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Gareth Owen: Theatre Sound Designer

Sound Stages By Paul MacDonald
Published June 2016

Sound Stages

The sound designer’s role in a big-budget musical is to create an immersive experience for the audience — and keep the cast and director happy too!

For those not in the know, theatre sound, and the roles of the sound designer and sound operators (particularly in musical theatre, which tends to command the big production budgets) are much misunderstood vocations. Modern musical theatre production is an incredibly sophisticated affair, but the technical aspects of it are purposefully hidden. You cannot expect an audience to suspend disbelief and be immersed in a fantasy if they can see a microphone, or if they have to pause and wonder how so much noise came out of such a small prop. Rock show audiences regularly put up with a little bit of feedback or open microphones picking up random noises from the stage. In fact, in many instances it’s an expected part of the spectacle. In most theatres that would alienate an audience, and someone would get a good talking to...

The sound designer is responsible for every single thing that the audience, the cast, the crew and the musicians hear. Every clever device and trick is down to the sound designer — and every problem is his or hers as well. It’s also important to note that the sound designer is part of a show’s production crew, rather than the show crew. The production crew are responsible for creating the show, designing everything including the sets, the lighting and the sound, creating the cues and fine-tuning the production right up until the first performance, which is usually press night. The show crew then take over, and are responsible for running (‘operating’) the show from the first performance to the last — every night, for as long as the show runs.

In other words, once the show is up and running and everybody is happy, the sound designer’s part in that production is almost done. He or she can move on to the next project and hand the show over to the sound ‘number 1’ operator, who will keep it rolling thereafter.

One very successful British sound designer is Gareth Owen. He has been responsible for the sound on many of the world’s biggest musical theatre successes in recent years, including A Bronx Tale, Singin’ In The Rain, A Little Night Music, The Bodyguard, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Let It Be. Amongst a slew of other awards and nominations, he has won the prestigious Olivier Award for Sound Design two years running, for Memphis and Merrily We Roll Along.

The complexity of modern musicals means that each show will usually require a  small team of sound engineers.The complexity of modern musicals means that each show will usually require a small team of sound engineers.

Owen is well placed to emphasise the variety of responsibilities that his role encompasses. “The sound designer will create all of the sound effects,” he explains. “They’ll decide how loud they are and how they are played back. They will create the backing tracks and click tracks in a recording studio. They’ll decide what speakers are going to be used in the theatre and how those speakers are angled, time-aligned and EQ’ed. They’ll decide what microphones are going to be used, what compression and reverbs will be used, where the microphone is going to go on the flute or on the leading lady... They will manage the show control and create the cues.

“They’ve got to be able to deal with the musical side of the production and talk the same language as serious music people: the orchestrators, the arrangers, and the composers of these massive shows. They’ve got to deal with a director who thinks it’s too loud, at the same time as a producer who thinks it’s too quiet, or the box office manager who says he can’t hear the words at the back of the gallery.”

It is tough to think of another role in audio where you need such a wide skill set.

Theatrical Roles

The sound designer is at the top of the audio tree for any theatrical production. Depending on the complexity of the show, he or she might work with a production engineer, who implements the sound designer’s system designs; an associate sound designer, who could go on to design the show in other territories; and the operators. The operators are known as ‘sound number 1’ and ‘sound number 2’, though there might be more.

“The sound number 1 — the person behind the mixing desk — has their work cut out for them getting all the microphones on and off at the right time, getting click tracks ready, getting everything in the right mode, and so on,” explains Owen. “It’s such a big job that by the time they’ve said ‘That doesn’t sound right,’ they’ve missed three cues and the show has fallen over while they’re EQ’ing the kick drum.

“During production and rehearsals, the sound designer is the person who is leaning over their shoulder, EQ’ing the kick, adjusting the compressors, turning the bass up and down, storing scenes and so on. Once those scenes and cues are fine-tuned, the sound number 1 shouldn’t normally have to go back to them

The front-of-house console is usually operated by the ‘sound number 1’, who will be constantly adjusting faders while following the script.The front-of-house console is usually operated by the ‘sound number 1’, who will be constantly adjusting faders while following the script.

“Of course, sound number 1 has a say in how a show sounds — they will reach over and push a guitar for a guitar solo or pull some clarinet if it’s getting in the way of vocals and so on — but fundamentally their job is so intense that they don’t have time to worry about the sound of the show.”

Sound number 2 is backstage, responsible for keeping all the radio mics working, making sure that all the comms and cue lights and CCTV are working, making sure that everybody is happy in the orchestra pit, and so on.

“Depending on the complexity of the show, we might get up to sound number 5 or 6,” notes Owen. “If every tap dancer has radio mics in their shoes, there’s a lot to do!”

Line By Line

One aspect of theatre sound that Owen says best demonstrates some of main differences between it and most other audio production roles is the concept of ‘line-by-line mixing’, which forms the core of sound number 1’s role while the show is in progress. It comes from the proliferation and usefulness in theatre of radio mics, which have now almost totally taken over from shotgun mics and ‘float’ mics (microphones on short stands along the front of the stage).

“We have microphones fixed to every person on stage. A lot of the time we try very hard to hide those microphones, so they get hidden in the hair, put behind the ears, they’re painted and covered in such a way that they can’t be seen... These are very small microphones like Sennheiser MKE2s and DPA 4061s. The transmitter packs are sometimes hidden under wigs, on belts... all around the body.

“We find that miniature cardioid microphones suffer from the proximity effect of having the microphone pressed up against the scalp or clothing. So we end up using omnidirectional microphones. Therefore you can end up with maybe 24 people on stage, each with an omnidirectional microphone hidden in their hair — a good seven or eight inches away from their mouth. If you open up all of those microphones at once what you basically get is a big, phasey, airy mass — and an entirely unpleasant, thin-sounding show.”

Gareth at the mixing position for a showing of Sister Act in Milan.Gareth at the mixing position for a showing of Sister Act in Milan.

The necessity for avoiding this situation rather complicates matters at the mixing console. Owen: “What we do is mix the show line-by-line. We will push a fader up for every line and pull it back down, then push another one up for the next line. It doesn’t take long to realise that, with the complexity of the average script, that’s a full-time job. It’s a massive amount of programming, and there’s a massive amount of concentration needed by the operator. That’s why they can’t get their fingers off the desk to deal with other things. They’re too busy worrying about getting the microphones on and off at the right time, or worrying about pushing the orchestra louder or quieter, or cueing a sound effect.”

To make things easier, a show is generally programmed on a digital console so that snapshots rearrange the fader layout as required by the operator. Whenever a cue is triggered, the console will reconfigure itself and the correct VCAs will appear, as if by magic, in front of the operator.

In The Fold

Another issue in theatre that cannot be solved by conventional means is the foldback issue — how you provide the performers’ monitor mixes. On a live music production these days, most musicians use wireless in-ear monitoring (IEM) systems, or personal floor wedges, or a combination of the two. Monitor mixes can be tailored specifically for the artist either by the monitoring engineer, or with a personal monitoring system such as Aviom’s A-Net system.

“In theatre,” says Owen, “you can’t give people in-ear monitors because then you isolate them from each other and they can’t act. It cuts them off from each other. I’ve tried it on numerous occasions and it’s almost never worked. One exception is the leading lady on The Bodyguard. She uses a single IEM in one ear only, and she just has vocals in it. She has a volume control on her back and depending on how much of her own vocal she wants, she turns it up or down. With the notable exception of actor/musicians, she’s the only person in theatre I have ever successfully got on in-ears.”

Personal wedges are out too. Owen: “Because they are moving around stage all the time you can’t give them their own wedge monitors, and they move too fast to make some kind of wedge monitor matrix/routing system practical. So, you end up having one main stage foldback mix. Most singers aren’t terribly happy with hearing exactly the same as everybody else on stage, and making everybody happy is quite tricky. I basically have a remote-control tablet and spend a lot of my time during rehearsals standing next to actors and actresses listening to what they are hearing and adjusting the stage foldback mix.

“A lot of people try to make that mix as simple as possible — only giving the performers what they need for tuning and timing. My philosophy is that if you make it as close as possible to the mix coming off stage, then it gives the actors the same excitement and the same motivation that the audience are getting. That will bring out a better performance.”

Digital consoles provide the complex scene and VCA automation required by big-budget performances, while the ability to tweak mixes using an iPad means that Gareth can refine the foldback mix from on the stage.Digital consoles provide the complex scene and VCA automation required by big-budget performances, while the ability to tweak mixes using an iPad means that Gareth can refine the foldback mix from on the stage.

No Business Like Show Business

While being a sound designer is an incredibly creative, technical and demanding role, every show that a sound designer creates add to their ongoing workload. “When you agree a deal to be a sound designer for a show, you are basically signing a contract to be involved with that show for its entire future life. You sign an agreement that basically says that not only are you designing this production, but you will also be the designer for all future versions.

“You are paid a fee to design a show, but you are also paid a weekly retainer to continue to be responsible for that show. If I’ve got a good team in place, I’ll set up a show, leave it on opening night, and pop back a couple of times a year to make sure things are OK. I’ll have a listen and make comments and adjustments, then I won’t have to come back for another six months.”

After-show Party

There is no doubt that theatre sound design is an incredibly creative strand of audio engineering. The sheer variety of challenges, styles, and soundscapes that populate the world’s theatre capitals is an exciting prospect for any aspiring audio professional. As in all things, there’s no easy route to success, but breadth of experience counts for a lot, as does a cool head under an immense amount of pressure.

It’s not for everyone, but it is a superbly challenging world to be a part of.

Show & Tell

In his time as a sound designer, Gareth Owen has had to come up with many solutions to the problems that ambitious shows present. Here are a few examples:

Hunchback Of Notre Dame: “For this show we created what can only really be described as a Foley-esque soundscape from one end of the show to the other. It could be anything from hearing the archdeacon’s shout from the top of the tower and hearing his voice echoing off the other towers and courtyard below, to dream sequences where Quasimodo is hearing voices in his head and I’m using TL Auto-Pan plug-ins to spin all of the voices around the room and around the audience.

“The big thing — literally — was the huge bell tower. It has seven huge fully moving bells with swinging clangers in them. We rapidly realised in the pre-production stage that we were never going to be able to sync these bells with sound effects, so we had the bells constructed with micro switches built into them. Then we ran the micro switches into the Q Lab show control software and set up a lot of bell sound effects in Ableton. The bell tower became an enormous set of MIDI triggers that were firing the Ableton effects directly.

“The actors can pull on one of the bells and as it starts to move you hear the creaking of the metal. When the clanger makes contact with the bell it triggers another sound effect, and as it swings back it triggers a slightly different effect. As bells slow down the velocity decreases so the apparent impact on the bells becomes less and less. At the size of most of the stage, it’s possibly one of the biggest musical instruments ever built!”

The world’s largest musical instrument? The bells in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame are giant MIDI triggers...The world’s largest musical instrument? The bells in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame are giant MIDI triggers...

Spring Awakening: “An amazing Broadway show where half the cast is made up of deaf actors who sign throughout the show. Each of those has a ‘mirror’ performer who speaks, sings, and plays the musical instruments... It’s like having an angel who is the voice of the actor.

“One of the big challenges was helping the deaf actors stay in time — to sing and act along with the music. The drummer in the show has a Tama Rhythm Watch tempo box, which sends a tempo click into everyone’s ears. To help the deaf actors we bought a load of Guitammer ButtKickers — those things you bolt under drummers’ stools. We fixed them to the underside of the stage — a large matrix of ButtKickers hooked up to another output from the Tama tempo box. When the drummer activates the tempo, the whole stage starts clicking under your feet. You can’t hear it, but all of the actors can feel the tempo and perform in time.”

Bar Bottles: “I once did a show with a scene where one of the cast climbed up on the bar and started playing the bottles. Initially we worked out the different notes that we wanted from the bottles, filled them with the right amount of water, and put a Sennheiser MKE microphone on each bottle. The director then asked if the last bottle could be something different, for comic effect — maybe like a cowbell instead. So we got dDrum triggers and glued them to the back of the bottles, then fed them into an Alesis drum module. We mapped the bottles to different sounds — some sounded real, and others sent the MIDI trigger to the drum module, which played totally different sounds... That was fun!”

By Association

Gareth Owen took quite a strange route to his current status, going via a rapid rise in the rock & roll world and into a chance babysitting role on a musical show for a friend. By answering ‘yes’ to the crucial question, ‘Can you do sound design?’ he ended up, well, being a sound designer. “I somehow ended up leapfrogging all of the roles that you’re supposed to play in theatre, but at the time there weren’t many people around in that world with the ability to make a rock & roll band sound good. So I ended up in theatreland with a relatively uncommon — and therefore valuable — skill.

“Most people work their way up. It’s common to go from production engineer to associate sound designer, to sound designer. It’s also quite common to go from sound number 1 to associate sound designer and then sound designer. Sometimes they skip the ‘associate’ bit!

“I always aim to create a show with an associate sound designer, so that associate can then go and recreate that show again in the future themselves.”