The Godfather of Sound

by Jacob Coakley
in Feature

Abe Jacob (front and center) with (left to right) Nevin Steinberg, John Gromada, Jonathan Deans and Leon Rothenberg at the 2013 Broadway Sound Master ClassesAbe Jacob has shaped the technology and people behind Broadway sound for four decades

Abe Jacob is a self-effacing man. Nicknamed the Godfather of Broadway sound design thanks to his wide-reaching effects on the field and his tireless mentorship to a seemingly endless list of top-notch sound designers in their own right, Jacob jokes that he got into theatrical sound design because no one would know if he screwed it up. 

“There was nobody else doing it,” Jacob says. “When I got to Broadway in ‘72, there was not really a credited sound designer—not even for musicals especially. So I thought that would be something that I could do, and if nobody else was doing it, who would know the difference?” 

Instead, Jacob’s influence on the field has made all the difference. 

Retiring at Nine

Like most people in theatre, Jacob got his start on the performance side of things. He worked as a child actor in theatre at the University of Arizona and even had a brief role in a movie western with Ronald Reagan. He realized that acting wasn’t for him, though, and “retired” from acting at the age of nine. When his father moved the family to Oakland, Calif., he wanted to stay involved in theatre and music so he tried to learn to play the piano. Unfortunately “I never wanted to practice, so I knew that wouldn’t do.” The “next best thing” was to get involved with sound. In junior high and high school he ran the sound system for his schools—supplementing the school’s equipment with gear he’d rent from McCune Sound Service, an audio provider in San Francisco. When he went to Los Angeles for college he’d still return to the Bay Area in the summer and work with McCune. 

It was through McCune’s that Jacob found himself at the Beatles last concert at Candlestick Park. Mort Feld, the mixer on that show, was VP of McCune’s and brought Jacob along to help. Soon Jacob was going on tour with bands, helping shape the sound of such artists as The Mamas and the Papas, Jimi Hendrix and Peter, Paul & Mary. And although he didn’t like to practice piano, he dove right in to training his ears. 

“One of the more important things [in sound design] I think is to have a good set of ears,” Jacob says. “You need to know what you are listening for and for what other people want to hear. The training is basically training your ears to hear differences between sounds—whether they are good or bad and whatever the source is—just to hear the differences. From there you can go on into the operating side of it or the design side of it and put together equipment and people that can make the show work and sound the way you want it to sound.” 

He was helped immensely in this training during his time with Peter, Paul & Mary. “Peter and Paul both had incredible hearing and very specific ideas regarding what they wanted. We would tune a system by having Paul play the guitar and Peter with me in the theatre. Paul would play a note and Peter would tell me what note that was, and what frequency that was, and then we would be able to tune the system that way. That constant repetition of hearing musical notes and translating them into audible frequencies … was a great deal of help in my later career. Now we have electronics that can do that for you. I was never blessed with perfect pitch so I didn’t do it myself, but you train yourself eventually to know what you are listening for.” 

Broadway Bound

The Beatles have been a throughline for Jacob’s career. In addition to working their last concert at Candlestick Park, and his ground-breaking work on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road he worked on the Broadway productions of Beatlemania and Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles, a moment from which is shown here.Jacob kept listening, and what he heard on Broadway wasn’t pleasant. The musical Hair had become a huge hit, and satellite productions were springing up in other cities, including Boston. The problem was—they didn’t sound good. The producer Michael Butler brought in Jacob to design decent sound for the Boston production. His excellent work there led to him redesigning the Broadway version, which led to his work on Jesus Christ Superstar (adding JM-3 speakers from McCune, designed by John Meyer, who would go on to found Meyer Sound), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road (live quadrophonic panning to envelop the audience in sound) and Pippin (the first time a sound designer was part of the development of a show from the very beginning). 

All of which led up to his iconic sound design for the show A Chorus Line. “It was easy to do Chorus Line because it was a collaboration, which is I think the most important thing in theatre, between all of the designers and the directors, choreographers and the writers. The show was all about the dancing and dancing in leotards, and Michael Bennett didn’t want audiences to see the microphones, and we hadn’t really gotten to the point of hiding microphones in the hairline as yet. So it was just assumed that we wouldn’t use them, and I decided shotgun microphones across the front of the stage in the place of ordinary flat floor mikes would give me a better directionality and better pick up at a distance. And he accepted that and staged all of the solos to be in front of one of those particular shotgun mics, which obviously made it work.”

A Chorus Line was a transitional show for Broadway. Of course there was Tharon Musser’s lighting and the first computerized lighting board—but it was also one of the last shows not to use body mics (a technique Jacob also helped develop on the original production of Chicago). The coming decades saw a wave of changes to sound, which continues to this day. 

Jacob traces the proliferation of body mics “from Chorus Line to the original production of Evita, where we used only six body mics and area miking for the rest of the chorus and the ensembles numbers to a Les Mis, where there ended up being 27 microphones to some of the shows today, where there are maybe 40 microphones” and credits technology for aiding that shift. Digital mixers, he says, made that switch possible because it became possible to “manipulate 40 different microphones at once by being able to group signals and have sections that could be controlled by the sound operator. Before digital consoles that would have been an almost physical impossibility.”

But with the FCC selling off parts of the spectrum to technology companies, microphone companies are losing the space to operate in, and Jacob can see a future where designers may have to go back to area miking. “That might be a new challenge for not only the manufacturers and what equipment we can use, but also to train a new generation of operators how to mix the sound with area pick up rather than close talking body mikes. So that could be the turnaround back to that reality.” 

This would mean an adjustment for the audience as well as the designers, though. “I think the demands of the audience who are so used to listening to sounds that are not from imagination or memory, but that are stored on some form of digital medium, which is reproduced with all the fullness and fineness of every note being exact, means that you can’t really get away with the overall blend of acoustical instruments or voices like we did back then. I think the audience demands are making more specific requirements of what we do sound-wise,” Jacob says. “In the early days, you know, you may not have heard everything, but your brain told your ears that this is what you are focusing on. It was certainly true in the early days of theatre when you know you sat in the balcony and there was no sound reinforcement system, and the performer came downstage and sang. Now they all talk about those good old days of the theatre, but that’s not necessarily absolute. Yes, they were good old days of the theatre, but you probably didn’t hear as much as you would have liked to—but your imagination filled in for you. And that is what I think is different today in theatre sound and live sound. Sound today is about trying to reproduce what was originally stored in digital memory. The big thing that we are missing today is there is not as much taking advantage of live performances as we would like to. Certainly the live performances that are out there today with electronic dance music and all of that is definitely not a live sound—again it is a sort of digital memory being manipulated.”

Godfather 

In his excellent 2008 book The Designs of Abe Jacob, Richard K. Thomas maps out just how far Jacob’s influence on the designers of today reaches. In his “Abe Jacob Genealogy” Thomas lists more than 20 designers and mixers who all have close ties to Jacob, including: Otts Munderloh (more than 50 Broadway productions), Jonathan Deans (mixer on A Chorus Line, Cats, Evita and more as well as a prolific sound designer with Cirque du Soleil), Steve Kennedy (Lion King and Jersey Boys), Jon Weston (Broadway sound designer on Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Color Purple) and many, many more. 

And he continues to reach out to the next generation of sound artists through his work with the Broadway Sound Master Classes. “We don’t talk so much about the nuts and bolts of operation or engineering, but the design elements that go into a Broadway musical, creating a soundscape, doing straight plays, and then also a little bit about how you put your sound system together from the manufacturer’s point of view,” Jacob explains. This year’s three-day classes run from June 4-6, and will feature sessions led by such sound professionals as Mark Bennett (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), Peter Hylenski (Bullets Over Broadway), Lindsay Jones (Bronx Bombers), Bob McCarthy, Dan Moses Schreier (A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder), Nevin Steinberg (Cinderella) and Jon Weston (The Bridges of Madison County). It will also feature a session with Nevin Steinberg in conversation with legendary composer John Kander. 

Jacob will be there, too, happily extolling the virtues of good sound and encouraging people to keep making it better. “There is an old saying that in the theatre everybody knows two things: their own job and sound. And that is more and more true. We are the ones that are always out there in the front. People can see us, and it is easy to cast blame on sound,” Jacob says. But, ever optimistic, he adds, “It is also easy see the advantages that we bring to a project. What we have been able to do in the last few years—getting Tony Award consideration, becoming recognized as the fourth designer in the theatre—is gratifying.”