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Tripping the Sound Fantastic

Bryan Reesman • Sound Design • February 6, 2007

SD talks to a low-profile veteran designer about the challenges of working on the revival of a beloved musical.

 

After an historic 42-year run at the Sullivan Square Theatre in the West Village, The Fantasticks closed in 2002. But the beloved, simply staged show about a young couple whose widowed fathers try to keep them apart (or are they really?) has returned to the new Snapple Theatre near Times Square. The newly created venue was a challenge for sound designer Domonick Sack, a 20-year Broadway veteran who has designed shows like Little Shop of Horrors and The Rocky Horror Show, and worked with designers like Peter Fitzgerald through his Sound Associates company. He is also a lyric tenor and extra chorister for the Metropolitan Opera. After the Snapple Theatre was sound reinforced so street noise would not intrude on the show — and the A/C system was quiet enough to not interfere as well — Sack designed the sound system to be as surreptitious as possible; he succeeded admirably. In fact, he was so proud of the final show, with everyone’s collaborative efforts, that he chose to conduct his first interview in 20 years about The Fantasticks.

Stage Directions: I have to confess that I never saw the show in its original run!
Domonic Sack:
That was an interesting thing for me because I had never seen it when it was done downtown, and they had never used sound before. The biggest challenge was that, since we were playing in a thrust stage with an audience on three sides, it was difficult when the actors play to the off side, because their backs are to 50 to 60 percent of the audience. Even in a good thrust theatre it’s hard to understand what the person is saying when they’re not facing you. There’s no intelligibility there. So that was compounded by the fact that they had never used sound on the show before, and the writers did not want to use sound again. They wanted to see what would happen. They wanted to start with no sound. But there was no address system or emergency paging system in there, so we had to put that in. So I said, “Why don’t we put in a tiny sound system and try to hide everything and see how it goes?”

I do a lot of opera reinforcements. My background is classical music. I developed a system where I used foot mics. I came up with an acoustical idea that basically put the correct time delay in for each speaker system. I took five clusters of speakers, a center, two lefts and two rights, that basically covered the audience area. There are three audience seating areas, the off left, the center and the right, and there are three rings of speakers, one that covers the first two rows, another that covers the next three rows and another that covers the back three rows. They’re time delayed within themselves, so they have a zero point for each section. If you’re standing and facing the section directly from center stage, that’s my zero line. From that particular point, all the speakers in the room are exactly timelined.

What I did was reinforce the acoustical sound from that particular point. I wanted to work with what I had in the room and not against it. But for the acoustical idea I had in the room I needed to do that because people were so used to not having any sound on the show that anything that resembled any kind of artificial type of reinforcement or something that was out of time with the acoustical side, people would pick up on it right away. So I used time delay to basically match the acoustic time for a single position in the center of the stage.

I’m assuming it has to be a pretty tiny delay?
Yeah, it was very small, but there was some there. The time from the speaker matched the acoustic time. It’s easy to do. Now if you’re stage left or stage right, that point becomes untimed. If you go stage left, that means I need more time in the house right speakers and less time in the opposite side speakers. As soon as you leave that center position, you’ve now left your timed position. I used a small digital console, the Yamaha DM1000. These digital consoles offer a lot of new features that analog consoles do not. One of the main features is that each input offers time delay, and the outputs do also.

How many microphones are you running for the cast?
There are six. They’re pretty much hidden. The theatre only has an eight-foot ceiling. I thought it was horrible, but it ended up working out fine. I actually benefited more than anyone from it because where you would normally put foot mics on the floor, I put them on the ceiling, which you can never, ever do. It works because I was closer to the action with the ceiling mics than I ever would’ve gotten on the floor. Plus everybody would have seen them, but here hardly anybody notices. In fact, the guy that recorded it from Lincoln Center wasn’t even aware that there was a sound system in there, and this guy listens to musicals every week, which I thought was really a hoot.

Do the microphones include the piano and harp players?

There are six cardioid microphones to pick up the singers — there’s center, left, far left, right, far right — and then there’s one right in the center. It’s this little head that peaks through the insulation up in the ceiling and that handles the rear. They’re all AKG 391s with swivel heads. They’re just a normal cardioid pattern. The harp has an AKG 391, and the piano has no miking at all.

The sound seems very natural. I noticed that the actors are not miked when they go down the aisles.

When they go on the aisle, we purposely didn’t mic it. It’s totally acoustic. It made it seem more authentic, and that’s really what the director wanted. He said when they get onto the stage, let’s play the show; but when they’re supposed to be somewhere else, they need to be somewhere else. It seems to be okay.

The real design concept here is that when each microphone comes into the digital console, it is copied to three channels. I took each microphone and assigned them to my three areas in the theatre. For example, microphone one is fed to area one, area two, and area three. All I did was take my zero time that I already had set up with the system, and that microphone to area one was zero. That microphone to area two had an additional three to four millisecond delay on it, then to area three it had an additional 10 to 12 milliseconds. So what happened was — and it worked extremely well — when you’re standing in that area, the time to the far area is much more in line with the acoustic. So it works out acoustically in all three areas the way it would naturally work.

The key was to reinforce the person where they’re standing in the other parts of the room with the time being correct, and having it in time instead of out of time. The dead giveaway when it’s not in time is when you hear the amplified sound before the acoustic sound, and that’s where it starts to sound unnatural.

So you have three separate channels on the consoles for each of your seven microphones for a total of twenty-one inputs, correct?
That’s correct. Each microphone feeds its respective area with as close to the right time as I could make it. It worked well. Say you’re standing in the center, like Luisa does and she sings to the left or to the right. If that microphone happens to pick her up, then it’s more in phase and in time with the whole theatre. Say you were getting a reflection from the other side of the room, which happens all the time in theatres. If you’re facing the off side, that microphone now would still be in the correct acoustical time with the reflection back to the other side of the room. What happens in this musical is that somebody is usually way offstage left or right and turns to the audience on the near side and then the far side, so they’re being picked up by the near microphone and then by the far microphone. The far microphone still picks the sound up from the other side of the room and amplifies it correctly to the short side and the far side. As long as the delay is correct to the physical position of the microphone, it doesn’t matter when the sound gets to the microphone. It’s a physical thing, and something you can only do with foot mics, by the way.

Did you have any processing on the mics at all?

There actually is some reverb there, but it’s very, very light.

Are you running any outboard gear at all?
No, it’s all in the console. The console offers everything. I did use some XTA. I set my system to zero through XTA DP224s. They sound fantastic. The sound system is made up of Meyer UPM-1Ps, and they’re spectacular speakers.

The New York Times gave me one of the best sound reviews I’ve ever gotten. They said it was nice to see a show on Broadway that wasn’t amplified [laughs]. It was perfect.

What else should we know about the show?
There’s no operator. They’re just turning on, and that’s the way it goes.

Bryan Reesman is a freelance entertainment writer and avid theatregoer based in New York whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Premiere, Playboy and Billboard. He can be reached at www.bryanreesman.com.

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