This is the most change that anyone in this company has seen in 20 years. No one has been able to do that.
Mannheim Steamroller is one of the most successful instrumental-music groups in American history, having sold 28 million albums in the United States alone . Founded in 1974 by record producer and composer Chip Davis, the group first found fame with its eclectic ambient-music series “Fresh Aire,” which notched seven gold records over a 15-year period. But even greater success followed in the wake of Davis’s 1984 decision to take the group in an unexpected direction: producing and recording modern interpretations of traditional Christmas favorites, from “Deck the Halls” to “Carol of the Bells”—a move that yielded eight straight platinum records.
Today, Mannheim Steamroller is perhaps best known for its Christmas-music concerts, and each year conducts two tours—one in the Eastern United States and one in the West. The Steamroller shows are a sensory cascade of new-age instrumentals and dancing colored lights, and feature big-screen video compositions that paint the music with mood and memory. So successful has this formula been that Mannheim had been able to deliver essentially the same show every year for nearly 20 years. But by 2011, Chip Davis realized that dramatic changes were needed if the group were to recharge its popularity with a new generation of fans.
To lead that aesthetic makeover, Mannheim tour director Janet Taylor brought in live-performance specialists Caudill Pictures and Entertainment. Taylor had met Caudill founder Ryan Caudill when the two toured together with Guns & Roses, a heavy-metal band whose raucous rock music was the antithesis of Mannheim’s sweeping orchestrations and uplifting melodies. It was an unlikely match—but one that would help launch Mannheim Steamroller into a bold new visual territory.
Challenges were apparent from the moment the makeover began. Mannheim Steamroller was managed by a veteran executive team with a commitment to exceptional quality, and they placed exacting demands on all those associated with the show. Any changes would have to meet this same requirement. The executive team was also very hands-on, and wanted to be involved in all major creative and technical decisions. However, having performed largely the same show for so long, the group’s leaders were unaccustomed to significant change, and did not know what to expect.
Yet it was apparent to all that such change was necessary. Among other issues, the show was no longer living up to the creative or technical standards that the group desired—a situation that was beginning to undercut the performances’ quality, and that had led to a bubbling-up of dissatisfaction among concert attendees. There was little time to make the needed improvements. The next tour started in just two months, and the program revisions had to be completed and ready for launch before then so that they could be adequately tested and rehearsed.
The job quickly began in earnest. But after inspecting Mannheim’s decade-old video equipment and its ’90s-era film footage, the Caudill team realized that the entire video system needed to be upgraded to a high-definition video environment. After much consideration, the group’s management endorsed this new direction. But Mannheim’s executives were frugal to a fault, and Caudill engineers were forced to implement many of its envisioned changes with the technical equivalent of scissors and Scotch tape. Worse, much of the show’s source footage was lost, and what remained were second- and third-generation dubs that used a wide array of formats and compression algorithms, and so were poorly suited to high-definition streams.
Knowing that there was neither the time or budget to reshoot the lost footage, Caudill video engineers meticulously assembled a stock-video inventory that matched the group’s original library, theme-by-theme. The limitless (and cost-saving) possibilities of stock footage were a revelation to Mannheim’s Davis, and he quickly approved its use. The first small steps—such as replicating in HD the video montage that accompanied the group’s performance of “Silent Night”—yielded to giant leaps into the unknown. But they were mere prelude. For the next song on the refresh list, Davis decided to set his sights on the blue skies of imagination. “I want you,” he told Caudill auteur Ryan Caudill, “to do this one yourself.” The song was “Northern Lights,” and Davis offered only this guidance: “Take me from the Earth, into the Northern Lights, and then back down again.”
And so it continued, piece-after-piece, creativity replacing caution, until fully one-third of the visual program for the group’s 24-song set was recast—all within a matter of a few weeks. Even a majestic new HD video prelude to the live performances was ordered up and crafted. Despite the daunting schedule, all of the new HDTV components were completed on time and within budget—to a level of quality that exceeded all expectations. The transformation was unprecedented. “This is the most change that anyone in the company has seen in 20 years,” observed Janet Taylor, the Mannheim tour director. “No one has been able to do that.”
But accomplish it they did, and the Caudill video makeover injected new life and energy into Mannheim Steamroller’s proven concert-video formula. Most importantly, it helped to stir the spirits of a new generation of Steamroller enthusiasts—even as it cemented the allegiance of legions of long-time devotees.