To provide indie-dance duo Sylvan Esso with lighting as dynamic, expressive and riveting as their music for their 2021 Shaking Out the Numb Tour, Lighting Designer, Zach Sternberg designed a rig featuring Martin Professional lighting solutions.
Founded in 2013 in Durham, North Carolina, Sylvan Esso is made up of singer-songwriter Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn. By combining elements of folk, indie rock and electronic music, Meath and Sanborn developed a sound that toes the line between digital, upbeat music and earnest, vulnerable lyricism, earning them a devoted fan base in the process. This past fall, the Grammy-nominated duo embarked on their Shaking Out the Numb Tour in support of their third studio album Free Love, which they released in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As immersive and dynamic lighting is a staple of Sylvan Esso shows, the duo wanted to bring the imaginative visual style fans expect and love while also working within the production constraints caused by the still-recovering, post-pandemic live music industry. To meet these requirements, lighting designer Zach Sternberg created a streamlined yet versatile lighting rig featuring Martin MAC Allure Profile and VDO Atomic Dot CLD fixtures and a P3-050 system controller.
“This was a post-pandemic tour, so budgets were tighter, and efficiency was key,” said Sternberg. “One of the things we really focused on was how to design a show that pushes the limits of creativity and brings the fans that same experience they’ve come to know and love under the new constraints. I reached out to Martin because I thought it would be beneficial to use their cutting-edge gear in conjunction with some of the more seasoned equipment in our rig to really elevate our show. We designed a decentralised LED pixel grid controlled with a mix of programming between hard DMX values from the console and video content. When we were looking at which fixtures would work best with this show, the Atomic Dot and the Allure stood out because they can seamlessly receive both bespoke programming and video merges.”
The lighting rig consisted of 13 lightweight, foldable carts that connected to form a curved support structure for a grid of light tiles. Each cart housed two Martin Atomic Dot CLDs pointed centerstage towards the band and on the truss above, one MAC Allure Profile fixture centred directly over each one. The efficiency went beyond the design itself, as all of the Atomic Dots shared a single circuit, and the Allures were controlled by a single Ethernet line. This rig was more compact than those used on previous tours and required minimal setup and takedown in order to accommodate the reduced crew size, but the design nonetheless provided powerful and dexterous visuals that exceeded the band’s expectations.
Featuring a video-controlled Aura backlight combined with a bright strobe-blinder dot, the VDO Atomic Dot is a highly versatile compact fixture that produces powerful beams, intricately blended washes and more, making it a key component in Sylvan Esso’s shows. For example, the song “Numb” features a breakdown where Meath sings a capella, save for a pulsing synth that quickly and sporadically cuts across the mix. Sternberg and the lighting crew elevate this moment with a “slap-clap” effect, where the stage goes dark and the Dots strobe across the stage in time with the synth sound. Sternberg notes how the Dots’ unmatched brightness perfectly accentuates this key part in the song and produces a show-stopping moment for the audience.
“The amount of output you get on the Dots with so little power is really impressive,” added Sternberg. “And with the curved rig design, they all point in at the band, which is really great for sightlines. So, when we do those big white blasts during ‘Numb,’ it’s all focused at that central focal point where Nick and Amelia are standing, and it’s searingly bright. It’s this great moment where we thought, ‘Alright, we have this great wall of tiles, but what can we do to make this moment incredible?’ And the Dots held it down.”
MAC Allure Profiles, meanwhile, feature a pixelated beam and intricate colour mixing capabilities previously only attainable in larger and costlier fixtures. With the Allures directly above the band, the lighting crew could highlight both Meath and Sanborn individually during key moments with striking and colourful beams. Most notably, the Allures played a starring role in a sequence where Meath reflects a beam of light into the audience using a handheld mirror. Sternberg noted that the Allures’ tight and responsive beam control lent itself well to creating that striking moment for the band and audience.
“The Allures have become so integral to the show that they’re irreplaceable at this point,” said Sternberg. “It’s this design element that has become such a part of the experience that if you take them out of the equation, it’s just not the same show. One of the cool things about the Allures is that you’ve got these seven pixels as your light source, and you can see those pixels individually in the air. What that allows you to do is run effects on each individual pixel so that you’re seeing rhythm within the beam of light. People have done something similar to that with gobo shakes and rotating gobos, but you really don’t need gobos with the Allures.”
Finally, the MAC Allure Profiles and VDO Atomic Dots are P3-controllable for pinpoint control and seamless incorporation of video content, which the lighting crew utilized using the P3-050 System Controller. Overall, Sternberg felt that the tour’s lighting rig found the right balance between versatility and economy, as well as embodied the grandiose-yet-human feeling present in Sylvan Esso’s music.
“Nick told me just the other day that this is his favourite design we’ve ever done together, and I’ve been working with them for six years,” said Sternberg. “I’d like to mention that we are not running time code or anything either. For Sylvan Esso, it’s all human operators. There’s this clapping part on the song ‘Train,’ and each clap is a white hit with the Allures and the Dots in tight beams. That moment in literally every show is physically triggered by Eli Feldman, the tour’s lighting director, so there’s this very human-computer interaction element in both the lighting and the music that the Martin gear really lends itself to.”