Grammy Award-winning principal sound designer Fred R. Vogler discusses his work on the iconic material for Star Wars: In Concert
How close are you really ever going to come to being part of the Star Wars saga?
Not very, right? Well, the creators of Star Wars In Concert—an 86-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and 60-voice performance of selections of John Williams' soundtracks, accompanied by a Lucasfilm reedit of footage of the beloved six films—bring audiences a bit closer to the experience. "We are trying to create the illusion of reality that would cause you to forget you are watching a screen," says associate production designer and touring show director Seth Jackson.
Steve Cohen, production designer and director of the show that started in London, made its way around the US through December, and promises more dates this year, says that he got involved in the production three years ago, when he bumped into tour manager Patrick Stansfield in Prague. Stansfield and Spencer Churchill had secured the rights for a five-year tour but couldn't tell Cohen the details, nor did they have too many in place. Back in Van Nuys, CA, Cohen says, "They handed me a DVD—a bonus track from Revenge of the Sith—of John Williams picks of 18 pieces of music with film themes, almost like music videos. I immediately said, 'There's your show.'"
Saying a show is the best sounding anyone has ever heard may sound like a stretch, but that's just what RPO conductor Dirk Brossé said in an interview with The Times of London. Sound design duties fell on Grammy Award-winning principal sound designer Fred R. Vogler, who calls the responsibility of working with the iconic material "awesome and daunting. Everyone I grew up with—still growing up, though—went to see Star Wars many, many times. It had such an impact on the entertainment industry. I was even in a band called Jet-Eye—didn't want any copyright infringement. I wanted to match the impact of the sound to the visual."
Cohen adds that the sound was a challenge from the planning stages. "We needed something to sound as if you're in a theatre," he says. "Amplification doesn't always work well with classical music, but Fred really made it happen. It is loud and clear and still sounds like an orchestra."
Working between the live music, dialog on screen, and narration by C-3PO actor Anthony Daniels creates an environment somewhat akin to a live scoring session, with the orchestra playing to the film clips, so consistency between the music and a wide range of dialog is an issue. Vogler, who also just finished scoring Alvin 2 for Disney with composer David Newman, says playing the music live is a bit more unique than a traditional dubbing stage for film postproduction. "Here you can't go back and 'fix it in the mix.' It requires paying attention because it is dynamic mixing," he says, adding that the dialog came from films made over a 30-year span, so the levels and sound quality were varied.
Vogler, who has worked for over 20 years with orchestras and choruses, both for recording and live applications, collaborated with Tim Boot and designers from Meyer Sound Labs— Miguel Lourtie and Luke Jenks—to create a system that includes 120 inputs. "I've learned miking systems that work," Vogler says. "Capturing a large acoustic ensemble requires very little compromise in technology. I have expensive microphones and speakers. Fortunately, the producers and director of the tour agreed and gave me a lot of support." Mics for the production are a combination of gear from DPA, Sennheiser, Schoeps, Beyerdynamic, Neumann, and Shure.
The sound system, supplied by Solotech, consists of a Studer Vista 5 console, with a Yamaha M7CL for monitors, and a Meyer Sound loudspeaker system, including arrayed MILO® speakers: 18 per side (17 90° curvilinear array loudspeakers plus a single 120° unit at the bottom of the hang) and 14 90° units in the center. The left and right hangs are augmented with nine rear-mounted 700-HP subwoofers. Side coverage consists of two hangs of 16 MICA line-array cabinets, with six M'elodie units along the stage apron for front-fill. Low-frequency coverage is augmented by two stage-mounted M3D directional subwoofers per side and three CQ-2 cabinets. Delays comprise three UPQ-1P cabinets per side and three UPQ-2Ps per side for rear surrounds. Processing includes a Meyer Galileo™ system with three Galileo 616 processors, one Galileo AES, a TC Electronic Mastering 6000, a Lexicon 960L configurable stereo/surround reverb processor, a Fostex DV824 multi-track recorder, a 360 Systems Instant Replay unit, and a dbx sub-harmonic synthesizer.
An electronic shell was created onstage by John McMahon and John Pellowe using the Meyer Sound Constellation® electroacoustic architecture, its first use on tour. The system deploys a combination of 30 submixes using CueStation™ software, UPJ-1P and UPA-1P loudspeakers, and USW-1P subwoofers. "I have always sympathized with acoustic performers hearing each other on stage, especially in an arena setting," says Vogler. "I didn't want them to have to rely on wedges; I wanted them to hear each other with a true ensemble feel, and it seemed natural to put the Constellation on stage, even though it had never been done for a tour before. The players hear better than they hear in many concert halls, without the use of monitor wedges and headsets. This means better ensemble and fewer unwanted, destructive sound sources on stage for the miking."
The touring sound department includes crew from Solotech: lead designer/senior project manager David Brazeau, supervisor David Shapiro, and PA system tech Sylvain Lemay. Steve Colby is the FOH engineer, and PA crew chief is Matthew L. Fox, with PA techs Jeremy Walls and Hilario Gonzalez, and stage sound techs Greg "Chico" Lopez and Richard Morris.
Vogler adds that the result is "a big sound with plenty of dimensionality. It is loud and impactful, but nicely defined, from the lightest flute and oboe passages to full orchestra."
Stay tuned for more on the lighting, video, and special effects for Star Wars: In Concert.