Being asked to give of your time and expertise for a charitable event is both flattering and challenging. For sound designer Tom Clark, such a scenario was even more so because it was a benefit for the New York Philharmonic and involved working with the prestigious organization on a recital of Sweeney Todd at the Avery Fisher Hall. Pretty high-profile stuff.
Clark, director of ACI Sound Consultants (a division of Artec Associates), was immediately taken with the idea of supporting the event. "Although the Avery Fisher has its own sound department," he notes, "they approached me because of the recording" they were making of the event. "They wanted their people to concentrate on the recording, and have an outsider deal with the live sound in the hall. They only contacted me 10 days before the actual event, but I said yes without hesitation, because the cast of characters were all hugely talented." A powerful draw, but this was not to be a simple musical recital of a Broadway show.
"The big surprise for me was they were going to stage and light it in a theatrical way, which meant the capacity for hanging sound was severely curtailed," the designer continues. A mere 300lbs on the downstage edge of stage to be precise, with lighting taking the remaining 1,300lbs available. "Three hundred pounds, for a 230' room! My recent experience was with V-Dosc and Meyer, both of which were just too heavy."
But Clark, like all good sound designers, had a fallback option. "I'd had a note stuck on my monitor at the office for about two years: it was from a good friend of mine, and it said, 'Check out Nexo and d&b audiotechnik.' Well, I'd already experimented with Nexo, but d&b had only recently opened an office in the US, so I'd never tried them. I had just called for the catalogue and it arrived two days before the call from the Avery Fisher."
Clark had already selected the d&b C7 cabinet as a potential candidate, mostly on the recommendation of another colleague who had used them when working with Andrew Bruce on Martin Guerre. "So I called Colin Beveridge at d&b and asked him what he thought," Clark says. The two men talked for two hours. "He [Beveridge] went away and did an Ease plot, I got someone in my office to do one too, and I made a similar approach with a protractor and pencil. We all concluded it would work." And interestingly, they all concluded the same thing: turn one of these 50-degree by 70-degree cabinets on its side, and you've got most of the room covered. One speaker for an audience of over 2,000, paying a high ticket price--talk about balancing reputations on a razor's edge. "Yes, I am particularly reckless with my career, but in this case, the person who made me write the note down two years earlier is a particularly good friend; and I have the greatest respect for the UK's West End sound design community," Clark laughs.
Since he was dealing with a vocal-only system, and what he refers to as "a true reinforcement system to support the voices," Clark's goal line was clear. "I did the Radio City Christmas show there last year, and knew if I could get 92dB max (@1kHz) at the back of the room, I was in safe territory against an unamplified New York Philharmonic," he says. While the C7 has the throw and dispersion, that still left the near field to cover. "Lonny Price, the director, was hoping I wouldn't need to put anything onstage," Clark comments. After much experimenting, just three d&b E3s, left-center-right, covered it, with another pair of them up on the lighting truss, pointed down at the first few rows.
Having covered the room, Clark had to manage the mix. "By coincidence, Sunset Boulevard had just finished touring and Lew Mead at ProMix offered the Cadac (40 channels of F-type) and the Sennheiser SK50 radios (with DPA 4061 caps)." An operator by the name of Elspeth Appelby came with them. "I'd met Elspeth just once before, on an Artec mentoring program; Mead rated her highly," Clark says. "She went away and listened to a CD of the Broadway show, learned the libretto, and developed her own numerical notation. When we came to rehearsals, she already had it taped. The first rehearsal, with the entire cast and orchestra, was at 10 o'clock on Tuesday. It lasted four hours, the same again on Wednesday. On Thursday night, she did a perfect show."
Praise indeed, especially when you consider the vocal melange she was dealing with. "Among the nine principal singers, their specialties covered TV acting, opera, and Broadway musicals; a huge variance in vocal dynamics. Plus, Sondheim's score calls for lots of duets performed in close proximity," Clark notes. Dealing with two voices within inches of one another through omnidirectional mics is a battle at best, with more gain available at the mic of the person being sung to, but Appelby did have some help from the performers. "They were so concerned with the recording that they virtually pulled the mics from the hairline down to the end of their noses," Clark says.
In the end the show was deemed a success, certainly by the audiences that applauded rapturously each night, and by a cast and crew who presented a complex piece in an extraordinarily compressed timeframe. Andrew Litton, the conductor, confided to Clark after the Friday night performance, "Sondheim just said to me, 'This is the first time I've heard every single word in one of my pieces.'"