October 1999
The Play's The Thing -- If You Can Hear It
Some Thoughts on Theater Sound

ILLUSTRATION: GEORGE SCHILL
by Paul D. Lehrman

The other night I went to the opening of a production of a very hip Broadway musical, put on by the students at the school where I teach. It was a "workshop" performance, since they didn't have the rights to do the whole show, but except for a few missing numbers, it was all tricked out to be the real thing. It represented a massive effort on the part of a lot of people, especially considering it was only going to run two nights.

The set was attractive and very clever, putting together industrial bits and pieces into a well-functioning environment, and it was particularly impressive considering the students built it (and everything else) with practically no money. The costumes were convincing. The lighting was professional (albeit the cues were sometimes a bit tardy, and the follow-spots a bit shaky). The band was hot, and the acting, singing and dancing ranged from "not too bad" to "truly great"--which, for a student performance in a school without a drama department, is definitely high praise. The sound, which was handled by one of my own students, sucked.

After the show I went over to the mixing board, and my student looked up at me sheepishly and said, "What are you doing tomorrow night?" I hope, for his sake, it was better the second night. If not, I wouldn't have blamed the cast for a moment if they'd thrown a rope around that well-functioning, cheaply made, post-industrial set and hanged him.

I don't really blame my poor student--he was in way over his head. I knew that was going to be the case much earlier in the semester when he first started describing to me how things were going to be set up. Although this was not an academic production, I had agreed to let him use the show as his "term project" in my advanced computer-audio seminar. Besides designing and running the house sound, he had also put many of the music tracks together using sequencers and a hard disk recording system; worked out a clever (if, as he found out opening night, not entirely foolproof) way of synchronizing the singers, the recorded tracks and the live band; and procured, on a very limited budget, all the equipment.

And what equipment! Eight body mics, six spot mics, another half-dozen mics on the band, a huge FOH system, a separate monitor system with half a dozen wedges at all levels of the stage, and everything, including multiple feeds from the hard disk system, going through a 32-input board, and simultaneously being routed to a rack of three ADATs for recording. It was a complex, elegant, thoroughly competently designed and outfitted system that would have done justice to the touring company of many a Broadway show. But it still sucked.

"All right, Mr. Insider," I hear several of you readers snarling, "what the heck do you know about theater sound?" Well, I haven't done much theater recently, so I don't pretend to be an expert on the latest equipment or techniques, but I happen to know a lot about what works with audiences, since I was involved very heavily in live theater for a lot of years.

I started (indulge me here) in junior high school, acting in a bill of two short plays, in which I played the murderer--in both. Soon I was alternating between the stage and the pit band (and in at least one production, managed to handle both), and by college I was musically directing some pretty wonderful productions. I even got out of a course my senior year (one reason why I was so sympathetic to my student this year) when my faculty advisor allowed me to get academic credit for working on a production of Marat/Sade (the short version of the title of that landmark '60s musical starring a cast of 19th-century lunatics, which, in theatrical circles, is notorious for literally driving its actors crazy). Our production was no exception: one of the cast members, rumor had it, had to be hospitalized after they found him wandering around naked on an airport runway one night after the show. But the production was stunning, and the experience unforgettable. I was in love with the theater.

When I set out into the real world, in parallel with my various careers as journalist, session musician, and recording engineer and producer, I continued to work in the theater as a musical director. I did some off-Broadway in New York (including a production of Marat/Sade which was so bad it nearly had me running naked around JFK), some road shows (including some I wrote) in New Jersey and Ontario, and then when I migrated to Boston, productions of Brecht, Brel, Rodgers & Hammerstein, industrial shows and children's theater in venues ranging from musty downtown playhouses to suburban synagogues to sleazy hotel dinner theaters. Often I ran sound along with conducting or playing, since many of the productions were too small to afford a sound crew. One show I was particularly happy with, which got good reviews but mediocre audiences, was supposed to move into a prestigious small theater after the show that was in there finished its run. Unfortunately, the show that we were scheduled to come in after, a rather stupid "audience-participation comedy-murder-mystery," is still running--in fact, 18 years later, it's the longest-running show in the city's history.

Over the years, I moved away from live theater and took that energy into the world of film and television music, where you tend to get paid whether the audience shows up or not, and as an added bonus, you only have to deal with one screaming maniac at a time, not a whole cast of them. These days, the only time I appear on a theater stage is when I'm backing up my wife, a storyteller, in her more avant-garde endeavors.

The theater has changed radically since I left it, and like every other aspect of the arts, technology has become a major part of it. At any level--from second-grade talent shows to community productions of Guys and Dolls to the full-blown fog-and-helicopter, neon-roller-skating extravaganzas that line Broadway--it's almost impossible to find a musical theater production today that doesn't make use of an elaborate sound system. Perhaps it's because audiences are used to seeing things on movie screens and television, where the sound is perfectly balanced. Perhaps it's because shows now have to play bigger halls to make money, and the voices of mere human beings are not strong enough to fill those halls. Or perhaps it's simply because people are used to being deafened when they go out for an evening's entertainment--but the era of the unadorned human voice using script and song to present a story to a live audience is about over.

Like much of entertainment technology, theater sound (and understand I'm talking here about miking the actors, not playing recorded sound effects or background music) got off to a rocky start. A lot of early experiments, even at the professional level, were horrible, and there were fierce debates in the arts sections of newspapers everywhere about how the aural pollution we were all suddenly forced to deal with meant The Death of The Theatre. I recall a painful production in the mid-'70s, at the small Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, of The Threepenny Opera, one of my favorite shows of all time, and one of the hardest shows in the repertory to pull off (I know, I've tried more than once). The size of the theater didn't really require a sound system, but there it was. One of the leads, a television actor who probably had no Broadway musical experience, wore a body mic while the other cast members (including the late Raul Julia) sang into fixed mics or no mics at all. The difference in sound was, to put it mildly, grotesque. Even though he couldn't sing, the TV actor's voice overpowered everyone else's, and yet it had that distinct squashed quality you get when you bury a small-diaphragm mic underneath several layers of clothing.

But the bugs got ironed out, and especially as small mics got better and wireless mics became more practical, theater sound has steadily improved and become more dependable. Costume designers and sound designers work closely (if not always happily) together to make sure that both visual and audio goals are being served. And although there are still plenty of examples of execrable use of the technology, when it's used well, sound reinforcement can contribute significantly to an audience's enjoyment of a production. For people with hearing impairments (which is pretty soon going to be a lot more of us than you think, but that's another column), a good sound mix through infrared-powered headphones can be a godsend.

(And speaking of which, once upon a time, I loved the idea of going to the theater with someone who had a hearing problem. My Aunt Peppy used to take me to Broadway shows when I was a kid, and because she was hard of hearing, she always got seats as close as possible to the stage. That was how I got to see Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam from the third row. Thanks, Pep! But that's not a solution for everyone, especially with Broadway tickets now going for upwards of 100 bucks.)

This relationship between art and technology has, not surprisingly, become symbiotic. As sound systems have improved, productions have become much more dependent on the sound. Today many aspects of performance that used to cause directors to pull their hair out--like where an actor stands on stage relative to a mic, or how he or she can sing to an upstage character while at the same time facing the audience, or even whether the orchestra's too loud--are now of concern only to the sound mixer, and directors can get away with staging and blocking that wouldn't work at all without electronic assistance.

But as all of us who use technology for artistic purposes know, the best tools won't do you a damn bit of good if you don't use them right. As much as, and perhaps more than in any other audio/visual medium, theatrical performances depend on sound technicians' performances to be absolutely perfect, in terms of which buttons to push and when. If a TV weatherperson's first words are lost as he or she starts to talk about the next snowstorm, he or she can repeat them, or let the pictures tell the story. If a film actor's lines aren't picked up very well, the director can ask for another take, or schedule a looping session. Audiences will even forgive not being able to hear a lead singer in a band through a line or two. But in theater, if a singer opens his or her mouth and nothing comes out, it disrupts the story, stops the show, embarrasses the actor and breaks down the illusion of reality. There are no second chances or alternate takes in the theater.

Preparing mic usage, monitor feeds, the timing of cues, and how the cast and the band are going to hear each other at every juncture in the script is crucial. If the director wants to have the lead actor lean down over the audience in the middle of his big death scene, the monitor mixer has to make sure that monitor three inches from his head is turned off--or the lead actor won't make it to the next performance. When an actress finishes a big romantic scene and then goes off stage and starts yelling at the crew about her leading man's breath, the FOH operator had better turn her mic down--unless said operator doesn't want to make it to the next performance!

Which is one reason why automation is the theater-sound mixer's best friend. Trying to keep track of which mics are on when, and which feeds they need to go to, by using a chart or china-marking pencils (as my hapless student tried to do) is just loony. Almost as loony, however, is using an automation system without backup. Remember that production of Marat/Sade I mentioned earlier that was so glorious? Opening night was delayed an hour and a half, thanks to the school's brand-new, state-of-the-art, prototype (the term "Beta site" hadn't been coined yet) automated lighting board. That afternoon, the crew was running the board through its cues one last time, when suddenly the beast literally took off, ran through the whole show in the space of about two minutes, and then shut itself down, dumping its core memory (or whatever the heck it used) in the process. Three hundred some-odd cues, totally wiped from the face of the earth, now had to be re-entered by hand, from the scribbles the lighting designer had made on a clipboard. Why didn't they back the cues up? Because there was no medium available to do so--the disk drive for the system was an optional extra that cost several thousand dollars, and besides, it hadn't been manufactured yet. Today, a sound technician--equipped with a MIDI-compatible board that can easily communicate with and store its contents on a laptop, or that even has its own disk drive--has no such excuse.

And of course, every system has to be thoroughly tested and re-tested, and backup measures developed in case of failure. It's kind of fun to see a roadie run out on stage in the middle of the Rolling Stones' set and fiddle with some cable, but you can't get away with that in Les Miz or The King and I. In my student's production, a pair in a snake failed, and the cue/click tracks from the hard disk recorder, which were supposed to synchronize the band and the singers, disappeared from the stage monitors. So instead of a seamless start to every musical number, the audience was treated to the sound of the drummer (who still had the click in his headphones) counting off--as if life, as portrayed in this show, had suddenly become a recording session.

Despite the awful problems with the sound, I have to admit that this production was enjoyable--but it could have been so much better. It was certainly an educational experience for all. As in any classroom, you have those who are ahead and those who are behind, and in this classroom, the dancing, singing, playing and set design were way ahead. The dummy of the class, the sound system, was holding everybody back. The saying goes that you don't leave the theater singing the scenery, but if you can't hear the songs, you don't leave the theater singing anything.


Paul D. Lehrman is very busy finishing up his Master's thesis, which is going to be very, very loud. And you're invited. Check it out at www.antheil.org.

These materials copyright ©1999, 2001 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing