Sounds of Chekhov: Insights from Tony Award-winning Little Comedies Sound Designer, Scott Lehrer

Very often the first question audiences have upon walking into a Richard Nelson production is, “what’s up with all those hanging microphones?” Working in Richard’s aesthetic is a very particular kind of theatermaking. Richard always emphasizes that he wants the actors to talk to one another, not act in the presentational style which many of them have been trained for. Their vocal presentation should feel, both to themselves and the audience, as close to real life as is possible within the constraints of live theatre; and the performers must adjust their vocal instruments accordingly.

This way of being on stage can be a challenge in both thrust and in-the-round theatres. The director wants to involve all audience members directly as much as possible, adjusting blocking (the way actors position themselves onstage) to face various sections of the house. When an actor faces away from you, it becomes much more difficult to understand words, even when the actor is projecting. In the Nelson style of performance, using realistic speech dynamics whenever possible, this becomes an even greater listening challenge.

So why not just put wireless mics on the actors? Richard wants the sound reinforcement to be as imperceptible as possible and for a variety of reasons attempting this with wireless mics is extremely difficult and intrusive. Traditional sound reinforcement often creates a sonic wall between actor and audience. I’ve spent much of my career since the 1980s as a sound designer of musicals trying to break down this wall, to overcome the sense of separation created by wireless mics. Although hanging microphones are not usable for much of the musical theatre I do, Richard and I prefer using them for his work because, unlike head worn lavalier mics, they pick up a large range of acoustic information in the room, and are much more effective at fooling the listener’s brain into perceiving the actor’s voices as unamplified. Richard has incorporated this solution into his vision. The cascade of wires you see acts as a scenic element that frames the playing space, becomes a core component of his aesthetic enterprise.

Scott Lehrer with the Little Comedies cast and Alley Theatre Award for Lifetime Achievement honorees

And a second question audiences often ask: “Why are there so many speakers in such a small space?” Simply put, the only way to have the amplification reach every listener at the same volume is with a lot speakers, with what we sound people call a distributed sound system. The sound designer also needs a digital audio processor that can control all of this. The processor we have in the Neuhaus is a very sophisticated “crosspoint delay matrix”. We have 20 hanging microphones going to 28 speaker systems and every microphone has its own independent level and its own timing to each speaker, that’s 560 crosspoints, a lot of digital knobs to turn!

Figuring out time relationships is a critical part of a sound designer’s work; we don’t just turn levels up and down, we delay the sound as well. Sound takes time to travel and since the loudspeaker is closer to you than the actor, we need to delay the signal to the speaker. If we want to fool the brain into thinking that the voice is coming from the performer’s mouth, we delay the electronic signal from the microphone to the speaker so that the words from the actor’s mouth reach your ear just before the sound from the speaker does. Even though the reinforced voice is coming from the speaker, your brain can’t hear the speaker. You perceive the sound coming from the actor on stage, a psychoacoustic magic trick! As a designer, I’m using physics, digital signal processing and psychoacoustics to help a creative artist pursue their vision, to allow actors to express themselves in a new way on stage.

To get our timing right we measure these distances by pointing a laser measuring tool from each mic to a central seat in each one of the speaker systems coverage areas and write those numbers into a spreadsheet (plain old Excel.) We program the spreadsheet to convert the distances from feet to milliseconds. Since sound travels at around 1,100 feet per second, and our most distant mic-to-speaker coverage area in the Neuhaus is around 45 feet, that’s around 41 milliseconds. Then all we need to do is carefully type all those 560 numbers in the matrix and voila, we have a properly delayed sound system… well almost, because then the real work begins as Richard and I listen to the actors from all areas of the theatre and adjust actor blocking and volume when necessary.

Even with all this technology we need a sound operator to run all those mics up and down. You’ll notice that in the corner of the theatre, Javon Jones is standing watching the action and following the actors, bringing mics up as needed, carefully listening for a balanced level. We try to never have more than 2 mics up at a time to avoid the hollow sound that results from too many mics turned up. He is a very busy person for the 2 hours of actors moving about the stage.

We start with Richard’s creative aesthetic, actors interpret that aesthetic, I creatively use some technology to allow another artist, the mix engineer, to deliver the performance to you in the audience. The magic of theater!

Scott Lehrer

Scott Lehrer has designed over 200 productions on and off Broadway, at regional theatres, and internationally. His work with Richard Nelson includes his Rhinebeck PanoramaJames Joyce’s The Dead, and many others. Scott received the first sound design Tony for the 2008 revival of South Pacific. Recording projects include the B’way cast recording of An American in Paris (Grammy nom), Loudon Wainwright III’s High Wide & Handsome (Grammy), and Meredith Monk’s mercy.