Sound design by Sten Severson and Nevin Steinberg for Hair, the 2009 Tony Award-winning Best Musical
The Public Theatre’s 2008 exuberant summer revival of Hair at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park—directed by Diane Paulus with choreography by Karole Armitage—moved to Broadway in March 2009, with sets by Scott Pask, lighting by Kevin Adams, costumes by Michael MacDonald, and sound by Sten Severson and Nevin Steinberg of Acme Sound Partners.
“This production of Hair started life as a concert when we first did it in the summer of 2007 at the Delacorte in Central Park,” says Nevin Steinberg of Acme Sound Partners, referring to the 40th anniversary production of the show. “That was how it was originally conceived, and I think that a concert production has always been part of its DNA. So we wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose that feeling when we moved indoors to the Hirschfeld.”
“Galt MacDermot, who wrote the music for Hair, has been an active presence throughout this production’s path toward Broadway,” adds Severson. “He has a keen ear and is very specific about how his music should sound. Everyone’s expectations for the sound of the show have been driven by his desire for a gutsy, visceral, and entirely honest musical sound. We have an eclectic collection of speakers of many types and manufacturers on this show.” Loudspeakers and amps are by Meyer Sound, L-Acoustics, d&b audiotechnik, EAW, Galaxy, Crown, and Lab.gruppen. The sound console is a DiGiCo D5T, and Sound Associates provided the audio equipment (see gear list below).
“Over the years, we have learned what speakers sound good to us, especially in the context of a rock musical, and what specific niche they can fill in a sound system designed for the idiosyncratic shapes of Broadway theatres,” explains Severson. “Our fundamental design principle is to bring the show to every seat in the house, and we went through a lengthy design phase in conjunction with our scenic and lighting designers to find locations for speakers so that we are able to cover every seat. You’ll notice that we have two L-Acoustics ARCS speakers on either side of the proscenium that are built into scenic platforms, allowing us an excellent speaker position and, at the same time, giving the actors quick access to the balcony level and a powerful playing space.”
When asked about the choice of microphones for the tribe, Steinberg replies: “The choice to use head-worn boom mics has a great deal to do with our desire to make sure we were really delivering the music in this show. Add to that the complexities of an unobstructed rock band on stage and the fact that the show has 40 tunes, all of them pretty hard to sing, and we wanted to make sure that we had all possible advantages when it came to the singers.” The transmitters on the actors are split between two models, Sennheiser SK 5212s and SK 5012s, while the mic elements are DPA 4066 omni-directional headbands.
How does this style compare to the original production? “The technology of sound reinforcement has progressed a great deal in the 40-odd years since Hair’s first Broadway bow,” says Severson. “Audience expectations have risen in tandem. We are able to give our director, choreographer, and actors nearly limitless freedom on stage and, indeed, throughout the house while keeping the audio quality high. Trying to keep to the original technology with a mix of handheld microphones and foot mics would have not only constricted the artistic endeavor but required sacrifices in audio quality—an anachronism that I doubt would have been received well by the creative team or the audience.”
In moving this production inside from the park, Severson discovered that, “The Hirschfeld is a good example of a large Broadway house that was designed for the acoustic voice. It really couldn’t be more different than the wide open spaces of the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. The acoustic challenges are opposite in many respects,” he says.
“In the park, we were concerned with covering a very wide and deep audience space, while the Hirschfeld is much narrower and taller with two levels of audience—not to mention walls,” Severson adds. “It’s amazing what a difference walls make in the propagation of sound, from the reflections of the band in the stage house to the hard plaster dome over the balcony. We did quite a bit of acoustic treatment on stage to help control undesirable reflections and focus our loudspeakers with a keen eye to avoiding large curved walls.”
Having the band on stage created another challenge for the sound designers. “With our director, creative team, and musical department, we forged a plan to array the band on the stage in a manner that would allow them to play their best while providing the look and sound we were all looking for,” say Severson. “In the end, there are no barriers between the cast and the musicians. In fact, you will find actors climbing up on the platforms with the band and even lending a hand on the tambourine. That co-mingled, free, and creative relationship among the extended tribe working on the show has been a hallmark of Diane Paulus’ direction of Hair. She has set out from the very beginning to break down the barriers between people—most notably between the performers and the audience.”
Not only is the band on stage, but it is not centered, creating yet another challenge. “While the vast majority of the audience can see the band, the acoustic properties of the house create certain areas where the band is quite loud and other areas where they are relatively soft without amplification,” Severson explains. “Weaving our sound system in with the energy from the stage and the acoustics of the space to bring a great sounding show to every seat required weeks of small—and occasionally, large—adjustments to the sound system from input channels to speaker focus.”
Sound gear list:
Quantity Manufacturer Model Number
2 DIGICOSTAGE RACK
2 DIGICOLOCAL RACK
1 PCCUE EDITOR
5 TC ELECTRONICSM3000
LOUDSPEAKERS AND AMPS
5 SHURESM 57
2 SHURESM 58
2 SHUREBETA 52A
1 SHUREBETA 91
6 SHURE565 SD
COMPUTERS AND SOFTWARE
4 MOTUULTRALITE MK3
1 CUSTOMGPI AUDIO ROUTER
2 APPLEMACINTOSH MINI
1 APPLEUSB KEYBOARD
1 APPLEUSB MIGHTY MOUSE
1 GEFENDVI KVM MATRIX
2 FIGURE 53QLAB
1 XTAAUDIOCORE SOFTWARE
1 XTASIDD SOFTWARE
30 DPA 4066
1 SA INC
2 SA INC
1 CUSTOM TBD
For the full story, check out the May issue of Live Design.
Stay tuned for Part 2, discussing Kevin Adams’ lighting of Hair.