'Hamilton' Is Revolutionizing the Art and Science of Broadway Sound Design
The sound designer for the celebrated Broadway musical sits down with Motherboard for a wide-ranging interview.
Hamilton sound designer Nevin Steinberg at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. Photo: Jackson Krule/MOTHERBOARD
Hamilton, the Broadway juggernaut about "the ten-dollar founding father" Alexander Hamilton, is expected to dominate this Sunday's Tony Awards during a televised ceremony in which the cultural phenomenon has been nominated for a record-breaking 16 awards.
There is little doubt among Broadway insiders that the Tonys will be the latest triumph for the most universally celebrated musical to hit the Great White Way in decades. The only suspense now is just how much hardware the Hamilton cast and crew will carry home.
The creator and star of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has already been honored with a MacArthur "genius" grant and a Pulitzer Prize. The musical's Platinum-selling original cast recording won a Grammy Award and peaked at number one on the Billboard Rap charts. Miranda, along with his cast-mates and principal creative colleagues, were feted at a White House ceremony during which First Lady Michelle Obama called the show the "best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life."
To say that Hamilton is the hottest ticket in town would be a gross understatement. The show is completely sold out through January 2017, and tickets are going for well north of $1,000 per seat on secondary markets, and as much as $10,000 per seat for what is reported to be Miranda's last performance on July 8. It's entirely likely that Hamilton, which is currently raking in more than $1.5 million per week in revenue, will play on Broadway for a decade or more, and ultimately rack up more than one billion dollars in ticket sales.
Amid all of Hamilton's hype, one aspect of the production has remained largely unheralded: the ground-breaking sound design and audio engineering that brilliantly complements Miranda's vivid portrait of the Caribbean immigrant Hamilton, whose exploits with America's better-known founding fathers during and after the Revolutionary War laid the foundation for a new nation, before the tragic hero was shot dead in a duel by his nemesis Aaron Burr.
During a wide-ranging interview with Motherboard at the Richard Rodgers Theatre before a recent Wednesday matinee, Hamilton sound designer Nevin Steinberg (an acclaimed Broadway veteran in his own right) discussed the technological aspects of the show's audio system, as well as the enduring philosophical debate about whether sound design is a technical craft, a form of artistic expression, or some combination of both.
The system is precisely tuned so that each of some 20 zones in the theater receives its own customized mix
For Steinberg, a 49-year-old Harvard graduate who was a member of the famed Hasty Pudding Theatricals, Hamilton presented a unique set of challenges—and opportunities—in part because the musical is essentially a study in thematic, idiomatic, and dynamic variation. Over the course of two hours and forty-five minutes, including intermission, song genres change on a dime, and the music explores extreme contrasts in volume and lyrical density. The show stirs emotions that range from the heights of exhilaration to the depths of despair.
"This is what a sound designer lives for," said Steinberg, who leads Hamilton's five-person production and day-to-day sound design staff. "The whole point is to help people focus on what to listen to and guide them through the story. So when the material has that kind of dynamic range, sound designers get to see how far we can go. Lin likes to say that Hamilton is the loudest and quietest show on Broadway. We really have worked to the very edges of loud moments and quiet moments in a Broadway theater, in service of telling a story that is full of chaos and violence and enthusiasm, and also full of quiet introspection."
In one early moment, King George III (played until recently by Jonathan Groff) channels the "British Invasion" pop melodies of the 1960s, complete with nods to The Beatles' Getting Better and Penny Lane. (Paul McCartney loved the show, natch.) A short time later, Daveed Diggs, who plays both Lafayette and Jefferson, spits turbocharged raps at nearly 200 words per minute during the frenetic number Guns and Ships. Thundering ensemble pieces like Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down), which features booming explosions and gunfire, give way to crystalline ballads like Burr's Dear Theodosia, performed by Leslie Odom Jr., during which the entire audience holds its breath and hangs on every note.
Hamilton's sound system, which Steinberg said cost "seven figures" to put together, is formidable, to say the least.
Some 172 individual loudspeakers, more than Steinberg has ever used before on Broadway, are placed throughout the 1,319-seat Richard Rodgers Theatre. The speakers are located above, around, behind, and even below the seats, enveloping the audience in a lush sonic environment in which sound seems to come from all angles. The system is precisely tuned so that each of some 20 zones in the theater receives its own customized mix—each one meticulously calibrated by Steinberg during the show's previews—depending on their location in the venue.
The show's speakers are state-of-the-art. The main line arrays above the stage feature newly-designed d&b Y8s—Hamilton is one of the first Broadway shows to use them, Steinberg said—and are augmented by L-Acoustics ARCs on the proscenium. Six Meyer Sound subwoofers, including two extreme low-frequency 1100-LFC subs—Steinberg calls them "monsters"—provide the rib-cage-rattling low-end needed for the bass-heavy hip-hop numbers.
Steinberg said the two big Meyer Sound subs, which are located off stage left and right, are virtually unprecedented for Broadway shows. "They're designed for use with large-scale arena and stadium sound systems," he said. "One of the things that's interesting about Hamilton is that we have elements in the styles of music and the orchestration that are getting so low that we need that kind of power."
The show's mixing console is a powerful DiGiCo SD7T "control surface," which is also state-of-the-art for live music production. "We needed something that has a tremendous amount of capacity, both on the input side and the output side," said Steinberg. "It also has incredibly good software that was purpose-built for the theater, which is very unusual for our business, because most of our stuff is borrowed from other industries, like rock 'n' roll and orchestral work."
When Hamilton moved uptown to the Richard Rodgers last summer from its off-Broadway run at the 280-seat Public Theater, Steinberg and his colleagues decided to run the whole system at a 96kHz sample rate (up from 48kHz), which results in extremely high-fidelity sound reproduction. This allows the system to be remarkably clear (so the audience can hear every word of the dense hip-hop raps) and highly dynamic—both the quiet moments and the loud moments are extremely clear, with no distortion.
"It's about resolution," said Steinberg. "It's like megapixels on a camera. More megapixels means higher resolution. There are that many more samples being taken per second, which means that when you put them back together there's less space between them, so it's more accurate. The sound is clearer, it's cleaner, and it carries more of the original content through the sound system than it would at lower sample rates."
Beyond the core technological horsepower and engineering components of the show, Steinberg was faced with a number of other, more aesthetic, decisions. For example, what type of microphones should be used, and where should they be placed? Lavalier mics, which attach to clothing like those worn by TV announcers? Wig mics, hidden in the performer's headgear? Ear-worn boom mics that stretch down to the actor's mouth?
"The mics actually vary by performer," Steinberg said. "Everybody gets a custom rig." For example, Burr and Washington wear boom mics, while other actors use mics under a wig or on the hairline. During the show's famous Cabinet Battle #1 and Cabinet Battle #2, in which Hamilton and Jefferson engage in rap-battle-style debates about the young nation's economic and foreign policy, the actors use old-school handheld Shure mics, which Steinberg calls "the essential instrument of hip-hop."
In creating Hamilton's sound system—and acquiring the necessary equipment to pull it off—Steinberg had 100 percent carte blanche financial support from the show's producers. Did he feel like a kid in a candy store? "You'd think so," Steinberg said with a mordant laugh. "But I take the responsibility of spending that money so seriously that I actually get anxiety about it. I end up losing a lot of sleep because you're talking about seven figures worth of sound system in this building. I don't take it lightly, and I do a lot of research and a lot of listening, and spend a lot of time trying to make responsible decisions."
Broadway sound designers are responsible for every aspect of what the audience hears during the performance, including amplification, pre-recorded material, speakers, and the monitoring system for the actors and the musicians. But sound designers also have an important creative role, in addition to the technical aspects of the job, according to Steinberg.
"Sound design is really about storytelling and attention to detail," he said. "Human beings' ears are incredibly sensitive and they connect directly to emotional centers and mood centers and centers of upset and centers of peace and quiet. It's part of my job to manage an audience's expectations and help communicate the way a story gets told to them in the theater."
In other words, sound design is both a technical craft and a form of artistic expression, according to Steinberg, who rejects the notion that his work can be lumped into one category or the other.
"This is the age-old question, and I'm determined that it's both," he said. "I often compare it to winemaking. Sound design requires a tremendous amount of technical knowledge, like winemaking requires organic chemistry and the understanding of all of these reactions, and time, and sugar content and all of that. But at the end of the day, it's a glass of wine, and it needs to taste good."
"I think sound design is very similar to that," Steinberg continued. "We bring to bear a tremendous amount of technical knowledge, but ultimately the experience for the audience and for the performers has to be excellent, particularly on Broadway, and that becomes a matter of taste. Getting there requires rigor and technical facility, but the endeavor itself is artistic."
Sound design has become a controversial topic on Broadway in recent years. In 2008, decades after sound designers were first credited on the Great White Way, the Tony Awards established the twin categories of best sound design of a play and best sound design of a musical. But in 2014, the Tony Awards Administration Committee abruptly announced the elimination of the categories, prompting howls of protest from Broadway sound designers and fans, and a petition to reinstate the awards that garnered more than 30,000 signatures.
The administration committee did not explain its decision, but press reports at the time cited ignorance on the part of Tony voters about "what sound design is or how to assess it," as well as a belief among some committee members that sound design is "more of a technical craft, rather than a theatrical art form that the Tonys are intended to honor."
"When sound designers are not recognized at the Tony Awards for our efforts, it sends a very clear message: that what we do isn't creative, that we're not true theatre artists, that we are a disposable member of a production's team," the prominent composer John Gromada, who was nominated for a 2013 sound design Tony Award, wrote recently.
"The sound design element is not simply turning knobs and amplifying."
In a terse statement provided to Motherboard, Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League, and Heather Hitchens, president of the American Theatre Wing, the two organizations that present the Tony Awards, said: "It was determined that sound design would be more appropriately considered as a special award when there was an extraordinary achievement rather than continuing to have a separate category."
The removal of the sound design Tony remains a sensitive subject on Broadway. Steinberg had been nominated six times without winning before the category was eliminated, five times in his role as founding principal of the acclaimed Acme Sound Partners collective, and once on his own for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. And he hasn't been shy about expressing his dismay at the elimination of the award.
"What I did on Hamilton is only one of 40 Broadway shows this season and 40 sound designers who have done very similar kinds of work, the kind of focused, rigorous, attentive, creative work that's required of creative teams on these shows every year," said Steinberg. "And that to me says a lot about why the elimination of the award has been so hard on this community."
Hamilton's Tony-nominated director Thomas Kail isn't happy about the sound design category's disappearance either.
"There are four designers that worked on the show—the set designer, the sound designer, the lighting designer, and the costume designer," Kail told Motherboard. "It seems confusing to me that one of those design elements is not considered. The sound design element is not simply turning knobs and amplifying. The fact that there is a moment in time when there's a certain kind of recognition that is possible for three of the designers and not the fourth doesn't compute for me. I just don't understand it."
With sound design excluded from Sunday's ceremony, the Tony Awards will fail to acknowledge what anyone who has seen—and heard—Hamilton on Broadway already knows: that the work of Steinberg and his team represents an extraordinary artistic contribution to the overall impact of the show. It may not happen this year, but if Steinberg continues to produce sound design in the manner that he's demonstrated in Hamilton, he won't have to wait long for his next shot at a well-deserved Tony Award.