Pete Townshend’s pinball musical Tommy gets 3D sound treatment from Astro Spatial Audio

An all-new production of The Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s rock opera Tommy has opened at the Denver Center in Colorado. 

The 1969 musical tells the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who achieves a personal breakthrough when he becomes an expert pinball player, and features some of Townshend’s best-loved songs, including ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘See Me, Feel Me.’ 

For the musical component of the new production director Sam Buntrock and sound designer Ken Travis had several motivating ideas in mind. “This is not to criticise some of the more recent stage productions, but we wanted to get away from a synth/keyboard-heavy sound and get back to guitars – in effect, ‘to put The Who back on stage’,” said Travis. “We wanted an energy and a rawness that audiences would closely associate with The Who.”

To deliver this sonic vision Travis was certain “from day one” that he wanted to incorporate immersive audio with localised sound effects into his sound design. He had experimented with several immersive systems on previous projects, but it was his experience as an audience member of The Band’s Visit – David Yazbek’s acclaimed new musical that opened on Broadway in November 2017, which makes extensive use of the Astro Spatial Audio (ASA) solution  – that convinced him he had identified the most appropriate technology.

“I was really blown by the use of the ASA system – and I wasn’t even sitting in a particularly good seat!” recallled Travis. “The Band’s Visit is a very different, more intimate show than Tommy, but the audio localisation was fantastic and really contributed to the overall effect of the production.”

The core of the ASA solution, the SARA II Premium Rendering Engine – a 3U road and rack ready processor offering up to 128 MADI or 128 Dante configurable network pathways at 48kHz/24-bit resolution – utilises extensive metadata attached to each audio object. The result is a precise calculation of that object’s position within virtual 3D space, processed in real-time up to 40 times per second for each individual object, as well as that object’s acoustic effect on the virtual space around it. The result for the engineer is a three-dimensional audio canvas on which to play.

“I am not keen on sound that draws attention to itself, so I only wanted to utilise localisation where it was artistically informed by the story,” says Travis. 

Implemented as part of a notably high-end sound system that also includes Meyer Sound UPQ self-powered loudspeakers and a Digico SD10 console, the ASA solution was mastered by Buntrock in less than two weeks. 

“We were operating on a fairly tight schedule,” he said. “We did have some low-end and panning issues, but nothing that we couldn’t resolve, and in any case we had superb support from ASA, with a programmer flying in from Berlin to help support and realise my ideas. They have been extremely helpful.”

Travis added: “I feel there is a lot more to explore with this system – creatively, it opens up a lot of opportunities.”

Want more stories like this sent straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our free daily newsletter here.