Chatting with Andy Leviss, Local 1 sound engineer, designer, and manufacturer
1. What was your path to becoming a sound designer?
I actually started out acting when I was in junior high. One summer at camp, they wanted me to sing in a show, and I knew better, so I needed a fast excuse. I stammered that I couldn’t be in that show because I’d already promised to work backstage. I loved it and have been working on some aspect of backstage ever since.
2. What was the most challenging design problem you ever solved and how?
It seems that, no matter what level of theatre you’re working in, the budget is never quite enough, so there’s always a need to make gear do things it was never, ever intended to do. I find most of my “you’ll never believe what I had to do” stories lately involve Yamaha digital consoles, which I sort of have a love-hate relationship with. I’ve done all sorts of crazy things from using bypassed effects processors as “magic patch rerouting blocks” to setting an entire console on “recall-safe” and doing all the programming—including nearly 100 VCA and mute scenes—offline as SysEx cues via QLab. I’ve used the former trick a lot—or physically repatching via digital I/O—to do all sorts of crazy delay tricks, basically turning mid-line Yamaha consoles into poor-man’s TiMax systems.
On last year’s revival of Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights, which I associate designed and programmed, I actually had a DM1000 doing delay matrixing internally to provide acoustic imaging for a band located far upstage right, with a cellist and percussionist on wireless who would, at one point, move to center and then all the way downstage left. It wasn’t pretty, but once programmed, it worked like a charm, and it’s really a necessity in a small space like the Minetta Lane. Otherwise the imaging mismatch can get really distracting.
3. What was the most interesting project you have worked on and why?
There’s been such a wide variety, from Broadway tours to Sesame Street Live to a 12-hour Polkapalooza—seriously, I couldn’t make that up—but most recently, I really enjoyed working on Street Lights, a production from last year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), which was a hip-hop musical by Joe Drymala. I’ve always thought of myself as more of a “natural musical” reinforcement kind of guy, but lately, I’ve ended up becoming known for mixing and designing pop musicals, and it’s fun taking punchier pop and hip-hop music and combining that in a musical in a way that keeps the book sounding natural but still provides the authentic punch of the music. And the score was just amazing, taking samples of civil rights chants, spirituals, and even the “bing-bong” of the NYC subway and turning those into the basis of hip-hop numbers that could easily be radio hits outside the context of the show.
4. Did you start to invent/design products as “the mother of necessity?”
Definitely—my first product was a portable version of a chain hoist “pickle” controller (Ducks Echo Sound’s Perfect Pickle), built into the connector with a belt clip, which I designed—and destroyed and redesigned—on tour when a coworker had bought another company’s version, and I knew I could build one that was lighter, stronger, and just generally more road-friendly. Then, while working as the digital systems tech at a NY audio rental house, I developed a specialty as one of the few guys in the country regularly building and supporting redundant computer rigs for [Figure 53] QLab and [Stage Research] SFX systems. I got tired of trying to shoehorn various commercial MIDI control products into almost, but not quite, what I needed. So I finally bit the bullet and designed my own that was specifically tailored to what both the guy in the rental house building the rig and the guy out on the show needed in a control product. And I’ve finally started getting these remotes out on shows.
5. What advice would you give to undergrads: grad school or get a job?
It depends what you want to do. There’s something to be said for the contacts that a lot of people—particularly those heading to design work—make in grad school and the chance to experiment and explore things without the obligations of a commercial production. But I didn’t do the grad school route, and honestly, I learned so, so, so much more on that first national tour I did fresh out of college than in my four years of undergrad combined. School’s great to have a safe place to make mistakes, but in the end, you’ll learn things by making those mistakes under fire and from watching others—things that you will never learn in the confines of a school. I'm so torn, because I've got friends who both went to, and teach in, amazing grad programs, but I’ve also seen some awful programs—truly, both grad and undergrad—where faculty is so far removed from the real world that there’s just no practical application for what you learn.