The singer finishes the last encore, the crowd goes wild. Yet they may want to applaud someone behind the scenes.
William Gorlin, vice president and entertainment division chief for McLaren Engineering Group, West Nyack, NY, says engineers are vital to the success of many of the top concert tours throughout the world. And he would know, having worked on tours for artists from Tina Turner to The Rolling Stones to U2.
"The structure of the stage set itself has to be safe," Gorlin, a structural engineer, says. "What you're doing is assembling equipment—some custom, some rental—and you have trusses, LED screens, and a vast assembly of components similar to putting a machine together."
McLaren engineers provided structural engineering, reviews, and certification for the 85-foot tall, 200-foot wide stage structure and components for the 2005 Rolling Stones international tour. Image: McLaren Engineering Group
"One of the challenges is looking at loading when it comes to these. You're taking manufacturing data for components and turning it into assembly," says Gorlin. It's straight up engineering calculations to figure out if it's going to work. You can have moving elements for shows like screens that travel on racks and dynamics associated with the way shows are rigged with chain motors. Engineers can be called upon to give assessments for so many of these things from a safety standpoint," he adds.
Gorlin believes engineers are at their most valuable when it comes to protection from weather. "Wind loads are a big issue and the difference is, we're not talking about buildings but temporary structures. There are elements like wind walls on a stage to protect the performers from breezes but during a storm, they act like sails and attract a huge amount of wind … A big concern we've had is that events will not plan ahead for these types of issues so we as engineers can require them to do it…and our company does. When it comes to wind, we're on them to know who would be responsible and what actions will be taken ahead of time."
McClaren engineers performed calculations on the customized main stage decks, the B-stage decks, and several mechanical lifts. Image: McClaren Engineering Group
The time element is another major factor. If you're not prompt, the result can be a refund of all tickets and public embarrassment, Gorlin says. "The designs are also constantly evolving as creative people make decisions on whether they like or don't like something," he says. "Or sometimes they take on more than they can handle then realize they have to cut things because of this during rehearsal. It's changing information and, in the end, you need to know what's in the set and whether it can be approved. It's about people taking specific actions within a large amount of interaction."
Better and Safer
Gorlin says the demands of concerts have continued to move its technology forward. "Lifts have become more modular—you plug them into other modules of staging. Want a lift here, don't want it there, it can be done." And though you still have nosebleed seats, the larger and better quality LED screen video projection and better quality delay speakers are making it a better experience. Still, Gorlin says it means greater attention to safety. "Any time you have a big structure or big piece of machinery, you raise the stakes of what's required for the engineering demands," he says. "A big LED screen means you're talking about supporting wind load."
But what doesn't change is that some performers want to get as close as they can to connect with the audience. Engineers keep finding ways to make it better and safer. "We had a performer flying effect on a big platform where we had each band member on a fall restraint line—basically a leash keeping them from edge, but circular, so it allowed them to move around a small central circle. My understanding is they were very happy because of the free movement."
Though it can be nerve-racking, Gorlin says members of his company get as much fun out of it as the audience. "The Tina Turner tour had a big crane that was a piece of the stage and raised up, then pivoted out to the audience with Tina on the arm. The Rolling Stones had motorized canopy covers over the band. Then there was U2 with these big LED screens that would fly. It's always a challenge to pull off something interesting and it's great when it comes together!"
Eric Butterman is an independent writer.
It’s changing information and, in the end, you need to know what’s in the set and whether it can be approved.”
William Gorlin, VP and entertainment division chief, McLaren Engineering Group
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