On December 10, 2002, the Pacific Northwest Section met at the Bagley Wright Theatre of the Seattle Repertory Theater. They received an education in putting a new sound system into a successful regional theater, and in the use of that system when designing sound for theatrical productions.
Our guides were Bill Droege, Head Sound Operator at Seattle Repertory Theater for 11 years, Ryan Sorenson, current Head Sound Operator for the Seattle Rep, and Steve LeGrand, free-lance sound designer for the Seattle Rep and many other theater companies during his 17 year career.
The meeting was divided into two parts, with Bill and Ryan describing the system hardware, and Steve recounting how he came to be a sound designer, and the role and method of the sound designer in the theatrical process.
The 856 seat Bagley Wright Theater was completed in 1983, and is located on the grounds of the Seattle Center. The sound equipment was state of the art circa 1981, because when building a theater, the process of going from concept to design to construction to completion can take several years because of all the required consultations and funding searches, etc..
In 1983, there were very few if any mixing consoles designed especially for theatrical use. The original console was an Anderson 6000B console, from Minneapolis, which was largely hand built; there was a total of 6 made. The console had a rudimentary VCA automation system driven by an Apple II computer. Power amps were by Automated Device Technology, which were at the end of their useful life in 1990 when Bill started working at The Rep. The unreliability of the amps over the ensuing 10 years made clear to the management of The Rep that it was time to renew the sound system. The path to the upgrade, from deciding to change to the conclusion of the installation, took about 4 years.
The Rep chose a speaker system from Meyer Sound Laboratories. All speakers are self-powered, so any speaker is swappable with any other speaker. Because of the theatrical maxim that "The show must go on", local dealer support was important in The Rep's decision, and Meyer maintains a strong network of local dealers, including the one in Seattle.
The system consists of 5 UPA-1P and 2 UPA-2P, arranged in various combinations into Left, Center, and Right arrays. 14 UPM-1P's are configured as delays in various locations throughout the theater. A 650-P subwoofer is generally placed upstage center for special effects, and two additional UPA-1P's are available for special-purpose placement
The decision to go with Meyer was in large part due to successful previous use by designers in other theaters, as well as a desire for product uniformity between individuals of the same product line. The Rep had just finished installing a different brand of loudspeakers in their second theater space (the Leo K), and a number of listeners and designers felt different models of the same manufacturer sounded differently.
Once they decided on Meyer speakers, The Rep staff weren't sure about speaker quantity or configuration. The main specification was that audio had to sound like it was naturally emanating from the stage. Meyer received CAD drawings of the auditorium, and came up with several possible designs, using different speaker configurations and models. The Rep staff chose the one that worked best for their budget and other needs.
The system uses the BSS FDS-355 Omnidrive Compact as the speaker management and control system. Bill said the Omnidrive Compacts are very easy to program, and very easy to screw up; there are many parameters to adjust via many screen layers. Although it has the capability of being used as a crossover, in this installation only the EQ, delay, and attenuation features are used. The 5 Omnidrive Compacts have a total of 15 inputs and 25 outputs, all of which are used among the speaker arrays, delay zones, and special purpose speakers.
The Seattle Rep presents 8 shows per week (plus a matinee), and is a union house; one person does not normally do all the shows. The audio needs to be consistent regardless of the operator, so some sort of automated mixer was required.
Bill suggested that if anyone in the Section audience was going to be involved in selecting an automated mixing system, it is very important to get the potential vendors to come to your space to do a demo. It is very interesting, because you can get some terrrible demos. One vendor's product was computer driven, and they couldn't get it to boot up. Demo over. Any product put into a professional theater like The Rep has to be reliable and consistent, and if the vendor can't get it working for the demo, then The Rep has no use for the product.
It's one thing to see products at a trade show, and another thing to see them in your room.
At the time of evaluation, Level Control Systems (LCS) was supporting both analog and digital versions of their product; Bill said the digital version demo'd "way better", and so was chosen for the job.
The LCS LD-88 is a 3 rackspace box, and has 8 inputs and 8 outputs. The Rep has 2 of them, so they have a 16 in/16 out system. Bill said the Omnidrive outputs can extend that total to, currently, 32 busses.
LCS records and plays back console fader info, MIDI machine control, panning, and many other things. It is also able to blend matrix changes, cue to cue, either automatically or in any way the sound designer wishes.
It does take a long time to program and to set up a show; you cannot just walk in and do a show. There must be some sort of template set up beforehand to get any sound out of the computer controlled system.
To help users, LCS offers 3 days of training when you get one. There is a network of users sharing information as they develop shortcuts in use. There are 6 theaters on West Coast using this level of system. Bill said the biggest LCS installation is at Disney in California. It controls the sound for the entire theme park. It has 144 inputs, and something like 180 outputs.
Playback comes from three Akai DR-4 digital 4 tracks with external hard drives. The largest amount of time can be spent inputting material into the DR-4s from the original source material; three days are sometimes necessary before tech rehearsals. It's also possible to use additional hard drives already formatted to the DR-4s.
Cues can be entered to LCS to delay a particular sound so it can be localized to any place in the theater. For example, the current production of "Inspecting Carol", (onstage during our meeting and visible in the accompanying pictures) had 8 speakers in the set called "practicals", which are used when sound needs to come from a specific source.
The Rep also needed mic preamps in the system; the LCS doesn't have any, so there is a Mackie Digital 8 bus console.
Once the system was installed by Bill and the staff of The Rep, Meyer sent up engineer John Monitto to review the installation. He approved, and did a SIM (Source Independent Measurement) of the room, a Meyer-developed technique for equalizing and adjusting arrival times from different speakers, using an FFT analyzer. The result is that everything arrives at the listener's ear intelligibly. Delays for the delay zones can be done in LCS, but are done in this installation in the Omnidrives. This allows a show-specific delay to be done in LCS.
The theater sound system also needs to be flexible, as it is used by a variety of events during the year, and those events have differing needs. Bill gave the examples of theatrical plays and musical theater.
Plays want the sound to come from stage, so that there is no sense of a sound system. One musical theater director wanted the sound to come from everywhere in the room. Bill said they removed delay from the delay zones, moved a few boxes around (which was easy to do with self-powered speakers and as many Omnidrive channels as they have), and the director was happy. One event needed a PA in a surround-sound configuration, which was very easy to do, and then easy to put back to normal.
Bill pointed out that theater is not a democracy; the stage and sound crew are working for a director, who is essentially a dictator, whether benign or otherwise, and you do what the director wants.
The Lily Tomlin show "Search For Signs of Intelligent Life In The Universe" played The Rep on its way to Broadway, and had its own sound designer. Bill said Lily has always been a few months ahead of existing sound technology, and that was true for this show as well. There were 22 separate speaker zones in show, including Left-Center-Right, main floor and balcony, and front and back of each. There are 2 monitors built into set, and 2 centerfill speakers built into front of set. All are Meyer UPM-1P's.
Lily speaks, and things are happening at the same time or in response to her actions. As she walks across stage, sound follows her across the stage. The show travelled with their own computer sound control system (not LCS). There were 300 sound cues, both live and computer controlled, in 90 minutes, which was at and frequently beyond the capability of that particular control system.
The house sound system was extensively changed for Lily's sound designer; the repatch went very quickly due to the Omnidrive's vast storage and recall capability. The correct SIM settings were easily recalled.
The computer controlled capabilities of the LCS system and the Mackie digital console are excellent for night after night of the same show, but both are too unwieldy for one-off live events. The Rep also has a Soundcraft Series Five 40 channel console. It is possible to use both the Series Five and LCS simultaneously; LCS "spits out" MIDI data, and the Soundcraft reads it to turn mutes on and off, while the operator adjusts levels and EQ.
We then had an intermission with refreshments and door prize drawings, with prizes (t-shirts, a cap, and a tour jacket) provided by Meyer Sound.
In the second half of the meeting, Steve LeGrand described the role of the sound designer, and how he became one.
Steve started his career in Theater 17 years ago as actor at UC Berkeley. In his first 8 years, he cared very little for the design component and was more involved in other aspects of theater. He got an education after stopping acting; he wrote a rock and roll musical, and the director said "You'll be doing sound design?", and Steve said "Sure".
Sound design involves so many dimensions; although it is technologically driven in a huge way, plays put on by the classical Greeks and Romans had sound design. They created an acoustical environment in which the actors could be heard. Elizabethan England built theaters with thunder alleys above stage where they rolled cannon balls to create thunder. Instrumentalists offstage played flourishes which meant different things depending on what was played ("royalty is here"; "this is the villain"; "this part is romantic", etc.). Chekhov used the sound of a breaking harp string to indicate a particular, specific effect, that of emotional strife.
In the late 1940's, sound first appeared on Broadway, using records as a source. Elia Kazan was one of the first directors to employ sound design. It began as technical field of endeavor, and stayed technical for a long time before it achieved artistic recognition when Abe Jacob got sound design credit for his work on "Jesus Christ Superstar" [we think in 1972]. However, Steve's belief is that the movement toward artistic sound design really started in the regional theater, for example, ACT San Francisco in 1965.
Sound designers are still looking for pay parity with lighting designers. Only recently has the League of Regional Theaters (LORT) recognized IATSE/USA 829, welcoming sound designers into the ranks of artistic designers recognized by contract. It has been a long path to get to this point.
Sound design originally used magnetic tape as the playback source.
The sound designer had to splice very fast under tense conditions. When tape players arrived on the scene using cue control circuitry (leader which stopped the tape from rolling), that was a big deal. Previously they used a kludge of operator-triggered stop mechanisms, which left great opportunity for error. Having an automatic sound shut-off was a great advance. There were, of course, many problems with using tape for cues: splices coming apart, taking a very long time to put together, etc.
With the current advances in digital audio recording, editing, and playback devices, the sound designer's mechanical tools can now approach their creative imaginations. Digital audio can be edited comparatively quickly, and it can be edited by the designer on a laptop, working during rehearsal just ahead of the live play, with the operator using the just-edited cues. Time can be used much more efficiently.
Sound design is very obvious when it screws up. Plane which comes in but doesn't crash. Dog which is so huge that it will eat the theater.
The origin of design, of course, is the literature; the play itself. The designer will come up with his/her own ideas while reading the script, but then of course, has the input and desires of the director to keep in mind in acheiving emotional as well as naturalistic effects.
For Steve, he reads the play and decides what kind of play it is, expressionistic, realistic, etc. Emotionally, he reads the piece and lets it wash over him. Then he goes over it again to see sound possibilities. He also finds it very helpful to see set and costume designs. Then there's a meeting with the director where he could be redirected. In theatrical design, you are there to support the director's vision. Some directors are sound conscious, some know exactly what they want, down to what music. Some give the sound designer a completely free hand in creating the aural environment. Steve has found a lot of political stuff happens being part of a creative team, and you have to find your own place in that team.
As a result of many design meetings, the production already has a look and feel to it prior to the first rehearsal. However, because sound can help invoke the emotions in a play, which still need to be created by the actors, the sound design can change drastically during the 4 or 5 weeks of rehearsal. After this period, the actors will be merged with the scenery, costumes, lighting, sound, etc. on stage. Actual sound design implementation usually happens in a very short period of time after rehearsals are pretty well complete, before the first tech rehearsal. But even during these "tech rehearsals," many technical or artistic issues may require a sound design to change on the fly, as stage business that needs to be covered by a sound cue can change during rehearsals. Everything has to be integrated into a whole to be a production.
If you design in NYC, those are empty houses with no in-house system. System needs to be designed, equipment spec'd, installed. In most spaces you'll use a house's sound system.
Listen to the space... How much background noise is there from air handling? How much control do you have over it? How much outside noise is bleeeding in? What is the reverb time? If you know the answers to that, it's helpful in explaining to actors how to perform/enunciate final consonants. It's not the sound designer's job to go to the actors, but it is appropriate to give some input through the director.
The biggest challenge comes down to creating music between scenes to see how they move from one to another; creating practical effects so they sound real and not phony. You will get an education in many types of music.
Many times you will work with a composer. You will record the music with the composer, and your influence will vary from show to show.
"Black Nativity" at Intiman Theatre was a gospel holiday music show. Steve specified additional equipment to make it sound "bigger". For the musicians, he created six different monitor mixes.
"Inspecting Carol" at Seattle Rep is a remount of a past production in the early 90s, it was produced twice, then toured the country. It was last done on reel to reel tape decks. Ryan took the original tapes and dubbed them onto DAT. This was sent to Steve with documentation; because of creative grouping and bussing on the old system, some was in mono, some was in stereo, but all had hiss.
In Steve's home studio (Mac-based, G3, 8 in 8 out, Digital Performer is preferred medium, Bias Peak is used for stereo editing, onboard sampler (Unity), triggered by Korg M-1), he fed all DAT stuff into the computer, did noise reduction as required, used parametric eq to clean up. Now there is no hiss in any source material. Fortunately Steve finds theatre is very forgiving; nobody puts their ear next to a speaker. Everyone tries to do their best, but it's not as critical as concerts.
For "Dying Gaul" at Intiman Theatre, Steve took one piece of music ("Litany", by Alvo Pare) and cut the 17 minute work into many pieces to use at different times during the play, to match the emotional content of that part of the play.
At A.C.T. (A Contemporary Theatre), Steve is the musical supervisor. Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein hires musical performer/composers with no theater experience and Steve oversees the appropriateness for theater of their music. Steve takes that piece of music and decides where it goes in play. Peter Buck, Martin Hayes, Bill Frisell, and Wayne Horvitz have all composed music for A.C.T.
The difference between composer and sound designer is a blurry line, and can shift at different times. Theaters want to pay as sound designer, but when it involves music composition, Steve tries to keep to a hard line.
For sources and sound effects, samplers are a great resource. To stop it from sounding canned, he occasionally brings in one or two acoustic players to make it sound more realistic. Online sources are growing... Do search on Sound Effects online. Sounds-on-line is promising. There's also Sounddogs.com, but can be expensive. Several places have MP3's. You can also check your public library for recordings. CD sound effects libraries, too. Hanna Barbera collection. Hollywood Edge will send you a sampler CD with about 100 effects. Steve has found it's easiest to create your own library. Using his firewire drive, he can just ask for "War", and it gives him lots of war. Buy a DAT recorder and a mic and go around and record sounds. Minidisc is even more handy. Don't worry about manipulating sound, because that's what we do. If somebody says it sounds manipulative, that must mean you did it badly. You can use whatever works. Need frying bacon? Use rain. Need rain? Use frying bacon. Specific sources can be much more of a problem than generic sources. One play needed the theme music from a famous soap opera from Australia. That was a big problem, finding that source and getting clearances.
You do make your own effects that are specific to a show, and it's best when you make your own.
For one show, he needed the sound of a hand being put on a hot griddle. For this, he used hot bacon fat, with water put in it. The sound was excellently gruesome.
Most sound design stuff is copyright-free, but incidental music can have copyrights. Good reason to use a composer, rather than using copyrighted music. Most sound designers will give theaters a list of music in productions, then up to theater to get clearances. There are licensing services which will get permissions for you. Getting specific rights to each tune can be a big and involved process. Unfortunately, decisions on putting music into shows are usually made at the last minute, and there can be a three week rights-clearing process, so often there is a problem using other music. Best to use your own composer. Copyright issues are very confusing.
Texts: James Lebrecht and Dana Kay, 2nd edition John Leonard has section in book about effects, with little bit of history. Michael Frayn "Noises Off": Discusses how, before audio tape, effects were created live. "Yamaha Sound Reinforcement Handbook" is also good.
A nice place to put speakers onstage is up in the grid with the lights, pointing straight down onto stage, reflecting off floor. Sometimes you can put one on rollers for an effect, but that doesn't often work.
For students, try to get an internship. Cornish College has an academic program. Volunteer at a theater. You've got to have a passion for it, because you are not going to make a fabulous living, but it does make a pretty good life. The sound designer gets to work with some interesting and exciting people. You can't simultaneously be a technophobe and a sound designer.
Sound design is always a compromise, whether because of equipment, time, or materials limitations. The challenge is to make it work for the audience, director, and actors in the context of the play.
Thanks to Steve, Bill, and Ryan for this glimpse behind the scenes.
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Last modified 6/29/2002.