MJ: The Sounds Of Michael Jackson By Gareth Owen

Sound designer Gareth Owen takes us into the musical universe of Michael Jackson with his aural interpretations of studio and live performances by the ‘king of pop.’ Nominated for a total of 10 Tony Awards, MJ: The Musical has swept the design categories for a musical, with nods going to two-time Tony Award winner and two-time Emmy Award winner scenic designer Derek McLane, six-time Tony Award winner lighting designer Natasha Katz, Tony and Emmy Award winner costume designer Paul Tazewell, two-time Tony Award nominee projection designer Peter Nigrini, and Gareth Owen, for his third Tony nomination.

MJ opened on Broadway on February 1, 2022 at the Neil Simon Theatre, directed by Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. Live Design chats with Owen about his Tony-nominated sound design.

Live Design: How did you approach a musical like MJ with such iconic, well-known music? How did it inform the sound design?

Gareth Owen: The first-ever cassette tape I owned was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Despite being a bit of a music geek, my favorite artiste of all time is Michael Jackson. As a result, Michael Jackson’s music is embedded in my psyche in a way that few other performers are. This meant I felt like I had a truly instinctual insight in to how to approach his music, and indeed how to go about approaching the sound design. 

LD: How does the Michael Jackson sound carry into the musical, is the intent to have it sound the same or different: live VS studio/recording?

GO: When Michael Jackson performed live he tried to bring the audience as close as possible to a studio sound quality as the technology would allow. My intention was to bring the audience as close to that experience as I could, in a way that MJ himself would have approved of. Few of today’s theatre-going public will have been lucky enough to see MJ live so my intent was to take them as close as possible to that experience. 

LD: What gear is in your sound rig?

GO: With regard to gear choices, I am unashamedly a template designer. I use fundamentally the same system every time I do a show: Avid mixing consoles, d&b speakers and Shure or Sennheiser radios. MJ is no exception. The main console is an Avid S6L with our custom theatre extension surface coupled to plugins from McDSP, LiquidSonics, TC Electronic, Avid, and Waves. The PA is a SoundScape system utilizing multiple DS100s driving V-Series line arrays and J-Subs. We use Y7P, E6 and E5 delays along with E6 surround. Amps are mainly D20 and D80. Radio mics on the cast are Sennheiser e6000 coupled to DPA 4061s, while handhelds are Shure Axient utilizing the new KSM11 mic head. We run the custom SCL RTracks show control software and Fourier’s PFL Rewind application along with ProTools Ultimate. 

LD: Which rental shop? How long was your load-in and tech time in the theatre?

GO: All our equipment was supplied by Peter Fitzgerald at Sound Associates who is my go-to guy. Russell Godwin is our associate, Phil Lojo our production sound, and Maxine Gutierrez our head of sound. Josh Liebert is the US associate and Scott Kuker the A2. Timewise we had about a month of prep, a month of load in, a month of tech, and then, what with Covid stop and starts, about a month of previews. 

LD: For the decibel level: rock concert or Broadway musical?

GO: We are certainly not running the show at rock and roll levels throughout but there are occasional moments when we likely get almost there. The show is hugely dynamic so as a result we can get nice and quiet allowing the following increases in volume to feel more exaggerated than they really are. It’s an old sound engineers trick used to good effect!

LD: Use of wireless mics… any particular challenges?

GO: The RF is quite complicated, particularly when the onstage band is added in to the equation. Probably the biggest challenge was the masks worn by the cast in Thriller—these covered the mics in nasty and unpredictable ways and made getting a consistent vocal sound rather challenging. 

LD: Any other challenges related to the production, during and post-covid?

GO: Covid of course made everything much harder. We lost a lot of work time rehearsing in understudies and getting covers up to speed. For a long time it seemed that we suffered from consistency in that we rarely had the same band or cast combination twice. This, added to the fact that many of the cast felt uncomfortable removing their masks during rehearsals, made ongoing sound work frustrating at times. 

LD: What do you like most about the sound design for MJ—everyone says the show looks and sounds fantastic!

GO: What I think I enjoy most about this show is that our producer Lia Vollack and our director Chris Wheeldon never once lost their nerve— they were quite clear from the off that they wanted the feel of an MJ concert in a theatre, and they never once panicked and backed down on this, despite the resulting sonic presentation not being a traditional Broadway sound. Their trust never wavered and this had a direct result on the final product in a hugely positive way. 

Take a look and listen:

Related stories:

MJ: The Magic Of Peter Nigrini's Moving Images

MJ: Derek McLane's Transformative Scenic Design 

Find Gareth Owen on Twitter @garethowensound