Steven Tyler’s slim, sinewy body gyrates just a few feet away from me.
The 71-year-old has high-stepped his way across the stage, walking up a set of stairs to find a chorus-long home atop the side stage bar from which I was poured a whiskey just minutes earlier.
I look down at the iPod Touch the VIP staff have provided me and press a button inside an app. All of a sudden, my 1More Triple Driver earbuds are mirror images of Tyler’s own in-ear monitors. The exasperated vocals get louder, popping through the cloud of drums, bass, and guitar to become the most prominent sound in my ears. This is what a rock star hears on stage.
Tyler finishes his stint on top of the bar and jokingly tells the bartender to buy us all a round on guitarist Joe Perry’s tab. I hear it like he’s whispering in my ears.
The music nerd in me nearly collapses from excitement. I take another sip of Crown Royal and look across the stage at the 5,400 faces inside MGM’s Park Theater. For a moment, Tyler and I are seeing and hearing the same thing.
And yet, thanks to collaborations between Aerosmith, THX, and French speaker manufacturer L-Acoustics, if you really want to be immersed in the spectacle that is Aerosmith’s live performance, those 5400 seats are even better than mine on stage.
The trouble with stereo
Let’s face it: The vast majority of big concerts you’ve ever seen probably had awesome lights, great sets, and huge video screens, but a lot of them probably didn’t sound very good.
After five decades of performing at large venues all over the globe, Aerosmith is frustrated with the state of live sound.
It turns out, a big reason for this may be simply because they were in stereo.
Stereo audio, where the sound is divided into left and right channels, works great in headphones or at home, where you can position yourself right in the middle of the speakers, but when that sound is pushed into larger spaces using big PA speakers, fewer and fewer audience members actually hear the music as intended.
That’s because depending on where you’re sitting in a venue, you might be able to more prominently hear one side of the speaker setup, and therefore one channel of the mix, making everything lopsided in your ears.
“We’ve been fighting this for [30 years],” says Laurent Vaissié, CEO of L-Acoustics, company that’s at the forefront of large-venue sound design, and helped to design this Las Vegas residency with THX and Aerosmith. “It’s very frustrating to us as manufacturers to know that the experience for fans was limited.”
At its worst — for fans located on the far sides of any venue — traditional stereo setups can create a notable disconnect between what you’re seeing on stage and what you’re actually hearing, Vaissié says, unconsciously making the experience less immersive for the audience.
“We essentially reduce the 3D stage to a one-dimensional location from the sound standpoint,” he explains, “That’s a true limitation that doesn’t exist in the video world or the lighting world.”
Concert Sound Gets an Upgrade
After five decades of performing at large venues all over the globe, it’s understandable that Aerosmith would be frustrated with the state of live sound.
So, for their 50th-anniversary residency in Las Vegas, the band and show producer Steve Dixon wanted to create the kind of immersive audio experience that had previously only been available in high-end movie theaters and home cinemas.
This meant using advanced software and a massive array of speakers to go beyond stereo audio, giving the band the opportunity to treat every instrument and effect like a 3D object inside the venue.
Artists like Lorde and Childish Gambino have also partnered with L-Acoustics to provide more immersive sound experiences at their concerts in recent years, but this level of immersion, in terms of both the number of speakers and the amount to which the sound is orchestrated, is something that no band has done before.
To do it, the L-Acoustics team installed an incredible 230 speakers around the inside of the venue — about 190 more than a traditional concert this size — and employed the company’s advanced L-Isa software to direct up to 96 sonic objects (from instruments and vocals to sound effects) moving in as many as 64 distinct directions throughout the space, creating a 3D listening experience unlike any ever assembled in a live music venue.
To make sure the sound was as perfect as possible, the band and venue also partnered with the best certification company in the business: THX.
Best known for the earth-shattering intro demo (they call it the Deep Note) you’ve heard at home and in theaters before a movie, THX is at the forefront of bringing 3D surround sound (AKA object-based audio) to unconventional venues, and has robust certification standards to make sure every venue or product that bears its name offers the highest quality sound.
After meeting with the band and show producers, the Aerosmith residency quickly became something of a passion project for the company.
“This is a complete paradigm shift in terms of how the audience experiences sound,” says Steve Martz, THX’s director of global technologies. “We put you in the center of the mix, and that’s something you never get to do in any other live show — we put people inside the show, rather than just broadcasting the show to them.”
“It’s very difficult to go back after experiencing the flexibility and new dimensions offered by this kind of technology …”
Whether it was moving sound effects throughout the room, making sure Joe Perry’s guitar solos were perfectly placed inside the venue, or setting up the incredible side-stage VIP setup that journalists experienced via THX-certified 1More Triple Driver headphones and the MIXHalo app (which was co-created by Incubus guitarist Michael Einziger), THX pulled out all the stops to make sure every person in the theater was getting a unique experience.
The company appears to have accomplished its goal. From a 30-minute intro video, which told the story of the band using specially mixed sounds from famed producer Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George Martin), right on through to the three-song encore, everyone in attendance seemed captivated by the story and sounds of the legendary rock band.
Looking to the future
Immersive audio may not be coming to a live show near you in the immediate future but shows like Aerosmith’s are a stepping stone to more mainstream usage.
Vaissié says L-Acoustics got great feedback from Lorde and Childish Gambino when implementing a less complex system on their recent tours, adding that more artists and engineers have gotten interested as they’ve learned about the L-Isa system.
“What we hear from artists and engineers is that it’s very difficult to go back after experiencing the flexibility and new dimensions that’s offered by this kind of technology,” he says, “I hope that this is the trend that will happen now … that the artists, the creative director, the musical director, will start thinking about the possibilities.”
As the venue empties at the end of the two-hour show, I witness several audience members with big smiles talking about their favorite songs of the night, without mention of the crazy visuals or pyrotechnics you expect following a performance like this.
Their picks are Aerosmith classics like Walk This Way, but my Millennial mind goes to the moment Tyler sang I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing, the song made famous by the blockbuster space adventure Armageddon.
About three-quarters of the way through the show, as Tyler ceremoniously paraded his scarf-laden microphone to center stage for the final chorus, I flipped my MIXHalo app and headphones over from the singer’s headphone mix to the full band, wanting to experience the full glory of the five-piece rock band that I — previously an ironic Aerosmith fan at best — was now fully enjoying in their twilight years.
It’s embarrassing to admit it, but in that moment, I did close my eyes. And thanks to the massive array of technology that Aerosmith, THX, L-Acoustics, MIXhalo, and 1More had poured into every element of the show, I didn’t miss a damn thing.