Sound designers have a bad rap. Most are notorious for taking up far too much audience real estate with their equipment. They force producers to remove revenue-producing seats, and prompt such audience comments as "Look, honey! It looks just like one of those things in an airplane!"
Not designer Francois Bergeron, who just finished a sound design for South Coast Repertory Theatre's new musical, The Education of Randy Newman, in Costa Mesa, CA. The production is a semi-autobiographical account of the life of a songwriter and written by music veteran Randy Newman. Due to equipment requirements and space constraints - the Mainstage contains only 500 seats - Bergeron was faced with two primary challenges: visual aesthetic and size.
"Nobody wanted to see big black boxes around the proscenium arch," says Bergeron. "I couldn't use a center speaker cluster because it would interfere with the projections, so we embedded front-fill speakers in the stage. The left/right speakers were hung outside of the proscenium, and we weren't able to see them against the black walls. It gave the illusion that the cast was singing without too much amplification. I tried to use a small amount of speakers with wide coverage angles in order to keep the sources to a minimum." Apogee AE-5 loudspeakers, augmented with AE-12 subwoofers, provided the left/right system, while six Apogee SSMs were mounted in the show deck.
Bergeron was also required to keep the mixing position size to a minimum. "SCR is a subscription house, so every seat is presold for every show of the season," he says. "It would have been hard to talk 22 patrons into moving to other seats for each performance." Instead of using the traditional behemoth analog desk at front-of-house, Bergeron opted for the new CueConsole digital control surface from Level Control Systems. The system is comprised of four modules that each tackle a different aspect of mixing. Actual audio processing occurs backstage within a series of five LCS LD-88 digital mixing engines, leaving only the tools necessary for mixing the show at front-of-house. "By using the CueConsole, we were able to bring the mix position size to six or seven seats. Shrinking the footprint also enabled us to move the mix position from the side of the theatre to the center, closer to the audience. This helped the audio and helped the producers."
Bergeron used one of each of the CueConsole units: the Transporter, used for cue recall and control; the Faders module, a bank of 16 motor faders; the Meters-Plus module, with 16 channels of level metering, mute, automation isolate, and a rotary encoder for other parameters; and the Editor module, which handled all controls for a particular input channel or an output master. In order to monitor the output section and provide a backup fader system, Bergeron also specified two LCS Cue Mixer RIF control surfaces.
Even though the CueConsole system is designed to support more than one Fader module, Bergeron's team decided to keep the front-of-house system simple. Operator Carin Ford mixed the seven RF microphones, reverb returns, and orchestra on just 16 master faders. During technical rehearsals, she was aided by two computer monitors, displaying real-time data from the LCS system. These were supervised backstage by engineer Tim Harrison, who was also responsible for providing the band and stage monitor mixes. "Once the show was running, one of the monitors was removed and Carin made any EQ changes on the Cue Editor," explains Bergeron. "In case of a problem, Carin could talk to Tim and he could reply with a note on the LCS screen. She never had to stop listening to the show."
Adapting to this new arrangement was easy. SCR house sound engineer BC Keller preprogrammed the entire show, allowing Carin - an experienced LCS operator - to mix as soon as she sat down at the console. "The learning curve for me was not very steep," she says. "I just needed to learn the updates and get used to working on a different work surface."
Bergeron, who has worked extensively with LCS, cites collaborator Jonathan Deans as the impetus behind the development of the CueConsole. "While working on a couple of Cirque du Soleil shows, we talked about his ideas and the space we would save if we could use a smaller control surface," says Bergeron. Development in LCS' digital mixing hardware finally led to a tactile control surface for live sound this year.
Bergeron lauds his crew, including assistant Martin Carrillo, and extols the cooperation of Level Control Systems. "They were more than essential to the process and kept their calm even when I got into my `creative' modes," he laughs.
In the end, both LCS and South Coast Rep benefited from the process. Bergeron concludes, "LCS was able to come see the CueConsole in action; SCR was able to use an additional 15 or 16 seats and essentially afford the cost of the show. I think that this is the future of live sound: more control, remote access, and a smaller footprint."
And, by the way, that thing in an airplane is called the "cockpit."