A Q&A with Resident Sound Designer Robert Gilmartin at The Marriott Theatre

by Michael Eddy

The Marriott Theatre was founded in 1975 and has grown to be a staple of the Chicago theater scene. It has presented more than 180 productions to an estimated 11 million people over the years. With a well-deserved reputation for its productions of classic American musicals, The Marriott Theatre is also known for the development of original and re-imagined musicals. As a founding member of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre it assists and fosters artists in creating new works for the stage. It has also produced the regional premieres of many Broadway shows throughout its history, including A Chorus Line, They’re Playing Our Song, Miss Saigon, Cats, Beauty and The Beast, The Producers, Les Misérables, and Legally Blonde. Along with its regular full season of productions, Marriott also produces Marriott’s Theatre for Young Audiences, presenting original works as well as classic fairy tales in special one-hour productions. They have produced more than 75 shows, seen by over 2 million children. We recently spoke with Robert Gilmartin, Marriott’s resident sound designer. Gilmartin also oversees all the audio needs at the theater. His team consist of himself and sound engineer Sarah Ortiz, and between them they handle the main productions as well as the children’s theater presentations. Gilmartin has been with the company since 2007 and has done around 100 productions at The Marriott.

The sound team at The Marriott, designer Robert Gilmartin and engineer Sarah Ortiz.
Tell us about the Marriott space and the working process.
The Marriott is an arena, in-the-round theater. We have about 800 seats. The theater’s been around since the ‘70s and it’s a fairly unique space, especially for musical theater around Chicago. It brings a kind of great intimacy since you’re in-the-round. When you’re doing big dance shows or something, you feel like you are part of the production and amongst it all. I really love that intimate nature.  

One of the tricky things about doing sound at an arena theater is that you have to cover four separate zones. It’s about trying to gain perspective on all four different sections of the theater from only being able to listen to one. So, having a good system that’s well SIMed and Smaarted, in phase and levelled out well is a big part of that because then I can take a pretty good stab at what it sounds like in one section, and then match the other sections. I then move between the different sections during previews. 

We used to close on Sunday and then start performances of the next show on Wednesday, that was when we would have one day to tech, and then the next day right into dress rehearsal, first preview. But the last couple of years we started adding an extra week to install sets and so we could do a little bit more. We’ve added that buffer week, but we still only tech about one day. We want to get it up and running as quickly as we can so we can get an audience in there and gain their perspective on the show during the previews. It is a fast process, but it works.

How do you schedule in the children’s shows, do you run them in rep with the main evening show?
We do eight shows a week for the night show, Wednesday through Sunday, and then intersperse the kid shows throughout the mornings during the week. We’ll sometimes do a Sunday kid show, and depending on the changeover required, we sometimes do a Wednesday morning kid show, before the Wednesday matinee of the night show. 

Talk about your audio system and how it addresses the sound needs at The Marriott?
Overall, it’s a good system we have here. We put in a DiGiCo SD7 in 2014. It’s a top tier, Broadway-standard soundboard that has good ease of use and reliability. The stuff that console allows us to do, being able to track and change throughout the show; it’s just immense how big of a change it has been for us. Having a digital console, just the flexibility of how easily you can make incremental changes throughout many different snapshots in a show. And the ability to make aliases and different presets for people when they come out in hats and just change your sound in scene by scene scenarios. And the ease of switching between understudies, having players’ setups on your console that can just with the touch of a button let you revamp the whole sound; that is fun.  

The console also definitely helps us preplan a little bit easier, because I can remotely program the console when I’m in rehearsals off a laptop. It has a copy of the exact software that’s on the console, so that allows me to jump ahead considerably and program the show. Then I can just import it via USB when we’re ready to start teching the show. I then just double check my work on the console. One of the best features about the board is you can do everything; control it via an iPad. Throughout previews I just sit in the house with an iPad or with a laptop and make changes to the console and just float around the space. That wireless control is a big aspect that’s great. Also it’s got a completely redundant engine and power supply and control processor on it. So, if there’s any issues, me or the engineer can switch between an engine and be on a completely different backup rig. We do a lot of redundancy like that in our system. Same with our QLab setup. We have a completely redundant QLab setup that can just switchover to the backup system instantaneously. For speakers, we run a full Meyer rig. Pretty much UPAs as our main box speakers. And then UPM-1Ps for fills, to fill in some of the gaps. We work with a local company, TC Furlong a lot. They originally installed the system, so they know it pretty intimately. 

We recently put in all the Shure Axient Digital stuff, as an upgrade. We bought 16 channels of Axient Digital. We have a good relationship with Shure and were one of the first people to get delivery of the Axient and test it out for them. They are great to work with; we get good support from Shure and are happy to test things for them; they are always interested in our notes and are very good about taking care of issues as we are testing things. 

And for mics?
Micing is another challenge in-the-round. You have nowhere to troubleshoot any mic problems in an arena; the actor can’t step off into the wings and get fitted with a new mic quickly. If a mic goes down on an actor, you’re beholden to the fact that they could be stuck out there for a long time and you have no opportunity to get to them until intermission or something like that. Sometimes we will double mic people. So we want really reliable mics. We have some of the new Shure TwinPlex mics. We often have casts of up to 24 and I will have around 12 actors, depending on the show, miced with the TwinPlex. They have been great. 

The biggest aspect that I like about the Shure TwinPlex lavs is they just have that ability to take a beating; it’s like the SM58 of lavs. It’s a big concern for us, like I said, if a mic goes down, you’re stuck until intermission or until the actor is offstage so that you can get to it. So durability is one of the greatest features of the TwinPlex. Especially the connector, that’s usually your fail point on most lavs; the connector wears out at the soldering point and breaks off. But I love the way Shure designed that internally to be even more rugged than most lavaliers. I like the natural sound; it’s got a fairly flat sound that I enjoy. 

We’ve even been throwing the TwinPlexs on a lot of string players in our pit. I love the sound on violins and the violas; they sound great. We just clip them right on there with a mount and we have a nice, close proximity sound of the violin. Then we can area mic it in addition to that. We have an eight to ten-person size pit that is enclosed off in a separate area behind one of our sections. So, it’s not the biggest space and it’s a completely closed off orchestra pit, which is nice in that you get a level of control that you don’t get at a lot of proscenium houses with an open pit. It brings me back to what I studied in college, which was studio work and close micing. Here all the instruments are on top of each other so you have to mic the instruments as close as possible so they don’t bleed into each other. It’s almost like micing a studio session versus micing a live performance. 

I put a TwinPlex on a guitar amp when we recently did Million Dollar Quartet. I had all the musicians, amps, and whatnot out on stage, which was probably one of the harder shows I’ve worked on here. So I ended up putting a TwinPlex on one of the guitar amps to send it to the system a little bit more and that worked out well. For our production of Holiday Inn last Christmas, I put one of the TwinPlex mics at the center point of the stage though a little hole just underneath the top layer of the deck, and used that as a center tap mic, which worked out pretty well. So, yes, the TwinPlex mics have worked well for us.