In Act I, I broke down the process by which I arrived at the sound system design for Evita, but that's only a small part of the overall sound design.
The big challenge of this production is how to believably create a sense that the people of Argentina are singing and rallying, when in fact, there are only seven ensemble members on stage. This was a concern of the director and the producing team at KC Rep expressed to me from our very first conversations. But, I had a few thoughts of how we'd be able to conquer the concerns.
So what's the solution? Well, I figured there are two avenues to explore. One is how to affect the live vocals of the cast to make them seem thicker, denser, larger-than-life. The other was to think about how recorded vocals could be of use to us. "Sweetening tracks" are recordings of the cast vocals played back during the show, while the cast sings, live, overtop of them.
The most obvious course of action was to pursue both avenues simultaneously.
In the equipment rental for the show, I made sure to include two of my favourite reverbs, the TC Electronic M3000. It may not be the absolute BEST reverb, but I know the reverb algorithms well and know how to get what I want out of it. I also put a Eventide H3000 Harmonizer on the list which I anticipated would be useful as an insert for the ensemble vocals, for various pitch-shifting and chorusing effects.
By the time we got to opening night, I think there were probably around two dozen different reverbs and effects throughout the show.
I start off with four reverbs on a show, a long (2.5 second-ish) hall reverb for the vocals and a short (1.8 - 2s) hall reverb for the vocals, and then I'll roughly duplicate these settings for the orchestra reverbs. From there, I'll tweak the settings to create specific reverbs for a given song or even a given moment in the show. In Evita, there is a latin flavour to a lot of the songs, so I also created a tight plate reverb for the snare and bongos, to give them a little more...sparkle.
There ended up being 3 different plates in the show, depending on the feel and tempo of a song. Tempo plays a big part in shaping reverbs because a long reverb on a faster song will only "muddy" up the sound and smear the percussive and staccato parts of the orchestration. So, longer halls for slower, legato numbers and shorter halls for faster up-tempo numbers is a go-to starting point.
For the vocals, I have the same starting point: short halls for quicker songs and long halls for slower songs. For some shows, this is all the variation in reverb that I need, but for Evita, there were a few key moments that I really wanted to stand out aurally. So I created a special long reverb that starts with a 150ms delay before the reverb kicks in. This initial delay or "pre-delay" creates a sense of space, of vastness. For me, it triggers an emotional response I might best describe as "tugging on heartstrings". I first use this reverb when Eva is on the balcony, top of Act II, singing Don't Cry For Me Argentina. I bring it back in a few other moments later on in the act, too, but only ever for Eva Peron. She has her very own reverb.
In addition to my usual vocal hall reverbs, there's also a large number of vocal effects in the show - tap delays, distortions, and vocal plate reverbs, to name a few. Often in the show, characters are seen standing at a microphone, speaking to huge crowds. For Peron's speeches, I created a long tap delay (~500ms) with a bit of feedback (not the high-pitched nasty stuff, this just means that the tap feeds back into itself, resulting in a tap, tap, tap, tap sound, with each echo getting a little quieter). This tap delay, plus a little distortion and reverb, gives the sense of his voice being amplified by a large PA, his voice bouncing off far away buildings in a giant public square. For Eva's speeches, though, I wanted to give her more of a driving, rock star feel, so I tightened up the tap delay, changed the distortion, and increased the effect. There are a few super high notes she hits and holds mid-show, and you can hear the tap delay echo back her attack on the notes and the sound is overdriven, warm, and crunchy - it's really thrilling.
I've put together a little sample of three of the vocal effects in the show. This audio is from our B-Roll shoot, so the balance is a little off and is not exactly reflective of what the live show sounded like - primarily the effected vocals sound louder in this recording than they were in the theater, which is actually great for us, since the effects will be much louder and clearer! In the first snippet, you'll hear a plate reverb on the character of Magaldi, played by Tim Scott. The second clip is Nick Duckart playing Peron with the previously-described tap delay on his speech, and the last clip is Mariand Torres knocking the high notes out of the park as Eva Peron with her tighter tap-delay-and-distortion effect.
Early on in the process, before the cast even started rehearsing, the Musical Director, Anthony Edwards, and I put together our wish list of the various parts of the show that wanted to be sweetened by recorded vocals. Most of these moments were chants of "Peron! Peron!" or "Evita! Evita!" but there were a few select musical moments we decided to record to bolster the energy in the show.
The session took place while I was still in NYC, not in Kansas City, but I took the recordings once I got to town and I began to play. I spent a lot of time messing around with various plug-ins and effects, seeing what was possible, what would give me the most effective "chorusing" effect.
The following are 8 samples of the same vocal recording. It's the same section of recording, but each sample is one more layer of processing on the vocals. I hope this gives a pretty clear idea of just what is possible with sound these days! But with great power comes great responsibility. :-)
So, first up, a dry vocal track. We used two mics in the recording studio: one for the men, one for the women. This track is unaffected, just as it was recorded, mixing the two mics together evenly:
Next up, I grabbed another take of the same section and layered it on top of the first take...
Then, I cleaned each track up with some EQ and compression...
Just to rewind for a second, here's just a single track of the men's vocal, for reference:
Now here's that same single track, but with a plug-in called Octavox inserted on the track.
I used Eventide's Octavox plug-in extensively in this process. I tried Logic's standard Chorus, Ensemble, and PShift (pitch shift) plug-ins, I tried Waves' Doubler plug-in and their UltraPitch plug-in, I even experimented with Waves' MaxxBass and Metric Halo's Thump plug-in. None of them came close to the ease and variability of Octavox. Most of the effects I auditioned ended up feeling far too "effecty" and obvious. Octavox gave me control of pitch, volume, and delay time per voice, and there are 8 voices! So from one track, I was able to create 8 separate but very similar tracks.
So, as you can see in the screen grab above, I am able to vary the 8 voices very slightly, in terms of pitch and time, to create a thicker, fuller sound. Note that I'm not using any of the feedback or looping capabilities of the plug-in - it can do so much more than I let it do on this project! I love this thing! Now, here's the full cast with the Octavox plug-in inserted across each track individually:
Sprinkle some reverb on...
OK, so it's more like a dousing of reverb, but since it's a sweetening track, it will never play on its own in the theater, so I'm able to go further with the reverb to create a sense of space and energy. Here's a quick little cross-fade I made, starting with the cast's dry, unaffected vocals and ending with the completed design.
nd lastly, here's a snippet of audio from a b-roll run that we did for the show. It's only an approximation of how the show sounds life (just imagine it much fuller and more exciting, I promise) but it shows how we layer the live voices with the recorded sweetening tracks:
So there you have it! A soup-to-nuts look at the sound design of Evita. From initial design conversations and generating of plots and draftings, all the way through to a finished, full-teched show. And good thing, too, since tonight is opening night. Just in time! Thanks for reading :-)