Rockin' Sound for American Idiot

American Idiot is a perfect blend of concert and musical,” says sound designer Brian Ronan. “It has all the infectious spirit of a Green Day concert where you’re there to hear the music in a large room with people you don’t know—to feel part of something bigger than your own experience. However, it also has a moving storyline to follow and characters to connect with, each of which can only be experienced individually. I wanted my system to serve both sides of this duality. To do this, I concentrated less on imaging and transparency—qualities very important to me when designing a more traditional piece—and more on harnessing the strength of the show’s inherent volume.”

Ronan’s goal in creating the system was “to deliver the power of Green Day’s music so that it would be felt in the chest while allowing the complexity of their lyrics to arrive at the audience’s ears with ease and comfort,” he says. “From day one, the decision was made to place a rock ‘n’ roll drummer mid-stage with no baffling or anything that would separate him from the audience. Every design decision was based on that. Working from onstage out, I attempted to make a stage experience the cast could perform to. I needed to allow them to hear the other instrumentation that might get masked by the SPL levels of the drummer. I created zones onstage with different mixes to make a consistent performing space for them. If it works at all, it is a credit to the limitless adaptability of the performers on stage,” he notes.

Ronan says that another challenge was taking a band that is spread out around the stage on different levels and making a system that allows them to play as one unit. “Because of their placement within the picture frame of the set, the band is as much of a focal piece as the cast, and they need the freedom to perform and yet be tethered by the technology that gave way to that freedom,” he says. “Once again, it is the band itself that allows for both to succeed. The band is in exactly the same place on Broadway as in Berkeley, so the challenges are the same.” FOH engineer David Dignazio mixes the show on a Yamaha PM1D, with a mix of Meyer Sound loudspeakers.

Ronan’s rig on Broadway was adapted due to increased seating capacity, including an extra tier for the balcony. “The New York show requires an under-mezzanine and under-balcony system to accommodate the overhangs,” he says. “I shared the FOH lighting truss with the LD to take care of the balcony. That created a micro-system for those seats specifically.”

In addition, the width of the mezzanine on Broadway required special care. “Several arrays handle that job, as well as side fills, which are balanced against the acoustics of the live drums that can easily overwhelm that part of the house,” notes Ronan. “Because we don’t use the orchestra pit, we were able to recreate the apron we had in Berkeley. This allowed me to install the floor subs and front fills in a way that would have been hard to do in a more traditional setting.”

Ronan found that the St. James has a great sounding orchestra section, while the front mezzanine and balcony can suffer from architecture designed for acoustic music. “The ceiling can create a lot of bounce that can challenge electronic amplification,” he notes. “By breaking down those sections of the theatre and treating them as separate entities, I was able to work around the architecture.”

Is American Idiot louder than the traditional musical on Broadway? “Yes, indeed,” confirms Ronan. “Anyone who’s heard Green Day should come to the show expecting to be greeted by high decibel levels. Anyone who hasn’t heard Green Day and is used to something like Oklahoma may be in for a surprise.”

For the full story, including projection, lighting, and set design of American Idiot, check out the May issue of Live Design.

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