Jamie Mereness designed the sound for the bone-chilling, award-winning off-Broadway production of Charlie Victor Romeo (or CVR as it is referred to), a play whose text is entirely derived from black box transcripts taken from six real-life airplane emergency landings and tragic crashes. The production was recently produced at P.S. 122, and has continually been revived since it premiered back in 1999 at Collective: Unconscious, a downtown Manhattan performance space where Mereness is the technical director. He is also their ultra-high voltage systems engineer; the title, he explains, is just a juicy way of saying he has the biggest Tesla coil in Manhattan (which he used to shoot 6' long lightning bolts at the recent wedding of performance artist Annie Sprinkle). Winner of Drama Desk, NYC Fringe Festival, and Backstage West Garland awards for his sound design of CVR, Mereness chats with Ellen Lampert-Gréaux about the sound design of CVR and his take on sound design in general.
ED: How did you get interested in sound design?
JM: I've always been intrigued by sound, and by the mechanisms that capture and convey it. I grew up in a house filled with music, and also had an innate mechanical curiosity. I would take the back off of a radio and just stare at the contents in awe. So I guess I'm an arty/techy person. Music moves my heart, but I also like knowing the electronic path between the singer and my ear. I've worked nine years as a recording engineer and 12 years as a technician.
ED: What was your first gig in New York?
JM: When I came to New York in 1991, I was eager to find a blossoming creative space where I could make a significant contribution. A friend invited me to a Halloween party at the Gargoyle Mechanique Laboratory on Avenue B. I was smitten. It was a cool gritty grotto place in transition. The founding members drifted off, and I became technical director of the new space, called Collective: Unconscious. We lit ourselves on fire on Avenue B, and split in half over member issues in an inert synagogue on Houston Street. We also helped establish, and after eight years were price-gouged off of Ludlow Street, and are now in the midst of demolishing the interior of our new TriBeCa space, hoping more seats will correspond to more revenue. Collective was blooming with ideas at its inception, and I eagerly volunteered to do sound design for a serial play called Manifestations. It ran for five years. No one noticed my work, and then came Charlie Victor Romeo.
ED: Can you talk a little about the sound design and equipment used for CVR?
JM: A little bit of almost everything was used in the design. The cockpit voice alarms are triggered in real time via a MIDI controller and Akai sampler and are sent to a speaker placed behind the acoustically transparent nose of the aircraft. The cockpit crew talks into dynamic Shure headsets that are fed into the house center cluster. I wanted to use real Telex noise canceling aviation headsets, but a consultant worried about the availability of replacements on the road. It turned out that replacement Shures were unavailable without a two-week backorder, even in the USA. Live and learn. I cringed when I heard a microphone gradually degrade as the electret condenser diaphragm accumulated moisture during performances, but no one else seemed to notice.
ED: How critical was center loudspeaker choice?
JM: Loudspeaker selection was non-critical (as was the cockpit speaker), as the cluster was only required to reproduce the easily manageable midrange frequencies of the human voice. My biggest problem turned out to be how to instruct the engineers who ran sound after our initial run not to roll off any low-end except sub vocal-range crud. I wanted the audience to have aural as well as visual intimacy with the pilots, to feel they were in the cockpit, and also to be able to effortlessly differentiate between the crew and the flight control voices, which were also sent through the center cluster.
I emulated the radio-transmitted flight control voices by sending them through parallel distortion paths. I built an acoustically isolated enclosure consisting of a truly awful self-powered three-inch Radio Shack speaker and an SM58 microphone. I also sent the radio voices through a ring modulator. Mixing these two effects created a subconsciously recognizable military radio sound. When people said “that sounds like X-Wing pilot chatter when they were attacking the Death Star,” I knew things were cool.
An interesting anecdote is that when we went to Tokyo, their soundman chose a much simpler approach. Instead of ruining the fidelity of good microphones by sending them through a tiny cheap speaker, he just used junky CB radio microphones. We still needed the ring modulator to put the icing on the cake.
ED: How did you create the authentic sounds of takeoff, aircraft interior ambiences, and the harrowing in-flight mechanical catastrophes?
JM: That is the real visceral meat of the material…and was constructed in Digi-design ProTools, burnt to CDs, and manually cued during the performance. I used self-powered full range flown EAW left and right speakers, two on-stage dual 18" EAW subs connected to a 1000W per enclosure amp, and two subs underneath the audience's riser seating. A minimum of 3000W of power in intimate off-Broadway venues. No cutting corners anywhere here, and it paid off. Audiences left stunned and shaken, and critics wrote that CVR was the most terrifying show that they had ever attended. The key points to the success of the sound design were separating the sound into multiple point sources, so that the result was not a blurred cacophony but instead (to quote one of my favorite review descriptions) “a symphony of catastrophe.”
It was also important to have every voice and effect cue off of the variable timing of the actors, rather than forcing the performers to work with a rigid, predetermined audio structure. And gobs of meat-shaking bass. Anyone remember the movie Earth-quake? “Sensurround.”
ED: What does the sound engineer/live sound mix engineer do during a performance of CVR?
JM: We always had two people in the sound booth. One person cued the CDs, triggered the sampler and was an air traffic control voice during some scenes. The other person, who was me for the initial run, rode gain, adjusted EQ and sub levels, cross-faded the CDs, and kept an ear and eye on the compressors and gates. Except in Japan, where genius engineer Shima-san did almost everything himself, and managed to make everything sound fantastic despite the daunting workload.
ED: How has the business of sound design changed over the years?
JM: I think the advent of new technology does not necessarily supplant older ways of doing things. When I was in college theatre, if I needed a doorbell sound, my naive instinct was to do a SFX record drop, transfer it to 1/4" tape, splice in some leader tape and hit play on cue. The TD said, “let's just buy a doorbell.” Every voice heard in CVR is analogous to that doorbell. People speaking into mikes, no unneeded technology required.
When voices needed to sound crunchy and tinny, I didn't noodle around with the limited parameters of a distortion program in a digital multi-effects unit, but instead just bought a horrible $10 amplified speaker. The best ring modulator sound I have ever heard during the production came from an old analog Roland modular synthesizer in Japan. At some points during pre-production when I needed to modulate the pitch of a sound, twisting the variable speed control of an analog tape deck sounded perfect. Other times, spinning the data wheel of an Eventide Ultraharmonizer gave me the sound I needed.
ED: Have you gone “digital”?
JM: Undoubtedly, digital recording was the most vital technology for this show. CVR started off as a cool idea shared between enthusiastic friends in an unknown off-off-Broadway performance space, with no budget and a projected run of one month, a few nights a week. I'm no grizzled old-timer, but I do know it would have been impossible to create the sound for the show back in the days when I was wearing out grease pencils and razor blades. ProTools hard disk recording allowed me to effortlessly manipulate timing, amplitude, and timbre. CD technology allowed me to make loss-less copies of our efforts onto affordable, random access, auto-cueing media. Samplers allowed me to have two-dozen cockpit alarms and airplane mechanical sounds independently or simultaneously occur. Digital technology democratized quality sound to an amazing extent.
ED: Do you have a specific work process in terms of new productions or collaboration with other designers?
JM: My work process? Boatloads of worry and fear of disappointing my expectant friends roil in my mind and generate a desperate parallel thought column of creativity. Different shows require different skills. CVR demanded accuracy, or at least synthetic believable accuracy.
The next play I did was totally different: an August Strindberg play. I ignored the dense script and just asked the director what feeling he wanted to express in each scene. I then delved deeply in my internal sound library and imagined. I told the director things like “Kubrick breathing in a space helmet, but at half speed, and filtering out all the gas hiss” and “the grinding sound of a Jules Verne drill ship as it slowly penetrates the earth's crust.” Director Paul Bargetto smiled and nodded, not really having a clue what I was imagining, but trusting my capacity to feel via sound. No one except a few post-grad professors ever heard that work, but I think it is my highest achievement, or at least as good as CVR. It played briefly in a tiny room filled with strangers. But to get back to work process: worry, feel, and use every available machine to externalize your emotion.
ED: How do you define the art of sound design?
JM: Sound design and music are in some ways so different than visual art. The biggest difference is time. You walk into a room with a DaVinci, and BLAM! You can stand transfixed for two minutes or eight hours. Sound starts, modulates, and then stops. Paintings are static, sound is dynamic. When you do sound design for a successful show that runs in many cities, you lose some control over your art, as different engineers and equipment intrinsically change things. I have been occasionally dismayed, but occasionally amazed and astonished. Shima-san in Tokyo in particular. I cried during dress rehearsal, because he did such an amazing job that I quit monitoring the sound and just felt the play for the first time.
ED: Why do you think the Tony Awards refuse to recognize sound design on Broadway?
JM: Benign ignorance. There are way too many microphones in Broadway in my opinion. CVR uses lots of mikes because the pilots and ground crew did. When I go to a Broadway show, look at someone speak, and hear their voice blasting out of speakers far left and right from the stage, I feel dizzying cognitive dissonance. Just project your voice. Sometimes technology sucks.
ED: What's next for you?
JM: What is next for me is a mystery. Hopefully, the experience will be a delightful one. CVR has already sent me on enough wonderful adventures to fill a lifetime. I am not just a sound artist, but a boy who delights in exploring every field of artistic expression.
ED: Where do you think sound design is headed in general?
JM: For sound design, I hope we can create some powerful psycho-acoustic tools that help immerse the audience into the performance. We can record and reproduce with near perfection. The clever and creative manipulation of that information is the new frontier.