Earlier this month, I attended the Broadway Sound Master Class (BSMC) thanks to a sponsorship from D&B Audio. The speakers this year were fantastic. There were so many big names in sound presenting; it was great to hear what they are passionate about. If you’re curious, you can read about the schedule and presenters here.
Each class also attends a Broadway show. This year, BSMC saw Pippin directed by Diane Paulus, sound design by Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm. After the show, Jonathan Deans answered questions about the sound design. Mix Engineer Steve Henshaw and Music Director Charlie Alterman also answered questions about mixing the show, the music, and the pit orchestra. One of the topics Jonathan spoke earlier in the day was about keeping true to the performers choices throughout the sound design. He loves that every performance will be different, and wants to embrace those differences instead of containing them. For example, he avoids turning compression on for the actors and musicians, and instead asks the Mix Engineer to make “compression” choices live on the faders. Knowing that, I was blown away listening to the show and realizing how much intricate work Steve Henshaw was handling at any given moment.
Tony Meola had a similar view; his goal is too put as little as possible between the performer and audience. He had talked at length about this philosophy when he was teaching a masterclass here at UC Irvine, at it makes a lot of sense to me. Every bit of processing in the audio chain has its own soundprint or character. I think this contributes to our ability to tell the difference between direct and reinforced sound. The more we can make the system disappear, the more we can enhance a direct emotional connection between the performer and audience.
John Taylor has been researching binaural recordings. He added that sound systems deprive the audience important binaural information. Think about listening to a live orchestra; it’s possible to locate sections or soloists on the stage just by listening. Now think about hearing that orchestra on a recording through the proscenium main speakers; it’s much harder even if you’re lucky enough to be sitting in the center. Instead of having 50 or more sound sources, all that information has to be squished into two channels of audio. John has been experimenting with using a binaural recording setup as a way to archive an audience’s experience. He played us demos of a mono recording, a binaural recording, and a binaural recording synced to video. I found the binaural video to be extremely realistic. Binaural playback only works with headphones, and there are some calibration choices to consider, but it would be an excellent way to share the show with someone who wasn’t there.
Throughout the conference, there was scheduled downtime to either wander the vendor floor or meet other people in the room. It was a really smart setup, and I had a wonderful time meeting people from all over. Many people were from NY or universities, but there was also a sizable European contingency as well; I met sound designers and engineers who worked in their respective National Theaters in Norway, Sweden, and Germany. It was fascinating to have a conversation about European vs. American theater.
Overall, I had an amazing time. There was so much to take in over two days, and it was great to be around so many other people who also love theater and sound. It’s a terrific conference, and I hope I can make it back again soon.