Sunday, April 8, 2018

I Can Hear Clearly Now

Sound -- This is another in my series going back stage at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe.  If you put the word ‘Lensic’ in the small box at the top left of this page you will find the others.

I am always amazed at how fascinating other people’s lives are and how their careers are so much more complicated than they seem.  I had the opportunity recently to spend some time with Alex Reiser, Audio Supervisor and Sound Engineer at the Lensic and ask about what goes into the job of helping everyone hear and, at my age level, understand what is going on, on stage.

Alex grew up in Boston and went to Middlebury College in Vermont. I always thought of Middlebury as a school for languages but Alex graduated with a degree in Film and Media/Music and started as a musician playing bass.  I have always felt sorry for those who had to carry that instrument around particularly if they were in the New York subway! As in most professions you learn a lot at school but you learn how to succeed by on the job training.

The Lensic is a relatively small theater with 821 seats but it has 64 speakers in the hall, both in plain sight and hidden in the walls.  There are also a varying number of microphones, depending upon the performance, to pick up the sound.  Alex deals with three  types of shows.  The Lensic has actors, singers and musicians on the stage.  A film has it own sound system. Then there is an acoustic shell that can be set up to surround an orchestra to create a richer sound using its 18 microphones with 64 speakers placed around the theater.

You have probably seen a large soundboard at the back of a theatre with buttons and sliding levers, which control the level and way each sound comes from the stage.  In the audience we take hearing pretty much for granted and figure that it all comes from the two large speakers  on each side of the stage. In reality they are in the front, back and in the walls of the theatre. broadcasting from all the microphones scattered around, which for a band, would number 40. Alex explained that the soundboard he controls from his removable station in the last row of seating has 56 channels so he can mix the input from 56 different microphones.

Before a show they do a technical rehearsal or sound check so that Alex can be sure all is working as it should and the performer(s) can also hear how they will sound in this  particular house and adjust accordingly.

Some performers bring their own soundboard and sound engineer.  In extreme cases a performer may even bring their own sound system so they get just the result they want.

A point of reference for me was a concert we had heard at the Lensic that week with Arlo Guthrie, his daughter Sara Lee, his son, Abe and their friend Terry Hall. The Guthries have travelled with the same sound person for years. I asked why they needed two  soundboards and learned that  the second one goes on the stage where a Monitor Engineer is listening to what each of the band participants is hearing.  I did not realize that each performer could hear his or her own voice and one or more instruments in the band through earphones or a wedge shaped speaker at their feet.   So even though the percussion was muffled to the audience and performers by a plexi glass shield around the percussionist, he could still hear what the rest of the band was playing through headphones.

Of course, a great deal depends on where you are sitting in the audience.  Alex explained that the best seats in the Lensic for getting the full effect of his efforts is about two thirds of the way back in the center of the orchestra.  If you are under the balcony you will lose some of the higher end.  Seeing, of course, is another matter that goes into the equation of selecting your preferred seat.

For the hard of hearing an assisted listening system of receivers and headphones can be picked up in the lobby Conceptually it is extremely simple .  If you use the device Alex can send the same sound feed that the rest of the audience is getting to your headphones through radio waves.

Being responsible for the way an audience hears is an awesome task because that will be the first thing that people will complain about. We all hear differently, and, as we get older, the inevitable hearing loss starts with higher frequencies. Thanks to Alex my understanding of the experience of sound in a theater has grown immensely.

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