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What do U2, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift share?


Deep in Central Pennsylvania's Amish country, Tait Towers designs live sets for the world's biggest music acts. Its aim? To make rock stars’ visions come alive.
In December 2016, designer Ric Lipson was in New York on a conference call with Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. Lipson is a senior associate at London-based design firm Stufish, the company that, along with U2's set designer Willie Williams, has created all of the band's tours since 1992's Zoo TV.
In October 2016, U2 had played software giant Salesforce's annual conference on the site of the old Geneva Drive-In Theatre in Daly City, California. In homage to the Geneva, the stage had a movie screen and little else.
Now, the band wanted something similar for The Joshua Tree anniversary tour in 2017. The four musicians were leafing through proposed designs from Stufish and Williams when Bono grabbed a Sharpie and drew a rough outline of a Joshua tree breaking out through the top of the screen. That's what should be on the stage, he told Lipson.
It's always a difficult moment for designers such as Lipson and Williams when rock stars doodle their concepts for stage shows. To get a stadium tour from notion to opening night costs tens of millions. Thousands of people are needed to design, build, assemble, market and sell the show. The technology involved often doesn't exist yet.
The In this case, at first, the set design looked simple - a 61-metre-wide, 14-metre-high 8K LED video screen painted gold with a silhouette of a Joshua tree picked out in silver. During the second half of the show, the screen would show epic high-definition American landscapes shot by photographer and director Anton Corbijn. There would also be a tree-shaped catwalk and satellite stage extending into the audience, plus steel trusses that dangled lights and speakers high above the stage.
The "ecstatic pause" moment in U2's 30th-anniversary The Joshua Tree tour, captured at the BC Place Stadium in Vancouver on May 2017, Chris Crisman
To deliver that concept, however, required at least three world-first equipment prototypes: a video-controlled follow-spotlight that tracked performers using a CCTV system; a state-of-the-art carbon-fibre video screen (the largest and highest resolution ever used for a concert tour, with pixels just 8.5mm apart); and prototype speakers from audio specialists Clair Brothers that are so powerful, only 16 speakers are needed to flood even the largest stadium with sound. Furthermore, the various technical and safety standards involved meant that the stage would take three days to put up and take down, so there would need to be two sets of steel supports moving around the world at the same time, with, for instance, one under construction in Berlin as the band walked on stage in London.
"At that point, we didn't know what the kit would be, beyond the hope that technology just on the cusp of being possible would be invented in time for the start of the tour in May," Lipson says. "But rock stars don't want to hear problems and our job is not to say, 'That's impossible' - our job is to say, 'Yes, of course.'"

Armstrong is a freelance writer. His article was first published in the February 2018 issue of WIRED magazine.