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Jonathan Deans: A Sound Designer’s Odyssey

Jonathan Deans is one of the most successful sound designers in the current musical theater. His credits as sound designer include Fosse, Ragtime, Mystere,

Jonathan Deans is one of the most successful sound designers in the current musical theater. His credits as sound designer include Fosse, Ragtime, Mystere, O, La Nouba, EFX and Parade. When Disney opened the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, Deans designed the sound production for a concert version of a show called King David, which included a 70-piece onstage orchestra and a cast of 40 with ten principals. Deans-designed shows currently running on Broadway include Ragtime and Fosse.

Born in England in 1954, Deans became a successful child actor and was fascinated by electronics and sound at an early age. “I bought myself a tape recorder and taught myself how to edit tapes, and I was really interested in anything that made noise,” he says. “I blew myself up a few times looking into the backs of TVs and stuff like that. I’m going back [to] when I was like 10, 12 years old.”

At 15, Deans joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it was there that his interest in sound began to coincide with his passion for theater. At 18 he secured a position as Technical ASM (assistant stage manager) at a theater near his home in Richmond, Surrey. When the theater closed, Deans found a job at Pye Recording Studios (site of the classic early Kinks and Searchers recordings) and then moved on to Morgan Studios. As an assistant engineer at Morgan, Deans worked with such engineers as Mike Boback, Roger Quested and Robin Black and was involved in sessions for Blue Mink, Cat Stevens and Paul Simon, among others.

But the pull of theater was irresistible and Deans moved again, this time to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he spent about two years as a member of the sound department. “And then a show called A Chorus Line came to town,” he recalls. Deans was picked to mix the show at the Drury Lane Theatre, and the show’s success started a boom for musicals in the UK. Having proven himself to Abe Jacob, the sound designer of A Chorus Line, Deans was a first choice sound mixer for subsequent productions.

Deans became a full-time sound operator and mixed such groundbreaking shows as Evita, Cats, Bugsy Malone, The Sound of Music, They’re Playing Our Song and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. After a trip to America to open Evita in L.A, San Francisco and New York, Deans returned to London and joined the staff of Autograph Sound, the leading UK-based sound equipment rental company for West End productions. At Autograph, Deans began designing sound in addition to mixing shows, and his early sound designs included Time (starring Cliff Richard), Mutiny with David Essex, Marilyn, and the traditional musical Kiss Me, Kate

Mix recently interviewed Deans at length while he was at his home in Las Vegas, where he was relaxing after the successful opening of a new Cirque du Soleil show, La Nouba, at the Westside Disney theme park in Orlando, Florida.

I wanted to start off by asking you about the typical process in a live theater production when the sound person might have only heard the show once or twice by the time of the preview. 

It sucks. [Laughs]

And does it seem to be an unchanging rule of theater?

It’s all to do with budget and costs. For a producer to bring in an orchestra too early is sort of suicide with budgets. So to deal with those costs, they bring the orchestra in at the last minute. And, of course, sound needs the actors on stage and the musicians in the theater. And it needs everybody else to have finished their work so we can do ours. In other words, the stage needs to have been built, and everyone else needs to have got their things sorted. Not the lighting, necessarily, but certainly the costumes need to have been made because costumes, and hats especially, make a big difference to how you mike a performer. We’re very involved with costumes and wigs and hats because of mics being tucked behind people’s ears and in their hairlines. So that all needs to be done.

One of the best-sounding shows on Broadway was The Capeman, the Paul Simon show. Instead of just having a rehearsal pianist, Paul Simon actually had nine musicians working from the beginning. So when they were rehearsing, they were actually doing it with their core musicians, the rhythm section and keyboards. When I saw that show, it sounded fabulous, A: because you had a composer who really cared about the sound, and B: because you had a producer who really cared, with the financial backup to make it happen. So we know that sound can do that, but it actually just takes more time and costs more money initially. Now, it didn’t save the show. The sound never saves the show, but the sound can kill a show.

Having said that, I’ve done lots of experiments with an audience and with producers and directors, just to see if one can make something really good, and then the next day make it really bad to see what the difference is. It’s amazing how many people don’t notice. It’s kind of sad. Those are times when I think I should’ve done something else in my life, because it’s very depressing.

Three Days of Rehearsal

Your first show in Las Vegas was the Siegfried and Roy show, which came out of a recommendation. Somebody had seen your work on Time in England. I wondered whether the production, pre-production, was any different from what you’d been used to?

Yes. It was completely different because when you do a production in Las Vegas the shows are very technical. And in Las Vegas I’ve never done a show with less than four months of technical rehearsals, whereas I’ve had to do an off-Broadway musical with three days of rehearsal. On Broadway, the technical rehearsal period is probably an average of two weeks.

I have to mention another couple of shows in Las Vegas, the Cirque du Soleil shows, Mystere and O, because we have live musicians there. The Siegfried and Roy show and EFX are all prerecorded, so nobody can move without the sound. Nobody can perform, can do anything, unless the sound is there because the sound gives the tempo. The sound is the heart and creates the timecode, does the time stamp for the show, whereas for productions with live musicians, there is no time stamp and therefore it has change.

When you do a production in Las Vegas, you get so much time to do it because usually they’re trying to do something new in terms of production, quality, creativity, technology. And a lot of times you’re going into a new hotel that has all those difficulties getting everything up at the same time. In fact, that’s why the Cirque du Soleil theater at the Bellagio was built before the hotel. We were actually rehearsing while the hotel was being built so that we could open our show at the same time as the hotel. And it did.

Budgets for Musicals Vary

Are there any generalizations you can make about production philosophies, or what the big producers are willing to pay for?

All the producers that I’ve worked with—and some I haven’t actually got to work with, but I know of—are usually very, very interested in audio from the beginning. They want it to be the best, and they want you to do a good job. Then you go away and you start specifying things with that point of view in mind. And you go for the high-end items. Then your equipment list goes back to the producers or general manager, and it gets sent out to the rental shops. And then usually what happens, a week after that you get called in to the producers and you sit down and you have to tell them why your equipment costs three times more than the budget! [Laughs]

The budgets for musicals vary greatly. In some cases, you go out and buy what you want, what you need for the show. Usually those are more permanent installations, such as shows that I’ve done like EFX and the Cirque du Soleil shows, because they’re buying it for long term. You specify it, they buy it. And it gets built two or three years later, and by that time it’s out of style or whatever [laughs]. But in the legit theater, it’s a tighter thing.

One has to remember that when you’re in the theater industry, you’re going to specify things that are generally used in the industry, because you know that there’s a good chance that the different rental shops will have them on the shelves, or they’re interested in buying more of them. Both the UK and the USA theatrical rental shops keep similar stock because of all the English musicals that started coming over to America, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, obviously Evita … or Phantom of the Opera, how could I forget that? And it’s not just one production. They do three, four productions, so that makes a huge impact on what the rental companies have got on their shelf.

Microphone Placement

Let’s talk about the kinds of problems you face in a new production—microphone placement, for instance.

I’m going to use The Capeman as an example because it’s not my show, and so I can talk about this show in a way that is objective. On The Capeman, they got a very good level on the stage with theatrical mic positions behind the ears, and on top of the head. They were in an acoustically dead theater—the Marquee Theater—that sucks the sound right out of the speaker and doesn’t put it anywhere else. It’s very dead. And on top of that, they had several months with the actors on stage and with a producer and a composer who wanted it right, who would spend the time to work on the sound.

More typically, the problem is that we have someone in a Victorian costume on the stage, and nobody wants to see the microphone. And usually the first thing that the audience complain about is that they cannot understand the words. Besides the performers themselves not being intelligible, which is usually part of the problem, there is the problem of the microphone being buried and not being in the correct place for that performer. So you need the costume and wigs departments and the performers themselves to be responsible about the mic placement. When they go onstage, that’s their lifeline to the audience. Certainly, that’s true for too many of the performers, because they’re not going to be heard without a microphone.

Also, when you have the microphone so far away from the mouth, you are reproducing sounds that are not just the performer’s voice, but all of the sounds around that performer as well, the whole ambience of that stage. Contrast this with the movies. If you go to a movie theater, the average performer’s head appears to be about six foot high. There’s a lot of visual information that you get as you look at the lines and pores on the performer’s face when you’re in the movie house, and because you’re looking at something so big, the voice can be loud. You cannot make it that loud in a theater, and you wouldn’t want to, because it would have nothing to do with that person on the stage.

The audience obviously wants to hear the voice, but the voice has got to stay with the performer. You have to cheat, and this is when the orchestra begins to suffer, because you have to then reduce the orchestra proportionally to how the voice should be placed with that performer.

Now, as soon as you put a headset mic on a performer, you don’t have that problem anymore because you’re not trying to squeeze sound out of a microphone that’s tucked behind the ear. As soon as the audience has got over the fact that there is a thin line-and the new headset mics are the size of a long matchstick-as soon as the audience gets over the fact that there’s a microphone on the performer’s face, you have got as much level as you need and the quality of the voice multiplies by a thousand times. It’s just completely night and day.

Writing for Technology

What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the way mics are used in musical theater?

Any time A Chorus Line is done now, it’s done with body mics. Originally, it was done with ambient miking. There were five Sennheiser 802s going across the stage and three Neumann 82s hung overhead and then more two upstage, and that was your miking of the stage.

That’s right. And there were eight areas that you could choose from. Nowadays, the audience doesn’t want to listen. They’ve paid big bucks, they want to see something, and they want it in their faces. But in a theatrical way, as opposed to an aggressive way, if there is a difference. So that has changed.

Originally, Les Miserables was done with 16 transmitters. And then some actors would be picked up on area mics for single lines. I mentioned Les Miserables because it’s been going now for I’ve forgotten how many years—I did 11 productions of Les Miserables. But now the number of transmitters on that production has nearly doubled because everybody has to be miked for the audience to listen. Everybody has to be heard.

I think there are several aspects to how this is changing. First of all, when new musicals are written, they’re written for the microphone. Whether it’s done intentionally or not, it doesn’t matter. Also, they’re being directed 95 percent of the time for the body mic. I just did a production with Hal Prince in New York, called Parade. It was at the Lincoln Center, which is a small theater, 500-odd seats. The first big number where the cast come on, which is the first thing that happens in the show, the cast walk on, they turn upstage and sing the big number facing upstage. You wouldn’t direct or write a show in that manner, if you weren’t going to use the technology. So that’s what I mean by “it’s written for the technology.”

And the music arrangements are written for the technology. If you listen to the old arrangers, they don’t have a brass section playing at the same time as an individual on the stage because you wouldn’t be able to hear them. But now you can, because you can crank up that voice and get it over, and if the brass section is wailing, you can open up the voice and get it to wail over the top of it, or not.

But when you add up all these trends together, it adds up to a potential nightmare that is thrown at the sound team to fix. And the most annoying thing is that then people come in and say, “It doesn’t sound natural to me.” There is an actor running around the stage with a tiny little microphone half the size of your little fingernail tucked behind their ear, or in their hairline with a hat on, creating huge reflections, with a band that’s in the pit playing on top of the vocal lines that they’re singing, and your loudspeakers are probably not in the places that are right for the sound design to be perfect because you’ve had to negotiate positions with scenery designers and lighting. And then people have the audacity to walk in and say, “Well, it didn’t sound natural.” It’s kind of crazy. As soon as you put a microphone out onto someone’s face, the sound becomes so much better, so much clearer, but then everyone starts having a fit because you can see the microphone. [Grimaces]

I have a story related to that. I did a show called On Your Toes in England in 1985. It was originally done in 1935, approximately, and we did it again at the same theater with the same director, George Abbott, and the same choreographer. And we did it without sound. But in 1985, for the previews, the audience just wiggled around in their seats. When a fire truck went by, they just looked at the wall that the fire truck was behind—they could not concentrate on the show at all. We had to start adding in sound. And once we started doing that, then the cast couldn’t hear because it changed how they were balanced and we had to put more sound on the stage. And once we did that, it made the stage louder, then we couldn’t hear the actors and we had to start miking everyone individually. It was very interesting to see what the problems were, and really it starts at the audience. The problem starts with the audience.

You’ve seen a generation or two in speaker development. Are there any high points over the last 20 years?

Yes, Meyer Sound. When we were doing Cats in London, we got to use the first UPAs. There was a speaker that was a great size and sounded fabulous. Our other choice at that time for the theater market was the Bose 802. But the UPA just sounded so much better, surprise, surprise! And Meyer cared about the theater market. A lot of speaker manufacturers pretend to care about the theater market but actually don’t hang in there. Meyer does, and have consistently cared about the theater market and have carried on developing more speakers and many other things, as well. Then Apogee came out with a similar design, but different-sounding. And there are designers who’ve used Tannoys. Martin Levan has used Tannoys out of their cabinets. I’ve used Renkus-Heinz on Ragtime, and of course EAW has been around. I have just been using Jason Sound theater speakers on Fosse. Those have been the major speaker companies that I’ve used in the theater over the last decade.

Speaker designs have changed as a result of the manufacturers listening to the sound designers and sound engineers. In the last couple of years, I’ve gone for a wider-dispersion speaker. Quite a few years ago we were all going for a tighter dispersion for better gain-to-feedback control, but then you can get real hot spots in the audience. Also, you have to put in multiple cabinets and, by putting in multiple cabinets you get combing effects if they’re not positioned correctly. I’ve recently gone for a dispersion angle of over 100 degrees, as wide as possible. I’m careful of the position of where that 100 degrees hits the stage and how far down stage a performer’s going to come, and I really don’t find too much of a feedback problem. Don’t forget, in the theater, a microphone is so far away from their mouth, you have a huge gain loss immediately, before you even get to do anything with the sound. But I like a wider spread. It feels more open, and I just like that kind of warmth that comes from that. It seems to help take the hardness out of the procedure.

I like to put in as many speakers as I can around the proscenium, and, in fact, around the auditorium, with as much wider dispersion as I can. And I can take a sound and send it to any speaker at any time, and maybe on the next cue it comes out somewhere else. One of the reasons I like Renkus-Heinz is it’s a passive speaker. Passive means that I’ve got less amplifiers and it ends up being more cost-effective. It’s not that the speaker’s cheap, it’s just that you don’t need as much of the other stuff to go with it, the controllers and amplifiers. I like that.

So instead of going for arrays of narrow-beam components, you’re now going for single wide-dispersion speakers, which presumably requires a fair amount of power-for the loud shows-out of a single box.

For Fosse, I needed a speaker of a certain size, with a very wide dispersion and as loud as it could get. So Jason Sound built their R23 speakers using JBL components in a cylindrical-shaped speaker, and I put them all the way up the proscenium and around the top of the proscenium, and back down the other side. And Jason also made a unit called a P80, again with JBL components, a front-fill speaker with a height less than six inches. It fits in the front of the stage, and it cranks. I feed all those individually, because they’re passive speakers. For Fosse, I send the whole orchestra to different speakers. So this is not an A/B system, this is…

An A-to-Z system.

Yeah, a whole alphabet system. I find that the difference that you get is night and day. Of course, it’s expensive to do that and you’ve got to be able to have the control. What controls something like that? You can’t then send that out of a mono system, so you’ve got to have some automated system to do that, which is, in this case, the LCS.

Tell me something about how Level Control Systems (LCS) came about.

It started when I was offered a George Lucas show, the Super Live Adventure tour that went to Japan. There were things that we wanted to do on that show that we couldn’t really do with any automation system at the time. I took my ideas around to all these different people who were doing automation at that time, and nobody was really interested. Or if they were, they wanted too much money up front. So I got some object-oriented programming software and taught myself to write the software to do some of the things I needed. Then, when I was doing the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer, I wrote a little software that would track the performers around the stage. It was a contemporary style of opera, and they were all wearing body mics. I did time zones across the theater and across the stage by sending MIDI commands to a Brooke Siren 804 to change time delays and levels, depending on where the actors were standing. And it worked really well.

Then I met a guy called Steve Ellison, who saw what I was doing. And the next day, he had rewritten something that had taken me six months. And it suddenly made what I had done look really good. At the same time, the George Lucas show was happening, and we started writing software for that project and got together with a hardware guy called Carl Malone, and we came up with the first LCS system. That was how Level Control Systems started. Although I am part owner of it, I have nothing to do with the day-to-day running of it.

Giving Seats to the Producer

Do you see the coming of digital consoles having a big impact? One hopes that there’ll be a size advantage so you’ll be able to take up fewer seats.

Hopefully we’ll be able to give some of the seats back to the producer. By giving the seats back to the producer, you could be giving back an easy quarter of a million dollars per year if the show’s a hit. Maybe you could get a couple of extra orchestra calls for the sound at the beginning. What a nice thought!

I think that part of the reason that sound gets a raw deal in rehearsals is because the sound mixing console is at the back of the auditorium. Therefore, you’re not plugged in to the heart of everything in the same way as the scenic and lighting designers are when they sit in that huddle in the middle of the auditorium. Until we can bring the mixer down into the middle of the auditorium, and then unplug it and put it back in the console position for the show, I think this situation will continue. A big change will happen when the console is put in the middle of the auditorium for technical rehearsal. There will be a big change when digital consoles come out and they can be put anywhere.

Because they’re small enough, or because you can take a remote head with you wherever you go?

One hopes that you’ll be able to get rid of most of the processing gear, because you’ll be able to do it internally. Of course, people will want to bring in their own gizmos to plug in, and the time delays and everything else, but I think that will be short-lived, and I think that everything will be done inside the console. And you’ll be able to buy plug-in devices. I also think that all your network delays, your crossover delays, can be done internally, so you won’t need them. If you use a self-powered speaker, you can plug direct from your console straight into the speaker, so you won’t need those amp racks, you won’t need the racks full of delays and EQs, because it’s all done internally. Less trucking space, too.

Plus, you can change all your time delays cue by cue. You’ll have time delay on your inputs, and as that person is walking around the stage, you’ll be changing that time delay constantly to match where they are. That is one of the main goals for live theater, to trick the audience into believing that the performer can actually project. Because there are some actors who are unbelievable, you cannot believe how loud they are. And then there are other actors who should not be allowed on to the stage, not to mention musicians.