Elevating the Pit

by Bryan Reesman

Sound designer Mick Potter’s Sunset Boulevard design

Onstage no one inhabits the role of tragic movie icon Norma Desmond quite like Glenn Close, and the acclaimed actor has returned to the character that earned her a Tony Award back in 1995. While the show has a set worthy of Desmond’s deluded sense of grandeur about her lost career, it can be both epic and intimate, a concept echoed by Mick Potter’s sound design, which is an integral part of the storytelling. In fact, the staging of the show dictated much of how the miking works.

What a tale it is. Inspired by the Oscar-winning movie of the same name from 1950, Sunset Boulevard finds struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis unwittingly teaming up with faded Hollywood star Norma Desmond after seeking refuge from repo men on her property. She wants him to help her polish her screenplay for the story of Salome, a role for which she is too old but for which she hopes to stage a comeback. While he thinks she is daffy, he smells opportunity and thus plays along, although he does not realize dark the abyss he is stepping into.

The set for the previous incarnation of the show was dazzling and ostentatious, and while this one is also grand, James Noone’s skeletal design has a black metallic look that can be imposing but also recede into the background when the lights focus on the key players. The stage is dominated by two impressive stairways that descend from about three-stories up and crisscross without connecting. Each features a landing 8’-9’ high before the final run of stairs descends to stage level. The 28’ high staircase going from stage left to right belongs to Norma. At 30’ high, the opposite one is used for other cast members.

This setup relates specifically to Potter’s sound design because something that makes this production very distinct is the fact that there is a 40-piece orchestra onstage, and they are located between the staircases, upstage center. Beyond the fact that the orchestra has twice as many players as could reasonably fit into the pit, Noone feels that the symphonic music is an integral part of the story.

“Often it sounds like it’s for a movie,” explains Noone. “It’s very big and very lush and powerful, so we didn’t really want to hide that. We wanted to make that part of the storytelling because movies are all about music. You always hear those amazing scores, and [composer] Andrew [Lloyd Weber] has written some really, really beautiful music; like the car chase which is really symphonic and really powerful. It just wouldn’t be the same if they were in the pit. There’s something exciting about seeing the orchestra playing all that.”

Given the tight quarters of the musicians onstage, as well as being framed within Noone’s snaking set, audio bleed-through was certainly a factor. “It was very challenging to mic the musicians in such an enclosed space,” concurs Potter. “They were all in very close proximity to each other and so the spill down other microphones from other instruments was a challenge along with the sound on stage from the cast monitoring foldback.”

He says that every instrument had its own individual microphone as close as possible to the instrument’s sweet spot. “This meant using a total of over 80 miniature or compact DPA microphones including the percussion and drum setups, and using programmable mutes at the sound console to control the bleed-through as much as possible,” explains Potter. “It also meant the musicians had to be very disciplined in playing the correct dynamics internally, as with more acoustic sound coming from the stage than would from an orchestra pit, it was harder for the sound balance alone to finesse this, particularly during dialogue scenes.”

Miking an orchestra in the pit can sometimes be a challenge depending upon the number of players and their nearness to each other, and being onstage for a complex show like this Sunset Boulevard certainly requires a meticulous sonic balancing act.

“Certainly for those big musical numbers and orchestral moments it’s fantastic to have an orchestra on stage,” says Potter. “But when it comes to the storytelling, the recitative and the dialogue over music, it’s more of a challenge having the orchestra on stage as this wasn’t how the show was originally conceived. You still have to let the orchestrations be heard whilst also making sure the dialogue is clearly intelligible. This is obviously easier when an orchestra is contained in an orchestra pit.”

Ultimately, from a sound balancing perspective, he says, “It was about letting the orchestra dynamics dictate the vocal levels in the big numbers and letting the vocal dynamics dictate the orchestra levels in the dialogue and recitative.”

Potter reports that the well-stocked orchestra for this show consists of six first violins, five second violins, four violas, three cellos, one bass, two flutes, an oboe/cor anglais player, two clarinet/sax players, two horns, three trumpets, two trombones, a harp, one percussionist, one drummer, guitarist, bass guitarist, and two keyboardists. “The microphones used on the musicians were all miniature or compact DPA Microphones products due to space issues,” says Potter. The only exceptions were one Shure and two AKGs used on drums and percussion. 

The cast members, who number close to two dozen people in total, all wear Sennheiser SK5212 and EM3732 transmitters and receivers. The ensemble wears DPA 4061 head worn microphones. However, the principals all wear DPA 4066 headset microphones, which have longer stems and are much more visible to an audience than similar styles.

“Not a microphone you would normally associate with a musical like Sunset Boulevard,” notes Potter. “But there was so much level on stage from the acoustic orchestra when we first rehearsed the production in London that it quickly became clear that to get enough vocal clarity and detail both in the house and on stage that we would be best using the headset microphones, which puts the microphone capsule much nearer the actor’s mouth allowing us to get rid of much of the ambient orchestra sound picked up by the microphones. Since the musical is really partly a semi-staged concert everyone was happy with this.” The show is being mixed on a DiGiCo SD7T console, using all 256 processing channels and over 128 inputs and 80 outputs being used.

According to Potter, the most challenging sequence to mic and mix was the big opening number “Let’s Have Lunch”. He reports that it involves “lots of intricate dialogue scenes woven around big band orchestrations and dance breaks. With an orchestra on stage this really required the cast, orchestra, and sound to be absolutely meticulous with timing and dynamics for it to work. I would say making that number alone work was quite an achievement by everyone.”

When asked if he learned anything new working on Sunset Boulevard, Potter replies, “It was a great reminder of how exciting it is when music and sound really work together—with Andrew Lloyd Webber really involved in the process and understanding how much impact the orchestra on stage had on the show acoustically, and how best to utilize that to achieve the best results.”  

Miking The Pit

To capture the audio coming from the onstage orchestra, Potter used the following microphones. None of them are radio mics; they are all wired. Audio equipment provided by Sound Associates

18 DPA 4061 miniature microphones attached to the instrument for all the strings

2 DPA 4061 miniature microphones attached on the harp

2 DPA 4099 clip microphones on the basses

16 DPA 4022 compact cardioid microphones on brass and woodwind

16 DPA 4022 compact cardioid microphones on percussion and drums

3 DPA 4007 omni microphones on timpani

5 Shure Beta 98 D/S microphones on toms and conga

1 AKG D112 MKII dynamic mic on the kick drum inner

1 AKG D12 VR dynamic mic on the kick drum outer