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Interview with Sound Designer Tony Meola
Tony Meola is one of New York's most in-demand sound designers, with credits on more than twenty-six Broadway productions including Sweet Smell of Success, Kiss Me Kate, Footloose, The King and I and Smokey Joe's Café. He received the 1998 Drama Desk Award for his sound design on the Broadway production of The Lion King, and his design for the revival production of The Sound of Music was nominated for an American Theatre Wing Design Award. He also has designed the sound for off-Broadway shows (A New Brain and Love, Janis among others) as well as productions in London and elsewhere in Europe.
In a broad overview, what is your approach to designing a sound system for a production?
To begin with, design of the system itself is only part of what I do. Sound design in the theater includes designing all the sounds for a show, and designing the system is only part of that. The first thing I have to do is talk to the director and find out what the show is about, what the concepts for the show are, and the type of sound that director wants. That can start with the composer: for example, is it Rogers and Hammerstein or Elton John? To put it simply, you'd need bigger speakers for Elton John. Also, the director may want surround sound to make the audience feel like they are part of something and totally surrounded by an effect. Or, it may be just a straightforward sound reinforcement system without sound effects.
After I find out what the director wants, then I go to the theater if it's a Broadway show with one stop. There, I work on the needs of the audience: once I know what the input is going to be, then I need to know how to get the output to every seat in the house. That's where the sound system comes into play.
But what if you have more than one venue? How do you deal with venue changes in touring?
Times have changed since I first got into the business. When I first started, a touring show would have one or two national touring companies and would play for several weeks in major markets like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston or Chicago. You would essentially be presenting the show as it looked and sounded on Broadway – scenery, orchestra, cast size and so forth. Then, for the sound design, you would do a system specifically for each theater on the tour. After that, you would do a second national tour of smaller cities – like Cleveland, Kansas City or Denver – where you would play from two to six weeks. There, you would look at size restrictions and technical limitations. For example, you may find that you're playing a theater like the Curran in San Francisco where you can't get a hanging point for a center cluster, so you design around it. If it's only one theater, you take the cluster but do a specific rental for that month to, for example, add more speakers to the proscenium for the middle seats.
Then, there are the bus and truck tours that do anything from two weeks to a split week, where you have to depend on a house system alone or bring something to augment it. For me, that might mean some Meyer CQ-2s to throw a long distance for the back of a balcony.
As the playing time gets shorter, the system becomes more generic. The farther away from the original sound design you have to go, the less specific your system becomes.
Do you strive to keep your sound design as transparent, as invisible as possible?
With only a few exceptions, yes, that's my goal. In most of the theater pieces that I do, I like the sound to appear as if it's coming from the performer on stage and not from a speaker on the wall. I feel that this approach serves our main purpose, which is to help tell the story. In most of the stories I tell, microphones and loudspeakers are not part of the story itself.
What are the criteria for your loudspeaker choices?
First of all is power capability, and secondly angle of coverage – especially in the high frequencies. The size of the cabinet is also important. In rock 'n' roll they don't care that much, but it's important to me because I tend to hide the loudspeakers as much as possible. Especially in older, smaller theaters in New York, there isn't that much space to hang loudspeakers – and it usually ends up as a negotiation with the lighting designer on hanging real estate. Smaller is often better. Speakers like the Meyer Sound UPM-1P and UPM-2P are really wonderful, because they are so small and handle a lot of different material very well.
Do you approach sound design for a play differently than you would for a musical?
Yes, there are a lot of differences.
First of all, in New York, we tend not to amplify plays much – very lightly, if at all. For example, I recently toured a wonderful three-character play called Copenhagen. We used mostly UPM-1Ps, and a couple of UPA-1Ps for theaters with big balconies – mostly for sound effects. Still, for this little three-character play we had eight 650-P subwoofers, because it had one sound effect that required them. So, it was crucial to have loudspeakers that were up to the job.
Really?! And what was that effect?
Oh, it was a nuclear explosion. Copenhagen is about Neils Bohr and Werner Heisinger, two pioneers of nuclear physics.
So, yes, there are a lot of differences. Usually, I'm only hired for a play if there are some difficult or unusual effects. As another example, I did a play a few years ago with Rich Little in which he played all the United States presidents back to JFK. There were phones and intercoms in the oval office, and all the voices on those were recorded – not live, but reproduced through samplers. It can be tricky, but it's nice when you get close to an opening and realize, 'Hey, I don't have an orchestra that I have to balance.' So, it can be something of a vacation after a tough musical.
What factors determine where you place your loudspeakers?
Mainly the negotiations with the lighting designer! Of course, certainly before that comes into play there is the theater itself, its size, how the seats are laid out and on how many levels. Also, are there hanging points? How many, and where are they? As an example, I'm now working on an upcoming revival of Man of La Mancha. Paul Gallo is the lighting designer, and he usually hangs a truss about halfway back in the house. I rig on the back of that truss for the rear of the balcony, and with most Broadway theaters you can hang a cluster over the orchestra pit. But Man of La Mancha will be tough because of the high trim of the show. I usually like a trim of not much more than 28 to 30 feet over the floor of the theater so I can get a good central image for the front seats in the orchestra. But this one will be tough because it may go as high as 36 or 38 feet. That's always the tough part – the expensive seats down front – because there's no convenient place to put loudspeakers that's even close to being line with the actor. The balcony is easy in that respect.
What equalizers and alignment systems have you used, and why?
I usually prefer Meyer Sound CP-10s for EQ. On the alignment side, I went from the days of the third-octave RTAs right to SIM System II. I've looked at Smaart and the others, but I've had such great success with SIM that I'm not going anywhere else.
What do you try to accomplish in your system EQ and alignment?
I'll set the delay times and then try to make it flat, but after getting it technically flat, quite often I won't like that sound and I'll tweak beyond that. Flat isn't necessarily the best to my ears. For example, for vocals I'll want less at 12.5 kHz and 3.5 kHz. But if you kill that for orchestra, you'll lose a lot of color, especially in the strings. I like to have two separate systems for vocals and orchestra, because they are so different anyway. I usually have a minimum of fourteen channels feeding the speaker systems through the console matrix section, and I have had as many as sixteen or more at times. I will have channels for center orchestra section vocals, outer orchestra section vocals, upper orchestra left and right, orchestra fill and orchestra subs. I set up an orchestra system, then I will use some of the delay vocal speakers for orchestra as well. I usually don't set up a whole separate delay system, because at that point money becomes a serious issue. But when your main loudspeakers are giving you a good solid source, you don't need that much from your delay speakers.
Is there an advantage to using self-powered speakers?
It certainly makes things neater backstage. But I like them mainly for the sound. My whole point on this issue is that, from way back, I've loved what John Meyer and Bob McCarthy did with first the loudspeakers and then later with SIM. So I figured if they could also do the amplifiers and the processing, then so much the better. I trusted them to make the particulars right.
Are there sometimes tradeoffs between going for image and localization versus power?
There can be differences, but the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. On a show like Lion King, you want to have power: after all, this is Elton John's music! But when you are telling a story, as far as I am concerned, you also want to look at the actors on stage and you want to hear the sound come from them. If you don't care about that, and only go for the volume, you will put a filter between the audience and the story. You are going to detach them from the reality of the play. And, again, imaging is a combination of both the system itself and where you can put the loudspeakers. If you're putting loudspeakers around the proscenium, then getting the right imaging down front can be hard to do.
Then, is it a matter of using the power available in a judicious manner?
Yes, and there's theatrical license involved here. For example, once you have underscoring in a scene in a play, you are given license to do more. In real life, there is not an orchestra to underscore every thought. So, very often, in a musical, if you keep the dialog and underscored scenes subtle and natural, then you can go bigger with the songs and get away with it. It's just how you do that, how you inch into it.
But still, there are circumstances where you are going to use power. For example, a few years ago I did Smokey Joe's Cafe, which was not so much a play as a revue using Lieber and Stoller songs. I told the director that the best option was to use a headset so the mic is right in front of the mouth. That way, it became more about power than location, because we're used to having dislocation when we see a microphone. You go into a concert frame of mind. Suddenly, we don't really care. It's an odd thing.
Is overall SPL still an issue these days?
For me it is, and I do my best to keep it down. Sound designers tend to get blamed for ruining the theater, for turning things up too loud. We spend a lot of time getting the right SPL balance for a show, but then a producer or director might step in and ask that the volume be pumped up to generate more excitement. It's funny the euphemisms you hear for that – like 'presence' or 'excitement' – when it's really only volume. I always say sound is exciting when there's a difference, when you have dynamics. Going from pianissimo to fortissimo can be exciting. But if the quietest you ever get is mezzo forte, and you never get to pianissimo, then you have to go louder to get the dynamics. It can be too much.
My mother, who is a little biased, went to see Riverdance on the national tour. She said that after five minutes, she had to reach in her purse for Kleenex to wad up and stick in her ears. It was that loud, and I just don't get that. It actually turned out to be a bit of a scandal.
I take it you like to limit use of pre-recorded material for onstage actors?
It takes away from that 'live' feel. I will do it occasionally, usually on chorus numbers, maybe eight bars of a number where they have just come off dancing and can barely catch their breath enough to start singing. In that case, we will augment live singing with a little bit of click track. But shows that use a track throughout get so boring. Live performances are so much more effective.
A critic for the L.A. Times wrote an article on the subject a couple of years ago, and he came down hard one particular production. It's nothing new, of course: we sound designers always get bashed, and after twenty years you sort of get used to it. But this time he brought up a good point, one that I agree with. You don't try to do a sound system for, say, Rogers and Hammerstein the same way you do Elton John. You respect the natural milieu of the composer. And he was asking the question about a revival of a vintage fifties musical then in town, wondering why it had to be amplified like it was Rent. I agree. It's not that I'm an old fogey; I love rock 'n' roll. But I don't want to make a regular musical comedy show sound like a rock concert. It doesn't make sense. You need to look at every show specifically, and set your volume levels accordingly. But one thing you always need to be aware of is that you are playing, you are pretending. This isn't reality, but even if it's Elton John music, you don't want to make it as loud as an Elton John concert. That's not what the audience paid eighty or a hundred bucks to hear. They came for the story, and that needs to come across clearly.
People get one opportunity to hear these words, and you need to be sure that they can hear them clearly. That might mean mixing the vocals so far above the orchestra that, if it were on a CD, you might consider it out of balance. But that's okay, because if it's crucial to hear those lyrics, then that's what matters. I'm not saying other things aren't important, but you have to prioritize.
Are newer theaters better to work in, compared to the older houses?
Generally, they're worse. Acousticians may hate me for saying this, but it seems to me that older is generally better when it comes to performance halls. There are a few exceptions, but there is this trend toward doing multipurpose halls with various trappings to adjust the acoustics for different uses, and they don't always do the job. Good acoustics for a play are different from good acoustics for a musical. I also generally hate it when an older theater is renovated. They extend the mezzanines to add more seats, but they're also playing with the acoustics, and it can cause problems.
Many of these old theaters that you like were built before the era of amplified sound. Why are they still working so well?
I think the architects took a lot of care to make sure that an even frequency spectrum got to the back of the house. Older theaters also tend to have a lot of the ornate, decorative plasterwork, which spreads the high frequencies around evenly. In some newer theaters, the rear of the house becomes a bass trap, with the bass rolling around in the back behind the seating. If you come to New York and go to the Majestic, the Ambassador, the Shubert or the Imperial, you'll find that they are all wonderful. If you then go to the Gershwin or the Minskoff, which were built around the sixties – well, personally, I think they're terrible.
In designs for touring productions, do you take into account the permanent systems in newer theaters?
It's always up to a discussion with the head sound person on the tour, but when I was touring, I would never use the house system. You have a limited time to set up, so unless you know both the people maintaining the system and the equipment in it, chances are it will take you less time to set up your own system than to learn how to get the best from the permanent one and, in some cases, find and fix problems. On most of the shows we do, we have rented equipment, and if there's a problem you just send it back and get it replaced. House sound people don't always have that luxury.
Many years ago, I was touring with A Chorus Line and found myself up on top of tall ladders replacing blown high frequency drivers. Or, I would plug into the house audio wiring, feel like something's not right, and hours later find pins 2 and 3 reversed on one line. So, it's often easier to run multi-cable than to depend on what's in the wall.
Is compatibility among speakers important in configuring a system?
As much as possible, I tend to use loudspeakers from the same manufacturer. I've mixed loudspeakers on some shows, but not within the same sub-system. As much as possible, I avoid mixing.
Do you have a particular favorite among the sound designs that you've done?
Yes: Sweet Smell of Success, which just closed this year. Many things made it wonderful. It was a great play to work on, and a terrific cast and crew. First, I had the staff you dream of: Jordan Pankin, Kai Harada and Ed Chapman in Chicago, and Jack Babin and Bonnie Runk joining us in New York. Jack broke his ankle just before we opened in Chicago, and so Ed did Chicago. Our system included Meyer Sound CQs, MSL-2s and UPM-1Ps. The system worked well in both Chicago and New York. I'd also credit the orchestrator, Bill Brohn; Marvin Hamlisch for the music; and the director Nick Hytner. Everything worked together as it should.
Sound design is not just what we've been talking about until now. For example, if the orchestrator has three trumpets playing over a vocal line, you can't mix the vocal at a natural level. If a choreographer has somebody dancing 64 bars before the return to a vocal, you're going to have a hard time because the actor won't be able to sing very loud. The director may have an actor speaking upstage or into the wings, not as an effect. So everything has to work together, and in this case everything jelled and I loved the sound of the show. On top of that, you didn't see a microphone anywhere.
So you still like the MSL-2?
Yes, it's a wonderful, wonderful loudspeaker. I also used them on Love, Janis in New York. They were great.
How long have you been using Meyer Sound products in your designs?
I've been using them since 1986, but even before that I used McCune speakers designed by John Meyer. I use others as well, but generally I find that Meyer Sound's systems are the best. John Meyer knows what he is doing, and he certainly knows how to make a loudspeaker better than I do. He can answer the questions that I don't care to know the answers for. He does what he does so I can do a better job of doing what I do.
Getting back to the often-heard criticisms of theater sound, is this one of the perils of new technologies? Are directors, and maybe even audiences, expecting too much?
Perhaps. It's true that you can now do lots of things you couldn't do twenty or thirty years ago because of the technology, but people tend to take it for granted anyway. Yet, almost ironically, the sound has become indispensable. For example, if the lighting board goes down in a show and you have to turn up the house lights, the show can go on. But on many shows, if you lose the sound board, the show can't go on. The people can't sing loud enough. Yet despite that fact, sound people still don't get much recognition.
Is working overseas, in London or on the continent, different from working in New York?
The culture in London is not very different nowadays, though it used to be. Years ago, back in the heyday of the rock musicals, a lot of people in London theaters were from the rock 'n' roll world, and approached theater that way. But in Germany and Austria it is very different. For example, they are not as concerned about hiding the microphones. I did a show called Mozart and I had one actor tell me, "I didn't hear myself very well so I'm pulling the microphone down to the top of my nose."
I did the same show in Vienna. Now, normally, I will set up orchestra left and right on the console, because that's how it is broken down in the pit. But the system operator in Vienna was used to breaking down the orchestra on to four faders – strings, woodwinds, brass and rhythm. I don't generally want it that way, because that balance is the conductor's job – I don't want the sound mixer to bring up the strings because the brass are too loud. The operator in Vienna had a hard time with that.
Would you care to predict where the art of sound design is going in the future?
I don't really know. In some ways, it's discouraging when it gets gratuitously loud. But, then, look at what gets recognized. The highest award a Broadway sound designer can get is the Drama Desk award. I got one for Lion King, Steve Kennedy got one for Tommy, and Dan Schreier got one for Into the Woods. These were shows with big sound. But other shows with a more subtle sound design, like Sweet Smell of Success – which really take an enormous amount of work and creativity – tend to get ignored. What I would love to see is people acknowledging the work that goes into shows like that. A few years ago, a critic wrote in a review that 'somebody finally figured out how to hide the microphone.' Well, who is that somebody? The prop man? The director? No, it's the sound designer! So my hope is that in the future more people will have a greater understanding, and perhaps a greater appreciation, for what we contribute to the art of the theater.