(Re)Creating The Encounter

by Bryan Reesman
Simon McBurney in The Encounter
Simon McBurney in The Encounter

It took two sound designers – Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin – to develop the binaural audio landscape for this one-man Broadway show

The Encounter has redefined what a one-man show can be and do on Broadway. The set-up is simple enough. Simon McBurney sits in his London apartment and tells the true story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, who got lost with a tribe in a remote part of Brazil back in 1969. The stage backdrop looks like a giant recording studio with sound dampening foam lining the back wall, and the aural adventure takes us deep into the head of the narrator and our own imaginations.

Gareth Fry
Gareth Fry

How is this achieved? Threefold: Manipulation of audio, the use of a binaural audio head on stage, and immersing the audience under headphones for the whole 105-minute show. “This is the first show on Broadway to use binaural sound, as far as we’re aware,” says Gareth Fry, sound designer for the show, who worked with co-sound designer Pete Malkin. “And also probably the first where the audience wears headphones.”

First off, there are two Sennheiser wireless handheld mics that are positioned on stands by McBurney’s desk at stage right downstage. One is used for his regular voice and the other for the voice of Loren, whose story he is telling. They also act in contrast to the binaural microphone near center stage.

“When you listen to a regular microphone over headphones it sounds like the voice is positioned between your ears, in the center of your head,” explains Fry. “When you listen to binaural sound everything sounds like it is external to your head, in the space around you. By going between the two we are able to present both the external world of our protagonist, using the binaural head and other binaural sound; and his internal stream of consciousness, using the conventional mics. This is a really critical aspect to the telling of this story, where our main character Loren MacIntyre is lost in the Amazon rainforest and makes contact with an indigenous community whose language he doesn’t speak.”

Pete Malkin
Pete Malkin

As Loren is initially isolated with his own thoughts, the sound technology allows the audience to experience that scenario intimately. One of the handheld mics is used for Simon’s narration, and the other “has a simple pitch-shift effect from a Lexicon PCM81, which shifts his voice down two octaves, which Simon uses to be the voice of Loren Macintyre,” says Fry. “He also accomplishes this by swapping between his native British accent and an American accent for the two characters.” Fry and Malkin also found it useful to employ a Countryman E6 microphone to allow McBurney to speak when he was not by the binaural head or the DSR table. The headset was used as is, or pitched down or up dependent upon which character McBurney is representing at that moment.

Simon McBurney tells the story of The Encounter to a binaural microphone setup on stage.
Simon McBurney tells the story of The Encounter to a binaural microphone setup on stage.

The piece of gear that is the true aural star of the show is the binaural microphone onstage that is shaped like a human head. It is called Fritz, and inside each of its ears is a microphone. “The microphone in its left ear is then routed to the left ear of the audience headphones, and the right to the right,” explains Fry. “So what you hear in the audience is exactly what Fritz hears onstage, as if you were onstage with Simon. This gives you an incredibly intimate relationship to the stage, to Simon, so it feels like he is telling this story to you, and you alone. He can whisper into the ear of Fritz and it literally feels like he is whispering in your ear. It’s a great way for us to tell this story.”

Fritz picks up sound from all around its fixed location, which can be tricky in a noisy city like Manhattan. Many theatres cannot avoid outside sound seeping in, from subway rumbling to ambulance sirens. Fry and Malkin tried to reduce the amount of ambient noise entering the theatre. They also minimized any noise generated by McBurney’s cell phone, which is used as an active prop in the show.

“The binaural head is really high quality and uses balanced audio cables that eliminate any electrical interference,” explains Fry. “We do also put Simon’s phone into airplane mode so it doesn’t interfere with any of the other more sensitive equipment.” 

As Fry notes, the ambient noise level of theatres has been slowly rising in recent years, which is tough for a show that “relies on a quiet ambience”. The audio team made sure to reduce the noise generated by the lighting and video systems as well as the A/C and heating units. 

“We do have an issue with a giant fan which is part of the air handling system of the building next door to us,” says Fry. “So we’ve had to ensure the ceiling of the theatre is as sound proof as possible.” To do that, they put “a lot” of theatre drapes in the grid, out of sight of the audience, to help reduce noise coming down.

“One of the tricky elements of using binaural sound is you can do very little to it before you start also adjusting and reducing the 3D directional information that makes it so special,” notes Fry. “It is key to make sure the sound getting into the mic is what you want to hear because you can do so little to adjust it after that.”

Team Encounter

 There are two sound operators on every night. There is an on-site rotation between Guy Coletta, Benjamin Grant, and Amir Sherman; also, Helen Skiera and Ella Wahlström, who worked pre-opening shows of The Encounter but are not on site every night. One operator mixes all the microphones, handles the vocal effects, and does the looping. The other controls all the music, sound effects and voice overs. Each of them utilizes a separate Yamaha QL1 mixing desk, and they are merged into a Yamaha DME24 from which the mix is sent out to the Sennheiser HP 02-140 headphones and some speakers. There are two QL1s used because of the abundance and complexity of the sound, and also because McBurney constantly adapts and refines the show.

“In fact, we’ve never performed the same show twice,” reveals Fry. “Every performance will have at the minimum a tweak to the text, or a larger edit, and some of these we work out in advance, but many will happen during the flow of the performance. Simon will respond to how that evening’s audience is responding to the show, and adapt accordingly.” Thus the sound operators do not have a stage manager or show caller for the sound. They take their own cues and follow their instincts.

“They know the intent of the design we’ve created and the story we’re trying to tell, so we give them the freedom to improvise in response to Simon,” says Fry. “This means we’ve designed the system in a way as to allow this, to be very fluid, to be playable like a musical instrument. I often refer to Simon and the sound operators as a jazz trio. I think it’s very important that sound be able to adapt and respond to performance. Set, lighting, costume, video design are all sharing the same visual space. Sound and music occupy an aural space, and that is one we share with the performers, so it is important that we are able to be as agile as a performer is. On every live performance of any show, performers will vary what they do across the course of a performance and across the life of a show, as they develop and refine their performance, as they discover new things in the text, as they respond to that show’s audience, and it’s important that the sound and music be able to adapt to that too.”

One of the sonic standouts of The Encounter is the use of live sound effects and Foley sounds, which has become one of Fry’s specialties. He says that they spent a lot of time experimenting with different props that McBurney could use to conjure the illusion of different sounds. “Magnetic tape is a favorite prop of mine and makes a great sound of walking in foliage,” remarks Fry. “Likewise crumpling a crisp [chip] packet makes a sound a lot like the crackle of a burning fire. We use these to further the effect that the sounds, the story is coming from Simon’s and our imaginations.”

While the character of Loren MacIntyre spends a lot of the time in the Amazon rainforest, there are no visual representations of that, although the lighting helps set the mood. The set of The Encounter evokes the modern world, far removed from the story being heard through the headphones. “That contrast is quite stark, and the stage is littered with plastic water bottles,” says Fry, which he acknowledges is a subtle reference to the exotic location of the story which contains one fifth of the world’s fresh water. “We consume a lot of our water from plastic bottles that each take about 7 liters of water to manufacture -- our [modern] world is so far disconnected from nature. But we are conjuring this story about the Amazon using technology, and it’s fun to bridge that gap with the Foley sound effects. “

What is fascinating about the show is that because McBurney generates the sounds himself, one might be hard pressed to remember if there are any outside sound effects that are being piped in from the console. Fry confirms there are thousands of them. “That’s great that you got that impression because that’s what we’re trying to achieve,” he beams. “Simon only has three things that he plays off his phone, and the rest we play in from the sound system.” (McBurney’s daughter makes interactive but pre-recorded appearances interspersed throughout the show; she is the one other character with dialogue.) “One of the challenges of using binaural sound is that it’s difficult to play non-binaurally recorded sound effects alongside [it] without those sound effects sounding very flat. So we did a lot of recordings to create the soundscape for the show.”

According to Fry, he and McBurney spent a week in Brazil living with a Mayorunan community and recording the sounds of the rainforest. He hired Cessna aircraft and visited mosquito colonies. They recorded a group of “extras” running round Epping Forest, and they made “dozens of sounds in the rehearsal room. There is also lots of music we found that we play in and many fragments of interviews we recorded.”

The audience headphones play a vital role in the presentation of The Encounter. Most Broadway shows have live sound of some sort these days, but the only type of audio immersion one experiences is if they chose to use a headset to boost the sound coming from the stage, especially for people who are hard of hearing. Fry wanted to make sure he picked the right models. Having worked with Sennheiser when he recently designed sound for the David Bowie Is exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, he approached them and they were intrigued by the concept of the show. He says that they sent him and Malkin one sample of every type of headphone they manufactured, and the Encounter team settled on one of the cheaper models as he says it sounded much better than some of their more expensive models.

"It's an open-sided headphone which sounds much more natural than closed headphones," elaborates Fry. "Closed headphones are more common because they stop the headphone sound leaking out into the outside world which would drive anyone near you nuts—they're more soundproof—but this isn't a problem for us because the people sitting next to you are also wearing headphones. The open sided nature means that we can play sounds through speakers in the theatre whilst you're wearing the headphones and you hear them too, which we do in a few places to add more layers to the sound. We also have a lot of sub bass speakers so you can feel the sound as well as hear it."

Naturally, designing sound for headphones requires a different approach to designing sound coming from speakers onstage. “For one, you have to be very careful with the dynamic range of what you’re making,” says Fry. “You don’t want to get so loud that people want to take their headphones off, or that you distort them. You can be much more playful with quiet material, with the detail as they enable the audience to hear every detail. In a lot of ways it was more like making a film or broadcast mix for this show. We did a YouTube live stream of it when we were in London, and we were pretty much just able to transmit the headphone feed with very little modification.”


Final Challenges

Fry says that there were many technical challenges to overcome in designing sound for McBurney’s one-man show, including the logistics of using binaural audio, the mass use of headphones in the audience, and creative challenges like the lack of binaural sound effects. “Whilst the technology is interesting and draws attention, I am most proud of the artistic side of the sound design—the way the sound and the music helps tell the story, reinforces the emotions, creates the other characters onstage, sets an entire world alive in the consciousness of the audiences,” states Fry. “Only about 10% of the sound in the show is what you might call naturalistic sound—the sounds that you record and can play back. The other 90% are edited and abstracted, designed, created, stylized. There is an arc to the sound design, crescendos, diminuendos, ebb and flow. It is like a 90-minute song intertwining with the aural world that Simon creates on stage.”

The resultant show is engrossing, dramatic, and transports theatregoers into another world. It is certainly unlike anything else that has been done on Broadway and certainly the most original show this fall. Clearly the large number of creative and logistical hurdles inspired McBurney, Fry, and Malkin to bring their A-game and make something special. For the audio team it was an involved and rewarding experience. Fry’s answer to the following question is most telling: Is there something new that you learned working on The Encounter? “Pretty much everything!”