Karen Katz has had a remarkable year. Being the Head Sound Engineer at The 5th Avenue Theatre is no small undertaking during any given season, but this year, in particular, Karen took a ride on a technological rollercoaster following The 5th Avenue Theatre’s transition from an analog sound system verging on antique in technological years to a state-of-the-art digital system.
“People come up to me and say ‘Oh, you’re going digital! I bet your job just got easier,’ and it’s like ‘oh, no no no!’” Karen laughs and shakes her distinctive curls. “This job just got 10 fold more complicated than it had ever been before because there are so many more things you can do. And everything has a lot of programming that needs to be done before you can just ‘do’ it.”
“For me, it’s been a massive shift into far more computer oriented work than I had in my previous system. Whereas before, I might use Windows for simple tasks like writing a Word Document, suddenly I have a lot of Windows-oriented work to pay attention to.” Where previously, the bulk of her work was done on knobs and faders and a single monitor, suddenly she transitioned to a massive 6 screen system that was more heavily computer oriented. “We worked with Gabe Wood and then Kurt Fisher, Broadway mixers who came to show me console operation. My first reaction as they were showing me how things work, was, comically, ‘I have no idea what information I’m looking at or what these words mean.’ So a big learning curve for me was to have more of a virtual picture of what is going on, and get a mind’s eye view of where all of this information lives rather than having to check every layer and section individually—not to mention develop an entirely new vocabulary for what I do.”
The transition from the previous system saw a complete overhaul of the sound system existing at The 5th. From the mixing console and desk to dozens of speakers throughout the auditorium and every cable in between, there was not a single element of the sound delivery system that did not change. Perhaps the most tangible change for the audience is the new speakers.
“We have new line array speakers that were chosen for the theater because they have a very controlled horizontal dispersion of sound. It’s almost as though you have one big speaker except you can control aspects of it and where it hits so it’s a shapeable sound. The cool thing with the horizontal dispersion is that it doesn’t hit the wall of the theater, and so you don’t get reflections.
“For every generation of speakers that exist, audiences become used to hearing things a particular way, no matter the circumstances. People are used to cinematic sound now. So they expect the sound to be huge and to be pounding into their bodies, which, frankly, is not what our older system did. It supported musical theater in a way that we used to refer to as ‘enhancing it,’ supporting what you heard onstage. This new system offers a whole new world of options to how we shape the soundscape.”
When asked if she likes the results, Karen smiles. “It has a very clean transparent sound with no electronic processing noise—that’s something that sometimes appeared in older analog gear. And likewise, the speakers themselves just put out a nice clean sound, so that leaves it to the designers to create whatever they want, rather than the gear itself coloring the result.” She explains that “noise” to me this way: “So let’s compare this—a sound to a light with an amber filter. If you start your signal with ‘amber,’ then everything after that is going to be colored by amber or you have to spend your time trying to get rid of amber. Well, the same thing is true with sound. When you have oddities and noise or sounds within your signal at the get-go, then you are fighting that all the way through.”
Almost one year ago exactly, Karen and her team were diving into their very first show with this new setup—Man of La Mancha. “I used to say that it was moment-by-moment exhilaration and then panic because we didn’t actually get our hands on that gear until the week before! In fact, until the week before the actors were onstage, they were still pouring the new floor in the sound room. They had to bring a small crane through a hole in the wall and lay wire from the crane because there was literally no floor.
“I often could not tell what I was looking at or where I was looking for it with Man of La Mancha,” she laughs. “There were times when I would know what was happening, know what was happening, know what was happening, and then suddenly I wouldn’t know, and I wouldn’t know where to find the thing that I was looking for.
“I’m so much more familiar with where things are now. I have a better sense of how I am likely to program something now. For Man of La Mancha, we started with a lot of good basics, and we have learned as we have gone along. Not just me mixing, but the designers working with a whole new realm, the guys working backstage, having controls on things on a computer screen where before we actually went to physical devices to control them.
“So I think that that process will probably go on for a while and at some point we will think ‘Gee, we’re so conversant in it, it feels as natural as anything can be.’ And we are closer to that than we have been before.”
The sound crew has not been without support. Karen gives a great deal of credit to her tech support teams at Carlson Audio and Studer. On one occasion, for instance, Karen struck the wrong key and suddenly her screen enlarged by several hundred percent and took over the entire mixing desk. Imagine the contents of your email suddenly stretched across a single 6-foot screen being viewed through a single desktop monitor. She called for help and spent an hour on the phone with the team essentially locating her cursor and then finding the button that would enable her to close that view.
“’Who knew’ is something I say all the time,” she sighs with a smile.
It’s exciting to consider the future when working with a system this state-of-the-art. Not only does the team running it grow more conversant every day, building on skills from show to show, but this system is capable of keeping up with technology as it continues to evolve. “Just between our first show and our second show with this new system we already went into a new operating system. It’s got so much potential. So we are starting with sound the way we have known it before. And running from there and expanding. So yeah, I can imagine that in a number of years it could be far more complex… The learning has been fascinating!”
The audiences and critics have loved it. Following the opening night performance of Man of La Mancha, the Seattle Times added to their review of the show, “It’s a major improvement… it balances orchestra and singers adeptly, and renders the dialogue crisply, too. Bravo!”
The 5th Avenue Theatre wishes to thank the following companies for their contributions to our sound system redesign:
Carlson Audio Systems
Studer Professional Audio
If you’d like to check out the sound for yourself, come to a 5th Avenue show. Click here to find out what’s playing on our stage.