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Inside the Sound Design of Moulin Rouge! The Musical

By Clive Young. The Broadway smash mashes up more than 70 pop songs to create the ultimate jukebox musical. Sound designer Peter Hylenski shares how the audio team met that challenge head on.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical might be the ultimate jukebox musical. The show, which opened on Broadway in late July, may be set in 1900, but it uses a very 21st-century genre—the mashup—to weave elements from more than 70 pop songs together into an ambitious, wide-ranging score. Based on the 2001 movie musical, the stage adaptation adds in numerous songs from the last 17 years as it follows the doomed love between Christian, a poor composer, and Satine, a worldly dancer. Set at the titular Paris cabaret, the show sports resplendent costuming and lush scenery, so it was only fitting that the audio match; charged with the task was sound designer, Peter Hylenski.

“This show traverses many different musical styles, so what I was trying to accomplish with the sound design was to stay true to the musical material, but allow the musicality of our show to connect with the storytelling,” said Hylenski. “The sound really had to connect and work hand in glove. There are moments where it’s a rock concert, and moments where it’s an intimate solo guitar with vocal, so it’s this dynamic, moving, sweeping, cinematic sound in a lot of ways, and that was the goal—to take the audience on a journey.”

Providing that musicality is a mix of live instruments—drums, two guitars, bass, string quartet, brass quartet and two keyboards—and some track augmentation. “The core of the music is played by our live band; that composes the foundation of how the music is created for the show,” said Hylenski. “70 songs or not, that’s where it all starts, and what we look at with the music department is how do we give the show its own sound, and make sure each number is sounding somewhat unique or has something else to offer?”

Like many Broadway shows these days, Moulin Rogue’s stage deck inside the 1,400-seat Al Hirschfeld Theater is built out over the traditional orchestra pit, expanding out into the audience, while also sporting catwalks and side stages on the periphery of the house. As a result, the conductor is located beneath the stage where the orchestra pit would have been and the rest of the band is in custom-built studio rooms—some in the basement, others in a dressing room. “Every inch of that theater is filled with something at this point because the show is so massive,” said Hylenski.

The studio rooms were built offsite at audio provider PRG’s facility in New Jersey along with the rest of the sound system. “Between floating the floors, putting in air conditioning and electrics, and getting all the audio lines and network lines for the monitoring system run in, we’re essentially building a recording studio plus doing a live show at the same time!” said Hylenski. “It’s pretty cool, but a lot of work. Everything’s got to run at an accelerated construction schedule and be built in modular ways so that it can assemble very quickly, even those studio rooms. We built their walls and ceilings offsite, trucked them to the theater, lowered it into place in the basement, assembled the ceiling and then built the stage floor for the actual show on top of that. It’s pretty crazy.”

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The expanded stage deck also meant that bringing the band’s music to the audience was no simple task. “There are a number of challenges; because of the way the set is breaking through the proscenium and out into the house, a lot of typical speaker positions became unusable,” said Hylenski. While d&b audiotechnik E6s and E8s are used for the surround system, the production is mainly based around Meyer Sound loudspeakers, with two 11-box Leopard arrays, 28 MM-4 and 23 MM-4XP miniature speakers, 24 UPJunior compact loudspeakers, and numerous UPQ and UPM-line speakers, including the first Broadway installation of the new ultra wide-coverage UPQ-D3.

“The new UPQ-D series is fantastic—we’re using those as building blocks and fitting them in where we can, working closely with the set department to get everything exactly where we need them but still have them look appropriate and fit into the world,” said Hylenski. “There’s Meyer MM-4XPs and UP-4XPs that we’re using for front fills and little side fills, all the stage foldback for the cast is self-powered Meyer UPJs and UPJuniors, more MM-4s are in the floor of the set and the set pieces have foldback built-in, so there’s pretty much speakers everywhere.”

Low end is provided by 900-LFCs and 1100-LFCs, and all the delay systems are also Meyer: “The theater has a very long under-balcony, so we’ve got two rings of delays, which gives an immediacy to the sound and allows it to feel even from front to back so that we’re giving that concert experience equally to everyone, but can bring the level down for dialogue and still have it feel natural and realistic.”

The music passing through those speakers is mixed on a pair of Avid S6L consoles, chosen primarily for the number of inputs and flexibility they can provide. Along for the ride are Waves SoundGrid Extreme servers: “They’re a fairly standard addition for my systems. I’m accustomed to a lot of the analog-modeled plug-ins that Waves offers, so I love being able to implement them and have the flexibility of having some great-sounding chains through the Waves plug-in system.”

In all, there’s 108 inputs on one Avid desk and 118 on the other—the culmination of 40-plus radio mics for the cast; a slew of ‘voice of God’ utility mics for the director, choreographer and stage managers; stem mixes; sound effects; and a cavalcade of different mics on the band: “It goes back to the fact that we have 70 songs—how do you differentiate them? We mic things and use inputs more like you might in the studio, so the drums have a number of inputs set up for them, with multiple mics on top of the snare, room mics and all the normal toys that you might have in a studio. For instance, you can change the perspective of the drums—get a close-mic drum mic sound, or turn those down and bring up the room mics to give it a bit more air. Then the acoustics have mics, the guitars have pedals; it’s all those types of flavors, so it starts to add up input-wise, plus we also have Ableton tracks coming in as well.”

Lectrosonics SSM wireless packs are used to transmit the cast, which is captured using Sennheiser MKE1 microphone elements worn on custom headsets. Hylenski explained, “We have a very handy, crafty A2, Jonny Massena, who went to school for watchmaking, so he’s got a unique set of skills. Because the costumes are very period and the dancing is very rigorous, Jonny made one or two custom headsets and they worked out well, so we kept going down that path and now pretty much everyone is on a custom headset with one or sometimes two MKE1s, because we run redundancy for the principal characters.”

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With the show playing nightly to packed houses, Hylenski has already begun working on another movie adaptation—Almost Famous—where he’ll no doubt apply lessons learned from the challenges he and his team faced on Moulin Rouge: “There was a lot of work done to keep it clean and powerful, but also create a seamless sonic experience to match the seamless visual experience. I think it’s pretty cool how we handled it.”

Moulin Rouge •

Meyer Sound •

Avid •

Lectrosonics •

Sennheiser •

Waves •

d&b audiotechnik •