Aerosmith: Deuces Are Wild: A behind-the-scenes look at the advanced audio technology in a unique live show
The main auditorium provides immersive 3D audio, while a lucky few get to be on stage with the band and listen on their own in-ear monitors.
By Scott Wilkinson
Scott Wilkinson / IDG
Unless you’ve been living off the grid for the last 50 years, you know that Aerosmith is one of the most popular rock bands of all time. Megahits like “Dream On,” “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” “Sweet Emotion,” “Walk This Way,” and many others have permeated pop culture during the band’s tenure of nearly half a century.
Like many other superstars, Aerosmith recently inaugurated a residency in Las Vegas. During several three-week stints throughout the year, they rock out in a newly built, 5,200-seat theater at the Park MGM hotel (formerly the Monte Carlo). Dubbed Deuces Are Wild, the show incorporates some super-cool technology, so when I was offered the opportunity to take a backstage tour before attending a performance, I jumped on a plane and headed to the Entertainment Capital of the World.
Immersive live audio
Producer Steve Dixon wanted to base the show on two unique building blocks: to see Aerosmith as never before, and to hear them as never before. One key element of this vision is the radically different live-sound system. Most big concert venues have two or three line arrays of speakers suspended, or “flown,” high above the stage. Unfortunately, the majority of the audience is not seated in the center of the room, so they mostly hear only one of the arrays—a real bummer if the show is mixed in stereo, which many are.
To address this problem, Steve approached L-Acoustics, a French company that created the first line arrays in the 1970s and ‘80s; in fact, Aerosmith was among the first groups to use them back then. The company’s latest innovation is called L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound. L-ISA is an object-based 3D audio system for live performance, just like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X for movies. It mounts speakers all around the venue and uses a sophisticated processor to place vocals and instruments anywhere in the 3D environment.
For the Aerosmith residency, there are nine line arrays flown above the stage, 38 surround speakers mounted on the edge of the balcony (some facing backward to fire under the balcony), 22 overhead speakers, and 24 subwoofers. All these speakers are permanently installed in the theater—no one wanted to load all that in every time Aerosmith was in town! (Even so, it takes two days to load in and set up the show, rather than the more typical eight hours.)
The placement and movement of individual sounds can be automated or controlled manually using a joystick. Many of the songs have automated spatial placement, but there is still a lot of manual mixing to do. This requires a front-of-house mixer, an L-ISA engineer, and two monitor mixers, all led by Paul Hicks, who also worked on Cirque du Soleil’s Love show at the Mirage.
Steve also contacted THX, which was involved in the design of the sound system and room acoustics to optimize SPL (sound pressure level) uniformity, power bandwidth, and intelligibility. Deuces Are Wild is the first THX Certified immersive live performance using the L-ISA system; in fact, THX re-certifies the experience before each three-week stint begins. (THX also certified Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour in 2016, but that was “only” stereo, and it had to deal with different venues.)
VIPs on the side
Another element of Steve Dixon’s vision to see and hear Aerosmith as never before is to have some of the audience onstage with the band. The stage is 140 feet wide, twice the width of a typical arena stage. VIP seating is available on both sides, with plenty of extra floor space for showgoers to dance. There’s also a bar on each side, so fans can slake their thirst after working up a sweat. Even better, members of the band interact with those lucky few, taking selfies and even bringing one or two onto the main stage during the show.
When I heard about this, my first thought was, “That’s cool, but the sound must be atrocious!” Normally, it would be, because PA systems are designed to serve the audience in front of the band—not on the wings of the stage itself. But not in this case, thanks to an ingenious solution: Give everyone in those VIP sections their own in-ear monitors! Yep, everyone gets their own pair of 1More Triple Driver IEMs—one of the most highly rated models available today and the first IEMs to be THX Certified—along with an Apple iPod running an app that receives a Wi-Fi signal conveying the audio. Each person can control the level they hear, and they can even select the main house mix or lead singer Steven Tyler’s monitor mix. How cool is that?
The dedicated, closed Wi-Fi broadcast system is provided and operated by Mixhalo; it does not use the venue’s Wi-Fi network at all. A proprietary server is connected to the output of a mixer or PA system, and the audio is compressed and packetized using a proprietary protocol designed for resilient operation and negligible latency. The data is then broadcast via Mixhalo antennas that were designed specifically for real-time data transmission to, theoretically, an unlimited number of devices running the Mixhalo app.
The system uses the less-crowded 5GHz frequency band, and the Aerosmith show needs only two access points to serve the audio to about 230 audience members in the onstage VIP sections. For now, Mixhalo provides the Apple iPods pre-loaded with its app and IEMs to audience members, who must return the iPods at the end of the show, though they get to keep the 1More Triple Drivers.
Representatives from Mixhalo and 1More are on hand before showtime to help VIP audience members select the best eartips for them, ensuring a good seal that blocks the ambient sound from entering their ears as much as possible. This is critical to achieve high-quality sound under such conditions.
In the future, Mixhalo plans to allow showgoers to download the app onto whatever device they want and even bring their own headphones. The company is also working on systems that would allow many more audience members to enjoy the benefits of personalized audio at live events. Could this be the future of live concerts—everyone listening on headphones with no PA at all?
Obviously, being in the main audience and the onstage VIP sections are two very different experiences. The main audience hears immersive 3D audio and sees all the visual effects, which were created by Pixomondo, a visual-effects company that also worked on Game of Thrones and the Fast & Furious franchise. By contrast, those in the VIP sections hear 2-channel audio, and they don’t have a good view of the visuals, but they get up close and very personal with the band, and they can control the volume of what they hear.
I wanted to sample both experiences, so THX arranged for me to have a seat in the main theater and in the VIP section on stage left. Before the show began, I got my iPod and IEMs, on which I installed my favorite eartips—the 14.5mm silicone tips provided with the 1More Triple Drivers. They are the largest tips provided with that model, and they give me an excellent seal; in fact, I use them on many of the IEMs I review for TechHive and Macworld. Of course, one of the other sizes might work better for you.
I started in the main theater. The pre-show is a 28-minute movie about the band, which allows plenty of time for latecomers to be seated before the actual performance. The movie includes snippets from Aerosmith masters that had been rescued from total deterioration and restored at Abbey Road by none other than Giles Martin, son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, who had also worked on the Beatles music for the Cirque du Soleil Love show.
Then, Aerosmith appeared, and it was time to rock! The immersive audio was quite effective, with the sounds of instruments and vocals appearing to come from all around—but not in a hokey, contrived way. The entire 3D sound stage was cohesive and smooth. Also, the sound quality was excellent—very clean and clear.
It was, however, brutally loud, compelling me to put in my earplugs after only a minute or so. Unfortunately, even custom-molded musician earplugs like mine greatly diminish precise directional cues, so the immersive-audio system became much less effective for me.
Over the course of half an hour, my SPL-measuring app—AudioTools running on an iPhone XS—reported many overloads. When I downloaded the measurement results, they showed an Leq (average RMS level over the entire measurement run) of 107.7 dBZ (flat), 103.9 dBA, and 106.8 dBC. Lmax (the maximum 1-second RMS level) was 116.9 dBZ, L50 (the level that was exceeded 50 percent of the time) was 106.8 dBZ, and L90 (the level exceeded 90 percent of the time) was 99.3 dBZ. That’s way too loud for me to tolerate for more than a minute, and according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), it can cause permanent hearing damage in as little as five to 15 minutes.
After about five or six songs, I moved over to the onstage VIP section, removed my earplugs, and inserted the IEMs. Thankfully, the iPod starts at minimum volume, and I noticed that even with a good seal, I was hearing a lot of leakage from the house audio system. As I turned up the iPod’s volume, its audio overcame the ambient sound, and it wasn’t nearly as loud as it had been in the main audience.
Even better, the sound quality from the 1More Triple Driver IEMs was superb, with excellent clarity from deep bass to high treble. I switched back and forth between the house mix and Steven Tyler’s monitor mix, and I found myself preferring Steven Tyler’s mix, in which his voice was more upfront (natch!), and I could understand the lyrics better.
Even though I was listening to the IEMs, I measured about 15 minutes of the ambient level in the VIP section, which was slightly lower than it was in the main audience. Leq was 105.4 dBZ, 100.3 dBA, and 105.0 dBC; Lmax was 114.7 dBZ; L50 was 104.3 dBZ; and L90 was 97.1 dBZ. That’s still dangerously loud, but you have some protection if the IEMs achieve a good seal in your ears—as long as you don’t crank the iPod to max.
The iPod worked flawlessly for me, but a few of my fellow VIPs reported that the sound dropped out several times for them. The Mixhalo and 1More team quickly addressed the problems, rebooting or even replacing iPods as necessary. After the show, they told us the iPods had been used for the Aerosmith residency a total of 17 times up to that point, and they had also been used in a Metallica concert before that, so they had taken a beating over the long haul. Obviously, a better solution will be to have concertgoers download the app to their own devices and use those.
Aside from the painful volume levels, Aerosmith: Deuces Are Wild is an amazing show. None of the five core members—Steven Tyler (vocals), Joe Perry (guitar), Brad Whitford (guitar), Tom Hamilton (bass), and Joey Kramer (drums)—seem to have lost a step, even though they range in age from 67 to 71, and Steven Tyler had knee-replacement surgery in 2013. They can still rock the house big time!
The show has wrapped up two of its four stints for 2019, but there are two more before the end of the year. Here are the dates:
Sept. 21, 23, 26, 28
Oct. 1, 3, 6, 8
Nov. 14, 16, 19, 21, 24, 26, 29
Dec. 1, 4
According to Live Nation, the promoter of the show, “Tickets for performances of Aerosmith: Deuces Are Wild through December 2019 are on sale now. Tickets starting at $75, as well as VIP packages including meet-and-greets, and the THX Certified onstage VIP experience can be purchased at all Ticketmaster outlets or online at ticketmaster.com/aerosmith.”
Live Nation also says that ticket prices vary according the show date and other factors. Looking at the Ticketmaster prices for Sept. 21, prices range from $178 in the corner of the balcony to $4,513 for a front-row center seat in the main audience. VIP seats on the stage range from $822 to $2,542. In addition, there are various package deals—including meet-and-greets with the band—that cost even more.
That’s a serious pile of cash, but if you’re a hard-core Aerosmith fan, it might well be worth it. Just be sure to bring some earplugs—or spring for the onstage VIP seats—if you want to protect your hearing. Sure, you might be thinking, “Screw that, rock and roll is about excess in everything, including volume!” But I wonder if you’ll still feel that way when the ringing in your ears is permanent and you can’t hear what people are talking about. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.