Meet the Tech That’s Revolutionizing Sound in Live Performances
It’s difficult to describe the exaggerated enormity of Las Vegas to the uninitiated. The dizzying fantasyland for adults is designed to captivate and entertain with uncanny landmarks, labyrinthine casinos and free-flowing alcohol, attracting roughly 40 million visitors per year — and bringing in upwards of $36 billion annually.
In the span of one evening, you can walk the neon Strip and encounter a kaleidoscope of realities: Drink a bottle of Bordeaux next to the Eiffel Tower, see someone stumble and save his handle of vodka from a knee-high puddle — to enthusiastic applause, stroll by the Bellagio’s dramatic fountain show, and end up in a crystal-drenched lounge that resembles the interior of a chandelier.
Amid the sensory overload of it all is another, more sophisticated experience in hyperreality: singer-songwriter icon Adele’s residency at The Colosseum in Caesars Palace.
After nearly a year-long postponement, the 16-time Grammy Award winner brings Weekends With Adele to an intimate yet larger-than-life stage during a five-month series of shows running from November 18 to March 25, 2023. Adele’s voice rings powerful, vulnerable and clear, like she’s performing for an audience of one rather than The Colosseum’s 4,100 — and it doesn’t matter where you’re sitting.
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s probably because it was until 2016, when cutting-edge audio manufacturer L-Acoustics launched its L-ISA technology. The innovative sound system allows artists to create and deliver immersive “hyperreal” sound for live and recorded performances of any size.
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“To experience [the performance] in the most natural and meaningful way, your brain needs to connect what we hear to what we see.”
Founded by quantum physics researcher Christian Heil in 1984, L-Acoustics has been setting industry standards for decades, first revolutionizing live audio in the 1990s with the invention of its line source technology, which improves sound control over audiences of any size.
But Heil recognized that a critical gap in sound remained. “There was still this fundamental flaw in a concert,” L-Acoustics CEO Laurent Vaissie tells Entrepreneur, “that all the sound was coming from the left and the right side of the stage, as a stereo-type public address system.”
Imagine this: In a small venue, like a jazz club, you can close your eyes and still hear exactly where the singer’s voice or instrument’s sound comes from, but when you significantly expand the performance space, you have to rely on speakers to amplify that sound — and they can only deliver the full experience, with complete visual-audio fusion (what you see is what you hear), to a narrow swath of the audience.
L-Acoustics created a sound ecosystem to solve that issue of disconnection. With L-ISA’s loudspeaker design, there are at least five sound points across the stage; its surround systems ensure coverage left, right and behind the audience for total immersion. The company’s proprietary system design software, Sound Vision, can predict sound volume and coverage within a venue, isolating that “sweet spot” of visual-audio synchronization. And on the software side of mix creation, the L-ISA Controller deftly maneuvers inputs and pre-recorded tracks, moving each “sound object” wherever they should be in space for the most realistic — or better than real — experience.
Essentially, L-ISA reconnects the audience with the performer, inviting listeners inside the music and dialing up the level of emotion. “To experience [the performance] in the most natural and meaningful way, your brain needs to connect what we hear to what we see,” Vaissie says.
It really helps the brain to have that sound come from the actual space where the performer is.
Vaissie likens the experience to interacting with another person face-to-face: It’s automatically more natural and intimate than, say, a conversation over the phone. “And on stage the same thing happens,” he explains. “So when you want the performer to connect really well with the audience, or you want to attract the audience to a specific part of the show, whether it’s a lead guitar solo, drum solo or the lead singer, it really helps the brain to have that sound come from the actual space where the performer is.”
Image credit: Stufish, Courtesy of L-Acoustics
Vaissie watched Adele’s February 24 performance, which he considers “the most accomplished in terms of L-ISA implementation” to date, from the front-of-house control booth, where he could see the sound objects tracking to different locations on the screen.
“When Adele was moving across the stage and talking to the audience, I could see the objects, and I could hear the sound moving with her,” Vaissie recalls. “That connection was flawless. And it’s very, very subtle. But we would hear this if the sound was not following her.”
That connection was also on full display when Adele left the stage to walk through the crowd, asking groups of concert-goers — friends, mothers and daughters — about their best childhood memories ahead of her poignant performance of “When We Were Young.”
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“We call it hyperreal because it enhances the reality of what the performers are doing on stage.”
If the first step toward improved sound is synthesizing what we’re hearing and seeing, the second is elevating what’s unfolding in front of the audience — making the performance “larger than life,” Vaissie says.
“[L-ISA allows for] both reconnecting physically when you want the more intimate moments and the more natural moments, and then enhancing those,” Vaissie explains. “We call [L-ISA] hyperreal because it enhances the reality of what the performers are doing on stage.”
Although Adele’s voice is the show’s focal point, Vaissie points to the backup vocalists, who appear for the first time during the singer’s performance of 30 single “I Drink Wine,” as an example of L-ISA’s ability to take reality up a notch. The singers’ voices aren’t centered where they stand. Instead, they’re spread out and set back in the soundscape, “looming” over Adele’s center vocal to give the impression of space and grandiosity.
We can make the room much more lively using some artificially created reverberation.
The same is true for the orchestra. “When the stage physically opens up and the orchestra comes out, it’s big music — it’s big sound,” Vaissie says. “We can make that orchestra much larger than what they are physically by spreading the sound and using some effects with the L-ISA processor. We can make the room much more lively using some artificially created reverberation and give a lot of space between the different instruments.”
Similarly, Adele’s “Cry Your Heart Out” begins with just three chords on the piano, and on a typical sound system (a pair of headphones, for example) those would be the only chords you hear. But with L-ISA, each chord can become larger and wider, making the song’s introduction more dynamic and engaging, Vaissie explains.
Image credit: Stufish, Courtesy of L-Acoustics
L-ISA enhances the small moments beautifully, but it’s just as impressive when it comes to the big ones. During the performance of “Skyfall,” the sound rises to meet the drama of the stage, where 24 musicians perch behind a screen displaying so many striking visuals that the performers might be mistaken for figments of the canvas themselves — but they’re very much real, having climbed up the scaffolding in back to take their seats.
And during the performance of “Set Fire to the Rain,” far from being overshadowed by the water that pours from lightning-slashed clouds and flames that consume the stage and piano, the sound becomes just as tremendous and forceful.
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“The whole stage is wrapped with a false proscenium — behind which our L-ISA system lives.”
Implementing L-ISA takes careful planning. Consideration of the space is key, and the required interweaving of sound, light and video has so far made the technology a popular choice for high-profile projects with some staying power: Adele’s residency, a forthcoming Broadway show — and also houses of worship.
Fortunately, The Colosseum is an ideal venue for L-ISA. “The Colosseum venue shape and size is almost perfectly suited to an L-ISA design using K2,” audio system engineer Johnny Keirle says. “The most challenging aspects of the design and optimization were working the proposed system design around other show elements. The whole stage is wrapped with a false proscenium — behind which our L-ISA system lives.”
Keirle spent a long time experimenting with different fabrics and fabric combinations, working with the creative design team to find a solution that met the visual requirements without compromising the audio.
Another challenge was to make sure listeners in the first few rows were also getting the high-quality, immersive experience L-ISA provides.
“These seats would normally be covered by mono front fills,” Keirle explains, “which in my eyes wasn’t an option considering the quality of the immersive L-ISA system in the rest of the house (not to mention ticket pricing for these seats). To ensure a great audio experience, we built 31 front fill speakers into our stage, complemented by eight KS28 subwoofers under the stage, reproducing a high-quality, image-authentic immersive audio experience for those in the front rows.”
L-ISA also requires some additional flexibility when it comes to the front-of-house creative process. Typically, the front-of-house engineer is responsible for all of the creative input on the mix, but in the case of Adele’s residency, Keirle and front-of-house engineer Dave Bracey collaborate on an immersive mix to maximize L-ISA’s potential.
“In other immersive situations, the front-of-house engineer operates the mixing desk as well as the immersive audio controller,” Keirle explains, “whereas in our case, I handle all immersive processing and creative input, allowing Dave to focus on signals coming into the immersive system. A good way to describe this workflow is that I create an immersive soundscape that Dave is able to mix into; I can focus entirely on developing and growing this soundscape throughout the set, while Dave can focus entirely on mixing into the developing soundscape.”
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“At the end of the day, it’s all about the creative part and making the artist the best that they can be in front of the audience.”
Sound is an interesting sense, Vaissie says, because it’s always on — even when we’re asleep, we’re able to detect changes in our environment. Yet sound is often underutilized, its intricacies ignored or overlooked.
Vaissie says Adele’s residency resembles a musical in its theatrics and the way each part of a song activates cues. But without seeing the technology at work, essentially the magic that’s happening behind the scenes, it can be difficult to pick up on those subtleties, especially if you don’t pay attention or have a trained ear.
Vaissie is excited for L-Acoustics to continue to elevate the position of sound — and make people more aware of it. “I think sound has a huge role to play in our future in terms [of] communication,” Vaissie notes, “replacing some of the information that we get today visually on our phone — tomorrow maybe it will be directly in our ears.”
Image credit: Stufish, Courtesy of L-Acoustics
As it stands, the vast majority of people who attend Adele’s residency probably don’t know just how significant a role L-ISA plays in their experience. Still, they’ll be immersed in Adele’s singular voice and come away amazed, likely noticing the sound they’re hearing is different, and that it goes beyond seeing their favorite artist live.
But that vague recognition isn’t a bad thing. In fact, Vaissie calls it “the biggest compliment.”
“It means that we’ve used the technology in a way that it completely disappears and just enhances the performance without highlighting the technology,” Vaissie explains. “Because at the end of the day, it’s all about the creative part and making the artist the best that they can be in front of the audience.”
It’s not unlike the way that Vegas itself seems to vanish the world beyond its 4.2-mile Strip lined with grit and glamour.
The landmarks are about as real as most people’s chances of winning big at the casino, but in a city that’s built an identity and fortune on the feeling of luck, almost anything seems possible, somehow.
And maybe that’s exactly what people want: for things to feel more real than they are, even if they can’t — perhaps especially if they can’t — put their finger on why they do.