and the mix position is in the same place, but the work the acousticians have done and what they have been able to achieve is a great job. What I like is there is just enough gain in the room; it’s not dry as dust, but it’s forgiving in all the right areas and there’s no slap back.”

With the design stage complete, Caesars Entertainment brought in 3G Live to provide the hardware, electing to use a long-term rental model rather than buy into the hardware— a decision that impacted the installation process. “We turned our design scope into a rental specification that the client could use to bid the project,” confirmed Cusick. “3G Live is a d&b production partner with offices in LA and Las Vegas. They really stepped up to the plate and, with guidance from us, used their rental expertise to provide exactly what was designed, with welcomed suggestions to further enhance the overall performance. Another great advantage is service; 3G has its main base in Las Vegas so it’s on hand for support; Julio Valdez of 3G steered a steady course through the implementation of the project.”

But what of the audio system itself? Baz Halpin was effusive: “It really is one of the best-sounding rooms I have experienced. This is a miracle considering the pains that SAVI went through to conceal all of the PA for me.” Cusick added, “The combination of the acoustic treatment, and may I say, the beautiful system tuning by Jason Waggoner from d&b Application Support in North Carolina, gives the equivalent listening sensation of the highest-quality hi-fi in your living room that you’ve ever heard. Jason is probably the most talented d&b tuner I’ve encountered. His techniques with tuning capture and his command of the combination of d&b’s ArrayCalc and R1 remote control software, are unsurpassed.”

Day One of a tight commissioning period gave Waggoner only four hours to set up measurement mics and gather data from the main hangs. “Working offline back at his hotel using the tuning capture measurements from that morning, and the original AutoCAD and ArrayCalc models, he voiced and aligned the PA virtually. The next evening at 10 pm, he had access with complete quiet, fed in his virtual settings and we listened. He had achieved 95 percent of target tuning offline, and only required a couple of fine adjustments here and there to complete the job.”

Now, with the theater completed and Spears’ show up and running, giving the production its best-possible sound falls on the shoulders of Colby. “Fortunately, Britney is a strong singer and she sings every song live,” said the engineer. “It’s pretty full on, with just two numbers where the choreography takes a back seat. The center cluster above stage is fantastic— it targets those lounge-style VIP seats you can’t ignore, yet I’m able to get plenty of gain off her mic, though as I said, that’s a lot to do with her vocal power.

“Her monitoring comes from wedges, all d&b M4s and M2s below grills,” he added. “When she steps out to the further edge of the oval, she gets enough from the room to pitch. That center cluster is extremely helpful in all the vocal elements. The SUBs, in that respect, are of no concern— a high pass filter takes care of that—but from the perspective of the music and levels of excitement into the crowd, they are critical. The combination of flown and floor subs—the J-INFRAs especially—fills the room with the kind of musicality I wanted, and fills it really evenly; it’s a welldefined sub array. The impact of the live band coupled to her voice has a real impact; it’s also a lot of fun to mix. I’m just happy to be a part of this; SAVI and 3G did a great job, their intentions were clear and they used their time well. I’m really reaping the benefits of all the technology these guys put together.”
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Britney Spears Piece of Me
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