Photo by Denise Truscello.

Every engineer believes their artist is blue, moody and baffled by technology, but engineer Matt Fox takes the cake.  He is the Head of Audio and one of the front of house engineers for Las Vegas’ residential Blue Man Group.

His group is actually blue, moody and baffled by technology, when in character anyway.

blue man 6 061213

Photo by Denise Truscello.

If you have been hiding out in a fallout shelter for the last 25 years or so, Blue Man is…well, what they are is actually difficult to explain. They look like biped aliens with blue epidermis and a penchant for plumbing and percussion.

Fox explains that the concept is a little different…more like a 2 dimensional piece of art coming to life. 

“The root philosophy is that the Blue Men themselves emerged and come out of a piece of artwork into 3D, and now you’re encompassed with that artwork.  Another part of it, too, is that they want the audience to be engaged in that artwork and a part of it.”  Fox explains, continuing, “You’re not just seeing something, you’re a part of something.”

And, after a moment’s reflection he adds, “It’s pretty powerful, really.”

The group has been a theatrical production in Las Vegas for so long that it is considered by many to be a mainstay (and a must-see), but only the acutely aware realize that the show is now in its third venue.  Earlier productions were at the Venetian and the Luxor, before moving to their current home at the Monte Carlo.

The production crew and Fox, who has been with the group for more than three years, took the move as an opportunity to replace the production’s aging console with the DiGiCo SD7, as well as the rest of the sound reinforcement.

“We did a 100% brand new install of an entire new PA, with surrounds.  There’re speakers in the truss above head for specialty pieces throughout the show…yeah, we did a complete gutting of this place.

The new rig consists of d & b Audiotechnik J8s for mains and V12’s and V8’s for center fills with Meyer HMS-10s for the surrounds.

The power of the DiGiCo console provides most of processing needed on the show, though there is a TC Electronic System 6000 which is used to provide reverb on some of the Blue Man’s trademark PVC percussion instruments.

This percussion presents issues of it own.

As a soundman, you’re use to guitar, bass and drums.  And keys.  Good.  And, you’ve dealt with saxophone, trumpets and trombone. Also good.

So have you ever mic’d plumbing pipe?  Where do you start?

blue man 3 061213

Photo by Denise Truscello.

While a more conventional (and conventionally dressed) rock band line up lays down a cool (or burning) pad, the Blue Men are usually banging away on unconventional instruments, usually made from PVC tubing: the wider variety that is used on the “output” side of buildings.

While the side of the tubes may be struck on the side they way a marching band bass drum player will click his sticks on the rim of the drum, often these tube will be struck on the end with a foam paddle.  The paddle forces air down the tube resulting in a tone.

Since the tube is wide and the length is long, that resulting tone is lower in frequency.  To the uninitiated the closest thing this writer can think of is a pan flute, as in, Zanfir.

However, the air being blown (or rather forced, in this case) is not as continuous, so the notes are more “popping” in nature rather longer legato tones.  Wind instruments provide their own source of challenges when being mic’d; and the same lays true with mic’ing these custom PVC instruments.  However the PVC with another challenge all their own: the resonant frequencies of the pipes themselves.

“That was the challenge when I first got here.  I have zero background mic’ing PVC pipe, so I had to sort of assimilate and understand what they were after with that.”

“The way we use to mic the PVC was with a X-Y pattern on some condenser mics, but we had some difficulty with that because of phase issues.  We could never dial that in just like we wanted…I mean we had them sounding pretty good…but now we’re able to area mic.”

For this show, new PVC instruments were constructed, giving a new opportunity to reconfigure the mic’ing. Walking onto the stage, Fox points out a mic’ing point of one of the new contraptions.

 “Five or six (tubes) come in a cluster and we just basically point the Neumann KM 184 and it sounds great!”

For the most part, the rest of the mic’ing is more conventional.

Almost.

“Smokin” (the title of the Blue Man show at the Monte Carlo) is more “rockin” than some of the previous productions, and rock it does. However, it is still a theatrical production with an audience that typically ranges from 4 to 84 year olds.  As one might expect with kids and the elderly, volume is an issue.

And, not only is volume an issue with the audience, it can reak havoc with the band.

Part of taming the beast is by placing the guitar amps in custom made isolation cabinets made by Jan-Al Cases in Los Angeles.

“We custom designed exactly what we wanted, and phssst, and it was like from our mind to reality.  We have some bizarre –sized boxes and we wanted some certain distance on them for a way to mic and all that, so, they’re amazing.”

“So, then I had them put some ports on them that could latch as well, just to see it porting the case could give a different sound or a better sound…it’s cool just to have the ability just to open or close a port.”

 Not surprisingly (in Vegas, anyway), the drums also provide a challenge.  And as usual, the idea is place a Plexiglas blast shield in front of the kit.  This isn’t just for audience or the soundman trying to control the volume of the house, but also for the percussion playing Blue Men up front.

“They’re getting a lot of ambient noise from those drums into the PVC mics themselves.”

The Plexiglas hasn’t happened yet as some audio slight of hand (unheard of in Vegas!) has so far thwarted the problem, if only temporarily. (Editor Note: the Plexiglas has been implemented since this interview.)

“What we have ended up doing is delaying the output to their ears (in-ear monitors), so it would match up time-wise.  Acoustically, they were getting the actual drums and it made a doubling effect, so we delayed their output.  We couldn’t delay their input because that would mess the drummers up. So…the arrival time into the mics matches up with what they’re hearing in their ears.”

The ears and the mic’ing have another problem: a geographical one.

blue man 2 061213

Photo by Denise Truscello.

Ask any touring audio engineer what their biggest problem playing in Las Vegas is and you’re likely to get the same answer: wireless frequencies.

The abundance of theatrical products, casino security, touring shows, first responders and an international airport where the planes are practically landing on the famous Las Vegas strip makes an open channel in the available wireless frequencies covered by pro audio gear a coveted thing. 

Then, add to that the percentage of visitors (roughly 40 million per year) and the greater Las Vegas area residents (close to 2 million) that carry cell phones, and one can see why RF problems are the soundman’s worse enemies.

The visual demands of the production requires the mics to remain as hidden as humanly (or whatever the Blue Man are) possible, and that usually follows hand-in-hand with that hidden mic being wireless. Then…

There’s the Blue Men themselves.  Blue Men don’t have ears in the conventional human sense.  Let’s just say they’re more internal, protected from the outside world by a latex membrane.  In order to hear themselves they use JH Audio JH16 custom in-ear monitors. 

And, of course, the signal sent to those JH16 is wireless.

Initially, the DiGiCo SD7 was used in the new installation at the Monte Carlo for monitor duties as well as the front of house, but the idea was soon scraped returning to the more conventional separate console (and engineer) for their monitoring requirements.

“It was a bit of a challenge because of the rotating men, but the bigger part of it was that they were just used to having a guy to call. And on the fly out here, I’m not going to be able to adjust monitors.  By the time they ask me what to do, the songs are so fast, it’s already past.”

A second board, this time the DiGiCo SD8, was added for monitoring chores.

The rotating men that FOX refers to isn’t a new prop or dance move, but rather a reference to the number of engineers, musicians and even the Blue Men themselves that’s required to perform 9-11 shows a week.

“We have several different instrument positions up there: there’s drums, there’s zither, and there’s a Chapman Stick (player), that also plays bass, then there’s the two percussion rigs and a guitar player.” 

Then the kicker:

“On a Nightly basis, everyone one of those positions can be a different person playing…and the Blue Men switch around, too.”

“That’s your biggest challenge right there.  One guy isn’t going to play guitar as hard as the other guy.  Once you’ve been here a long time you know who is going to slam the drum kit harder and where to back off and where to make your adjustments nightly.”

 And if it’s a two show night, they may even switch players for each show.

“There’s a sign-in board that we have out front that shows you who will play on a nightly basis and you look at that.  That puts the mix in your head right there.”

There’re only a few places in the country and fewer shows where you can go from a road gig, to a home gig where you actually get to use the trade skills you have honed for the past twenty-plus years.

“I love it. I love it here. Good crew.  It’s like no other job I ever had.” Finally adding, “I feel very fortunate to work here for sure.”

Jake Kelly with Rev. Bill