Scaling the Heights

Bryan Reesman • Sound Design • March 1, 2007

For Nevin Steinberg, designing the sound for an off-Broadway musical with a fusion score had its own inherent challenges.

This month we go off-Broadway to the 37 Arts Theater to visit a new musical called In the Heights, which tells the stories of residents in a Latino neighborhood in Washington Heights and how they keep their heritage alive while adapting to a different culture and their pursuit of the American Dream.

With lyrics and music by star Lin-Manuel Miranda, the bilingual tuner, which opened last month, features dynamic staging and a clear and vibrant sound mix full of Latin sounds, show tunes and hip-hop. It also showcases lively, inspired performances from the cast, particularly Miranda as grocery store owner Usnavi and Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, the matriarch of the neighborhood. The show’s sound designer Nevin Steinberg, one-third of Broadway’s omnipresent Acme Sound Partners, recently talked to SD about working on this colorful, energetic and invigorating tale of life in upper Manhattan. It’s certainly been a labor of love.

Stage Directions: In The Heights has a very clear mix, in which everyone and every instrument can be heard. How challenging was it to take on a show with a Latin jazz/rock orchestra and a large ensemble cast? What was the approach you took in designing sound for the show?
Nevin Steinberg: Glad to hear that you appreciated the clarity of the mix. Brandon Rice, our engineer, has been doing a great job on the console. Working with non-traditional music in the theatre is always a challenge, be it rock, pop, or in this case, a Latin/hiphop fusion. But it also provides us with an opportunity to renew our ideas about how to communicate the material to an audience in the most effective way. On Heights, it was clear early on that the hip-hop and Latin score was going to require great attention. It’s been a bit like going back to school. Listening research in all styles and a deep familiarity with the inner workings of the score are key. Of course, the composer has already brilliantly organized these sounds and words, so finding the focus in each tune has been very fulfilling.

What kind of console are you running, how many inputs are you using, and what outboard gear do you have?

We are using Stage Research SFX Pro Audio Show Control to drive a Yamaha PM1D version 2 digital mixing system, and we’re almost full up to the 96 inputs available. Outboard gear consists entirely of TC Electronics M3000 reverbs for the band and vocals.

What kinds of wireless mics are you using on the actors and why? Which mics are in the pit?

We use Sennheiser 5212 wireless transmitters paired with the EM-3532 receivers. This is a very small package that sounds great. The new transmitter has better functionality than the previous version and has shown itself to be very reliable. We put DPA 4061 lavalier microphones on the cast. They are the best sounding miniatures that we’ve heard, and they continue to prove themselves very durable in the most hostile environments. In the pit, we like to mix it up. DPA 4021s, 4006s on reeds and brass; SM-57 and AKG-414BULS for electric and acoustic guitars; and Shure SM-98, EV RE-20, SM-57, Neumann KM-184, KM-140 and AKG-414B-ULS all over the drums and percussion rigs. It’s a very nice sounding selection of mics.

What kind of speakers are you using and where are they placed in the theatre?

Most of the speaker rig for the FOH is hung overhead from a forestage truss. Since there is no proscenium — the scenery extends for the entire width of the 75-foot stage — and because of the extended width and shallowness of the seating areas — there are three speakers for each position, all flown from the main truss. The bulk of the system consists of L-ACOUSTICS ARCs, Meyer MSL-2As, Meyer CQ-1s and 2s with Meyer USW-1 subs. The front fills are d&b E-3s, and the delay speakers are Meyer UPM-1Ps and EAW UB-12s. Onstage monitoring are EAW JF-60s in grates in the floor and overhead, and UB-12s from the sides and all over the upstage sides of the scenery. We also have a small effects system made up of Meyer UPA-1Ps for onstage sound effects.

I’ve noticed there’s a large A/C system at the 37 Arts Theater. Was it problematic in designing the show?

I wouldn’t say the HVAC has been problematic, but it has certainly required some attention. We’ve done extensive listening tests, and with the cooperation of the building engineers, we were able to make some modifications to the airflow that have lessened its impact.

The brief radio broadcast excerpts in the show usually start in the main speaker system, then shift to the boom box. Is there a transmitter in Graffiti Pete’s boom box?
That boom box is a marvel of theatre technology. My assistant, Nick Borisjuk, has worked some real magic with it. I hate to give away the details, but I can tell you that there’s a Shure PSM 600 wireless personal monitor receiver in the boom box.

Are there any elements of the show that have been changing during previews and anything you’re still working out?

You saw our fifth preview, so we’re really just getting started. The show is changing every day. New musical numbers are going in next week, as well as new orchestrations and new sound effects. It’s an exciting and exhausting time, and nothing in the show is going to escape scrutiny over the next three weeks. Of course, we are tweaking the reinforcement system and our approach to mixing the show on a nightly basis during previews.

What new challenges have you faced with In the Heights that you have not experienced on other shows you’ve done?
Heights is truly a unique sound. The challenge of this score — its roots deeply embedded in classic musical theatre and moments of real flash with salsa, hip-hop and reggaeton — is the most exciting part of working on the show.

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