“Bringing Corteo’s Sound to Life” – A Sennheiser Pro Talk Series interview with Christian Peterson – Head of Sound

Sennheiser’s award-winning Pro Talk Series includes in-depth interviews with the top industry luminaries, such as Manny Marroquin, Al Schmitt, Ken Travis and more. In 2018, the Pro Talk Series won a TEC Award for Outstanding Technical Achievement in the Audio Education Technology category. Designed to serve as a valuable resource for aspiring engineers, producers and audio enthusiasts, the series focuses on the journeys of the world’s leading audio professionals and their expert advice for a path to success. Season 2 on YouTube features interviews with the industry’s most respected audio professionals, including Christian Peterson, Head of Sound for Cirque du Soleil: Corteo. With a passion for sound since his childhood that began with theatre and music performances, Christian Peterson has been a staple in the live sound industry – most especially with Cirque du Soleil. “As a kid, I really was passionate about sound – I really fell in love with speakers, microphones and recording music,” he says. “I was determined by about probably 15 that live sound was what I wanted to do. I was doing everything I could to go work at music festivals and concerts, pushing cases – the way a lot of us kind of get into the industry. For me, the kind of turning point in my career was when I started moving from small club shows into arenas and arena tours.”

From there, Peterson moved into the Cirque du Soleil circuit after approaching Kooza when it was touring in Australia. At that time, he ended up landing a job with them after a lot of persuasion. “That was really fun – it was a great experience and a great start with Cirque du Soleil,” he continues. “Cirque du Soleil was a company [that] I really wanted to work for. Since I was a kid, I’d seen the shows. Quidam was the first one I saw when I was six years old, so it has always been something that was part of my life. It’s really rewarding for me now, years later, to be in this environment, doing my part with the company.”

For the past year, Peterson has been serving as Head of Sound for Cirque’s Corteo arena shows. “Touring with Cirque de Soleil is a lot of fun,” he adds. “We have a great professional environment where we’re working with some of the top-of-the-line equipment and artists, and the shows are really well put together. The environment…we’re working with industry professionals… and the artists themselves and the acts they perform are absolutely incredible, so it’s really rewarding for us to put on a show that is at such a great caliber.”

According to Peterson, Corteo is about a clown who died and his movement through into the afterlife, during which he’s seeing all the life events he’d experienced. “It’s really special because it’s about a real person,” he explains. “And so all the makeup and themes are all about people and humanity and some of the acts are incredibly lifelike. The traditional Cirque du Soleil setting for this show was in a big top [or] a grand chapeau, [which is] a giant circus tent – and this show actually did ten years in a circus tent before moving into this arena adaptation. What this show brings that is different to the other Cirque shows, especially in the arena sense, is that we’re not performing to a downstage audience. We’re performing to two separate sides and that really keeps the intimate feel.”

Though the show is no longer under a big top, the arena settings make it possible for the production to still have that circular setup, with audiences across from one another, that’s synonymous with circus performances. “It’s a really interesting stage [and] there’s a lot of dynamic movement,” continues Peterson. “We’ve got angels flying in and out of the picture… [and] a large revolving section on the stage, so artists and musicians are constantly moving about for sound. That’s interesting because we have a lot of musicians who get out from their band pits and they’re actually playing on stage as well.”

In planning the audio for the show, Peterson had to find body microphone solutions that would play nicely with the dynamic and continually moving format of the show. “Everyone has wireless microphones and in-ears, so they can play and be quite agile on stage,” he says. “There’s a lot of movement [and] change of image with the music and the sound. One of our challenges in audio is bringing the image from a solo character on stage to a full live song that might be played supporting an actor. There are some songs that are really big and powerful, like a rock show almost, and there are [others] that are really intimate. A lot of the sound we’re really pushing and pulling image, emotions and feeling – wherever you’re sitting in the audience, we want to try and replicate that feeling.

Among Corteo’s sound team is a dedicated PA Tech assuring a consistent sound regardless of venue “and that’s a big challenge we have,” continues Peterson. “The sound plays a really important role by reinforcing the music and the imagery of the music, in relation to the artists on stage. So, if an artist has an act that needs to look as big as possible or actually look as small as possible, we can really do that with not only the dynamics of the band, but also the dynamics of how we’re mixing the show and where we’re placing things visually as well in relation to the ear. The cool thing about having surround speakers and so many zones of PA is that we can move some things around visually. You might notice [that] a lot of our PA is [uniquely] all gold as opposed to black cabinets in the air. [This] blends really well with the set and design, and really fits in with what’s going on on-stage. It’s really important for the audience to take in the full immersive experience of the act with the music – and they really go hand-in-hand. We don’t want people to think about sound, we want people to think about how fantastic the music was on the show. We really want to reinforce that and create that emotion and imagery through the sound, but really through the music, and we’re just supporting them the entire way.”

“When we’re tuning the PA, we have a number of reference microphones we put across the room; we’re doing lots of averages. There’s lots of different zones of the PA that we’re covering. Whether it’s on stage – with what we call the cross fires, which do an on-stage fill as well as the front audience – we want to make sure that each person is getting the same kind of image [and feeling] on stage.”

Because of the Cirque du Soleil environment and high-quality show, one challenge that Peterson and his team face is ensuring there is never a show-stop. “We want to have redundancy every single step of the way,” he says. “If something was to go down, anything at all, we always need to have a plan B or a plan C, and further.

So, if it’s the front of house console [that goes down,] the monitor console is also doing a front of house mix the entire time; subsequently, if it’s the monitor console [that has a problem], the front of house console is also doing in-ear mixes for the band. We have all these tracks running behind the band as well, and we can drop that in at any time we wish. It’s all played live, but if ever anything was to happen – on any microphone, artist or anything at all, we have everything played to a click track. We could flip all the inputs on the consoles, both the monitors and front of house, and continue on like nothing happened at all.” On the monitor side, Peterson says the show is running a Soundcraft V8000 console, “we’re doing a number of different mixes for the artists [and] eight band members. We also have mixes for front of house, … coms and other utility sources.”

For PA Drive, Peterson and his team run AES with MADI Fiber for audio signal between the consoles and stage boxes. “The backbone of the system is our direct-out MADI matrix,” he says. “All the audio from the stage boxes [and] consoles [to] recording computers and keyboard computers, all comes in as MADI fiber. Then we’re also running a network ring for all our data, so at any point of our system we can access almost every other unit via web browsers through our network. For the band pits, the two band leaders [are] running a redundant keyboard rig. They have Yamaha [MOTIF] XF8 keyboards for the internal sounds and they’re also controlling some contact sounds via MADI. They also have another separate Roland controller each, which is controlling [redundant playback] on Ableton, as well as cues in the show. So, whilst the entire show is running live, everything is still multi-tracked and sitting there ready to go to the click-track that we’re all listening to. When the bandleader switches from primary to redundant, it also sends a MIDI trigger to send a command that changes the MADI matrix, so there’s almost no loss in audio and the show can run with the backup tracks. If anything happens, we can always switch into one of the backup lines, fix the problem and have them back up and running live again.”

For audio gear on Corteo, Peterson relies on a Soundcraft Vi6 console at front of house. “We’re using all 96 channels and pretty much all of the buses – it’s a very packed board,” he explains. “That’s running the main mix for the show, as well as running the backup lines for the monitor console for the artists. We’re then sending that audio to the Galileo and Callisto’s from Meyer Sound, and that’s running through a Meyer system as well – we’ve got 24 M’elodies, Miracast for delays, 700-HPs for subs and some 600-HPs. We [also] have front fills [and] a number of surround cabinets that I floated out in the audience with some big chandeliers hanging underneath them. We use a cue station system with three matrix units to do that. In addition, we’re also running a Waves MaxxBass unit that gives us some low-end harmonics as well as some compressors on the vocal and headset microphones. Our male and female vocalists – who are wonderfully talented sometimes sing with the rest of the band in the band pits – are on DPA headsets with Sennheiser [6000 Series] transmitters, and they’re walking around the stage singing as well. So it’s really cool to see them come out and perform with the artists on stage but then also form back part with the band.”

When the vocalists are on-stage, they are outfitted with DPA 4088 microphones and while in the band pit singing with the band, they are on Neumann KMS 105s, “which sound absolutely fantastic,” says Peterson. “With the handheld microphones, the vocalist can kind of move about the mic and really get the dynamics they wish. On headsets, you really have to control that a little bit for them and ourselves at front of house. For the characters on stage, a number of them are mic’ed up… on headset microphones, … on hairline microphones and … on lavs. And that is dependent a lot on their costume as well as what they do on stage. Mauro, our lead character, has a headset microphone [and] it’s really important that we have a great close-mic sound for him. One of our vocalists is not only performing an aerial piece, she’s also singing as well, so we have her hairline mic’ed, and the great thing about the Sennheiser 6000 Series packs is that they’re so low-profile and weigh absolutely nothing, she can wear that [during] a whole trick – she’s falling from great heights and it doesn’t bother her at all. A lot of our artists are really great at putting their own headset on and knowing where the microphones should sit or shouldn’t, and that really helps us as well in the sound department, giving them the ability to kind of know where they should be sitting.”

“In the band world on the show, we have to have a lot of control over the dynamics, of course, because we’re so close to the audience and we really [want to keep] that close intimate feel. We can’t have a drum kit blasting away right next to an audience member. So, we have a Roland V-drums kit that has some great sounds on it – our drummer Alex is fantastic on that. He’s also on-stage playing some drums, which is really cool to see when the drummer comes out on stage and plays live. We have a lot of live percussion, so it really keeps that feel. We’re really lucky on this show, we have such a great relationship with the band. I think one tool that anyone can have on a successful show for sound, is to have a great band and have a really good relationship with them. They’re amazingly talented, really easy to work with, and it really makes our lives so much easier. They really embrace when we try new things and try and help them, and we’re constantly listening together and talking about sound. It’s really rare to have that environment, so [it’s] very special.”

Everyone in the band has a switch microphone, which enables them to communicate with each other as well as with the front of house and monitor engineers. “They use Sennheiser e 835’s, and that’s really important because the band is split up in four different areas. We want to make sure they have complete communication control the entire time. If something goes wrong [or] they need a hand with something, our RF technician can run out and help them during the show. In the drum and percussion pit, whilst the electric drums don’t need to be mic’ed up, we have a lot of acoustic percussion and, for that, we use Sennheiser and Neumann microphones. We’ve got Sennheiser e906s, KM 184s from Neumann and a couple of e 604s from Sennheiser.”

“In other systems and other the shows, we might have used analog wireless microphones, but the Sennheiser 6000 series really helps us,” explains Peterson. “Being all digital, we have no issues with harmonic distortion. They’re really easy to use and even simple things like the networkable chargers, so we can see in WSM – from any computer in our rig – what the battery life is looking like for the next round of batteries we are going to be putting in, as well as the ones I’ve already got on-stage. So it really helps us with redundancy in terms of that. Moving every week, we obviously have to do a new frequency coordination for every city we’re in. [I think] one of the issues that manufacturers had before was the latency that digital brings in, especially when so many other parts of the system [are] digital as well – the console, the in-ears and so forth. [Sennheiser] really has brought the latency down to almost negligible, and it really helps us to have a real-time monitoring system [with the artists].”

“Obviously, we’ve got some great gear [here at Corteo]. It’s been an awesome experience building this kit over the last year, and I’ve certainly learned a lot. Advice I’d give to people getting into the industry would certainly be to broaden your skills in a networked environment. Networked audio is definitely the primary backbone for pretty much every major system you see these days, and I’d say that any experience in an IT field is almost more important than tuning a drum kit or micing up a guitar amp. It can be daunting, but it’s also really exciting with what you can do at the same time. So, I really think it’s important that we really nurture [new people in this industry] and give them great support and advice, because they’re the people are going to be working alongside you in years to come.”

You can watch the 3-part interview with Christian Peterson here:

• Part 1: https://youtu.be/45oTKIQ6V3M
• Part 2: https://youtu.be/xBl4ninRb3A
• Part 3: https://youtu.be/-a9uaKZnMaE

And if you’re interested in other interviews in the series, check them out here: https://en-us.sennheiser.com/protalkseries