A new era began at the Beacon Theatre on Friday as Trey Anastasio broke in the storied New York venue’s new Sphere Immersive Sound setup, touted by MSG Entertainment as “the world’s most advanced concert audio system.”
The system utilizes 3D audio “beamforming” technology, developed with German firm Holoplot, to deliver clear, uniform sound to every seat in the building. Instead of ever-expanding waves from an array of individual speakers, Sphere Immersive Sound is transmitted in thousands of distinct beams, ensuring even audio over large distances and providing the optimal sound mix for every audience member, no matter where they’re seated.
The system now permanently installed at the Beacon is split into five arrays tailored to cover the theater’s four main areas: orchestra, loge, lower balcony, and upper balcony. Where conventional speaker technology inevitably falls prey to architectural dead spots, which can lead to inconsistent sound at different spots in the room, 3D beamforming ensures that the sound levels remain consistent from point of origin to your ears.
While the Beacon is the first active venue to implement the cutting-edge Sphere Immersive Sound technology—an honor that makes a strong case for the historic theater as the best-sounding venue in the world—the new audio technology was developed with a different venue in mind. The MSG Sphere at The Venetian, currently under construction in Las Vegas, NV, will expand exponentially upon the 52-speaker Sphere Immersive Sound setup now running in New York. The futuristic venue will use 164,000 individual speakers to deliver the immersive audio experience to up to 20,000 people at once, among other extrapolations of the system’s various applications.
[Photo via MSG Entertainment – Construction continues on MSG Sphere in Las Vegas]
A demonstration of the Beacon’s comparatively “modest” Sphere Immersive Sound setup on Friday morning provided a glimpse of the system’s vast potential. MSG Sphere EVP & COO Rich Claffey and MSG Entertainment advanced engineering SVP Stuart Elby ran down the finer points of the new technology and showed off the system’s audio targeting precision by playing an electric blues tune and “pooling” the audio of the different instruments’ parts in different parts of the room. True to their word, each section of the orchestra came alive with a different part of the mix while maintaining the overall quality of the sound. They also showed off the Sphere Immersive system’s ability to reflect sound off of the venue’s walls, to deliver sound in beams both narrow and wide, to create a surround-sound effect using a single set of speakers and the organic contour of the room. The seemingly endless applications effectively turn the sound design into another instrument—another creative role in the live production.
Considering the maddeningly complex capabilities of the technology, a solo acoustic guitar show seemed at first like a strange choice for its debut outing. Claffey, however, was certain about the choice of Anastasio as the system’s official Guinea pig. “Trey Anastasio is probably the best rock star to debut something like this,” he explained.
As Elby posited, this type of performance relies on the intimate connection between the performer and the audience, on the purity of the sound delivered by the rudimentary instrumentation. In effect, with a solo acoustic show, the onus falls heavily on the sound system to deliver pure, clear audio to the thousands in attendance.
Back in June, Claffey explained, Trey stopped by the company’s Big Dome immersive development studio in California to hear what they had been working on. “They were blown away by our content creation studio and by what they heard as far as our audio. He was so impressed with it, he wanted to know more. Of course, Trey being Trey, the greatest guy there is, he just wanted to know more, and here we are.”
In a promotional video for the system, Richard Glasgow, Trey’s tour director, weighed in: “Trey’s acoustic shows are so intimate and so connected with the audience. He’s so close that he’s telling stories and connecting with them in a much different way than he can on a huge stadium stage or even at an amphitheater or at The Garden. He’s so close to the audience and its such a connecting experience… Really, to me, it’s the perfect opportunity to use this system… Trey playing solo acoustic here [at The Beacon].”
Added Garry Brown, Trey’s front of house engineer, “Walking around the venue [at rehearsal] it sounded the same everywhere. I went all the way up to the top, all the way down to the the front, and it all sounded the same. That doesn’t happen. You try to do that, but it never happens.”
[Photo via MSG Entertainment – Sphere Immersive Audio at the Beacon Theatre]
Of course, the relationship between MSG Entertainment and Anastasio extends far beyond this latest endeavor. Anastasio has a long history with MSG Entertainment’s venues—as a solo act, with Trey Anastasio Band, and with Phish—and lives just a short walk from the Beacon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. That sense of familiarity was a driving force behind his 2020 livestream residency at the theater, The Beacon Jams, which raised more than $1 million for the Divided Sky Fund. Before Friday night, Anastasio’s last Beacon show came in June of 2021, when he welcomed a capacity crowd back into the building for the first time in 450 days.
Despite recent reports that U2 will christen the MSG Sphere—and leaving aside MSG’s long relationship with Anastasio and his various bands—Rich Claffey remained dutifully mum on who might be in talks to play the new Las Vegas arena when it opens in 2023. “It’s a work in progress,” he told Live For Live Music. “But we’re Madison Square Garden. We talk to everybody.”
To pick your opportunity to hear the new system in action, view a schedule of upcoming concerts at the Beacon Theatre here. For a full recap of Trey Anastasio’s Friday performance at the Beacon Theatre, head here. For a recap of the Saturday show, head here.
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