Simon Haverstad has been designing sound for live musical theater for 9 years. His Broadway credits include The Little Mermaid and Tarzan as a sound designer, and The Lion King, The Producers, and Hairspray as an associate sound designer. He is currently a sound designer for the traveling production of Les Miserables in England.
Phil Jacobson has been mixing live theatrical sound for 26 years. Phil’s major credits include Les Miserables, City of Angels, Beauty and the Beast, Seussical, and The Color Purple. He is currently a sound mixer for Mary Poppins on Broadway.
Jason Pitman has been working with live sound for 19 years. He has mixed Grease, Curtains, Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens, The Pajama Game, All Shook Up, 12 Angry Men, Master Harold & the Boys, The Look of Love, and Wicked on Broadway, and toured with Fortune’s Fool, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, The Rainmaker, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Little Me, Cabaret, Triumph of Love, 1776, and State Fair. Jason is currently a mixer on the U.S. tour of Rent.
They graciously agreed to share their insights on working in live musical theater with Sound Experience.
Sound Experience: We would like to understand what goes into setting up a theatrical road show. Jason, would you describe for us your last “Load-In” of Rent to the Fisher Theatre in Detroit?
Jason: After the union guys schlep the stuff out of the trucks, it’s my and Frank’s turn (Frank is my A2) to start plugging in and hooking up the audio system: mic receivers, board components, external effects processors, speaker amps, and whatever else. Hopefully nothing went missing or was damaged during the gear transport, otherwise we have to search the trucks for backup components or get rental hardware, and that’s a major pain.
The LCS setup we’re using now makes this process much simpler because all of our inputs up by the stage are already plugged into a box; all we have to do to get sound back to the board is run a couple Ethernet cables. The last show I was on used a Cadac, which was great to mix the show, but made load-in more of a pain because each input had to be run through a snake which had to be pulled to FOH (Front of House), and each input plugged into the board. After a quick line check and sound check, we’ll do a run-through of the show in the new location.
During the run-through, we’ll fix any hardware and/or issues that might surface, such as bad mics, buzz, hum, pre-amp noise, and wireless mic reception. We’ll also tune the show’s sound to the venue—tweaking EQ, adjusting the pans, fader levels, and confirming channel assignments on the console. We also work closely with the pit orchestra mixing because the number and type of musicians vary from venue to venue and rehearsal to rehearsal. We usually wrap up the night after the rehearsal is completed, since we can’t hang around the venue without union supervision.
Sound Experience: Thanks, Jason. This is a time of transition in sound mixing technology. As shows get more complex, and depend more on cued effects and pre-recorded tracks to build an elaborate soundscape, there is a trend toward designing for digital consoles. However, Broadway is steadfastly traditional, and many big shows are still run on analog. What are some of the issues you have dealt with mixing in analog vs. digital?
Phil: Actually, I had a big issue come up on Seussical, in 2000. Now, at this point in time I’m fairly new to the digital console way of doing things. So, during one scene in the show, my task was to manually change the Mid EQ setting on Sour Kangaroo. When I reached and tweaked the knob that was assigned to do EQ-ing, I suddenly heard the pit orchestra’s sound changing on the house mix.
I immediately tried to turn it back to its previous state—but I didn’t know what it was because the faders on that board were infinite-turn only had numerical LED display above it—so I had to guess. I was panicking about missing the EQ tweak on Sour Kangaroo and wondering what on earth happened. During the next intermission, I took a closer look at the setup—and realized that Sour Kangaroo was on a different channel configuration layer than what I had active at the moment the snafu happened. What I should have done is page through the layers and find the right channel to tweak the EQ.
Jason: For me, in the analog world, when I was working on Wicked a few years ago, we were on a Cadac, and someone’s mic—I don’t remember whose—started to sound a bit crackly. It wasn’t too noticeable at first, but as the act progressed, it got more and more annoying, at least to me. By the time we got to first intermission, I was pretty sure I had a console module going bad on me.
I reassigned that mic to a different input. That fixed the problem, but it made it a pain to mix the rest of the show because I had to mix that one mic by hand because it wasn’t built into any of my VCA cues. After the show, I swapped out the module for a different one, and everything was back to normal the next day.
Sound Experience: It sounds like there are real trade-offs you have to consider with each type of console.
Jason: There are. Take cueing, for instance. Normally, I have all of my cues all set up, but an understudy can really screw with the system. If I know far enough in advance that someone will be out, I can reprogram everything so their EQs and everything are loaded up, but once in a while, they can spring that on you. In analog, this isn’t the end of the world because at least I can see most of the relevant settings, but in digital, when so much is buried in the programming, it can be really tough. Sometimes I just have to play it by ear, tweaking things as we go, hoping that the knob I twist is the right one, that I’m on the right layer.
Sound Experience: You’ve given us a good picture of what can happen during a show. Can you explain for us what your process is before a show goes into production?
Jason: Well, before the show goes live, we spend a decent amount of time in tech period. This is when the sound designers make decisions about the show’s “look” and the sounds they want to use. If the show is complicated and there are lots of mics being used, the sound design requirements take a fair amount of time to implement on the system, plus some time required to work out any kinks over the first few rehearsals. We have to work with a sense of urgency throughout all of this—implementing the requirements on the board, organizing the board layout, putting together channel, group, and matrix assignments, not to mention programming the actual cues. We have a limited amount of time that we can spend doing this work because we are only allowed into the venue during certain times of the day.
Sound Experience: So you’re trying to put together these complex shows under strict time constraints. Do you ever wish you could just take your work home with you?
Jason: Well, it’s certainly in the realm of possibility, but it’s not a very common thing I do. Since it’s not very practical to transport the console to your home, one option is offline programming on your own computer. The problem is that console manufacturers don’t always offer an off-line editor. And even if they do, the editing software has to match exactly the console model you’re running; otherwise you’re out of luck because your board’s programming is not compatible with your editor.
Phil: Actually, I’ve had some positive experiences working offline. For example, during the Beauty and the Beast tour, the technical director told me that one of the actors had gotten seriously ill and had to quit the show. I was frustrated, especially because we had just wrapped up tech period the month before. We were en route to the next venue when I got this info, so there was no way to fire up the console to change the EQ and cue assignments. Thankfully I had backed up the entire show’s program on DVD-R and loaded it up in the offline editor on my laptop. I was able to get my fix into the programming and simply had to upload it during load-in.
Sound Experience: Simon, you have not had a chance to really get into the mix. Is there some difference in your experience as a sound designer? Can you give us a little bit of an introduction to the sound design process compared to what we’ve heard from our mixers?
Simon: It would be a pleasure. Well, after I finish up all of the show management stuff, you know, choosing and renting equipment, securing backup equipment from a local rental shop, and designing the cues, then I finally have time to start “tech time” with the rest of the sound team and the director. That’s when I start to manage a few settings on the boards through remote devices, talking back-and-forth with the mixers and the director to give the right “look” to the sound.
You know, it’s just a different kind of process for me. I have experience with the big boards, but I really don’t spend most of my time operating one.
Oh, and it isn’t just me that calls the shots on sound choices in the tech period, like Jason said. I have to work with the director’s vision, to get the show to really “feel” right.
I’ve recently starting working with systems that let me operate—tweak, really—remotely. I can even be out there sitting with the audience on performance nights checking the mix from different locations in the house and tweaking them with my remote system. Ideally, though, we try to have that kind of sound mix set up pretty much as well as possible before we have the audience there.
I really know the sound mixing consoles that Phil and Jason use, at one-step of abstraction from them. I may tweak some of their parameters remotely, somewhere in the house, because the sound quality is suffering in some corner of the seats. Otherwise, I may have to deal with them from the point of view of equipment: replacement parts, insurance values, maintenance backup plans, model compatibilities, rental usage agreements, and such. But in the more direct sense of operating EQs and levels, as long as I can get a system that at best lets me remote control without interfering with the operators, but at least lets me speak to the mixer in the language of the board. Otherwise, I just try to make do with what we’re given or try to see the mixers have equipment that’s in their comfort zone.