Judgment Day at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory was a stunning, opera-scale production, punctuated by composer Daniel Kluger’s dramatic brass score and Drew Levy’s immersive sound design. I talked to Kluger and Levy to learn how they’ve honed a collaborative process that allows them to execute some of the most visionary ideas in immersive theatre sound. Read Part One here.
LD: The scenery is towering, and it moves throughout the play. How did that impact music and sound?
Levy: In terms of the reinforcement aspect, there's this dichotomy between doing something intimate and being on this epic stage in what is essentially an arena. To be able to go back and forth between these intimate conversations and being able to heighten surreal moments. There's a bit of a fantastical element, so being able to play with that, what's internal, what is happening out in the open. We tried to play with that a little bit with how we use the microphones and do reinforcement, and then integrate all of the sound effects.
LD: Did the scenery introduce acoustic challenges?
Levy: What's interesting is, the acoustic environment that the actors are in changes from scene to scene. In the first scene, there's a giant flat wall all the way downstage that the actors are standing in front of, and that enhances their own acoustic energy coming off the stage, just from having a wall there. But then when that wall goes away, the energy that was being reflected back to the audience is now going 120 feet upstage into the void.
We also end up in moments where some speakers get blocked by the scenery pieces because they're so huge. We actually can use that to our advantage in places such as in the inn scene, where they're having a party offstage. There's a giant piece of scenery that's blocking a bunch of the loudspeakers on stage left, but we're using those speakers to source some of those party sounds. So having them behind a wall is actually quite helpful; it adds to the effect.
LD: How much of that can you manage in design, and how much of that has to be handled onsite in real time?
Levy: The mixer, Maggie Burke, really has to understand what we're going for moment to moment in the design so that she can react in those moments every night. Because she can react to changes—people give different performances night to night, the temperature and humidity in the room changes night to night—that's why we really push to get somebody we trust to be able to do that, and who has the ears and the talent to be able to react like that. It’s being aware of what the intention is in each moment or each scene.
LD: Can you give me a top-level view of the P.A. system configuration?
Levy: We have 20 d&b Y7P and Y10P speakers down both sides, at the rear of the audience, and across the upstage wall basically encircling the Drill Hall. The reinforcement system is a main system along the downstage edge of seven d&b V7P and V10Ps, as well as eight V-SUBs flown above those. There are eight E8 front fills on the floor, and there's a line of delays about halfway back in the audience of another seven Y10Ps loudspeakers. For sound effects like the trains passing, we also have a V7P in each lighting tower down low, and four more B22-SUBs under the audience risers. In addition, there is a ground-stacked J8 and J-SUB array behind the audience, house right, solely for the train crash.
Because the Soundscape system allows us to do object-based mixing, every actor is represented by an object or icon on the screen, on a ground plan, and we can move them around dynamically throughout the show, depending on the blocking. The system calculates the delay times and does some level distribution to really give you that sense of localization. Our programmer, Sam Schloegel, who also worked with us on Oklahoma!, had his hands full programming all the movement, and integrating those cues into the sound effects cue list.
The room, because it's so large, has its own reverb, so you have to kind of accept that and use it to your advantage when possible. That said, we were able to use the En-Space acoustic engine in the DS100 to great effect on the brass ensemble.
LD: Let’s talk about sound effects. The audience never actually sees trains; they’re represented through lights and sound.
Kluger: Sound effects are somewhat heightened and stylized. We were able to edit library effects with some liberal sense of comedy; we worked all that out in a rehearsal room for timing. Once you're able to put sounds into the Soundscape system and activate the room, it just takes on another dimension.
A really good example of the evolution of the train sound effect is that there's a recurring theme of this fast train that speeds by the station, and it has a signature rhythm that we gave it. It speeds past once, and then there's a bit of a gap and then it speeds past again, as though it's just two cars or something. The joke is, wow, that went by fast. Oh, it's not over. Oh, actually it is over.
LD: Is that something you work out as you interact with the actors?
Kluger: We were lucky to be able to solve as much as possible in the rehearsal room in terms of performance rhythm, but some issues are better solved with depth. There were some cues in which we had to trust that when we got the element of depth to work with, it would solve the remaining dynamic relationships.
LD: It sounds like you’ve dialed in a pretty ideal collaborative process. Will you refine the way you're working even further?
Kluger: We’re really lucky to have been able to figure out a workflow and the teamwork that makes good use of technology and our separate workflows. We are interacting in a way that is allowing us to do something that probably neither of us would be able to do on our own. And I think we're able to demonstrate what's possible when you take the many dimensions of sound and music to the theater and try to do them all at a high level of ambition all in the same project. Not every project that requires this level of workflow, but I really enjoy the collaboration and would like to do more of it. We’re working closely in tandem and are able to trust each other's aesthetic.
Levy: There's a good push-and-pull in the middle there; in the areas where our expertise overlaps, it becomes a really collaborative interaction. Often times you're working by yourself in a vacuum, but it's nice to have somebody you trust give you some feedback immediately, as you're doing it.
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.