Arts and Culture

When you can hear every word, thank the sound mixers

Broadway musical Illinoise’s sound mixer and designer Garth MacAleavy does his preparation for the evening show at the St. James Theatre in New York, on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.
Marco Postigo Storel for NPR

Ninety minutes before curtain on a recent Tuesday evening, Garth MacAleavey, the sound designer and sound mixer of the Broadway musical Illinoise, went through his checklist.

“I'm going to run pink noise through every speaker. Make sure everything's working,” MacAleavey said. Pink noise is “all of the audible frequencies of the human ear, all the same amplitude. So, we're getting everything from, I guess, 20Hz to 20,000Hz.”

Illinoise is a Tony-nominated dance musical based on Sufjan Stevens’ album Illinois and the singers and musicians perform on a split, multi-level bandstand above the stage.

Illinoise’s MacAleavy has many items for good luck around his table like rocks, shells and message from colleagues.
Marco Postigo Storel for NPR

Next, MacAleavey’s “A2” – backstage sound assistant Hannah Overton – played each instrument and talked into every microphone on the bandstand, to make sure they were working properly.

MacAleavey, who is making his Broadway debut with the show, comes from the world of contemporary opera and music.

“This is like a real music concert: rock show sometimes, chamber music concert sometimes,” said MacAleavey.

Once the audience was seated, a light cue flashed from the stage manager, and the show began.

How microphones changed everything

It used to be that Broadway didn’t use microphones. Actors simply projected. As songwriter Irving Berlin once quipped about singer Ethel Merman, “You better write her a good lyric because, when she sings a word, the guy up in the last row of the second balcony is going to hear every syllable of it.”

But now actors and musicians have microphones, and speakers are everywhere. Keeping that sound crisp for the audience are the sound mixers.

Broadway musical The Outsiders’ sound mixer Heather Augustine does her preparation for the evening show at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York, on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
Marco Postigo Storel for NPR

“It's fascinating to see the way that shows have changed,” said Heather Augustine, the sound mixer at the Tony-nominated musical The Outsiders. “Back in Ethel Merman's day, musicals were written — and the music was written — so you had a pocket for voices to sit in, so it was easier to hear things acoustically.”

Now shows like hers often use lots of electric instruments. Augustine has toured with such shows as Billy Elliot, The Phantom of the Opera and Mean Girls, but is making her Broadway debut with The Outsiders. Her job is to give the audience the experience of listening to a recording, even though they’re watching a Broadway musical unfold live.

“People have good headphones now and AirPods have a good sound to them,” said Sean Woods, who is making his Broadway debut as the sound mixer for Hell’s Kitchen. The musical is based on Alicia Keys’ life and has 13 Tony nominations. “Everyone's used to a good stereo recording. And now, that needs to be the standard at this point. People are used to that. So, you know, not-so-great clarity doesn't really fly.”

Augustine checks the actors’ microphones in preparation for the evening show.
Marco Postigo Storel

Sound mixers usually don’t decide how a show will sound — MacAleavey of Illinoise is the exception. Most shows have a separate sound designer, like Cody Spencer, who is nominated for Tonys this season for both The Outsiders and Here Lies Love, and Gareth Owen, nominated for a Tony for Hell’s Kitchen.

Sound mixers stand at the rear of the theater behind consoles with multiple computer screens which look a lot like the bridge on Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise. From there, they control all the microphone inputs, which then go out to speakers all over the theater. At Hell’s Kitchen, there are between 230 and 240 speakers, said Woods, “which I think is, at the moment at least, the most on Broadway.”

One reason for the big number of speakers is that Hell’s Kitchen, like The Outsiders, uses special software to generate a surround sound experience for the audience.

Broadway musical Hell's Kitchen’s sound mixer Sean Woods does his preparation for the evening show at the Shubert Theatre in New York, on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.
Marco Postigo Storel for NPR

“Everyone in the show wears little trackers,” said Woods, “and that kind of puts them in three-dimensional space on stage.” Which means the audience can hear exactly where the sound is coming from.

While every song and scene has its own computer setting – triggered by either a button or a foot pedal – the sound mixers are constantly riding levels, bringing vocals or individual lines of dialogue up or down. It’s a ballet, using just fingers.

During a recent evening at The Outsiders, Heather Augustine followed along on an iPad with a lot of notations.

Broadway musical Hell's Kitchen’s sound mixer Sean Woods does his preparation for the evening show at the Shubert Theatre in New York, on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.
Marco Postigo Storel for NPR

“I like color codes a lot,” she said, pointing to a script with colors underlining dialogue and lyrics. “So everything in red is for mics, where I'll underline if I know somebody is a little quiet and I need to push them a little bit more.”

There are hundreds of cues to get just right – and then the curtain falls.

Augustine, who contributes to an industry blog called Sound Girls, said she wouldn’t trade her job for anything. “It has something special, where I get a feeling – mixing a show, when you get it just right – that you don't get anywhere else.”

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