As the lights went down in CtNow.com Meadows Music Center on the hot and humid evening of June 28, the anticipation and energy was palpable. It was the type of excitement felt by fans that haven't seen their favorite band perform live in almost five years; the nervous energy of a crew who had worked extremely hard to get rehearsed and prepared for a show they couldn't wait to get under their belts; and the myriad of emotions of three musicians from Toronto who four years ago didn't know if this night would ever happen.
Fans had been gathering for hours outside the venue discussing the rumored setlists floating in cyberspace, the upcoming special on Canada's MuchMusic, Alex's outrageous tourbook photo and favorite songs from the new album. Outside the box office old friends were catching-up with fans they hadn't seen since July 4, 1997 in Ottawa and were now preparing for life to, as one fan described it, "return to 'normal,' or 'abnormal' depending on how you look at it."
But now the wait was over and as the lights went to black the crowd roared. The familiar strains of The Three Stooges theme soon flowed over the PA and Alex Lifeson (guitars and backing vocals), Neil Peart (drums and percussion) and Geddy Lee (bass, keyboards and vocals) entered stage left. As the theme slowly drew to a close the band erupted into "Tom Sawyer," the lights panned up and the crowd welcomed back their favorite rock trio, Rush.
July 4, 1997: Rush had just completed an extensive nine month tour of North America in support of their Test for Echo album with a performance at the Corel Centre in Ottawa, Canada. At a nearby Denny's restaurant, fans from around the globe gathered to recount the night's events and hypothesize about the future. The band already decided that they'd take it easy for a while and spend time with their families before starting another project. Within the span of the next ten months though, tragedy would strike Neil Peart's life two times.
His daughter Selena would be killed in a car accident just weeks after the tour ended and in 1998 he would lose his wife to cancer. Peart would spend the next two years trying to find joy in life again and set out on a motorcycle journey across Canada, the Western United States and Mexico. His journey to recovery is chronicled in his latest book, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road.
Lee and Lifeson, friends since high school and bandmates since the late 1960s, supported Peart's time off and made it clear they were ready to resume, if and when he was ready. In 1998, Lee began work on a solo record with long-time friend Ben Mink (best known for producing k.d. lang and playing an emotional electric violin solo on Rush's 1982 release, Signals). Lee's album, My Favorite Headache, was released in November 2000. Meanwhile, Lifeson collaborated in his home studio with his son, composed the theme for the Star Trek Andromeda series, and produced songs for 3 Doors Down and the debut album by Pennsylvania rockers, Lifer.
January 2001, Lee, Lifeson and Peart entered the studio as Peart describes, with "no parameters, no goals, no limitations?[only] trying to strike sparks from each other and feed the slow-burning fire of collaboration and mutual inspiration."
They emerged 14 months later with their first studio album in five-and-a-half years, Vapor Trails. Inspired by words Peart found scrawled on the wall of a bar in Montana, "Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion; you must set yourself on fire," the band had poured more heart and soul into this record than any in their 28-year recording history. Peart's lyrics took on a more revealing and personal nature, bringing the listener with him on his searching motorcycle journey, "Pack up all those phantoms/Shoulder that invisible load ... Show me beauty, but there is no peace/For the Ghost Rider" (Ghost Rider). The September 11th tragedies are poignantly addressed, "Talk of a Peaceable Kingdom/Talk of a time without fear ... " (Peaceable Kingdom). Peart compares the frailty and transient nature of life metaphorically to the fleeting quality of a vapor trail, "Horizon to Horizon/memory written on the wind/Fading away, like an hourglass, grain by grain/Swept away like voices in a hurricane/In a vapor trail" (Vapor Trail). His new outlook is reflected in the positively charged first single, "Celebrate the moment/As it turns into one more/Another chance at victory/Another chance to score" (One Little Victory).
It is with this positive statement that Rush opens Vapor Trails - Peart thunders out a double-bass drum rhythm as Lifeson delivers one of his most aggressive guitar riffs in years and Lee rounds out the trio with a punctuated bass line and vocal prowess that displays his maturity and growth. It firmly announces the return of Peart and the return of Rush.
Musically the album differs from recent Rush releases as it lacks the use of any keyboards. Lifeson wanted to take a new approach to his guitar work on the album by using his guitar to accomplish the soundscapes they relied on keys for in the past. On "How It Is," Lifeson created a lush and orchestral-feel by recording 21 different tracks of mandola parts for the mid-section of the song. A more organic texture and emotional feel is the result.
The songwriting process started with Lee and Lifeson musically re-acquainting themselves with each other while Peart went off to compose lyrics. For the first three weeks, Lee and Lifeson barely picked up their instruments, but instead discussed what they'd experimented with and learned since their last writing sessions. As they started to gel and jam together, the ideas started to flow and bits of songs began to emerge. Of the first songs to come together were the title track and "The Stars Look Down."
Six months into the project, as more songs came together, long-time collaborator Paul Northfield was brought in as co-producer. Northfield had engineered the first three studio albums of the '80s for the band as well as co-produced the live albums, Exit...Stage Left, A Show of Hands and Different Stages. Recently Northfield had produced Marilyn Manson, Hole, Porcupine Tree and Ozzy Osbourne. His expertise and objective ear helped the project immensely. Additionally, at Northfield's urging, the album's planned instrumental piece, "Peaceable Kingdom," had lyrics added by Peart late in the writing stages and therefore contains the album's only references to the September 11th tragedies.
"Secret Touch," arguably the finest piece of work on the album, features some of the most poignant lyrics from the drummer. A professed "weather fanatic," Peart intimately describes the pain of losing his wife and daughter:
Out of touch
With the weather and the wind direction
With the sunrise
And the phases of the moon
Out of touch
With life in the land of the loving
With the living night
And the darkness at high noon
You can never break the chain
There is never love without pain
A gentle hand, a secret touch on the heart
Emotional lyrics and passionate vocals together with a sense of instrumental urgency, combine to create a brilliant mixture of reflection and homage to the past while pushing forward towards a new tomorrow, "Life is a power that remains."
During interviews prior to the tour, Lee and Lifeson announced that it would again be billed as "An Evening with Rush," a three-hour show similar to the 1996-97 Test For Echo tour. They alluded to a number of surprises for fans including a very different setlist from recent tours and they hinted at taking some cues from a fan-based poll at rushpetition.com. All was revealed during the tour opener in Hartford and the reshuffling would include the removal of songs from recent albums as well as some songs that had become staples in recent years: "Force Ten" (played every tour since 1987), "Animate" and "Stick It Out" (both played since 1994) and the crowd favorite, "Closer to the Heart" (which had not missed a Rush performance since it's 1977 debut - Geddy and Alex even played this without Neil at a Celebrity Tennis Tournament in 1990 with Mr. Big drummer Pat Torpey). With 17 studio albums worth of material to choose from, they added some gems from the past including "Vital Signs" (which had not been played since the summer of 1992), "New World Man" (last seen in 1986), an all-'70s encore of "By-Tor & the Snow Dog/Cygnus X-1/Working Man" (not performed since 1981, 1980 and 1992 respectively), and a song they'd never performed live, "Between Sun & Moon" from their 1994 album, Counterparts.
As "One Little Victory" announced the return of Rush on CD, the opener of the live show, "Tom Sawyer," quickly brought the crowd to their feet in Hartford and declared the return of Rush on stage. Sporting a new on-stage guitar amplification set-up from Hughes & Kettner, Lifeson displayed his masterful fretwork, which did not diminish during his time away from the road, as he tore through the "Sawyer" solo. An energized Lee leapt into the air to signal the end of the song as Lifeson gathered around Peart's kit - they were back.
They immediately jumped into a double-shot of classic tracks from the '80s starting with the crowd-favorite "Distant Early Warning" which featured pink and green lighting patterns accenting the rear-screen projection video footage and a white-light heavy, dynamic musical transition from the solo section back to the chrous. "New World Man" followed it up with a sharp and twinkling guitar tone from Lifeson's cream Fender Telecaster. Lee and Peart displayed why they are arguably one of the best rhythm sections in rock as they delivered a deep groove interspersed with dynamic drum fills and downright funky bass licks.
Adding an extended solo to the 'classic' Rush-sounding "Earthshine" from Vapor Trails, the band again displayed their growing tendency to add structured improvisational sections to their new material (which began on the 1991 Roll the Bones tour). This, the first of four new songs played each night, reminded fans why they've stuck with the Canadian trio for almost 30 years - despite the numerous nostalgia acts that tour year after year, Rush has constantly challenged themselves to record, release and perform relevant music with each new album.
The following trio of songs, "YYZ," "The Pass," and "Bravado" demonstrated not only their individual skills but their songwriting skills as well. The classic 1981 instrumental, "YYZ," sounded as fresh and exciting as it did when it was first performed, each with their section to stretch their legs yet all of their parts intricately intertwined. Lee's vocal ability on the tender and emotionally charged "The Pass," from 1989's Presto album, was evident and Lifeson delivered an equally emotion-filled guitar solo. Peart's drum-work for "Bravado" was sublime, never one for a simple drum pattern, he masterfully combined the use of his right and left floor-toms with his snare drum to create a driving, yet restrained tempo. An extended solo section at the end of the song gave Lifeson time to shine.
"Natural Science" is one of the most dynamic of all Rush songs. After bringing this gem back to the set on the last tour, (it's last appearance was in 1981), they enjoyed playing it so much that it remained part of the set this time around and it's placement as the closing song of the first set could not have been paced better. Again the musical journey is matched by that of the brilliant visuals both through lighting cues and rear-screen animation. A moody guitar and vocal intro builds until the full band crashes in for a rolling journey, "wheels within wheels/in a spiral array/a pattern so grand/and complex/time after time/we lose sight of the way/our causes can't see/their effects." The animation is performed live and as the band rocks through the mixed time signature passages, the crowd is sent sprawling through a vast blue and yellow tunnel. As the first set rises in intensity and pacing, that same path is traversed within this one incredible musical voyage, leaving the crowd thankful for the emotional break between sets but wondering what was to come in set number two.
The second set began about halfway through intermission as a very slow sunrise on the rear-screen and the sound of chirping crickets. After five minutes or so an animated dragon stomps across the screen evidently looking for prey. As the dragon unleashes a mighty roar of fire, pyro is set off on stage and the band erupts into the first track on Vapor Trails, "One Little Victory." The heat could be felt more than 30 rows back, but the intensity didn't stop there. This track is a powerhouse on the album but live it come alive. Lifeson's Telecaster provided a searing tone, Lee's vocals recall the 70's and Peart drove the beat with controlled fury. "Celebrate the moment" indeed!
The move of "Dreamline" from the opening song of the set, where it was on the past two tours, to the second set meant that it allowed for a beefed up visual presentation including lasers and a much more vibrant set of light cues. Two different camera angles on the rear-screen during the solo presented both a close up of Lifeson's facial expression and his black PRS CE-24.
Peart, regarded by many drummers as one of rock's best - and with Modern Drummer's Drummer of the Year awards to prove it, brought new spice and flavor to his 7-minute drum solo. Unlike many drum solos which display only speed and volume, Peart has always structured his solos like stories with a definitive beginning, middle and climactic ending with peaks and valleys within. His DW acoustic kit consists of 11 drums, 10 cymbals, 2 Roland V-Drums, a cowbell cluster and various trigger pads and pedals. The set also includes an electronic 'back kit' with 4 Roland V-Drums and 5 Roland cymbals plus more trigger points (this 'back kit' was used for "Red Sector A" and a portion of his solo). He has jazzed-up the solo by incorporating bits from his 1986 instrumental "Pieces of Eight" as well as a boisterous selection from his Burning for Buddy projects by playing along to a sampled big band. The decibel level of the crowd at the Meadows Music Center erupted to immeasurable heights as he transitioned into this section. A palpable wave of admiration and delight swept over the crowd as he finished his solo in a crescendo of horns and drums. The Hartford crowd was extremely privileged to hear Peart's drum-work again, and more so than other crowds that I was a part of this year, they seemed to recognize that.
As the cheering died down Lee and Lifeson returned to stage center with acoustic guitars for a one-song Rush Unplugged. The stage, which moments ago seemed so large with the thunder and precision of Peart's solo and synchronized lighting effects, now seemed transformed into an intimate, softly lit area just big enough for the guitarists and their stools. A stripped down version of "Resist," from Test For Echo, was delivered with stark simplicity and tenderness. Lee's voice shone as he reached for high notes that his matured voice nailed, notes that he would likely not have been able to deliver quite so well years ago. Lifeson's delicate guitar solo sung and Lee's yearning voice brought the song to crescendo and then settled it back down again as easily as it had risen.
Representing their 1978 album Hemispheres, "La Villa Strangiato," again showed how well the three members interact as a group as they traversed the instrumental giant. Lifeson stole the microphone for his nightly 'rant' which has Peart and Lee in stitches at most venues. A favorite visual for this song came during Lifeson's moody and swelling guitar mid-section as lasers cut through the soft blue lighting and formed waves and triangle shapes above the crowd. As the solo rose to a climactic crescendo, the cue changes and a fan of lasers emerges from behind the drum kit and hovers over the entire amphitheater. A blue and green wash of soft light set the mood onstage and red spotlights highlighted the performers. The tempo changes and become short and more staccato, following suit the background wash starts pulsating in time with the band helping to take the crowd from the moody guitar break to the impending return to the song's energetic finale.
Lifeson transitioned into the familiar guitar intro of "The Spirit of Radio," again eliciting an enormous roar from the Hartford crowd. An array of yellows, reds and blues danced from the upper light trusses and splashed the crowd from the light fixtures on the stage. A sea of clapping hands welcomed the chorus and especially in Scranton, PA, they seemed to have shook the nerves of opening night and were thoroughly enjoying themselves. A quick wave to the crowd and they hurried offstage for a short break before coming out for the encore.
Returning to the stage, Lee and Lifeson opened the dryers and removed shirts, tossing a few into the crowd as Lee quipped that after "three hours and they're still not dry." When fans saw Lifeson sporting his white Gibson ES-355 guitar they knew they were in for a old-time treat. Fans were jettisoned back to 1975 when Lee announced they'd be returning to the 'tobes' and Lifeson and Peart exploded into the Fly By Night classic, "By-Tor and the Snow Dog." The aggressive and angry tone of the ES-355 matched the song's dueling intensity as all three members hit a groove and took the song to a new level. As the battle wore on, they segued into a portion of "Cygnus X-1" which has been teased on previous tours but was well represented here. Stunning lights and a humorous rear-screen animation piece featuring the stage dryers being sucked down a twisting and turning tunnel into the black hole of Cygnus, only added to the performance.
The show closed with a track from their 1974 self-titled debut, the epic rocker, "Working Man." This classic cut worked the crowd into a frenzy and the band by this point in the show also showed their enthusiasm. In Scranton, Lifeson stood in front of Lee's microphone as Lee was singing the first verse and performed a full lip-sync, as if he had taken over the role of vocalist - Lee and Peart again were in stitches at Lifeson's antics.
As the show came to a close, after-show chatter between fans focused on one thing: pure joy that the Canadian trio were back and how well they had performed. Many had traveled long distances for opening night in Hartford* and they were not let down. [*Attending the first four shows was the staff of the U.K. fanzine The Spirit of Rush. Editor Mick Burnett died suddenly a month after his trip to America. A friend to many fans around the world, Mick will be missed.] A set list that included songs from 15 of 17 studio albums and a visual presentation that included cutting-edge technology had fans beaming with excitement.
It is this cutting-edge technology and the artists behind and controlling it, that will be inspected further below...
After the band's own rehearsals, the full-production was set-up at the Glens Falls Civic Center in Glens Falls, NY, where they also rehearsed for the opening of the Test for Echo tour. Within close proximity to Toronto and the tour opener in Hartford, as well as being low-key, the location was an ideal choice. Hours of planning and preparation came together in a true team effort. It takes three extremely talented musicians and a host of equally gifted technical personnel to fill each venue with the music of Rush each night. It takes another crew of talented people to put on the visual display that accompanies a Rush show.
The band has always been passionate about complementing their live performances with captivating and engaging visuals. For this tour they called on long-time collaborators Howard Ungerleider and Norm Stangl to assist. Ungerleider has over 30 years experience in the lighting business, many of which have been spent on the road with Rush, and he runs a lighting production company. Stangl has worked with Rush since 1985 on their rear-screen projection footage and runs Spin Productions, a cutting-edge production facility for visual effects and animation.
As the tour entered its third week, Lighting Designer & Director Howard Ungerleider observed that, "The shows are going really great. [The band is] definitely having fun. The crowds seem to be really receptive, energetic and happy - everyone's happy that they're back."
Ungerleider has been working with the band since 1974 and on the road for each tour (except the 1991-92 Roll the Bones tour - he was still the Lighting Designer for the tour, but was on the road with Queensryche at the time). For many of those tours he was Tour Manager in addition to designing and operating the lights each night. While out with Rush on the Vapor Trails tour, he juggles the day-to-day operations of lighting and coordinating the visual aspects of the show whilst also managing his own business in Toronto, Production Design International which handles not only tours, but corporate events, film & TV lighting and effects and more. If that leaves any spare time while on the road he's got ways to fill that, "Right now I'm doing Area 2 as well, with Bowie, Moby and Blue Man Group, I've designed that show. I designed Alicia Keys' tour that's out presently and also the new tour for The Tragically Hip, and running Production Design. I've got a lot of stuff out there. We just had lasers out on Britney Spears - we did the whole Britney tour with lasers and Pyrotek did the pyro on it. We're about to do Lil Bow Wow right now and we're very busy. Last year I did a movie with Danny DeVito called Death to Smoochy - which was very cool. I got to work with Danny DeVito, Robin Williams and Edward Norton. That was pretty fun ... it was a great experience to work with an amazing director like that."
Ungerleider is not a bad director himself as he is the 'gatekeeper' and master of the tour's visual effects including the lighting cues, live-video feed, live 3-D animation as well as the pre-recorded video pieces and directing the spotlight operators and calling their cues. Many of the lighting cues he has pre-programmed into a High End Systems Wholehog II lighting console, and the cues can be called instantly. There are still a lot of manual lighting effects that Ungerleider performs live as those with seats near the lighting desk can attest - he can be seen deploying (rockin' out really) live effects in addition to the pre-set cues. The signal for the live-video feed, the pre-recorded video footage and the live 3-D animation are all controlled by Ungerleider via the Wholehog console and executed by means of a brand new visual imaging system, Catalyst.
Spin Productions has graciously provided the use of this Quicktime montage from the dragon sequence that introduces the second set and the song "One Little Victory." A total of 8 minutes of animation was produced from concept through to final production by Spin in just 12 weeks.
"It was bloody fantastic!" raved Spin's new Creative Director Hilton Treves. "I've been a Rush fan for 20 years at least and it was thrilling to finally work with the band." Hilton was involved in the project through out and his hands on approach was instrumental to its success.
Spin Executive Producer Norm Stangl, a long-time collaborator with the band, noted that "Geddy liked the idea of subverting the gothic feeling of the dragon with a little humor. That gave us the freedom to have some fun with the project. At one point in the show the dragon attempts to stop Alex Lifeson's guitar solo by spitting a fire ball at him. The crew rigged a pyro effect to go off behind Alex as if the dragon's fire ball just misses him."
The Catalyst processes the cues triggered by Ungerleider and they are in turn projected on a giant 40x15' LED screen behind the band offering a cutting-edge visual presentation which adds stunning imagery complementing the band's performance and Ungerleider's lighting cues. Timing is essential in this position and Ungerleider's experience with the technology and his understanding of the band and their music are key.
I caught up with Howard in Mansfield, MA to discuss the new equipment, his design and life on the Vapor Trails tour.
Bp: When did you start the design work for the Vapor Trails tour?
HU: I started working on it late February/early March. I wound up putting it together in about April, which gave us about 2 months, eight to ten weeks, to get stuff organized. We put together a lot of the visuals and concepts over that period of time. Geddy was involved directly with the visuals with myself and Norm Stangl from Spin Productions, a company called Derivative, and for live [video] it was BCC video. So we brought that whole team together. The big thing that we're using this year is this new computer system called Catalyst. The Catalyst system is made by High End and Tim Grieves came up from High End Systems and he programmed the system. It's able to store 65,000, 3-minute QuickTime movies in a computer bank.
I actually execute all the video stuff through my lighting console with lighting cues. So when you're watching "Roll the Bones" and you're seeing everything happen, it's all coming off my lighting console, or [the video footage during] "The Pass" is coming off my lighting board. So you can incorporate the visuals. That's why I think everything flows so smoothly, 'cause all the visuals are coming through as lighting cues. It's very cool."
Bp: What did you have to work with in February - did they have any sort of setlist ready for you?
HU: No. They were actually working on their setlist throughout the whole rehearsal stage. They had their own rehearsals that they were going through in May. They'd come out of the studio and taken a break and in May they started rehearsing so they had about 5 or 6 weeks to get it together. Things were constantly changing. They knew exactly, "Here's 36 songs we have as possibilities and we'll narrow it down and play 33 songs." And that's what wound up happening. And over that process what I would do is just come up with ideas because by that time my lighting system was designed, I had heard the record, I knew what I was leaning towards. I created it so it would look like vapor trails. Like a trail type of thing - I created my own trails within the system and I just think that it came together nicely. It's the smallest lighting system we've ever had but I think it's one of the most effective because it's packed with the latest technology.
Bp: On the last tour the rig was based around the three circular trusses from the Moving Pictures tour and had a very circular feel. On this tour I've noticed nothing but straight linear rigging and an emphasis on horizontal chases and so forth within the cues. Was the design inspired by the Vapor Trails theme?
HU: The Vapor Trails are what inspired it and I just thought about something cool and how to do it. I created an asymmetrical rig that you can use asymmetrically as well as symmetrically that will fit into most buildings. But tonight for example we had to cut it way down. It's a little tiny show tonight because the stage is so small here that I lost about 1/3 of the lights. It's actually kind of Stonehenge-ish tonight [at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, MA].
Bp: Is there a lot of show-by-show work to compensate for the changing venue sizes?
HU: Yes. This venue is a little small stage but a huge lawn. It's probably the biggest attendance and the smallest show, but it'll still be great, just a little different.
Bp: How did the design phase go? Did the band provide input or did they let you run with it?
HU: They usually stay away from stage design. I design it and I approach them with it and they have a look at it and they see what they like. My initial concept this time was a little bit different as I wanted nine screens as opposed to one big one, but we looked at it and figured that maybe we should go with one big one because by having nine screens it would look too busy and the images might look a bit disjointed, so we decided to go with one big screen again. And I designed the sort-of meshing around it to give it some color and make the screen look like it's floating in the air towards the second part. To make it look interesting and to keep it refreshing.
Geddy had his ideas for visuals, for the video stuff. I usually come to the party with my ideas with the lighting and the creatives. And I also work with Ged on the visuals as well. It's a lot of brainstorming.
Bp: This is the first Rush tour that has started with outdoor venues, what considerations had to be made for the lighting design?
HU: Because the first half of the show is in sunlight you have to keep that in mind to when you're programming. A lot of the cues [in the first set] are in white. I like it that way and I think I might keep it that way for indoors. I think it's punchy and effective.
Bp: In contrast, as the set progresses it seems to have a much more pronounced color palette visually and then by the second set it has a much wider color spectrum visually.
HU: Well, you have to save it because you're building the show. I think the show builds beautifully right up until the very end, especially with the encore.
Bp: On the last Rush tour you were using primarily High End System Cyberlights and Studio Colors, but you've got a brand new system this time around, the Catalyst. What can you tell me about how that was decided on and how it works.
HU: I knew I wanted to use Catalyst. [The band] weren't quite sure but after talking to them about it they were sort of intrigued by it. Catalyst just came out. We're actually using it a little bit differently because it's controlling video so the software that we have with Catalyst here is interfacing with video to control the digital video effects unit which is in the main rig - the [other tours] haven't been doing this, but it's excellent.
Now, we're not just using Catalyst, we're using another company called Derivative that builds these synth-things you see, all this eye-candy that goes on. And we have BCC video doing live, so there's really 3 elements and it's all running through the Catalyst. Catalyst is the gateway to cross-fade to make it all come and go.
The Derivative stuff that's coming on the screen, we have a VJ out front named Jim Ellis whose running all of that so even though I'm cueing it, he plays with it live and makes it change. So every night it's kind of different. He's actually tweaking it and moving it around and making it happen. And it's being controlled through fade-ins and fade-outs.
Bp: What's the breakdown on the lighting gear that you're using?
HU: I'm using Vari-lite and High End gear. I'm using some Vari-Lite 2202's - it's their new lighting fixture which is great and the rest of it is all High End gear. We're using some Martin Atomic 3000 strobes - they're quite effective. There are 96 moving lights a combination of Studio Beams, Studio Colors, Turbo Cybers, Litho Cybers and Vari-Lite 2202's. It's a pretty nice mix.
Bp: I noticed that the analog console didn't make it out this time and you have replaced the High End StausCue with some new computerized consoles.
HU: The analog console is no longer, right. It's a Wholehog II with a sub-wing. It's a great board. Everything runs off it.
Bp: And Matt Druzbik is handling the moving lights programming again.
HU: Matt's been my assistant since about 1986. He a very big help because he maintains it all for me and keeps it all running.
Bp: Mixing the video footage for BCC is David Davidian who I met on the 1997 Queensryche tour - how did you end up working with him again on this project?
HU: I actually asked David Davidian to come do this. David's a good friend of mine, he did Queensryche for me when I was busy doing other things. He's very creative. We have a good working relationship - he's excellent, and that's what you need between a video director and yourself to make sure it happens the way you want it to and to get the most bang for your buck. He's doing a great job.
Bp: What's a 'normal' day like on the road on this tour?
HU: It's very bizarre, very strange. On a gig day you arrive, wake up, have a shower, go out and make sure all the gear is out where it should be. They set up at 7 in the morning and by the time it's logistically in place it's probably around 10-10:30. I walk in and have a look at it, make any changes if you have to and set it up. Then around 2 in the afternoon we start doing our focuses and setting up all the cueing. Then the soundcheck happens and then dinner. I have my spot meeting when I tell the spotlights what I'd like them to do, and then we send the spotlights up. Then I go out to the front of the house and do the show. After the show I give the band about half-an-hour to get relaxed, then I go in there, sit down and talk to them to see what's going on, what changes they need to have and we have to make. We're on a good wavelength - we can just look at each other and know what we're talking about. And then after that everybody goes back on the bus, goes to sleep, goes to the next city and does another show. It's pretty simple, cut and dried. In the meantime during the course of that whole day I'm also doing business for my company as well.
Bp: What is the most demanding song of the set for you?
HU: There's a ton of demanding songs in the set. "Secret Touch" is very demanding. I think "Vital Signs" is demanding, actually I spent probably 12 hours programming "Vital Signs." I think "Natural Science" is demanding and "Victory" was demanding because of everything that is happening during it. Anything with video in it is pretty demanding because I have to trigger the cues right on time. If I'm out, then the skeleton's out in "Roll the Bones" so I have to be right on the money for that stuff.
Bp: I notice that Neil isn't using a click track for that song.
HU: That's why, because I'm triggering. You're watching it on the fly. So it's a human triggering point. I think it's been pretty much in sync every night, pretty close to it at least. When you watch the skeleton's foot come down it always comes down on the beat, it's kind of cool.
Bp: And your favorite of the night to perform?
HU: "Secret Touch" is one of my favorite ones, I love "Secret Touch." I love "Limelight." I love "La Villa Strangiato," "2112," they're all fun. I'm the guy who's creating it so it's hard - it's more about what do you in the audience like?
Bp: From tour to tour, do you use the cues for a particular song as a basis for that same song on the next tour and use that as a base or do you come up with a fresh new slate?
HU: I try to make everything feel refreshing. The only ones I really go back in time with are the classics like "2112" - you've got to bring back the "2112 Priests" look, you have to have that. But a lot of the other stuff is new and fresh ideas - you have to keep it refreshing. I don't really want to go back because you have different equipment and it does different things and acts differently so you have to give it something new. It makes the show more refreshing.
Bp: How did the band decide to play "Between Sun & Moon" for the first time ever on this tour? The visuals especially are superb for that track.
HU: It was a song they'd never played before and they wanted to play something that was refreshing. It's a very special song to them, especially for Neil. I think it's a really great rockin' tune.
Bp: You mentioned earlier that they had some songs that didn't make the cut for the setlist, will they be adding any songs to the mix as the tour progresses?
HU: Well, there are 5 filler songs that they're going to swap out when they go to the arenas. They're going to take some songs out and move some songs in. [Ed. Note: "Free Will" has made an appearance late in the 2nd leg on nights that "Vital Signs" has been omitted.]
Bp: The simple but effective lighting cue for "Resist" gives a nice close, intimate feel. How did they decide to include the acoustic portion into the set and was there another song planned because the setlist lists only "acoustic" and not "Resist."
HU: They were thinking of "Nobody's Hero," but "Resist" is the one they felt more comfortable with at the time. They may try "Nobody's Hero" on the next leg - you never know. I think [that portion] brings the audience closer to the band. It shows another side of the guys too.
Bp: As they did on the last tour, they are flip-flopping two new songs, "Ceiling Unlimited" and "Ghost Rider," both of which are very highly visual and that you cue in the Derivative for.
HU: They wanted both to be exposed and they're both great songs. It's "Ghost Rider" tonight. They love playing the new stuff and they wished they could play more of the new stuff but time doesn't allow it. They had to come up with a balance. I think it's a really nice set the way it flows. It's a really nice combination of songs that were chosen. Interesting too.
Bp: Has there been any discussion about filming any of the shows on this tour for an upcoming live release and if so, how much extra work is that for you on the lighting side of things.
HU: They're talking about doing a DVD when we go into the arenas. I just color correct it and bring in some additional lights. It's a lot of work. You have to key it out. The spotlights won't go any colors and stuff like that - the rear spots will, but the front spots will be the key light.
Bp: There has been a lot of discussion amongst fans as to the purpose of the dryers. I'm assuming that they are decorative pieces similar to the refrigerator on the last tour, but then again they have microphones in front of them. Are they real or just a conversation piece?
HU: A conversation piece. What it was, Alex had this big brand new huge stack and Geddy's goes direct so there's nothing - he has nothing. So rather than have a lopsided stage we needed to put something there. We were talking about vending machines at one point in time - he opted for dryers. They actually worked out really well. They're quite humorous especially when they come sucking down the tunnel in "Cygnus." [laughs]
Bp: So the microphones are just there as decoys.
HU: They're there ... as a conversation piece. Or maybe not. [laughs]
Those 'conversation pieces' not only display the band's humorous side, but also provide an ambient and moving lighting effect throughout the show as they are loaded with orange, red and black t-shirts which cast a glow from their internal lights as they spin during the performance. Several times a night a stage-tech restarts the dryers, after they complete their cycle, by inserting a new set of quarters. That's not their only humorous role though, as they are also sucked into the black hole of "Cygnus X-1" during the encore's rear-screen animation performed by Derivative VJ, Jim Ellis.
Jim Ellis is on board performing many of the animated sequences during the show. Thanks to a brand new real-time animation system from Derivative, Ellis is able to manipulate and 'jam' with the band so the animation on the rear-screen is synced-up to the band's performance. He performs Derivative's TouchMixer software which enables him to control a variety of aspects of the animation in real-time during the show. Ungerleider triggers the cues to display the information coming from the TouchMixer to the screen, mixing it with the live-video feed and pre-recorded video footage via the Catalyst. Ellis was brought in during pre-production of the tour after many of the pieces were created but provided input on a few tracks and has worked on new pieces used as the tour has progressed.
After briefly discussing the highly advanced computer animation systems in Mansfield I spoke with Jim via phone during a tour stop in Albuquerque to discuss this exciting new technology.
Bp: Tell me a little bit about Derivative.
JE: Greg Hermanovic, the co-founder of Side Effects Software, the company that made Houdini, split-off and formed this new company called Derivative. The whole point of Derivative is to be a high-end, traditional 3-D animation package, but to be used for the manipulation of real time images. It's performance based. For example, for a particular song I would perform on in a live setting, a team of about 8 people at the Derivative company will set up and build what I'm performing.
Bp: What is your role on the Vapor Trails tour?
JE: My job is to perform the animation, and make slight alterations as the tour progresses. The best way for me to describe what I do, is to get into some detail of how the animation software actually works. The way the software works is that it's a 3-tier system.
First, the Touch Designer: This is more like a traditional 3-D animation program that would be used in films. In fact, the initial code and interface for Touch is directly out of Houdini...which is used in almost every major effects movie. The main difference is that there is not a traditional 'renderer,' since this entire program is designed for real-time performance. You can think of the Touch Designer as the assembly line of machines where you build your tools that you will perform with later. You create animation environments (known as a synth) inside the Touch Designer. You set up any form of animation controller parameters you may need, building links with your midi gear inside the Designer. Once you have built your synth, you don't need the assembly line, so you discard any parts of the software that are not needed for performing the scene. You do this by creating a synth. A synth is a baked down version of only the absolute essentials that are necessary for the performance of this world/scene. So the Designer is made for the creation of new works, the building of synths.
The second tier is the TouchMixer: This software does not create synths, it only plays them. You have Midi-in and Midi-out (DMX in the works), and you can build 'segments.' Segments are like sequenced song information. You can set up your sliders/buttons to record (or not) performance information. So in the Touch Mixer, you may wish to create some short multiple segments that have pre-animated information that can be triggered at the appropriate moment, simply by hitting a segment trigger button.
Since the Mixer does not have all the tools necessary to build the synth, it can perform much faster than if it actually contained all the tools you used to build your synth. Its primary focus is to sequence and perform the synths that were built inside the Touch Designer.
You can also create QuickTime movies of your performances that you have created (you can do this in the Designer as well, and actually play the movies back inside your synths). Also in all three tiers of Touch, you can listen to and assign .wav and MP3 files to your animation timeline, to create performances while listening to a particular musical track that you wish to create visuals for.
Third is the TouchPlayer: This is free, and can be downloaded from the Derivative site, www.derivativeinc.com. The player is very similar to the mixer. Ok, back to what I do. I perform the synths, add minor modifications and in some cases build new ones, that are performed live in the Rush show. Some synths are completely improvisational, others are a mixture of segment/sequence and live interplay, and others still are very very short sequences that are triggered by me. I make the images dance and move to the music, live.
Now, when I build and alter these things on the road to accommodate what's happening, what Howard's requests are or what the band's requests through Howard or what-have-you, I go into the Designer and I tweak things around a little bit. And then I'll re-bake it down to a new synth and play that in the Mixer. Now, certain synths make more freedom than others because I'm controlling all of this on a CM Labs MotorMix which is a mixer with motorized faders. So when I load the thing up the faders will move to where they're supposed to be when the synth itself is actually opened up, for the beginning of the song or cue. Now, on the MotorMix there are 8 sliders and a good amount of buttons, I usually don't run out of buttons, but if I run out of sliders then I have to switch banks. So let's say a synth has 16 sliders in it for the manipulation of a song, which is usually kind of the standard then at any given time, I can only jam on 8 of those. With some of the synths you need to actually use all 16 of the sliders to make it work and some of them you have to be very delicate and it takes a while to get it, you might have to play it a few times. For example, the Hindu Goddess synth [for "Between Sun & Moon"], I actually use short little sequences on that one, because you can sequence all the movements of the sliders and so forth. For me to perform that one correctly every night would be really really difficult and I would have to spend far too much time trying to do it. So what I do is, I actually record little segments, short little parts of songs that I then trigger live. Because once again, manipulating 16 sliders and all those buttons is pretty intensive. So that one is pretty much straight ahead triggering of very small sequences that contain all the animation information that I pre-recorded into it. Then it's just a matter of since they are short enough that the timing is precise with the music. So that's one synth where the animation parameters are a bit too complex to just jam on.
However, there is another synth for "Leave That Thing Alone" that has 2, 3-D dimensional cartoon-type characters that pop-up, they're called Zoop and Shoop, and they actually have babies now. I guess when you were in Boston you didn't see the babies 'cause we didn't have the babies built in yet. They swarm around and they actually spell out 'Rush' at the end of the song.
With that one, again there is a lot of movement that happens but that one was designed in such a way that there are sequences that are being triggered but then I'm also able to perform other attributes live on top of that. For each little section of that song I will hit a sequence that performs how the creatures actually dance around. Then I will jam live on top of that using an Oxygen 8 MIDI keyboard and the sliders to bring in elements such as a strobe light; something that we call a shake, which is where the characters sort of really bounce around the screen really quickly; and a zap which is where they get elongated for a moment to really reinforce a particular beat in the song or a particular transition. And then I can also move them into particular poses if I wish. The bringing in of the babies I do live and then I also have to worry about such things as color control on the screen and manual fade-in and fade-out of the characters themselves on a color correction unit of the video signal itself.
That's one that is a mixture. "Secret Touch" is a combination in a way because I hit a 1-frame sequence, it plays 60-frames per second, so I hit a 1-frame sequence and what that does is it shoots all of my sliders up to where they're supposed to be and gets everything in the right position for that little area of the song so I can just move and manipulate the sliders once they're in the proper position and all the buttons are set to the proper position.
Then there's "Cygnus X" which is completely played live where it just starts at the beginning and I'm hitting buttons and moving sliders around for that and triggering things. The lightning is a lot of fun in that song bouncing back and forth to the beat on that.
"Natural Science" is actually a wonderful mixture of improve and semi-sequence. There's the beginning part, which is a very beautiful nebulous opening, I control the colors of that and also the speed at which it moves across the screen with a couple of sliders. From there I hit a button and there's some DNA that sort of spins around and I just let the DNA spin around because the settings of the sliders kind of do all the work from there. And then there's a moment where I just have to make that flash negative-positive, negative-positive for a second and then bang it switches into the section of the song that tends to be more intense where you're going down a tunnel that I'm manipulating a couple of sliders for. Whenever Geddy sings, the tunnel itself turns blue and with the beat it turns a little bit bluer - it's a red tunnel initially and then I reverse it and so forth. Then I come back in at the end part that's very percussive heavy and I have 12 buttons which are labeled the 'atomic blast' and I'm just hitting those buttons in whatever order I wish to hit them in for any given night. Those pop onto the screen these geometric, almost kaleidoscopic images that sort of explode and work with the beat of the song.
That song's a really nice mixture of the combination of the machine, or of the program itself delivering the necessary information and then me as a performer being able to manipulate it easily and very effectively with the music so it's very much in time.
Bp: The visuals for this tour are absolutely stunning and very dynamic. The flow that develops from animation to video to live-feed really complements the lighting cues and combines for a really visual display.
JE: Part of the key to that whole thing is Howard. Give credit where credit is due obviously. The way this came about is because Geddy's brother [Alan Weinrib], who is actually a filmmaker and has his own animation company, had heard because of Houdini (that's the previous software that this code is sort of dropped into for Derivative - for the Touch software) about this new software. It's brand new in a lot of ways, I mean prior to the Rush show it was only out of beta for about a month, but once again all that code had been around for a very long time and been tested and so forth in the film industry. So Geddy's brother I guess first investigated it and then Geddy and Howard got involved and Alex actually came in one time and had some input as well. Geddy and Howard used to come by all the time for meetings. I was brought in kind of late, about 3 weeks before the tour actually started, so Howard would be in there and he would have ideas of lighting considerations, ideas of how the progressions should go forth. The same thing with Geddy, he would be in there and say "Oh, I like this" and "Okay, we've got these songs ... " and the people in the Derivative office would sort of go through and see what kind of synths they had that already existed that might be able to suit it or if they needed to build a new one entirely they would discuss that. There's been a lot of lighting considerations involved with this and I think it really helps the integration process.
"La Villa Strangiato" has a new synth in it now. It has one set that exactly matches Howard's lighting that was dropped in during the laser section when the song gets sort of moody. But that's a case of true integration, I feel like, with the lights which I find very exciting.
One thing else I should mention about the software too that's kind of interesting in relation to music is that it actually has a BPM input so you can actually tack in the tempo of the song and the way that it's set up. Imagine if you wanted a ball to bounce, if you trace the path of a ball bouncing -it goes up and down and up and down - it's basically a sine wave. It delays a little bit up at the top and comes back down. It's a bit more complex than that, but if you wanted to make very simple synth of a bouncing ball what you would do is you'd build your ball inside the Touch Designer and attach a sine wave to that ball - the frequency of the ball itself would be controlled by whatever tempo that you tap in, so that's how many actual waves over a period of time go into it - so you'd have that on a slider. You would have the amplitude of that ball being controlled by another slider, so how far the wave actually goes up - how tall the wave is, would directly correlate to how high the ball bounces, so you might have that on a slider as well. And then once you did that you would bake that down to a synth and play it in the Mixer and you'd manipulate those two sliders for a very simple, not very realistic in this case because I'm oversimplifying, but you'd have a very simple bouncing ball.
Songs utilizing the Touch Software:
Three Stooges Intro
Between Sun & Moon
Red Sector A
Leave That Thing Alone
La Villa Strangiato
*Touch was used, but is not performed live. A pre-recorded piece using Touch was performed in the studio by Farah Yusuf and subsequently edited into a video clip. These clips are triggered nightly by Ungerleider.
Bp: It sounds like that would work well for use in clubs.
JE: Oh definitely and it has been used in clubs. Like I said it's a fairly new software - I have used it around Los Angeles with my band, with my partner Dwight Rider. We have a group called Secret Sauce. We were among the first original beta-testers in the world of this software. We've only done the visual part of things live at this point but actually what we do with this software is we've been hooking up musical gear to it and building synths with the idea that you can actually perform music and the animation will correspond directly with the music. And vice-versa if you wanted to perform some animation and attach some sounds to it you could. There's a few groups out there who are doing it, there's the El Kabong group which is related to the people who actually designed the software.
Bp: How does the Touch manipulation that you're performing work with the Catalyst?
JE: With the Catalyst system, that works as the gatekeeper in a way. Howard has control whether we're getting live video that's being shot, whether they're getting the Touch visuals or whether they're getting video-tape or whether the screen is black itself. And that's all done through the Catalyst system. He writes in cues to the Wholehog II lighting board and that'll trigger the Catalyst. So in a way, Howard is the gatekeeper of everything that happens in the show. He rules. I'm very impressed with what he does. In so many ways he knows exactly what they want and knows what they like.
Bp: One of the benefits of this technology is the ability to makes changes during the tour, have there been tweakings since the tour's opening in Hartford?
JE: Well, one thing is, for "Cygnus X-1" there is the space scene that leads to a black hole and then certain things were sort of sucked into the black hole - stars and so forth and it moves with the music - the lightning bolts move in the black hole. As a surprise, Greg and Ferrah, who are both from Derivative, placed into that scene the ability for me to throw down the hole a spinning three-dimensional dryer. That was a huge hit, everybody loved it. So from there it was, "Yeah, let's throw other stuff down the hole." So now there are images from the album covers which I had to take and sort of matte out in PhotoShop so right now there's the Signals dog and hydrant that go down the hole. From Hemispheres there's the nude man, and I actually have that on a slider so it transforms the nude man into the business man and it can de-evolve further into the dog [laughs]. I contacted Norm Stangl who is responsible for the Dragon footage, with Spin Productions in Toronto, they've been working with Rush for some time, and he sent me a QuickTime movie of the dragon that loops around, sort of flailing about against a black background so I would be able to matte that out and then shoot the dragon down the hole sort of flailing along. So now the dragon gets sucked in there too. People come up with new ideas and so forth and it's just a matter of time to implement them.
As far as other things that have happened, well Howard will be like "Well, this section is a little weak and we need to change something here, maybe just different colors" or something. We're constantly working to further improve the show. I'm constantly getting updates from Derivative themselves which adds to the betterment of the show in general whereby I'll get a new version of one of the previous synths - new updates that are a little bit tighter and so forth. For example, "Red Sector A," you remember how there were the people who were sort of bowing and dancing and so forth. That's completely different now, the people themselves are of a higher resolution, they're not so blocky anymore, there's actually some different QuickTime movies that are being triggered in the background of that.
Things just sort of evolve along the way, not to mention that on a synth like "Secret Touch," it's played different every night and also now there's "Free Will" which has been added as an alternative so now there's a synth for "Free Will" which is completely improvisational every night.
Bp: Most of the creatives were from Howard and Geddy and then executed by the folks at Derivative then?
JE: The main source of the creative input, the direction came from Howard and Geddy. They would have an idea or they would be shown something that previously existed that they liked and sometimes the idea that they had they would want followed fairly closely. Other times their idea was "I trust you, just make something cool." Now, I was not involved in that part of it because I was brought in late to the production environment, however when I did show up there my concerns were mostly with the performance and with the animation and so forth. I would get one of these synths or I would see them building one of these synths and they'd say "What do you think about this?" and I'd say "Try this ... ", etc.
For example, "Natural Science" and "Secret Touch," which I think are two of the most effective ones actually, I collaborated a bit with Jarrett Smith. For example I would say "Let me check out that slider ... no, that's not working. We need it to be more responsive" and what have you. It was performance things on that level. But then with "Secret Touch," Jarrett and I would throw around ideas together and I would leave it up to him to do the work while I was working out animation issues and performance issues on some of the other synths. So I didn't have that much to do with the actual building of the synths.
Bp: What is your favorite song to perform?
JE: My favorite song to perform is "Natural Science" because of the dynamics of that song. It starts out so beautiful, almost lonely, if you will, and there's that nebulous cloud which I perform completely live and the look of that cloud. There's that very beautiful lonely part in the beginning which is very accommodating to setting the initial lonely sort of mood. As the song progresses it gets a little bit more upbeat and the section that is particularly enjoyable is the sort of vortex, the tunnel, that you're being shot down. I'm working almost aggressively on that tunnel at times, with a lot of slider movement, a lot of quick movement and a lot of opportunity to be very synchronous with the music which is a lot of fun. Then the very percussive, heavy section where I'm just right there with the band - I feel that that synth itself also goes through the whole dynamic progression so it's one of the most effective ones and really sort of adds something else to that song, it takes it up another notch. Maybe it's just me, but I can feel it with the audience contributing.
This is the first time that technology has allowed this to actually happen on this level. Graphics cards are strong enough, computers are getting more efficient as well, the amount of RAM you can put on them. In the next three years, even though this is very impressive in this state right now, it's still just a baby and we're waiting on the computer and technology end of it to really just put it forward so that it can happen almost to the level where ... I mean in three years there probably isn't a reason why you couldn't have something that looks like that dragon live and being performed.
Bp: The band and Howard have always been eager to explore new technologies and expand their show not only musically but visually as well.
JE: I agree. They're open to new technologies and new ideas and new thoughts. I think the reason that Derivative and I am involved, contracted through Derivative, is because they are. It just reflects how open [the band] really are to new ideas and new technologies. And I think the ultimate reflection of that is that they're new album is great! Of course I have the old nostalgia favorites of Rush but the songs that I prefer to listen to are they're new songs.
I think that in itself is important. How many bands are out there who, for one reason or another, don't really remain interesting aside from some sort of nostalgia element. To me, that's definitely a reflection ... I'm here as a reflection of how much they care about their music.
Bp: In the way they present it, package it and deliver it to the fans.
Bp: There are some songs that are possibly going to be brought in for the arena leg and "Free Will" which has already been added to the set, how are they going to be set up or were they taken care of in pre-production for the tour?
JE: It's very much a team effort. If the band is thinking about a song they might bring into the set. For example, "Free Will," started being played in soundcheck so I'll sort of jam along with it. I'll see what I have in my bag of tricks as far as other synths that were maybe going to be used for a song but they didn't end up doing that song after all or a preliminary synth that was moved in a new direction so it looks completely different, that sort of thing. I'll sort of jam along with them and then I'll show Howard what I was doing and again it will show up in soundcheck and it'll be played on the big screen. Maybe at the end of the soundcheck, if Howard gives me the okay to put it up on the screen so the band can see it, then the band will take a look at it and figure out if they want to use it after all. Sometimes Howard just says "Ok, we'll use that." Sometimes we show the band, it depends. The band trusts Howard, he's the lighting designer. He's also the visual director for the whole thing as well.
Bp: He does a great job but he's got a good team under him as well and the new technology is a wonderful addition to the show and it looks fabulous.
JE: There's wonderful lighting, there's wonderful video, there's wonderful live-footage that's happening at the time so between all that, it mixes the visuals up and makes an incredible show.
President of Derivative, Greg Hermanovic, was kind enough to lend more insight into the work his company provided for the Vapor Trails Tour recently.
GH: Derivative released Touch 007 in December 2001. Our goal was to make a software tool that produces brodcast-quality 3D animation, but performed live, without pre-recorded video. We wanted to be able to perform 2D and 3D visuals in the same way you perform live electronically-made music.
My other company, Side Effects Software, makes Houdini, a leading tool used in making special effects for over 100 feature films like Spider Man, X-Men, The Matrix, Titanic, Apollo 13 and Lord of the Rings. We adapted the Houdini technology into Touch and optimized it to perform in realtime on today's 3D-powered laptops.
We serve artists making visuals for music, but also artists who are making web 3D content, and people making interactive artworks. Even architects are integrating automatically-generated Touch visuals into the environments of buildings they design.
Touch integrates well with lighting shows and adds a live element absent from conventional video and animation.
Bp: How did the seed for the Rush/Derivative collaboration become planted and grow?
GH: Geddy and the tour's lighting and show director, Howard Ungerleider had heard of our live 3D performances through some of their friends, and were deciding on the mix of artistic styles for the upcoming Vapor Trails tour. Spin Productions were providing pre-edited video for several of the songs.
When compared to music, today's video and animation lack the element of improvisation and the ability to make on-the-fly timing decisions. Touch's ability to accomodate this made it attractive to Geddy, Alex Lifeson and Howard. From seeing clips of the live 3D animation we had been doing for the electronic music scene, they extrapolated the styles and concepts immediately. They saw how each time a Touch synth is performed, it can be played differently, evolving every show. Between shows, elements of the visuals could be improved. He could easily react to comments "the camera is too close here, let's move it back," or "the strobing is not intense enough."
We admired Geddy's approach to visuals - he shies away from over-interpreting the music in favor of suggesting concepts, keeping it abstract and letting the audience's imaginations fill it in. Howard's experience in knocking his audiences off their feet with his lighting upped the ante for us. Geddy picked some of our visual styles and suggested to try them with certain Rush songs, encouraging us to listen to the lyrical themes and push the visuals in that direction.
For the two months before the tour started, we would respond to Geddy and Howard's input every two weeks. Howard directed our work more frequently along with Spin's Norm Stangl, who art-directed the work of Derivative's four animator/artists. Sometimes Geddy and Howard would try the controls that we put into our visuals to get a feel for what their creative options were.
Then only two weeks before the tour started, our VJ, James Ellis turned up to learn the controls of all 11 synths and practice them with rehearsal versions of Rush's songs. A lot was on his shoulders as we were changing the controls and designs on him daily. For Jim it was like learning 11 songs on 11 new musical instruments in two weeks.
Then after the tour started, we fed Jim improved versions of synths based on Howard and Geddy's input, and based on observations from Norm and myself. After a while, Jim was changing synths himself in between shows.
Bp: What were some of the challenges that came up for the synths Derivative designed for the show?
GH: We commited to produce visuals for eleven songs in two short months. That's not only producing animation, but also hooking them up to our input devices and getting them in a state where a VJ could perform them smoothly.
We needed to choose a suitable input device for the VJ that could control up to 40 parameters, switch between up to 10 sections of music, allow for quick startup, allow you to move physical sliders that moved on-screen, and vice versa. We chose CM Labs' Motor Mix for the job, and we developed a driver for it that works well with Touch. We also found we needed another small music keyboard to fluidly trigger moves and cameras.
When we looked over at the show's sound board with its 100+ faders and hundreds of knobs and buttons, comparing it to our tiny MIDI controller we were depressed. But we needed an economical way to control up to 64 sliders with 8 physical sliders and 8 "bank-select" buttons, which gave us our 64 controls, which was perfect for our compact setup.
We standardized all the Touch synths for Rush to suit the lighting show. Howard emphasized the need for fade-up and fade-down buttons on every Touch synth. We also put in a kill-to-black button for emergencies. Howard also required one to eight color-selector gadgets in each synth, so that we could easily match Touch synth colors to his lighting colors.
Given the tight deadline, we standardized on one 8x3 aspect ratio image for the LED screen behind the band. On the laptop it's 1200x450 pixels. That video is scan-converted and horizontally squeezed into a NTSC composite image, and re-expanded to 8x3 prior to the LED screen. This gave the downstream video switcher only one signal from the VJ to contend with. We also had three Dell/NVIDIA laptops active during the show. The VJ alternates between two from song to song, and the third is ready as a backup. We had DVD as a further backup, but we haven't even needed the backup laptop to date.
In making live 3D animation, aside from the usual 3D modeling, animation, lighting, you must also build on-screen control panels of sliders and buttons to control the synths, hook them to the physical sliders and buttons, arrange them for ease of operation, adjust the lower-upper limits of sliders, and adjust lags and time-filters so that your visuals look smooth, but not too sluggish.
And because it is realtime and the LED screen's video is displayed at 30 frames per second, you have 1/30 of a second to compute and draw each image from Touch. The eye accepts frame rates down to 15 frames per second (cartoons are 12 FPS). So after designing a synth, you spend time optimizing it so that in all cases you get 15-30 frames per second. We standardized on a sample rate of 60 frames per second.
The LED screens handle saturated, vivid colors well, but dark gradations poorly. Fortunately Howard had us hook Touch up to a similar LED screen early on to test some synths and eliminate designs that didn't stand up well on the LED screen.
The biggest challenge was managing the workload on the VJ. It's similar to the problem of taking a richly multi-tracked song from the studio and making three people play it live. To reduce the amount of overwhelming controls, we pre-performed and pre-recorded some animation moves that were triggered by the VJ, and we left open a few controls for him to perform live. Sometimes we simply provided presets that are the starting points for the VJ to improvise from.
Some of the animation elements repeat with the beats, like heads bobbing every 2 beats. We set these animation cycles up to follow Touch's beats-per-minute counter that the VJ can simply tap-in or adjust manually.
Bp: Can you run through the collaborative process behind the synths for "Natural Science"?
GH: Geddy started it off by highlighting some of the song lyrics and the desire to refer to aspects of science, yet, in a suggestive artful way. Howard Ungerleider emphasized that this was a powerful song and that the visuals needed to change abruptly in several sections. He emphasized the need for vivid color palletes that would complement his lighting, and he made some suggestions of atoms and DNA. Howard chose which parts of the song that he wanted the visuals to be in, versus sections where the video was to remain black.
Jarrett Smith listened to the music and made 5 themed sections, which ended up as 4, the first being a slow, soft, smeary thing. At its end, it strobes (in 3D) into a DNA section of the song.
For each section Jarrett was choosing which controls that he wanted the VJ to operate. In the first section, for example, two sliders control color hue and a smear speed, which the VJ was to speed up slowly as the music's tension built up.
During this time, Spin's art director Norm Stangl was pointing out issues of timing, readability and animation that Jarrett incorporated in his design.
Natural Science's four main animation scenes are tied together by a common color pallette. When building the Touch synth for Natural Science before the tour, Jarrett modeled (built the 3D shapes), textured, colored, lit, and roughly animated each section.
But the difference between video and Touch is that about 20 of the animation's parameters are hooked up to an on-screen control panel and the MIDI control box, allowing Jim to guide and change the animation while performing the song. He can choose when to jump to the next section, how fast ambient shapes pulsate, when to strobe lighting in the 3D scene, and when to switch between 10 variations of atomic shapes. So Jim had a structure to work in, but improvises within that structure. This is like jazz which has structure and pre-defined themes, but there are spots left open for improvisation.
Jarrett chose how much improvisation there will be by deciding which sliders and buttons are open to Jim during the performance.
After the synth was built, Jarrett chose a number of "sweet spots" in the controls of a synth and saved them as presets, allowing Jim to later jump to these control settings and continue live from there.
Touch also has a sort of emergency backup that we have used in several songs: After the synth was built, Jarrett and Jim can pre-perform the synth while listening to a rehearsal version of the song. Touch can capture all the moves and gestures the performer makes, recording all the MIDI input devices and mouse movements. So when Jim plays the synth during the show, he can simply press the pre-recorded button section-by-section, and when he was confident enough, he started jam on top of it or completely took over the controls. As the tour progresses the performer uses the pre-records less often.
Bp: What trends do you see for lighting fused with live animation?
GH: For Rush, live animation is complementary to the light show. In a supporting role to the lighting, as it does in "La Villa Strangiato," we spiced up Howard's powerful green lasers and purple spots with simple 3D green spheres and purple twisting leafs.
This was where I wanted to take the animation visuals - where the live lighting and the animation blend together as one experience. It can all be controlled from the same lighting board if necessary. As projectors get more powerful and more mobile, they will get mounted in place of the lights, and the animation and lighting will become more fused into one.
Integration with lighting also includes accepting DMX signals to trigger animations and other 3D elements. This is currently achieved with MIDI input, but DMX will be supported in Touch in a future release.