Sound designer Walter Trarbach and Foley artist Mike Dobson tell us how they created the sound world for this unique musical adaptation of a hit cartoon.
It’s hard to believe that SpongeBob SquarePants has been bobbing up and down in Bikini Bottom since 1996. The cartoon character created by marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg, which came from an unpublished book and metamorphosed into a massive hit TV series for Nickelodeon, has long since passed the point where it can be described as a media phenomenon. It is claimed that the franchise has generated $13 billion in merchandising revenue alone for Nickelodeon, and is the company’s highest-rated series ever. Which is all very well, but not of primary interest to us until SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical hit the stage in 2017, at which point what was otherwise an amusing TV kids’ cartoon series strayed very much into our area with some ground-breaking sound design and, curiously, a very 21st Century take on one of the oldest theatrical professions: Foley artist.
If the cartoon series, which was first screened in 1999, was a media sensation, the musical version has been no lesser event. Initially staged in Chicago, it arrived on Broadway last year and earned 12 Tony award nominations and endless praise from the critics. Notable was the nomination for best sound design of a musical, which put Walter Trarbach and Mike Dobson, the show’s sound and live Foley designers, respectively, in the frame.
There are, as you might expect, many unusual things about the musical SpongeBob, including a tap-dancing, clarinet-playing squid (with all the attendant audio problems that presents). For a start, this was by no means the sort of show that was knocked together in a rehearsal hall in six months. Walter Trarbach and Mike Dobson began work on it six years ago, even before there was a script and before most of the songs were written (contributed by an array of star writers, including the likes of David Bowie, Plain White T’s, Panic! At The Disco, Cyndi Lauper, Yolanda Adams, the Flaming Lips, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and They Might Be Giants). They didn’t just start at the very beginning of the creative process, they also worked together much more closely than a sound designer and a Foley artist might usually do, creating and evolving sounds as the show was being fashioned. The SpongeBob audience doesn’t just have to hear the artists and the band but has to be very aware of the sound effects, too: being based on an animated cartoon there are lots of them and they are an integral part of the show experience. Imagine creaking footsteps as SpongeBob crosses the stage, bubbling volcanoes, boulders rolling around the sea bed and plenty of explosions. It’s a Foley artist’s dream. Or nightmare, come to that.
Mike Dobson isn’t one of those Foley artists who hides at the side of the stage. He is an integral part of the show, playing drums in the band with his full kit as well as providing sound effects from an array of props in full view of the audience. Dobson has to follow the action as it takes place (which isn’t always directly on stage), including interacting with SpongeBob at one point in the show, and timing his array of special effects to the performers’ actual movements — quite literally footstep by footstep.
As you might expect, given the subject matter and the length of time they’ve been working together, Mike and Walter are almost a double act in themselves. So how did they get involved in the SpongeBob musical project?
“We both came into the first workshop they had with actors and designers in the room, along with Tina Landau, our director,” says Mike Dobson. “She wanted the ingredient of Foley sound as part of the experimental workshop. She reached out to me having seen me perform sometime before that. Walter was contracted by our producer. We actually met in the room and it was the best blind date ever — we had such a great time together from the very beginning, figuring out how we could work together, how the sounds could work with the show, and slowly we built it up over the course of many workshops over the years as we built the show.”
“I was in music school as a classical percussionist and I took a summer job playing drums in a circus. In traditional circus the drummer still provides the sound effects for the action happening in the ring, whether it’s an acrobatic trick or the clowns doing slapstick comedy. That technique used to be the norm in theatre and vaudeville and every type of entertainment before the advent of recorded sound. The drummer was responsible for the sound effects. It has only lasted in circus and I got into that first. Later I was in New York, doing circus and theatre and classical music, and then I got into sound-based things working on computers. That turned more into theatrical sound design, working out how to be able to do it in theatrical surroundings rather than circus, which is a little more Wild West and less precise.”
Walter Trarbach’s background has been similarly varied. “I got into technical theatre when I was in high school, went to college for sound design and then I moved to New York. I’ve been working my way in sound design and engineering since 2001. Sometimes I’ve had calls for crazy art pieces and performance pieces where they need sound reinforcement, and I’ve done some rock & roll — Mike’s a little bit country, I’m a little rock & roll — but mostly my focus has been on theatre.”
Given the brief — to interpret an animated cartoon, with all the craziness that suggests, on a theatrical stage — what problems have the duo had to face?
“The biggest challenge to me,” says Trarbach, “has been just the scale of it and the variety of sounds needed. Because the score has been composed by so many artists, really representing a large swathe of musical styles, we needed our sound system to be able to accommodate that. In addition to that we have Mike’s Foley contraptions that are out in the house, in front of the sound system, which is a challenge. Also the actors interact with the audience, they play musical instruments, there’s tap dancing, so we have tap mics, there are all these crazy soundscapes — but really, the biggest challenge for me has been how much sound there is and how many things have to be dealt with.”
Each one of those challenges, of course, goes through the front-of-house desk, and with so much going on in the show, that places a lot of demands on the mixer. “I don’t actually know how many channels we are using, off the top of my head,” Walter says. “When we did the show in Chicago we had a DiGiCo SD7 and I know it was maxed out. When we came to Broadway there were a couple of additions, so we added an SD10 as a sidecar... so we’re probably in the neighbourhood of 220 channels but I couldn’t tell you exactly.”
Mixing a live band is one thing but a theatrical performance — especially one so dependent on special effects, with infinite potential for timing changes and pratfalls (both literal and metaphorical) — calls for extreme adaptability and great watchfulness. There’s no way the show can be put on a memory stick and left more or less on autopilot.
“Our mixer, Julie Sloan, is actively keeping up with the very precise microphone on/off situation,” Mike Dobson says. “She’s adapting constantly too, but the Foley is designed to be adaptable. For example, Ethan Slater, who plays SpongeBob, doesn’t say to me, ‘I’m going to take 10 steps when I cross this time.’ He’s just crossing the stage and so it is different every night — but I think that flexibility keeps it a little safer from crazy things happening, because it’s fluid and I can just go with him. I think it saves us a lot of potential catastrophes.”
Walter: “One of the great benefits of having Mike so involved in the show is that he’s so in tune he’s like another performer, so he can physically tailor every moment to what’s happening. Julie is a very talented mixer, and she has to handle things like compensating for an actor who may be having trouble with their voice that night. She’s always listening and adapting to how different performers are playing or signing.”
One of the star performances of the show is a tap-dancing squid, Squidward Q Tentacles. Not only is he tap dancing with four legs, but he is also supposed to be playing the clarinet. Only (spoiler alert!) that last bit is faked — but the tap dancing isn’t, and calls for not only considerable skill on the part of the actor, Gavin Lee, but on behalf of the sound team, too. How do they handle tap activity like that?
“Squidward has a big tap-dancing number and then there’s an ensemble, maybe 12 dancers, with six or seven of them having tap mics too, so we can get the ensemble effect,” Trarbach says. “We use lavalier mics for this. All the actors wear mics anyway, and it’s basically that same mic that’s taped onto their feet to get the right sound.”
One advantage that handling sound design for a theatre offers is that it is at a fixed location, unlike touring with a band, where venues can differ significantly one from another. But you do, it turns out, have to start from scratch, just as you would if touring.
“They give us four walls and the seats and we have to install everything from scratch, so every speaker that’s in the building was added specifically for this show, and that load-in process took about three weeks to a month — including the lights and the set,” Trarbach says. Our main line arrays are d&b V Series, and then we have a centre cluster which is a Meyer Sound MICA. I think there are 14 of them, something like that, and in the balcony there are Meyer MINAs for the upper balcony and then we’ve got around 18 fill speakers throughout the theatre. For the cast, we have 16 stage monitors that we turn on and off depending on where the actors are. It’s mostly automated, so it’s not something that everyone worries about during the show, it’s something that we set up during the rehearsal process.”
One further complication with SpongeBob the musical is the wide variety of musical styles it accommodates — from rap to the out-and-out hard rock of Aerosmith’s Tyler and Perry contribution. This is another area where Mike Dobson’s extreme versatility comes in handy, as not only is he tackling Foley duties but he is the drummer/percussionist in the show’s 18-piece band. “We’ve got a big rhythm section, plus strings and horns, and it’s unique in that half the band is in the pit but three of the musicians are in the house on one side, and I’m in the house playing percussion on the other side, so there’s a lot of different live sound to regulate. But we have AV monitoring systems so we can see and hear — all of this is pretty standard these days, but because we’re spread out it’s a big undertaking for the band to play together.”
Meanwhile, all of this — or at least a large chunk of it — is wireless traffic, and in a small geographical area where every other theatre is competing for frequencies too. “Yeah, we get problems all the time,” Trarbach says. “It’s getting worse in that the FCC is auctioning off frequency ranges all the time and it’s a big challenge facing sound at the moment. But the three major rental shops in the New York audio market do a very good job of coordinating the frequencies between the theatres, so mostly we’re OK — well, until a rogue cab drives by, which happens kind of frequently but mostly we’ve been without too many problems.”
Mike Dobson’s array of sound-effect-generating equipment maintains the fabulous tradition of movie and theatrical Foley artists using found objects to generate sounds for which they were never intended. So what exactly is he using? “It’s a combination of traditional percussion instruments — things that provide the normal kind of cartoon Foley palette like cow bells and wood blocks and drums — and then a lot of other cartoony sounds like slide whistles and car horns and squeaky dog toys, plus a lot of found objects and garbage and pieces of metal that sound cool. I have this great trash can that I tortured Walter into putting a beautiful microphone on, and there’s a frying pan — the DIY recycled garbage aesthetic that you see throughout the show is also in the instruments,” he laughs.
I should probably add here that for readers who aren’t familiar with the SpongeBob story, it takes place under the ocean and SpongeBob himself lives in a pineapple shell, so there are a lot of the sorts of things you would expect to find on the sea bed, like wooden planks, discarded ropes and just general junk. These all figure in the set as well as in Mike Dobson’s Foley kit.
Not all the sound effects are generated by hitting pieces of wood and metal or squeezing a rubber toy at the right moment — electronic sources, of course, have a big roll to play, as Dobson explains: “I do a lot of the electronic sound effects in Ableton Live, where I’m using a Novation Launchpad and keyboards to trigger things in Ableton. We basically do all the plug-ins and bounce them down so we’re not running too many plug-ins live. Mostly it’s just functioning as a very high-powered sampler. It’s just set up so that when I push ‘this’ it’s ‘this’ footstep and when I push ‘that’ it’s ‘that’ footstep. For the keyboard, Walter created this very cool thing where it’s mapped across the stage, so as I move up and down this little two-octave keyboard that provides the sounds for SpongeBob’s steps, it moves across the stage with him, so I can follow him from left to right.
“All this comes from a 100-year-old tradition, even if they weren’t doing it in quite the same way,” he adds. “So I wouldn’t say that we’re actually doing something new but in terms of Broadway it’s an amount of it that I’ve certainly never seen before.”
“It’s Mike’s Foley setup that I think is the most fascinating thing we’re doing,” Walter Trarbach says. “He has 64 buttons with no labels on them, which I find baffling...”
With so much going on, I asked Mike if he ever makes any mistakes during the show. “Oh, yes — totally!” he laughs. ”The goal is to try to make the mistakes subtle things so that my horrible mistakes are not noticed by the audience. Every now and then there’s something that I wish I could take back.”
“I, on the other hand, have never made a mistake,” Walter adds, deadpan.
As with the panning effect of the footsteps-generating keyboard, solutions have had to be found to specific unusual problems (tap-dancing squids aside), as Dobson explains. “Walter had to solve the problem of interfaces on these contemporary USB-based devices going into a redundant system that you need for theatre, and he had a box built to act as an interface.
Walter: “We had Matt Dennee [Chief Technical Adviser at event-technology specialists PRG] build us a MIDI interface box we call the MIDI Monster, which is basically a bunch of MIDI mergers for show control and MIDI splitters that go out to our redundant systems. It also has a bunch of contact closure triggers that are translated into MIDI Notes, so when Mike’s playing his percussion kit, if he’s over by the timpani, for example, and needs to trigger a sound effect off Ableton, we’ve strung a contact closure button over there that will trigger the explosion, or boom, or high-pitched scream, or whatever it is that’s called for. We’ve found that Mike, because he’s so in tune with the performers, is the most reliable operator and it’s the most reliable way to take cues. As a result, a lot of times, using show control, Mike triggers other things in addition to sound effects over MIDI. He triggers video cues and projector shows, and even at times triggers steam jets that shoot up through the stage, because they all need to be timed out so specifically and he’s the most specific person. He’s in charge of a lot.”
At the recent Tony awards ceremony in June, SpongeBob didn’t manage to capitalise on most of its nominations (it had tied with Mean Girls, with 12 nominations each). Instead, The Band’s Visit scooped most of the musical awards but, still, nominations are nominations and the show, as they say, goes on — and, we can assume, on and on after that.
So far there has been no suggestion of a transfer across the Atlantic yet, but surely London’s West End needs a tap-dancing squid?