From the cinema to the home to your earbuds, spatial audio has made immersive 360-degree sound accessible to almost everybody, in almost any environment. And now that includes live performances.
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love, a biographical musical about Filipino politician Imelda Marcos, opened on Broadway and features a form of spatial audio designed to follow the actors as they move around on a massive stage. That area is also filled with audience members, and the show is as much a three-ring circus as it is a Broadway show. I was on the floor for one of the final previews of this startling production, and it gave me an idea of how this audio technology could translate to your home.
Spatial but in real time
Immersive technology is in vogue right now, from the promise of AR and VR to physical experiences such as Meow Wolf. When it comes to Here Lies Love, what makes this production immersive is literally something you can’t see: the sound design. This musical seamlessly uses spatial audio to help envelop you in its world.
Whether it’s Netflix and Amazon Prime Video or Apple Music and Tidal, streaming has brought spatial audio to the masses. It’s portable and convenient, but it involves a fair bit of effort to get to our ears. In terms of movies, Dolby Atmos mixes are performed on a sound stage for use in a cinema and at home, while spatial music involves painstaking remixes of existing albums. But how does this translate to a live performance on stage?
French company L-Acoustics specializes in live sound, and its technology has been used in stage productions for artists such as Adele and Bon Iver, as well as in the studio. The company’s take on spatial audio, the free-to-download L-ISA tool, enables users to move audio objects around a sound field in real-time. In the case of Here Lies Love, the production’s engineers said they “lost count at 150” voices, using a combination of live surround mixing and automation.
The production features two different mixes performed simultaneously, one for the floor and the other for the seated, mezzanine area, sound designer Cody Spencer said. The control room is downstairs from the theater, so the engineers had to rely on dozens of video cameras to track where the actors were in real time.
The software is inter-compatible with the default standard Dolby Atmos, L-Acoustics said, which means it could be translatable to the home. Though the original 2010 recording of the album featured female artists such as Sia and Tori Amos, there was also a cast recording of the 2016 off Broadway production. There’s an opportunity to record the new cast for streaming on Apple Music, for example, using L-ISA, Spencer said.
“We have talked about it and Atmos is a kind of very big thing. But in theory, hopefully, maybe (remixers) can look at what we’re doing and kind of mimic it in the 360 environment that is Atmos.”
Here Lies Love
In the ’80s, the term “Imeldific” was coined to mean something that was gaudy and excessive, so you could guess that the stage production was going to be bombastic. If all you know about Imelda Marcos is that she owned a lot of shoes, it isn’t really about that at all. The show is colorful, often loud, but surprisingly tender in its portrayal of Marcos, from living in a small village to her rise to power and then eventual exile.
The production features an all-Filipino cast and doesn’t shy away from Marcos’ bad side — mostly by juxtaposing her wealth with the poverty of her country. For instance, the show highlights her building of the elaborate Manila Film Center and the fate of the workers who died during its construction.
The idea of immersive theater gives me the heebie-jeebies — having to be a character and talking to actors — but Here Lies Love was a lot less than that. I did have a couple of people with video cameras zoom by me, and a political candidate extended his hand for a handshake, but mostly I was there to dance. The dance floor itself featured a series of modular walkways that let the actors move between the front and the back of the space, and these changed for each song. Airlinelike “ramp agents” with pink glow sticks directed us around as stagehands altered the floor plans.
Before the musical opened, the producers were criticized for the lack of live musicians. But when you consider the complexity of the show, its basis as a collaboration with an electronic musician, and the audio tracking features, it isn’t hard to understand. As a result of the negotiations, however, the show now includes live elements, and this mostly consisted of percussionists who moved through the crowd.
The dance floor audience, which also included creator David Byrne toward the end, also had another function — it was designed to simulate different types of crowds throughout the show: patrons at a Filipino club, onlookers at political rallies, dancers at NYC’s own Studio 54 and even protesters.
Because experiencing the audio system was one of the main reasons I attended, I paid special attention to it. The overhead audio was able to track the actors in a way that became seamless. I tried to “catch them out,” but almost every time, the actors were where the speakers told me they were.
A friend in the upper level said they couldn’t hear the audio move in the same way that we on the floor did, but instead watched the audience members turn their heads as a clue to where the actors were.
Overall, the songs were strong, and the show was fast-moving. Some parts were literally shocking, and in all, it was an exceedingly enjoyable time. If you’re going to see the show and don’t mind both standing and being jostled around for 90 minutes, then definitely get tickets for the “dance floor.”
Ty Pendlebury attended Here Lies Love as a guest of L-Acoustics