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Starset: Mission Control

by Will Romano • in
  • April 2018
  • Features
• Created: April 12, 2018

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Chauvet Vesuvio Geysers in use. Starset tour photo by Steve Jennings

Creating a storyline for a musical recording and translating its thematic elements to the stage isn’t a new phenomenon. For decades, rock musicians, from Hawkwind to Devo, have assumed faux-identities, constructed elaborate tales of fantasy and adventure, and transported us via hallucinogenic sojourns through the mists of time.

Ohio-based hard rockers Starset carry on this rich tradition while continually developing an overarching narrative, which integrates their studio recordings and stage productions.

In relating its magnum opus, Starset has constructed a brave new world, which blurs the lines between science fiction and science fact, and orbits somewhere between David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. An ever-expanding chronicle resides at the heart of the band’s creative core. The story goes that an intergalactic message has been transmitted to Earth with the potential to change everything we thought we knew about the universe and our place in it.

 

Envision a parallel dimension in which a radio transmission, similar to the SETI “Wow!” signal detected by Ohio State University’s Big Ear observatory in the summer of 1977, providing unequivocal proof of intelligent life outside Earth. Imagine further that the rock band Starset was convened by the planetary council, The Starset Society (www.thestarsetsociety.org), to deliver this revelatory news to the global community.

It’s just this discovery — call it the Gospel of “First Contact” — that Starset will no doubt evangelize as they embark on a three-month tour through North America and Europe. “Truly, our goals are entertainment and education,” says frontman and multi-instrumentalist Dustin Bates. “On the surface, the band is sci-fi entertainment, but people who want to dig further will discover the actionable aspects of the [show].”

Brock Richards on glowing guitar. Starset tour photo by Steve Jennings

Drummer Adam Gilbert plays the lit-up kit. Starset tour photo by Steve Jennings

The Medium is the Message

By mixing elements of hard rock, electronica, and melodic pop, Starset is converting the open-minded to true believers. Starset has racked up tens of million of views on YouTube, recorded two albums to date, including 2017’s Vessels, and published a graphic novel, titled The PROX Transmissions, inspired by the band’s 2014 concept album, Transmissions, and issued by Marvel Comics last fall. In addition, the single, “Monster,” has gotten frequent radio airplay since its release in late 2016.

But outreach through recorded music and even crossover marketing plans can only make so much of an impact. A rock band, especially one on a “mission” sanctioned by a galactic authority, must be resourceful. It’s one reason why Starset has chosen to stage such visually immersive live performances, or as Bates dubs them demonstrations. “We call them ‘demonstrations’ because it’s our goal for these performances to be more than just a live show,” says Bates.

Indeed. Band members don NASA-style astronaut helmets and uniforms equipped with cryo-blast thrusters and independently controlled LEDs, while LED tape lighting illuminates skinsman Adam Gilbert’s kick drum. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Starset employs LED screens as “digital scrim,” says Bates, as well as video projection mapping and a see-through touchscreen center console as a functional part of show control.

Starset raises awareness about technology and how it impacts our society culturally, economically, politically — even spiritually. Science fiction authors and other thought leaders have been warning us of the pitfalls inherent in the so-called progress of modernity for the last two centuries. The irony of using technology to communicate this idea to the masses isn’t lost on Bates.

“I’m currently in my new living room,” Bates admits, “just one of a couple of laboratories I use for projection mapping. This is the most ridiculous living room ever at the moment. I have our data path in here, and it’s just a bunch of wires and … craziness. I’m testing content and [projector] resolutions. It’s a lot of fun, and we take it seriously.

Ron DeChant performs. Starset tour photo by Steve Jennings

“The way we approach the subject of technology with the Starset Society is that it’s dichotomous,” Bates continues. “There’s a good side and a bad side to it. I think technology brought us out of the Dark Ages … but now the technology is evolving and it’s becoming obvious that the negative side is starting to show its face in a little more of an aggressive way.”

Dustin Bates at the touchscreen console. Starset tour photo by Steve Jennings

Touchscreen Control

The Great Rise of the Machines and its influence on our psychology and physiology has been of grave concern for some social critics. While acknowledging the dangers of abusing and harnessing certain technological powers, Starset has nonetheless taken advantage of the 21st Century automation at their fingertips.

In fact, it’s been technology that’s allowed Starset to handle all of their lighting and video projection mapping without much outside assistance. It should be noted, though, that the band was scheduled to bring a dedicated laser and lighting operator with them for their 2018 tour.

Rodger Pugh was brought on to design/operate lighting and other features from FOH. However, the show’s video continues to be directed from Bates’ touchscreen console — Mission Control, if you will — located at center stage.

“The console is run by a MacBook Pro, and it’s the brains of everything,” says Bates, who possesses a degree in electrical engineering. “The capacitive touchscreen is very much like a cell phone. It’s transparent, which resembles Minority Report. I can do many things with it. I’m able to do some DJ’ing of the audio [via Ableton Live]. The screen sends commands to all the various software, like Ableton and Resolume, for video. We’re using DMX for the lighting, and MIDI commands are being sent via the digital software controller Emulator. At some shows, we serve the video right on the same MacBook Pro as the audio and trigger the video server via an OSC bridge.”

Band member helmets and uniforms have been fitted with wireless DMX-controlled LED lighting and relay packs. For authenticity, the helmets were sprayed with a substance that ordinarily protects use from the cosmic radiation of UV rays. “The space suits and the cryo blasts and thrusters on the suits and some of the stage lighting are all programmed in timecode that’s sent out wirelessly all across the stage,” Bates says. He adds that guitarist Brock Richards and bassist Ron DeChant, stage left and right of Bates, “have independent controlled lights for their suits, RGB lights in their helmets, and those thrusters that go out their elbow.” Also, he adds, drummer Adam Gilbert’s kick drum can be independently lit – with all those visuals controlled from the center console.

Elite Multimedia provided PixelFLEX video elements. Starset tour photo by Steve Jennings

Magic Cube

That LED strip lighting isn’t the only luminescent aspect of the drums. Drummer Adam Gilbert is virtually surrounded by a three-sided Plexiglas isolation booth, which serves both as a projection surface and an acoustical dampening system to prevent ringing and hissing cymbals from leaking into onstage microphones.

The angles of the cube’s panels have been redesigned, however, “to bring out the 3D element of the video,” Bates says. “The Plexiglas is covered in an electrolytic polymer that can go transparent when voltage is applied. When he’s not drumming the Plexiglas is opaque, and we’re projection mapping onto it. When he starts to drum, we hit the panels with voltage, they go transparent, we turn off the projection mapping, and there he is, drumming. It’s kind of like a magic trick. Because he is only drumming 60 percent of the time, and the rest is [electronic programming], how do I not have him just sit there? That’s kind of boring. This solves everything. He arrives like a superstar when he is drumming, and then he disappears behind crazy visuals.”

The touring LD operates lasers as well. Starset tour photo by Steve Jennings

The 2018 tour will employ two cubes — one for drums, the other for a cellist and violinist. Previously, Starset tapped three video projectors for their stage show, all positioned at 90-degree angles — one for each four-foot by six-foot panel of the drummer cube. Recently, however, the band switched to one powerful unit for each cube, positioned at 45 degrees relative to the projection surface.

Atmosphere and lighting creates an otherworldly glow. Starset tour photo by Steve Jennings

“We are hitting [each cube] with one projector and doing the projection mapping with Resolume,” Bates says. “We’ve upgraded to a 1920 [resolution] projector [with] high lumens, at 8,000 to 10,000, and they need super ultra short throw lenses, because we are throwing from two and three-and-a-half feet away.”

Bates envisions further additions to the stage production and video projection mapping. PLSN can’t help but flash back to the image of Bates inside his living room slaving over machines and mockups. It’s perhaps this image that is the band’s greatest legacy.

“I like to live in this space where I’m into science and sci-fi and education,” says Bates. Starset “blends my two passions that have existed for as long as I can remember.”

 

Elite Multimedia provided the video elements and Above Sound and Lighting provided the lighting equipment. For more information on this tour’s crew and gear, please see Showtime, this issue, pages 24-25.

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