Sound for Fosse and Annie Get Your Gun

Oct 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Mark Frink

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Because so many in our little industry gather in the Big Apple for the October AES convention, I decided it would be appropriate to profile two of the current top Broadway musicals. Long before the 1999 Tony Award nominations were announced in May, I had picked out Fosse, the all-dance tribute to Broadway's greatest choreographer, and Annie Get Your Gun, which originally opened in 1946 with Ethel Merman playing the title character. Surprise, surprise-though sound design is not yet recognized as a Tony Award-worthy category, both of my selections won big at the June 6 awards ceremony. In fact, Annie Get Your Gun won two Tonys (for Best Musical Revival and for leading actress Bernadette Peters) and Fosse won three (for Best Musical, for orchestrations by Ralph Burns and Douglas Besterman, and also for Andrew Bridge's lighting design). But in many other respects, the two productions could not be more different. Perhaps this article will help you decide which of these fine productions you will treat yourself and a friend to when you're next in New York.

ANNIE GET YOUR TONY The current revival of Annie Get Your Gun opened last February in the 1,584-seat Marquis Theater, located on Broadway at 45th Street. Loosely based on the true story of Annie Oakley, an illiterate hillbilly markswoman who shot to fame with Buffalo Bill's Traveling Wild West Show, Annie Get Your Gun features one of Irving Berlin's finest scores and opens with one of Broadway's best-known songs: "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Though the Marquis stands on a street lined with classic theaters, its acoustics more closely resemble those of a modern casino showroom. In fact, the room is so dead that sound designer Tom Clark of Artec Consultants decided to create a surround reverberation system to compensate for the lack of reflected energy from the walls, floor and ceiling. Clark positioned nearly four dozen EAW UB-12 surround speakers on the theater's side and rear walls, feeding them from a Lexicon 300 (run through a compressor to keep it under control on loud passages).

Clark employs Stage Accompany's E-24 ribbon driver speakers as the main orchestra-level vocal system and uses 20 of SA's small F-7 units for front fills and two rows of under-balcony speakers. A further pair of E-24 speakers is positioned on the sides of the stage for foldback. All of the SA speakers are powered by Yamaha H5000 amplifiers.

Clark discovered the E-24 during a six-hour benefit several years ago. "At the end of the night I realized my ears weren't fatigued at all," he recalls, and he went on to use the E-24 for vocal P.A. for a production of Jane Eyre in Toronto and Side Show on Broadway.

For reinforcement above the orchestra level, Clark specified a pair of Meyer Sound self-powered CQ-1 speakers positioned on the proscenium at the balcony level and a center cluster comprised of three Meyer self-powered UPA-2Ps for the main floor, plus two more CQ-1s for the balcony. "It takes a lot more power in this room than you'd think because of all the absorbent surfaces," Clark explains. "It's a long throw upstairs, and we wanted to be sure we didn't run out of steam before we get to the back of the balcony."

INTUITIVE SOFTWARE Sound equipment for the show was supplied by Promix, Inc. (Mount Vernon, N.Y.), and the system was tuned by SIM guru (and Mix contributor) Bob McCarthy using XTA's AudioCore software to remotely configure 13 XTA DP200 Series digital signal processors, which provide parametric EQ, delay and gain adjustment for each speaker zone. This method allowed McCarthy and Clark to "SIM" the room quickly and efficiently from a single location in a single overnight nine-hour session. "The AudioCore software is very intuitive," says Clark. "But the most important thing is that you can track changes and experiment with fine-tunings of delay, EQ and level without losing the ability to restore previous settings." The result is an unobtrusive sound that feels natural and comfortable. In fact, perhaps the greatest compliment for a Broadway sound design, it almost sounds as if there are no speakers at all.

An emphasis on "natural" sound runs throughout the sound design. Sound engineer Bob Biasetti mixes the show manually on two Cadac J-type consoles. "There's no automation, except for mutes and VCA assigns, no moving faders, and it's about as straight-ahead as you can get," Biasetti explains. As in many traditional shows, the chorus has few individual lines, and, apart from one music cue played through an upstage speaker, there are no sound effects.

THE COWBOY ORCHESTRA However, Annie Get Your Gun is unusual in that it features an orchestra split into three sections, with two of the sections actually playing on bleachers on either side of the stage, dressed in cowboy outfits and in view of the audience. Brass instruments, drums, bass and keyboards are on stage right with conductor Marvin Laird, while the reeds, guitar and percussion are on stage left. The string section is placed traditionally, in the orchestra pit, which offers a degree of isolation from the rest of the band. A Yamaha ProMix 01V sends monitor submixes to Mytek mixers for each of the onstage orchestra sections and the conductor, and these in turn feed the musicians' ear-buds or headphones. Because of the spread-out orchestra plan, the only way the musicians can all hear each other is through this relatively sophisticated monitoring system.

Fortunately, the acoustic realities of performing in a "traditional cowboy band under the big-top" has led the musicians to balance themselves; solo instrumentalists generally play out at the right moments and play down otherwise. "It's interesting having both the actors and band onstage," Biasetti comments. "Certain instruments are acoustically louder than others, so both for foldback and in the house, there are the traditional balancing considerations of sound reinforcement."

Because the set designer wanted to minimize the look of the mics on stage, several pencil-like condensers with small profiles are hidden behind the railings of the bandstands. The mic selection includes Sennheiser MKH-60s for acoustic guitar and banjo, MKH-40s on trumpets, reeds and on some of the drum kit, and MKH-50s for the violins in the pit. "We snuck in a couple of E-V RE-20s on the trombones," notes Clark, "and told the scenic department that they were hat stands." A total of 38 wireless mics are in use, a combination of Sennheiser SK-2012 and SK-50 systems, with B&K 4061s on principal actors and Sennheiser MKE-2s for the chorus members.

HAT HELL As one might expect in a musical Western, there are lots of cowboy hats in the show-40 in all-creating a special corner of audio hell for Biasetti. In fact, there are more hats in the show than characters, and they feature prominently in the choreography. "Hats are constantly coming on and off during numbers, especially [on lead actor] Tom Wopat, and the word from on high was 'We don't want to see any mics,'" notes Biasetti. However, he has devised a method for compensating for the hats' sonic effects on a moment-by-moment basis: a set of XTA DP-200 programmable equalizers on the chorus vocal subgroup and the principals' input channels respond instantaneously to MIDI commands, switching between "hat on" and "hat off" curves.

But, these unusual problems aside, Annie Get Your Gun is a fairly straightforward show. "It's fun to come in every night and mix Miss Peters' numbers-she's both brilliant and very consistent," says Biasetti, who has mixed Swan Lake, the revival of The King and I and the opening of The Wizard of Oz some years ago. "She's conscious of sound and understands the relationship between her voice and the technology. And it's a great book, great songs and great talent on stage. How can you go wrong?"

MULTICHANNEL FOSSE A far cry from the cowboys and cowgirls of Annie Get Your Gun, the Livent production of Fosse is a sophisticated dance revue. After starting out last year in Toronto, the show was then shoe-horned into the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street. (The 1,186-seat Broadhurst was home to a previous Livent Tony winner, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Bob Fosse's Dancin', which ran there for three years.) Compared to Annie Get Your Gun, Fosse is quite a technical extravaganza, and a prominent feature of the Broadhurst production is a multichannel sound system designed by Jonathan Deans (see the Mix interview, May 1999).

In fact, Deans' sound design resulted in the development of a new speaker system, the Jason Sound R23. "The design called for speakers that could provide full-range sound from any individual speaker location, capable of reproducing any instrument for every seat in the house," explains Jason Sound's Jeff Berryman. "This dictated wide dispersion, high power-handling, and-with a view toward budget and wiring-a simple system that did not require a dedicated controller."

Purpose-built for this application, the JBL-loaded R23 employs a 10-inch woofer passively crossed over to a 2-inch compression driver on a 110 x 60-degree horn. Due to its wide dispersion, there is no need to array the speakers horizontally, and the enclosures are cylindrical, reducing baffle reflections. For Fosse, sound equipment supplier Westsun Show Systems built dozens of R23s into the proscenium arch, both up the sides and across the top, supplemented by several Jason Sound R22 subwoofers. Two more R23s are built into the top of the clever onstage sets that look like the backstage view through another proscenium. These two R23s are mounted on pivoting yokes with MIDI-controlled pneumatic armatures, and can be aimed to address the audience from both their stored and open positions.

Arrayed across the front of the stage are a set of P80 front fills, which Jason Sound also custom-designed for this application. Containing a pair of JBL's high-power 5-inch woofers (angled outward to prevent beaming) and a Community 1-inch driver on a 100 by 40-degree horn, the P80 offers only a 6-inch profile, slim enough to fit under the stage deck. "We designed the systems for a lot of high-frequency headroom," says Berryman, noting that there are almost three dozen large-format compression drivers in the theater.

Mounted in the balcony box seats nearest the proscenium are two Jason Sound J31 push-pull, double-18 subwoofers. "We tune them a little higher than other subs, so they don't get so woofy as they go louder," says Berryman. He notes that the pots on the Yamaha M5000 amps, which are used throughout the sound design, are detented in 1dB increments, which allows for fine adjustments to individual speaker zones, a useful feature for theater applications. Of course, because the Fosse sound system is made up of passively crossed over speakers, it requires no special controllers between the mix outputs and the speaker inputs and is also economical in terms of amplifier channels.

88-INPUT MATRIX MIXER Sound engineer David Gottwald mixes the entire show through the 88 inputs and 88 outputs of 11 linked Level Control Systems LD-88 mixers, using LCS's SpaceMap(tm) capabilities and the multichannel speaker system to move voices and instruments almost anywhere around the proscenium and stage. Though a Cadac F-Type console is on hand as a backup mixer, the primary controller for the LCS mixers is a six-fader RIFF Jr. controller mounted into the center section of the Cadac. Associate sound designer Peter Hylenski has programmed the LCS/RIFF Jr. interface so that the controller's first three faders are dedicated to the band's reverb, the full orchestra and drums/percussion, while the remaining three faders change on a scene-by-scene basis. "Sometimes they do nothing, sometimes we break out sections like brass and reeds, or solo instruments like clarinet, sax or flute, depending on what the number requires," Gottwald explains.

Since the LD-88 is a digital matrix mixer, mic inputs are boosted to line level via Aphex 107 Tubessence mic preamps, which are shoe-horned into the basement behind the orchestra pit, along with the sound system's Yamaha amplifiers. A CM Automation PM-216 MIDI-driven audio switcher controls drums and guitar mic inputs, switching them among outboard processors on a song-by-song basis so that, for example, the drums are gated on the rock tunes. When, at the end of the show, an eight-piece dance band appears on stage, another switcher changes mic input assignments from the pit to the bandstand.

Gottwald praises the multichannel sound system, pointing out that having a large number of speakers helps improve gain before feedback. "There are a couple of numbers where actors are literally right next to a speaker, and it can be turned off for that mic because there are so many others providing coverage," he explains. Gottwald also notes that the system was tuned the old-fashioned way-by ear.

THE HUMAN MIC STAND The orchestra pit at the Broadhurst is small but the charts are percussion-heavy, a trademark of the Bob Fosse shows to which Fosse pays homage. Though the score also includes percussion samples, two of the three keyboard players and a percussionist are actually situated in a dressing room up on the sixth floor. "It's just a plaster room, but it seems to give the percussion more dimension, while completely isolating it acoustically from other players' mics," explains Gottwald, noting that the remote lair has been humorously dubbed the "sky-pit." In addition to AKG 414s on the tympani, the sky-pit's percussionist wears three wireless mics, one on each wrist and one on his chest. "He is his own mic stand," says Gottwald. "Even when he's on the xylophone or vibes, the separation is great, and the proximity to the instruments is consistent."

Down in the pit, orchestra mics include Sennheiser MKH40 and MKH80 condensers, an overhead Neumann U-89 on the tuba and AKG 747s on woodwinds. The musicians' headphone mixes are derived from eight submix outputs and are distributed via Mytek 8-channel Private Cue mixers.

Onstage, the dancers use 18 Senn-heiser 1046 UHF wireless systems with B&K lavalier mics. "Most of them are not in use most of the time," Gottwald points out. "When the performers are not singing, they don't wear them, both for their comfort and to try and reduce the sweat on the mic-we've only lost two in 300 performances." Some of the mics are the new B&K 4060 headset model with a wire frame that goes around the back of the head. "They sound great and they're very low profile," notes Gottwald.

Gottwald calls the RF environment in Times Square completely hellish. "The unwritten rule of the neighborhood is first come, first served, so the new show has to fit in around everyone else's frequencies," he explains. Standing onstage, Gottwald points around the compass. "Ten feet past that door is Jekyll and Hyde, six feet over that way is The Phantom of the Opera, across the street is The Civil War, and ten feet the other way is Chicago. We literally are right in the middle of the most horrible block." Gottwald adds that the Jekyll and Hyde production has added a new rack of wireless in order to be ready for upcoming changes due to Manhattan's HDTV broadcast plans. "Now we're stepping on each other, even though the frequencies look like they're compatible," says Gottwald, noting that frequency sweeps are typically done weeks in advance of a new show's load-in. "The problem is that we can only check frequencies at show time when everyone else is also up and running."






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