NEW YORK, NY—Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, which closed last month after a celebrated run that saw it rack up 12 Tony nominations this year, was no ordinary Broadway spectacle. Based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the operatic musical required audiences to pay strict attention through the show, and helping ensure that happened, the performance took place throughout the Imperial Theatre. There was no difference between the spaces where the audience sat and where the show took place; hundreds of theatergoers were seated onstage, and likewise, much of the action took place in areas that traditionally would be out in the house. The result was a complicated but truly immersive theatrical experience—and one that required an equally complicated audio system to make it happen.
With so much going on throughout the venue—singing, dancing, roving musicians and the like—sound designer Nicholas Pope worked with theatrical audio provider Masque Sound to create a massive audio system with speakers aimed in every imaginable direction, in order to cover the widespread audience; provide localization for the far-roaming, 30-member cast; and more.
“I approached it from the standpoint that the entire room was audience and performance space,” he said. “There’s no separation as far as the design is concerned, which means that the PA for the audience is also the monitoring system for the performers.” As a result, however, all 90 microphones used in the show are in front of loudspeakers at all times.
“That’s kind of a sound person’s nightmare,” he laughed, “but I felt it was critical that the actors become real entities in the space; I don’t like disembodied voices, if you will, so we track everything in three-dimensional space throughout the entire show—all the performers, all the roaming instruments—and I ended up designing some software to do that.”
Pope hired computer programmers Jake Zerrer and Gabe Rives-Corbett to write custom software that tracked the performers’ movement, and then provided a GUI interface for interacting with Meyer Sound’s D-Mitri and SpaceMap software. “Our localization operator, Scott Sanders, sits in front of a couple of iPad Pros that allow him to swing all the voices throughout the space,” said Pope. “You literally take your finger, grab a name, run ’em around the room and their voices go anywhere you can you move your finger.”
To pull that off was no mean feat. “I took a DiGiCo SD7 [manned nightly by Walter Tillman] and essentially lopped off the back end of it and then got D-Mitri and lopped off the front of it—and glued them together,” Pope said. “I take advantage of almost the entire 288-by-288 matrices inside D-Mitri, so we can send any individual input to any individual output. There’s about 170-ish things that make sound during the show, and 248 speakers—and they’re individually addressable.” The majority of those speakers were from Meyer Sound, with the system comprised mostly of CQ-1s, UPJ-1Ps and Leopard boxes, with some d&b audiotechnik E3s also used for surrounds and some delays.
While many cast members used the PA for monitoring, some roving musicians couldn’t do that, as the size of the 1,200-seat room created timing issues upwards of 70 milliseconds in some cases. As Pope noted, “Between the extremes of the space, it is definitely far enough that you are not even close to being on beat.”
To address the issue, the show used a DiGiCo SD-RE—a rack-mountable redundant engine for a SD10 console—to tackle 130 inputs and 56 monitoring mixes that were sent to 28 Aviom personal mixers. Fixed location musicians had their Avioms within arm’s reach, while roving musicians’ Avioms were in the basement, sending signal via Sennheiser wireless to their Shure SE215 earbuds, worn single ear-style to allow musicians to stay in time but also hear the room.
There was far more wireless at play in the show, however, as all performers wore DPA mics, and additionally the roving instruments were separately captured with DPA d:vote 4099 mics on Lectrosonics SSM micro transmitters going to Sennheiser receivers.
The result was a show that fluidly moved not only around the venue but through musical genres as well, from traditional orchestral music to folk to banging EDM. The through-line for all of them, however, was the need for clarity.
“Combining those worlds was one of the pleasures of working on this piece and it gave me so many opportunities,” said Pope, who won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Sound Design in a Musical for Great Comet—which was also his first time designing a Broadway show. “For me, one of the keys to musical theater is that the story is told through the lyrics, and being that the show is an opera, that’s really crucial; if you miss any lyrics, you are missing the story. I placed a huge priority on making sure that we have very high comprehension in the lyrics—and yet no one on the production, including myself, was interested in having a heavy, vocals front show, so providing extreme clarity was critical. It’s a very interesting challenge to mix as far as playback, vocals and live instruments go. They all kind of have a different dynamic range and making all those play together is a bit of a challenge—but it’s a fun one!”