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Interview with Sound Designer Mick Potter

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"Everybody wants that unique live experience, but the baby boom theatre audience, aged thirty-five to fifty-five, has become accustomed to surround movie theatres, CD and DVD, Nicam stereo TV and stereo FM radio. They've almost never heard unamplified sound: even the smallest sales conference or church hall uses radio mics."

- Sound Designer Mick Potter

What's your normal process for approaching a system design?

The first thing I'll do is talk to the producer, the director and the creative team and get a detailed feel for the show. This will include the overall dynamic of the show, what the music's going to entail, sound effects, surround sound, monitoring and how the imaging of the show's going to work — for example, whether it's going to be a natural-sounding show or a cinematic-sounding show. Having done that, I'll look at the venue in detail and, most importantly, the production and set design concept. Then, I'll start piecing it together from there.

The hardest thing in designing sound for theatre is that you have to conceptualize how a show will take shape. This means designing the sound system, preparing a bid list and most of the scale and line drawings, then putting it out to bid and building and installing the system months before the cast are on stage and the creative team is in the theatre. You have to ask lots of questions that people don't always want to answer at an early stage — because their focus is elsewhere — so that by the time you get into the theatre, you've covered all your bases. By that stage, it's most important to concentrate on the detail and creative aspects of the show without having to worry about achieving complex orchestra monitoring, sound effects spinning around the auditorium, or simply having enough headroom for the vocals.

How do you deal with changes in venue size on touring productions?

I'm pretty lucky, in that if a West End or Broadway show goes on tour, then we just make its system more modular. On a show like Saturday Night Fever, which toured the UK and US, we installed the loudspeaker system in towers that were in three sections, so you could take one, two or three sections into the theatre depending on its size. It's not quite as simple as it sounds, but there are some very clever people out there: with John Owens and Andy Brown on the UK tour, and Jason Krueger and Kevin Higley on the US tour, I was amazed at how little the system had to be reduced and still remain tourable.

What are your criteria for determining the types of loudspeaker systems you incorporate into your designs?

They're pretty conventional: coverage, power and personal taste. In theatre installations, you generally have the luxury of a reasonable-sized budget and load-in period, so you don't have to worry as much about cost, weight or size of the loudspeaker. Obviously, on a tour where you're putting the system up, then taking it down every week and transporting it, weight and size become huge factors. On Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, which I've just opened in the West End, we've hung seven Meyer Sound M3D Line Array loudspeakers per side — a total of more than 2,000 kg with rigging. There were no flying points, so the company Unusual Rigging built structural support arms into the walls, and production designer Mark Thompson designed Indian pavilions to hide them. So, I had the luxury of choosing the M3D for this show and venue, without worrying about weight and size. I could just concentrate on using any loudspeaker for its particular characteristics, but I've a great deal of brand loyalty toward Meyer.

What factors determine where you are going to place your speakers?

Largely, the physical aspects of the auditorium — trying to get even coverage and gain — but in the theatre, imaging is also very important. If I'm using several systems — maybe an orchestra and a vocal system — I obviously want to get the main vocal system in a position best suited for imaging to the actors. This means taking into consideration the set and staging. But in an installation, large parts of the proscenium and stage speaker design can be built into the set, and you can pretty much get delay speaker positions where you want them because they can be installed in the theatre.

In Bombay Dreams, nearly all the loudspeakers are disguised, and there are about 150 of them in the theatre. All the proscenium and cluster loudspeakers are hidden. The front fills, side fills, all the show deck, the stage foldback and the SFX speakers are built into the set. The surround speakers are hidden in the auditorium walls, and no speakers are visible around the stage. We could get the right speaker positions because I worked far in advance with the production engineer, Greg Clarke, the production manager, and the set designer. That has a huge impact on sound quality.

What EQ and alignment systems have you used?

I normally just use my ears. But on Bombay Dreams, because the theatre acoustic was very difficult and I'd never used M3Ds, we also used Meyer Sound's SIM System II for the first time, working with Meyer Sound's Luke Jenks and Dave Dennison. I found SIM very interesting, and I'll certainly use it again. But, in the theatre, you're using so many multiple system setups and changing the phase relationship between loudspeakers so often — for imaging, effects or various other reasons — that it gets beyond the point of being able to say that everything is in time and in tune. You're constantly playing with all these aspects of the system for creative reasons. So, in the end, you just have to trust your ears.

What do you try to accomplish during your EQ time? And is there a different approach in designing a system for imaging and localization versus a show where the feeling of power is more important?

A show like Saturday Night Fever, which was a powerful show, is still sixty percent a book musical, and in a show like Bombay Dreams, which is a book musical, there's still twenty to thirty percent of the show which raises the roof. So, I'm always trying to tune the system so that it will work with imaging, localization and as a powerful system if necessary. This is much easier now with so much more of the system being programmable

How has the EQ/alignment process changed over the years?

It's changed massively in the last ten years, because it's got so much more sophisticated. Most systems I've designed have comprised two vocal systems, an orchestra system and a surround sound system: four systems to tune. Having tuned and timed them, you then have to align them to do various things, because theatre's gotten so much more cinematic and people expect so much more from the sound. For instance, on Saturday Night Fever, the orchestra would be in the system timed to the proscenium (the orchestra is remote) but in the disco scenes I'd re-delay the whole orchestra system back to a disco system upstage and retune it to be low-end heavy so it sounded like the cast were in a disco — yet, you could hear the dialogue on top of that. On Bombay Dreams, a lot of the orchestrations are mixed into different components of the main and surround systems.

Everybody wants that unique live experience, but the baby boom theatre audience, aged thirty-five to fifty-five, has become accustomed to surround movie theatres, CD and DVD, Nicam stereo TV and stereo FM radio. They've almost never heard unamplified sound: even the smallest sales conference or church hall uses radio mics.

Before they come out to a show, they watch a DVD in 5.1, then they get into their car and listen to a CD. If they arrive at the theatre and there's a muddy orchestra sound coming out of the pit in mono, it's a big let down. Shows have gotten louder in general, partly because the amount of ambient auditorium noise has increased enormously with moving lights, automation and so on.

Is overall SPL generally an issue?

I wouldn't say it's an issue; theatre shows are driven by audience expectations, and I don't see that as a problem. The clearer and better-designed a system is, the quieter the vocals can be and still be intelligible, but there's the pressure of everybody expecting to hear every single word as if they're watching a movie or TV — yet also not notice that it's amplified. It's a tricky juggling act, and the key for me has been using more distributed loudspeakers for absolutely even gain throughout the auditorium and using delay imaging. I think 'clarity' for vocals and 'big' and 'dynamic' for orchestra are often what is meant when there is a request to make it louder.

When do you use a line array (or curvilinear array), and when a single unit or conventional cluster? What factors affect your choice?

I'd always used single loudspeakers until Bombay Dreams, because I prefer using multiple systems — particularly in theatres. With mics on heads, you need to have at least two systems so you can switch vocals into different systems to get rid of all the combing filtering problems when actors' mics are in close proximity; that's something Martin Levan developed fifteen years or so ago. And, it's nice to be able to choose a loudspeaker that's best suited for a specific task.

I used Meyer's M3Ds on Bombay Dreams because the theatre is a very difficult acoustic space, and the show was going to be hugely dynamic, ranging from a book musical to very loud pop pieces. But the big problem for me with a line array system is that you're tied into a single system. This means that, on a show like Bombay Dreams, the M3D does everything it purports to do brilliantly; it controls the low end, it throws, it sounds great, it works well with the CQ-2 [Narrow Coverage Main] loudspeakers and other smaller Meyer speakers — but it's a single system. The operator is constantly struggling to clean all the actors' lines on the DC masters, because as soon as two actors in close proximity are talking to each other and one person's mic is picking up the other person's dialogue, you get phasing. That's easiest to get rid of if you can switch the mics into separate systems.

Has the experience of working with the M3D changed your opinion of using line arrays in the theatre?

To a degree, yes. I'm particularly interested to try the M2D [Compact Curvilinear Array loudspeakers] and the M1D [Ultra-Compact Curvilinear Array loudspeakers] — maybe use an M2D orchestra system and an M1D vocal system. This would be a dream, because it would provide both a curvilinear array and dual systems for vocals and orchestra. The other issue about using most line array systems in theatre is that they're quite big, whereas if you use a separate, smaller system for the vocals, you can get it closer to the actors for imaging.

What are the advantages of self-powered systems versus conventional systems?

I'm a big self-powered fan because they're much more consistent from unit to unit. One Meyer Sound CQ-2 will sound like another CQ-2. You're not at the whim of separate amplifiers, control units, additional speaker cables, racking and everything else that can cause problems. They're much more reliable, much simpler to install, and are optimized by Meyer. I think the CQ system is a brilliant-sounding box. I'd previously used Meyer MSL-2s, which sound great, too, but you may be working in a part of the world where you're forced to use a different brand of amplifier, which can seriously mess up the sound of the speaker. We spent a long time on a certain show in Las Vegas trying to find out whether there was a fault with the S-1 processors on the MSL-2s, and we never thought about the amplifiers. It was only when we got a different amplifier that we realized where the problem lay.

Are newer theaters generally better for accomplishing your goals, in terms of acoustics and technical facilities? Or do older theaters have an edge in some ways?

The age of a theatre is largely irrelevant for me. With Saturday Night Fever, we opened at the London Palladium — which is a very old theatre — then on Broadway, we opened at the Minskoff — which is a much newer theatre. But the Palladium is much better acoustically. It's got lots of soft surfaces, there's no slapback and it's got a short RT time, whereas the Minskoff is very hard-sounding with a slapback, even though there's treatment on the back walls. Architects don't seem to build new theatres to be acoustically friendly to amplified sound.

How important is compatibility among various speakers in a system? Do you prefer to use loudspeakers from the same manufacturer?

Ideally, yes. The problem is that not all manufacturers make all types of loudspeakers. Where possible, it makes life much simpler to use the same brand, though.

If you could select one of your sound designs as a personal favorite, which would it be and why?

The last one! It's a completely imperfect science, really, so you're constantly striving to do it as well as you can. We're constantly advancing. The amount of programmable control we had on Bombay Dreams compared to what we had even two or three years ago has advanced hugely alongside loudspeaker technology.

When working overseas or with different cultures, have you encountered ways of working or requirements for sound systems that were different than what you'd been used to?

Not really, no. There's been a huge amount of cross-pollination with West End/Broadway transfers, right back to Abe Jacob introducing Meyer loudspeakers in the UK over 20 years ago. Usually, a West End or Broadway show will travel with the original sound design and designer. It tends to be very similar, and everybody has appropriated the best of each other's creativity and technology.

August, 2002

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