Dell Gives U2 Concert a Real Edge in New IT

 
 
By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2011-06-27
 
 
 

ANAHEIM, Calif.-As anybody who's experienced a U2 concert knows, these are events that overflow a sports stadium with light and sound and are unforgettable-whether you're a U2 fan or not.

eWEEK recently had the opportunity to check out the IT and performance of a U2 show firsthand at a concert here in Angel Stadium, and we saw it as truly a remarkable achievement in terms of artistic merit and in creative use of information technology.

The thing that stood out most to us was the fact that only four musicians were onstage making the music. There were no synthesizers, no backup singers, no horn sections, no extra percussion, no prerecorded tracks-nothing but the intense rock beat of the four musicians: drummer Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist The Edge and singer Bono (pictured).

For such a relatively simple yet large musical performance, the stage presentation simply has to be huge to match it, and it was. In the case of this year's international U2 360 concert series, the stage on which the performance happens is seven stories high, has a footprint of about 14,000 square feet and weighs 54 tons.

Covers Most of a Baseball Field

It unfolds to cover most of a major league baseball field, and it carries virtually all the electronics directly above the stage where the band works its magic. It was impossible to count all the treble amplifiers that were hanging from the highest points of the stage, but there were more than 100 of them. The bass amps were situated inside the stage itself.

To ensure that each show comes off without a bit of feedback or any type of video hitch, show producer Live Nation Entertainment-which for years used to build all its own custom IT-now has deployed a purpose-built control package that sits in a control tent opposite the stage. 

The IT hardware and software involved to carry this show off is impressive. Fifteen live television cameras feed continuous video to several Dell workstations inside the control tent, which have been loaded with special graphics and prerecorded video.

These consist of off-the-shelf Dell Precision R5400 rack-mounted workstations and UltraSharp U2711 monitors for concert video control and management, in addition to Precision M6500 17-inch mobile workstations-used for off-site, on-the-go content creation and rendering. Thus, the artists who create the additional graphics for the show can change them in between shows as inspiration serves them.

There is not a single customized workstation or monitor in the tent for this concert, and every function is replicated in case something goes down, which is a rare occurrence.

Each laptop workstation runs on Intel Core i7 processors and Nvidia's Quadro 5000M graphics cards with 2GB of graphics memory. For this concert, these workstations were used not only to stream live video but to overlay about 120GB of preloaded visual graphics over the live images during selected songs.

Putting Video and Graphics on a Huge Screen

Dell Director of Global Messaging and Marketing Programs Chris Ratcliffe (known to Bono and his troupe as Chris From Dell), himself a former Sun Microsystems operating systems engineer, is Dell's front man with the band. He's the guy the U2 team calls if anything is needed in the IT tent.

"Putting video itself on the (LED) screen is no problem," Ratcliffe told eWEEK. "But the challenge comes when you're taking video and mixing it in real time with prerendered content, then putting it on a screen that's seven stories tall and has gaps in it."

Ratcliffe was referencing what happens late in the show, when the 360-degree video screen apparently starts coming apart at the seams, stretching out like a loose mozaic from high above the stage down to the stage itself, enveloping the musicians like a brightly colored cocoon.

"You have to work out where the gaps are in the video and create those gaps so the image holds the format. Now that's a challenge," Ratcliffe said.

The intensity of the continuous music, the crush of 60,000-plus fans, many of whom stand for the entire two-hour-plus concert, plus the pressure of making all that IT work precisely right in real time-now that's what we consider a challenge. But on this night, we didn't see any production flubs. And if there were any, nobody outside the tent noticed.

You can see a 15-page slide show on U2's June 17 concert at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., here.

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