A Tale of Two Mixes

by Bryan Reesman
in Theater Sound
Jordan Bondurant and the cast of A Wall Apart at the 2017 NYMF. Photo by Michael Schoenfeld
Jordan Bondurant and the cast of A Wall Apart at the 2017 NYMF. Photo by Michael Schoenfeld

Sound Designer Matt Otto and A1 Curt Miller Talk NYMF

A welcome home for adventurous and off-the-wall productions, the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) challenges even the heartiest sound designers and live engineers. The month-long off-Broadway extravaganza celebrated its 14th year this past July with a solid assortment of musicals, workshops and classes within two main venues: Theatre Row and Playwright Horizons, both located on West 42nd Street.

 David Larsen as Pope Stephen VII with dead Pope Formosus and the Cadaver Synod ensemble, photo by Russ Rowland

FRONT of HOUSE caught two productions, The Cadaver Synod: A Pope Musical and A Wall Apart, which shared the same stage (the 199-seat Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row), but at different times and with different sonic requirements. Both shows shared the same A1, 23-year-old Curt Miller, a first time NYMF mixer who worked on four productions and received a baptism by fire through the festival’s extreme time constraints.

Regarding the festival’s hectic production schedule, Matt Otto, sound designer for The Cadaver Synod notes that that “hardest part about a NYMF show is that you have to tech your brand-new musical in about six hours. That includes sound system tuning, loading in the set, cuing all the light cues, all the sound cues, all the projection cues and running all the musical numbers. You get into the space at 10 a.m. and have a show that night. A ‘normal world’ premiere musical tech process can take a week of 10-hour days or more. To do that same process in much less time takes a lot of experience, planning and a great team.”

Otto’s Cadaver sound team included NYMF sound supervisor Kelsi Halverson; his A1, Curt Miller; and A2, Rob Isley. “They are all extremely talented, and I wouldn’t have been able to get Synod to sound as good or be as fun without them.”

Jordan Bondurant, Maddie Shea Baldwin and the cast of A Wall Apart.

‡‡         Two Distinct Shows

The two shows, both of which received a standard run of five to six performances, were quite different. The Cadaver Synod, based on the real-life story of a crazy Pope who put the corpse of his predecessor on trial to discredit his reign, is divided into two distinct acts; the first is boisterous “Pope Punk” and the second more traditional musical theater. That split reflects the emotional chaos of the first half and the intimate backstory of the second.

Featuring music and lyrics by Air Supply guitarist Graham Russell, A Wall Apart chronicles the 30-year romance of a young couple who become separated once the Berlin Wall was erected overnight. It has a more consistent rock tone and louder volume, although it is peppered with different musical styles throughout. It featured a sound design by Shannon Epstein. (It’s amusing that the show from the soft rock icon is louder than the punk-injected musical.)

A Wall Apart was a much louder sounding show, and I think that’s mostly due to the band and the musicians,” concurs Miller. “Cadaver’s pit was made up of musical theater musicians and a musical theater MD. A Wall Apart was rock band guys, session band guys and an MD who, I think, does a little bit of both.”

Forest VanDyke in Cadaver Synod, photo by Russ Rowland

Both productions featured talented players in the “pit” (i.e., offstage wing space at stage right) and up to 13 or 14 cast members onstage at one time. Miller’s challenge with Wall’s rock pit was to keep the stage volume lower to achieve a musical theater mix in the small space and make sure the vocals could rise above the music.

On the flip side, “Cadaver was a little more canned in terms of the instrumentation,” he says. “It was all happening live, but the monitors were a little quieter. I think there was a guitarist in that show who had a much quieter volume on the amp, which was a lot easier to control. That space is very small and kind of dead, acoustically, and anything happening on stage is going to come right through.”

Otto says that the Acorn system was “originally tuned for the standard musical number, where it would feel a touch louder than comfortable. But we wanted it to be CBGB loud,” he recalls of Cadaver Synod. “I figured if we had the headroom to take the system to too loud, we could always find the place where it was just loud enough to support the moment on stage.”

While they wanted the music for Cadaver Synod to be “rockingly loud,” Otto’s team needed to avoid the feedback that could emerge with 12 omni mics open at any one time. “To achieve that, I had Curt flipping faders on a line by line basis, meaning only the person currently speaking or singing had their mic open at any one time,” says the sound designer. “We had the band mix on a separate DCA to make sure we could pull the band up or down as the show went from punk rock to standard musical theater.”

A Wall Apart at the 2017 NYMF. PRG supplied lighting and sound gear. Photo by Michael Schoenfeld

‡‡         One Setup for Multiple Shows

According to Otto, NYMF prescribes specific mics and transmitters to the sound designers because of the rotating repertory nature of the festival. It would be very time-consuming for each crew to dismantle the previous show’s setup and load in their rig each time. Keeping the gear uniform solved this problem. PRG, a longtime sponsor of the NYMF, supplied all of the audio and lighting equipment.

The band for Synod featured electronic drums, keyboards, guitar, bass and clarinet and saxophone. “The electric drums were a stereo send into DI boxes, specifically Countryman Type 85s, and then into the sound console,” explains Otto. “But we could adjust the specific elements inside of the kit itself.

“We opted for as much kick drum and tom as we could get out of it so we could have a kind of raw, forceful sound,” Otto continues. “The keys were also sent to Countryman Type 85 DIs. However, the keys had so many patch, EQ and effects changes, our keyboardist/music director Dan Garmon setup MainStage on his laptop and would change presets on the keys via a foot pedal, as needed.”

The electric guitar and electric bass amps were miked with Sennheiser MD421s, the woodwinds an AKG C414, and the cast with Sennheiser MKE 2s and Sennheiser SK 5212-II transmitters. The console in the Acorn is a Yamaha M7CL-48.

Cadaver Synod photo by Russ Rowland

Miller says the cast mics were generally the same for A Wall Apart. “I know on Cadaver, we did entirely ear rigs, trying to get the mic closer to the mouth and get a stronger gain,” says Miller. “On A Wall Apart we tried to, but because we were sharing rigs with the other shows in that space, we had some ear rigs, which definitely wasn’t ideal for that show but it’s what we worked with. The pit was mostly the same. We had Roland V-Drums, so the drums were canned, but going through the monitors and going through the front of house.”

The biggest difference on A Wall Apart was that the show had two guitarists playing through Fender Deluxe amps, “which is pretty hot on stage,” says Miller. “We also had a Fender Acoustasonic [amp] for the acoustic, which was also pretty wild because we could’ve just gone with a DI for that.”

A Wall Apart photo by Michael Schoenfeld

‡‡         On the Fly

The short tech time for both shows was certainly a fun challenge for Miller, who comes from a traditional musical theater background. “I had to be really on-point with my programming, so I had to do it off-line and load it in the console that day,” he says. “You just have to make it work on the fly, whereas you might [normally] have a week in tech to suss out the glitches in your programming.”

Problems had to be handled spontaneously, because they were live. “It is important to find out where to cut the corners and work more efficiently and where to do it right the first time. It’s a different learning curve coming from having more time to prepare.”

Beyond the three hours of tech for the NYMF shows, producers held a design run three or four days earlier, which the A1s could attend. Miller recorded it with his Tascam, then brought it home, went through the script page by page and did the off-line programming.

Cadaver Synod photo by Russ Rowland

“That process usually took about eight hours, and that was the prep we had,” recalls Miller. “That’s what I did on Cadaver, and I think A Wall Apart was the same, but they actually preferred to buy a few more hours of my time” and brought him into the first cast rehearsal with the full band.

In the end, Miller capably handled The Cadaver Synod and A Wall Apart and rocked out audiences while controlling the sound in the 199-seat Acorn Theatre. Both productions were well-received and showed promising signs of life beyond NYMF.

Indeed, when one considers the short production time for these festival shows, it is amazing that they became as polished as they were. But it is that manic behind-the-scenes activity at NYMF that fuels the onstage energy, and that extends to the crew as well.

“The whole festival kind of feels like a near miracle that it gets pulled off,” concurs Miller. “I was a little bit panicky in the first week, but by the last one, the room could’ve been on fire and I would’ve been like, ‘Ah, this is fine.’”

A Wall Apart photo by Michael Schoenfeld