The Art of Subtlety: Sound Design for 'The Band's Visit"

by Bryan Reesman
in Theater Sound
The Band's Visit photo by Matthew Murphy
The Band's Visit photo by Matthew Murphy

The Band’s Visit is a refreshingly different type of Broadway musical. While it has some impressive moving scenery courtesy of Scott Pask and moves at a good pace, it eschews flashy song and dance numbers to deliver a heartfelt story about people seeking intimate connections, even fleeting ones, that will excite their ordinary lives. Directed by David Cromer, the show at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre stars Tony Shalhoub as the leader of an eight-piece Egyptian police band that makes an unexpected pit stop in a remote Israeli village after getting the wrong directions to the site of their next concert.

The group stays overnight at the invitation of some locals, instigating unexpected and sometimes profound interactions, including a potential romance between the bandleader and a lonely cafe owner (Katrina Lenk). This touching tale is enhanced by impassioned performances and a beautiful score from composer/lyricist David Yazbek.

Kai Harada

Keeping with the spirit of the show, Kai Harada’s sound design offers greater nuances and a more subdued nature than the typical punchiness one would expect from a Broadway musical (and particularly those of the tourist variety, of which this is not), and that approach works nicely.

“It was a conceit that the producers, director, music team, dialect coaches and I discussed: ‘Let’s let the audience listen; let’s let them lean in a little bit,’” Harada recalls. “I was worried that some of the book scenes were getting too quiet, especially with accents on top of that, but early in previews, I felt we achieved the right balance of clarity, intelligibility and naturalism. The story needs to be told in a quiet way, too. The theater size is perfect for the show, and it has to be somewhat conversational, yet with enough dynamics when we need to emotionally support the story.”

Harada has worked on a variety of larger musicals including Amelie, Allegiance and Gigi, and he never tries to overwhelm the audience. “I could be hired by any number of people — sometimes the director, sometimes the composer, sometimes the music department, sometimes the producer — and I think by now I have an aesthetic that people identify as ‘I’m not going to bash you over the head with sound,’” he remarks. “That’s not my style, although I can and will do it if the show calls for it. I joke that I design ‘quiet, artsy’ musicals, and that’s only sort of a joke. I really enjoy working with the subtlety. The louder a show is, and the more unnatural it sounds, the more I think we are dividing the audience from the actors. Of course, they need to hear the words, but they don’t need to be force-fed.”

Photo of The Band's Visit by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         The Secret Room

Not all of the musicians for The Band’s Visit are located onstage. There are seven group members onstage — percussion, cello, violin, clarinet, woodwind, trumpet and guitar/oud. There are four musicians underneath the stage — two keyboards (one of them the music director), percussion/drums and a bass — who are playing in a specially built room that is about 13 by 21 feet in size, and not completely sealed.

“We did acoustically treat it as much as possible so that sound from other areas of the theater isn’t transmitted to the orchestra mics, but it is right underneath the stage,” says Harada. “And there’s only a curtained doorway separating it from the rest of the basement, because the stage musicians sometimes run downstairs and play in that room instead of onstage, and there is scant little time for them to deal with big, soundproof doors.”

The sound designer notes that the Barrymore Theatre is typically known for plays and not musicals, so it has an orchestra pit of negligible size, and even if the first two or three rows of seats were removed, there still would not be enough room for all of the musicians. While they did contemplate other locations for the band, downstairs was the best choice for everybody. Naturally, FOH mixer Liz Coleman has the added challenge of temporarily muting the players that go offstage, scoot downstairs and then start playing again. There’s a lot to keep track of. Harada praises his audio team, which includes Coleman, A2/A3 Reece Nunez and Greg Matteis, associate designer Josh Millican and production sound personnel Phil Lojo and Charlie Grieco.

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band's Visit. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         The System

The console for the show is a Studer Vista 5, which is set up to have 210 inputs, and The Band’s Visit requires most of them. Harada says he allocated space for 40 returns from wireless (including stage musicians), 48 from orchestra, 26 returns from Qlab (which handles sound effects), approximately 32 utility channels and reverb returns, and 36 returns from SARA (a Dutch audio box that is discussed below). “Additionally, we’re configured for 12 mono subgroups, 10 stereo subgroups, 16 mono auxes, 10 stereo auxes, 16 mono matrices and ten 10 matrices,” adds Harada. “So about 52 outputs, not including the orchestra monitoring system, which runs through its own console.”

Harada has placed many practical speakers on stage for all of the sound effects, in addition to many speakers over and in the stage to ensure that the cast “can hear all of the band all the time — no matter where they are,” he says. “The practical loudspeakers are usually in or near prop items, set up with a battery-powered car-radio amplifier and some sort of speaker, wired to a Shure PSM-900 IEM transmitter. For foldback, which is critical for any musical, we were limited by Scott Pask’s mostly walled-in set design — leaving no good speaker locations from the sides. So [lighting designer] Tyler Micoleau and I negotiated several locations overhead.” Harada placed a pair of Meyer UPQ-1Ps, three Meyer UPJ-1Ps, four UPM-1Ps and two UPM-2Ps off to the sides. Working with Pask, they installed 12 Meyer MM-4 speakers in the stage itself to help the cast hear the orchestra.

Having speakers in, on and around the stage made it easier for Harada to control the volume level. He explains that all of the speakers on stage reproduce the band as they exist downstairs. “It puts a picture of musicians on stage, and then the rest of the painting comes from the acoustic sound of the onstage musicians and actors,” he says. “Then there’s a coherent picture of sound, some of it reinforced and some of it live. My ultimate goal on a show like this is that the audience shouldn’t really be aware of what we do.”

Kristen Sieh, John Cariani, Alok Tewari, Andrew Polk and George Abud in The Band's Visit. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         Mic Selections

Most of the musicians are wearing DPA or Sennheiser lavalier mics. The cello has a DPA 4099 clipped to the bridge, while the others have a DPA 4061 either in their hats (like an overhead mic) or a lapel mic. “The oud and acoustic guitar also have pickups, so we have a transmitter on that as well, and mix to taste,” says Harada. “The violinist has a Sennheiser MKE-2 on his head. It just ended up sounding better than the DPA.” Most of the cast are miked with Sennheiser MKE-1s, which are easy to conceal, although one actor sounds better on an MKE-2. They all use SK5212 transmitters and EM3732 receivers.

The keyboards come direct from the keyboard audio interface into the input box. A DI is used on the electric bass, as well as a mic on the acoustic bass. Harada says that every other instrument is miked with an assortment of Sennheiser, AKG, Shure, Neumann and DPA mics. “The additional chairs where the stage musicians play when they are in the band room also have proper condenser mics,” he adds. “We don’t use their wireless systems when they are down there [in the basement].”

Hand percussion can be tricky to mic, depending upon the type of drum and how it’s being played. There is a chance of capturing distortion. But Harada says a lot of what is heard from this show’s percussionist Ossama
Farouk — who plays a darbuka, a frame drum and a riq — is live, especially towards the end of the show. “We’re barely turning him on, and mostly only to get the attack from his hands hitting the front surface of the drums,” says Harada. “He’s a fantastic player, and it’s a loud instrument on a stage that has a lot of surfaces to bounce sound around.”

Rachel Prather, Etai Benson and Ari'el Stachel in The Band's Visit. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         Meet SARA

The veteran sound designer tried out a new piece of equipment for the first time on The Band’s Visit: SARA, by Astro Spatial Audio. “For our show, this box does two things,” he elaborates. “One, it assists in imaging acoustic sources through the loudspeaker system to help preserve localization. Two, it performs acoustic enhancement duties, allowing us to create a larger acoustic environment for some key moments in the show. This is the first time I’ve used it on a large show, and we’ve told it the X/Y/Z coordinates of our speakers, and using its graphical interface, told it where specific sources are — the onstage musicians or practical sound effects, for example — and using a whole bunch of math, it routes the signal at different levels and different delay times to the speakers in our system. The internal algorithms were developed with the Fraunhofer Institute, and it sounds really good.”

Harada very specifically kept the sound levels at a volume that let the music breathe. “My philosophy is the louder it gets, the more ‘speaker-ey’ it sounds, and the more detached you’ll be as an audience member,” he says. “You’ll be further removed from the story that’s being told on stage.”

The Band's Visit photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         Problems and Solutions

Harada’s biggest challenge in designing sound for The Band’s Visit was gathering the information from the previous production. Most of the cast and crew had done the award-winning show when it was performed at the Atlantic Theatre Company between November 2016 and January 2017, but Harada was a new member for the Broadway incarnation.

“Fortunately, the music department was great in getting me a lot of information — what worked and what didn’t, and what they’d like to try,” he recalls. “I had a lot of input early on in the summer so I could design a system that I knew encompassed everything that I knew needed to be done, but also anticipated things that could potentially come up, just because there were so many unknowns. There are a lot of speakers in the theater and I am using every single one, but I will admit that I spec’d a couple that I wasn’t 100 percent certain how I was going to use until we got into the theater and tried some things.”

Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk in The Band's Visit. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‡‡         A Peek at the Future

In the wake of his work on The Band’s Visit, Harada remarks that he would like to keep experimenting with localization and acoustic enhancement. He adds that the SARA box was great at localization, and he also used it for touches of acoustic enhancement. “I think that’s going to be the new dimension that we all, as sound designers, start working with,” he declares. “There are key points in The Band’s Visit where I subtly increase the size of the apparent acoustic space, and I think there are some great opportunities for this in the future. For me, it’s not only making sure that the audience hears the music and the words, but it’s also about what happens between the words and at the end of musical phrases.”


The Band’s Visit


  • Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, NY


  • Director: David Cromer
  • Choreographer: Patrick McCollum
  • Orchestration: Jamshied Sharifi
  • Music Direction/Supervision: Andrea Grody
  • Scenic Designer: Scott Pask
  • Lighting Designer: Tyler Micoleau
  • Sound Designer: Kai Harada
  • FOH Engineer: Liz Coleman
  • Associate Sound Designer: Josh Millican
  • Production Sound Techs: Phil Lojo, Charlie Grieco
  • Costume Designer: Sarah Laux
  • Projection Designer: Maya Ciarrocchi
  • Music Supervisor/Music Coordinator: Dean Sharenow