The Art of Noise

by Bryan Reesman
in Theater Sound
1984 at the Hudson Theatre. Photos by Julieta Cervantes
1984 at the Hudson Theatre. Photos by Julieta Cervantes

Tom Gibbons' Disruptive Sound Design for Broadway's 1984

Some plays apply sound design to enhance the performances onstage, to add sonic color to the world being depicted, and perhaps to take us into an alternate state of mind. Tom Gibbon’s jackhammer sound design for 1984 on Broadway does all of those things while also making audiences feel discombobulated and keep them attuned to the grim near future world being depicted. Co-directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, this mind-bending stage adaptation of the famous George Orwell novel has resonated with people in these tumultuous times, perhaps so much so that often times people walk out of the show during its climactic torture and reprogramming scenes.

Gibbons has worked on 1984 since its initial 2013 production in the Nottingham Playhouse in England that blossomed into its first U.K. tour, which in turn led to other British iterations, an Australian rendition, a touring U.S. show, and finally the current Broadway run. The story revolves around secret paramours Winston and Julia hiding their illegal passions from the loveless authoritarian state of Oceania. They do not know who to trust, even when representatives of an underground, anti-government movement enlist them to help topple the repressive regime controlling them.

 The cast of Broadway’s 1984 at the Hudson Theatre. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

‡‡         Audio Intensity

The disruptive sound design, punctuated by loud bursts of staccato sound during scene transitions, erupts from the speakers with an intensity rarely heard in a Broadway show. Chris Cronin is the associate sound designer who was brought on for the American rendition of the show, and when he first spoke to Gibbons, the latter informed he would not be arriving until the second half of tech. When Cronin asked him what he was aiming for, he says Gibbons replied, “Whatever you think is appropriate or sensible, the directors are going to want it louder.”

Cronin says that a main goal of the production “is to assault the audience enough so their senses are beaten down and are raw and they absorb it almost inadvertently. If all the sound effects were a good deal more timid or pleasant, it might be easier for people to put off the ideas. And the ideas have to be absorbed into a raw emotive state.”

Gibbons notes that the term “jackhammer” has been used a lot in American press to describe his sound design for the show, which he finds interesting as he never heard it from U.K. critics. “I take slight exception to it as it, gives the sense of blunt trauma, or something non-specific,” he says. “I feel that the loud moments of the show are chosen very deliberately and in conjunction with moments of quiet and relief. This whole concept of loud/quiet comes from the final electrocution scenes in Room 101 where Winston is subjected to short sharp shocks of torture, which I felt could run through the whole experience of 1984. I sometimes wonder whether Winston, and the audience, is in fact experiencing the whole story of 1984 inside one of those few seconds of blinding pain, and that he’s been in Room 101 all along, right from the start. Certainly the reason why some of the sound in 1984 is so intense and loud is to place the audience into Winston’s head right at that moment of electrocution.”

When he set the levels for the show’s louder moments, Gibbons first worked out what the maximum capabilities of the system would be. He estimates that the d&b audiotechnik Y10 speakers he utilized have an approximate peak of roughly 130dB. Then he balanced that information with what the design team could handle.

“They’re usually pretty good barometers,” remarks Gibbons. “We worked hard at getting the high levels even across the theater, not just for the people at the front. The delay speakers are working hard for these moments, and we had a direct feed to them bypassing the main system, especially for this. It had to be scary though — there’s no way we could let the audience off the hook. It couldn’t be diluted. If it’s too loud for you, then you are welcome to leave the theater, no problem.”

 Tom Sturridge and Reed Birney in Broadway’s 1984. photo by Julieta Cervantes

‡‡         Making Them Jump

While during tech and previews the audio team would turn up the sound as loud as the speaker system would allow, short of becoming damaged, by the opening they scaled back a few of the gunshots and some of the “really loud scare moments,” recalls Cronin. “We’re definitely looking to make the audience jump. Some people have told me they felt it was too loud. I have pretty sensitive ears. I don’t like being assaulted by things. If I go listen to it and say it’s really loud, but it’s not hurt-my-ears loud, we’re safe. Everybody agreed it was loud, but nobody was going to be damaged by it. You’re looking to pay attention to where that line is, to not cross over if something is going to be hurtful for the audience, but something that is going to rouse them to enough of a point where, emotionally, they feel it.”

In terms of the sound effects used in the show, Cronin says that Gibbons used numerous computer and static sounds and that “he has a big affinity for prepared sounds, like something he defines as one thing and then manipulates it until it is something else.” Other integrated sounds included loops, low-end tones, recordings of icebergs breaking up, satellite telemetry noises, and various static and booming sounds like gunshots. Cronin adds that Gibbons has mastered taking an idea into a particular media and creating something new, kind of like a sculptor mixing together different types of materials. “What you get is his idea, but it doesn’t resemble the shape of any of the original parts.”

Occasionally an associate on a different production has added a new sound effect to the mix that Gibbons has not recognized, and Cronin acknowledges that an associate sound designer must be prepared to make such creative calls when the main designer is not around, particularly if it is at the behest of the directors. “I think as an associate you have to learn to speak in the language of that particular designer,” says Cronin. “So, while Tom is physically absent, and if one of the directors asks me to make a change or add something, I’ll fire off an e-mail to Tom to make sure he understands what’s happening, but I’ll try to do it in Tom’s voice.”

The duo certainly shares mutual admiration. They have now worked on three Broadway shows together. Cronin praises Gibbons as “an amazingly creative, young designer with endless energy.” Gibbons says that “working with Chris is always a joy” and appreciates his support and experience with Broadway shows and audiences. “He knows what will fly with them, and that’s important to bear in mind, more so than in London, I believe,” adds Gibbons. “1984 certainly couldn’t have happened in the way it has without the hard work and understanding of Chris and Sound Associates.”

2 Reed Birney, Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge in Broadway’s 1984. photo by Julieta Cervantes

‡‡         Microphones Everywhere

Unlike the standard practice for straight plays, the actors in 1984 are miked all the way through with Sennheiser 5212’s and DPA 4061 capsules. Some of the scenes can be tricky in terms of clothing ruffling, such as the intimate physicality of the bedroom scenes that are performed offstage and captured on live video, or the squirm-inducing interrogation scenes, where Winston’s voice can quickly change from whimpering to screaming (and beneath a head-worn prop). Such moments have required Jim van Bergen, the show’s A1, to ride the levels quite a bit beyond the approximately 300 sound cues the play already has.

One example occurs in the bedroom. “They’re touching each other, they’re kissing,” notes Cronin. “There is lots of dodging around while mixing, looking to avoid contact noise on Olivia. Then they’re face-to-face, whispering to each other, so it’s Tom’s mic on this phrase and then back to Julia’s mic, because Tom touches his head.” At another moment, Parsons delivers a speech during which he gets quieter and quieter, which requires van Bergen to bring his level up to keep the delivery consistent. “It’s a very dynamic performance, so you have to be dynamic in mixing it.”

As Cronin points out, 1984 is hard to watch. At the performance which FRONT of HOUSE attended, one audience goer departed during the brutal interrogation. “Winston’s performance has to be utterly unflinching, and you have to be unflinching, too, to deliver that properly to the audience,” notes Cronin.

Gibbons says that the Broadway production bumped things up a notch in the audio realm. It was the first time that the cast was fully amplified, which opened up more underscore possibilities, helped pushed dialogue subtly over other sounds, and transported the show “into a much more filmic place, by the end, with the use of the mics,” he says. The show has been done in the U.K., and then in Australia, and on tour in the U.S. where it was done using in-house systems. (Gibbons reveals that they blew out the entire sound rig in one London theater.)

“What was great about coming to New York with Chris Cronin and Sound Associates was that we could re-build the system from scratch, choosing specific boxes for specific sound cues almost,” elaborates Gibbons. “The addition of the two Q1 arrays on the proscenium line was a real step forward, adding another place to go from the more detailed sound of the Y boxes. Same with the Q1s in the upstage positions—they really anchored the sound in a way we haven’t been able to do before.”

Olivia Wilde, Tom Sturridge and the cast of Broadway’s 1984. photo by Julieta Cervantes

‡‡         Surrounding the Audience

The production used a Yamaha CL5 console with 64 inputs. The audio team used 18 RFs and 25 channels of QFs as backup along with various other microphones, including some offstage and backup microphones for the video scenes. The Altiverb reverbs are hosted by Apple Mainstage. Most of the speakers are d&b, with the main music and vocal speakers being d&b Y10Ps and C7s. Also included is a d&b Q1 array, a center cluster of Y8s, along with d&b fill speakers. The surround speakers are EM Acoustic EMS-61s. Sounds from the prerecorded video clips—such as a prisoner recanting his beliefs and Goldstein (the enemy of the state) riling up citizens during the “Two Minutes of Hate” — are mixed in from the video outputs.

“The way Tom works is any one sound, even if it originates on stage, has somewhat of a surround component, even if it’s just feeding reverb tail into the surround so it doesn’t feel very in front of you but feels very complete within the space,” explains Cronin. “Then there are very overt surround effects such as when helicopters pass by when Julia and Winston are out in the yard. During those transitions to Room 101 there is a lot of multipoint surround stuff. There are a lot of recorded voiceovers too. The bit during the scene change, the bit where the computer voice says, ‘You might as well say goodbye’—it keeps repeating that for two and a half minutes. It flies around behind people a little bit. There are the big jump moments moving from the book club to the canteen, sort of like a ripping, flashbulb-y, moving through space feeling that happens front to back in the room. That’s a big surround component as well.”

‡‡         Immersive Madness

1984 is not a show for the timid, nor is it utilitarian political drama. It immerses audiences in its dystopian madness and expects them to face the harsh reality consuming its main protagonists. Gibbons’ sound design plays a crucial role in this directive since he does not dial things back. Everything is in your face, and in your head.

“I think the main thing I’ve taken away from the whole 1984 experience is that it is important to follow through with a concept irrespective of how it might be perceived by an audience,” asserts Gibbons. “There are many themes of repetition and audience alienation in the show, and I think it might have been easier in some cases not to pursue some of them. We have a fair few walk-outs on the Broadway show, but we also all receive emails from audience members who took the time out to let us know how much they liked the experience, or to tell us how important what we’ve done is.

“I’ve certainly been told numerous times over the last four years that this cue is too loud, or that the high-pitched sound is too painful, but importantly we’ve persevered because it’s what we believe the show and sound design should be. Confidence in design concept is hugely important for this show and for the arts in general. There would be nothing worse than a three-star, beige re-telling of 1984. This certainly isn’t that, and I hope the sound design goes someway to make sure of it.”