Created by Normand Latourelle, one of the co-founders of famed Cirque du Soleil, Cavalia Inc. is an entertainment company based in Montreal, Canada, that creates lavish equestrian productions. Known for its cutting-edge use of technology, multimedia, and special effects under a circus big top, the Cavalia show features 41 horses and 36 riders, acrobats, aerialists, and musicians—as well as a 60 meter-wide projection screen—to celebrate the equestrian arts. The show was revamped for an historic run at the Qasr al Hosn Festival in Abu Dhabi, UEA, incorporating new performance elements and music to reflect the importance of horses in Emirati culture and tradition.
I was responsible for the system commissioning and onsite training of Cavalia’s engineers in Abu Dhabi. We had exactly a month from the time the system was spec’d until the first performance, and it went amazingly well. Although this show was based on the original Cavalia production, the Qasr al Hosn Festival remembers the history and tradition of Abu Dhabi, so the original Cavalia composer, Michel Cusson—guitar player from the Canadian jazz-rock band UZEB—came to Abu Dhabi to update the show’s music with more of an Arabic style.
Given the technical intricacies of the production and the introduction of new elements, we faced a very tight schedule to pull together the show in time for the festival. After assessing the technical requirements of the show, including the need for flexible programming and integrated recording and playback, we chose two VENUE | Profile Systems with an integrated Pro Tools | HD Native recording/playback setup to handle front of house and monitors for the show. I worked with Sound provider Sound Art of Winnepeg, Canada, to assemble the complete sound system and have it delivered to Abu Dhabi in time for production rehearsals. This was not the team’s first experience with VENUE—they had used VENUE systems for their Odysseo: The Equestrian Spectacular show with great results, so they felt very comfortable with the reliability and workflows of the Profile systems.
To ensure that we hit the festival deadline, having efficient real-time collaboration between the composer and sound designers to update the show elements was critical, as the composer was still finishing the final composition during rehearsal! With 10 days to go, there were still barely 2-3 songs composed. Fortunately, we had the tools to pull it off. We used Pro Tools | HD Native running on a Mac mini connected to the VENUE | Profile Systems, which enabled us to build the frame of the show in the big top on the fly, while Michel was working in a different venue finishing the music. The live team would send him the framework of the show that they were developing—the timing of various numbers—and he would write to that and send it back.
Profile’s powerful VENUE software was key to putting together the FOH mix—especially snapshots—offering an amazing number of programming options with which to refine the mixes. The show is completely built on snapshots, and I helped the team develop some strategies for how best to use snapshots within the production. We used snapshots to change the membership of VCA groups for each song, giving the engineers instant access to the critical instruments needed at that particular moment. They were amazed at how quickly you can modify snapshots on the fly in VENUE to reorganize the show and quickly change the sequence of things. It’s especially important for a show like this, that’s so automated yet has to enable the team to react to the uncertainties of working with performance animals. This is a very dynamic performance, and the band leader is always cueing throughout the show, as he sometimes needs to adjust the length of the passages to accommodate the horses.
We also integrated all of the MIDI cues—all the messaging of the show in French, English, and Arabic—into the snapshot list while firing MIDI notes. Everything from public address and introductions to the walk-in music and after show announcements.
Virtual Soundcheck was another feature that we used extensively throughout the show rehearsals. For building, practicing, and maintaining a dynamic and complicated mix like Cavalia, Virtual Soundcheck is critical, giving us the freedom to easily dial in the house sound, as well as the flexibility to program the show and experiment at any time. With a show like this, you can’t run soundcheck with the horses present, as they are programmed into the show—you can’t just fire off music randomly when the horses are around.
The Cavalia use the recordings for a variety of things—not just programming the show. Because this is a touring show, musicians sometimes need time off or might get sick, so the question becomes, “What is the backup?” Fortunately, with VENUE and Pro Tools, you can easily create a stem for the missing musician that can be provided to the band leader who can put it back into the sequence session, so that if a musician gets sick, he can go to the backup mode of the live stem of the missing musician. And as the band leader is using Ableton Live for firing off certain sequences and effects during the show anyway, he can easily incorporate the recorded stem and trigger it if needed since the show is played to a click, giving the band leader a safety net in case a musician is not able to perform for whatever reason.
Helping to bring this special version of the Cavalia show to the legendary Qasr al Hosn Festival was amazing—especially given the logistical challenges we faced under such a tight timeline. Fortunately we a super-talented group of engineers, musicians, composer and the right gear (not to mention animals!) to pull it off. It was an amazing experience that resulted in an unforgettable and historic event.
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Top image courtesy of Christopher Pike