Son et Lumiere
Jean-Michel Jarre In Concert | Jean-Michel Jarre
We go backstage at Jarre's recent Wembley extravaganza to see how the show sound was put together.
Mike Lethby dons his backstage pass to bring you a guided tour of JMJ's recent Wembley extravaganza.
Here's a little word association excercise. Think of those dated but still familiar terms 'synth rock' and 'son et lumiere' in the same sector of mental RAM. What name, phrase or saying does your brain automatically conjure up in slightly less than a nanosecond? I'll wager you a pint of Perrier it's that handsome hunk of a Frenchman, Monsieur Jean-Michel Jarre and his amazing illuminated keyboards.
For Jean-Michel's spectacular shows around the world — as well as his mega hits including the classic Oxygene — have earned him a reputation formidable as not only France's most famous electronics export but the worldwide leader in bathing large swathes of major cities in sound, lights and laser beams.
The French keyboardist and composer has taken the concept of a son et lumiere performance (involving integrated sound and visuals, but more often descriptive of large outdoor audio-visual spectacles at tourist sites) and applied it to massive concerts for up to two million people. Along the way he has projected film and video images, laser graphics and computer-controlled searchlights onto buildings and industrial structures from Houston and Beijing to Paris and London.
Each one has been billed breathlessly by its promoters as "the biggest ever", the "most spectacular in history", "the greatest". Reinforcing the cynics' view that his hardware inventories are as much a delight for gricers as the music is for Jarre's fans, the ads for his latest show — held in London's 70,000-capacity Wembley Stadium on August 30 — proclaimed the presence of "over 40 Sky-Art Searchlights" and much more besides.
Of course, Jean-Michel stages these massive shows (with their equally massive logistical exercises) with some sort of message in mind. Whether because of the vicissitudes of multilingual translation, or through not wishing to overtax his audiences' intellectual capacities, these tend towards the simpler end of the philosophical spectrum. At his last British show (Destination Docklands, amidst the ruins and high hopes of pre-Black Monday London Docklands) the theme was reconstruction, rebuilding, and rebirth. This time it was, well, time. And Jarre introduced us to this awesome theme with the words: "Hello. It's better weather than the last time we played in London. This concert is about time. Times past, times present, and times to come." Overhead, to emphasise Jarre's opening observation, a brilliant full moon back-lit a flawless azure evening sky.
Pinching myself at the wonder of it all, I reflected on the cosmic significance of the weather this night. Because in Docklands back in 1989, Monsieur Jarre's faith in British late summer weather had been tested, and left sadly unrewarded.
That show had been rescheduled twice because of licensing difficulties and Jarre's roofless stage, floating on the disused Royal Victoria Dock, found itself drenched in an October downpour that began on Saturday morning and only abated after everyone had gone home. Touring sound and lighting crews like to recount amusing and/or hair-raising tales of dark deeds and bizarre exploits on the road. But nothing goes down better in an after-show late hotel bar session than apocalyptic accounts of how such-and-such a massive thunderstorm brought down the roof at this or that Italian gig, how a cyclone hit on set-up day... or indeed how a certain famous French musician once insisted that in London in the autumn, "it will not rain." An audience of 50,000, a choir, a band and an SSL studio console found that this advice was not entirely without its flaws.
With that traumatic experience still fresh in their minds, Jarre's sound crew — from Paris-based PA company Dispatch — greeted the sunny London weather with relief. For once again — and principally for visual reasons — there was no roof to the stadium-wide stage. Just a lot of crossed fingers.
The show features a synchronised array of automated searchlights and laser graphics. Still and moving film images are projected onto a backdrop of huge white screens arranged to represent a city skyline.
Jarre and his 7-piece band are accompanied by Studer A820 and Sony PCM3348 digital multitrack tape machines, co-ordinated by a MicroLynx synchroniser. As well as backing sound effects, the multitracks provide a timecode track which cues projectors, lights and computer-controlled lasers (whose program data is stored on an Akai DD1000) through an AES/EBU data network.
This year Jarre is touring his latest show, sponsored by Swatch across 26 European cities, including some non-conventional sites, such as alongside the spectacular Mont St. Michel on the northern coast of France. But most of his 1993 venues are the familiar large sports stadiums which regularly host major rock concerts.
Eric Alvergnat, chairman of Dispatch and sound designer/co-ordinator for the tour, commented: "Jean-Michel often plays in very special places, with trees, parking lots and buildings, so it's not easy for us." He laughed: "And sometimes it's not easy for the audience either!"
Eric Alvergnat is chairman and one of the founders of Dispatch SA of Paris, formed in 1983 and now one of France's top PA companies.
He explained: "I used to be a musician; in the meantime I did a Masters in business and administration; I worked at the French embassy in New York as a commercial attaché; then I started back in France as a sound engineer and set up Dispatch. Sometimes I go on tour as a sound consultant. For Jean-Michel I help put it all together, but really I'm a tourist now!
"We've always specialised in touring but now we're also the dealer for Meyer sound equipment," he said. "We do sound rental, sound installations; we've equipped a lot of theatres, rooms, exhibitions and stadiums. The last one we did was the Parc de Princes in Paris, a 50,000-seat stadium, with 128 Meyer Sound cabinets. We have 15 permanent staff and we're currently doing around 3,000 concerts or events per year.
"We have about 40 desks, a few thousand amplifiers, 450 Meyer cabinets, our compact system, and some Martin bin and horn systems which we still use in the summer for firework displays and so on.
"Over the last three years, because I felt our size was right, I went for external growth. We've built up a group of eight companies and now we're not very far from £8 million turnover."
Sound and light rentals companies, the Voyager mobile recording studios, a communication agency, CP Cases France and a woodworking company make up the expanding Dispatch group.
Dispatch are using their custom-designed 'Compact System' PA of 4-way SCV426 full-range cabinets supplemented by Meyer Sound 650-R2 subwoofers and UPA-1 compact full-range cabinets for near-stage in-fill.
Eric: "We designed our 'Compact System' eight or nine years ago in conjunction with SCV Audio in Paris. We are the only company that owns this system. Although it's a French system it has some similarities with the American [Clair Brothers] S4 cabinet, in that it's a black square box with two 18", four 10" and one 2" drivers, plus two tweeters, all made by JBL.
"For this tour's system we have 84 of them — 42 per side on four levels — more or less all our stock. Six are stacked at stage level and then there's three more tiers of 12 cabinets at 5m, 8m and 11m high.
"The Compact System could work on its own because it's full-range, but we prefer to cut in the Meyer 650 subwoofers to cover the region of 30Hz to 60Hz. This gives a nice soft sound in the very, very low frequencies.
"So instead of having most of the 650s with the MSL3s in the delays, we put some of them at the stage front on the floor, to extend the low range of the compact cabinets.
"It's all powered by Crown amplifiers. One rack of two Crown Macrotech PSA2s and four bridged D75s powers two cabinets.
"Usually with Jean-Michel I hire the equipment from the country we play in. This time Dispatch is the main sound supplier, but because we have a lot of other jobs to do at the same time we can't do everything, so for a lot of the shows we've asked AudioLease in the UK to supply the extras. And they do it perfectly."
Dispatch has recently plumped for Yamaha's versatile new D2040 digital loudspeaker crossover/controller to manage the complex time-alignment, EQ, crossover point settings and protection requirements of its PA rigs.
Eric: "Our Compact System was originally designed to be operated and controlled by SCV 4-way crossovers. Five years ago we changed them for BSS crossovers and now, for the last year, we've used the Yamaha D2040. It's the ideal machine to do this type of job, because of the way that its crossover links together with the compressor/limiter and EQ facilities.
"It sounds very good. Apart from time alignment, a nice touch that we couldn't do easily before is that we can re-align each driver in the cabinet with the processor, so we get much better coherence throughout the system." [See 'SIM', below.]
Eric commented on the front-of-house engineers' tasks. "With 70 input sources, 48 input channels plus 22 inserts and returns, the Yamaha PM4000 console is totally filled up — all the inputs, outputs, matrixes and subgroups. It's a really nice console, we're very happy with it because it's very flexible; it can do a lot of things.
"We have a lot of outputs going out: we have left and right systems; Meyer UPA1s on the front as near-field fills; we have front subs; up to six delay towers; delayed subs; and a pair of Meyer UPA1 control monitors in the sound tower to match the sound of the PA. Jean-Michel's engineers are studio engineers as well as live engineers and I wanted them to have that reference to studio monitor quality."
Eric: "The stadium situation is ideal for us, it's a real show place and we don't need to use as many cabinets as we have on tour. And here we can also use the Wembley system to reinforce all the rear seats."
Wembley Stadium's own digitally fibre-optic distributed balcony speaker system helped Dispatch's two large PA delay towers (consisting of Meyer Sound MSL3s and more 650-R2 subwoofers) in improving high frequency articulation for the farthest and highest seats.
The 2-year-old Wembley distributed system, which unusually and happily for a sports venue boasts both intelligent design and sensitive operators, is winning major tours' approval — U2 had used it the week before Jarre.
Explains Eric: "The standard delay system we have on tour is 48 MSL3s and 24 650-R2s, but here we can only use two delay towers with 16 cabinets on each."
He adds a comment about the Wembley setup in relation to some of the larger and more unconventional sites featured on Jarre's tours: "It's not a sophisticated system but it's pretty big. We don't aim to put thousands of cabinets on either side of the stage; we just put them everywhere they're needed, because some of the places we play are difficult and we try to give all the audience a nice, comfortable sound pressure level. We feel nobody in the audience should be more than 65 metres away from a cabinet."
He recalls: "With Jean-Michel's one-off shows we could do whatever we wanted, because we didn't have to think of packing up and going somewhere else. At La Defense in Paris, which was a free show, we had two million people on the site and a very big PA system — the stage was 20 metres high and you could see the audience stretching 2km up to the Arc de Triomphe!
"But for these shows, because everybody has purchased a ticket, we have to be very careful to give everybody a good view and a good sound. The difference is that the show is on tour; so we have a certain amount of equipment and we deal with it."
Currently, concert promoters and sound crews working in the UK face a confusing tangle of rules about permissible sound pressure levels (SPLs). The government-sponsored 'Pop Code' suggests guidelines for local authorities (who licence individual events) but leaves them free to interpret the guidelines as they see fit. Result: a mess! One council demands that your gig be inaudible in the nearest neighbour's back garden; another stipulates no more than, say, 96dBA (average SPL) at the mixing desk.
Wembley's local authority — in the shape of Brent Council's Environmental Health Officers — are renowned for being pretty tough about concert sound pressure levels at the stadium. Their concern is spurred by local residents, who have complained volubly about sonic intrusions into their living rooms from the likes of U2 and Simply Red.
Jean-Michel didn't seem a likely candidate for public hysteria, so had Brent Council imposed a restriction on Dispatch?
Eric: "No, not at all. The level we produced at the propagation test on the setup day was exactly the level they allow. In fact, we were 1dB below it — just perfect."
We've all had experiences of hearing live music in places, large and small, that always seem to sound appalling. Most venues on the touring circuit are by now so well-known to sound companies and engineers that even the worst acoustics can be quickly tamed into at least fair-to-middling acceptability by judicious use of system EQ — and, in extreme cases such as London's Earl's Court, by hanging heavy cloth drapes to quell reflections.
At the biggest venues particularly, there is always room for improvement. The quality and controllability of large-scale PA systems and the rest of the live sound audio chain has improved immensely over the last decade. What has not changed is the echoing nature of most big venues, and that is where the power of 1990s PC technology is being employed to help sound engineers pin-point specific acoustical problems and, hopefully, deal with them.
Among the special tools available to the modern sound designer or engineer is a choice of acoustic analysis software systems from various manufacturers, some PC- or Mac-based, others utilising custom-built hardware.
They range from comparatively simple devices, such as the familiar rack-mounted spectrum analysers which provide an engineer with a graphical display of the PA system's frequency response, measured by placing a microphone in front of the PA and playing either pink noise, music, or both, through the PA. Klark Teknik make the best known and most widely used spectrum analyser among touring pros.
At the other end of the scale are more sophisticated, complex and (surprise, surprise) expensive systems which offer new methods of measuring the system's performance and, more pertinently to the hard-pressed sound installation designer or live sound company, some form of insight into the way the acoustical environment (be it a disco, a club, a classical music theatre, a sports hall or a giant stadium like Wembley) is affecting what comes out of the speakers — and indeed what goes into the stage microphones.
For the Jarre 1993 tour, Dispatch are deploying the American speaker manufacturer Meyer Sound's latest SIM II system. 'SIM' stands for 'Source Independent Measurement' and its principle benefit is that it displays, on a full colour monitor, a comparison of an original source sound against the PA system's output. But this is not merely a frequency response analysis — SIM II will show up phase and timing problems, and much more besides.
Inside the 4U rackmount unit, fast processor chips perform 32-bit floating-point audio signal measurements. But the real secret lies in Meyer Sound's software algorithms which perform the myriad complexities of acoustical analysis.
Its usefulness stems from the fact that it is a real-time system — a very clever form of instant information feedback. Any engineer familiar with SIM II can adjust any of the PA system's crossovers, graphic equalisers and any other processors in the chain, while music is playing through the PA, and see the results right there on the screen. To make matters more precise still, it allows up to 64 measurements to be taken from microphones placed around the venue, building up a complete picture of how the room acoustics are interacting with the PA.
The Yamaha D2040 Digital Channel Divider, which Dispatch now employ as their main PA system crossover/processor, is shaping up as a perfect partner for SIM II. The 4-way full-band stereo unit (2 in, 8 out) houses 19-bit A/D and 20-bit D/A converters, with both analogue and digital inputs provided. Each channel has a 2-band parametric EQ, a compressor/limiter and a delay section providing phase correction and time alignment for crossover outputs to each section of a PA (lows, mids and highs).
Jim Cousins, a leading audio consultant who advises manufacturers and sound system installers on specific venue acoustic problems, numbers Meyer Sound among his major clients.
He quickly explained that SIM II is not intended to replace the experienced ears of a professional sound engineer: "It's a very powerful aid which the engineer can use to pin-point problem areas that might otherwise take a lot of trial and error to locate. And because it works in real time, it can be used to monitor how the PA system is working right through a performance — it's not just for the setup stage."
A logical follow-up, you might think, would be to MIDI-link this information-feedback system directly back to the D2040 (or another all-in crossover/processor) and thus effectively automate the whole process of PA response correction throughout a gig.
Jim was sharp at dispelling this attractive (but engineer-threatening) concept. "That's what everyone asks us! But however clever it is," he stated firmly, "without human intelligence and experience a computer can't assess which variations in phase and frequency response are natural and acceptable, and which are the specific, undesirable problems you encounter at each venue."
The engineer's best friend — a good pair of ears — are thus helped, but as yet fundamentally unchallenged, by the burgeoning power of computing technology. Which, many will feel, is just as it should be.
Seven musicians play alongside Jarre on this tour's massive stage. There are three keyboardists, a drummer, a bassist, a percussionist and a guitarist. (See sidebar for their names.) In addition, a solo singer performs on two numbers, as do a backing chorus.
The stage itself, incidentally, although from a distance it appears a complicated affair, is actually surprisingly simple when seen from behind, or underneath. For a start, and in complete contrast to U2's Zooropa concert at the same venue the week before, there's very little equipment below the stage: all the samplers and synth racks are right there on the boards. The rest of it — apart from the various risers (raised platforms) for performers towards the rear of the stage — consists basically of a lot of immense white projection screens and enough scaffolding to service a large number of very big building sites. The PA wings, which account for a lot of this steelwork, are built out on left and right side extensions of the stage floor.
Roland, Korg and Akai synths, Alesis 1622 rack-mounted submixers and Soundcraft Spirit Folio desks feature strongly at the individual musicians' instrument-and-effects 'stations'.
Francis Rimbert, at keyboard station 2, (stage right), plays Roland JV80, JD800 and D550 synths and an SP700 sample player. An Alesis Quadraverb, a Korg A2 and an Alesis 1622 mixer (used, like his companions' submixers, to create premixes of all his keyboard and sampler modules to simplify the mixing task on the Yamaha PM4000 out-front) feature in his rack. On top of the rack is a Soundcraft Spirit Folio, used to mix his personal monitor returns and the timing click-track (fed from the digital multitrack tape machines on the mix tower).
Sylvain Duraud, at keyboard station 3, has an Akai MX1000 master keyboard at his disposal, plus a Kurzweil K2000, Roland JV80 and D550, a Korg 03/RW, an Alesis Quadraverb and a Korg A2 multi-effects.
Dominique Perrier, on stage-left keyboards (station 4), also plays a Kurzweil K2000 and a Roland JD800. His rack houses a Korg M1R and A2, Akai S3000 sampler, Roland D550 and Quadraverb modules.
Drummer Laurent Faucheux, up at the back, has a Simmons electronic kit augmented by a Roland Octapad II. In his rack are a Roland TD7 sound module, an Akai S3000 sampler, Simmons S2000 Digital Drums module, D-Drums sound module and a Phonic submixer.
Percussionist Dominique Mahut uses an S3000, a Yamaha SPX90, and a Roland Octapad II — which he plays, rather unconventionally, from a neck-strap slung over his chest.
Last but not least among the band are the plank-bashers. Lead guitarist Patrick Rondat's backline features a Peavey Pro-Fex controlled by MIDI pedals. Over on bass, Guy Delacroix uses a Korg digital tuner, TC Electronics TC2290 delays, TC1140 parametrics, Roland JD990, Super Jupiter, MKS80 programmer, Musicman bass and a Roland AX1 controller.
The show started way before I (or, I suspect, most of the audience) realised. A full 20 minutes before Jarre hit the stage a slowly-shifting low frequency background drone had been apparent, but only if you thought about it. As showtime drew nearer the drone grew and grew until you knew for sure it was your sign to fight to the bar and get those drinks in quickly.
From the opening moments, after Jarre's little speech, it was as if someone had dropped a lit match into a celestial fireworks box. Every big visual effect known to humanity which could be fitted into the stadium appeared before our eyes, and it was one of those rare occasions when the best place to be at Wembley Stadium was right at the back and right at the top! (Thanks to the efforts of Dispatch's team, the sound quality back there made this perfectly feasible.)
The automated searchlights (though not the promised 40) swept the sky in familiar but still dramatic fashion. Lasers drew the outline of a man running across the screens. Projectors beamed films of moonscapes, cities, and galaxies, while huge cascading fireworks alarmed pets all over Wembley... and this was just in the first five minutes!
The electronic music of Jean-Michel Jarre lends itself perfectly to this kind of presentation — its uncomplicated sonic landscapes allow space and time for the mind to take in the visual spectacle. And the warm, full bodied tones of those massed synths don't provoke too much audible retribution from the Wembley echo chamber. If the son et lumiere and the sound of Oxygene are your cup of vin de table, then one of Jarre's shows gives you plenty on which to drink deep.
Dispatch SA. (Contact Details).
Feature by Mike Lethby
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!