Grey Matter: Sound in Doctor Atomic

The San Francisco Opera's October premiere of Doctor Atomic will reveal one of most earthshaking themes for any production: the conflicted dramatic events that led up to the first atomic bomb tests in New Mexico in 1945. Composed by John Adams and directed by Peter Sellars, Mark Grey met the challenges of this unique opera's sound design.

Grey has enjoyed a long-time collaboration with the composer. “John will create what he creates, and then my goal is to re-assemble his vision into the theatre,” Grey says. Adams will be at the Library of Congress to go through their audio archives. His soundscapes may include drones, or spoken words like 1940s radio broadcasts, a crowd ambience and found sounds. In the studio Grey is using the Mach5 Software Sampler, which can run alongside Adams' Digital Performer sequencer. “We've experimented with some of these dated retro synth sounds,” he adds. “If you use it too much it then becomes overkill.”

For the San Francisco Opera Grey will add Meyer M1D front fill speakers, with four to six front fills across the pit wall aiming towards the mezzanine level. “Because we can't put a center cluster in the Opera House, I have to get a center focal image of the vocal sounds,” he says. “With front fills, it really helps push that image out and make a solid, very tight image to the stage.” This will be part of an eight zone, surround sound system — a left-right proscenium, mid-house, left right, a rear behind the audience, left-right, and two floater channels such as a ceiling position and a center under-balcony position. The seven principal singers and the chorus have lavalier mikes and the orchestra is fully reinforced as well.

The first half of Doctor Atomic is a proscenium-based opera presentation. “We'll have a main left-right PA, front fills and side speakers to fill the space,” Grey says. The second act of the opera will be playback in surround, with some processing of the chorus going in surround, and it will generate multi-file sound playback as well. “With the multi-channel sound file I can program one keystroke to send out unlimited amounts of triggers to sound files like start times, and stop times, and tempo adjustments.”

After the intermission it will become an enveloping sound world for the audience. “Quite often it will be very subtle,” Grey says. “We've been working with the software synthesizer sampler Absynth, where you can import samples and use them as the basis of a waveform. We've been taking orchestra samples and then creating huge, very long, very spectrally rich drones. There are these otherworldly things happening, but they are being very naturally presented through this surround sound.”

And every night it will be slightly different. “I can set up my performance laptop and send cues by single keystrokes, but it can be controlling infinite amounts of sound files and commands. Because I will be reading the score, I'll be mixing every microphone line. With a series of cue points I'll just fire off cues, and the sound files will be routed on. So I'll be busy up there!”

This is the third part of a five-part series on designing Doctor Atomic. Next month: lighting design with Jim Ingalls.