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R.E.M. plays with wireless, Web site

High-tech backbone hidden behind band's artistry

By Daniel Sieberg
CNN Headline News

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe
R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- To some, looking behind the scenes of a concert might seem like opening the hood of Ferrari instead of driving it. But it's the non-glamorous, essential underpinnings that allow thousands of people to enjoy a performance without missing a beat.

Everyone knows there are lighting operators, sound and set designers, stagehands and countless others who help make a performance successful. But what do they do, and does technology make their jobs easier? As the technology correspondent, I decided to check it out by going to a concert.

Next door to CNN Center at Philips Arena, R.E.M. was wrapping up their tour in support of an upcoming greatest hits album. I was curious to see whether a group known for its artistic slant would embrace the cutting edge.

What I discovered surprised me.

Overall, the visible features of R.E.M.'s show were relatively subdued. Large, glittering cutouts swung from metal rigging, some with Warhol-esque portraits of the band members. Suspended, neon-like shapes complemented the cutouts, all of which hung in front of a faded photo of New York's Times Square that filled the area behind the band.

But R.E.M.'s recent live show in Atlanta had elements of high-tech help, in lighting, sound, even behind the scenes, although most fans couldn't see them.

While a local crew put the finishing touches on the layout, I chatted with technicians who had worked with R.E.M. for several months.

Aptly named, the lighting system is called the WholeHog II, and it allows the designer to program dozens of light cues, all coordinated with the songs. Part computer, part switcher, the pre-programming nature means the operator can cycle through each cue with just the touch of a button. It also offers a little flexibility so the operator can change cues on the fly, should the singer decide to veer from the set list.

Unless you're an audio engineer or producer/songwriter David Foster, distinguishing one soundboard from another can be an impossible task. So rather than get caught up in the hundreds of knobs and buttons, the sound operator showed me one of the latest tricks of the trade.

Sound board
R.E.M.'s sound engineer Jo Ratvitch works the boards with a Tablet PC in the background.

By tapping into a wireless router, he was able to take a Tablet PC anywhere in the arena -- even during the show -- and remotely control the output level of all the speakers. He referred to it as "the future of live sound."

Balancing high-tech with low-tech, the sound technician also told me the band prefers an analog signal to digital, meaning what R.E.M. plays is what the crowd gets, without any added effects or filtration.

Backstage, wireless Internet access had become a popular pastime. R.E.M.'s manager told me that when they initially set up the wireless access point, he doubted many people would use it. As the tour progressed, he said it became indispensable.

Beyond allowing crew members to send e-mail while they're on the road, the management team used the network to post an internal daily itinerary and receive song requests via the band's official Web site.

As for R.E.M. itself, I hear Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck appreciate technology without getting too caught up in it. They're still a band that prefers to let the music lead the way, and that's plain to see by the way the musicians present themselves.

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