Live Theater

Live Theater Pic.png

This episode was written & produced by James Introcaso.

Amazing concerts, Broadway musicals, Cirque du Soleil performances, and other live shows live and die on their sound design. This is the story of how sound design for live performances went from zero to speakers in the seats and where the industry might go next. This episode features interviews with sound design legends Abe Jacob and Jonathan Deans.


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Twenty Thousand Hertz is hosted by Dallas Taylor and produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound.

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View Transcript ▶︎

SFX: Beyonce sing the National Anthem

You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor.

Back at the 2013 presidential inauguration superstar Beyonce sang the Star Spangled Banner… but she didn’t do it live. Beyonce admitted to lip syncing.

SFX: Beyonce press conference clip

“...Due to no proper sound check, I did not feel comfortable taking a risk. It was about the president and the inauguration, and I wanted to make him and my country proud, so I decided to sing along with my pre-recorded track.”

Beyonce’s decision to lip sync acknowledges the importance of taking sound very seriously. Especially during a live performance. Big events rely on great designers, mixers, microphones, speakers, and a whole host of other things in order to sound effortless to an audience. At least, that’s true today...but, it wasn’t always that way.

Abe: For generations there was no sound system in the theater. Everybody strained to listen in those days. Today, audiences are inundated with ear buds and other forms of mechanical reproduction so they no longer strain to listen in the theater.

That’s Abe Jacob, a sound design legend. Early in his career, Abe mixed concerts for musicians like The Mamas & the Papas, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Jimi Hendrix.

Abe: In those days with Jimi, all of the band gear, all of the musical instruments, the little bit of lighting and the sound equipment, all fit in one 19 foot truck.

He even worked on the Beatles’ final touring concert in Candlestick Park.

[SFX: Begging of “Yesterday” by the Beatles]

But Abe didn’t just do rock concerts. In 1968, he went to Broadway, where he was asked to do the impossible.

[SFX Opening Notes of “Superstar” from Jesus Christ Superstar play]

Abe: Coming in to do Jesus Christ Superstar in two days was a high point because the previews had been canceled because of wireless microphone problems

[SFX microphone feedback causes the music to end]

Before Abe, there weren’t any credited sound designers on Broadway, probably because there wasn’t much of a sound design.

Abe: We didn't do a great, great job in the very beginning.

It was basically area mic-ing that picked up the sound of voices. It was very simple audio mixers, rather than audio consoles.

It was a struggle for the audience to hear with such little thought put into the sound system. And things didn’t get much better when the first wireless microphones were introduced.

Abe: In early theater in the 60s, there was always one wireless microphone that was usually on the star, Carol Channing in Hello Dolly.

[SFX: Carol Channing begins to sing the title song in Hello Dolly]

It was a very large device. It looked almost like a small carrot that was hung around their neck underneath the costume. That led to the fact that the microphone was underneath the costume, so you got considerable cloth noise on the microphone [SFX cloth noise], which tended to cause attention to itself.

As Abe’s career grew, so did the technology available. As equipment became more complex, Abe needed more people to help him create live soundscapes. He started to take aspiring theatrical sound designers under his wing.

Jonathan: Abe is my mentor.

That’s Jonathan Deans, a four-time Tony-nominated sound designer. In addition to his many Broadway credits, Jonathan works on shows all over the world including Cirque du Soleil.

Jonathan: When I started my career there were no schools that were teaching the subject. Sound was still very in its early stages for live musicals.

There wasn't really any technology, there wasn't anything to teach. I learned from actually doing things and just trying it. Everybody knew you were trying something and you're just putting something out there.

His first project with Abe was A Chorus Line at the Drury Lane Theater.

[SFX: Opening notes of “One” from A Chorus Line]

Jonathan: That was very interesting when Abe turns up with his show, Chorus Line, they're going to put delays in the theater, delay speakers. It's like, "What is that?"

Audio delay systems are something Abe introduced to Broadway that helped every seat in the house have the same audio experience.

Abe: Today, you can put loudspeakers at almost every place in the theater. Before, it was two boxes hung on either side of the proscenium that were of sufficient volume to reach the last row of the house, but a little discourteous to the folks in the front row.

Put speakers further back in the theater so that the front systems didn't have to be quite as loud.

The idea is simple, put speakers all over the room so you don’t have to blast a single set of them up at the front. But doing this presents a new challenge.

[music in]

Sound is actually pretty slow. Imagine if you’re sitting near the back of the theater. The sound from the speakers at the front of the room will hit you later than the speakers at the back of the room, creating a very mushy sound.

If one speaker has its timing off from the rest by even a fraction of a second, even the most beautiful music becomes messy. Take for example, the music we’re hearing right now.

[SFX: Music boosted for a moment]

It sounds great because the music in both your speakers or headphoneis in sync. Now we’re going to play one of your speakers just a fraction of a second behind the other.

[SFX: Music delayed]

The delay system syncs up all the speakers so all of the sound reaches everyone in the theater equally and at the same time.

[music out]

As sound technology improved so did other theatrical effects. Moving lights, projectors, and moving pieces of scenery gave the sound design a new job.

Abe: One of the other functions of the sound system today is to overcome the inherent noise floor of a lot of theatrical productions. The sound of moving lights [SFX: Moving light], of television video projectors [SFX: Projector added to the noise of moving lights], of scenery [SFX scenery moving added in to the cacophony], has all contributed to a higher level of background noise that the sound system has to overcome.

By introducing new technology into live theater, Abe changed more than just the sonic experience. His advancements allowed actors to change their performances from big to subtle.

Abe: Actors' voices need to rescale to reach the house at a proper level. They must be amplified. So what I ask myself is, "How much and by whom?" If all the gain comes from the actor, the price is unnatural diction, inappropriate tonal, emotional cues and stiff posture. But if the gain can come from a properly balanced acoustical system, then the actors can relax more, the speech becomes more natural, and the emotions meet the spoken word.

[SFX: Beginning of All that Jazz from Chicago]

Abe’s work didn’t just allow for intimate storytelling in large theaters, it also gave costume designers more freedom.

Abe: In Chicago in 1975, Gwen Verdon, the star, was going to wear a wireless microphone. She had on a very skimpy costume, and there was no place to hide the microphone or the transmitter. We came up with the idea of putting the transmitter and microphone in her wig. That was, I think, the first instance of the microphone being placed on the forehead of a performer.

The new mic placement was designed for the performer’s comfort, but it had an unintended bonus.

Abe: We discovered that the microphone on the forehead or above the ear was a much better placement for sound quality than being on the chest. It gave us a greater freedom of being able to mix the sound of that particular microphone and that performer.

As Abe brought live theater into the modern world and upgraded the sound systems of different productions, sound design became about more than just amplifying the sound of the show. It became about creating a soundscape that that helped tell the story along with performances, costumes, lighting, and all the other creative elements of theater.

[SFX: Begin “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita]

Abe: Evita, at that time, had six wireless microphones in use. That was a big step forward trying to get all six to work at once.

The thundering voice of Eva Peron on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, certainly wasn't natural. But it was the reality of that situation, where she was addressing 1,000s of people and telling about her struggles to get where the Perons were. It was just the effect onstage that made you feel that you were part of that inauguration scene.

[SFX: continue song “Don’t cry for me Argentina….”]

[music in]

The best sound system and the best sound design is one that's basically invisible now we have the equipment with which we are able to do that much easier. Modern microphones and loudspeaker systems are extremely linear and are capable of providing reinforcement with minimal detection. That's a goal.

Abe didn’t just increase the number of mics and speakers on Broadway, he also created jobs.

Abe: When I started out, it was basically just me and the sound operator.

There are now a lot of bodies involved.

Before I came to New York, the sound operator operated the sound from a console or from a mixer located backstage where he just turned the knobs up to a preset mark and that was it.

We were able to talk producers into giving up some seats and putting the sound equipment out in the house where the operator could hear.

They are the fifth member of the quartet.

Abe’s influence in live audio design was huge. He showed an entire industry that creating a soundscape is about more than just hanging speakers. He also trained so many amazing designers who took their talents all over the world. They changed every element of theater through sonic enhancement.

Abe: Sound reinforcement is not required for every production. Then again, neither are makeup, costumes, lighting, and staging.

Sound is as vital a creative element in the theater as any of the other design elements are.

The history of modern live event sound design began less than a-hundred years ago. In that time technology and methods have improved leaps and bounds. How we’re doing things now and where we might go in the future are truly mind blowing. We’ll hear all about it in a minute.

[music out]


[music in]

In a few short decades sound design for live events went from almost no microphones or speakers to a critical part of every production. So what is modern sound design for live performances like today? Here’s Jonathan Deans again.

Jonathan: Sound has become very complicated due to the equipment that is available. As equipment becomes more complicated, there's less imagination therefore less creativity.

Every live event audio designer puts in tons of hours just to get a sound system up and running. Once it’s working, that’s just the beginning of the creative process.

Jonathan: If you're doing a Cirque du Soleil show, you're going to be involved in it for two to three years with big chunks of time away from the home. I'm talking weeks and sometimes months. I've actually done a production we were in tech for 15 months.

Jonathan doesn’t have a single sound setup that works for every show. He picks equipment based on the show’s story and the size and shape of the venue.

Jonathan: As sound designers we're confined to cabinets and speakers as we know it but beyond that there's nothing intentionally similar from one production to another. It's not cookie cutting and that excites me.

[music out]

Sound design in theater can be never-ending. Especially for an enormous show like Cirque du Soleil. Jonathan recently went back to tweak the sound for Love, a show that uses Beatles music and premiered a decade ago.

Jonathan: There was a refresh done of the production there were new songs put in and there were different acts that were put in.

I went to see the show with Giles Martin and Paul Hicks and Leon Rothenberg, those are the four of us involved in the music "this needs a refresh," because it’s been running for ten years and the technology has evolved so much that the expectations are completely different.

That refresh turned into a total overhaul.

Jonathan: We ended up remixing the entire show just staying up all night when everyone had gone.

That’s because sound technology constantly evolves thanks to innovative ideas from designers like Jonathan.

Jonathan: What if? What if I could put speakers into the seats? What would that be like?"What would the person look like when they're hearing it? What would they be feeling it from? Would they be hearing it from behind? Is that weird?

After sketching out his ideas, Jonathan then puts those ideas into action to see if they work.

[SFX: music from Ka]

Jonathan: I did a show called KA and KA was the first time I had put speakers in the seats there was two speakers in every seat in the theater which is just under 2,000 seats. You could watch people walk in and sit down and we were playing sounds.

I watched a couple coming and the lady sat down. She heard the sounds coming out the speakers in the seats and I could see her point and say, “Look at this sound coming out of the seat, the back of the seat." The guy then leaned down and listened to his seat and put his ear and could hear the sounds coming out of his seat went, “Oh wow.”

He took his jacket off and then hung it on the back of the seat and cover the speakers.

[SFX: Music gets muffled from jacket]

He sat there for the entire show having heard the speakers before knew that they were there making the sound and covered, put his jacket, the shoulder part of it as it hugs the seat, went over the speakers and watched the whole show.

[SFX: Ka music out]

Not every new idea works, but sometimes the only way to know is to experiment with a live audience. That trial and error leads to some pretty awesome innovations, like new ways to track the movements of the actors on stage.

Jonathan: You put the device on the actor that is like an RFID tag, it transmits so you know where their standing, you know where their location is within a parameter which is in this case setup to be the stage, could be in a bigger spaces if you like. And so you know that that person is standing there.

Jonathan is using a modern version of Abe’s delay system to perform an amazing feat of technical sound.

Jonathan: The time delay within that actor's voice going out of certain speakers or all speakers, the delay is changing as it goes upstage downstage like it would if I was to go further away from you or closer to you there is a time difference that happens to when you receive me.

When you do that, when you track the actors nobody notices because it’s just natural.

That same technology isn’t just for tracking actors on stage.

Jonathan: You can put it onto a person like Peter Pan, flying around the room. It could be a sound like maybe it’s tinkerbell following. A sound follows them so you can put a sound effect that follows them so as the person’s moving around, going around the surround system [SFX: Move Tinkerbell sounds around the speakers] and you’re doing it because it’s not something that’s fixed. It has to be done live so you can track that person and or the sound effect that belongs to that person or an instrument.

When it comes to the future of sound for Broadway, it turns out that not only is creative thinking encouraged. It’s required. Here’s Abe again.

Abe: Unfortunately, I think the future of Broadway theater sound may tend to shy away from so many wireless microphones. The radio frequency spectrum is getting very crowded.

Broadway theaters back to back are anywhere from 40 to 60 transmission frequencies between wireless microphones, communications, walkie talkies, and things of that sort.

Broadway has many theaters in a close proximity. That means each device in each theater needs to have its own frequency to work properly. Otherwise you might be in the audience for Wicked…

[SFX: MUSIC: Defying Gravity from Wicked]

… and suddenly hear “Hakuna Matata” from the Lion King.

[SFX: Defying Gravity song mixed with Hakuna Matata]

[music in]

Abe: Maybe we go back to some kind of wired microphone that can be utilized in some form. There will always be wireless microphones, just not in the quantity that there are today.

The future of sound design is full of challenges, but it also has enormous potential.

Jonathan: What I enjoy most about my job is enjoying the audience, being part of that journey that hopefully can add something to their life even if it’s only for those three hours.

Abe: Theater in itself is important. It's an explanation of the life and the times that we are living in, or the lives and times of heroic events in the past. You can't take away the impact of drama to the world. And if what sound can help create and contribute to that impact, then what we do is vital.


Twenty Thousand Hertz is made by the sound design team at Defacto Sound. If you’re interested in hearing what Defacto does, visit defactosound dot com. And if you work in the same industry. Drop a quick hello.

This episode was written and produced by James Introcaso… and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger.

Thanks to our guests, sound design legends Abe Jacob and Jonathan Deans. Abe’s retired now, but you can checkout more of Jonathan’s work at Designing Sound dot com.

The music in this episode is courtesy of our friends at Musicbed. Having great music should be an asset to your project, not a roadblock. Musicbed is dedicated to making that a reality. That’s why they’ve completely rebuilt their platform of world-class artists and composers with brand-new features and advanced filters to make finding the perfect song easier and faster. Learn more at musicbed.com/new.

Finally, go check out our website. There you can say hello, submit a show idea, give general feedback, read transcripts, or buy a t-shirt. That’s all at 20k.org. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter and I love hearing from listeners! So, reach out however you like.

Thanks for listening.

[music out]

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