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No Clowning Around with Top-Line Sound System:

Greatest Show on Earth Takes Sound Seriously
Pro Sound News - November 1996
By Clive Young

For most arena shows, speakers only have to be high enough to provide proper sound coverage. For the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, however, speakers also have to be high enough that acrobats don't whack into them. In the rock concert world, crews are occasionally derided as a bunch of clowns; here, that's just a statement of fact: "Some of the clowns and dancers help us set-up and tear-down - pulling cable and positioning speakers; it's extra money for them," according to FOH mixer Mark Gillis, a three-year veteran of the circus.

Mixing sound for a circus is definitely a different gig for a sound guy, but then, the '90s version of The Greatest Show on Earth is a lot different than what you might remember as a child. Sure, there's still elephants, acrobats and clowns, but now there's also a bungee trapeze troupe, a hip-hop gymnastics group and a jaw-dropping freestyle BMX bike act. Best of all, these days you can actually hear what ringmaster Eric Gillett is saying, thanks to a state-of-the-art Meyer sound system.

Independent sound consultant Roger Gans, who who toured with Luciano Pavarotti for six years, designed the speaker system which consists of ten main clusters, each comprised of one MSW 215 sub, two MSL2s with 2-inch compression drivers and an HF2 horn with two more compression drivers. Then there are ten delay clusters, each 50-75 feet out from a main cluster; two UPA speakers are used per delay cluster. A Meyer SIM® System has been used with the set up for more than two years. Moving a microphone around in front of each cluster, Gillis gets readings from five or six positions covered by a cluster before EQing; doing this for all ten takes about two hours. Set up itself takes about seven hours, following pre-rigging done the day before; tear down is about four hours. Crest 4801s and 6001s are used to power those clusters, and Gillis now swears by them: "They are absolute workhorses. They've been in some of the worst conditions, where the arenas are dusty and have dirt floors. They get filled with dust and..ahem...animal stuff, and they have been very reliable no matter what. I've only lost one channel in the time I've been with the circus."

Given the consistency of the sound coverage, Gillis mixes the show at about 92 dB, peaking at 96 dB for bed music while motorcycles ride inside the Globe of Death. "With all the young kids at our shows, it's vital that we not push the sound. It's also vital for ourselves - we do thirteen shows a week, day in and day out, and I have to be careful for my ears. I spend a lot of the show watching the audience. Kids are kids - at the slightest irritation, their hands go up. If I see children covering their ears, it's time to take it down. This, however, is the first tour where there hasn't been a single complaint from a parent on the sound," said Gillis.

Another way that the circus has moved into the '90s is its use of a nine-piece band that plays a lot more than "standard" calliope circus music. Techno pop, jazz and rock 'n' roll are all a part of the show now, and the band's U2 medley quite honestly "rocks". As is the case with most other rock bands that play nightly to sold-out arenas, they are mixed at the FOH position on a Yamaha PM4000. Despite the group's chops, or perhaps because of them, few effects are used. Symetrix Quad gates are used on the drums, horns are passed through a dbx 166 and a Yamaha SPX-1000 is used for delays. The only other major effects are three Lexicon PCM-70s, which are used in halls and arenas that don't have much natural reverb.

Also on hand are a pair of Kurzweil K2000 samplers, "loaded to the gills" with various background singers, sound effects and...opera divas? "There's a clown gag where we sampled some old opera stars from four or five operas - little snippets of each one. [Featured performer David Larible] takes people out of the audience and has them mouth the words and act out this little operetta. It sounds a bit dirty, like an old 78 record with scratches. At one point, we considered going back and re-doing all the samples off of CDs but we decided it sounded funnier with them - it's so obvious, it makes it a really bad kareoke-thing," laughed Gillis.

Still, mixing the circus brings with it certain accidents that don't normally happen on rock tours. "A lot of things can happen during a show; it's a circus," shrugged Gillis, unaware of his pun. "When they roll out the Globe of Death, sometimes cables get ripped. The tubs that elephants stand on, they're called bowl tubs, and cables have been cut by those, too."

How To Mic A Tiger: Don't

As is the case with any spectacular, microphones play an important part in the show. Ringmaster Gillett lords over the proceedings and belts out a few original tunes via a Sennheiser 4003 TV wireless microphone. "They have been working out very well for us; the sound very flat, very smooth," said Gillis. "We mic some of the acts. There's a bell act where a clown and a performer have bells on their wrists and ankles and play 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.'" The performer Audio-Technica lavaliere mics are used for the unusual performance, and another is later used "by the tiger trainer. We don't have the tigers miked, but the trainer is and once in a while, you can pick up a pretty good roar from the tigers. Our elephant trainer uses a mic [another Sennheiser 4003 TV] for part of his act because he's got the animals all over the arena floor, from one end to the other. He uses a mic so that they hear the commands in unison. There are two UPA monitors hung over each ring in the trusses to help with those things and also for the dancers. There's not much of a bleed from the house mix to the floor, so the dancers need something to help them stay in time," said Gillis.

As for the band, AKG mics seem to rule the day. A D112 is used on the kick drum, while 451s are in place as overheads and clip-on AKGs are used for the horn players. The guitar, bass and keyboards all use Countryman DIs, and the whole group gets stereo mixes by way of Monitor Mates ear monitors from Pertec , with molds by Firehouse Productions. Ringmaster Gillett uses a stereo set of Garwood Radio Station in-ear monitors. Monitor mixing is done by B.C. Carr on a Yamaha 3210. Carr is new to the job, having started in January - "I ran away to join the circus," he joked. In truth, he found the job through the placement office of Full Sail Center of the Recording Arts, of which he is a graduate. Months later, he still seemed amazed by the circus life - 300 performers and staff traveling the country on the mythic circus train - and the show itself: "It's a great show, very contemporary. The music's hip, the acts are exciting...It was all put together before I signed on so I can honestly say that!"