The Sonic Science Of ‘Hamilton’
How sound designers sculpted the room where it happens
In a louder-than-life Broadway musical like Hamilton, sound plays a crucial role. And for the show’s sound designer Nevin Steinberg and associate sound designer Jason Crystal, that role should never be apparent to the 1,300 people sitting in New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre. They should not be aware that they are listening to a high-tech system of manipulated microphone levels, signal pathways, 3D-computer modeling, digital processing and 172 speakers positioned just so around the room. All of it a masterful mix of art and engineering meant to draw attention to characters on the stage.
“Our job,” explains Steinberg, “is not to be out in front of this thing, it’s to help communicate it.”
Nevin Steinberg and Jason Crystal
While the show’s cast and crew have been nominated across a record-breaking 16 categories for this weekend’s Tony Awards—which they are almost sure to sweep—Steinberg and Crystal, along with every other sound designer on Broadway, have been snubbed. In a surprise move in 2014, the Tony Awards Committee eliminated the sound design category. As The New York Times put it back then: “Few of the 800 Tony voters, whose ballots determine the sound design winners, know what sound design is or how to judge it…and some administration committee members believe that sound design is more of a technical craft than a theatrical art form.”
Just before the 2016 Tony nominees were announced this spring, Hamilton‘s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, complained to Rolling Stone in an email that: “Sound design is an art form as integral to the success of a theater piece as any other element. Set designers sculpt with physical materials, lighting designers sculpt with light and sound designers sculpt with sound.”
That’s exactly what the awards committee doesn’t see, and therefore doesn’t get, says Steinberg, who recently gave Popular Science a tour of the sound system’s hidden hardware, and magic, on a Thursday morning before the cast arrived to prepare for the show. “In the best of all possible worlds,” creating any show’s aural experience, says Steinberg, “starts with an empty room.”
Usually, when a show is preparing to move into a Broadway theater, the previous show has not fully moved out. When that happens, sound designers must strip things—like the old sound system and scenery—in their heads. Fortunately for Steinberg and Crystal, this was not the case with Hamilton. When the show moved from its Off-Broadway Public Theater home in New York to the Richard Rodgers, the duo simply sat quietly, imagining how to bring Steinberg’s vision to life. “I visited all the seating sections,” Steinberg recalled, “spending some quiet time alone with my thoughts and imagination about what would generally be a nice approach to the sound system as it relates to the audience and the configuration of the venue. That’s how it begins.”
After such audio-visualization sessions Steinberg goes old school. He sketches ideas on napkins before moving on to 3D models of the venue, charting different angles and paths of sound around the venue. In that way, he pieces together problems the sound might encounter as it travels—and the types of equipment he needs to overcome those obstacles. A surprising amount of math and science is involved, from creating computer-generated 3D models of the theater—and working via compass and protractor—to making sure power circuits aren’t overloaded.
Neither Steinberg nor Crystal has any formal training in technical theater. However, Crystal does have two engineering degrees, one in computer engineering and one in biomedical engineering, and once worked as a research scientist. But, “nothing I learned in my degree programs is specifically theater-related,” he says. “It’s maybe once a month I pull something from college and say ‘Oh! That was very useful for sound design for musical theater!’” His analytical, data-driven background gives him “a healthy dose of curiosity,” says Steinberg, a quality they share. Each learned their skills by apprenticing with others in the field—and by asking lots of questions.
The Broadway sound design community was happy to help with answers. Steinberg describes that community as ranging from ‘scientist’ to ‘artist’. Just as a ‘scientist’ may be inspired by the unconventional use of a piece of equipment, an ‘artist’ may be inspired by a scientific approach that allows them to accomplish new things.
One piece of hardware Steinberg and Crystal use, which rides the line between science and design, is called SIM and is manufactured by Meyer Sound. It allows the sound designers to track how sound signals move through and interact with the venue. To use it, the two place microphones around the theater, which feed into what Crystal calls a “box.” Using readouts from the box, the two are able to tell if the individual pieces of the system are behaving as they should, as well as how each of the speakers in the venue interact with each other (only 121 are for the audience. The other 51 are for stage monitoring), how the venue affects the sound, and how the sound can vary from location to location. This allows them to make changes ranging from physically moving a speaker to adjusting the frequencies a specific speaker emits, or simply doing nothing at all.
Having access to all that data “makes me a much more alert participant in the event once things get going,” says Steinberg. “Whether or not I choose to address it, that’s my decision.” Crystal further explains that “If you know how the room is behaving and you make an adjustment, you have some idea of what it’s going to do in other places in the room because you’ve seen all this data and you know how the different areas interact. It makes you confident in the current state of things, but also in the future state of things.”
When Steinberg is designing and making changes, he thinks about “resolution,” a term he borrowed from lighting designer Peggy Eisenhauer after hearing her speak on her work. To achieve the results he imagines in his head, Steinberg needs to make sure he has “for lack of a better term, all the knobs and buttons I need, to make small adjustments over time, to refine it to the point of elegance, where it appears to be a system working without any effort at all.”
There are three types of resolution Steinberg and Crystal deal with—electronic resolution, digital and processing resolution, and acoustic resolution. Electronic resolution deals with the cabling and pathways to each piece of equipment. “Every speaker you see in the theater has its own electronic path to it, so we can send each speaker its own information,” explains Crystal. “It’s not like ‘Oh, those five speakers are doing the same thing.’ We can get very specific with what each of them is doing.”
Next comes digital resolution. 141 inputs feed into a DiGiCo SD7-T console, which is used to mix all of the show’s sound together and is fed back out through 83 output channels. The console is limited by the number of amount of data it can input and output at a given time. In other words, it cannot process an infinite number of microphones and generate an infinite number out mixes from the existing inputs. That limit is innate to digital signal processing (DSP), and determines the finite number of combinations Steinberg and Crystal can mix a given number of input into. They must make sure they allocate their available DSP power in “smart ways” to ensure the fine-tuning they’re attempting is the only thing that changes within the sound system. Finally, they have to think of the acoustic resolution—how does the show sound to an audience member?
Figuring out the acoustic resolution of a system starts off as speculation. Although it’s informed by experience, Steinberg admits “you don’t know [if it will work], not until that day one where you’ve turned it all on.” Over-speculating and fiddling too much with the acoustic resolution can hurt the sound of a production more than it helps. “What can often happen, and has happened in my work much to my chagrin,” he confesses, “is you can lose the connection of the performer and the actual people who are telling the story with the audience. You can obscure it. Sometimes on purpose, but often by accident.”
Steinberg describes the philosophy Broadway sound today as much different than that of the past. “I came to the business at a time where there was still a lot of talk about how sound systems should be transparent, how you shouldn’t notice them,” he explains, “and the event should appear to be unamplified.” But shows like Hamilton can amplify sound to an extreme. Steinberg says audiences are aware that the sound system exists and will happily accept, and ultimately forget, that it’s there, because the experience is “so connected and so direct that that sort of veil of electronics and acoustics is no longer significant to them. And then they’re under our spell.”
One particularly effective transition where jumping between extreme sound and extreme quiet has an effect on the audience comes between the numbers “The Reynolds Pamphlet” and “Burn.” In “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” which Steinberg describes as “out-and-out madness,” Alexander Hamilton admits to having an extended affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds, with the consent of her husband. The cacophony of sound produced by everyone reading the pamphlet and gossiping is only realized after it disappears. Hamilton’s wife Eliza, played by Phillipa Soo, is left devastated and alone singing “Burn,” with just a fraction of the musicians left accompanying her at a much lower dynamic. Much like a real fire, Steinberg says the transition “suck[s] the oxygen right out” of the room.
Steinberg designed the sound system for both the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs of Hamilton. His past sound design credits include Hamilton writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first, TONY-winning musical In The Heights, as well as TONY winners Avenue Q and Monty Python’s Spamalot, among others. He is responsible for choosing, setting up, and making sure every piece of equipment that will enable the Hamilton audience hear the show works, including but not limited to all 172 speakers in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, the wireless microphone every cast member wears (Miranda and co-star Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Hamilton’s political rival Aaron Burr, each wear two for redundancy), the 61 inputs that feed the musicians’ output into the system, and all of the show’s pre-recorded sounds. Crystal’s job is to help implement Steinberg’s vision. He also programs and wires many of the devices of the sound system, helps the running crew with any issues they may have, and provides ongoing support to the show.
The pair met after Crystal moved to New York in the fall of 2007. He got Steinberg’s email address from a mutual acquaintance and the two met for coffee. Nothing came immediately of that first meeting, but a few months later Steinberg needed an assistant for a show and gave Crystal a call. In addition to Hamilton, the two have worked together on 10 other Broadway shows (and many other non-Broadway productions), including The Addams Family, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Porgy And Bess, and most recently Bright Star, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s musical which opened this season.
Working on the biggest show in recent Broadway history doesn’t make Steinberg think any less of other projects though. In fact, his advice to young designers is “treat every opportunity like it’s the most important opportunity.” He hopes by informing those looking to go in the industry to start this habit early, it will inform the style and approach they take to each project they work on, and how they work with others. Crystal also emphasizes the importance of working well with others, simply stating his best advice (which he calls “lame”) is “Be nice.” Much of the Broadway sound industry is freelance, and so he and Steinberg are always looking for people to work or collaborate with in the future. “Obviously you have to do a good job,” he continues, “but if you can’t treat people well that’s kind of the end of the road.”
Steinberg On Stage with the ‘Hamilton’ Cast
In any Broadway show, audiences must engage in a suspension of disbelief—accepting that some of what they see (or in this case, hear) is amplified or altered in order to move the narrative of a show forward. One night while Hamilton was in its Off-Broadway previews, the band started the show with its now-iconic ten-note phrase. The audience heard only muffled instruments. “Here’s an audience that’s ready to sit through a two-hour-and-45-minute-long show, that’s ready to surrender their time and their attention to this thing that’s going to unfold before them, and at the very top, you’ve broken the confidence,” says Steinberg.
Steinberg and Crystal were able to quickly locate and correct the problem, a sound layer on the console had been turned on during the day and hadn’t been turned off again before the performance, but not before shattering that suspension of disbelief and breaching the implied contract between viewers and performers.
The trust of an audience can be hard to re-establish. Steinberg admits that Hamilton gets the benefit of the doubt “because people are so excited to be here,” but says that doesn’t make them any less responsible for ensuring each audience member has the experience they should have.
What makes that Hamilton experience so special? It’s garnered enough attention for live performances during the 2016 Grammy Awards and a visit to the White House. Even Steinberg admits the show has exceeded all of his expectations and “become a cultural phenomenon in a way that’s really exciting and amazing to be a part of.” And though the onstage show remained the same size after its move from Off-Broadway to Broadway, the Public Theatre, where it was located Off-Broadway, seats less than 300 people; the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where it currently plays on Broadway, can accommodate over 1,300. While this sounds like it could be make things more difficult for Steinberg and Crystal, Steinberg welcomes the challenge because it’s “an opportunity to let storytelling really breath and bloom into a bigger space.” A bigger space allows them to push the extremes of the sound systems—”louder louds and softer softs with everything in between. Numbers about revolution and violence and chaos can have more impact and moments of isolation and introspection can really zoom in.”
According to Steinberg, there are two major ways that sound shapes the experience of Hamilton. The first, which has faded in the year since Hamilton began its New York run, is the initial shock of the audience itself. “When Hamilton first landed on audiences, there was a palpable surprise that this story could be in told this way,” he explains. “There’s this amazing moment of ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’ It makes no sense and yet it’s completely compelling. I think there’s a certain element of the audio that’s involved in that.” Speakers are all around the theater, many of which can be seen, but some cannot. Surround sound systems on both levels of the venue ensure audiences can both hear and be immersed in the show’s audio no matter where they’re seated. And for the performers and musicians, there are 51 speakers just for stage monitoring. The second factor is the moment the audience realizes they’re both able to follow and interested in seeing a “hip-hop telling of the Founding Fathers.” Steinberg says that’s mostly a testament to the show’s writing, but says “we also worked really hard to make sure the 1,300 people who are seeing it every night are having a special experience.”
Now that they’ve made sure the New York production is set up for a healthy run, Steinberg and Crystal will travel to design the sound system at the Chicago’s PrivateBank Theatre, which is even larger than the Richard Rodgers, where Hamilton will start its Chicago run on September 27. And they’re excited about it.
Once previews are over and no more changes are being made to a show, the sound designer’s job is done and they move on to the next project. “When opening night came, I felt sad because it means I don’t get to [work on this show] anymore. It was such a joyful and elevated professional experience,” Steinberg says of working on the New York run of the musical. “The idea that I get to do it again is thrilling to me. It brings me great happiness.” Crystal is excited too, both to return to his hometown of Chicago and to continue working with the Hamilton crew.
No gear was custom-built for Hamilton. Some of the speakers used–d&b Y8s and Meyer 1100-LFCs–have rarely been used before on Broadway, says Crystal. Steinberg has a few tricks up his sleeve (or rather, below his feet) to achieve certain effects, like using the TC Helicon VoiceLive, a voice/guitar/looping pedal. Although it makes for interesting effects, and Hamilton is the only show Steinberg uses it on, the pedal is not a particularly rare or difficult piece of equipment to get one’s hands on. Rather it is the artistry and sculpting of the sound, all 141 inputs going into the DiGiCo SD7-T, outputting 83 channels into 172 speakers, that allows audiences not just to hear Hamilton, but to experience it.
Other Broadway shows use comparable equipment and techniques. Sound design is nuanced and complicated. It will take continued teaching by experts in the field to help the public, and the Tony Awards Committee, understand why it is so vital to the magic of Broadway. Sound designers like Steinberg and Crystal deserve to be recognized for their work, even if they don’t want you to notice it.
Additional crew members involved in the sound department are:
- Sound Engineer: Justin Rathbun
- Deck Audio: Anna-Lee Craig and John Senter
- Production Sound: Nick Borisjuk
Disclaimer: Author and Crystal are both alumni of the Northwestern University Marching Band and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity of America.