A musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie's classic, "Peter and Wendy," recently concluding a six-week run at the New Victory Theater in New York, featured an innovative surround sound design by Edward Cosla that served to further immerse the audience in the fantasy of the production.
Adapted by Liza Lorwin and directed by Lee Breuer, the production was beautifully presented by Mabou Mines, a renowned experimental theater company. They employed a number of unique elements, including bunraku puppets, pop-up book sets, and a haunting Celtic musical score by Johnny Cunningham.
Perhaps better known as "Peter Pan," the show features a narrator providing voices for all of the puppet characters. At times, three or more characters are speaking courtesy of the narrator, making timing and diction vital. Simultaneously, a seven-piece live orchestra dictates an extra measure of musicality.
"This unique production, the way that it's created to stimulate the imagination, seemed like the perfect opportunity to try something new and different," explains Cosla, a theatrical sound veteran who spent five years as the house engineer at the Joyce Theater. "I wanted to create sound in the realm of larger than life, which seemed appropriate to the fantasy concept."
Following the go-ahead from the production staff to take the surround direction, Cosla checked out the recently refurbished New Victory, the flagship of the ongoing 42nd Street revitalization project. Attending a performance of the prior production to get a feel of both the room and the house system, he visited a good portion of the room's 500 seats that are split into three levels.
"The sound design at the New Victory is really well done," he says of the Jaffe Holden Scarbrough project headed by David Robb. Main loudspeakers are EAW, with a main center cluster flown above the proscenium, flanked by left and right loudspeakers flown significantly lower and to each side of the proscenium. Underbalcony areas are covered by EAW UB82 low-profile loudspeakers, with everything powered by Crest amplifiers. "I hardly had to tweak the EQ at all, and the delays are set up as well as the could possibly be," he adds.
While working The Vienna Festival of the Arts the year prior in Austria, Cosla had been introduced to a processor simply called "der cluster-maker" by his European colleagues. Actually, the unit was a multichannel surround processor called the MTI-3 TriSonic Imager from Michigan-based Miles Technology.
"What I found in Vienna with the MTI-3, using it as a left/center/right processor, was that it created a stereo image that was seamless from one side of the room to the other," he explains. "In Vienna, I spent a significant amount of time walking back and forth, and through different rows, and the stereo image didn't waiver no matter where I went. It's truly seamless."
Briefly, the MTI-3 works within any audio format, combining left and right input signals via a patented process to create left, center, and right output signals. Any signal components panned fully left or right appear in the corresponding loudspeaker at full level and in the other two loudspeakers at 6dB down, with appropriate phase and polarity. The process focuses center-panned sources in the mix like lead vocals in the center channel, while other sounds simultaneously localize correctly at left and right.
The center emphasis of vocals was crucial, with the narrator's voice the single most important element of the production. "I'm of the mind that using a central cluster is always better for reasons of intelligibility and synchronization. So the MTI-3 retains this characteristic while dramatically improving the quality of stereo music," he notes.
During the evaluation and design process for "Peter and Wendy," he decided to shift the focus of the soundstage a bit, making it less anchored to the performers on stage and more into a third dimension. The goal was to close the distance between the stage and the seats, especially those farther away, to embrace the audience and draw them further into the production. A subtle use of surround sound would be the primary method to achieve this.
The Vienna evaluation hadn't presented enough time to experiment with
the MTI-3's two full-bandwidth surround outputs. Enhanced with a linear
processing circuitry design, each surround output alone sounds identical
to the input, but in stereo, the effect is spatially enveloping. Cosla began
implementing the surrounds during initial performances of "Peter and
Wendy" at the annual Shakespeare Festival held at the Public Theater
in New York, with their
performance convincing Cosla that the effect would indeed add another dimension to the sound design.
The MTI-3 proved simple to implement within the New Victory Theater system. Left and right outputs from the Crest house console were fed to the MTI-3, which in turn provided the three front channels and two surrounds. Single Apogee SSM compact loudspeakers taking the surround feeds, were placed in the left and right corners behind each balcony seating area, firing in a crossing pattern. Each of these had its own dedicated drive rack.
"The surround presentation was tremendously successful," he says. "During one of the early performances, I went up to the third level and confirmed that we had indeed created the psychological feeling that you were right within the show. The lack of localization in the surround is what stood out as the key. Facing the stage, you didn't localize on the speaker behind you. Instead, it seemed to push your attention forward, toward the stage."
The underbalcony loudspeakers were also handled in a unique method, receiving a center channel feed from the MTI-3. This guaranteed that intelligible center channel vocals were supplied to seats shadowed from receiving main center cluster coverage, with these seats also receiving main left and right main loudspeaker coverage. The impeccable time delays of the house system insured the success of this novel approach.
The panning function of the unit allowed Cosla further flexibility in
adding to the depth of the soundstage. For example, percussive sounds were
always panned close to center and removed total from surrounds. They could
have been distracting if arriving from the rear, and disoriented the intended
mood. "The panning is important - another variable that can enhance
the design," he says. "It was effective in localizing the orchestra
in particular, while still letting us retain an overall ethereal feel."