Mark Dennis, Head of Audio for KA

in FOH Interview
When you live and work in the live entertainment capitol of the world, it is easy to forget just how many world-class audio guys make their homes here. When I sat down with Mark Dennis in his office at the Theatre at the MGM Grand, we started ticking off a list of the amazing audio people who have moved to Vegas for a steady gig that did not mean touring. World-class guys are working in just about every show up and down the Strip. And Mark is one of those guys and has been since '94.

As the lead audio for, first, the O show at the Bellagio for six years and now with for the past five years, he has seen theater audio in Sin City go from simple systems being asked to do things that should have been impossible to incredibly sophisticated systems being asked to, well, do the impossible.

 

They keep the crews busy with 10 shows a week for 47 weeks out of the year with a several "dark" periods for maintenance and upgrades. I sat down with Mark in the middle of a "down" period, which happens to be the busiest week of the year for the production crew.

 

FOH: How long have you worked with MGM? You did the FX show before Cirque, right?

Mark Dennis: (Laughing) Yeah. That's how I got to town. I was on the road with Cats and I got this call from some guy named Jonathan Deans. He woke me up and started asking me question about MIDI and the Macintosh, and because I was able to answer one question...He asked me "Where is the preferences folder on a Macintosh?" And I said, "It's in the System Folder." And because of that, I'm here.

 

Because you knew where a folder was?

He couldn't find anybody who could mix, who knew theater, who knew the Macintosh and who could deal with MIDI and control stuff. So I flew in to town, did a quick interview, put Cats in Hawaii, trained a guy in a week and, boom, here I was, living in Vegas.

 

So you did FX for two years and then worked with Jonathan and François Bergeron at Real Time Audio, and what was the next step?

They were putting together the Bellagio and the O show. I was actually not part of the design of that. It was happening over on the next desk, and I was working on other stuff, but I kept looking at what they were doing, and going "Oh that's cool." When it looked like Real Time Audio might dissolve I jumped over to do that. And wishing I had been in on it since the beginning...

 

Let's talk about O. Huge parts of that show happen underwater or on water. So talk to me about water and audio and how we make all that work together.

Wow, it's been a lot of years, but there was a huge learning curve there. No one had done what we were doing. There was the Neutral Buoyancy Labs in Houston who did a lot of underwater stuff, and Disney did some, but the technologies we needed just didn't exist. So we developed a lot of the stuff that is still in use. We ended up with 12 automated zones of audio underwater, six video cameras and underwater comm...

 

The idea of doing complex audio underwater is really intimidating, and I'm a diver...

When I was hiring my crew, that was one of the first questions. "Do you dive, or are you at least open to it?" Because we put everyone through to Rescue certification. Open water, advanced and rescue. It's a pretty specialized thing. It wasn't really a hard requirement, but I really needed my guys to be able to dive. We spent a lot of time underwater.

 

Well, on O the "pool," for lack of a better term, is backstage, right?

Well, there is a regular backstage area, but a lot of what goes on happens underwater. So, in essence, the pool is the stage and the backstage both. There are wings on each side that are called the "aquacoulisse," a French term, where entrances and exits of both technicians and artists happen. And they depend really heavily on audio. The artists need their cues to know musically where they were. Also there are coaches who count them off. So there is a "voice of God," which I dubbed the Neptune mic. There is click and there are warning tones - that sound whenever a lift is activated.

 

(For more on the O audio-including running SMAART and underwater comm-go to www.fohonline.com/tv .)

 

So KÀ has been open, what, seven years?

Since the beginning of 2004.

 

And were you involved in the design here as well?

I consulted on it a little bit with Jonathon Deans. During the design, I was actually embroiled in my last project at O, which was installing CueConsole. That basically meant completely redoing Front of House. We took out the Cadac that was there. It took six months to build that, and it was a whole lot like driving down the road and changing your tire at the same time.

 

Once the equipment racks were built, but not yet installed, I would go in after midnight after shows and roll out the new console on a cart and repatch the new system racks, and in this way spent weeks mixing and programming the show and getting ready for the changeover. The project cost $1 million and was major construction. But I gave them back 12 seats-which is how I got the money to do the project.

 

So I finished that, came up out of the dark, mixed one show on the new system, handed it off and jumped over here. When I got to this room, there were large pieces of earth-moving machinery sitting in the middle of it.

 

Is something burning?
For those who don't know, first off, the theatre itself is a sight to behold, and there is no traditional stage.

There are two moving platforms: a lower one that moves in two dimensions, and a huge upper platform that can rotate to any position you can imagine. There are points in the show when it is at a 90-degree angle to the other platform. At that point, the drop from the top of the main platform to the safety net under the lower platform is more than 60 feet.

 

What about the Constellation system?

Constellation used to be called VRAS which stood for Variable Room Acoustic Simulation, and that really describes what it does. Using a system of mics and speakers running through some complex algorithms, it allows us to electronically manipulate the perceived acoustics of a room on a cue-by-cue basis. We can go-during an intimate part of the show-from a very quiet, "close" sounding space to one that feels more like a hockey arena when the crowd is cheering.

 

So run us through it. What does the crew do at on a daily basis?

Of course, presenting 10 shows a week to the 1,950 patrons in the theater is what it's all about, but the audio crew's responsibilities run well beyond just doing a mix of the music. The department is also responsible for sprawling video and communications systems.

 

The Video system is comprised of around 45 different camera views, modulated onto a distributed MATV system to well over 100 monitors, so that anywhere monitoring is needed, a standard TV can be installed and tuned to the needed channel. These views serve the needs of many departments such as Automations, watching the pieces they are moving, Stage Management, watching the set and artists, or the Music Conductor, watching the details needed for cueing the music. Every show is recorded to a 16-channel networked video recorder for a variety of reasons, such as a reference for artists and trainers, reviewing technical problems, creating show archives, creating audio playback for rehearsals and simple surveillance.

 

The communications system is comprised of many interconnected systems, such as Party Line Clear-Com, A Clear-Com digital matrix, upwards of 40 Telex BTR wireless drops, and well over 120 individual IFB packs, servicing the artists and technicians both. The Clear-Com iStations throughout the theater provide access not only to the wired and wireless comms, but also to four zones of paging, four channels of IFB, announce and emergency mics. With the tremendous automated set pieces used, and the artists tethered to them, communications for this show is absolutely show-critical, and in the event of any compromise, the show will stop until it can be reestablished. This is one of the reasons the current wireless issues and upcoming FCC decisions weigh so heavily. But that subject is another article entirely.

 

There are three separate Meyer Sound LCS systems installed: FOH, Monitors, and Constellation. The Monitor system is a compact Meyer LCS control surface comprised of eight processing frames, 20 DSP cards, 128 inputs, driving 64 outputs all configured as auxes. These auxes feed both wired and wireless IEM and headphone mixes for the eight musicians, several of whom alternate playing both in the studio in the basement and up on stage. The monitor console also feeds several onstage monitor mixes, recording mixes, effects and a FOH backup mix.

 

There are four separate fiber and wireless Ethernet networks, with around 30 computers, running three platforms.

 

That is a lot going on. And I assume there are substantial tweaks and upgrades going on all the time.

One recent project is the rebuilding / replacement of our music playback system, which is triggered by the music conductor to play back 32 tracks of the big orchestral and choral music parts of the score. (Some sections of the show are exclusively live played by the eight piece band, while some are the band backed by the playback system.) We had been running the Sinfonia system since opening. Sinfonia is basically a very sophisticated sequencer which triggered 32 tracks of GigaSampler, a Tascam product. True to form, Tascam simply abandoned what was actually a very cool product and which many musical productions have used successfully. This forced us to look elsewhere for something that we could rely on for support and licensing, and the favorite seemed to be Ableton Live.

 

The problem was that in moving to Ableton alone, while it could do the playback just fine, our conductor, Richard Oberacker, would lose the flexibility of being able to trigger the music as he was used to doing. Clicking with a mouse while playing the 1st keyboard parts and calling the show was not an option.

 

So after looking at several options, one of my crew leads, Mike Atwood, set to work designing and writing an interface from scratch using MaxMSP software. It installs as a runtime application and gives the conductor all the power of triggering parts via MIDI keyboard, with the visual feedback of where he was, i.e. which section of song, which bar, what tempo, and was able to customize it fully to meet the needs of the show. It provides an extremely powerful and elegant interface to something like Ableton Live, and I don't believe anything else exists at this point that can do what it does for this type of application.

 

Mike has already received interest from several other well-known bands in using his software, so you may be hearing more about it. We're rather proud of Mike for this....  

 

From left, Zaza Adamiszyn, Marisa Castillo, Mike Atwood, CJ Hermann, Mike Brown, Dustin Pratt, Yianni Epivatinos, Dave Stevens, Mark Dennis
It's great to hear someone give props like that to their crew.

I'd have to say I'm really proud of the entire crew. It's the largest audio crew of any of the Cirque shows, and I gotta say that its the best, coolest, least dysfunctional, most productive bunch of folks I've had the pleasure of working with in a long time, and the talent runs deep. They make my job very easy.

The crew includes:

Zaza Adamiszyn: Deck tracks, backup monitors, sound FX console, RF backup, manager of a sprawling MATV system.

Mike Atwood: Lead maintenance, draftsman, programmer, Clear-Com & paging & everything else specialist. Mike has run every track in the department.

Mike Brown: FOH mixer with big ears and a fine musical touch, sound FX console, RF backup, deck tracks, Motorola and network specialist

Marisa Castillo: Both deck tracks

Yianni Epivatinos: My assistant. Brilliant at everything and fun; I'd like to hire him as my boss.

CJ Hermann: Lead RF, responsible for managing the substantial challenges of our wireless world, and overseeing the running of the deck tracks

Dustin Pratt: Deck tracks, RF backup, seat speaker and RF maintenance

Colleen Roscher: Deck tracks, seat speaker and RF maintenance.

Dave Stevens: Lead monitor engineer, longtime veteran Audio Mogul. Serious knowledge here.

 

One thing that we have just touched on is the incredibly complex wireless you guys run.

MGM spent $140k last year getting out of 700Mhz alone, and spent another $40k this year so far, playing RF dodgeball with all the shifting and emerging DTV broadcasts, and it's no doubt just the beginning. We've economized on spectrum usage substantially, eliminating or sharing frequencies wherever possible, but our backs are now against the wall. We cannot compromise on communications systems, as they are show-critical. We're now at the mercy of the FCC's decisions, and the Gods of New Technology.