FEATURE THEATRE SOUND DESIGN
And which are you most proud of?
Te two shows I am most proud of are Festen and Billy Elliot. Festen was acted out on a plain black set with minimal props and furniture. Director Rufus Norris encouraged me to work with just a few ingredients – a child’s laughter, running water, the sounds made by wine glasses. Te world we conjured up with this basic vocabulary was perfectly synthesised with the acting, lighting, costume, and set. All the physical elements became one. I was so proud of the teamwork. Billy Elliot is a dance musical with the sensibility of a political play. It’s gritty and real but it’s also uplifting and touching. It’s nearly 10 years old, and I must have seen it well over 200
times, in various theatres around the world. I saw it last week in London and it still amazes me how good it is.
Which kind of productions do you prefer working on – serious drama (Chekhov, Shakespeare, etc) or big time musicals?
I don’t mind, as long as the show has something new to offer an audience. And I need to be kept out of my comfort zone. It’s never been about technical stuff with me – I did a drama and English degree – it’s about the emotion.
How does your approach to the different genres vary?
My definition of sound design for a play is a dialogue with the director.
Charlie and The
Te director’s vision is paramount, and whatever you make as a creative person needs to work with that. It’s important that you understand what the director is aiming for, and to support him/her in that endeavour. If sound design for a play is mostly about sound content, sound design for a musical is mostly about the delivery of the sound. It’s also a much more political and technical job. Unlike a play where your creativity and your computers will be making the noise, in a musical the actors and musicians are your main audio sources. Plus, every sound has to pass through the ears and fingers of the person at the mixing desk, so they had better be pretty good too!
Also, while the director is obviously
each part, and at least three of every child under 16 – so, three Charlies, three Augustus Gloops, three Violet Beauregardes, and so on. Tis has two knock-on effects. Firstly, for the sound mixer, every performance has a different combination of performers, with different mic gains, EQ, compression, and mic positions. While much of this can be pre-programmed and selected at the top of each performance, it makes consistency difficult. Secondly, there is a lot of pre-
What was your design brief/ concept for this box office hit?
Sam Mendes described it to me first as a big, old-fashioned, family musical. Which it kind of is, except that it uses masses of state-of-the-art technology to help achieve that goal. Upon hearing a demo of the music,
it was clear that the biggest challenge would be to make the complex lyrics as clear as possible over the full sound of a big pit orchestra. In act two, the brief was to make
each room of Willy Wonka’s factory magical and unique. As set and costume designer Mark Tompson had come up with a remarkable visual concept for each scene, I took my cue from that, attempting to design an aural world to match. We went to town with the sound effects design – a 48-channel QLab
system with its own mixing desk for maximum flexibility; lots of speakers onstage to locate the sound; a big surround system with sub bass speakers at the rear of each level; and many weeks of recording, editing, and processing. I also bought a few new sound libraries. My favourite moment was getting the chance to direct Sam Mendes in a recording session. During one inspired lunchtime he created the voices of both the sweet-creating robots Beryl and Bertha. You can still hear his work in the show, although after the pitch changing and processing, you may not recognise it as Sam!
What special challenges did it present?
As in any big, long-running musical, there are at least two understudies for
recorded video and audio of the characters in the show. So there have to be dozens of versions of each recorded moment to match all the potential combinations of the live performers on stage. Tis means that changes to the show made with one group of actors can have far-reaching effects! Te Teatre Royal Drury Lane is
a notoriously difficult theatre to fill evenly with sound. Existing speaker positions are limited, and new ones are not allowed by English Heritage. You have to make each speaker position cover as much of the theatre as possible. Perhaps the greatest audio challenge
in Charlie is the set. Mark Tompson has designed a false proscenium, which effectively eliminates most of the useful speaker positions above, below, and to the sides of the stage picture. A great deal of time, negotiation, 3D modelling, and guesswork was required to design aesthetically-acceptable acoustically-transparent grilles around the false pros which would allow me to rig and focus the speakers where I needed them.
theoretically in charge in a musical, the sound designer’s most important collaborator may well be the musical director, followed closely by the composer, lyricist, orchestral arranger, choreographer, and producer. If working with a director on a play can be said to be a dialogue, the skill required to negotiate the opinions of a large number of important contributors in a musical is more like diplomacy. Tere are some things that are common to both plays and musicals: for example, whatever the sound is, live or recorded, sound effect or music, spoken or sung, it has to reach every seat in the auditorium. Tere’s little point in designing a show that only sounds good from the production desk.
What is the basic set up – mixers, monitors, mics, speakers?
We use a DiGiCo SD7T front of house, with an SD8 for sound effects. Speaker processing is a combination of Yamaha DME64s for crosspoint delay matrixing, Meyer Sound Galileos for speaker EQ, and the necessary processing within the L-Acoustics LA-8 amplifiers to make that company’s speakers sound as they are intended to sound. Te main PA is made up of
L-Acoustics KARA and KIVA line array, and SB18 subs. Delay line arrays in the balcony are Meyer M1-D; front fills, surrounds, and delays are a combination of d&b E0, E6, and Meyer UPM-1Ps. Onstage monitoring is all controlled from FOH, and comprises Meyer UPA- 1P, UPJ-1P, and d&b E5 in the stage floor and wings. Te actors’ mics are mostly DPA 4061 with a few DPA D:fine omni booms for some tricky moments. Te band mics are a closely
guarded secret (not really) but comprise mainly DPA, Neumann, Sennheiser, Audix, Beyer, and AKG.
What was the most difficult scene audio-wise?
Te one that introduces Violet Beauregarde and her father. Te song is a fast, loud rap, performed by a 12-year-old girl, who is simultaneously throwing shapes within a small box set we call Te Big TV. Violet wears a boom mic so that we can extract the maximum gain and clarity from her words.
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