Showstopper! | Sound Design & Mixing

Design & Mixing

Showstopper! is an Olivier award winning improvised musical founded by Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery.

The beginning of 2019 saw an 8 week run of Showstopper! at The Other Palace for which Oscar Thompson of Show Works was appointed to manage the sound.
The show’s format is certainly different to any show previously worked on before – where the audience decide the direction of the show.

A usual Showstopper comprises of 7 Actors; 1 ‘Writer’, 3 boys, 3 girls accompanied by a 3 piece band: Percussion, Keys & Reeds.
The writer sets up the show asking the audience where they’d like the show set (this could be anywhere), what song styles that could feature, and most importantly the name – which is usually quite punny!
Once the settings have been chosen, the show is totally improvised there on out.

During the improvisation, the writer can interject and ask the audience for more suggestions, or make things harder for the cast much to the amusement of the punters!
Because of this not-so-usual format: the sound, both in terms of the design and the setup are very particular.
Mixing a musical where you don’t know who is saying the next line does seem crazy, however certainly not impossible.
It certainly isn’t number crunching or muscle memory, its just as much as being part of the action as it is being on stage. Anyone who tells you that a musical can be fully pre programmed is ludicrous – no two shows are the same, so why should the mix be?Certainly in Showstoppers case – no two shows are even close to the same!

So how does it work? Line-by-line mixing is definitely out of the question, so all of the vocal microphones have to be left on at all times. This also sounds like a nightmare, but with the show so fine tuned and the cast well aware of the this – it presents very little issues to the final product.
With all of the vocal microphones open, we tend to level off the normal speech level at ~ -10db on the faders, so that when we have all of the faders at -10db, everyone is around the same volume.
This does change as the cast use accents to portray different characters, but certainly a good starting point.
The tendency here is also to be slightly on the louder side for speech at -10db on the fader. The reason being is that although its very nice to make full use of the length of the fader, this does work against you when you’re quickly reacting to the action and need to change a level very quickly.
The last part of this is simply learning body language, something the stoppers use profusely in their improvisation techniques.
After about a week or so of mixing, you’re able to predict who is going to speak/sing next, who’s going to lead a song or who’s going to interject.
It is a very strange concept, but your mind does start to pickup very subtle things (normally subconsciously) that add up to predicting where the story and cast might go next.
Mistakes do certainly happen – Its not unusual to take your eye off the ball and have someones microphone either way too loud or too quiet for a sudden line or comment that they make.
Because of this, the show does require a lot of concentration from the second the improvisation starts, but is also something that is very rewarding at the end of the show.

The layout of the sound desk is another tool for making improvisation work in theatre sound. In the case of Showstopper, the main aim is to get all of the inputs on the very top layer of the desk for easy access, allowing you to react very quickly to changes in instrumentation and most importantly have your hands on the radio microphones at all times.
As well as having the inputs easily accessible, vocal reverbs, band reverb and the band VCA feature on this layer too adding to the plethora of controls.
Two reverbs are used for the vocals; a long and a short. The radio microphones are constantly routed to this (albeit the writers) allowing the operator to blend between the two reverbs, matching the style of that particular song.
Very commonly is the band on its own VCA too, gaining ultimate control over the whole level at the band at anytime, this is a must for when actors break in and out of song.
Adding to the texture of the band is the band reverb, also on its own fader. When underscoring scenes, this reverb can really come out and create beautiful tales to subtle underscores. Helping the action blend from scene to scene and eventually into song.
In all cases here, the reverbs are automated using a VCA on the aux send, allowing the operator to snap out the reverb whilst leaving the tail to continue.

Being improvised means that both the cast’s and musician’s monitor mixes are absolutely crucial: if the cast can’t hear the musicians and visa versa, then the show would be very hard to perform.
For this reason vocals are present in both the onstage and musician foldback.
This certainly seems like another nightmare having vocal foldback as well as all of the microphones on at once, however this is mostly combated by the use of headset microphones, to get the microphone as close to the mouth as possible as to avoid feedback.
Another factor that helps the sound in these challenges is also the cast. They are very well vocally trained, and understand the importance of projection and diction which all adds up to helping both the FOH and Monitor mix.

The musicians have carefully selected their instruments in order to create a range of full on, vibrant sounds no matter the style of music that is thrown at them.
The percussion setup comprises of the following; Kick, Cahon, HiHat, Cymbals, Toys, Djembe, Bongos and an SPD allowing a variety of textures and pallets to be explored during the show.
The drum kit is closed mic’ed on every instrument in order to get the full sound of each part of the kit, giving the operator full control of blending each of the sources to best portray that style of music.
In some cases, instruments such as the Djembe and Cahon are double mic’ed in order to capture different sounds from the same instrument – making the instrument sound either more deep and bassy or clear and snappy at the touch of a fader.
The SPD is the god send for all modern electronic music (think Hamilton or Eugenius!) allowing that one extra pallet that the traditional kit couldn’t already cover.
Keys is headed up by MainStage, allowing a wide range of sounds to be selected over the standard piano. Not only this but it also allows the keys player to play the bass using the left hand side of the keyboard whilst playing as usual patch using the right. Two musicians for the price of one essentially! But definitely helps in the bulking out of the sound.
Naturally, the reeds player then distributes their playing over both the saxophone and clarinet during the show. The reeds player doesn’t tend to lead the songs, where the percussion or keys may do, though definitely adds a new dimension to the sound, often solo’ing in and out where necessary.