We’re kicking off this month of “Sound for Live Theater” with a very special interview with Nevin Steinberg who was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the world of sound for theater, and also some specific questions regarding his work as the Sound Designer for the musical “Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Nevin is a Sound Designer who’s worked on over fifty productions including original productions, revivals and tours. As an individual and as part of the Acme Sound Partners collective, he has accumulated six Tony nominations.
DesigningSound: You’ve worked on numerous original and established shows. How does whether or not a show is original or a revival affect the work you do?
Nevin Steinberg: With revivals, the research might include existing material such as cast albums, published scripts, movie versions, even talking to the original designers. With new shows, the development process will sometimes involve years of readings or workshops before mounting an actual production. So the creative process reflects an evolution of ideas that will gestate along with the material itself.
DS: How much can you plan and account for as a Sound Designer before actually entering the performance space?
NS: The venue plays the biggest part in the system design for plays and musicals of any scale, but imagining how a show might sound—that process begins once I start to read the script or hear the music, or even talk to the creators. That’s the part of design that isn’t always reflected in the equipment list, and it’s the one that will often occur over the course of a few years.
DS: Once a show is running, what sort of variables come into play that demand either maintenance or adjustments on the sound side?
NS: There’s a sound crew who are doing the day-to-day operation and maintenance of my shows, and I really rely on them to keep in mind the intention of what we built together during the production period. I make periodic visits to running shows to check in and make sure that we are staying ‘between the lines’ in the execution of the design. Infrequently, a running show requires system adjustments to address problems, but it’s not common.
DS: The majority of our readers are most likely more familiar with post-production terminology, yet the world of theatrical design uses a lot of the same words and terms to describe different things. I was wondering if you would mind briefly explaining the difference between a Sound Designer, Engineer and Mixer in your world, and also the distinction between sound design and atmospheres.
NS: The terms Mixer and Engineer generally are used interchangeably in the theater community. Both refer to the person operating the mixing console during the show and they are members of the production crew, like the Light Board Operator and the backstage crew. The Sound Designer is a member of the creative team whose cohort includes the Set, Costume, Lighting and Projection Designers. Along with the show’s director and choreographer this group makes all of the creative and conceptual decisions about the production.
Sound Designers are also responsible for the creative audio “content” of a play or musical, so that often involves pre-recorded material played back in the theater, including naturalistic sounds effects (phones, doorbells) and atmospheres which can range from the realistic (evening crickets, thunderstorms) to the abstract (tones, whooshes, drones, etc.).
DS: The role of a Theatircal Sound Designer encompasses many different creative and technical elements. How do you balance those two very different sides to the work you do.
NS: I find it very gratifying to use both sides of my brain in my job. I try to look at creative challenges with one eye on the technical solutions. And I’m always researching new tech with the idea that I might find a “solution in search of a problem”—meaning that a new technical approach or piece of gear might inspire a creative idea. I think the two areas are complimentary.
DS: In film, it’s often debated whether you should do the initial theatrical mix on the highest fidelity format (e.g. Dolby Atmos / Auro 3D), or on the one most people will experience (e.g. 5.1). When you’re working in a theater, how do you balance the quality of the sound experience for those front-and-center in the stalls versus. those who have a “partially obscured” seat in the back corner.
NS: That’s an interesting analogy. I’m usually on a quest not for the most homogenous experience; rather I chase the best possible experience in each seating area. That includes whatever limitations might exist in the architecture and natural acoustic of the room. So part of it is system design and making sure I have the tools to do a good job in all parts of the venue. And part of it is style and approach—and being creative about how to give everybody a great experience. Of course systems interact and that can be a challenge—occasionally you have to prioritize, but with good planning these can be very small compromises.
DS: At the your talk at the NY 2015 LiveDesign Masterclasses, you said that any sense that one element is making room for another, if out of necessity, diminishes the experience. Were you referring to the audience becoming aware of the artifice of the experience? If so, in what other ways can the illusion break down?
NS: I actually don’t remember what I was referring to! The biggest breakdown in the illusion occurs when the communication between the story and the audience is disrupted. Technical malfunction, poor system alignment or non-linearity can really be a drag on the experience.
DS: The sound design community, and Broadway at large, is still feeling the sting of the removal of the sound design Tony award. What are your thoughts on that decision?
NS: I think the Tonys made a mistake with that decision. After the initial outcry from the community, I have been focused on trying to help the Tony Administration walk it back. It’s been a slow process, but I remain hopeful that we are making progress.
DS: Many of our readers work primarily in film, TV, and video games. Could you give us a sense of the scale of this production, in terms of the reinforcement system, and some of the major decisions that went into the design? How did the Rodgers theater shape your aesthetic choices?
NS: Regarding scale, the Richard Rodgers is a mid-sized Broadway musical venue. One of the advantages we had with HAMILTON was I had worked on 5 previous shows there in my career, both as an engineer and as a designer, including Lin’s previous Broadway show IN THE HEIGHTS. So it’s a very comfortable spot for me. Like HEIGHTS, HAMILTON has to deliver a powerful punch and very high resolution. But it’s tight quarters and the Rodgers has lots of isolated seating areas, such as under or in the shadow of the box seating, under the mezzanine, or at the very rear of the balcony. The system is custom-specified and installed for this production—there is no house sound system in a typical Broadway theater—so it’s meticulously planned. I tend to use equipment from a wide variety of manufacturers so there isn’t really an easy way to describe the PA except to say that I agonize over every decision and have a great team of people to help refine the approach as we go.
DS: Hamilton is a unique blend of modern and history. What unique challenges and opportunities did it present in terms of sound design? Do rap vocals require adjustment in how you mic or reinforce the show, compared to a traditional musical?
NS: While HAMILTON is ground-breaking in many ways, it would be inaccurate to say that the sound design itself is particularly innovative. Lin wrote an amazing piece of theater and it was approached with such respect by the director, choreographer and creative team that I spent my time trying to solve every problem with fresh eyes and ears, and treating each moment with great care.
DS: There’s a much talked-about moment in the show where time rewinds. Could you speak about your approach to the sound aesthetics of that moment?
NS: Time plays a big part in the lives of HAMILTON’s characters. Hamilton is fighting it one way, and Burr takes a completely different approach. The production really thrives on this contrast and all of the designers were inspired to participate in these meditations on time. Sound is particularly well-suited to this contemplation, and we stop, slow or even reverse time during the show.
Lin—and our director Tommy, choreographer Andy and music supervisor/orchestrator Alex—conceived of a story-telling moment from two perspectives and a rewind gesture to take us back to the beginning of an event in the play that we then hear from another character’s view. Truly a magnificent and uniquely theatrical moment. The ‘map’ of the sound event was discussed and roughed in ‘demo’ form, and we worked on vocal and music treatments to really refine it to its current form. The lighting and turntable moves are incredible to watch. And the whole thing is a pretty virtuosic collaboration. It’s simply a really good idea from the creators that we had the good fortune to dig into and make real on stage.
DS: I imagine you may have mixed feelings about the prices some people are paying to see and hear the work of you and your colleagues. On the one hand it must offer extreme validation for all the hard work you put in but at the same time, it raises the question of the accessibility of broadway. As an artist, I would imagine you would want as many people to be able to see the show as possible. How do you feel about this aspect of the show?
NS: I have to say that I don’t think about the pricing and how it relates to my work. I think about it more as a challenge for the industry overall. Broadway represents the state of the art and is still a unique experience in the world, so it has tremendous value and should command a commensurate price. But at some point we have to make sure our value proposition is still valid. I get concerned when people pay $200 for a ticket and feel that if a show hasn’t changed their life then somehow it wasn’t worth it. I’d like to see us figure out a way to solve that problem.
DS: What was the collaborative process like in creating this production? You and Lin-Manuel Miranda are both seasoned vets; what was your collaboration like, and how did it shape your approach to the sound design?
NS: I was just talking about this with a colleague last night. This is the most joyful of collaborations—with all of the creative team. It is the most focused, dedicated and respectful group of people I have ever worked with. I think that infuses the work and is part of not just the experience of the team, but of the audience as well. I consider myself very lucky. Can’t wait to do it again!
A big thank you to Nevin for taking the time to answer our questions. Thank you also to site contributing editor Topher Pirkl who helped out with the piece with questions of his own. For more on Nevin and his work, you can check out his website The Modern Projects, and follow him on Twitter @.
To learn more about his work on “Hamilton”, I suggest you check out the following interview and podcast: