How do you solve a problem like acoustics? There are no easy answers—especially when dealing with a hall designed for operatic singing! The expert sound designer and composer Mark Grey takes us inside the delicate process of balancing singing, spoken dialogue, sound effects, and orchestral music in The Sound of Music.

How do you solve a problem like acoustics? There are no easy answers—especially when dealing with a hall designed for operatic singing! The expert sound designer and composer Mark Grey takes us inside the delicate process of balancing singing, spoken dialogue, sound effects, and orchestral music in The Sound of Music. How is checking sound like getting your car fixed? Why is he praying for a spring cold snap and the extra layers of clothing that come with it? Read on!

For those who aren't familiar with the term, what is "sound design"?

Sound design is actually a very broad term and used in many fields such as film, recording arts, architecture, live theater, concert music, and opera. Within the sphere of musical theater, most applicable here for The Sound of Music, there are two significant variations:

1.) Designing sound effects, say thunder or gunshot cues, to fit the atmosphere of a specific staging moment

2.) The design and usability of a sound reinforcement system for a theatrical production.

Sometimes the two cross-pollinate. Here, I designed a sound system to broadcast the voices and music to clearly cover the Civic Opera Building's 3500-seat capacity while also developing sound effects such as abbey bells, period doorbells, various thunders, and a car driving away. The craft then becomes how you "tune and mix" all the sound system elements to fully represent the quality of cast, musicians, and production. As a sound designer, I have crossed paths with countless performers, venues, styles of production, and composers—most significantly my 25-year tenure with the American composer John Adams—where we work mostly in opera and classical concert music.

What are some of the challenges (both expected and unexpected) of creating sound design for Lyric's space?

The most significant challenge is creating as natural a sound from the stage and pit as possible, for such a large and cavernous-sounding venue. This is an opera house originally meant for the singing voice, and an amazing one at that, but with musical theater you have a great deal of spoken dialogue, often 60% or more within a production. Most theatrical sound designers work in venues maybe half the size where the natural reverb time of the hall is much shorter and can be controlled. When the seating capacity is so large, and you are dealing with spoken word, this long unwanted reverb can easily mask the voices coming the stage. Thus, the challenge begins…

The expected challenge is knowing you must broadcast the spoken voice to be clearly heard over a length of, say a city block. The unexpected is actually doing it! There are so many variables and the playing field is fluid. For example, the acoustics in a venue drastically change from rehearsals with no audience to a sold-out performance with warm bodies in all the seats. Especially nice are the times during a Chicago winter or spring when jackets are plenty, as we love anything to absorb the venue's ambient reverb. Theorizing a sound design on paper is one thing, but creating and troubleshooting various situations with a living and breathing production is much more wild.

How is the sound for The Sound of Music different from Oklahoma!? Audience members might notice those three huge speakers suspended in front of the proscenium, for example.

Yes, very large speaker arrays indeed! Simply put, to gain intimate vocal intelligibility and nuance from the stage and pit means the need for large speaker arrays covering large seating areas. Long gone are the days of putting up a couple speakers on the side of the stage and calling it a day. Our contemporary ears have changed with the development of the digital age. We hear things now we never could have before—from super high-definition surround sound systems, earbuds stuffed with MP3 mixes, cars pushing subwoofers, and globally scouring the internet capturing nearly all sights and sounds on earth.

The difference in time between Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music is only a year, but audio technology is changing leaps and bounds every day. When we experience, say a Metropolitan Opera or National Theatre simulcast in a movie theater, the sound is more transparent and cleaner than ever. Our expectations then change when we go to experience live theater. We are all expecting greater things these days—the sound being one of many components. With modern audio technology, we can gain that clarity in live theater. One the great sound designers in the field of theater (and a hero of mine) is Jonathan Deans. He continues to push the boundaries of what old sound was and what the new sound experience will be for the future—all with staggering results and sensitivity. To the point, the difference between the two productions (actually three if you count Show Boat) are significant differences in the clarity of both music and voice presentation. I am always pushing for new technology to help explore facets and relationships between the human voice and music and to serve audiences in the best way we have to offer in our field. To come full circle, we must tip our hats towards the generous support of John and Helen Meyer of Meyer Sound Labs in Berkeley, CA. Without their innovation in the future of audio technology the suspended speakers we see at the proscenium would not exist.

In the rehearsal process, how do you go about tweaking the sound to perfect it from every seat?

Again with the aid of modern technology, I can walk around the venue with a wireless tablet and re-balance the sound system on the fly, as the production is on stage, moving forward in a rehearsal. Think of when you take your car into the shop for servicing. Years past, mechanics would poke and prod and drop a wench or two. Now, they tap into the car's mainframe with a remote computer and diagnose where the direct conflict is. There is no difference with a modern sound system. I can tap into all sound system components wirelessly, at any time, from any seat, and tweak until last call.

How do you approach musical theater differently than you would an opera, say Doctor Atomic, which you designed here at Lyric a few years ago? Is it easier or harder to design a show that is all amplified (like The Sound of Music) vs. opera, which is more subtle?

Surprisingly, I approach both musical theater and opera the exact same way. In both genres I reinforce the cast and chorus with wireless microphones and place wired microphones in the orchestra pit. However, the means to an end are very different. It really comes down to singing vs. spoken voice. In opera, as in say Doctor Atomic, the cast and chorus sing in full voice so the body of their sound is already pushing air. I use wireless microphone technology to help create transparency in the language they sing. The result is that you hear the clarity of the words and the natural beauty of the operatic voice all joined together harmoniously. In musicals, the spoken voice does not carry very far into a large venue, especially when there is music underscoring in the pit. Here, I use wireless microphones to help project the body of the voice and then rebalance when they move into a singing voice.

As far as the orchestra, I always follow the conductor's step. The goal is not to traditionally reinforce the musicians but to help add a blending agent so the stage and pit sound do not feel disjointed. To achieve this, I use a high-quality reverb to generate a "glow" on the orchestra, which also helps widen the string orchestra sound when they are fewer in numbers, as they are in The Sound of Music, as compared to the typical orchestra size for an opera.

Overall it's a tricky act, but this is where the art of mixing comes into play. Fortunately, we have one of the best sound engineers in the business behind the mixing console for The Sound of Music, Lilly West. She is balancing all of the 40 wireless microphones and orchestra in real time. This is a hands-on operation. Nothing is ever "set and forget." Again, everything in the venue is changing due to climate, audience body count / garments, as well as the temperaments of stage and pit action—which comes fast and quick. Lilly has the sharpest intuition, reaction time, and quickest hands that I have worked with. An integral part of making these productions technically seamless is the Lyric's own sound department, headed by Paul Christopher. This team is the magic behind the curtain, and they are the ones who ensure a smooth ride every day.

How did you become sound designer? What first interested you in the profession?

I first became interested in sound design during my BA and MA in composition studies. To realize my own music I often had to design and mix my own concerts, in addition to writing the actual music. Having been trained by a pioneer in electro-acoustic music, Allen Strange, I was given the tools to experiment—sometimes subtle but most often extreme design and mixing situations in both theater and concert music. Also during my studies, while I was teaching music composition at CalArts in the summers, I met John Adams and we hit it off immediately. He had a wild sound world up in his head and was looking for someone to help get it out. I soon became his right hand with everything technical. With him I was fortunate to forge new ground on being the first sound designer in history to formally work in many of the world's finest traditional concert halls and opera houses, including Lyric and the Metropolitan Opera.

You're also a prolific composer. How would you say your experience as a sound designer/engineer influences your compositional style?

For me, approaching a specific music composition is all about the sound world I wish to create in that work, for a specific moment in time. Many of my large orchestra works have absolutely no sound technology woven into the fabric. It's very refreshing to be able to move between the seemingly opposing worlds of technology and the traditional. I am currently writing an opera for La Monnaie, the Royal Opera House in Brussels, to premiere in Spring 2016. The subject of the work is a modern adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Here, we plan to infuse various technologies, both audio and video, to create a 21st century journey through this profound novel. My experiences as a sound designer are already playing greatly into the compositional process of this opera, helping to fuse the two worlds together.

To learn more about Mark's work, visit markgreymusic.com

Photo credits:

  • Mark Grey portrait (courtesy Mark Grey)
  • A scene from The Sound of Music (credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
  • A scene from Doctor Atomic (credit Robert Kusel / Lyric Opera of Chicago)