Mick Potter has the distinction of being the second-ever winner of the Olivier Award for Best Sound Design. He won this prestigious award in 2005 for his work on Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical The Woman In White, currently at the Palace Theatre in London, and on its way to the Marquis Theatre in New York City where it opens on November 17. Born in the north of England, Potter received a degree in creative design at the Central School of Art and Design in London and hasn't looked back since. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux gets Potter's take on sound design, which is decidedly digital.
ED: How did you start working in sound?
MP: There were no real audio courses at the time, so I did a general design degree. I was always interested in sound and had done a little work in recording studios, but I found the theatre, which is a big collaborative process, much more interesting. I was fortunate in that I started in theatre just as the first modern musicals such as Cats and Starlight Express were premiering in the UK, and the technology was advancing as well, allowing much more control and quality of sound in a live environment.
ED: Which big musicals did you work on?
MP: I was a board operator on Cats in 1986, and then for Starlight Express in 1988. Martin Levan designed the sound for that, and it was a very innovative design: mikes worn on the singers' heads, one of the first automated Cadac live consoles. New Meyer Sound integrated loudspeaker design, MIDI control of processing, and multi-frequency RF becoming better quality. Also, advances in recording technology were available with the reliability you needed for the theatre. It was a very exciting time.
ED: How did you make the leap to designer?
MP: After mixing five or six shows in the West End, I decided to go freelance with the goal of becoming a sound designer, and had to start at the bottom again. In late 1992, I gave up operating and took any design work I could get. I did a lot of corporate shows and smaller theatre shows. I designed anything I could, from Purcell's opera, The Fairy Queen at Lisbon Coliseum to Elton John's 50th birthday celebrations.
ED: What was your first big break?
MP: Certainly one of the most challenging was the Las Vegas production of Starlight Express. It was a big show and was one of the first times anybody had used hard-disk multi-track playback. Today, that kind of system is much less expensive, but then it was a big deal. We had a four-piece orchestra and recorded music, and mixed the show in surround sound, which was quite a challenge back then. We used an early analog LCS system to control everything including the main console.
ED: What was your first big West End musical?
MP: I designed the original West End and Broadway productions of Saturday Night Fever, where we used a lot of new technology. I had used Level Control Systems in Las Vegas, and we used the first digital version for Saturday Night Fever. That was an interesting challenge, because we had a dynamic book musical with a disco and orchestral score, a 36-member cast. The orchestra had to sound pre-recorded for some scenes as if from a radio or a disco, so the entire 16-piece orchestra was in a remote studio. The next big challenge was Bombay Dreams.
ED: Had the technology advanced by then?
MP: Yes, Bombay Dreams was my first totally digital show, using a Yamaha PM1D mixing system, with over 140 inputs and 100 outputs controlled in one mainframe. Even the pit systems were digital. This gives you much more control and a huge amount of flexibility. Bombay Dreams was a complex mix, with a lot of the orchestra in surround sound and lots of sound effects. The brief from composer AR Rahman and producer Andrew Lloyd Webber was to evoke a book musical, but with a big cinematic feel in keeping with the theme of a Bollywood musical. Only now with digital technology was this possible. On Broadway, there was a larger orchestra with a nine-piece string section added, and much more real percussion.
ED: Then came The Woman In White and your Olivier Award?
MP: Yes, there were lots of other shows along the way to The Woman In White, but this show was a real challenge. A very natural sound, intimate at times and yet dynamic and cinematic at others. It's also like two different scores: one that is very natural and orchestral, and one that is darker and more synthesized. Again we did a lot of the show in surround, often just subliminally to open up the sound and make it bigger without it getting louder. It was a big job, but The Woman In White was the most enjoyable thing I've done. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn, the director, were very precise and aware of how it should sound. There are big moments that envelop you and help tell the story, yet it never feels overblown, and always comes back to a human level.
ED: How did you achieve the two different sounds?
MP: Through imaging and surround. In the more orchestral sections, the reverbs are more natural and the Meyer Sound CQ Orchestra loudspeaker system gives a fantastic transparent sound. For the big cinematic moments, we go to surround sound and a bigger dynamic, but we had to plan it out very carefully. It was only a very close collaboration with the music department that made it possible. Also, with a conventional set there might have been a little underscore music for the transitions. But with Bill Dudley's sweeping projected images, we needed a bigger cinematic sound for the musical transitions to complement the images.
ED: Are you still using the Yamaha PMID console?
MP: Yes, we worked with Yamaha on certain things we needed on the console. I have invested a lot of effort in it and have done all my shows on it for the past three years, over 15 productions. It is very complex, with everything all in one interface. So having made the leap, I've stuck with it.
ED: What are the issues facing sound designers today?
MP: For one thing, audience perception of how they want a show to sound has changed in the past few years. They have different expectations now: To hear every word as if they are watching TV or at a movie, for it to be exciting but still sound unamplified and invisible. I use more distributed loudspeakers for absolute even gain throughout the auditorium and rely heavily on delay imaging. In The Woman In White, the score itself comes back to intimate dialogue on stage then swings to big musical moments, and that makes it more exciting. You have to know how to use the sound judiciously. Not just loud, but big. Also you want people to be able to suspend belief and think they are in Bombay or 19th-century England, so sometimes you have to be very discreet.
ED: Are there new tools you wish you could add to your toolbox?
MP: The tools that are out there are pretty good and digital technology is coming along nicely. One area that could use some development for the theatre is that of loudspeakers. Meyer Sound and d&b audiotechnik are the only two companies making really great loudspeakers for the theatre. They, and the other big companies, have been focusing on line-arrays that are not as suited to the theatre for various reasons, such as being tied by “line” arrays to using a single main system, rather than an A/B or orchestral/vocal system. So continued loudspeaker development is one thing on my wish list. Despite all the new technology, the microphone and the loudspeaker are still the most important parts of the system.
ED: Will The Woman In White be different in New York?
MP: The theatre in New York is much, much drier acoustically than the four-tier opera house-style Palace Theater in London, so I'll have to work on that. This means more reverb and more surround to bring the theatre to life. Hopefully, the audience won't realize there is all this technology, just that it sounds exciting. I think this is a great piece musically, and I'm looking forward to it.