Staying Ushh Ushh: Immersive Sound in Usher’s Vegas Backstory Pass
R&B superstar brought his residency at Caesars Palace in August to a new level with a groundbreaking VIP fan experience
Ushh: Backstory Pass, the first-ever immersive pre-show experience at a Las Vegas residency, is a production that takes guests on a journey through the musical eras and cultural moments that have defined Usher as an artist. It’s the latest milestone in a truly blockbuster career that has included eight Grammy Awards, 100 million album sales worldwide, roles in feature films and on Broadway, and Number One hits across three consecutive decades.
In the multisensory experience, which takes place under the stage at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, six themed environments evoke pivotal moments in Black music and culture, including Le Grand Duc jazz club of 1920s Paris, Atlanta’s infamous Magic City gentlemen’s club, and a ‘90s New York City hip-hop block party. As visitors make their way through the spaces, they take in live performances, mingle with entertainers, and dance to fresh mixes of iconic Usher hits.
“Usher was extremely passionate about creating a show that serves a Las Vegas Usher fan in a way where we can check off all the boxes: high energy, a party, hit records, and this musical ride that once the train left, it never stopped,” says musical director IZ Avila, who has collaborated with Usher on-stage and in the studio since 2004. “He really wanted those fans to understand the nuances of who he is and how he’s able to be here in Vegas decades in. And we felt that in detailing that experience, we also needed to make sure that sonically, it would bring these rooms to life.”
Sound design is by Steven Zeller, whose audio production credits include Cirque Du Soleil’s R.U.N: The First Live Action Thriller and tours with Cirque Du Soleil’s Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities and Waitress: The Musical, in addition to projects at Las Vegas’ Naked City Audio, where he is part owner.
“I wanted to first and foremost bring our immersive director Allegra Libonati’s sonic visions to life,” says Zeller. “I wanted audiences to feel different depending on which environment they were in.”
Zeller used Meyer Sound’s Spacemap Go spatial sound design and live mixing tool to create immersive mixes of pre-recorded music. “Spacemap Go was an excellent tool for expressing my ideas through my sonic environments in a quick and user-friendly way,” he explains. “We used Spacemap Go for the ‘Hall of The Future’ room, where we needed the sonic elements to float and spin over audience members in order to create a dreamlike environment.”
The experience is supported by a range of Meyer Sound loudspeakers, including UPQ-D2 and UPQ-D3 full-size loudspeakers, ULTRA-X40 compact loudspeakers, and UP-4slim and UPM-1P ultra-compact loudspeakers, supplemented with 750-LFC, 900-LFC, and 1100-LFC low-frequency control elements and managed by Galileo GALAXY Network Platforms.
Speccing the systems was a collaborative effort between Avila, Zeller (who had experience with Meyer Sound systems through his work with Cirque du Soleil), and Michael Maxson, Meyer Sound’s Director of Strategic Applications.
“There were a lot of elements in this show that required each unique space to be flexible between time periods,” Zeller explains. “In our ‘Jazz Club’ environment, not only did we have singer Skye Dee Miles’ band performing ’30s-style all the way to ’80s-style arrangements of Usher’s songs, there were these futuristic transitional sound effects that would interrupt parts of their set. I needed boxes that were able to give me the freedom to do all of this. The Meyer ULTRA-X40s and 750-LFCs were the right choice in this tight space.”
“We had a nightclub scene that required punchy and full low end in a tight space, so I used Meyer 900-LFCs for this,” he adds. “Another scene has elements where the audience is encouraged to look inward and be introspective. Not only was song choice critical in this environment, but we utilised Spacemap Go in order to amplify this dreamlike space.”
The backstage experience and the main show are connected through story and sound: The Colosseum at Caesars Palace houses a Meyer Sound system anchored by twin arrays of LYON loudspeakers. “Because of Meyer Sound’s broad product range, the team was able to scale systems to meet the demands of each unique experience,” says Maxson. “We go from large-format line array loudspeakers to ultra-compact installation speakers, and everything in between.”
Avila brings a veteran producer perspective as one half of the Avila Brothers, the songwriting and production team behind smash hits by Usher, Janet Jackson, Gwen Stefani, and countless others. This mindset, he explains, drives his high bar for sound reinforcement. “We literally treated the show like we’re producing a song,” he says. “When you come from that perspective, there are very few speakers that can actually execute that. I’ve always had faith in what Meyer has been able to do for me throughout the years on the recording side.”
He adds that his long experience with Meyer Sound has given him sonic security. “There’s nothing better than knowing that what you’re hearing is truly what you’re hearing,” he says. “As we introduce new musical experiences to people who love music, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to do that with a company like Meyer Sound, who also creates the landscapes for how these things are experienced, how they’re introduced. Meyer has been a tremendous key to us being able to pull this thing off here in Vegas.”