ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Sound | Playbill

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News ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Sound Exploring the world of sound design (and its execution) for Broadway musicals and plays.


Ask is a weekly column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email [email protected]. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

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This question comes from Brad Walters of Malden, MA.

Question: Why are the sound control consoles seen at the back of Broadway theatres so big with hundreds of dials? How does one operator control so many microphones? Answer: To answer the question, had an email conversation with Nevin Steinberg of the sound design firm Acme Sound Partners, which has designed the sound for many Broadway shows, including Spamalot, A Chorus Line and Legally Blonde. This discussion focuses on Spamalot as an example. Why are the sound control consoles seen at the back of Broadway theatres in shows such as Spamalot so big, with seemingly hundreds of dials? How many buttons and dials are there, and what different aspects of the sound do they control?
Nevin Steinberg: Actually, the Spamalot console is relatively small! The adoption of digital control for audio in the theatre has led to significantly smaller console surfaces. While the number of buttons and dials vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and from show to show, each switch and/or dial generally corresponds to either an input (such as a microphone on an actor or on a musical instrument) or an output (such as a loudspeaker system for the balcony seating area, or the backstage announcement system). On a large musical, the sound system might comprise as many as 120 inputs or more, with capabilities for upwards of 60 outputs. The faders or sliders, knobs and dials control all aspects of the relationships of the inputs and outputs. One can adjust basic settings such as level (volume), equalization (tone), routing (the distribution of the inputs to the various outputs), as well as more technical aspects of audio such as time alignment, automation and effects. What does the sound board operator do during a show?
NS: The sound board operator, sound engineer or mixer literally operates the sound console. For a play, duties might include triggering the playback of transitional music or sound effects. On an amplified musical, the engineer is actually activating each actor's microphone in time with his/her dialogue and singing, and making real-time adjustments to the balance of the actors to each other and to the orchestra. It's a terrifically busy job! So if I understand you correctly, the person operating the sound board is either called the sound board operator, sound engineer or sound mixer?
NS: All different names for the same job. Are all those inputs and outputs constantly getting adjusted during the show, or are all the levels set beforehand, so there's not much adjustment to be done?
NS: The inputs are constantly adjusted in real-time during the show. The outputs may change on a cue-by-cue basis, but this is generally automated and happens much less frequently. How many microphones are used in a Broadway show such as Spamalot, and where are they placed?
NS: Spamalot uses about 90 microphones for the cast and the orchestra. The actors wear their miniature wireless microphones on their heads, usually at the center of the forehead, but sometimes over their ears. Some microphones are also hidden in helmets, hats and costumes to pick up a specific character's dialogue or singing. There are additional microphones on the scenery and even run down into stockings, pant legs and shoes to pick up tap dancing! How many sound cues are there in a Broadway musical such as Spamalot?
NS: There are about 20 sound effects cues in Spamalot. What are some of the sound effects cues?
NS: The shovel hits, the monks' bible slap to the head, the "fart symphony" at the French Castle to name just a few. How high can the number get?
NS: There is no limit to the number of sound effects, and some shows have none at all. In what way does the sound board operator collaborate with the sound designer to prepare for the show's run?
NS: The sound designer and the sound board operator collaborate on all aspects of the sound of a show — from preparing the sound system design and executing its installation, planning an approach to mixing the material, initiating strategies for creating special effects, and arriving at a style. This relationship is crucial to the achievement of a coherent, successful sound design.

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