Electrifying the EDM Environment With Lighting and Stage Designer Steve Lieberman
Marina Muhlfriedel | Harman
Since he was a teenager in Long Island, Steve Lieberman has been drawn to working at nightclubs and bars where people gather to hear music and have a good time. As the years progressed, Steve discovered he had a natural aptitude for lighting and stage design and now works on an extraordinary schedule of high profile EDM festivals and shows along with providing lighting designs for nightclubs around the globe.
I recently had the pleasure speaking with Steve about his career and the unique requirements of lighting EDM. He had just finished a show with Rafael Saadiq at Brooklyn's Afro Punk music festival. Meanwhile, he and his team at SJ Lighting were putting the final touches on plans for Insomniac's Halloween show in Los Angeles, Escape: Psycho Circus, where they were designing and lighting three stages and prepping the Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) in Orlando for November. Several additional shows in California and Arizona were also in high gear.
[MM] You and your team seem to work on a tremendous number of projects.
[Steve] We do. If you count each festival stage as its own project, including nightclubs, we're working on between 70 and 100 projects this year. We're very busy and very appreciative of all the work. It's extremely fulfilling and we give 100 percent plus on every job we get involved in.
[MM] What differentiates working on EDM projects from other kinds of music events?
[Steve] The name says it all. EDM shows and festivals are electronic music dance events that grew from nightclub environments and dance parties that 25–30 years ago were part of an underground community. Through the years though, they've become more and more mainstream. Now, electronic music can be heard everywhere from television commercials to nightclubs to big-time shows. EDM isn't the subculture it once was and that we've been part of since the beginning of my career, which goes back to the late 80s and early 90s.
[MM] How did you become involved with lighting?
[Steve] I've always been intrigued by nightlife and dance music culture. I grew up on Long Island and worked in clubs in Manhattan and the Hamptons throughout my younger years. When I started, I was mopping floors and working as a bar backcleaning glasses, filling juice, replacing liquor and wiping the place down. At times, I'd work with the DJs. In those days, most clubs didn't have intelligent lighting systems. There may have been pin spots, helicopters and mirror balls, and everything went to traditional electrical switches in the DJ booth.
I kept it up during summers and between semesters, helping out friends who worked at lighting companies, when I was home from college. As the years went by, lighting became more sophisticated. In big nightclubs like the Palladium in New York, there would have been more sophisticated fixtures. Some of the other clubs, like Kit Kat Klub and Studio 54 had big light lab installations, but most still just had wall switches with pin spots and helicopters and that was it. Maybe there would be some effects lighting, but nothing like today. After college, I decided to make a career out of it. Eventually, many years later, it turned into a viable business.
[MM] What about lighting appealed to you?
[Steve] I always enjoyed participating in the show aspect of the nightlife world, but when I started doing lighting, I found I had a knack for it. Once I began to pick up how to control and operate it, my sense of timing clicked in. I have a mathematically oriented brain, so there are things that just made sense when it came to programming and operating techniques. Adding music into it, it became very clear to me what worked and what didn't. That was something that made sense long before I had the skill set and knowledge of what it really took to work in a technical industry and it has been a constant learning process. Even today, 25 years later, it's still a learning process.
[MM] How has lighting in the EDM culture changed in the last five to 10 years?
[Steve] Today's audiences are educated and know what to expect. It's not like 25 or even 10 years ago when they expected to see some light and maybe some video. Nowadays, they walk into a nightclub or go to a festival and anticipate 400 foot wide, 100 foot tall LED screens with 500 moving lights, lots of blinking and flashing going to the music in a very well-coordinated synched show.
[MM] How much of the lighting at a festival or concert is planned and how much is improvised during the show?
[Steve] When it comes to operating, we have no idea of what the artist is going to play. So, part of being qualified to do what we do, is knowing how to set up the console so you have instant access to make changes on the fly. We don't typically consult with the artist before they get on stage. There are some who know ahead of time what they're going to play, but some don't, so we just follow.
If you have an understanding and appreciation of this kind of music, there are certain things that are predictable so you can anticipate what's going to happen. Like any style of music, there are basics to EDM. While the music may or may not have lyrics and it might have a little faster tempo than a traditional song, a lot of EDM is based on musical theory with a verse, a chorus, a bridge and maybe some other transitions. If you listen for them, they're there. A lot of the music uses standard 4/4 timing. So, if you can count to four and keep track of it, you can probably pick up enough to hit the changes on the beat.
[MM] How do you differentiate between the various DJs you work with? Do you give them different looks?
[Steve] We do, but for the most part the shows are a coordinated effort. Obviously, the DJ is on stage at the other end of the arena and we're at front of house. Most DJs travel with a video component to their show and we stay in sync at front of house and match colors to the video. If they're in blue, we'll stay in the blue shades. Then we match the lighting tempo to whatever the music is doing. The music and video typically dictate what the lighting does. They don't follow us; we follow them. It's up to us to understand and interpret what's going on into the lighting visuals.
[MM] People have high expectations of entering a truly immersive environment. How does it feel to help make that happen?
[Steve] It's fantastic. 25 years later, it's still exciting when you have your hands on the console and can make the hair on the back of 150,000 people's necks stand up. It's a powerful feeling.
On the Circuit Grounds stage at EDC [Electric Daisy Carnival] this year, we probably had 2000 light fixtures about 600 moving lights and then 1400 fixtures ranging from strobes to blinders to LEDs and everything in between. It takes a lot of organization, but in the end, when you have it dialed in and have the control of all of that at your fingertips, it's amazing.
[MM] What are the biggest technical challenges of working at EDM events?
[Steve] A big thing at festivals like EDC Las Vegas is that it's typically 100-plus degrees outside every single day. Even at night, it's 90 degrees. On top of that, consider a 250,000 or more square foot environment with 80 foot tall by 400-foot wide metal structures, 300 square meters of video and 500 moving lights. You have to plan accordingly with staff, vendors and other components to sort it all out.
There's always some sort of hurdle you need to get over in an outdoor environment where you're susceptible to wind, rain, heat and everything in between. Fixing one moving light isn't a big deal when you're in an arena. But, when you have environments that large and a fixture is 80 feet in the air on a stage, the sun is blasting on you and you need to get onto a boom lift and drive it over, it can be an hour process to get one unit sorted out. It takes a very precise amount of advance coordination before all this equipment hits the field and goes up in the air. Even then, you have to be prepared to take a step backward to get it all done.
[MM] What is the workflow like when you begin prepping a large festival?
[Steve] We design and document the stages we work on months in advance. We've already started work on shows that are six months from now and shows that are annuals that we're perpetually doing design work for. I've already been asked for the 2018 EDC Las Vegas stage designs, which we're just beginning to concept.
We have support companies that we hire for the projects. Once we know what we want to do, we've designed and documented it, created the bill of materials, and rendered it, the project goes out to bid. Then the actual build documentation is coordinated with the vendor that picks up that job. The structure vendor will submit his structural drawings. The lighting vendor will do the electrical documentation and patch information and same with the video vendor. Then we coordinate all of those documents.
A festival requires about a month of set up, not necessarily setting up the stages, but setting up the perimeter fence and bringing in infrastructure before we start spiking the property where the stages will land. The stages are so big that we'll take two weeks just to build the structures. Then, it's a week of lights, a week of video and multiple days of programming. It's a tremendous effort.
[MM] Can you describe your stage design process?
[Steve] We like to start with some sort of inspiration. Typically, if there's a theme we'll Google images and eventually something clicks. Musical genres can also impact what the design. Some styles may be a little edgier and some a little softer and the design esthetic will reflect it. There can also be external factors from technical riders and other requirements that we have to incorporate.
Then, I like to begin with hand sketches. We'll sit at the drafting table and come up with a couple things that feel good and slowly start moving that into the computer, modeling it and manipulating it until we get it to where we want it to be.
Once we have a philosophy and a general idea, we start pushing it into the real world of figuring out how we build it and what makes the most sense not only with product, but also being fiscally responsible. You have to be pragmatic and understand what resources are available.
[MM] How different is it working with nightclubs?
[Steve] We're very proud of the work we do in nightclubs. In a way, it's even more rewarding, because the work doesn't get ripped down after two days. If they're successful, nightclubs can be open for 10 years or more. As long as they maintain the system and it looks good, you have a decade-long legacy of customers going in and out of the place. It's great being able to put your art out there, your design esthetic, and having people enjoy it.
[MM] Is designing permanent lighting very different than performance lighting?
[Steve] While nightclubs are permanent installs, typically there are two different packages, a theatrical package and an architectural package, but there is overlap. Sometimes the architectural package changes colors and will use that in the show. Sometimes clubs are rented out to businesses and the theatrical lighting is used for corporate lighting. It can fill the needs of many different events that these properties might have in their space. Permanent installations are a different kind of environment and there are different procedures for designing them. But in the end, in terms of esthetic and philosophy, there are a lot of similarities between a show and a nightclub.
[MM] How has Martin lighting has been a part of your work through the years?
[Steve] Martin has been a part of my work since long before I had my own business. It has always been influential in the nightclub scene and long before I started working on festivals and events. Back in New York, in the mid to early 90s, Martin equipment was in just about every nightclub where we worked. Even now, we have a great relationship with Martin, professionally and personally, which in this industry is really everything. They support us wholeheartedly.
Right now, we're building a big nightclub in Miami and we're using a lot of Martin VC product. My rep, Tony Perez, who is also a childhood friend, drove down to the club and coordinated our Martin P3 processor, making sure it was mapped and everything was speaking.
We've had multiple fantastic experiences with Martin. The company subsidized us at Ultra Music Festival when they came out with the Martin Rush MH3 Beam. They brought down 40 or 60 of the units and allowed us to debut them at the festival. They worked beautifully. I've also had an opportunity to be a consultant for Martin when they've worked on new fixtures.
[MM] Is there a holy grail of lighting you wish existed, a fixture or a process that you hope becomes feasible?
[Steve] Maybe one day when the hologram is truly perfected, that might be something cool. At the end of the day though, my philosophy is that it's the application and execution of a product that's important. Whether it's a pin spot from 1970 or a moving light from 2017, it's about how you apply it to your trade and use it in your design. There are new ideas and products that come out that change the game and level everybody up a bit, but esthetic is a concept, a thought or a procedure, not a moving light. I've seen designers throw 1000 moving lights at something and call it a design and I just don't feel it. Then, I've seen shows where there are no moving lights, just a really cool piece of geometry with forced perspective and intersecting angles and you go; wow, they spent a lot of time figuring out what this was going to do to your mind's eye.
People don't leave shows saying they just saw the coolest moving lights. They're looking at the shape and procedure. Fixtures are the means to an end.
Many thanks to Steve for sharing his insights on lighting and dance music with us. Are you a concert lighting designer or stage designer who specializes in a certain style of music? Share your experience in the comments.