A Rock Show Gets the LED Out

Stadium acts like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead are trading pyrotechnics and JumboTrons for LEDs and software

4 min read

This story was corrected on 21 January 2009.

Photo: Rob Sheridan/NIN.com

At first, it seemed like any other rock show. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails took to the stage of the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., as 10 000 fans screamed approvingly. The stage was stark and black, except for a few white spotlights cutting through darkness.

But a few songs into the set, this proved to be no ordinary performance after all. Three thin walls of lights lowered to the stage. The band stood behind the first one, measuring 4 meters high and 15 meters across. It appeared almost transparent. It consisted of thin plastic panels measuring 60 centimeters by 60 cm with LEDs embedded and arrayed in a grid. The pixels were set in clusters of three: red, blue, and green—measuring just 25 millimeters from the center of one to the next. The panels are clamped together to create a thin sheet of nearly 90 000 tiny light-emitting diode (LED) pixels.

As Reznor began to sing the song ”Only,” the screen of television-style static in front of him faded and flickered according to his movements. The closer he came to the screen, the more the lights dimmed in front of his body to reveal him. As he stepped further back, the blotch of darkness corresponding to his body onscreen filled back in with light. The illumination seemed to be almost alive. ”It creates an odd, 3-D disorienting effect,” Reznor tells me later, ”the concept was—if we can take these layers of screen, we can design a light show around it.”

He’s not alone. As touring acts look to cut costs and carbon footprints, LEDs are evolving to replace the old flamethrowers and fog machines once enjoyed by bands like AC/DC and Rush on the arena rock circuit. British rock act, Radiohead, recently wowed fans and critics this year with its own dazzling LED light show while supporting its latest record, In Rainbows. The lights showed walls of incandescent rain against pink and blue backgrounds. They were manufactured by Element Labs, based in Santa Clara, Calif., and arranged in vertical strips measuring 9 meters high. Each strip consists of a series of products called Versa Tubes, measuring 90 cm long and containing 36 pixels each. Each Versa Tube uses just roughly 5.5 watts per meter. Radiohead called its effort the Carbon Neutral World Tour. The lights are certified by First Climate Group for avoiding up to 3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

LEDs in rock shows are nothing new. They first emerged during the PopMart tour of the Irish rock band U2, in 1997. In the past, stadium shows relied on JumboTrons, consisting of cathode-ray tubes. But LEDs brought more creative lighting opportunities and lowered costs. ”LEDs evolved into household lighting fixtures and are very power-efficient,” says Roy Bennett, the lighting designer for the Nine Inch Nails tour, ”The bulbs run as a cool medium. The only thing that gets hot is the processor. It changed the face of the entertainment industry drastically.”

Bennett first experimented with taking LEDs further in a 2002 tour by Paul McCartney. The screens were similar to those used in the Nine Inch Nails tour, consisting of roughly 100 000 LED pixels arranged in clusters of blue, green, and red. The pixels were spaced just 9 millimeters apart, resulting in a higher resolution. They were hung in columns, so that Bennett could take footage of McCartney and break it up over the screens. In total, the entire setup required about 1200 amps. But while LEDs allowed a more innovative palette onstage, Bennett wanted them to be more flexible, and transparent. On the 2006 Madonna Confessions Tour, he began thinking about a way to use the LEDs for video playback, but not on a solid wall. ”In a show, you want as much depth as possible,” he says.

The answer started with a call from Reznor, whom he had worked with in previous years. For this year’s tour, Reznor, long an autodidact and self-described ”big nerd,” wanted to create a new kind of lighting experience, which he dubbed ”lights in the sky.” ”I realized that having the right visuals can act as anchor and allows us to play music that we couldn’t otherwise,” he says. The concept was to be able to ”see through screens,” as Reznor puts it, and create something ”we could afford to take out.”

”The idea was to create 3-D visuals out of very two-dimensional pieces,” Bennett says. The solution was to have three video screens on stage, which, together, could achieve dramatic effects. In the back, they hung a high-resolution screen of the same specifications as the one he used during the McCartney show. In front were two of the lower resolution ”stealth” screens, which, at just 10 mm thick, appeared transparent. Lights could be illuminated on the high-resolution screen, while others could be simultaneously dimmed in front—giving the illusion of movement and depth, as the band performed in between the screens.

Moment Factory, a Montreal-based new media studio, developed a custom hardware and software set-up called the Experience Management System, or XMS, to run key parts of the show. ”Our system is like a video game,” says Sakchin Bessette, creative director of Moment Factory, ”The screen is the stage, and the band is the joystick.”

At one point in the show, the band is playing acoustic instruments to prerendered LED sequences (less than half the show is prerendered, compared with the vast majority of performances). But the rest of the effects were unfolding live. As the band played behind the front transparency, rain appeared to fall in a cascade of LED lights. A crew member came on stage with a high-powered flashlight and, when shining it on the screen, effectively erased the falling lights, for stunning effect. Moment Factor keeps the specifications of its black-box software private, but Bessette says a camera beyond the stage by the mixing boards picks up the analog flashlight signal, and converts it to data that gets sent to the XMS software. The software then tells the corresponding lights to dim on screen.

Reznor hopes to use the technology to create a new kind of show—which he hopes to be his version of Pink Floyd’s megaperformance, The Wall. ”The ideas in our current tour would be the beta version of something like that,” he says.

To Probe Further

For more on LED pyrotechnics, see Slideshow: LEDs Rock the House

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