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A Conversation with Jonathan Deans

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"There's nothing simpler than plugging in a speaker to an audio output, and then right there going to work to change its color, its style, cue by cue. It becomes a tool. The palette you are using to paint with suddenly grows to the size of the auditorium."

- Sound Designer Jonathan Deans

Jonathan Deans is a noted sound designer whose work spans three continents and virtually every application of the art, from Broadway musicals to Las Vegas/Orlando showroom spectaculars, operas and high-tech theme park attractions. After launching his theatrical sound career as a production mixer in London (starting with A Chorus Line), Deans then turned to the craft of sound design, first in London's West End and later on Broadway in New York. He is a co-founder of Level Control Systems, an innovative manufacturer of digital mixing/routing systems for theatrical audio, and he continues a passive role in new product development at the company. He currently resides in Las Vegas.

Let's start by talking about your chosen place of residence. Why Las Vegas?

I choose to live in Las Vegas because, when I come out of a theater after an opening, in New York or London, it's great to jump on a plane and go someplace where it's almost always sunny. I confess it took a while to get accustomed to the lifestyle here, and how the city works. I am involved in many large productions here, and it's nice to be able to go home to your own bed when you're working. So although I also have an apartment in New York, Las Vegas is where I have my house—as well as my office, demo studio and my swimming pool!

Does living in Vegas make it harder to get work on the better shows?

No, not really. My work is intense for 10 or 12 weeks, up to opening, after that it's maintaining from a distance, so it's not necessary to be in that city. Plus, most productions travel, throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world. It's just as easy to look after them here as it would be in New York. In that sense it makes no difference where you live.

How much of your work is based in Las Vegas, and how much elsewhere?

It varies from year to year. I would have to say that the September 11 attacks have had an impact in that regard. Before last September, I would say it split with roughly a third in New York, a third touring, including Europe, and a third in Las Vegas. After last September, touring and Las Vegas are up to about forty percent each, with New York down to about twenty percent. Some of the projects that I was working on in New York were cancelled or put on hold. I think that may be because these were among the higher risk productions, artistically and technically. I tend to favor these riskier productions because one can often try new things, things that tend to be more interesting. The safe productions also have their merits, but it's nice to mix that up with higher risk productions that allow you to push your craft further, beyond normal expectations.

I can tell from your accent you're not a native of Nevada. Where did you begin your career?

I'm British, as you can tell. I worked in sound for fifteen years for Autograph Sound in London. I started when the company first opened for business. This was about thirty years ago, when sound for live theater first started kicking in as a major component in the production. That's when sound designers were first recognized as practicing their own craft, or maybe I am dreaming about this!

I decided to relocate to the States about fourteen years ago. I felt I had hit a plateau, or a ceiling, in London where I was not able to progress in what I wanted to do with sound. I could only churn out another musical. Granted, those were very good musicals in England, but most revolved around a style and approach that was all very similar, in the sound design aspect. I felt that I had to move on and experiment with sound, doing different things. At that time, working as a freelancer in London was very difficult. It was much more of a fluid situation in New York, where sound designers were not necessarily attached to a rental shop, as was the norm in London at the time.

What is your normal process for designing a system for a show?

First, I would find out the nature of the show itself, the style, the feel of what the producer's vision is of the production. You also need to know the basic intentions behind the production. Are they looking at a long run, or multiple productions, or is it a one-off? How deeply do they care about the show? Is it an adventurous show, or a cookie-cutter show? After that, it's a matter of finding out from the director and the composer, if the composer is alive, and all the other designers, and hopefully they are all alive at the moment: what is their feel for the production?

On some shows, you will speak to the director and never speak to any of the other designers, because it's not a collaborative effort. Other productions will be very collaborative, where you will sit at a round table, so to speak, and spend a week discussing ideas about the show.

But in the final analysis, the overall vision of the show comes from the director. Because once you sign a contract to do a show, you have to bear in mind that there is a pyramid effect. Once you are in that theater, it is the director who says "yes" or "no." There has to be one person's vision of the show for it to happen. You have been hired to assist the director in giving that show a certain style or a certain flair. So it's critical to maintain that framework.

It's not say that you can't come up with ideas, but you need to realize that some of them will be turned down. But if you've done your homework, you will know at what point which ideas will work and which ones won't.

After that, how do you determine what type of loudspeaker systems you will use?

If the production is a Broadway show where they are going to rent the equipment, you're looking at a number of manufacturers that have loudspeakers that sit on the shelves at rental shops. Actually, if the rental shop is doing a good job, most of them are not sitting on the shelves, but hopefully some will be available in time for your production. So you must work within the framework of what you know is likely to be available, and within the budget for the show. Normally you can't specify a particular rental house, because they go out for a bid. And often you cannot even specify a certain make or model of speaker, because of the bid process. You can ask for it, but if it's not part of the shop's equipment, they will give you with what they consider an equivalent.

For example, I could specify one of the Meyer sound beams, and the rental shop would come back and say, "Well, we could get those for you but then the rental package would be ten thousand a week instead of eight thousand." And that would not go down well with the producers.

On the other hand, when you are doing permanent installations for long-running shows, usually you can specify anything you want.

Is that more typical of shows in Las Vegas?

Yes, I would say 95 percent of shows in Las Vegas are new equipment bought specifically for the show, not rentals. The shows here typically last for ten years or more. Often you can specify the exact speakers you want, though here too you will have a budget to work within. Still, you have more flexibility to work within that budget, because you are not limited by the inventory of a particular rental house.

Are there significant differences in the types of loudspeakers you use for different productions?

When you are doing a play, you are doing scene change music, atmospheric music, and maybe some surround effects to involve the audience.. Or it could be just the thunderclap and dog bark. Then it's not critical, as long as the thunderclap sounds like thunder and the dog sounds sufficiently canine. But on another play, you could find an equipment manifest as large as one for a musical, if the sound is more intense and more important to the feel of the play. There might even be music that runs as a bed. But everything is playback, so you're not dealing with live musicians in a pit. Once you do that, in a musical, and have speakers hanging above their heads, you have to be more critical about how they sound, and how they should work with the ambient live sound from the pit. You have to be aware of how the speakers will interact with that ambient sound.

A Las Vegas show is often a combination. It can be live, playback or a mixture. When Cirque du Soleil® does a show, it's all live. But EFX was all playback. And generally when you do a show in Las Vegas, it's more of a spectacle and sound tends to be more critical to the overall effect. I think that's true of all the shows I've done in Las Vegas, but I can't say of all the work I've done in New York.

What are some of the shows you've done in Vegas?

I've done Siegfried and Roy, Mystere, EFX, "O"®, and the Rio Masquerade Parade. They are all still running now, though I'm working on others here.

What factors determine where you place your loudspeakers?

It depends on where the musicians are, where you want to train the focus of the audience, and often what the scenic elements are, because often you have to place speakers in or around the scenic elements.

In your largest Vegas spectacular, how many loudspeakers did you employ, as opposed to say a typical Broadway musical?

For Vegas, between 100 and 120, that would be typical. For New York, doing a quick count in my head, about 40.

Are you adopting use of line arrays yet in any of your designs?

None that I have completed so far. For the designs I have worked on recently, the auditoriums are too small, or the music didn't require that kind of more intensive left-right concert sound. I'm working on a project now, however, that does require that effect, and I am considering a line array for it. It's a matter of choosing the right speaker for the job, and I do try to educate myself on all the new speakers, and the new technologies available. For example, I am intrigued by the parabolic loudspeaker, the Meyer Sound Beam, which can focus sound on a particular spot. That particular unit is too large for theatrical use, but it's interesting to contemplate the possibilities of a similar smaller unit. But you would have to have the right project for something like that, and the right creative team to support you.

Do you prefer to use self-powered loudspeakers as opposed to conventionally powered systems?

I do find that they tend to be more accurate because the manufacturer has control over the whole design, and has put in the controllers and amplifiers in the same box. Because you are sending a line level to the box, as opposed to having a separate amplifier and running down a long speaker cable, it tends to be more accurate and more pleasant. More delightful to listen to, if you like.

It's also very nice in touring systems. It's nice not having the amplifier racks to deal with. But in permanent installations, it's more a matter of getting the sound you want. It gives you an identifiable, distinctive sound.

Also, there are advantages in flexibility for me since I use the Level Control Systems mixer, which has delays and EQs on the outputs. That allows you to plug directly into the self-powered loudspeaker, so you are limiting the number of ins and outs in your signal path. This way, your signal path is extraordinarily simple.

I think of LCS and self-powered speakers as analogous to a lighting board, with each as a separate individual instrument. In that sense, self-powered speakers do help realize more complex designs.

Does it also simplify the logistics of actually configuring and setting up the system?

Yes, definitely helps the logistics. It makes everything much more straightforward. There's nothing simpler than plugging in a speaker to an audio output, and then right there going to work to change its color, its style, cue by cue. It becomes a tool. The palette you are using to paint with suddenly grows to the size of the auditorium.

How important is compatibility among various loudspeakers in a design? Does it help to use all loudspeakers from one manufacturer in a show?

Yes, whenever possible I do prefer that. When I can have maybe 60 outputs going to 60 different sources, some with more than one speaker on the end, and with the ability to move a sound from one speaker to another, it matters greatly how the speaker sounds, it's particular character. Even if you are moving from a larger speaker to a smaller one, if the sound is significantly different, you're not going to be able to make that move as easily. So yes, quality changes dramatically when you start mixing products from different manufacturers. But with Meyer Sound, it's a favorable situation, where I can move my sound from one product to another and I don't have to re-EQ the speaker when I make that move. It would be a thankless job on some complex productions to do that for every move of a sound to every new speaker location.

When did you first use Meyer Sound loudspeakers?

I've been using them ever since the UPA first came out, and was used for the production of Cats in London. I was the production engineer and mixed the show for the first couple of years. That show just closed and I didn't even get an invite to the closing party! Hello?

Did they use the Meyer Sound loudspeakers through the whole run?

Yes, they did. Maybe the same ones they started with. They've probably been sent off to be displayed at the Cats museum. I think they were the first run of UPAs. That was an amazing moment, when those speakers came over. Because before then were using a variety of speakers, mostly much more ungainly in size, and then we get these very compact, amazing sound speakers called UPAs, and it was great. But then, as a mixer it was a rude awakening of sorts because you couldn't get away with so much.

Because the loudspeakers were now significantly more accurate than what was previously used?

Yes, you have to be careful because you are going to hear it all. But this is really a good thing. It makes you improve your craft. The speaker should be transparent. And that in turn raises the related question of how much you should EQ a loudspeaker in order to fix the problem of a room. It's sometimes a questionable thing. But you have to do what you have to do. It comes back to the original question, and that's the point that the person who pays for it wants it to sound as good as possible. But EQ'ing the crap out of a speaker because the venue has problems is not necessarily going to make it sound better. It will make it sound different, but not necessarily better.

Why do you have a general preference for Meyer Sound products?

Because I know the speakers. I know I can put them in an environment, they will work, and work there for many, many years. Also, I feel that I have the backing of the company itself. The individuals who work at Meyer care about the product. They personally have an interest in making the final product, in my case the production, sound as good as it can, and they will aid you in doing that well beyond just selling a speaker in a box.

Of your past designs, starting with Broadway-style productions, which would you say was your favorite?

Seussical. Why? It's hard to say without seeming to wave my own flag, but I guess it's okay because the show closed. It was not a hit and that still hurts. But I do feel that the sound system on that show was pretty amazing sonically. I was able to take care of the musician problems by putting them into discrete areas to control both the acoustical sound and the amplified sound. I was able to make all the inputs become line inputs in a short distance. I was able to use self-powered Meyer speakers for the entire system, including the surrounds, which made it incredibly dynamic. I was able to use a digital mixer board that only took up six seats instead of twenty, which would have saved $11,000 a week if the seats had sold. It was, collaboratively, an amazing work. It was a great show, and we had a great team.

And of the Las Vegas-style shows?

Interestingly, my favorite show of that type is actually at Disney in Orlando, a Cirque du Soliel® show, La Nouba. That was the latest permanent install. And that was also Meyer product for the main P.A. and monitoring.

Let's see, you've done Broadway, Vegas, West End…what else?

I've also done theme parks and operas. I used to work at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. But the main opera that created a stir with the sound system was the Death of Klinghoffer, which was done about eight years ago. It had an intensive system, again all Meyer product, though I took some of them out of the box, which greatly upset John (Meyer), and painted them silver with stage makeup. Did all this crazy stuff, but it worked. And I still had Meyer support, even though it was an off-the-wall project.

I've also done theme park work for Universal Studios, and also several theme parks in Japan.

So you have your fingers in a lot of different pies.

Yes, and that keeps it interesting. It balances out your artistic life. Sometimes you have to go in and do a show where the creative options are restricted, it helps to follow that up with some work with more creative flexibility. I feel it's critical to do that, to experiment and find out what new things work in different situations. Otherwise, we'd all be using the same speakers we had back in 1975.

I understand you're always on the lookout for new products. I was told by Chris Cronin that he discovered the little MM-4 because he found some at a rental house you had used on Seussical. But how did you find out about it? It wasn't on the market at the time.

I was at Meyer, they mentioned that they were building this little speaker for some tramway stations in France, part of a sound sculpture project. I said, cool, let me have a look. Say, could I have one of those for a week? I took it home, decided to try it on Suessical. I think I had a couple dozen of those in the show. They weren't in the theater for long, but now they are available for Chris and others to try out and see what they can do with them. And I think that validates the importance of always experimenting and trying out different approaches to sound in the theater. It helps stimulate fresh, new ideas throughout the craft of sound design.

September, 2004

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