Swinging in Storyville

Bryan Reesman • Sound Design • September 1, 2013

Michael Leonard James (left) as Hot Licks Sam and Kyle Robert Carter as Butch “Cobra” Brown in Storyville

Michael Leonard James (left) as Hot Licks Sam and Kyle Robert Carter as Butch “Cobra” Brown in Storyville

Sound Designer Janie Bullard keeps it balanced for the York Theatre

A musical that takes place in New Orleans’ red light district in 1917, Storyville chronicles the lives and loves of African-American singers and dancers as they experience the birth of the jazz movement and struggle with racism and their own ambitions. Originally staged in 1977 in San Diego, this summer’s production by the York Theatre in NYC was an intimate, spirited affair that gave the characters and their personal stories the focus and introspection they deserved. Sound designer Janie Bullard spoke to Stage Directions about reimagining the production, the challenges of mixing 14 actors and seven band members in a small space and finding the right acoustic balance in a venue that had not used wireless mics before.

 Janie Bullard

Janie Bullard

Stage Directions: This production was very nicely mixed. How challenging was it to get the right levels in the room?


Janie Bullard: It’s really tricky, and the dynamic range of this show is incredible. We go from small book scenes with two actors and no underscore all the way up to production numbers with the full ensemble, a soloist and the entire band. The greatest challenge was aesthetically pleasingly moving from one end of the spectrum to another. Our musicians are really wonderful—wonderfully controlled and very aware that they’re playing in a musical in a small space. They and the musical director were all really great about keeping the level to a place that makes sense in terms of the emotional content of whatever number we’re in and juicing it when we’re in a larger place in the story. It was a really tricky thing because a lot of the show could go without amplification, and then there are places where amplification is very important. I spent a lot of time on delay times, like on individual delay times on microphones and on EQ, trying to get those things really specifically dialed so that we could understand the lyrics and not really have to crank everything super duper loud but still achieve some smoothness between the ends of the dynamic range.

Given the intimacy of this theatre and the closeness of the performers to the audience, did it allow you to pull back on some of the levels?

It was really nice to not feel that if we were not pushing everybody that people would miss parts of the story. It was nice to know that the show could exist in this room without amplification and would be fine. It wouldn’t be great, but it would be okay. We could see the show and understand the story and understand the words, but it was definitely a concern of mine to make sure that the show sounded the same throughout [the space] in terms of the image, where the sound is coming from on stage, to feel like the small book scenes were being treated in the same way as the big production numbers. That was something I wanted dialed in specifically.

These days audiences are used to amplification in musicals— they’re used to seeing the teardrop mics on tops of people’s heads—and they expect a certain level of sophistication as well.

Absolutely. I think something that’s interesting with the York in particular is that they had never used wireless mics before this show. Producing Artistic Director Jim Morgan was telling me that their subscribers are very much trained to listen well, and I think at least in Jim’s history there, which is 15 or 16 years, they’ve never used wireless mics ever. I think they’ve also never had a show this large—14 cast members and a seven-piece band, it’s a huge show for them. I think that the subscribers for the York in particular were surprised because they’ve never experienced that in that space. We wanted to be tasteful with the amplification, and I think we were able to do that. We chose to use head-worn microphones because the band is on stage. They’re really great at being controlled but they’re loud. It’s a jazz band, so we chose Countrymen E6’s in order to get plenty of gain before feedback, and we’re doing some vocal monitoring on stage. There’s a lot of sound flying around the room that the subscribers were not used to it all.

Which board are you running and how many inputs are you using?

We are running a Yamaha DM1000 and using 16 channels for wireless and a couple of channels into an input card from the band for utility things like monitoring them. We’re using a remote layer to control everything and a lot of scene presets. I spec’ed a 32-channel Yamaha LS9 for the show which wasn’t really in the budget, so we’re using the DM1000 and have made it work for us. It’s kind of tricky because I didn’t really want to be switching between layers during the show, but we were able to get things mixed down to a good place where we could mix on a remote layer. It ended up working out. I prefer a larger format console, but we made the DM1000 work.

What is the make-up of the band?

There are two brass: trombone and trumpet. A reed player who plays sax, clarinet and flute. A bass player who plays upright bass and tuba. Our rhythm section is piano, drums and bass. We also have a hollow body electric. The electric guitar player’s Fender amp is his amplification. It’s very simple.

Was it difficult miking the band?

Interestingly enough, we’re using a single microphone for the entire band. It sounds crazy, but we’re using a Neumann shotgun mic. It’s positioned behind the piano so it’s catching the piano and all of the acoustic instruments on the other side of the center entrance. We initially thought we could get away without miking the band at all—just the bare acoustic  sound on the stage would be more than enough and that would be our threshold—so the sound of the band itself acoustically would be the lower level, and then we would mix the mikes just above the band and just above mixing them within themselves. We found that we were losing the piano by doing that. We needed to be able to push the band in scene transitions or do the Broadway bump at the end of a big number, so we used that shotgun mic. We were catching enough that we could give a little level boost to the band if needed and to the piano specifically. We positioned the mic in a way that the piano is being picked up relative to the rest of the band in a better way. We don’t really push the band often, it’s just in places where we really want the emotional impact of a swell in the level.

It sounds like you had a good time working on the show.

I did. The York is wonderful. They’re people who are doing new musicals or getting New York premieres to the work itself. It’s not about selling tickets and it’s not about getting a good review in the Times. Of course you want to do those things, but the goal is to produce these shows and get them out to a New York audience. I think it’s really admirable work doing these new shows and really developing them. The script for this show changed significantly over the course of its short rehearsal period. It’s just a really nice group of people to work with.

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