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Bergeron Designs Sound for Cirque Using Meyer Systems
Before joining Cirque du Soleil in 1989, Canadian-born Francois Bergeron worked in Québec theatres and for Solotech, the Montreal sound rental and production company. Between Cirque shows, Bergeron led the development of audio and technical designs for a variety of projects including the Hayden Planetarium in New York City; three Niketown flagship stores; EFX in Las Vegas; l Templo Del Fuego for Universal Studios' Port Aventura in Spain; and the live shows and nighttime spectacular at a new ocean-themed park in Tokyo. Bergeron's Cirque du Soleil sound designs include O at the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas, La Nouba at Downtown Disney in Orlando, and the Quidam and Saltimbanco world tours. Bergeron received Entertainment Design magazine's Sound Designer of the Year award in 1996. He is a founding partner of Thinkwell Design and Production, headquartered at California's historic Pasadena Playhouse.
How would you describe your process for designing sound for a show?
Well, the normal process for a theatrical production would be to talk to the director and read the script, maybe do some research, and talk to the stage and lighting designers. But at Cirque, it's a bit different. There's no book, no script, there's nothing like that. Maybe you'll have a few drawings and hear the concept that's in the mind of the show's director. We gather around the table and talk about ideas, then everybody goes off and works on what they understood from the concept, or the theme, and later we come back together to share ideas, influencing each other. When the set is designed, that will have repercussions for the lighting and sound designs. It's very much a group process. For the last show that I did, Varekai, I went up to Montreal for six months to work on it. It was a long-term investment of time. But the process involves knowing what the show is all about, and then placing speakers in the tent. The advantage I have with the tent tours is that wherever we go, the venue is the same. So it's primarily a process of molding the systems to fit the show.
What criteria do you use in selecting loudspeakers for a design?
Cirque is a fortunate organization in the sense that each show can go out on tour for twelve years or more. But, that means reliability is a big issue. For example, the Varekai show is just now starting to tour, and since we are moving the whole show, the size and weight of the loudspeakers is important, as well. Also, obstructed views can be a problem. We don't want big loudspeakers hanging from the masts; we want something that's small and light, yet powerful. Another issue is the accuracy of the specifications published by the company. When you are designing a system, you have to rely on the specs that you are given on paper. I try to choose products from manufacturers who publish reliable numbers, because we're touring for a long time and it's not easy to change in the middle of the tour if something doesn't work out.
How many countries does a show cover in twelve years?
The touring model now is four years in North America, four years in Europe and four years in Asia. Most of the shows in Asia are in Japan, but we do a number of different European countries.
What factors determine where you place the loudspeakers?
Basically, it's the available space. In the big top, there are not a lot of places to hang your loudspeakers. But placement is also influenced by the show's feeling or theme. With Varekai, which is the freshest in my mind — I just finished it in May — all of the energy and visual content comes from the center and above the audience. So, most of the loudspeakers are around that center area, high on the mast, so that you get the feeling of power from above. But, if the show is more down-to-earth, more grounded, I would have side clusters to the left and right of the band, just to bring the whole image down and localize it.
Did you use Meyer Sound loudspeakers on Varekai?
Yes, we used the CQ-1 and CQ-2, the PSW-6, UPAs and a bunch of UPMs. All are self-powered.
Have you considered using line arrays?
Not in the big top, since it doesn't have the space to allow it. It's true that on this last show, with everything concentrated on the center, we could have used line arrays, but there is a lot of rigging and a lot of lighting. There's really not enough space to put in three line arrays — which is what we would have needed, since the show encompasses more than 270 degrees. Keeping the weight down was important, but the CQs were light enough to suit that requirement.
Are there significant advantages to using self-powered systems in these kinds of shows?
Certainly, and it's all the well-known factors — saving space in the trucks and saving space backstage, because literally we have no backstage area to house amplifiers. Also, it's much cheaper to run line level audio and AC than it is to run heavy-gauge speaker lines. Plus, there's the reliability factor. I know that there are a lot of components inside the box, but still, with self-powered systems there are fewer failure points. When you want something to work reliably on tour for twelve years, you want to minimize the number of of connectors and separate components. It's nice to know that you can run AC and a line input, and it will work. If it doesn't, it's easy to figure out why. Wherever I can minimize the hardware complexity, I try to do it. If I went back to conventionally powered speakers, it would create a problem with the truck load — and moving equipment around for twelve years is a major cost.
Does the Cirque own the audio systems or rent them?
Cirque owns them. So, the investment in pre-production may be higher, but it pays off over the life of the show… although, to be honest, I don't actually know if the cost was higher since for this last show, we did not even look at conventional systems.
How important is compatibility among loudspeakers? Do you try to use products from the same manufacturer?
In some cases, yes, but not always. Some manufacturers have broader product lines than others, with more types and sizes of loudspeakers. But sometimes you will need a product that was made for a specific purpose, such as underbalcony or front fills. So, my designs are not manufacturer-driven, but solution-driven. If I have a particular problem, I will look at the manufacturers that have solutions and then narrow it down to the best performance for the budget. That said, manufacturers like Meyer Sound are at least trying to offer a wider range of solutions. And again, it often comes down to the accuracy of the specifications. With Meyer Sound loudspeakers, I don't have to ask myself, 'Will it really do what it says it can do?' So, if I can rely on the accuracy of the specs, then I have a higher level of confidence that the product will give me the solution I'm expecting.
Do you make modifications to systems during the course of a show, or does it stay the same throughout?
Generally, since Cirque owns the equipment, it will stay the same through the entire tour. Now, there are situations where we might rent additional PA; for example, in Japan, where Fuji provides a dome that does not have internal masts or overhead rigging points, we have to think of new solutions and perhaps buy or rent additional speakers. But otherwise, each system is optimized for the show and travels with it.
Do you perform the initial set-up and alignment before a tour goes out?
Oh yes, that's one of the big parts of the job because of the way our systems are configured. I've been with Cirque now for thirteen years, and I've experimented with mono clusters, distributed systems, and all kinds of left/right PA systems. It's been fun, because nobody was dictating what I could do.
No rules. Exactly. But with most shows, we did tend more to use distributed systems, so the alignment of time delays has become critical. This is where the sound engineers are so important. Cirque tours are like a hybrid between an outdoor show and indoor theatre, because the temperature and humidity variations can be quite extreme. For example, if you do the alignment before the audience comes in, everything can change by the time of the show. Fortunately, the air conditioning people are getting it to the point where there is not such a drastic change during the show, but we do monitor it.
Do you set up a certain subjective sound for the show before it goes out?
Yes, we do set up the whole system before the tour using a digital processor. We can preset variations of EQ and time delays for different temperatures and humidity levels, to cover the most likely scenarios. That way, the operator doesn't have to reinvent the wheel for every show.
What system do you use for measurement and alignment?
We use the Meyer Sound SIM system at the beginning, and also early in the tour. The start of a tour is critical, because there is so much happening and so many things changing. The key to working with Cirque is flexibility and speed. It's not as though you can design a system and know that it will stay there from beginning to end. On Varekai, we did pre-production in Montreal, then went to Quebec City and changed some things there, and finally in Toronto we are supposed to finish it. That's really the beginning of the tour. But as the sound designer, I'm the last link in the chain: if the music is changing, I can't change the system to accommodate it until the music's finalized.
How much of your work these days is with Cirque?
It averages about 40 percent, but that's over a number of years. The time between designing shows for Cirque is long, that in between I am doing work for Universal Studios in Spain and for Disney in Japan. But this year, Cirque will take half of my time, because I spent six months in Montreal designing and preparing for the new show. But then, my next Cirque show might not be until 2004. In between, I am doing some follow-up work on established shows like Saltimbanco, Quidam, La Nouba, a little bit for O, and now Varekai. It's a lot to keep up with, because I'm always working with new personnel and designing changes for special venues.
Do you find that working with different types of sound designs — Cirque, theme parks and 'traditional' theatre — helps you develop new ideas?
Yes, and it's something I've been doing for a long time. In Montreal, where I come from, the French-Canadian market is small, and in order to make a living you have to run the gamut. If somebody calls and says that they're doing a location shoot and want you to do the sound, you have to be able to do it. You become 'the sound guy', and you quickly learn to do whatever is required. I was lucky, because I spent eight years at Solotech, which is the largest rental company in Quebec — perhaps the largest in all of Canada. I started out loading trucks, and ended up managing the rental department: I did many different things.
So, if I do a show at a theme park, for example, I bring ideas about technologies that I have seen and used in theatre. The same principle applies when I work for Cirque. It's all about the experience, anyway — what the public will get out of it. It doesn't matter where it comes from: if something fits, and brings something newand exciting to the experience, then I will use it. I really like crossing over. That's why I'm a partner in Thinkwell, a new company that is experience-driven. Whatever the project — a play, a casino or a parade — as long as there is a story, we will bring what we know to the table.
How does sound design for legitimate theatre and Broadway musicals compare to working with Cirque?
Well, my only project that went to Broadway was Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby, but I've done other musicals, including one with Randy Newman's music that involved some new uses of technology. I try to see if I can get maybe 10 percent of each show to be something new, something I've never tried before. That stimulates my creativity, and helps me to learn and grow. Theater is great for bringing up new ideas. Working here at the Pasadena Playhouse is great, because I have ready access to a venue where I can try out new ideas. I came from the theatre originally: I went to theatre school in Canada. Although over the years I've mademy living doing rock and roll and this whole new approach to the circus, my starting point has always been theatre.
Of your past designs, which would you call your favorite? Perhaps you could pick one Cirque show and one from theatre.
For a play or musical, I would say Education of Randy Newman was a good show for me, because it was a successful use of new technologies. It played a small room at the South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, but it was high-profilebecause of Randy's direct involvement. It was a new concept technically, because we employed a miniaturized digital system using LCS [Level Control Systems, a company that manufactures a widely-used theatrical sound automation system conceived by sound designer Jonathan Deans]. That meant that we only took out six seats, rather than the usual 18 or 20 — and in a small room, every seat is critical for selling tickets and paying the bills.
As for Cirque shows, I would have to choose Varekai, because it marked the first time that I was fully involved in the design from the very beginning, from top to bottom. Usually, sound comes later, but this time I was there for the whole six months. Because of that, the sound is more important than in any previous Cirque shows: there is a complex soundtrack that starts from the beginning. Before this show, sound took a secondary role, but with Varekai it was woven into the entire process. I was present in the rehearsals, creating sound effects directly for the performers, and it shows. Each sound is tailored for the performers, and in manyways the entire performance is tailored to the sound.
This was the first time that I've been able to fully merge the sound system with the entire the show. All of the energy — the lighting, the sound, the set, the story — emanates from the center. The sound system has been designed to complement that reality and fit into the set. I'm really happy with that show, and it works very well with the Meyer Sound self-powered speakers.
Did you also use Meyer Sound speakers on the Randy Newman show?
I did, but not the self-powered products. We used some of the older conventional products, but that was mostly because of the way rental companies work in California. It's not like New York, where companies are geared to longer-term rentals. In California, they like to keep their self-powered systems for short-term corporate work where they can charge higher daily rates. But the conventional loudspeakers worked out very well. This was a big show in a small room, so I had to do a lot of tweaking to make sure we weren't hitting the walls. We needed a system that would amplify the sound, but you wouldn't notice it. I really wanted the subtleties and wide range of Meyer Sound products — so that, if I sent something that was operatic or had strings, it worked, but if it was rock 'n' roll or a brass band, it still worked. Meyer loudspeakers have always been good for that.
Was Randy Newman in the show?
No, he didn't perform in the show, though he was involved in the concept and the production. He was there for rehearsals, and it was his music.
Summing up, how would you say Meyer Sound helps you in your work as a sound designer?
For me, perhaps the most important things that Meyer offers are reliable specs and the thoroughness of their whole operation. If you visit Meyer, you can see that they are very particular about everything. You know that everything has been tested and analyzed to verify what they say: it's not just marketing lingo. Research, development and analysis are strong points with Meyer. I'm sure it's not easy to do, but it certainly pays off for me. When I'm looking at a Meyer Sound product and the specs say that it will do something, it will do it. It will work they way it's supposed to.