An Immersive Audio Experience on Jagged Little Pill

by Wilson Burke
Celia Gooding & Antonio Cipriano in A.R.T.’s Jagged Little Pill (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)
Celia Gooding & Antonio Cipriano in A.R.T.’s Jagged Little Pill (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The rock musical, Jagged Little Pill, scheduled to open on Broadway in fall of 2019, had its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) with a sound design by renowned sound designer Jonathan Deans.  The well-received high-energy musical is inspired by Alanis Morissette’s Grammy-winning 1995 album of the same name and features music and lyrics by Morissette and Glen Ballard paired with a book by Diablo Cody. Deans, a pioneer in immersive audio technologies, pushed the limits of immersive sound design for the show, which moves seamlessly between interior intimacy and arena-sized intensity. 

“This whole production was so smart, so fresh,” reflects Deans. “The creative team had a vision of telling the story in a way that can be internal and personal and then suddenly exploded into these incredible songs, where the emotions can be very overpowering. It’s been a truly collaborative experience over many months with the music team, director, and all the creatives, and with the American Repertory Theater, along with Sam Lerner, who heads the sound department at A.R.T.” 

Deans comments, about the show preparations. “Selecting the sound team was a major concern, and for Jagged Little Pill it proved to be a blessing. You need to have a team that understands the task at hand, with minimal room for mistakes or experiments. We must have our ideas, thoughts, and systems ready to go. The sound team must be organized and experienced.”

Making the Right Choices

About his equipment setup, Deans remarks, “So, we really needed a system that worked at two levels but that could transition quickly and seamlessly from one to the other. The overall setup included Shure Axient® Digital wireless for vocals, instruments, and in-ears and Shure’s Wireless Workbench® 6 software; DiGiCo SD10 for band monitors; a KLANG in-ear mixing system; DiGiCo SD7T as the front-of-house console; two Waves SoundGrid Extreme servers (one main, one backup); the Waves MultiRack software outboard host that lets us run plugins in real time during the show; Meyer D-Mitri interfacing with the DiGiCo console for matrixing and output spatialization; Meyer Galaxy speaker management; and a Meyer main and surround speaker system.”

Deans relied on the theater’s own Meyer Sound D-Mitri digital audio platform, and a diverse complement of self-powered Meyer Sound loudspeakers. The foundation for the system was the theater’s 88-loudspeakers, which included full surround capability and a main proscenium system anchored by 16 LINA very compact line array loudspeakers with bass augmented by two each 900-LFC and 750-LFC low-frequency control elements. Two additional 750-LFC elements are placed back in the house for surround bass management.

Rock Music Paired with Dialogue

To expand the sound to arena-size power, the front arrays were supplemented with ten LEOPARD compact line array loudspeakers and two 1100-LFC low-frequency control elements. “The LINA arrays have ample power for nearly everything we do here,” says Lerner, “but this was a case where we went from big to bigger.” According to Deans, the augmented system easily handles the show’s wide dynamic range. “We are nowhere near tapping out the LINAs, let alone the LEOPARDs. What we needed was something that was powerful and coherent, yet at the same time delicate and beautiful. It’s a very transparent and focused system.”

A first-time innovation for Jagged Little Pill is the deployment of eight Ashby 8C loudspeakers—mounted in custom enclosures—for the A-B voice system used during the book scenes. “If we put the intimate dialogue into the line arrays, we wouldn’t achieve the desired effect of demanding that the audience pay attention and listen,” says Deans. “We wanted a more intimate and natural effect, and the Ashby’s provide that with their open sound and 100-degree conical dispersion. It has the quality of an unamplified voice, so it pulls you into the scene rather than pushing the sound out to you. But when we explode out into the songs, the transition is smooth and seamless.”

Deans talks about using the Waves plugins, “We wanted to create an immersive experience. From early conversations with Tom Kitt, the orchestrator, music arranger and supervisor, it was clear that the intention was to deliver the sound as a full sonic experience, supporting the storyline. Depending on the style of music, plugins can help to create controllable and repeatable sonic images, to be layered into the mix by the front-of house mixing engineer. The H-Comp Hybrid Compressor is a great compressor for live theater: it’s bold, quick and easy to use. The S1 Stereo Imager, helps me create space within the proscenium speaker towers, and the C6 Multiband Compressor can vary from being a subtle treatment to a hard-handed multiband compressor.”

Going Wireless

The sound department and Deans selected the Shure Axient Digital wireless system and ADX series transmitters along with Shure PSM® 1000 Personal Monitor System, and Wireless Workbench 6 software that worked seamlessly to match the physicality required of the actors without sacrificing critical audio standards of quality, clarity, and tonality.

Along with Axient Digital, the production team relied heavily on the ADX1M micro bodypack transmitter that features an internal antenna for enhanced concealment and comfortable wear. “From an audio standpoint, I wanted this production to be as clean and as pure as possible to replicate the sound of the album,” says Deans. “Shure Axient Digital is so clear that it feels like the microphones are wired, and the ADX micro transmitters were distinctively designed with performers top-of-mind, evidenced by the incognito bodypack that can comfortably perform night-after-night in an intensive production. The system allowed me and my team to essentially not think about the audio when the curtain went up, which is a tremendous benefit. We had full trust in its consistent performance and flexibility during this complex show.”

Wireless Workbench 6 also delivered added management and networking for the Axient Digital wireless devices to help control gain structure and frequency. With A.R.T. located in the heart of Cambridge, engineers also required a solution with an adequate wireless channel count that would accommodate a densely-populated area while still producing premium audio quality. “We ran about 40 channels with 50 band inputs that made up the ins and outs of the production,” explains Mike Tracey, production mixer on Jagged Little Pill. “To have the channel flexibility and range across this shrinking RF spectrum was critical to the quality of our play. We had over 20 performers at a time, including actors and musicians, wearing wireless microphones, and Axient Digital paired with the Wireless Workbench software went above and beyond our demands,” said Tracey.

The show featured a number of taxing physical performances that required specialized equipment for the performers. “The internal transmitter antennas were a critical feature for a show like this, where the actors were performing intricate choreography and frequently changed costumes,” says Alison Schaefer, production audio technician at A.R.T. “It’s one less external point of failure we had to deal with, and we had actors get so comfortable wearing the micro bodypack transmitter that at times they forgot that they were still wearing it,” she said.

The success of Shure’s Axient Digital inspired A.R.T. to obtain additional channels for future shows. “We were incredibly pleased by the performance of Axient Digital that we plan to purchase 24 channels with 11 AD2 Handheld Wireless Microphone Transmitters and 22 ADX1M Micro Bodypack Transmitters,” comments Lerner. “The micro bodypack was the bread and butter of Jagged Little Pill. All the performers wore one, and night after night it performed flawlessly.”