A few times a year, I get to take a departure from my usual focus on live music reinforcement and work on a theatrical production. Although I’ve never traditionally had a focus on theater sound, I always enjoy the change of pace. I’ve had the pleasure of developing some wonderful relationships with friends in the theater sound community, and as I continue to learn more from them about their methods and approaches, I’m not shy about borrowing a trick here and there to apply in my own work.
This spring I was happy to be offered the position of sound designer for the Hamilton College Theater department’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. When theater department production manager Jeff Larson called me to talk about the show, I immediately knew that it would involve some unique audio challenges.
The black box theater was being transformed into an urban back-alley parking lot, complete with streetlamps, parking spaces, dumpsters, chain-link fence, and an actual pickup truck. Large portions of the play take place in a courtroom in Purgatory, with the judge presiding from atop an Airstream trailer. The show would be a livestream of a multi-camera shoot, but we also needed to incorporate reinforcement for the small audience seating section inside the theater as well.
Getting It Organized
In order to keep the stream as clean and intelligible as possible, my highest priority was containing the sound energy produced by the live reinforcement system to the audience area as strictly as possible. I wanted my loudspeakers close, which would let me run them at a lower level and bleed less energy into the performance area and the actor’s mics.
That the set included full-scale streetlamps meant the lighting trim height was too high to be much use in this regard, and we decided to suspend small-format JBL Control loudspeakers on boom arms from the catwalk directly over the listening area. A pair at a relatively steep down angle would be the primary vocal reinforcement, while another pair located further out towards the sides of the area, and angled inwards, would be used for playback and some effects cues, which helped push the audience listening experience a bit further “forward” into the sound field and allow the show’s music and some special reverb cues to come from “around” the listener rather than “at” them. A small subwoofer located in the fly rail space immediately behind the audience seating would serve as gentle LF extension for the music playback.
Each of these loudspeakers was driven via a matrix at the console, with an additional stereo matrix to drive the stream itself. Forgoing a more traditional “left-right” stereo mix for a bunch of matrices allowed me the flexibility to balance the mix differently between the live audience area and the stream.
Although I wanted to be relatively minimalistic with the number of actors wearing body mics due to the added complication of the miking process in a “socially distanced” setting, I knew that a completely ambient approach wouldn’t give satisfactory results. After viewing some rehearsal footage to better understand how the actors were moving in the space, I decided that the main body of the show, taking place in the courtroom area, would be covered primarily with the lead actors wearing body (lavalier) mics, and since the witness stand contains a diegetic (“in-universe”) stand-mounted handheld mic, we could use that for most of the witness testimony.
A headworn mic sounds much more consistent than one on a fixed stand as the actor moves naturally behind the witness stand, so I actually ended up sticking with headworn mics on wireless packs for some of the testifying witnesses, although there are some moments in the show when director Mark Cryer specifically asked for the handheld to be used, allowing the actor to use the handling noise and proximity effect to punctuate volatile moments in the performance. The “cutaway” scenes occurring on the other side of the stage under the streetlight (“streetlight moments”) were covered primarily by carefully placed floor mics (pressure zone mics or PZMs).
Although I’m usually very hesitant to ask the director or actors to adjust their intended performance for audio considerations, the livestream component presented additional considerations that might not be obvious when working live in the space. By reviewing rehearsal board mixes with headphones, I was able to identify points that might be problematic for the livestream and figure out how to address them within the sound department if possible, or by working with others if necessary.
For example, the matrix-centric approach allowed me to send the ambient floor mics at much higher levels to the livestream than would be possible in the space due to gain before feedback considerations, but if an unmiked actor delivered a line too far away from any of the microphones, we would discuss adjusting the actor’s blocking to get them into a position where the stream audience can hear them.
This is my second time working with Cryer – previously we collaborated on his 2018 production of West Side Story. He’s one of my favorite directors to work with because he places a high level of trust in his design team and is very sensitive to the technical complexities that sometimes lie hidden beneath seemingly simple design decisions.
Mark cultivates an environment where anyone – actor, crew, or designer – can walk up to him at any time and say, “This isn’t working for me, can we talk about what else we can try?” It allowed us to work very productively to address the unique challenges and considerations presented by trying to do a theater-style mix both for a live audience and a live stream simultaneously.
I’ve always taken a very utilitarian approach towards theatrical sound design – we are telling a story, so clean dialog delivery and high intelligibility are my main priorities. Any artistic or creative choices I make must always remain subservient to clear communication and never interfere with the audience’s ability to understand what is being said. I often think of it more as reinforcement than “design” in the strictest sense, but I do enjoy finding the small opportunities to engage audience perception in a fun way.
There’s a moment in the play during the second act when the character Satan storms into the courtroom and, unlike his previous levelheaded appearance, is very angry and agitated. After a few days of rehearsal, Mark was searching for a way to punctuate the entrance with more impact, and I suggested trying to presage Satan’s appearance with a low rumble that slowly increased in level, like an approaching train.
I liked the idea of the increasing intrusion on the audience’s consciousness until it reaches the point of an all-consuming tactile experience, courtesy of the subwoofer placed in close proximity to the audience seating area. I created a recording of bandlimited pink noise to use for the cue, with the matrix routing allowing us to really push the subwoofer hard in the space while keeping the level more controlled in the stream so the dialog could be understood.
Potential & Talent
Another aspect that I look forward to working on these shows is being able to work with students interested in professional audio – it’s a great opportunity to foster passion and to expose the students to professional workflows and equipment. In the past, students have helped me manage the microphones, script, cues and comms, and usually timidly approach mixing a scene or two.
Hamilton College sophomore Olivia Batal had done some mixing in high school and expressed interest in working on the mix for this show, so we decided that she would mix as much of the show as she felt comfortable with and either I or associate sound designer David Williams would take over if she hit any speedbumps. After getting acquainted with the script and the console automation layout, however, Oliva was able to mix through the entire show with no issues. I’m always excited to see that potential and talent, and I’m confident she has a bright future in pro audio if she decides to pursue it.
Rather than a strict line-by-line mix approach, I opted for a pseudo-line-mixing technique where mics were attenuated but not completely taken out between lines of dialogue. Since the script contains a lot of arguing in a courtroom with characters interrupting each other, sometimes unpredictably, we didn’t want to miss any dialog pickups.
I also wanted to avoid the stream audio sounding too “sterile,” so leaving multiple characters’ mics open at lower levels helped achieve a more consistently natural sound with less modulation of the ambient noise floor between lines.
Typically, this approach is avoided to minimize the comb filtering (“phasing”) interaction when an actor’s dialog is picked up by several open mics; however, in this case the actors were generally blocked relatively far apart, so the bleed issues were minimal.
After learning so much from my more theater-focused friends over the past year or so, it’s been a great pleasure to actually implement those ideas into a show. Given all the unique challenges presented by this project, I’m very pleased with how it turned out and I’m looking forward to the next one.
Postscript: Director Mark Cryer offers his input on audio, stating, “Thanks Mike for your hard work and craft – this has been fun and worry-free because I know you’ve been on the job. Theatre audiences are generally unaware of the various elements that go into a production. They come, they watch, they enjoy, and have little understanding of the nuts and bolts that underpin what they’ve just seen. Nowhere is this more evident than with sound – unless they can’t hear or understand the actors! Sound/mixing is one element of what we do in theatre that is the most underrated and unappreciated because it needs to be subtle and unnoticed by audiences. Because of that, rarely do sound producers get a mention or a thank you even though they’re in many ways the focal/starting point to any theatrical production of excellence.”