If you’re lucky, you’ve been able to experience the aural wonder of Simon McBurney’s The Encounter in person. And you’d know firsthand how effectively this one-man show conveys ideas and emotions expressed onstage through the unconventional medium of immersive 3D sound, captured via multiple stage mics—including a Sennheiser binaural head—mixed with recorded sounds, and experienced by theatre audiences through headphones at their seats.
If you haven’t had a chance to catch this groundbreaking production, good news: You’ll have an opportunity to experience it in the comfort of your own home, starting this Friday, May 19, when show creators Complicite will stream The Encounter online, for one week.
Audio for the streaming event is similar in design to the stage sound, but slightly different in delivery. Sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin tell me that the streamed headphone mix is the same as the one audiences hear in the theatre: “The beauty of using headphones means it translates very well through the live stream to the audience sitting in the comfort of their home.”
They explain that the biggest differences for streaming audiences come from variations in headphone style and quality; streaming audiences also won’t experience those physical sensations generated by the show’s in-house P.A. and subs that are used to enhance certain sonic components. But, they emphasize, the headphone mix adapts well to the home experience. “Often when theatre productions are streamed or broadcast, we end up mixing the sonic elements differently to be able to give an impression of how you would hear them in the theatre, especially when a show is produced using more conventional speaker systems,” they say. “But in this case, we've found the sound design translates well without having to make alterations.”
Sound engineer Jack Allett explains that the audio stream comes from eight channels of audio: two audience mics, two on-stage boundary mics, the stereo headphone mix, and another stereo mix of extra sounds sent to the house P.A. at various points during the show. “The microphones were all rigged specifically for the stream, while the two stereo mixes were provided from the show's sound team,” Allett says. “All these sources came together initially in an RME Fireface UFX, with which we applied touches of EQ and dynamics processing using TotalMix, and recorded each channel dry to Pro Tools, whilst simultaneously sending per-channel outputs from the RME to an analog mixer, without going through Pro Tools first.” This meant that between performances, the team could refer back to pristine recordings and run them through the same setup, simply by assigning the Pro Tools channels to the relevant RME outputs, experiencing it as though it were live.
Allett says he performed little live mixing, occasionally riding faders on audience and boundary mics. “This was performed on this analog mixer, before outputs were sent to various positions: a stereo and a mono mix to the director, another stereo mix to a back-up Zoom H6 recorder, and finally—through a final delay unit for providing sync with the cameras and limiter—the main mix for the stream was provided to the encoder.”
Stream The Encounter live on Complicite’s website and YouTube channel, starting on May 19 at 2PM Eastern; click here for instructions.
To learn more about the Tony Award-winning sound design for The Encounter, read Live Design’s interview with Gareth Fry here.
Sarah Jones is a writer, editor, and content producer with more than 20 years' experience in pro audio, including as editor-in-chief of three leading audio magazines: Mix, EQ, and Electronic Musician. She is a lifelong musician and committed to arts advocacy and learning, including acting as education chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy, where she helps develop event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.