A Bronx Tale, directed by two-time Academy Award® winner Robert De Niro and four-time Tony Award® winner Jerry Zaks, just opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theater. I recently spoke with the production’s sound designer, Gareth Owen, about bringing A Bronx Tale to the Broadway stage. Owen, an Olivier Award winner and multi-Tony Award nominee, discussed the switch to the new Avid VENUE | S6L live system and described how he and his team are using the console’s expanded capabilities in support of this powerful production.
DH: You kicked this production off early in the year at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. How has the production changed as you move it onto Broadway?
GO: The reason for doing an out of town tryout is to experiment, find out what works, find out what doesn’t – there have been lots of little changes to the show as a whole since Paper Mill. Most of those have been nips and tucks to the script, improvements to songs, some new casting, – all add up to a much leaner, more exciting show.
DH: How has that changed your side of the production?
GO: One of the more substantial changes we’ve made is we actually ended up cutting the surround sound. I’m a very big believer that we shouldn’t spend our clients’ money on things we don’t need. So for the original production out at Paper Mill, I made sure I had a full surround sound system in order to cover any possibilities that might come up. But the reality of it is that we used the surround system so little out at the Paper Mill, that when we came to Broadway, we just redid the few moments where we were using surround so that they didn’t need the surround system anymore. That’s been the big change, apart from that we changed the mixing desk from the Profile to the S6L.
My intention was to use the S6L for Paper Mill initially, but when it actually came down to the wire, we realized that the desk just wasn’t quite ready to be able to deal with a show as complicated as A Bronx Tale, so made the decision to go with Profile. The two big factors that stopped us from using S6L in the original production was support for three Stage 64 racks—the initial software when the desk first came out only supported two stage racks. The other reason was that there were parameters that couldn’t be controlled remotely by VNC software, and I spoke to Avid about this and they since fixed it. But when it then came to using the S6L on Broadway, we were just able to open up the VENUE show file [from Profile] and just transfer it straight onto the new desk with very minimal problems, which as you can imagine, was hugely beneficial.
DH: Do you know roughly how many snapshots you’re using for this production?
GO: I think it’s about 380 snapshots. A lot has to do with the theater method of programming, where you constantly have to reprogram the VCA’s to deal with the 38 cast radio mikes and the fact that the microphones are only on when somebody is actually speaking. That requires a huge amount of programming and operating from the sound operator point of view.
DH: So how many channels does this production require and what is the I/O configuration?
GO: I believe that we have about 15 spare channels, so of the 192, I guess we’re using about 180. And with the new MADI card, we can now do all of our show control playback with tracks and sound effects directly via the MADI input cards. We have three fully loaded stage racks, with 64 inputs in each, plus a full complement of AES output cards in racks one and two, and rack three has analog output cards.
DH: You’ve had a lot of experience with VENUE and other consoles over the years—what advantages is S6L offering you?
GO: The combination of the way you can map everything to the surface and the surface is so flexible—it can become whatever you need it to be. It’s quite revolutionary the way you can just bring anything up you want onto the encoders and custom fader banks, including plug-ins. Nobody else is doing that as impressively or as effectively. And it’s not just Avid plug-ins that map seamlessly to the surface either, it’s all the third party plug-ins as well, because of the fundamental architecture that you have to build into an AAX DSP plug-in in order to get it to work with standard Pro Tools and peripherals. I’m making big use of McDSP and Sonnox plug-ins, and I can have all my reverb parameters immediately placed on the encoders in front of me. It’s really powerful, and once you get the hang of using it—it’s so quick and easy to make changes on the fly.
With S6L we can use the “Layouts” function to lay the faders out on the surface in such a way that it makes sense from a surface point of view. The inputs are laid out so that it makes sense on the screen, and then we use layouts to lay the faders out on the desk in a way that makes sense on the desk. So we kind of get the best of both worlds, which is a huge step forward from the old console. With the old console, you either had to lay it out as it makes on the screen, or lay it out so that it makes sense on the surface— or come up with some sort of compromise. And the ability to drop groups and auxiliary sends and stuff like that onto the same layout as inputs is really powerful, because we can do things like have all of our boy vocals on a layer, the boy vocal group on the same layer, and we can have the reverb sends for boys on that layer, make adjustments to group EQ’s, and check who’s in reverb and everything all from one place. It’s really very powerful.
DH: Tell me a bit more about that. You have all these snapshots that are doing the assignments to the VCA’s—are you using the custom fader layouts exclusively from snapshots, or do you actually have layouts that you’ve created on the desk that are not directly applied to snapshots?
GO: We’ve taken advantage of the functionality and the fact that only layout one is recorded by the snapshots. So we’ve used layouts 2 to 24 as ways of putting all of the right things in the right place in the desk. So we’ll have a layout that says “drums”, or “percussion”, “reverb”, or “brass”, and we can put all of the relevant bits for those instruments or people on the same layout.
So not only do we put the guitars on a layer, but we can also put the guitar reverb returns and the guitar groups and anything else that’s associated with the guitars, all in one place. And then we use layout one, which is programmable snapshot by snapshot, as a place to drop useful things for the operator when they get to that particular cue in the show. So for example, if there’s a particular song where there are two saxophones playing alternate lines, and sort of battling it out if you will, we just drop the two saxophones onto the mix layout so that the operator can quickly have those things that they need at that moment in the show close to hand. If there’s a song that requires a really heavy guitar push in the middle of it, we have the lead electric guitar just drop up onto that layout so that we can quickly just grab that guitar and give it a push.
DH: How about the system’s power? It’s obviously a significant step up from Profile—what does that enable you to do?
GO: I love the fact that there’s now enough processing on board to be able to explore ideas that traditionally I haven’t been able to do in the past because of hardware or software limitations. So in the past I’ve gone, “It would be really nice to have a different sort of drum room for the percussion player, rather than having the same drum room engine for drums and percussion,” but because of limitations with the output bussing, not enough auxiliaries and not enough outputs, I’ve always struggled to be able to do things like that. I’ve always had to make compromises. With the new output structure, I’ve got more auxiliaries than I know what to do with. I’ve got spare inputs to indulge and say, “I wonder, what happens if we put an extra mic on this? Just try doing it like this.” I feel like I now have the resources to explore my creative ideas more.
From the production point of view, they absolutely love it, because S6L is a really small mixing desk. When you look at the power of it, our mix position is one of the smallest on Broadway for a full-blown musical the size of A Bronx Tale. We take up eight seats, and that includes the sound operator and the rest of the equipment. Eight seats in a Broadway theater—production absolutely loves that!
DH: What has been your impression of the sound quality that S6L bring to the production?
GO: I think the best example that I can give is that the show starts with a big orchestral moment, and the very first time we had an audience in, the sound operator got the green light from the stage manager and pushed the VCA up to like, +3, +4, and we both looked at each other in a state of panic and kinda went, “The PA’s still muted!” I leaped over to the system control and was like, “The PA’s not muted,” and then this orchestral hit came blitzing out of the system. With +3 or +4 on what is a huge d&b PA system, you’re so used to hearing background noise, sort of a general hiss and assorted other stuff.
We just didn’t get anything, and it panicked both of us that we didn’t hear any background noise—it’s so clear that it just wasn’t there. And there’s something else that’s interesting. I found is that microphone choices that I’ve made over the years, “Oh, this is my favorite microphone for that. This is my favorite microphone for this.” Suddenly some of these microphone choices that have been my favorite mics for trumpets or a trombone for years, I found myself going, “That mic’s not as clean and clear as I thought.” Now I can quite seriously hear the difference between this mic and that mic. I’m beginning to find that the signal passes so much cleaner and so much clearer that I’m beginning to notice all the flaws within my signal path that I’d never noticed before, so it sort of sent me on a voyage of investigation to discover other things in my signal path that that weren’t as clean and clear as I thought they were, because the S6L is so transparent and so clean that it’s exposing things that in the past I’ve never noticed.
DH: What other productions are out right now with S6L that you’re involved with?
GO: We have Wind in the Willows, which is a very large, new musical on tour in the United Kingdom, and will actually be opening at the London Palladium in May next year. We also have Come From Away, which we’ve transferred onto an S6L. It just opened in Toronto and will open on Broadway in February of next year.
We also have two other shows opening in London in the first half of next year, both of which will be on S6L’s. One of them is the new Meatloaf musical, Bat Out of Hell, which is being produced by Michael Cohl, the promoter of the Rolling Stones. It’s a very, very serious, big show. And then we’ll also be using an S6L for 42nd Street, which is a huge production with 80 radio mics on it. So come June next year, three of the larger theaters in London’s West End will be our shows—Bat out of Hell in the London Coliseum, Wind in the Willows in the London Palladium, and 42nd Street in Drury Lane—all on Avid S6L’s!