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An Interview with Roger Gans
As resident sound designer for the San Francisco Opera for nearly 25 years, Roger Gans has been responsible for the sound of productions in the Opera House and for the annual Opera in the Park concerts. His other classical music credits include numerous large-scale outdoor concerts for Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras; and Kiri TeKanawa. His work in other related fields extends to projects for Feld Entertainment (Disney on Ice and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus); concert hall systems in Melbourne, Australia; and extensive work on the Disney Sea theme park in Tokyo, Japan
What's your normal process for approaching the design of a system?
It varies, depending on the venue, or if it's a permanent or a touring system, and what all the other particulars are. So first, you need get the information. It's sort of like having a medical exam. You have to get all the particulars first before you make a diagnosis. Obviously the size of the room, the number of people, and all the architectural aspects play into it. And then there are the logistical and 'political' considerations, since you are not always able to put your loudspeakers in the best place because of aesthetic considerations.
Are there significant differences between designing a system for classical music and for pop music?
Not really. The differences stem more from whether or not it's a touring system, and if so, the needs of the tour and the types of venues. That's when you get into ease of packaging, how things are going to be set up, taken down and tuned. These are big factors with ice shows and the circus, for example. You might want to have more gear from a sound standpoint, but there's no point in having more gear than you can actually set up and take down. One of the important things we need to remember about providing sound is that we often have to fit in with everybody else. Even though we've had considerable advances in technology, some things have not changed. For example, I talked with somebody recently who does a lot of touring with country and gospel shows, and he was telling me how frustrating it can be when the tour schedule just doesn't allow much time. You can't do your thing until everybody else has done their thing, and the priority isn't high enough to give you any extra time. That's a problem that applies no matter what kind of music you are doing.
But aren't there some special considerations for classical music, for large outdoor performances in particular?
With classical music, at least the way I like to approach it, I try not to close-mic everything. So yes, it's true there can be more of an issue with feedback and the amount of gain you can get out of the system. That's why directional systems are extremely important in this regard. In the last ten years, since Meyer has been developing these highly directional systems, these kind of large-scale outdoor concerts have become much more successful, even in reproducing the lower frequencies.
Also, it's very important to produce a very clean and balanced sound, so you don't call attention to the fact that you are using speakers. There's a lot of suspension of disbelief involved in that situation where you are out there looking at a bunch of classical musicians playing from a hundred yards away. You are hearing the orchestra as if it were close up, and your mind is saying, "Well, this can't be done acoustically." So it's challenging in that respect.
So it's a different situation from rock, which is always amplified, whereas most classical music is never amplified.
Yes, so it becomes an interpretation, in much the same way that a recording is an interpretation of the event. In rock and pop, I think the sound system is used differently because so many of the sounds are not generated in an acoustical environment, but rather are electronically created or influenced. For example, the sound of a voice can be changed simply by the proximity effect of a dynamic microphone. But in classical music, you are looking for transparency. You are striving for a very natural sound. That's why I try to mic the orchestra along the lines of a purist recording approach, where I use as much as possible a traditional balance point, usually where the conductor is. There is a reason why the orchestra is laid out the way it is, with the weaker instruments in front and the stronger in the back, because they are louder. So I try to maintain that balance. Of course you can't put one omni mic over the conductor and get the gain you need, but I try to approach the sound of the orchestra from that perspective. You could get away with fewer mics if you put the speakers quite far away, but then you lose your imaging. So it's a trade off, as usual.
When choosing loudspeaker systems for classical performances, what are the key considerations. You've mentioned directionality, what else?
How about monitoring on stage in outdoor classical performances. How is that handled?
Do you have any preferences for line arrays or conventional clusters in these situations?
I haven't had that much experience with the new line arrays, but certainly some venues – particularly outdoors – where you want to project sound in an elongated area, the line array concept does have advantages. I have heard demos of the new Meyer line arrays, and I'm looking forward to an opportunity to use them. But of course the basic concept is not new, and like any other technology, the line array can be misused as well. I was at an outdoor concert recently, where they had huge [non-Meyer] line arrays, and it sounded terrible. So I approach it like everything else. These are tools that need to be used properly.
On the other hand, it's always nice to have new tools that can do things you couldn't do before. For example, we recently added some of the tiny Meyer MM-4s into our proscenium system at the Opera House, because it just brought up the frequency response for the people in the first few rows that are out of the pattern of the side proscenium speakers. It worked exactly like it was supposed to. In years back, it would be hard to find something that is powerful enough to keep up with the big system, and directional enough not to bleed too much into the rear areas.
Focusing in on opera, where you do most of your work, how is amplification used there?
Basically, in San Francisco, we don't amplify singing voices or the orchestra except in special cases. Sometimes we will have mics on for dialog, or we will have a chorus offstage with mics, because of scenery issues or for special effects. And then there are all kinds of special sound effects. You'd be surprised how much the system is used.
Is it a challenge blending in amplified music with a performance in an acoustical space?
Yes, it can be difficult, since you have live music and live performers in real time as an immediate standard of comparison, constantly. So the loudspeakers really need to be balanced and natural sounding. The same applies to microphones; they need to be transparent as well. So we use the best microphones, from Schoeps and DPA, and the recent improvements in loudspeaker technology from Meyer Sound also contribute. And it does help that we are in a good acoustic space, so at least once we get the proper amplified sound it is not degraded by the room.
But the accuracy of the gear has made a huge difference, and it has improved over the years. Speakers like the MSL-4 and the CQ Series produce a very realistic sound, and the musicians here have been very happy with the results whenever we use them
Is it an all Meyer Sound system at the Opera House?
Yes, it's a permanently installed system using the Meyer CQ Series at the proscenium, and we also have extensive portable systems for placing throughout the house and stage for special effects. We've had a close relationship with Meyer over the years, and I certainly don't see any reason to change.
Do you generally prefer self-powered systems?
From a purely practical standpoint, the powered systems really make a lot of sense because you have fewer places where things can go wrong. Whenever I have SIMmed systems, the first thing I do is check the polarity and frequency response before I get into actual tuning. Nine times out of ten, with conventional systems, there's something that's out of whack, a crossed wire or something. I've had some horrendous experiences with conventional systems where you waste an enormous amount of time trying to find out where one connection or one setting isn't right. It seems to go on forever. And you don't have all the time you need. At best you might have six hours, and you don't want to spend four of those fixing the sound system.
With a powered speaker, most of that is all done and sealed inside the box. There's so much less to worry about. You have a good clean signal running to a single block unit. You don't have to worry about errors on site. I think the actual quality is better as well, since everything is optimized for the best performance. So in general, powered speakers are a huge advance as far as I'm concerned.
I had to push to get the Meyer powered speakers at the new Tokyo DisneySea theme park in Japan, because some of the management were conservative and were concerned about this new technology, but it turned out to work very, very well. All the major performance venues there ended up using Meyer self-powered systems.
Have you found that Meyer Sound has been responsive to your needs?
They have always been very supportive of me, in all my activities at the Opera, and in other capacities as well. For example, when I was working with the Feld Company and doing their ice shows, we were doing portable systems, moving once or twice a week and going overseas. We had portable UPA arrays for those shows, but after that, they asked me to design a system for the circus units, which are bigger and with a live band and singers. It needed a more robust system requiring something bigger than UPAs, so Meyer responded by developing the MSL-2.
The Opera House project was a similar situation in that we had originally planned on MSL-4s for the renovation, but they didn't fit architecturally – the depth would cut off some sight lines. But John had been working on the new horn at the time, so Meyer developed the CQs, and we used the prototypes at the Civic Auditorium during the renovation year. After that, they did some fine tuning, installed them here and they have been very successful.
Over the years, John and I have worked closely together, and he agrees that if the quality is acceptable for classical music, then it will work for rock and roll. I don't mean that in a derogatory sense, but that it sets an appropriate standard – in terms of power as well as quality. Because you don't realize how much peak power there is in an orchestra until you actually mix a classical concert with some forte music. The peaks that are achieved acoustically can be huge. And of course for effects in the opera, we have things like cannons and thunder that really test a system. It's hard to get an impressively loud low end without it sounding obnoxious. You need enough power so that you can hit those peaks and still be idling, because that's how nature is. When you hear a real thunderclap, you never get the feeling that the "system" is about to clip. You feel there's a lot more energy there than you hear.
What kind of EQ and alignment systems do you use?
How do you use your EQ and alignment time?
For me, there are two parts to the job. The first part is alignment, which means making sure that the sound system is working as efficiently as possible, that the gain structure is appropriate throughout the chain, and that all the individual components are working properly.
One of the first things I will do, for example, is look at the particular console and figure out exactly what the little green lights and red lights mean. In some of the older consoles for instance, when you saw the red light, it was too late: you were already distorting. It's like, "Thank you for letting me know that it's too late. Now I'm fired." But even these days it can vary, and you learn a lot of interesting things between the inputs of the console and the outputs of the matrix, about how the different gain structures are related and what the warning lights mean. I take that idea all the way through, making sure that every piece is working, everything is in polarity throughout the whole system, and determine how much headroom is really there above the warning lights. Only after that do I start dealing with turning the system as a whole.
That's common to all systems. Beyond that point, it will depend on several circumstances, for example whether you have an array and need to achieve a certain wide area coverage, or whether it's a delay or fill system.
Of course, if you've ever been to Meyer Sound's SIM School, you know very well that no alignment system can fix a poor sound design. So SIM is closely related to how you put your system together. By having a better understanding of the instrument, you naturally force yourself to do better sound design. You don't ask the equipment to do something it simply can't do. You learn to be more realistic about things by looking at the results in very high resolution. You can look at a system in very low resolution, nicely smoothed out, and pretend that everything's okay. But in high resolution you see peaks and dips and combing. In the real world you can't get rid of it all, but you need to know what's really there to make the proper decisions and compromises. You need to deal with reality, and in that respect SIM is a very powerful system.
Do you use any different approach for EQing for a different style of music or even a particular singer, like a Pavarotti?
Not really. The basic stages are checkout, alignment and tuning, and anything beyond that is a subjective artistic judgment. Let's say you have a center cluster and downfill, for example, you will set that up for the best coverage and the least interference, and then if you want to boost up on the low-end for a rock and roll feel, or roll off the high end, you can do that overall. But I would not align a system for a particular kind of music. You can always give the house mixer equalizers in front of the system to do overall contouring.
How long have you been working with the Opera?
Since 1978, coming up on 25 years.
A quarter of a century?! So, how have things changed, in terms of what you can do, and what audiences expect?
It's a challenge, because today people are driving to concerts listening to systems in their cars that, in many cases, will sound better than the house PA – not our house, of course, but a lot of places. They also have better home systems. So their expectations are higher. That occurred to me at the outdoor rock concert that I mentioned earlier. The other technology there was awesome, the video and the lighting effects, but the sound just wasn't there.
From the production standpoint, are classical and opera productions becoming more high-tech because of the tools that are available now?
I think people have become more realistic, on both sides of the curtain. When I first came to the Opera, they were very reluctant to try much in the way of sound technology because they had been burned too often before. They would try to do something, but if you don't have the time or the proper gear, it can't be done consistently. That's another issue we didn't discuss is the consistency, which is crucial to musicians. Still, I think people have become more adventurous in terms of sound because of what we are able to do now. For example, I remember using some of the first Casio samplers, which were a major breakthrough for sound effects production. Before that we were using two tape recorders, alternating cues, with an operator and a musical assistant with a score to pre-cue. Things like that are bound to be marginally successful in terms of consistency. Now we have samplers with huge memory banks, with a whole bank of thunder sounds that are multi-channel and go to different locations. We're scoring them on a computer so that a musician actually comes in and plays the thunder. It's what everybody agreed to do, and works exactly the same every time. When you have that kind of technology, people are bound to be more accepting, and more willing to take risks.
Another example is when you have a child singer, and they can't quite match up with the adult singers, so you put a radio pack on them and very gently reinforce them with a time delayed proscenium system that sounds perfectly natural. That's the sort of thing that is not done very often, but when it's required it's much easier to do now than in years before.
So now that people accept it, is it getting to the point where audiences expect it? And does that introduce another level of challenges?
What are two of your favorite audio system designs, one opera and one something else?
In the non-opera category, I was really happy with all the venues we did at the Disney Sea park in Tokyo. After three years and all the budget battles, we were able to deliver really incredible sound systems throughout the park. My favorite is the Broadway theater, a replica of a Broadway house, which is the ultimate Meyer rig that New York sound designers would die for. It has upper and lower proscenium, center, upper and lower left and right proscenium center, surrounds on all the levels, and underbalcony delays, with everything architecturally designed in to the room, so you don't see a single speaker. It has lots of power and flexibility, and I was very happy with how it turned out. It took a lot of negotiating but it was worth it.
As far as opera goes, I think the Otello we just did with our new sampling setup was extraordinary. We were trying to bridge the gap between how a musician approaches sound and how a sound technician would do it. We work at ways that allow musicians to intuitively integrate the effects into the overall score, yet still maintain sounds that work technically and are spread around the house and give some kind of movement. So in that aspect, as well as in the quality of the sounds produced, it was the happy culmination of a lot of work over the years.
Did you do anything special for that with the house loudspeakers?
We didn't change anything, though the Meyer loudspeakers made the whole thing happen. We have the loudspeakers where we want them, we have full range, we have plenty of power so you can have a low rumble that's effective, or a huge thunderclap that is not distorted. So as far as that goes, we had what we needed.
Over the years, has your relationship with Meyer Sound contributed to the development of your work as a sound designer?
My relationship with Meyer has been unique, largely I suppose because of our proximity. I have relied on Meyer many times to solve technical problems. And I really don't have a professional relationship like that with any other manufacturer.