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An Interview with Sound Designer Andrew Bruce
Early in his career as a sound designer, Andrew Bruce's name became linked with some of the most important shows in British musical theatre: Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, Cats and Starlight Express. Autograph Sound Recording, which he co-founded in 1972, is now one of the UK's leading sound design and equipment rental companies. Bruce's bio places him both on Broadway and in London's West End where he has added his unconventional designs to countless original productions, as well as many subsequent worldwide tours, including Les Misérables, Mamma Mia and Miss Saigon. His most recent work can be heard at London's Shaftesbury Theater in the production of 125th Street.
What's your normal process for approaching the design of a system?
I read the script and listen to the music several times – once with the script and a couple of times whilst doing something fairly undemanding in order to see what stands out (and what doesn't). I obtain a cast list, an orchestra line-up and acquaint myself with the theatre if I don't already know it, and after all that I decide first of all, believe it or not, on a speaker system that I feel is appropriate for the job. After that I go about physically designing the show by doing some preliminary drawings of the mixer, listing any special functions and spinning off all the other drawings from it. I'll always try to introduce a new product, but usually only one on any new show.
How do you deal with the changes in venue sizes on touring productions?
Generally if I know the show is going to tour, I will choose a speaker system that can be scaled up or down by merely adding or removing cabinets. This process has been made easier with the introduction of 'families' of line array systems, as you can just add more to the array or move up the gears from M1Ds to M2Ds to M3Ds or some combination of the above. It's very rare to leave the original speaker system in flight cases and change it for something completely different when you hit a particular venue.
What are your criteria for determining the types of loudspeaker systems you incorporate into your designs?
The criteria change as the decades progress. Simple line arrays were quite popular with theater designers in the 60s and 70s. I - in common with many other designers - have seen the light with modern line array systems – the modularity of them, the spread of them, the ease with which the whole thing can be tuned, shaded and focused in order to serve only the area it's directed at. I wouldn't, out of choice, go back to previous loudspeaker designs for the main system unless there was some significant space or financial constraint. Having said that, I still love working with MSL-2s if I am required to. I had a very good experience with them on Miss Saigon a long time ago and have never looked back; they've not let me down. But there's really only one suitable proscenium arrangement for MSL-2s that I can make work, arranging them in vertical pairs, horns apart, to make one 'single speaker' six to eight feet above stage level. It acts as the principal source for the majority of the auditorium and all other parts of the system are designed to supplement it. I find it works well for the type of shows that I am asked to do and covers most auditoria of the size that I work with. I'm used to working in older, often quite small London theaters, and theaters that are modeled on them around the world, and the MSL-2 will fit into most of them whereas modern line arrays won't always.
What factors usually determine where you are going to place your loudspeakers?
Anywhere I can! Sound designers, as we all know, are very low in the design food chain, and always have been. At the top of the pile is the scenic designer, who effectively has the ultimate say as to where the speakers go, what they look like, what's in front of them and what's to the side of them. What alters that absolutely is your relationship with the designer. It's nothing to do with sound design; it's to do with the 'old boy' network. If I have worked with the designer before, I can sidle up to him in the certain knowledge that I have previously indoctrinated him in the principles of effective speaker placement and tell him where I need to put my speakers. I usually disarmingly finish the sentence with 'you know it makes sense.' If your relationship with that designer is good enough and you've kept it going over the years by demonstrating to him that you care about the look of things as much as he does, you'll get close to what you want. If, however, you steam in and go head to head with a new designer and announce that you absolutely have to have such and such straight off, you are almost guaranteed not to get what you want and the show will ultimately sound like crap. In your old age you end up having worked with more and more designers who know what to expect from you, as you know what you can ask from them. The better your relationship with them, the more helpful they will be. It's as simple as that. Of course I will have done drawings first to give myself the usual range of possibilities.
What EQ and alignment systems have you used?
SIM and ears. I don't know how to use any others. I trust the theory of it, and the implementation of the Source Independent Measurement system is one that I have grown quite experienced with. Why would I change?
For EQ, Meyer CP-10 Complementary Phase Parametric Equalizers and XTA DP226s. I first used the CP-10s because I was told to, and after not very long I discovered why – they are fantastic EQs.
What do you try to accomplish during your EQ time? And is there a different approach in designing a system for imaging and localization of sources vs. a show where the feeling of power is more important?
Yes there is a different approach. A lot of effort goes into time alignment to a live source where imaging is most important. Apart from the fact that actors are always on the move, time alignment is always a very difficult problem to solve because of the geometry of the buildings we work in. With the best will in the world I think you probably only ever achieve anything believable for just 25 - 30% of the auditorium but it will never be perfect for the majority under any circumstances. That is unless you are blessed with a stage shape and an auditorium shape that works to your advantage. This is a particular problem when working in theatres with traditional architecture. It's mainly to do with the shape of the auditorium and the slope of the various levels. There's no doubt that you can get much better time alignment and imaging in an auditorium with a single slope (the steeper the better) because you can make geometrical sense of the arrival times from the cluster, prosceniums and front fills. You can also cover the auditorium effectively from fewer sources. If you were to add to that a curved stage and actors who helpfully stood still – as they never do – you would be able to achieve good time alignment for a significant majority.
The two places I've worked where time alignment was easier to get right were the Barbican Theatre in London where there is a relatively steep slope in the stalls, which accounts for the majority of the auditorium. There are three balconies but they're very shallow. And the other place was the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where the shape of the audience seating was similar.
Where power is important, you can ignore imaging and concentrate purely on time alignment of the system per se. Since you are unlikely to be able to hear the source, there's nothing to time align to. In big musical numbers, once the cast start singing full out, there's very little live source audible over a band in full cry. It becomes interesting when you have a show that oscillates between the two scenarios, with dialogue and recitative which you want to sound as natural and localised as possible, followed by a big number, and back again. So what we do in those cases is change the balance between cluster and front fills on the one hand and proscenium on the other. Programmable matrix mixers have finally made this achievable now. You'll have a programme stored in the matrix that is more evenly distributed and places the emphasis more towards the center of the auditorium for dialogue then another to snap back onto the proscenium for a full-blown number. These mixers are a huge step forward for sound designers.
How has the EQ/alignment process changed over the years?
Well it hasn't really for me. Because I was lucky enough to be around on the ground floor during the development of what is an empirical system I haven't yet found the need to go looking for anything that does it better. Since I can't see a flaw in the theory (what would I know??), there's nothing in my view that could do it better than SIM. However I'm eagerly awaiting SIM III as the human interface is undoubtedly more user friendly and I trust the algorithms used have undergone further refinement. Having started with SIM I with Bob McCarthy and John Meyer in 1986 I became hooked on the concept because it made such sense even though the early software was dangerously brain damaging to master. It's merely the ease with which you can manipulate machinery that changes as well as your experience in interpreting what you see and hear. What I wouldn't ever do is allow SIM to address the EQs directly without the possibility of human intervention because there is always a cycle of SIMing, listening and altering to be repeated until you feel the overall system works. However, I can't put my hand on my heart and say I hear things the way I used to, and I think it's best to recognize that, because otherwise you subject the audience to the most appallingly bright sounding systems. This is where the younger sound designers come in, such as Simon Baker of Autograph Sound who often works with me – as a reference for the younger audiences. Together, I like to think we please a good cross-section.
Is overall SPL generally an issue?
Not with the sort of shows I do.
Based on what people are accustomed to these days do you find any differences in the balance of the mix or levels as opposed to when you first started?
When we were first given the tools to make things sound pretty good, I would say that many of us abused them in that we ended up with shows that sounded too clinical and were criticised for delivering a product that sounded too much like a CD. Some would take that as a compliment but it did tend to produce a show that ignored the true energy of the performance. You want to track that energy and not level it, producing some sanitised offering which pays little heed to the real sound of peoples voices or their instruments. So I don't do that any more, and I encourage the operators not to unthinkingly level out a singer's delivery into one undynamic mix. Additionally, and quite rightly, you get pressure from the performers themselves who'll say, 'I know how to use my voice and I want to use it in this particular way, I don't want you to compensate for everything I do the whole time, thank you very much!'. Although they'll often add once out of earshot of the composer 'there may be the odd note that I can't reach that I want you to help me with, dear.'
And has the audience's tolerances changed any in terms of intelligibility or levels?
Not in level terms really, but shows have changed, the stories tend to be more complex nowadays and that needs to be transmitted to the audience during the exposition otherwise they're subjected to two and a half hours of gobbledegook that might as well be in a foreign language. You can't afford to let dialogue or recitative go, otherwise the audience will miss important milestones. I like to think that writers of contemporary shows feel more comfortable tackling thorny issues precisely because they know that they can reach the audiences more reliably - even over music.
When do you use a line array (or curvilinear array), and when would you use a single cabinet or conventional cluster? What factors affect your choice?
What's in stock, and money (I mean the producer's budget). I would have used line array on 125th Street if I'd had it, because having been introduced to a new technology it's quite hard to go back.
What are the advantages of self-powered systems versus conventional systems?
The disadvantage is that they're heavy. These days we've all got over our initial worry of not being able to get at amplifiers when they go wrong, because they rarely go wrong, and as long as you've taken reasonable precautions to provide isolated feeds to each cabinet, it shouldn't come back to haunt you too badly if things do go wrong. I can't put my hand on my heart and say I can tell the difference per se as it is quite difficult to compare like with like. Generally the powered versions of our familiar workhorse loudspeakers have also undergone other revisions, which makes them sound better anyway. The advantages are clear for those starting out and who don't possess stock of the previous unpowered incarnations with all the infrastructure that goes with it. For those of us with significant stockholdings of unpowered, the transition has been slow – precisely because the speakers in question have such an astonishingly long 'use-by' date. Some of our UPAs have recently finished their service on the longest running musical of all time – Cats - in London, with absolutely no modification in 21 years. They are now taking a hard-earned break languishing in a resort somewhere with new HF drivers and getting ready for the next 21.
Are newer theaters generally better for accomplishing your goals, in terms of acoustics and technical facilities? Do older theaters have an edge in some ways?
It's a double-edged sword. Older theaters can sound warmer than some newer theaters, but they can also put some real impediments in your way. Most old theaters have old-style boxes that protrude into the frame to a greater or lesser degree as well as narrow proscenium surrounds which can be an absolute killer as far as your preferred choice of speaker, so you have to cut your coat according to the cloth. Because of their proximity to the loudspeaker arrays, boxes and the anterooms behind them can also contribute some dreadful resonances to the sound of the system. Sound design in theaters is primarily the art of the possible – what you can get away with, what you can squeeze in there, whether it can do the job, whether you can make up for the shortcomings of your compromised principle loudspeaker system in some other way.
A lot of old theaters used to suffer from ghastly reflections from the back and in some cases, the side walls, but they are being addressed, slowly and surely. The bigger, more prestigious theaters are having work done that address these problems, but generally a theater-owner will want to fill his building with a show rather than builders, so the temptation is always to put renovations off. When producers themselves also own the theaters they can then schedule their productions to allow building work to slot into the endless procession of shows. It's only then that anything really moves forward.
These tend to be the theaters that warrant it, the ones that are big enough to accommodate musicals. I've been involved in the acoustic refurbishment of some of these theaters as a consultant. The Prince Edward Theater in London's West End, for example, had a horrible problem with a slap off the back wall of the upper circle and a similar problem with reflections from the side walls of the stalls (orchestra). Arup Acoustics addressed both in a very intelligent way. I was quite heavily involved in formulating the solution and gave them the benefit of my experience of having worked in the Prince Edward on four different shows. SIM helped to no end in pinpointing where the problems came from. You could be sure that the back and side walls were the problem because you could hear it, but the extent of the problem only became clear once we actually measured it, firstly with SIM and then using conventional acoustician tools (gunshots). A new perforated corridor consisting of a series of angled screens was installed down the side walls serving a dual purpose. It allowed the audience to reach their seats in the front stalls without disturbing others and it diffused sound coming from the stage (more particularly from the loudspeaker system) and stopped it from hitting the side walls directly. It completely changed the acoustics in the stalls overnight. The back wall was tilted and treated with partial absorption.
How important is compatibility among various loudspeakers used in a system? Do you prefer, if possible, to use loudspeakers from the same manufacturer?
In most cases a manufacturer's loudspeakers tend to carry a similar 'signature', and I've always used mainly Meyer. But over the years I've found different manufacturers that make speakers which – to me - sound better for certain jobs.
If you could select one design as a personal favorite or best, what would it be and why?
Mamma Mia, because it was great fun to do and my wife had the lead role.
If you've had experience working overseas (e.g., West End vs. Broadway) or with different cultures, have you encountered ways of working or requirements for sound systems which were different than what you'd been used to?
Working on Broadway was quite a shock to begin with because of the very precise, union-influenced way of working. The day is very tightly controlled, and the British way of working which I'd been used to for so many years, often until the middle of the night, or until you dropped, had to change overnight. Whilst I found it an irritating imposition to begin with, the advantages became quickly apparent: you didn't waste time, you ordered your day, got your work done, then went out to play. After a while I realized I enjoyed that way of working much more than the seemingly haphazard way I'd been used to in the West End. I had always argued that we were doing the rest of the crew a favor by fiddling around with SIM noise and recorded material during their meal breaks. Fit-up crews all over the world seem to be able to stomach anything from extreme cold and dust in the theater to endless hours of pitch darkness or continuous grinding and drilling but not, on any account, any form of reproduced noise. But I learned to order my day and examine very carefully the amount of time I needed to 'fiddle' with the unmentionable noises. In the end, I just seemed to work quicker and more efficiently with no obvious penalties as far as the end product was concerned.
I came back to the UK and predictably found our way of working rather antiquated. I wanted to inject some impetus into it, saying 'Let's plan this better, …like they do in the US.' But of course they didn't want to hear that here – so I had to work on them. There were times on Broadway when I found the union line hard to deal with (sound people are not part of any theater or entertainment union in the UK), but once you understood why the rules were in place, you learnt to work with them. The result seems to be that you become more noticeably part of the company and crew rather than being regarded as odd boffins who work all hours of the day and night and Sundays to do what you do without anybody else having a clue what it is.
On a technical level, the main difference is in the specification of the peripherals. Working in the US you have to detail every last barrel connector and screw otherwise you simply won't get it. Part of this problem is that in London I have my own company which is based near the West End so I can get anything I want sent down to the theater if I've forgotten it or not taken the trouble to think of it in the first place. That doesn't happen there. You get exactly what you specify; you can have anything and everything within reason, but you have to think it through and put it on the list. It's very good personal discipline, and I like it.
One of the interesting things I found when doing endless repetitions of a show such as Les Misérables was that after you've done it six times in as many countries, 'doing' the show is no longer of such great interest to you. Repetition of that nature is very dull, so you have to find something else to occupy you and, at least, give you the air of being interested in what you're doing. So, for instance, observing the customs and practice of the Japanese and the way they approach mounting a big show, the enthusiasm they bring to it, learning the technical language that they use and the way they do things, is more interesting than regurgitating your show again.
There was one very interesting story, which came out of doing Miss Saigon in Tokyo - it was a fascinating three way clash of culture and technology caused by ignorance of the problem and an inherent shortcoming in the way we amplify singers. It centered on a conflict between Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical style and the effect that had on the Japanese ear. Much of Claude-Michel's musical lines – be they for men or women – start low and rise as the line progresses. Generally, the radio mics that we use are less efficient at capturing the lower parts of a singer's register as a result of the hidden microphone placements that we are forced to adopt. However, it seems that Japanese syntax places the object of the sentence first, so the net result was that audiences were missing the point of nearly every line. Once identified, we had to take very particular care to make sure the very beginning of each line – even though it was on the edge of a singer's natural range, was very clearly there. This came to light halfway through previews when we discovered people couldn't understand much of the plot. One of the Japanese interpreters thankfully put their finger on it and solved it at a stroke.