Review: Aerosmith Soars with THX-Certified Wings at Las Vegas Residency

Photos by Katarina Benzova.

I have seen and heard the future of live music, and it is THX Certified.

This is how I know: On April 8, Aerosmith delivered a 90-minute performance for the ages inside the THX Certified Park Theater at the Park MGM in Las Vegas. Not only did the gritty, career-spanning Deuces Are Wild residency setlist showcase the deep-rooted DNA behind 50 years’ worth of Aerosmith’s continual delivery of their down-and-dirty rock & roll goods, but it also proved how the marriage of the right technology inside the right venue can deliver studio-quality sound in the live arena without compromise.

Same old song and dance? Bite your tongue.

Indeed, thanks to the combined powers of the top-shelf super-tech team-up of THX, L-Acoustics’ L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound technology, the MIXhalo live-audio mixing platform, and 1MORE THX Certified triple-driver in-ear headphones — in addition to the graphic elan in evidence onstage and all throughout the venue, courtesy of Pixomondo visual effects — Aerosmith’s just-commenced Deuces Are Wild residency in Sin City has gotten off to a most decidedly senses-shattering start.

And to think that it may all have been born out of a desire to replicate that unmistakable THX Deep Note swoosh in a live setting.

As show producer Steve Dixon described it during a late-morning Q&A session about nine hours prior to showtime, the scope of the Deuces Are Wild residency’s aural goals became instantaneously clear when Aerosmith lead singer-cum-resident whirling dervish Steven Tyler told him that the thrust of “Taste of India,” the most sonically adventurous track from the band’s 1998 album Nine Lives, was in some ways inspired by the feeling he got from hearing (and feeling) the effects of that patented THX Deep Note crescendo.

To prove how impactful that THX-crafted sensation still is, Dixon asked the front-of-house engineering team that was on hand and already testing the system for that evening’s performance to cue up Deep Note over the Park Theater’s fully loaded, all-house L-ISA system for full effect. I stood up from my perch a few rows in front of the venue’s soundboard to take Deep Note in at maximum effect. Immediately, that infamous three-octave volume swell and full-body immersion vibe took over the very depths of the then mostly wide-open 6,400-seat theater.

In essence, I was literally floored while standing up and taking in the full effect of what 230 speakers and 300,000 watts of power (give or take) do what they’re certified to do. Was it a sense-memory connection with how I felt experiencing it before seeing Return of the Jedi in a Chicago-suburb movie theater in 1983, a callback to the immersion I get whenever it cues up in my own home theater, or the promise of what I was looking forward to hearing in this very same, totally sold-out room later that evening? Yeah, it was probably a mix of all of that, but the bottom line was clear: This venue was more than properly equipped to let Aerosmith do their live thing in the best-sounding way possible.

Dixon described the theater’s design concept for this residency as being intended to showcase “a new frontier of music,” where the expected spectacle of a Las Vegas show would intersect with the unwavering SQ goals of a career band at the top of their game. “We spent the money where people could see it and hear it,” he clarified.

Given how many concertgoers in so many venues across the land who are seated in off-axis locales tend to get what’s deemed as a summed/muddled mono live signal at best in relation to speaker positioning in the room at hand and its greater-good mixing choices, much careful consideration was taken in creating a sound design that “would be uniform from front to back,” Dixon noted. He added that the L-ISA system’s speakers were placed throughout the Park Theater with the main goal of realizing “the artistic choices about how the music can be heard in one continuous soundscape.”

Grace Qaqundah, vice president of global marketing at THX, then detailed the meticulous nature of THX’s certification process for live events of this nature, as well as how they thoroughly vetted 1MORE’s triple-driver in-ear headphones. Semi-spoiler alert: I can attest firsthand (or should that be first-ear?) that the 1MORE in-ears I wore during that evening’s concert more than measured up to the THX-expected standard for frequency response, distortion versus output, and isolation. I’d consider wearing them at just about any live concert I attend, in fact. (More detail about all that in a bit.)

Qaqundah also pointed out that the on-call engineers in the house were already making some real-time tweaks to the sound design following their evaluation of the opening night’s mix on April 6, a process she expected would continue all throughout the residency. At numerous times during the late morning and early afternoon, I spotted at least a half-dozen people discussing, working on, and enacting mixing-detail minutiae, techniques, and adjustments in and around the designated soundboard area.

Meanwhile, Laurent Vaissié, CEO – USA & Canada of L-Acoustics, shared detail about how the company’s L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound system gave Aerosmith and their engineering/production team “complete creative freedom to surround the audience with a multidimensional soundscape.” I talked with Vaissié briefly after his presentation, and was encouraged by his further explanation of how sound needs to be handled from all directions in real time in concert settings. We both agreed that this level of all-in live room design might very well be the wave of the future. (Again, more on that in a bit as well.)

Following a late-afternoon break to absorb some of the other VIP experiences like the walk-through mini-museum filled with rare, band-selected memorabilia that stretched across Aerosmith’s entire career, it wasn’t long after 7 p.m. PST when I made my way back into the Park Theater and up the stairway into the THX On-Stage VIP section. This is where the 1MORE in-ear headphones, which were tuned by noted Grammy Award-winning sound engineer Luca Bignardi, are a key element of that area’s premiums. Sure, the two Aerosmith-branded pinball machines and active bar are nice perks as well, but I was here for the full live-sound experience.

I climbed up another set of stairs to Row G, the last row at stage right (or the left side, if you’re looking at it from the main audience), and all the way over to Seat 1, the one closest to where the stage-left screen scrim faces the audience. (Incidentally, the overall visual design from the fine team at Pixomondo was beyond stunning all throughout the night — no surprise, really, given that they’re responsible for the detail-oriented 3D realism of the Khaleesi’s dragons you see on Game of Thrones.)

The MIXhalo tutorial was a snap. I plugged my 1MORE’s into the VIP-section provided iPod (yep, iPods still have technical value!), and the MIXhalo app on its screen gave me easy and instant access to a pair of mixes coming direct from the soundboard — 1) the Band Mix, and 2) the Steven [Tyler] Mix. I also had control of the volume, which I adjusted more than a few times during the half-hour introductory historical video that got underway and projected onto the screen scrims at 8 p.m., while various, er, characters culled from Aerosmith songs roamed the stage and into the venue in full costume. (Vegas, baby!) The connection to the house mix did drop out a few times during the video presentation, necessitating my cycling back to the MIXhalo app on the homescreen and then reselecting the desired mix, but it never once dropped out at any time during the band’s performance itself.

I know some attendees were restless for the show to get started already, but I felt the video segment was a fitting retrospective for a band celebrating a 50-year milestone with all of the members who were there at the beginning still intact, albeit following a few separations and squabblings along the way. Once the countdown clock hit 0:00 on the scrim, it was game on. The THX Deep Note swoosh ’n’ swell did its thing, clearly inspiring the first few minutes of sonic mélange that started the proceedings, essentially an around-the-room whirlwind of sound that served not only to announce and confirm the benefits of the Park Theater design itself, but to pour elements of Aerosmith riffs, tones, vocal snippets, and melodies that were culled from across their career into one helluva exciting aural cauldron.

And then . . . it was showtime! Even in the relative dark, I could see each bandmember take their designated places onstage and when the scrims lifted, the Aerosmith collective was off and running the instant the galloping groove to “Train Kept-a-Rollin’” left the station, immediately followed by the equally hard-driving “Mama Kin.” Frontman Steven Tyler was all hat-and-attitude to start, emerging from his short-lived cocoon to dance around and share in the palpable audience energy, as well as feed off of his bandmates — especially guitar maestro Joe Perry, whose primary goal all night was to attack his guitar while leaning and swaying around at all angles except a purely vertical one. Tyler took the time to embrace each of his bandmates, including having some spirited but congenial close-talker conversations with guitarist Brad Whitford more than a few times throughout the set. Meanwhile, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer were, of course, the rocks.

The first half of the set was pure manna for longtime fans like me, as “Back in the Saddle” gave way to “Kings and Queens” (a nasty, chugging cut from 1977’s Draw the Line). An early test of the THX/L-ISA/MIXhalo tandem’s true SQ prowess came with “Sweet Emotion.” Hamilton strolled out to the tip of the centralized walkway that jutted out and away from the main stage to lay down the song’s signature bass line, while Kramer got into the beat hard on the twos and fours.

Rather than coming across as so much low-end sludge, as bass often does in many mid-size rooms like this one (not to mention the way it can get muddied in certain low-Hz-challenged arenas and stadiums), Hamilton’s bass notes were clear and true via the 1MORE in-ears, properly buttressing Perry’s drawn-out enunciation of the words “sweet emotion” repeatedly into his talk box. Tyler soon joined in on the vocals, and each player’s contributions were quite discernible in the Band Mix (and the Steven Mix too, for that matter), with everything on point by the time Kramer’s signature snare rat-a-tats led the song into the blaze-away guitar-solo section. In my ears, “Sweet Emotion” was the best mixed and most deeply layered song of the entire night.

Tyler and Perry then walked out to the aforementioned centerstage extension together to get down to a trio of deep duo-centric cuts: “Hangman Jury” (from 1987’s Permanent Vacation), “Seasons of Wither” (from 1974’s Get Your Wings, and one of my personal Top 5 Aerosmith tracks), and “Stop Messin’ Round,” the latter a vintage, 1968 Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac cover that Perry took guttural lead-vocal duties on. For his part, Tyler also blew some mean harp.

It was during this three-track sequence that I took the most advantage of switching between the Band Mix and Steven Mix modes. Overall, the Band Mix was clearly fuller and more uniform, as it should be, while the Steven Mix had his vocals more upfront and prominent — also a logical decision to me, as I figured that’s what he wanted to focus on this early in the residency’s run. Once he and the band get more familiar with everything the mix and the room can do on any given night, Tyler may very request his mix be dialed back, or even up — and ditto re the band. Tweaks are inevitable to just about any live mix, but this one was already quite top-notch.

The back half of the set was a fine mixture of singalong balladry (“Cryin’,” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”) and balls-out rockers (“Love in an Elevator,” a beyond-frenzied “Toys in the Attic” — complete with inflatable toys floating around above the crowd, no less — “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”), while the three-song encore (“Dream On,” with Tyler taking to a most glittery piano that rose up out of the floor, “Walkin’ the Dog,” and, of course, “Walk This Way”) saw both Tyler and Perry work their way up and back from a movable walkway that lifted them up to the balcony level. And yes, the mix stayed true no matter where they strayed.

While I can’t profess to how the mix details sounded out in the main room itself (more on that in a minute), the mix in my ears via the 1MOREs was as clear as any I’ve heard at a rock show — and I’ve dialed into more than a few board mixes in my day. At no point during the Deuces Are Wild set did I experience that typical concert mush-wash where volume takes over and you just have to go with the thrust of the event at hand rather than enjoy any subtleties and/or instrumental and vocal flourishes. Instead, I got to enjoy a show the way it was meant to be heard.

After Aerosmith took their final bows and ambled off the stage, one of my first thoughts was, “Man, when can I see that again?”

This, of course, is only the beginning. In my opinion, Aerosmith and their tech partners have officially dropped the gauntlet for how live performances can — and should — be presented in the future, without compromise. Forward-thinking artists from all eras and genres, not to mention those aspirational, live-boundary-pushing artistes like Steven Wilson, should take note — is how you want the live performance of your life’s work to come across to an audience.

The good news is, many more performances remain in the Deuces Are Wild residency, which runs off and on through at least the beginning of December (for now), should you wish to witness it yourself. The powers that be at THX and I have essentially agreed that I should experience another show later in this run, so I can see how it and its presentation have evolved in the interim. The plan is that we will also hear from various Aerosmith bandmembers about how the show has evolved in their own eyes and ears — so stay tuned for all that. In the meantime, I’m quite content to let the finely mixed and expertly performed Aerosmith music I heard at the Park Theater do the talking.