The Sounds of Spectacular

How Radio City Music Hall Was Turned into the World’s Largest Surround Sound System for the New York Spring Spectacular.

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Couch potatoes who enjoy watching TV with a surround sound system at home will love the New York Spring Spectacular. More than 234 speakers – including about 90 new ones – are strewn around the theater, quite possibly turning the New York Spring Spectacular’s audio setup into the world’s largest surround sound system. And it “plays” much more than a movie soundtrack; the overall soundscape is created thanks to dozens and dozens of audio channels for live happenings, everything from the 26-piece live band to the Rockettes tap shoes (each of which is mic’d). In addition to the live audio, 48 separate channels are dedicated to supporting voices and music that play behind the live musicians, as well as 16 channels for sound effects such as Times Square traffic, wind, and even God.

“We have many more speakers than are typically installed here because the point is to really immerse people in the audio,” says New York Spring Spectacular sound designer Keith Caggiano, whose credits include ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Spiderman: Turn off the Dark’ on Broadway and ‘Le Reve’ at the Wynn Las Vegas. “The idea is to get some really interesting effects and some motion in the sound and just envelop people continuously.” But there are challenges with replicating a surround sound experience in one of the world’s largest theaters. “Suddenly there are 6,000 people, and we’re trying to get them all that same effect, but not everybody can sit in that perfect home couch position, where everything is pointed directly at them.” This is where the extra speakers, particularly the ones on the side of the auditorium, come in, bouncing sound energy against each other, balancing out the sound to each seat so that it sounds more or less the same no matter where a spectator is sitting. No surprise, the speakers come in many shapes and sizes, such as the two main ones on the left and right of the stage, which weigh 3,500 pounds each. Even the existing brown speakers that you see around the auditorium – typically used for surround sound movies – are folded into the sound mix for the New York Spring Spectacular.

The amount of coordination required is staggering. Take the Rockettes’ tap number – each of the 36 dancers shoes have microphones built in, which means a total of 72 microphones and 72 individual inputs just to get an audible tap sound (this is similar to the setup for the Christmas Spectacular). Add prerecorded supporting voices and music that’s on a click track, and it’s a lot for the performers and stage crew to keep up with. That’s why there’s a back up plan.

Not only is there redundancy for the entire system – “we have two of everything,” says Caggiano of the backup infrastructure in case, say, a wire chafes or a speaker blows – but plenty is still happening manually, an essential production component since it’s impossible for the live performers to sing precisely the same way every night (and besides, they may want to take some artistic liberties here and there). As such, there are also audio engineers live mixing the show in parts, so that everything sounds interconnected.

It’s an impressive, state-of-the-art audio setup of the magnitude and complexity that you might find in a custom-built Las Vegas theater, but Radio City Music Hall is one of the few venues that can handle it, even though it was built more than 70 years ago. After all, says Caggiano,“Radio City Music Hall was designed for this kind of spectacle.”

By Tom Samiljan