Tony-Winning Sound Designer Jessica Paz: Multitasking on and off Broadway

sound design for Kiss My Aztec
(Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre) Kiss My Aztec at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

When we tracked down in-demand sound designer Jessica Paz, she had multiple projects in different stages of production: The regional musical comedy Kiss My Aztec, directed by John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone, was just about to move south from Berkeley Rep to the La Jolla Playhouse. Sound for a new off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Michael Mayer, was in development. And about to open was Disney’s Hercules at New York City’s outdoor Delacorte Theater, for which she created the system design.

Paz, the first woman to be Tony-nominated for Best Sound Design of a Musical, won the award this year for Hadestown (co-design with Nevin Steinberg). She was also the associate sound designer on recent megahits Dear Evan Hansen and Bandstand. We’re lucky she was able to carve out a little time to update us on a couple of her current projects, and her latest creative and technical tools.

Jessica Paz 770.jpg
Sound designer Jessica Paz

Live Design: Tell us about Kiss My Aztec: What are the show themes that you had to consider when you were developing the sound design?

Jessica Paz: It is a musical about the Spanish Inquisition and the colonization of Mexico by the conquistadors, their war with the Aztecs, and the birth of Mexico. It’s a bit like Spamalot in its storytelling with a comedic style, and there’s quite an eclectic score made up of reggaetón, hip hop, and Latin music.

We have a pretty small band to realize all of that: drums, keyboards, a lot of percussion, of course. Then there’s guitar, bass, a flute/clarinet chair, and a trumpet chair. There’s a big stadium number with a Justin Timberlake/*NSYNC/Backstreet Boys kind of character. We recorded his vocal and he lip-synchs his performance, so we were able to process the vocal to make it sound very much like an album, as opposed to a just a single actor with a small lavalier microphone. It’s pretty hard to get that stadium feel with theatrical miking techniques, so we chose to avoid that problem, and it fits with the storytelling. It was the best choice in terms of the performance, the storytelling, and accommodating his movements, as well.

LD: Are there similarities between the Rep theatre and the one in La Jolla? What are the challenges you face in moving the production to a new location?

JP: The stage and scenery will be the same, and the theatres are quite similar except that that La Jolla doesn’t have a mezzanine and Berkeley Rep does, so we only have one level to deal with in terms of amplification.

We used a lot of the in-house [Meyer] sound system at Berkeley Rep, and rented whatever else we needed, so my associate Beth Lake and I have been coordinating with La Jolla to find out what they have in house and fill in any gaps. La Jolla had a few of the same Meyer UPQ-1Ps that we used in Berkeley, so we were able to use those, and we brought in some similar Meyer fill and delay speakers that we rented from Masque Sound and Recording.

sound design for Hadestown
Jessica Paz, the first woman to be Tony-nominated for Best Sound Design of a Musical, won the award this year for Hadestown, co-design with sound designer Nevin Steinberg.

LD: When you’re developing sounds for a production, what’s your setup? Do you have a studio space at home?

JP: I guess you could call it a studio [laughs]. It’s a part of the kitchen that we don’t use.

LD: It’s always fun to hear the laughter when I ask a New Yorker if she has a studio.

JP: Right! Well, I have taken over a portion of the kitchen that is probably 20 square feet, with a desk, multiple monitors, all my hard drives, and piles of sound equipment.

LD: What are your most essential studio tools?

JP: I use Ableton Live quite a lot in terms of making sound effects, and I use Logic Pro. I use some Waves plug-ins. Soundtoys is another company I enjoy, as well as iZotope, or Spectrasonics Omnisphere if I want to make something more esoteric. I also have a lot of synths, and I use the samplers within Ableton.

Recently, I just found out about these plug-ins from Le Sound, and they are interesting—they  call it “procedural audio.” Say you need to score film with Foley footsteps: They have a plug-in called AudioSteps. You can tell what kind of shoe the person is wearing and what kind of material they’re walking on, and you can just play an instrument to create those Foley sounds. They have another plug-in called AudioRain, and another called AudioMotors where you can create all different kinds of cars—starting, driving, turning, speeding up.

They also have an AudioTexture plug-in, which allows you to take any piece of audio, create a loop out of it, and have that loop go on infinitely because it always starts at a new random point. This will definitely be in my toolbox moving forward.

sound design of Hercules at The Public Theater
Hercules at The Public Theater

LD: Tell me about your work on the Hercules production. I understand you were the system designer on this musical.

JP: I have a secondary role on that, working with Kai Harada, who did the heavy lifting on the sound design side. I did the system design for the venue, the Delacorte Theatre, where I previously designed the sound for productions of [Shakespeare plays] Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing.

The theatre is a three-quarter thrust in Central Park. It seats 1,800 people, and we just put a d&b system in there this year. We have a web of d&b E12-D speakers overhead, hanging from aircraft cable. We also have two d&b line arrays, and Meyer 650P and USW subwoofers underneath the audience throughout the house. There’s a big walkthrough underneath the audience where the audio team works during the show, and the lighting department has a space under there. Along that passageway, we place those subwoofers so we can get low end to move through the audience well.

The system uses d&b D20 amps. We own those amps, but we also rent Meyer Galileo speaker processing. We use a DiGiCo SD10 console. We also have Figure 53’s QLab for playback, and then we use Apple’s MainStage to host any of our reverb plug-ins for effects or processing; that’s proven to be very useful in terms of ease of programming. We use that for vocal processing, which is great.

LD: What else can you reveal about this live production of Hercules?

JP: It’s part of the Public Works program, so we have a 150-person cast, and a number of community groups are part of the show. Our choir is Broadway Inspirational Voices. The Public Works performances are always incredible, and with such a community-filled production taking place outside—I’m certain it will be spectacular.

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