The Most Important Thing in the World

by Brad Berridge

Marilyn Maye and her accompanying musicians during the 2012 O’Neill Cabaret Conference
Marilyn Maye and her accompanying musicians during the 2012 O’Neill Cabaret Conference
Cabaret isn’t just stripped down theatre—and sound design for it shouldn’t be stripped down either.

I was engaging in the rarest of treats: Golf. I was approaching the fifth green. A perfect day in the Berkshire Mountains: 74 degrees, a slight breeze, birds lazily chirping … pure relaxation. I was hoping for a 30-foot chip in for par. (I said hoping.)

My phone rang. It was one of my favorite directors, Michael Bush. The chip would have to wait; I took the call.

“Brad, listen, I run the Cabaret Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and I need help.”

As I often say when Michael calls, “What do you need?” He said he needed a sound designer. Luckily, I am one.

What he didn’t say was what the Cabaret Conference needed from a sound designer. When I said “yes” to Michael and agreed to help him out, I came to cabaret thinking it was a straightforward and, frankly, lesser art. I thought about it as something actors did to fill the calendar in between acting gigs. All it needed was some speakers, a few mics and an intern make sure everything stayed together.

I was wrong.

What cabaret really needs is someone who understands singers, music and storytelling. Cabaret needs someone who gives the art form its due as an intimate, immediate and electric form. By the end of my time at the Cabaret Conference at the O’Neill, I had come to appreciate cabaret as an extremely artistically fulfilling form in its own right, and was able to embody the necessary skills to give cabaret the attention it needed—and I had become a better designer because of it.

Lori Ackerman during a performance at the 2012 O’Neill Cabaret Conference
Lori Ackerman during a performance at the 2012 O’Neill Cabaret Conference

Gearing Up

When I started preparing for the conference in 2011, I did not have a strong grasp of what cabaret really was, or what was needed to make it happen properly. So I did what everyone does when confronted with the unknown—I went to the Internet. Wikipedia roughly defines cabaret as “a form of entertainment featuring music, comedy, song, dance, recitation or drama. It is mainly distinguished by the performance venue (also called a cabaret), such as in a restaurant, pub or nightclub with a stage for performances. The audience usually sits at tables, often dining or drinking. Performances are usually introduced by a master of ceremonies or emcee (MC). The entertainment is often (but not always) adult-oriented.”

Thanks for nothing, Wikipedia. To get a definition that meant anything, I turned to a human resource—THE human resource: Michael Bush. In addition to his role as Cabaret & Performance Conference artistic director at the Tony-award winning O’Neill, he is frequently the emcee at fundraisers and galas that use a cabaret format. He directs many cabaret acts and has been involved with many famous cabaret performers careers. He’s the man.

And his definition of Cabaret is more straightforward and inclusive: “Cabaret is any kind of live performance in an intimate space that breaks the fourth wall.”

When I asked about the sound he was looking for, the answer was succinct.

“It is about connection and communication on an almost one-on-one basis. As I like to say, the performer and the audience are eye-to-eye and ear-to-ear.  You can run but you can’t hide.  That is why good sound is so important. It is like an intimate conversation where every nuance must be heard.” This clear direction sent me on my way.

First, I had to design a system that would meet all of those goals. With the audience/stage relationship in a thrust set up, I divided the room into zones that would have discrete sound. There were four zones: the center audience level, each side of the stage and overflow seating. Selecting equipment for this setup was relatively easy. I needed a console that was flexible and quick to use. I wanted to go with a digital desk to maintain continuity with different acts and setups. Working with Cabaret Conference underwriters PRG, I chose a Yamaha DM2000 digital mixing console and Meyer UPM-1P loudspeakers for reinforcement and monitoring.

These choices were made based on quality, size, flexibility and reliability. The DM2000 is great because it has 24 accessible faders, and I liked the ability to control everything I had on stage. The UPM-1Ps are great because of their coverage, ability to hold their coverage pattern, power and size. Because of the small size of the cabaret space, my monitors needed to be clear, with good vocal presence, but not bleed into the house. The tighter pattern on the UPM-1Ps allowed for this. I used two down front for the performer, covering the stage generously, and one upstage of the piano bench for the piano player.

Our standard setup was a piano upstage and a singer, but the accompaniment sometimes expanded to include everything up to an eight-piece band. Because our piano was a Steinway 9-foot concert piano, I was able to keep it out of the downstage monitors for most performers. When full band setups were utilized, musician monitors were kept upstage and focused away from the audience as much as possible, keeping the house mix uninfluenced. This is important, because it meant the downstage monitor mix could be exclusively/primarily vocals. Because I chose the same speakers for monitors, there was a sonic continuity even if the audience heard some of the monitor mix. Singers absolutely must be able to hear themselves to know what is happening when they sing into a microphone. Depriving them of this is a sound crime.

For the instruments, I had a smattering of mics on hand, including Shure SM-57, Neumann KM184 and Sennheiser 900 series models. For the piano I had the Earthworks PianoMic System. This microphone is the best out-of-the-box solution for a piano that I have ever heard and used. You will not believe your ears the first time you plug it in.

For vocals, I used both Shure and Sennheiser wireless systems. The Shure system utilized a Beta87 capsule, and the Sennheiser was an SKM 5200 system using 900 series capsules. Both were cardioid microphones.

Wireless is really a must for cabaret performers. When I design, I want the technology I am employing to go away. It cannot pull focus from the performer. A cable will do this.

So will a mic stand. The most difficult piece of equipment to use in the cabaret was a microphone stand. Singers use their time in between songs to build a relationship with the audience. This manifests with performers setting up songs by telling stories or jokes. Since they frequently move between standing or sitting on a stool, and using the microphone stand or not using the microphone stand, adjustments of it are frequent. Having to work with a traditional mic stand can be clunky. Twisting it, dropping it, raising it, tightening it over and over can be cumbersome and steals focus. It can also pull a performer out of “the moment” if they have trouble. I found a microphone stand with a clutch to be extremely beneficial. The performers simply grab the stand just below the microphone clip, squeeze, and put it in position. Done. No fuss. The DR Pro Quick Release stand is my favorite.

Michael Bush performing at the O’Neill Cabaret, accompanied by Beth Falcone on the piano
Michael Bush performing at the O’Neill Cabaret, accompanied by Beth Falcone on the piano

Mixing to the Moment

Mixing cabaret seemed straightforward at first: Piano, vocal, done. Put the vocal just above the piano in the mix and relax…add a drummer or a bass player from time-to-time.

This, of course, is merely adequate. It accomplishes the minimum needed to meet the requirements of a technical rider and might make for an enjoyable evening for the audience. But there is a missed opportunity here. Because cabaret singers do not have the benefit of an enveloping production—with both its plot and production values—to contextualize a song, they work overtime to be the story and deliver the song appropriately. Good cabaret performers wring every ounce of emotion from every single note.

I witnessed this first hand when working with Amanda McBroom (great actress, cabaret performer and author of “The Rose,” most popularly sung by Better Midler). She says, “I look at each song as a monologue first, finding the emotional beats. Then I sing it.” Which is putting it mildly. She has the ability to lift you out of your chair as a performer.

“Sound is important in cabaret because it is the partner to the performer,” she continues. “When a singer can hear well, their concentration goes into the subtlety of interpretation, rather than worry and over-performance to reach the audience. Cabaret is intimate, two-way theatre ... So much emotion is exchanged between the singer and the audience. When sound is bad the experience is exhausting, and only half of what it could be. When sound is perfect for both, the entire experience can be life changing.”

How can I support that as her sound person? How can I be a participant in this performance? I found a few things to help me make this happen.

Artistically, I made sure to remember that every note sung is the most important thing happening in the world at that moment. Giving this type of weight to what was happening around me put me in my true place as a sound designer and engineer: I am a vessel for the music, not just a hired hand. I began to feel the music flow through my fingers on the sound console. It made me feel like an actor in a way. I could be in touch with every moment as it happened.

Engineering-wise, some helpful add-ons to the process were vocal effects. I generally set up a small reverb and maybe a vocal slap delay to add texture on most shows that have a singer. For cabaret, I needed more to help them tell their story with sound. I arrived at setting up four effects engines for the vocalists: a short, bright reverb (maybe just 2 seconds of decay), a vocal slap delay (to add texture), a long, dark reverb (up to 7 seconds, depending on the voice), and a traditional echo with a slower repeat.

I put these four effects on the top layer of my console, keeping them at my fingertips. Traditionally, I would have the sends to them post-fader, but for cabaret I like to send them pre-fader and at a high level. This allows me to blend the effects as if they were another, accompanying voice. If I am in the moment with the performer, I can pick and choose the amount of each effect I want to use, blending them together to make completely different-sounding effects beyond the four on my console.

Having a digital console allows me to add in additional effects for instruments very quickly, assigning them where I needed them on the desk. If I encountered a singer who didn’t like effects, like the legendary Ms. Marilyn Maye (guest on The Johnny Carson Show a record 76 times), it’s easy to just dial them out. But this has been the exception. Most singers understand the emotional impact effects can have when used correctly.

For a system profile, the system should toe the line between present and transparent. There is no getting away from people knowing there is sound reinforcement, but they should hear what is being sung, not what is coming out of the speakers. To achieve this balance, I tune the system with the vocals as the primary focus. I move away from making it have a “flat” response and make sure that the vocal range sits on top. But I also make sure that is never too “bright” or “piercing.” Ultimately, I want the mix to have the vocal quality of a good recording.  The balance of the vocals and instruments in the mix might not have that same direction, but the vocal must enable the performers to tell their story.

The final thing I try to do is to have a relationship with the other artists in the room. In order to deliver their best performance, the singers and musicians need to feel confident and comfortable onstage. I always try to make them aware of the attention I am paying to what they are doing. I want them to feel like I have their back. It can make them have a better overall experience and deliver a better performance to the audience. Since that performance goes through me as the sound person, it can be more fun for me too!

I’m grateful to the fantastic crew at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center who made my experiences with cabaret over the past two seasons such an amazing time. They were a great sound staff that really believed in the philosophies we discovered. Sound engineers Benjamin Scheff and Benji Inniger, as well as their interns, Michael Doliner, David Sanford and Tracy Cowitt, all give a designer the best support they could hope for.

I have found cabaret to be extremely gratifying as a sound artist. The performers I have worked with have been receptive to my ideas and appreciative of my work for them. I have taken what I have learned back into the theatre and sound art worlds. Cabaret has made me into a better overall artist and taught me how to “give over to the moment” with a form and artists that can make those moments pure bliss.