Imagine how challenging it is for a Broadway sound designer to track the sound from all the singers and dancers in a musical production. But now imagine that it can be done automatically.
Sound designer, Gareth Owen’s utilization of a zactrack SMART (opens in new tab) automated follow system to track on-stage sound for “MJ The Musical” marks Broadway’s first implementation of zactrack integrated with d&b Soundscape (opens in new tab). ACT Entertainment (opens in new tab) is the exclusive distributor of zactrack in North America.
Owen previously used a zactrack PRO system with Soundscape for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cinderella” in London. d&b Soundscape is an immersive sound design solution comprising a hardware platform and software modules.
Now, zactrack SMART with Soundscape is making its Broadway debut on “MJ The Musical,” currently in previews and due to open February 1, 2022, at the Neil Simon Theatre. The new musical centers around the making of Michael Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour and features the singular moves, signature sound and creative genius that made Jackson a legend.
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Tracking Every Cast Member
Owen tracks every cast member using 28 active trackers. Six cast members wear two trackers each. “They are all singers and dancers, so they are constantly in motion,” he noted. “Thanks to zactrack SMART we can track anything, anywhere accurately and with minimum latency.”
As the sound designer for “MJ The Musical,” Owen found the show’s challenges to be twofold. “First, there’s the expectation of the audience: Every person on the planet knows what every single song of Michael’s is supposed to sound like—there’s no room for interpretation, no margin to be anything other than perfect,” he said.
Secondly, “the show’s producer is former Sony executive Lia Vollack, an accomplished sound engineer in her own right. She has extremely high expectations and an incredible breadth of technical knowledge,” Owen pointed out. “So, it was daunting but flattering to be picked to do this job.”
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Bleeding Edge Spatial Audio
For the last few years Owen and his team from Gareth Owen Sound have been pushing the boundaries on musical theater sound design. They’ve been on the bleeding edge of a new generation of spatial audio sound processing systems, which create the 3D “cocktail party effect in live sound,” he explained. “We’re nudging up against 10 major musicals where we have used this technology.”
With spatial audio sound processing systems, on-stage sounds are not sent directly to speakers. Instead, sound from cast members’ radio mics are sent to objects placed within the processing engine, which then decides how much sound to send to each speaker to create a real-world, 3D audio environment. On our first outing with SoundScape tech, objects remained motionless, static in one position. Evolving from there we started to move objects manually, requiring that the sound engineer triggered thousands of manual movement cues as the cast travelled around the stage, which was obviously “unrealistic and impractical,” Owen said.
Using a tracking system seemed like a practical solution, and at about the same time the zactrack SMART system, the first plug-and-play automated follow system, was released. “We’d had a great experience with zactrack PRO and decided their new SMART system was worth a try,” added Owen. “Sound Associates acquired zactrack SMART, and Greg Reif supplied it to us for ‘MJ.’ Sound Associates’ owner Peter Fitzgerald has been extremely supportive of us over the years, and we’re very grateful for the leap of faith they took with us.”