Blue Man Group Says It Can't Fit into Stereo

One of the challenging attributes of the new DVD-Audio format is the ability to release music in high-resolution multichannel (four or more) sound. For some this will be a thorny issue: Can previously released recordings be remixed to take advantage of the extra channels without sounding gimmicky? Should classical and/or live recordings use the surround channels for concert-hall ambience? How long will it be until consumers even care about setting up their systems to take advantage of more than two full-bandwidth channels?

Give artists a new tool like multichannel sound, however, and some will jump right in, not waiting for the market to make up its mind. Off-Broadway performing artists Blue Man Group are such pioneers, and have announced the release of their debut CD, Audio, for this December. But the CD release of their new recording is only the appetizer.

Blue Man Group feels that the dense nature of their music lends itself better to the surround-sound format, and they suggest that the ultimate setup for playback of their music is one comprising three speakers in front, two in back, and a subwoofer to reinforce the low frequencies. The group says that the new album's surround mix was therefore also mixed to 24-bit digital to allow it to be used both with DVD players currently available on the market, and the not-yet-but-about-to-be-released DVD-Audio format.

Blue Man Group founder Chris Wink explains that the use of this surround technology made Audio one of the very first albums that he is aware of to be created in this format. "Jamming the wall of drums into a stereo mix was difficult; there just wasn't enough room on the tape. Mixing in surround sound allowed enough space for the listener to feel like there was a tribe of drummers all around them." Co-founder Matt Goldman agrees, stating that "some of the material is sort of 'character-oriented'; the melodies played by the three Blue Men can be heard through the three speakers in front of the listener while the band plays behind you. It creates a more environmental listening experience." The group's third cofounder, Phil Stanton, adds, "unlike a stereo mix of a traditional four-piece band, the density of the Blue Man music is allowed to air out and breathe."

Blue Man Group had to wait before technology could catch up with their artistic vision. Throughout the 1990s, they say, they declined numerous opportunities to record an album, opting instead to expand their arsenal of new musical inventions. By 1997, Blue Man Group was able to secure a warehouse space big enough to accommodate all of their large-scale industrial gadgetry. A year later, after installing a recording studio set up to their unique specifications, Blue Man Group was finally ready to explore the medium of multichannel recorded sound.

Blue Man Group says that although Audio does contain some recognizable elements from their stage shows, as a body of music it remains distinct from the show's score. By preparing their music for the DVD-Audio format, the group insists that "this is not a soundtrack, this is better." Winks states that "because there is no plot per se, the music [in the live shows] is one of the elements that drives the events forward. This makes the music extremely pivotal to the experience, but it also limits the compositional range and structure of the songs. On Audio, we were free to structure the music on its own terms and were able to create a listening experience that is unburdened by theatrical obligations."

The group has a number of instruments constructed from polyvinyl-chloride plumbing pipes and played with either homemade paddles or sticks. The tube instruments include the Back Pack Tubulum, the PVC Instrument, and the Drumbone. They also have created a series of instruments that create sounds by slicing various materials through the air at high speeds. These include the Angel Air Pole, the Extension Cord Bull Roarer, and the Wiper Pole. Also featured on Audio is a Hungarian Cimbalom, a beefier bass version of a hammered dulcimer. Contemporary uses of this 100-year-old instrument typically sound classical or new age, but, as Stanton says, "in Blue Man Group's hands, the Cimbalom delivers a sound that is a cross between spaghetti-Western soundtrack music and the Sex Pistols."