A musical based on a very charming French film, Amélie made its Broadway debut at the Walter Kerr—after productions in Berkeley and Los Angeles—with sets and costumes by David Zinn, lighting by Jane Cox and Mark Barton, projections by Peter Nigrini, and sound by Kai Harada. Live Design chats with Harada on the sound design for the show.
Live Design: What is the style of the sound for this show?
Kai Harada: I would call it a "natural yet dynamic" sound.
The score is written by Dan Messe, of the band "Hem," and evokes an almost impressionistic feel in the songwriting (Nathan Tysen wrote the lyrics). Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations are written for piano (on keyboard, due to space concerns), guitar, bass, percussion, trombone, woodwind, violin/viola, and harp, so they are, like Amélie herself, quirky and unique. As with many of my shows, I feel that the more the audience is aware of the sound system, the less emotionally connected with the storytelling on stage they are, so it was important to me to use the natural sound of the voices from the stage and merely reinforce them. Even Craig Lucas, our book writer, seconded the idea that sometimes, the audience should lean in to capture all of the dialogue; we shouldn't hand it all to them on a plate.
However, there are still big dynamic shifts in the songs, so I made sure I had the power necessary to get loud when it was appropriate. There is a song portrayed by one of the ensemble cast members in the style of Elton John, with the rest of the ensemble playing the backup gospel choir, so that number needed to punch a little bit more. Some of the other songs, as well, ended up being a little bit more "pop" than "chamber."
Some of the sound design at the Walter Kerr was dictated by natural acoustics. In the first incarnation of the show, at Berkeley Rep, the orchestra was on a raised platform, upstage of a projection screen; in the second, at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, the orchestra was in the pit. We knew that the pit wasn't large enough to support the full band, and we didn't want to restrict them to an offstage location (nor was there space), so after much deliberation, we decided to put the musicians in the auditorium boxes, in full view and in the same acoustic environment as the audience. This was of course the cause of much consternation on my part; no one had done this at the Kerr before, and not on a show in the style of Amélie, certainly. I had to make sure, now, not only that we had the power in the sound system for the dynamics of the show, but had appropriate systems in the proper locations for imaging; we split the band up between the two boxes with the bulk of the rhythm section- and the trombone- on house left, with piano, violin/viola, woodwind, and harp on house right. Bass and guitar went direct, without live amps, and using only a few bits of acoustic treatment material we were able to control the percussion section- there was still a lot of acoustic sound emanating from the boxes, but we agreed that we had to simply embrace this fact. I designed a system that kept the imaging correct, allowing me to pan the instruments in the correct places, but ensuring that everyone in the audience had a good mix of the orchestra.
The other challenging part was that the Kerr is designed as an intimate house for plays, not for musicals, so we worked hard with our friends in lighting and projections for space- on the balcony rail, over the auditorium boxes where the musicians were, and overhead. Load-in, supervised by production sound engineer Patrick Pummill, was not an easy task, but the crew, including head mixer Liz Coleman and A2 Dan Scheivert, handled it very gracefully. Having done the show in November in LA—also with Liz mixing and Patrick supervising the load-in—gave us a leg up in terms of programming and sound effects. Maggie Burke, my assistant, has been with me on this show since Berkeley and she had a great command of the sound effects in the show.
LD: What determined your choice of gear?
KH: Because of the short throws at the Kerr, and very limited speaker positions, I had to get a little creative with cluster design; it's a lot of speakers up there (Meyer Sound M1Ds, UPJ-1Ps, UPA-1Ps, 500HP subwoofers), but they do what I need them to. Most of the primary system is Meyer, but this time I branched out and tried some Alcons Audio speakers—they were the perfect size and shape for the locations I had, and had the dispersion characteristics I was looking for. I had heard them on a demo in Los Angeles a couple of months ago, and I was grateful that Sound Associates, our hire company, agreed to purchase some of them for me to use. d&b audiotechnik speakers do all the surround duties.
LD: How do you modulate the voices?
KH: Sometimes the ensemble is an ensemble or a choir, or sometimes the actors split off into specific roles, and we've programmed the show to accommodate those changes. As per usual, I've specified a Studer Vista5 for its size and sound quality, and it allows us to change EQ presets for different hats on the ensemble. We're mostly using Sennheiser MKE-1 capsules for their size, with a couple of people on MKE-2, all with Sennheiser SK5212 transmitters.
Sound effects playback is via a sixteen-channel Figure 53 QLab system running via MADI directly into the Studer; reverb and other effects are handled with a TC Electronics M6000 system and one Yamaha SPX990. All system processing is handled with Meyer Galileo processors.
LD: How was the collaborative process?
KH: I'd like to talk about how fortunate I was to work with such a wonderful team—not only in the sound department, but our creators, designers, and a delightful cast. It is rare to find this level of collaboration and respect on a show, where everyone's voice is heard but no one ever has to shout. Dan, Nathan, and Craig crafted a wonderful piece, and Pam Mackinnon and Sam Pinkleton put together a delightful world. My fellow designers, David Zinn, Jane Cox, Mark Barton, and Peter Nigrini all worked together to help this show come alive, and most of all it was a pleasure to work with Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations and with our wonderful band under the direction of Kimberly Grigsby—the two people I get to interact with most.