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Musical Theatre: A trend towards a 'squeezed', produced sound?


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Hi guys,

 

As a musical theatre MD, I've noticed over the past few years a trend towards a very EQed, tight, and 'produced' sound coming out of Front of House. Just out of interest, as people who work in the field of sound, has anyone experienced this, and is there a particular reason for it?

 

Trumpets in particular for some reason....

 

Cheers!

 

Martin

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Possibly the influence of studio engineers, in that environment that's the done thing...?

 

Maybe... It just seems that so much of the dynamics of an orchestration is being lost now (possibly in the 'louder, louder' madness that's currently the subject of another thread on here). A shame (IMHO).

 

M

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not my field but I am going to stick my neck out and speculate it may sound that way 'because they can'. digital desks and often those that operate them have gates, compressors and tailored eq for each and every mic available at their fingertips in a half decent theatre now courtesy of their shiny digital desk. you can now reasonably contain a boisterous brass section and elevate struggling strings. its interesting to me that on musical theatre productions I have seen in preparation I hardly see the MD and the engineer pass more than a word between them. so who is controlling the production value? maybe for a west end show the MD sits with the engineer and says 'I want an open lazy brass sound, minimal compression and gating, let the orchestra breath' or conversely ' the string section doesn't seem to be as lush as it could be, or isn't cutting through in the way that I would like, can we do something to control that?' I do know that the local productions I see those conversations don't happen. in fact of the MD's I have met and watched work I don't think I have seen one yet wander round to front of house to see what it's like and pass notes to the engineer verbally or otherwise. It very much seems to be left to the engineer in his spot with his desk to use his own ears and judge what he thinks is needed. I imply no criticism of either MD or engineer - being either is tougher than mixing a rock show as I do, just an observation from someone lower down the food chain of what I see and hear.
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I agree with the OP and don't like the trend.

 

In my experience, it's the producers who dictate this. They want shows to sound like commercial recordings (including the over-compressed "loudness wars" sound) rather than a true live show. There's also the "loud equals exciting" myth to fight. Very few people these days seem to actually understand how live music really sounds. Everything is judged against close miked, heavily mixed studio sound--often after it's been totally messed up with a transfer to MP3.

 

When doing a musical, I like to work with the musical director and try to put some dynamics and "liveness" back into the sound. Ideally, once the MD and I present a united front we can work with the producers and come up with something decent in terms of the sound style.

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gates, compressors ... for each and every mic

 

+1

 

I like dynamics. Example: most people think I'm odd because in preference (is if there isn;t a problem that needs solving) I dont compress the kick; I like the kick level bouncing around, the drummer knows how to accent.

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I do a lot of radiomic hire and sound for amateur musicals and schools, the record recently was 18 mics for a village panto (more than the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury). I have seen a number of west end shows recently (having avoided the newer shows for several years) and the amount of sound kit is almost exponential, line arrays, more or less a speaker pointing at every seat, I joked with the engineer at the marlowe over xmas (I was filming the show)its almost time in the west end to put a headphone jack in for each seat, how produced could it sound then

 

Andy

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Had this the other day at our venue. The repeating issue is that for many visiting shows, the place to unload is a long box push from the theatre - so it's really common for people to wander in, ask if they can use our PA (which is analogue). They play a CD say it's fine and then bring in their own monitors so the band won't realise it's not their kit. Anyway - sound check sounded good to me. Then our sound op sidles up and asks if he can nick the entire rack of compressors as the visiting engineer needs them. We tend to only even wire them if we really need them, but after ten minutes the nice live sound was sounding all studio and squashed. Do you really need to compress every drum for a 60s/70s type band playing Burt Bacharach and the Carpenters? Thanks to Yamaha, it's easy!
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its interesting to me that on musical theatre productions I have seen in preparation I hardly see the MD and the engineer pass more than a word between them. so who is controlling the production value? maybe for a west end show the MD sits with the engineer and says 'I want an open lazy brass sound, minimal compression and gating, let the orchestra breath' or conversely ' the string section doesn't seem to be as lush as it could be, or isn't cutting through in the way that I would like, can we do something to control that?'

 

In the west end it's normally the musical supervisor who would work with the sound designer to balance the mix correctly. On occasion (not as regular as it should be IMO), if the musical supervisor didn't orchestrate the show, then the orchestrator comes in as well. Especially on shows with specially designed samples and synth sounds.

 

As an aside, one of the major tours I worked on had almost every output compressed to hell by the sound designer. As soon as he was out of the building, the compressors all got turned off by the operator!

 

In fact of the MD's I have met and watched work I don't think I have seen one yet wander round to front of house to see what it's like and pass notes to the engineer verbally or otherwise. It very much seems to be left to the engineer in his spot with his desk to use his own ears and judge what he thinks is needed. I imply no criticism of either MD or engineer - being either is tougher than mixing a rock show as I do, just an observation from someone lower down the food chain of what I see and hear.

 

As an MD who has done several West End and UK touring productions and sits out and listens on a regular basis, I can tell you that it's probably more an attitude thing.... I should probably be careful posting this on a sound forum, but in my experience the general attitude (from the DESIGNER, not the operator), is that "it's not the MD's problem. Play the notes, trigger the tracks, and leave the rest of it to people who know what they're doing. Now.... back to the pit. There's a good boy!". On the shows I have supervised and been involved with from conception, however, it's a very different matter. Input is taken on board.

 

In my experience, it's the producers who dictate this. They want shows to sound like commercial recordings (including the over-compressed "loudness wars" sound) rather than a true live show. There's also the "loud equals exciting" myth to fight.

 

Disney musicals are particularly guilty of this! The original UK Beauty tour back in 2002/3 sounded like the recording!

 

When doing a musical, I like to work with the musical director and try to put some dynamics and "liveness" back into the sound. Ideally, once the MD and I present a united front we can work with the producers and come up with something decent in terms of the sound style.

 

I'd like to work with you! :D I actually found one of the best working relationships I had with a soundie was on panto last year. I possibly went in a bit defensively ("I'm giving you a track and keys mix - I don't trust you to get the balance right"), but after a couple of days we found a great working balance. He can have all the stems he wants this year! B-)

 

Martin

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  • 3 weeks later...

Possibly the influence of studio engineers, in that environment that's the done thing...?

I can't think of many studio engineers who design musical theatre shows.

 

I can think of a couple, one won the first ever Tony Award for sound design for a musical, and another designed the first go round of most of Andrew Lloyd Webber's work.

 

Mac

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Possibly the influence of studio engineers, in that environment that's the done thing...?

I can't think of many studio engineers who design musical theatre shows.

 

I can think of a couple, one won the first ever Tony Award for sound design for a musical, and another designed the first go round of most of Andrew Lloyd Webber's work.

 

Mac

Fair point although Martin was long retired by the time digital desks made it in to theatre.

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