VOLTA: “A Technical Box of Wonders”

True to its name, Volta—Cirque du Soleil’s newest, brightest touring show—is supercharged, crackling with energy, and, at times, shocking. A coming-out fable articulated through a series of electrifying physical performances and poignant choreography, Volta is bathed in light and luminous, luxurious imagery. Up to 80 layers of video and multimedia visuals, much of them generated in real time in response to live music cues, soundscape, and lighting design, paint a neo-Baroque fantasy world for three distinct strata of humanity.

Volta’s central narrative device, Quid Pro Quo, is a TV talent show-within-the-show. Presiding as host of Quid Pro Quo, is Waz, a conflicted young man born with a head of blue feathers in place of hair. Growing up, he was bullied for being different; he now hides this part of himself under a helmet. But that is about to change, as Volta opens with Quid Pro Quo’s 1,000th episode.

Contestants will be chosen from among the Greys, who, dressed monochromatically in costumes resembling newspapers, march dutifully through life in lockstep with one another, eyes fixed on their eerily incandescent cellphones. Quid Pro Quo’s winners—the challenge is a vigorous ropeskipping contest—get to join the Elites, signifying their newly elevated status via a wardrobe upgrade to the Elites’ gold and black.

Entering down the center aisle dressed in golden dragon scales, Waz is the ultimate Elite. As he approaches the stage, he erupts in myriad dazzling beams of light, courtesy of 168 red lasers sewn into his coat, along with 90m of wiring. The lasers and their reflections amplify the magnificent radiance that, for Waz, only masks the emptiness he feels inside.

Dressed in complex, richly colored macramé and crocheted outfits evocative of various indigenous cultures, the third group, the Free Spirits, embrace life fearlessly, largely through daring feats of athletic and acrobatic prowess that demonstrate their consummate skill at extreme sports, such as parkour and BMX, that comprise the bulk of the show. It is they who guide Waz to freedom and personal fulfillment outside the confines of Quid Pro Quo, cheering him on and him openly celebrating his blue feathered coif.

Like almost all Cirque du Soleil touring show, Volta is staged as theatre-in-the-round under the Grand Chapiteau, the big top that recalls the company’s early days in Québec. Measuring 167′ in diameter, it stands almost 57′ high and is supported by four central masts, each 80′ tall. A wall and supplementary upstage decking, directly behind the 41′ diameter stage, displace about one-quarter of the usual 2,600 seats, limiting capacity to 2,000 in a 240° arc around the stage and transforming it into more of a thrust.

A 5,000lb open-frame bridge, spanning the rear of the stage, glides up and down on vertical tracks mounted on the two upstage masts and serves as an additional staging and rigging platform. The Sky Grid, suspended from the four masts directly above the center of the stage, is accessible from a catwalk running from the upstage-left mast.

“Volta has the largest stage area and the most set pieces we’ve ever built for any of our big top shows,” says touring head of lighting Simon Fox, who also notes that numerous pieces of scenery are stacked in storage pockets in the upstage wall, ready to be deployed. As in all Cirque productions, performers, rather than stagehands, set up and strike each scene, which, along with the wall-to-wall score, keeps the audience engaged during scene changes and drives the show forward.

At each stop on a tour, it takes eight days for a crew of 80 to set up the 1,200 tons of tents, equipment, and staging hauled in 61 tractor-trailers from one location to the next. In addition to the big top, the inventory includes smaller tents for the artists, the main entrance, box office, concessions, dining room, and the Tapis Rouge, a red-carpet venue that holds up to 250 VIP guests. The canvas alone weighs 11,500lb. Several trailers remain on site during the run of the show to provide space for workshops, the kitchen, and sanitary facilities. The big top, artists’ tent, and Tapis Rouge tent are all climate-controlled. The show includes 46 performers, 23 show technicians, and 12 site technicians who look after the tents, plumbing, and other elements of the infrastructure.


The physics of the big top subjected the production design to a unique set of logistical constraints: extremely tight space, priority on the grid given to acrobatic rigging and performer flying, and strict weight limits, dictating the type and amount of equipment that can be hung on the masts. For the production designer Bruce Rodgers, who, for the past 11 years, has enjoyed the luxury of an entire NFL football field to stage Super Bowl halftime spectacles, these limitations opened up a new world of possibilities.

“After a two-year design process with Cirque du Soleil, you really learn a new way to approach things,” Rodgers says. “I’m approaching my rock concert design, my television, even the Super Bowl differently based on what I learned from those guys.”

Rodgers had an opportunity to pivot from the gargantuan scale of the Super Bowl to a more compact circus staging when he was called on by Cirque du Soleil’s special-events division, 45 Degrees, to design the opening ceremony for the 2015 Pan American Games, helmed by the same creative duo behind Volta: the writer and director Bastien Alexandre and the creative director Jean Guibert. “While essentially a Cirque show, [the Pan America project] was different in that the stage was comparatively massive,” Rodgers says. “In fact, it was probably the biggest thing physically that the Cirque had ever done. When they called me after PanAm and said they wanted me for this project, we studied the 20 big top shows that Cirque had already created, and saw that every one of them had held all the action within the confines of the 41′-diameter deck. We began working together in a small room that was painted black, so we could use chalk to sketch out ideas on the walls; we spent three weeks sketching various ways to solve the puzzle of the deck.”

Much more scenery had been envisaged for Volta than for past big top shows, necessitating new offstage storage space. The puzzle was solved, Rodgers says, by adding “a scenic wall or a scrim or structural wall that would take up some of the 360° where there would be no seats, and we would hide scenery behind it. Then we pushed that wall 30′ further back to give us more performance space to deepen the presentation, even though that left us with less space backstage. A lot of work over two years went into the design of that wall.”

Some scenic pieces, including metal parkour frames and six large polycarbonate BMX bike ramps, are constructed to fit inside each other, in the manner of Russian dolls, for more compact and efficient storage behind the wall. Rodgers adds, “We also used the wall to nestle two 164-sq.-ft. band shells, sunk 2′ below the show deck—which are necessary because it’s a live music show—and to contain the Cube that serves as our centerpiece.”

Emerging from behind a curtain in the center of the wall, the 13,000lb Cube is anchored to an automated tracking system, located in the deck, that moves it 25′ downstage, rotates it on its vertical axis, and splays out two walls, hinged on opposite corners, to reveal an inner chamber. The two walls serve as oversized LED display screens for multimedia content, and the top surface is accessible via a concealed ladder and hatch for use as a supplementary mini-stage. The circuitry for the Cube’s mechanical and electrical systems is on its own 200A supply, and the wallpaper on the backs of the walls is perforated with tiny holes to supply air for cooling the LED panels.

“The wall panels are equipped with air brakes, and we have a readout on their position so that we can stop them at exactly the right angle,” Fox says. “Under the Cube’s floor panels are the motors that allow it to rotate and pockets for all the power, DMX control, and dimmers, as well as patch boxes for certain other things in the show that we need, such as networking. There’s also a large igus cable spool underneath that allows the CAT6 cables to twist 360°.”

The Cube is Waz’s refuge, where he can safely cast off his golden costume and TV persona. Like a magic box, it undergoes several transformations in interior décor, as when it changes from Waz’s dressing room into his childhood bedroom, where he rummages through a treasure chest of cherished mementos. At one point, the Cube becomes a kind of time capsule where he watches home movies of his happy childhood, which the audience sees on the splayed-out LED panels.

“We used the Cube less as a background surface and more as a monolith in a Stanley Kubrick kind of way,” Rodgers says. “With a scrim surface on the back that allowed us to bleed light through to reveal what’s going on inside, the Cube became a living portion of the design. That was one of our goals: We didn’t want the scenery or the stage design to feel latent or dead or too black, but to have an energy to it. The lighting designer, Martin Labrecque, and I worked closely together to ensure that every scenic piece has either LEDs infused into it or lighting hidden within it.”

That’s also true for the 38″-high stage itself, Rodgers says: “When you look at the history of big tops, they always have a fantastic scenic floor with a great look; the façade of the stage always has a character to it as well. Our concept for the stage was a granite quarry.

Deconstruct that a little into blocks of granite, some of which are a bit crumbly and others of which are perfect 90° cuts that have been shaved and polished. Then sculpt these pieces together to make it look as if the whole stage foundation was mined from a quarry, and now let’s infuse light into it. It looks a little broken, with cracks and fissures, and light spills through the hard granite and gives it a softness. The ‘granite’ is a combination of heavy-duty vacuform and fiberglass on metal frameworks.”

In a first for Cirque du Soleil, three slim, articulated hydraulic lifts were incorporated into the center of the stage to raise and tilt sections of the floor up to 22′ above the deck in order to accommodate several feats of physical prowess, including an extended trial bike-riding scene in which the rider scales numerous obstacles without setting foot on the ground. Each of the three lifts is equipped with four Chauvet Professional ÉPIX LED strips mounted on its sides, while on the base plate below the deck, six ETC 750W WFL PARs provide interior lighting that effects the softness within the granite.

A lighting ring, populated with 32 Elation Professional ELAR Q1 LEDs, is set into the floor near the outer edge of the stage. “These lights can chase, tone, and give some footlight moments,” Rodgers says. “The combination of hard and soft, real and imagined, was a major piece of the language, and having Martin be able to control and pulse light through the stage gave it a sort of heartbeat and endowed it with life.”

The outer edge of the stage is defined by a ring of three sets of LED tape that run under a diffusive Plexiglas covering and are spread across 22 DMX universes. “The groove for the ring is 3″ wide by 1″ deep,” Fox says. “We’re using RGBW tape at 144 LEDs per meter, with two LED strips on the outer edge and one LED strip on the inner edge. The ring is 38m long and includes 16,416 LEDs, excluding an additional 12 sets of ‘lava’ LED tape running from the ring to the base of the stage facing.”

A 4.5′-wide donut turntable, located between the central lift area and lighting ring, is controlled by a TAIT Navigator system, as are the lifts, Cube, bridge, and elements of the grid. As in all big top shows, winches and hoists are floor-mounted under the bleachers, with lift lines running up over pulleys at the top of the masts and down to the loads. All equipment under the bleachers is covered during performances to protect it from spilled drinks, popcorn, and other detritus from excited spectators.

Two booths are provided in alcoves in the tent wall for the automation console operator, stage manager, lighting console operator, and multimedia operator. The front-ofhouse sound position is in the seats, between the booths.

For the mind-blowing BMX bike finale, the stage is transformed into a full-size skate park with six ramps made of thick, heavy-duty polycarbonate, the same material used to make bulletproof glass. A polycarbonate wall section is also winched down from the grid several feet above a pair of ramps at downstage center. Fully transparent, the wall and ramps allow spectators sitting in the front rows to witness five death-defying riders hurtling directly toward them at white-knuckle speed and bouncing off the wall high over the stage. A rider landing on a ramp generates a force of 12Gs, essentially 12 times his weight.

The finale celebrates Waz, now in control of his life and, according to a program note, “admitted into this community of life-loving Free Spirits. In a contagious spirit of celebration, they let it all out and show their mettle.” Some of the jaw-dropping tricks in this sequence are described in the Cirque’s publications with a fair degree of understatement; for example: “The rider does a backflip with his bike combined with a 180° spin before landing on the ramp. While doing a backward flip with his bike, the rider performs a tail whip: he throws the bike out to one side while still holding onto the handlebars so that the frame goes 360° around the steering tube; he then catches the frame again and stands back on the pedals.” All this while he’s barreling straight at the seats mere feet away.


“From the beginning, I wanted the show to be very bright and built around light,” says video content and interactive designer Thibaut Duverneix. “That’s something that the visual design team agreed with, but I did not want to use projectors for two reasons. First, I didn’t want to compete with the lighting design. In a space like the big top, it puts constraints on the lighting designer to make him work around the projections. Second, I didn’t want to have to manage the inevitable shaking from all the movement on and above the stage. When you’re trying to rig projectors, it’s difficult to maintain a really stable image.

“Right from the beginning, we decided to work with LEDs and not projectors. I wanted the whole place to be super-bright, and I also wanted great image quality—something that would be warm for the memories sequences featuring the cinematic footage that we shot, and also the details that we were planning on doing with the photorealistic CGI that we created with OctaneRender GPU-rendering. We had to go with a product that was high-end and, also, because the audience is very close to the set, something that would be sharp with a high pixel density and that afforded good viewing angles. It’s invariably a problem that you get some bending artifacts if you look at it from the side. The tricky part was to find a partner to build the screens that would yield beautiful images with an organic feel. We had the 4mm LED displays, with a resolution just under HD—1540 x 900 pixels—manufactured by Theatrixx Technologies in Montréal.”

Some 200 Chauvet ÉPIX Strip Tour pixel-mapping 0.5m LED strip fixtures, featuring 25 LEDs in a single row, and 26 ÉPIX Bar Tour pixel-mapping 1m LED bars, featuring 150 LEDs in three rows, are mounted around the stage, on the bridge and four masts, and at various other locations throughout the big top, says technical designer Olivier Gagnon. Duverneix and Gagnon customized a playback rig based on a Coolux Pandoras Box V.6 media and show control system, using Derivative TouchDesigner visual programming language, to achieve real-time interactivity of the content on the LED strips, 4mm Cube displays, and four small displays on the back wall, yielding a look that’s never exactly the same from one show to the next.

Duverneix says, “We created a software patch to control every single LED in the space, and designed chasing effects and various shapes in three dimensions in real time that can change color and create new patterns in response to, say, the music, sound effects, and voices. It is a very capable tool, given that there are so many DMX universes running that it isn’t possible to drive everything from the console. TouchDesigner is a node-based framework that allowed us to use Python and Open GL shaders. We built a number of software applications out of this framework. One was a cue manager, enabling us to receive cues from the music director, sound board, and lighting board, and also to send cues ourselves. While the show runs on time code, it’s organic in that if someone happened to be falling unexpectedly and the musicians decide to run an extra loop of music, they would send us a cue and we would have a strategic procedure to adapt the show at that instant. That way, everything was always super-synched while simultaneously being interactive.”

For communication with the lighting and sound departments, Duverneix used OSC, Open Sound Control, which, he says, “is like MIDI, but better for us, because it offers more addresses and more control over the signal. Some devices don’t read OSC, however, so we translate the OSC to MIDI or Art-Net within TouchDesigner, depending on whether we’re sending it to the sound board or lighting console.”

Three cast members are equipped with video cameras, which seems natural given that there is ostensibly a TV show in progress; it allows for a very effective use of straight and treated IMAG at several points.

“I used IP cameras rather than broadcast cameras because I wanted to have everything running on the network, and I hid them inside the lenses of bigger ENG prop cameras that the performers carried around the stage like a live TV crew,” Duverneix says. “We used IDS cameras from Germany; they are very robust and are typically employed in industrial applications such as monitoring machinery. They take PL-mount lenses, are powered via PoE [Power over Ethernet], and can deliver 60fps on a Gigabit connection, so they are great for our application. You get the raw feed, with very low latency, that you can manipulate any way you want in the software.

“As with the filmed elements,” he continues, “we had the option of playing back the movies from Pandoras Box, or routing that output through TouchDesigner and applying real-time shaders on top of it, fragmenting the image, or creating other artifacts in real time. We were typically working with four layers, but on occasion we were working with up to 80 layers—the layering possibilities in TouchDesigner are limited only by the amount of processing power in the computers.”

Duverneix and his team shot the footage for Waz’s childhood home movies with an Alexa camera and vintage Zeiss lenses from the 1970s. “They are beautiful lenses, very soft and creamy,” he says. “When you stick them on a modern camera with a really sharp big sensor, they don’t cover the whole sensor, so it gives you a kind of vignette. They’re not exactly the same size as the sensor on the Alexa, which is 4K—actually 3.2K. But it was fine, because we were shooting square, so I just cropped it because the vignette was outside of my shooting zone.

“With the system we developed, we take the live feed from three onstage cameras, add VFX on top of it in real time, and integrate it with the filmed elements and CGI being rendered simultaneously in response to various triggers from the other departments, thanks to the speed of OctaneRender’s GPU-rendering. All of this is done in real time using TouchDesigner and some software we created with it. We did a lot of R&D on this project just to find the right pipeline that is super-responsive and still maintains really good quality. That’s important for me: I want to bring cinema quality to the stage, which is a challenge because, onstage, people want things very quickly and they want to be able to try different things in rehearsals and change certain things, and you have to be responsive and follow the staging. It’s not like you’re making a movie, where you edit it and it’s over. You have to be able to change, because the show is changing every day.” Nicolas Gendron served as project manager for video.

Along with the multimedia extravaganza, the lighting design goes a long way toward establishing the overall atmosphere of Volta and creating the illusion that there’s a live TV program in progress. But, as always, lighting is also tasked with highlighting performers and focusing the audience’s attention on particular details. “It’s a really weird process, because at Cirque we have to do a lighting design even before they start rehearsing, so we’re spending $1 million to buy equipment for a show that we can see only on paper,” Labrecque says, noting that Volta is his fifth big top show.

“I have to make sure I can light the performance, make an ambiance, and be able to do something totally different if we change course during rehearsals. If the director or producer says, ‘I don’t like the look of it; we need to do something different,’ I have to be able to react. I have to think about that while I’m making my equipment list for purchase. I used to say that I’m making a box of crayons, a toolbox. I make sure to have all the colors and everything I might need in that toolbox, so I can go either way: If the design changes, fine, I can react; if it stays on the same course, I have what it takes to light it.


“And it depends on the acrobatic level of the performance: Some shows are bigger, acrobatically, and others are easier to light. Even now, there’s a number coming into the show that we’re still working on, and I have to be able to light that, too. But I have a big toolbox to play with. I make sure I can respond to any demands I get, as well as to my own demands, too.”

Regarding lighting positions, the four masts bear most of the load simply because, apart from the floor, there aren’t many others available. “It’s a different way of thinking because you have to think vertically,” Labrecque says. “We can’t hang much from the grid because there’s a lot of rigging up there. On the bridge, I have only a few fixtures, because it’s used as an acrobatic apparatus and it moves a lot. In any event, it’s almost already at the maximum weight it can support, so most of the hanging is on the four masts.” No more than a pair of ETC PAR MCM fixtures can be placed at each end of the bridge. “Also,” he notes, “this was the first big top show to have video, and we’re all fighting for places where we can hang.”

Each of the downstage masts includes a followspot operator position equipped with a Robert Juliat Lucy unit located about 24′ off the floor. Some 12′ above that are a Claypaky Scenius Spot and a pair of Claypaky A.leda BEYE K10s; higher still are six ETC Source Four PAR MCM fixtures with medium flood lenses, two at 40′ and four at 42.5′; another two are hung 16′ off the floor. Just under the spot operator platform are four ETC Source Fours with 36° field angles.

The upstage masts are configured differently. Between 20′ and 41′ off the floor, two identical arrays are hung on the sides of each mast facing the stage: In descending order are a Scenius Spot, A.leda B-EYE K10, Ayrton MagicPanel-FX, and another A.leda B-EYE K10. This sequence is repeated, and, below that, at 18′, is a pair of ETC Source Four PAR MCM fixtures with medium flood lenses, and, at 16′, two ETC Source Fours with 26° field angles. On the upstage side of these two masts, two A.leda B-EYE K10s are hung at about 23′ and 27′.

Topping the upstage-right mast at 42.5′ are six ETC Source Four PAR MCM fixtures with medium flood lenses. On the upstage-left mast, the corresponding six fixtures are hung a bit lower, out of the way of the catwalk anchored here.

A Claypaky Mythos 2 hybrid light is hung at each of the cardinal points on the outside edge of the grid, with an additional Mythos 2 hung right in the center. “There’s not much space to hang and we’re all fighting for it. I need the beam mode and I need to be able to use gobos, too, so I didn’t use [Claypaky] Sharpys because they do only one thing,” Labrecque says, explaining the necessity of selecting versatile equipment. “We used [the Mythos units] a lot in beam mode, so we could structure the light.”

He also hung nine Chauvet Professional COLORado 1 Quad Tour LED wash lights upstage and nine downstage, on the grid, as well as a single ETC Source Four with 19° field angle under each end of the catwalk in the grid.

Two small trusses, rigged on span guys over the rear seats next to the wall of the big top at stage left and stage right, each carry five ETC Source Fours with 19° field angles. For lighting behind the upstage wall, Labrecque hung eight ETC Source Four PAR MCM fixtures with medium flood lenses, spaced about 5′ apart.

Floor space around the deck is extremely limited. A slightly sunken shelf was built on each side of the stage in the angle where it fans out into the additional upstage performance space to accommodate a single Mythos 2 unit.

A Claypaky Alpha Profile 1200 beam shaper sits atop each of the band pods, upstage left and right, while three Chauvet Professional Rogue R1 wash moving heads occupy the corners of the Cube’s roof, and a fourth is centered on the truss under which the Cube rests in its default upstage position.

Although Volta’s lighting design is comparatively modest—with 40 moving lights as opposed to some 400 in Labrecque’s design for the Pan American Games—it does the job extremely effectively, hitting all the right notes and pumping up the already high energy onstage. Programming on the MA Lighting grandMA2 console was by François Marceau, the project manager for lighting was Annick Ferland, and Kareen Houde served as the lighting assistant.

Integral to the scenic design are 22 “lampposts” shaped like inverted hockey sticks, six of which are deployed in several locations around the stage throughout the show. Each of the 16 fixed lampposts sports either one Épix Tour Bar or one ÉPIX Strip Tour LED strip under the upper short angled arm and, depending on the post’s height and width, either two Épix Tour Bars or three ÉPIX Tour Strips on the vertical portion. The movable lampposts are fitted with generic RGBW LED strips and are batterypowered, using a custom wireless system. Each lamppost is spiked into a corresponding anchor in the stage about 1.5″ in diameter and 8″ deep. “We use a total of 27 EPIX Drive 900s to control the whole system,” Fox says.

In addition to the lights built into the stage, a noteworthy lighting feature is the prop cell phones that entrance the Greys with their eerie ultra-white glow. Studded with white LEDs around the edges, these self-contained, battery-operated devices were designed and manufactured for the show by Inventions Guite Inc., of Montreal. Together with Waz’s laser-adorned coat—a development of the costume designer Zaldy Goco’s model for Michael Jackson’s This Is It Tour that never was—they constitute a extension of the use of light into other departments.

Rounding out the lighting gear list are two Elation Professional Protron 3K LED strobes. Also used are four Ultratec Special Effects Power Fog Industrial 9Ds, three Ultratec Premier Fog Effects Generators, two Look Solutions Tiny CXs, one Look Solutions Viper, one Martin by Harman Jem Glaciator X-Stream, and two MDG Atmosphere APS haze generators.


Volta is propelled by a non-stop, high-energy music score composed by Anthony Gonzalez, the single full-time member of the electronic music project M83. Shifting from atmospheric soundscapes to rhythmic urban pop and soaring symphonies rich with orchestral-sounding synthesizers, Gonzalez’s highly cinematic score evokes a range of moods that flow with the unfolding narrative. Always in sync with the acrobatic performances, the score is also tightly synchronized with the lighting effects, thanks to the interactive responsiveness of the multimedia design.

The score is played mostly live by a four-piece band with two onstage vocalists. The female vocalist occasionally doubles on electric violin. Offstage, the band is divided in half, with two instrumentalists in each of the upstage band pods. To the left are the band leader, playing keyboards and doubling occasionally on sax and electric bass, and the drummer. The band leader also operates an Ableton Live software music sequencer. The second keyboardist and guitar player, in the opposite pod, join the cast onstage on several occasions. “In the beginning, we didn’t have the musicians onstage as much, but we’ve been hearing that people don’t realize that it’s live music, so we’ve been putting them onstage more,” Fox says.

One electronic keyboard controller used by the band is the unique and very expressive Roli Seaboard. While the keys are laid out in the conventional piano sequence, the entire keyboard is covered in a continuous surface of pliable silicone. In place of the usual control wheels for modulation and pitch bend, the player executes these effects by moving fingers up and down over the pliable surface, holding keys down while vibrating the fingers to achieve vibrato, for example, or moving the hands sideways along a strip below the keys to effect pitch bending. Gonzalez has taken advantage of the innovative way that sounds that can be modified using the Seaboard to the point that it seems inconceivable that Volta’s score could be accurately executed without it.

“We have stereo synths, stereo drums, stereo bass, stereo guitar, stereo extra vocals, and 32 outputs of Ableton Live coming back to the front-of-house and monitor consoles, so that we can separate all the audio,” says the sound designer Jean-Michel Caron. “We also have a few inputs for special effects. If we want to have something move around, we can put it in the [Meyer Sound] DMitri Space Map and have those sounds dance around the big top or any speaker we want.”

These spatial effects are executed from a D-Mitri matrix system with a 32-fader control surface at the front-ofhouse position, through a sound reinforcement-system centered on the masts, with subs beneath the stage, and surround and ambient loudspeakers hung in six locations near the curved wall of the big top.

“Every speaker is on a discrete output line from D-Mitri, so we can send sound to any or all of the speakers,” Caron says. “The D-Mitri Space Map lets you move sound around speakers: It could be two speakers, or it could be 90. You just draw where you want to move the sound image and it pretty much does the trajectory. It’s repeatable, and you can make it go faster or slower. It’s a great tool for sound design. It gives you flexibility to do pretty much anything you want. You’re not stuck with a console with a normal output structure. It is an immersive kind of system. The main thing was to use the sound to get the audience to focus on the action. And it was important that we be able to move sound around. It gives it more fun; sound becomes a character in the show.”

“Everything happens on stage but because the audience is in a 240° arc all around, it’s always been very hard to get a great image on the side, to help people focus on what’s going on at the front,” Caron adds. “For me, it was important that wherever you sit around the stage, the audio would seem to come from that 41′-diameter stage. It’s not so much pinpointing where the actor is, but, in a more general way, for the audience to say, no matter where they’re sitting, ‘I’m watching the show, the action and music are there, everything comes from straight in my face and there’s nothing coming from where it shouldn’t be coming from’.”

Because of weight restrictions, powered loudspeakers were ruled out. “We’re using a d&b audiotechnik passive loudspeaker system,” Caron explains. “While Meyer has been a great speaker for us for a long time, we ran into a problem with the weight. The set is bigger; that bridge is so massive and heavy. There’s only so much weight that can be supported by the masts, so every time they put something else up in the air, we have to take something down. The d&b passive speakers are very light, and that allows us to put more speakers on each mast to achieve the coverage we need. The amplifier racks are under the bleachers on the floor, with four amplifiers for the loudspeakers on each mast.”

Each upstage mast is rigged with a matching complement of six loudspeakers, angled to provide optimal coverage to all seats, including: two Vi7P three-way point-source loudspeakers, one 12S biaxial two-way narrow-coverage loudspeaker, one 12S-D biaxial two-way wide-coverage loudspeaker, one E6 two-way compact coaxial loudspeaker, and one 8S two-way compact coaxial loudspeaker. Similarly, each of the downstage masts is rigged with a matching loudspeaker complement that includes two 12S, two 12S-D, one E6, and three 8S units.

“The masts are configured with a front speaker and a cross speaker,” Caron says. “If you’re seated on the left side, for example, the image from the cross speaker is going to appear as if it is coming from the right, farther away. No matter where you sit, you have a left on one side and a right on the other. Everywhere around the big top, it’s the same configuration.”

The subs under the stage are offset from the center by about 6′, “just to clear the track of the Cube,” Caron says. “I’ve got three subs, rear-firing in cardioid pattern, which is the perfect pattern for the big top. This way, it’s one pointsource for the subs. There’s no addition or cancellation due to multiple [spaced] sources. It was easier to timealign it with the rest of the system, so we ended up having a system that’s pretty tight. The bass is awesome.”

For front fill, fourteen 4S lightweight two-way coaxial loudspeakers are mounted on the inside of the façade panels, more or less evenly spaced around the 240° arc of the stage facing the audience. Above the stage, two 10S twoway narrow-coverage loudspeakers are hung on each side of the grid, together with a single 10S-D two-way widecoverage loudspeaker at the downstage center of the grid.

“The front fills allow us to bring the image down to the stage,” Caron says. “We can send a Space Map from DMitri to make a sound effect appear to move with the action on the stage. The three loudspeakers hanging under the grid from which the artists are suspended allow us to bring the image up to the cupola if we want.”

The designer chose six positions near the wall of the big top to rig the surrounds: “There’s a funicular where they pull back the tent to get the tension; we hang speakers from there and pull them back a little bit, so they get closer to the canvas wall and about 20′ over the audience’s heads. We use two speakers in each position: one 10S-D facing toward the stage, and one smaller 8S speaker facing toward the tent. It hangs behind the larger surround speaker and is focused directly to the canvas. I’m using the canvas as a deflector, so I can use that speaker to do effects when I don’t want to hear the source clearly defined.” As an example, Caron cites a scene in which the clown Shood Kood Wood bats away at an unseen flying insect. “I didn’t want the audience to know where the buzz was coming from, so we used those rear-facing speakers to do that effect,” he says.

To support distant-sounding effects emanating from the front, Caron installed a pair of 10AL-D biaxial wide-coverage line array modules just in front of the upstage wall, one atop each of the band pods. All amplifiers are d&b audiotechnik four-channel models, including two D80s, eight 30Ds, and four 10Ds. In the case of the lip fills, the loudspeakers are doubled-up, two to an amp channel.

Band microphones include Wisycom MTH400 handheld transmitters with MCM306 custom DPA super-cardioid condenser microphone capsules for the singers, who occasionally switch to lavs worn on custom-made headsets. “They’re mostly on handhelds, except in one song when the male singer climbs up onto the bridge,” Caron says. “With its position, we had trouble getting the necessary gain before feedback, so we had to go with a Countryman [H6]. Similarly, there’s one scene where the female singer walks around the stage playing the violin. Toward the end of the song, she sings a few lines, and for that she’s wearing a headset with an omnidirectional DPA capsule,” a d:screet 4061.

In the band pods, drums mics are a Shure Beta91A and Solomon LoFReQ on the kick, Shure Beta 98AMPs on the snare and toms, Audix D6 and D4 mics on the floor toms, Rode NT55 on the hi-hat, and an Audio-Technica AT4050ST stereo mic for overheads. Shure SM57s are used on amplifiers, with Radial JDI and JDI Duplex passive direct boxes on the instruments.

During the opening Quid Pro Quo scene, Waz struts atop his Cube to striking effect behind a 24K gold-plated Heil Sound microphone. The Fin is a stand-mounted, vintage- looking mic illuminated by four internally mounted phantom-powered white LEDs. In another scene, the clown executes a mic drop using a more dispensable Shure SM58. “We want to hear the thump when it hits, so we use a 58 so he can throw it anywhere. We didn’t want him to drop a very expensive microphone,” Caron says.

One aspect that might be overlooked in staging a show under the big top is the choice of electric, rather than acoustic, stringed instruments. “A big problem we have with some of the instruments, such as violin and double bass, is the temperature shift in the big top,” Caron notes. “It’s so inconsistent. Also, it can go from very dry to very humid quickly, so it’s always a pain for acoustic instruments, even acoustic guitar, but especially for violin and cello. It gets to be a pain with the tonal change, and hard for the musicians to play. We tested the acoustic violin against the electric violin, and the electric violin is much easier.”

Monitoring is provided only for the musicians, including four drummers up on the bridge who have to follow the precision drumming of a downstage performer in a sequence during Act 2. A DiGiCo SD9, in the tiny “doghouse” backstage, serves as the monitor console, with the mix being delivered via a wireless Wisycom in-ear monitoring system. “The SD9 has a small footprint, so for us it’s perfect,” Caron says. “In the big top, the stage, sets, and props are getting bigger and we’re getting less and less space, so it was perfect to get a small desk. We’re still using 96 inputs, though.”

The analog mic and DI outputs are split via a custom Radial Engineering Convertible V12 modular snake system and fed to the analog inputs of the front-of-house and monitor consoles. The AES/EBU digital outputs from the Wisycom MRK 690 wireless-microphone receivers are converted to Dante network audio via a Focusrite REDnet D16 interface and routed along with the outputs from the drum and keyboard samplers and Ableton Live software sequencer via the Dante network to both consoles.

Dante audio from some 90 matrix outputs from the 144-input D-Mitri front-of-house system is routed over the network to four d&b audiotechnik DS10 audio network bridges, one in each amplifier rack under the bleachers near the base of each mast, where it is converted to AES/EBU and input to the amplifier DSP for loudspeaker processing and amplification. A Waves SoundGrid, used for effects processing at the front-of-house position, connects to D-Mitri via AES/EBU.

The MADI output from the DiGiCo monitor console is converted to analog via an Antelope Orion 32 D-to-A converter for distribution to performers.

“D-Mitri is set up, at the moment, with 144 buses,” Caron says. “We use the buses for different sends, so we can localize certain elements. We’ve set up a left-right bus and a vocal bus, and that allows us to localize the singer in the center of the image or elsewhere. For example, when the singer is up on the bridge, we do different bussing to send his audio to different speakers, so we can feel like his voice is coming from up there.”

In the scene where Waz is watching home movies in the Cube, the sound image and quality are manipulated to change the audience’s perspective as the scene progresses. “We wanted to create the illusion that when you’re looking inside the open cube, you’re backstage with Waz,” Caron says. “We made it so that the TV show sounds like it’s happening on the other side from our perspective ‘backstage;’ then, as the cube rotates, we shift the sound image so that we switch around from being backstage behind the Cube to the show being onstage in front of us.”

The target sound pressure level for Volta is 97dB, but it seems much louder. The fact that peaks reach only 105dB SPL is, perhaps, indicative of a generous amount of compression and peak limiting that increases the perceived loudness. The touring head of sound is François Lanteigne, and Marc-André Gilbert served as project manager for sound.

Wired and Tempest wireless systems from Clear-Com are used throughout, with noise-cancelling closed-cup headsets from David Clark provided for followspot operators seated up on the masts. The cue light system is from Leon Audio, with GDS BlueDomes for the blues system. While big top shows have relied extensively on generator power in the past, “We’re using city power in Toronto, and in general we’re leaning more toward that vs. generators for its lower environmental impact and because it is cleaner power,” Fox says.

Volta is galvanizing audiences for many reasons—not least the tight interactivity of the action with the music, sound effects, lighting, and multimedia content—but if any part can be singled out beyond the BMX finale for sheer I can’t- believe-what-I’m-seeing value, it’s perhaps an aerialist who, seeming to levitate from a cushion, fluidly executes an extended, spinning flying act suspended only by her hair. Or maybe it’s the mesmerizing synchronized choreography of a riveting pas de deux by a ballerina and a BMX flatland cyclist. This show really does have something for everyone. Following initial performances in Montreal and Toronto in the summer and fall of 2017, Volta is touring the eastern USA, with 124 performances currently scheduled in Miami; Tampa; East Rutherford, New Jersey; and Uniondale, New York.