Rocky: Q&A With Sound Designer Peter Hylenski

Nominated for a Drama Desk award for his work on Rocky—as well as for Bullets Over Broadway—Peter Hylenski discusses the sound design for this hard-punching musical...

1) What was your intention for the sound, in terms of musical styles Is there a period nod to the 70s?

When putting a design together I let the story inform my decisions, both from an equipment and mix standpoint. This production of Rocky is not heavily rooted in the 70’s, so there are modern influences that musically give a unique feel to the show. An important aspect of the sound for a cinematic piece like Rocky is dynamics. Knowing I can achieve the intense energy of the final fight yet still pull down to an intimate moment is very important. The sound effects were also a very important part of the design. Throughout the show I tried to reinforce the story telling by creating audible environments. Whether it’s the elevated trains passing overhead or the hum of Rocky’s refrigerator there are effects running through the entire piece.

2) How is the rig designed?

The system for Rocky is designed as a zoned, multichannel immersive experience. The core of the system is the proscenium-mounted Meyer Sound M’elodie arrays with 700HP subwoofers. A center cluster of UPJ’s and UP4-XP front fills fill in the standard theatre configuration. From there I’ve added many zones of delays, fills, surround and specialty source speakers to create the immersive environment. Control and mixing is handled by a Meyer Sound Dmitri install with a custom CueConsole surface. Effects play from four QLab systems.

3) What happens when the audience moves onto the stage, is there a shift to cover those seats?

When the audience moves onstage there is a system built into the underside of the flying catwalk (a wide bridge-like scenic element) which turns on. That system works in conjunction with what would normally be the stage foldback loudspeakers (six UPM-1P’s) to form the stage audience system. Similarly, in the house the audio system is reconfigured to source to the boxing ring, rather than the normal proscenium configuration. 

4) How did you set volume levels, and is this considered a loud musical? Are the orchestrations for the movie songs the same as in the film?

This show, like all other Broadway productions, is mixed live each night. Throughout the rehearsal and preview process I worked with our mix engineer, Rob Bass, to shape the dynamics of the show moment by moment. The orchestrations for the film themes do pay homage, but aren’t exactly the same. The brass harmonies are all there for the well-known Bill Conte tunes, and of course the recognizable guitar parts from “Eye of the Tiger.”

5) What was your biggest technical challenge and subsequent solution?

Navigating the non-conventional scenic nature of Rocky was certainly a challenge. Of course the final fight is the most obvious example, but throughout the show scene shifts change the landscape onstage. This meant an extensive foldback/source loudspeaker network was required. With all departments clambering for real estate it was a very intricate team effort to install loudspeakers (along with automation, lighting, projection and special effects) within the scenic elements. Thinking outside the box is always a welcomed challenge, and Rocky certainly provided many opportunities.

6) What are you most proud of or happy with in the design?

It still makes me smile when experiencing the final fight with an audience. There are many layers of sound effects playing simultaneously, some certainly cut through the dense mix, while others are in the background as texture or subtle cues to the audience to encourage them to participate. Individual crowd whistles or clapping; maybe an excited fan yelling or chanting; all types of elements are hidden in the effects bed, and sourced appropriately. Add to that the music, commentators and surround reverbs and the audience seems to feel they are actually at the Spectrum Arena. It’s a pretty infectious scene, you can’t help but get into it.