Timing is everything says Hello Dolly sound designer Scott Lehrer
Broadway’s latest revival of the ever-popular Jerry Herman comedy musical, Hello, Dolly! put Bette Midler centrestage as Dolly, the enterprising widow finding her way in an 1890’s New York City. Directed by Jerry Zaks, with an expansively spatialised sound design by Scott Lehrer enabled via TiMax SoundHub, the role saw Midler claim her first acting Tony award: Best Leading Actress in a Musical.
Scott Lehrer’s sound designs are recognisably different, distinguished specifically by their provision of highly articulate and intelligible spatial reinforcement to fully engage and immerse the audience. “I want the audience to actually hear sound coming from a close approximation of where its being sung or spoken. I want the band to be rich in sound and coming from different directions in the sound system, so that it is not just a flat mono system. I want the sound to come alive for the audience.”
To create his dramatic soundscapes he makes extensive use of TiMax delay-matrix spatialisation: “It’s part of my toolbox and people hear it and they hear my work as sounding better because of it.”
Winning his first Tony for sound design of a musical led him straight to TiMax. “It was so difficult to use certain other generic dsp processors as a dynamically cue’d delay-matrix that it put me onto TiMax for my next show and I stuck with it. Hence TiMax is now my preference and it contributes to the sonic success of my shows. It’s easy to use and the most straightforward, simple matrix product on the market right now.”
Seventeen TiMax’d vocal zones were mapped to across the stage of the Shubert Theatre for Hello, Dolly! Five time zones serve the passarelle area in front of the band, five zones downstage, five mid-stage and a further three upstage. With that wide spread across the stage, Lehrer pulls as much vocal differentiation from the big choral numbers as possible. He explains, “When there’s a group of people singing, there can be four people singing lead vocals and we can actually time them across the stage from left to right. Also, when the voices are coming from a wider stereo field time-wise rather than volume-wise, it makes it a lot easier to hear four people singing. We’re not piling them up in one position in the centre of the stage.”
Midler’s Dolly moves down into the passerelle on a number of occasions for her numbers, getting very close to the audience. Lehrer explains, “When she’s way down front on the passarelle, we can really get that timed so well using TiMax. Singing to the audience from the centre of the passarelle it really sounds like she’s right there and when she moves from left to right the timings get more extreme because she’s so close to the audience. So she’s all the way right or all the way left and we just cue the timings into TiMax and the audience hears her from where she’s singing. We have TiMax for that purpose really, because it makes the show sound a lot better for the whole audience.”
The band also has five time zones imaged separately across the stage. From the central conductor’s position the left and right front zones map the front section of the orchestra. There’s also a left centre zone and a left-centre orchestra up zone. Lehrer uses this spread to distribute the orchestra across the sound system so that all the musical parts can be heard clearly.
Lehrer trims his TiMax zone parameters manually, which is detailed work requiring close attention to the action, but he also tries to rationalise the quantity of cues for the sound operator to handle “because he still has to mix the show too”. Keeping the spatialisation cues to a minimum also lends their discreet and strategic use all the more impact - nevertheless Hello, Dolly! utilises around 100 timing cues, according to Lehrer, in a show with no background sound effects.
Each cue morphs actors’ mics seamlessly and transparently between the TiMax time zone level/delay imaging setups. As for what Scott Lehrer calls ‘manual tracking’: “We don’t do long sequenced cross-fades too often as it’s hard to know how fast people will do things – but it’s a fun thing to try and using the matrix to ender the timings is very straightforward: as simple as putting numbers in a spreadsheet.” States Lehrer.