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An Interview with Christopher Cronin
Christopher Cronin's credits as a sound designer on Broadway include The Graduate and a pair of one-man shows starring Jackie Mason, Much Ado About Everything and Prune Danish. As an associate, he contributed to the design on Lily Tomlin's Search for Signs of Intelligent Life, The Full Monty, Noises Off and Neil Simon's Proposals, among others. He has served as production sound mixer on many Broadway productions and, prior to coming to New York, he worked as a sound designer at several noted regional theater companies. He holds an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama.
What's your normal process for approaching the design of a system?
It all has to start with two goals in mind: coverage, and power delivery. To determine coverage requirements, you start by looking at the architecture of the room, seating layout, and even the scenic design can play a role. Power delivery is determined in large measure by the intent of the design. What is the program material? Is this light reinforcement for a small, intimate musical, or PA for a one mic solo performance? If the show is a heavy metal band playing a theatre, that leads to different parameters than would a cabaret act playing in the same space. So you look at the room, and what you need to reproduce in it, this will lead you to coverage and power requirements. Then you can begin to look for the tools you need to accomplish these goals.
What are your criteria for the type of loudspeakers you incorporate into your designs?
So it's a matter of matching your idealized design to available tools, with a little dash of experimentation thrown in on occasion. There are always times when you say, "I just heard this speaker and I want to try it in this setting." So a lot of it is trial and error. It may work out really well, or you might realize that the next time around you may need to use it differently.
One example I can think of is when another sound designer, a few years ago, used some new boxes with ribbon tweeters for a show at the Richard Rogers Theater, which is fairly small and intimate. They worked quite well in that show. But on the next show, in the Marquee Theater, which is basically a big barn, the ribbon drivers couldn't deliver. In the end, they didn't have the throw to make it work.
So there are times when you can only go so far with specs, and you have to get it out there where the rubber meets the road and see what it does?
Yes, you have to pull the box out and use it on a gig, and run it through its paces. Then you can say where it will work, and where it won't. Another example is the Meyer MM-4. I had never heard of it when I was shopping for a little on-stage effects speaker to use for Noises Off. I came across it on the shelf at Masque Sound, we tried it, and it worked great. Next I thought I'd try them as front fill. We put them in for The Graduate, and now I've used them for front fill on four or five other plays with various designers, and everybody has been pleased with them. You never know until you try them.
You've worked a lot in collaborative roles as an associate designer. How does that break down as to the specific roles of lead and associate designer?
I do a lot of work as a production sound engineer, and as an associate. It typically works out that my associate work is for sound designers who are from out of town. I do a lot of British plays. I spent some time over there working at the National Theater, and I sort of figured out how the Brits work, and the language that they use. At this risk of over-generalizing, I'd say they start out with a different set of concerns over there.
For example, many of the venues that originate the work that gets transferred over here have permanently installed sound systems, and the designers can configure these somewhat on a project-by-project basis. This is a situation similar to many regional LORT theatres here in the United States. Designers who work with permanently installed sound systems tend to become more focused on the program material, what they are playing in terms of sound effects and music.
In New York, it's different because of the way we take systems in and out of rooms with every show. Each time you do a new show it's a new system. When a show comes to Broadway, every component that might have been involved in the production, soup to nuts, needs to be brought in and installed. This includes systems that have nothing necessarily to do with the actual sound design, such as intercom, video and paging.
So a lot of the associate work I do is the system work for lead designers who are transferring a show to Broadway, and who may be more program oriented. The goal there may be to reproduce a similar system to that which they had at the previous venue, or it may be simply to work out system layout and interconnection. So you start out by establishing the parameters of what they are looking for in terms of the program material. How many zones do they need? You also look at how many surround areas, what kind of control, and what kind of playback they are using—be it samplers, MiniDiscs or computer-based devices. What are the types of program material, and the levels involved? Then you look at the room and figure out what kind of coverage you'll need, and work out the hanging positions in consultation with the lighting designer—and hopefully that will be fruitful. Sometimes you do get into discussions as to why a particular light needs to be moved and not the speaker.
Essentially, you take the overall concept and determine how to make it work in that particular venue. One good example is a play now on Broadway, Hollywood Arms, that started with some gentlemen in Chicago, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodine. We roughly sketched out system-wise what we thought would work well in terms of boxes. They are big fans of the Meyer self-powered boxes, since they have a Meyer installation at the Goodman Theater where they are resident sound designers. And they also use the Level Control Systems out there. So they laid out what they had there, and I worked with them to adapt it to the Court Theater in New York, which has three tiers, so it's a much different space architecturally.
Another example is working on British imports, where they typically do not do voice reinforcement on plays. Most of the London playhouses are tall and shallow, making vocal reinforcement unnecessary. But it is common practice here, especially when most legit houses in NYC are wider and deeper, in also American audience's ears are working harder to understand a British--or worse, a Scottish--accent. So in New York, we often add foot mics or zone mics, and this adds an extra dimension and extra costs. For a small play in London, the stage manager might run the sound effects, but on a transfer to New York you need an operator to mix the mics, and you want that operator out in front-of-house, so they can hear what they are mixing, which means you have to take out seats, which eats into gross potentials. It's often a tricky matter of balancing what will make the producers happy versus what will make the sound designers happy, and of course you always want to keep the audience happy.
After I initially establish parameters with the original sound designer, then I can work with general manager and the shops to accomplish the design goals. As an example, for Noises Off last year, I did a lot of work with general management trying to figure out where we would shoehorn in this large mixing position and also maintain the best sight lines for the seats behind it. We spent a half-day moving the various components around, trying to figure out how to make it work. The lead sound designer wasn't on the scene, so this is one of the things that I take care of as an associate. The idea is that, when the lead sound designers arrive, all they have to worry about is program material. They don't have to worry about system alignment or hanging positions. More often than not, they walk in and say, "Beautiful, I don't have to worry about that at all."
What are the differences between designing sound for a play and a musical?
So I think overall the approach is pretty much the same as far as the basics. But it is true that for a musical you have the added dimensions of thinking about orchestra pits, expanded mixing capabilities, RF racks and monitoring—things that are essentially based on a musical. You don't need those for a play, although in many cases a play will have more complex playback requirements. A play can run the gamut from just a couple samplers or mini-disc decks up to what we have for Hollywood Arms, which is a full-blown LCS rig with two LX-3200 frames and 32 outputs. That's not all that different in scale from loading up a Cadac with 16 A-B matrix outputs with 32 zones. It's quite sizeable. In addition, on Hollywood Arms, we have a Yamaha 02R to mix about a dozen mics that are secreted about the set for various and sundry purposes.
So in terms of the differences, it's harder to pin down. For plays, in the last couple of years, things have been getting bigger. And I think part of that is the way designers of plays, and the directors, are becoming more aware of what can be done in terms of aural support for the play. Also, the tools have become available in vast numbers that enable you to do these kinds of things with relative ease, at least compared to the way it used to be done. So the designers are becoming more technically proficient at being able to transform their ideas into workable reality, and directors are becoming more savvy in terms of how they like to use sound to help tell their story.
I think this rapid evolution is also due to the ever-present march of technology. With DVDs and surround sound moving into more and more homes, people expect 5.1 surround. People are accustomed to having sound help to tell a story. We are all trying to tell somebody a story, and if I can help tell that story using 32 zones of speakers and an LCS system, and it's the appropriate way to do it for that play, I will do it.
On the other hand, can you go overboard? With easily available and relatively cheap tools, can you have too much technology, so that it gets in the way of the story?
We constantly wrestle with that. You need to strike a balance. You have to bring the appropriate amount of technology to the table, and if you use too much it can certainly get in the way. I think that a wise sound designer will bring as many tools as he can to the project, but then only pull out those he needs. I would rather bring in an extra pair of speakers and hang them—as a very simplified example—and then later discover that I really did not need them. Then I can just turn them off. But you can't turn on a speaker that isn't there. So if you're under time pressures, in a situation where you have only one day to do all this, it's better to bring something you don't need than to struggle through the day and then at the end say, "I really wish I'd had that extra pair."
What factors determine where you place the loudspeakers?
So first I picture a completed sound system and visualize where all the boxes will fit in. Then I go back and try to get drawings, or I take measurements and generate drawings, because a lot of the Broadway houses, believe it or not, have very poor drawing sets. Then I will do the math, and go through the physics, looking at coverage patterns. And I'll also look at other options, considering sight lines and lighting design. For example, I may look at moving a box up a few feet and tipping it down more.
Clusters are notorious in that regard. You can go into a room and quickly figure out where you want to put your cluster. That's easy. But once it's done it's usually in a harder position to access, and you don't want to send the truss up and down several times to take care of holes or overlap problems. So in this case it's much better to take time to do the math very carefully up front.
How about conflicts with the lighting designer? Do you usually know where the light will be hung before you get started?
When do you use a line array (or curvilinear array), and when single box or conventional cluster? What factors affect your choice?
After my first experience with the M1D, I'm going to try to use a line array as much as I can for the center cluster. It does seem to help give you that strong, consistent center image. You don't have to do a lot of design tricks to make it work. Having one set of boxes that delivers a single point source audio in such a wide horizontal coverage pattern is tremendously attractive. Instead of using six or eight boxes, and working on focus and trying to make it smooth across 80 feet of auditorium, you can just hang the curvilinear array and know that it's good across the horizontal, automatically. Then you just adjust splay for your vertical. In terms of a time-saver for the theater, you're talking about eliminating at least a half-day of screwing around with focusing and tuning that center cluster array.
So ultimately, after my experiment with Jackie Mason on the M1Ds, any time I look at a loudspeaker cluster, I will be looking at a line array. Whether or not I can do it in terms of cost and size and other factors that come into play, I'll deal with that on case-by-case basis.
Do you generally prefer self-powered systems over conventionally powered systems?
I'm a huge proponent of the Meyer self-powered boxes. I don't mean to be self-deprecating here, but I think the people at Meyer have done a much better job than I could ever do in terms of matching processor and amplifier to the speaker. In the end they just sound better, and the whole idea makes more sense. True, there is a little extra weight, but ultimately it's negligible. So why not go self-powered? The real estate space I save on backstage amp racks can be really important on some productions. And the cabling costs are reduced, with less copper running from point A to point B. All I need is one piece of 5-wire AC to handle two 30-amp circuits, and I can put four to eight self-powered boxes on it. Then I send out a little mult with audio on it. That's it. There's a tremendous saving in terms of pulling cable.
To me, the self-powered Meyers are the best tools out there. Yes, I will go back to conventional speakers if I have to, when it's a budget issue. I'd rather have the powered UPA-1P, but could I do it with a UPA-1C? Yes, I could—well, depending on specifics of a design because the coverage patterns are different. But ultimately, given my druthers, I'll go with self-powered.
Do you find it generally helpful to design a system using speakers from the same manufacturer?
Let's talk a little about alignment and equalization systems. What do you use, and what do you try to accomplish in the time allowed?
Then later I went to SIM School at Meyer Sound, and what I took away from that was more than just the mechanics of how to SIM a room. I also learned about the interactions of system equalization and tuning, and phase response, and dealing with reflections. Since then, I will gladly tune a room using the SIM system or another computer-based system. But I still balance that with my experience, because you can miss the point and use SIM or another alignment system just like a fancy RTA, and still torture the system into being flat. I use computer analysis as a tool for gathering information, and I know that I have to make intelligent choices about how to line something up and utilize the information that the machine is giving me. I always remember that, in many if not most cases, flat really doesn't sound too good. Put it this way: if you SIM something and smooth if off to 1/3 octave, everything automatically looks pretty good. But the story isn't really there. The story is down at 1/12 and 1/24 of an octave, where you have to go to make some intelligent decisions about judicious use of equalization.
Also, sometimes I will use what I see on SIM to help me focus or re-focus a box. I start out by intuition, but there are cases where the measurements will tell me that, for example, the outside seats are 2dB down. So subsequently, I may need to adjust the focus somewhat. But you have to know that if the measurement is showing you a dip as a result of focus, reflections, or room response, before you can address the problem with EQ, if needed.
Is loudness becoming more of an issue in theater sound? Do you sometimes run into conflicts, or have to make compromises, on levels?
Most sound designers I know realize that, nine times out of ten, the program material automatically dictates an appropriate level. There are occasions when a director or producer will want something up higher than you would normally prefer. But that's commerce. You work for these people. Ideally, you like to think of yourself as a collaborative artist, working with a director to reach a goal. But sometimes you have to accept that you are basically an employee, and if they say turn it up, you do it. You must keep your head about you, and establish a zone where it may be too loud for your taste but still not uncomfortably so.
Maybe this is a good example. I'm mixing Deaf Poetry Jam, and we just had a preview last night. Russell Simmons is the producer, and the sound designer told me that there is a section at the top where a DJ spins and works the crowd up a little bit. I was running it at one level, and the designer says that it needs to be much louder. "It's like a club, you've got to whip 'em up," he told me. "It's only five minutes, so just run with me here." So we did, and it was really loud—but it sounded good, so you didn't mind. It didn't hurt. And the rest of the evening the program levels were much quieter. So I'm always open to discussion on that point.
That said, between noise pollution and the way media has invaded our aural world, presentation levels has become an issue, though I think too much has been made of it in the press. The audience drives the product, and decisions about overall volume are not made in a void.
What are your favorite sound designs, one you did on your own and another that was a collaboration?
Maybe you could just mention somebody you've worked with who influenced the way you approach design.
Again, there are so many! I'll name a few, because these are people I count as friends and who have influenced me tremendously. One is Tom Clark. I first did a show with him in the early 90s at the Santa Fe opera. I was wet behind the ears and I learned so much from him, not only there but later working with him on Lily Tomlin's Search for Signs of Intelligent Life, both on Broadway and on tour. I'd also mention two British designers, John Leonard and John Owens, who along with Fergus O'Hare run Aura Sound Design in London. With them I've done Blue Room, Noises Off and John Owens was involved on Closer. Every time I do a play with another designer, I walk away with something. Even on projects where things didn't go well, you take away something. Sometimes learning what NOT to do can be the most beneficial part of doing a particular project.
Do you work much outside the theater world?
Yes, I do have interests outside of theater. I co-own, with Jim Van Bergen, a remote recording truck, Audio Architects Remote Recording. We record shows in different venues, for HBO and others. It's fun. I won't call it a hobby because it is a business, but it is much different than theater. I also do some corporate work, and I'm doing some work with Jim on a theme park down in Tampa. But ultimately that boils down to the same kind of thing, generally, as theater. But recording is quite different, and it provides a whole other perspective. It helps keep things fresh.
Any parting comments about building a successful career in sound design, and how that may or may not relate to Meyer Sound?
I think it all comes down to keeping an open mind and using the best tools to get the job done. If you're a carpenter, you know certain things about cutting a piece of wood, various types of joinery, and how to put it together to frame a wall and put in windows and doors. You know the basic techniques. Building an entire house is the intelligent application of all those skills. Sound design proceeds pretty much the same way. There are lots of different skills involved, and successful design applies them all. So I try to intelligently apply my bag of tricks and keep my clients happy. I'm not sure I'm all that successful, but at least I'm having fun at it.
In terms of Meyer speakers, they are an important part of my bag of tricks. I apprenticed under Abe Jacob, and I remember years ago when he sent me to a shop to get a certain Meyer speaker, and they didn't have any left and suggested I take another. I called up Abe and asked if the substitution was okay, and Abe said no, we need the Meyer speakers. And sure enough, somehow they came up with the Meyer speakers after all! This incident happened before I even knew how big a role Abe had played with John Meyer in developing loudspeakers back in the McCune days. I learned it right at Abe's knee, and he was a big influence on my career. So although I know that there are plenty of other tools out there, in any given situation the Meyer boxes are always among my favorites