Backstage with Leon Rothenberg

Leon Rothenberg / Live Sound Designer  / Front Row Center


Tell us about doing sound for theater.

I often find myself needing to do the same thing for a lot of playback cues, like a particular EQ problem or a particular volume leveling issue for which you need something like MaxxVolume. Thatís one scenario where you want to be able to batch process a lot of things fairly quickly. The other scenario is that you have a specific cue that has a problem that needs to get fixed, and you have one chance to do it. So to have a utility that allows you to load up a sound, load up a plugin, fix it, spit it back out, and get it back onto your playback machine without a lot of fuss is extremely useful for workflow. 

Often you will just have moments to get something fixed, and you always have to decide, "Do I want to make everyone stop and wait for me, or can I just go with the flow". The more you can get things done fast, the more you can save your stopping for when you really need it, when itís really important. Otherwise, you've gotta take advantage of that "Let's do it one more time" time, and fast workflow is the key.

From show to show, how much adjusting will you do? 

From show to show for prerecorded cues, none. The only reason you would adjust something after the show has opened is if thereís a problem or a change to the show itself. For example, on South Pacific which we just did, there is an understudy for the male lead opera singer because heís going on vacation for a few weeks. So we needed to go back and lay in new voiceovers because thereís a number of voiceover cues where heís speaking from a radio, and we have to make sure the voices match. Thatís really the only sort of thing, unless someone changes there mind on a particular point and a dramatic moment has changed or needs to change, but otherwise, once the show starts, the mixer mixes the show but you donít really change the cues.

Act One
How did you get into sound design? 

I came to sound design through music. I studied as a composer in undergrad, went to Oberlin Conservatory, and started writing music, just me, alone, with a piano and a pencil. In my fourth year one of my composition teachers was writing an opera based on a play that was going to have a staged reading, and asked me if I wanted to sound design it. That was the first time that I had heard that phrase. So I and one of the electronic music composers, we got together and did it. My teacher?s interest was in a composed soundscape for the play, because the opera was based largely on soundscapes. We did this sound design and came up with a whole bunch of sounds and effects and did a whole lot of recording and banging on bottles and large coffee cans and things like that, and put the whole thing together in a way that made sense to us, which turned out to be very musical. 

Often you will just have moments to get something fixed, and you always have to decide, "Do I want to make everyone stop and wait for me, or can I just go with the flow". The more you can get things done fast, the more you can save your stopping for when you really need it, when itís really important. Otherwise, you've gotta take advantage of that "Let's do it one more time" time, and fast workflow is the key.

What kind of gear did you use back then? 

We were using Pro Tools which we recorded to cassette tape, reel-to-reel and DAT, because thatís what we had available. We needed a lot of playback, hence the three different kinds of machines. After that experience I started writing music for theater. It was still music, but it was writing it as part of a whole, something larger, as opposed to its own free-standing event. I really liked that, mostly because it meant that I got to work with other people instead of working by myself all the time, which was fun, and because I liked being part of a whole entity and supporting a larger piece musically.

So I did that for some time and when I finished school I promptly started a job writing internet software, which I did for a couple of years. Then I decided to go back to grad school at CalArts and study Sound Design from Ď99 to 2002. The dot com bubble was fun and lucrative, but not what I wanted to do, sitting in the same office everyday and writing software instead of being in the theater and doing new things all the time. So I got out of that and got back into sound design and now here I am in New York City. 

Setting the Stage
How do you prepare for a new show? 

You start by speaking with the other members of the creative team and the director and reading the script, or whatever guiding text there is to work from. I just did a show that wasn't really a script, more of a series of vignettes that were to be ordered in some undetermined way. But whatever the material is, it could be anything from a series of paintings to a text to whatever, it all starts with creative discussions, bouncing ideas off each other, looking for a point of view. 

Next thing is to design a sound system, and get it installed in the theater during the load-in period, which is anywhere from a couple of days to five or six weeks, depending on how large the show is. Then you have whatís called technical rehearsals for about ten days, where we go through the show, step by step, and add all the technical elements. The actors and the directors have been rehearsing the show separately in a rehearsal hall somewhere for the last 4-6 weeks, but this will be the first time they are interacting with the set, lights, costumes, sound, video and whatever else the show has. 

Often the actors will wear wireless mics, and the engineer turns the mics on only when someone is talking. I don't have a lot of recent experience with Rock and Roll, but I think theatrical mixing is quite a different paradigm. The front of house engineer will have literally tens of thousands of cues during the course of a show, turning mics on and off. Itís literally as fast as: you say something, I say something, you say something, I say something--heís going up and down, riding the faders. This requires the preparation of a show script with all the cues, and keeping it up to date. It's almost a full time job, just keeping track of the script.

To Cue or Not to Cue
How do you trigger sound effects? 

Sound effects-wise, nowadays itís all generally off a computer and itís triggered by MIDI or a switch closure, but usually MIDI. Either some sort of big ĎGoí button, or you can attach it to the automation in your console, so when you go to the next console scene, you can trigger a sound effect or music playback at the same time if you need to. And itís always good to run two computers redundantly, in case one goes down. 

What would happen if you blew a sound cue? 

Generally, you fire a cue on a particular line or a particular word or a particular moment. Somebody steps their left foot downstage, or in the middle of the word "Mer-cutio", or something along those lines. In the cases where you have something like thunder and itís coordinated with a light cue, you might have either the lighting console trigger the sound or vice versa, so that theyíre in perfect sync. Otherwise thereís almost always somebody on the button, pressing ĎGoí each time they get a cue from a stage manager, who follows the show with a script and tells everybody what to do when. This central command model is what keeps everything synchronized. But if you blow a cue, you just have to go on--hope you get it right tomorrow night.

Dress Rehearsal
At what point do you process the sound? 

Waves comes in during the technical rehearsals, when youíre in the theater as well as beforehand, when youíre building sound effects. For example, in Coast of Utopia from a few years ago, there was a long, complicated kind of ocean-ambience-opening-sequence where the ocean starts in from a distance with a buoy bell, then the music starts and swells as the ocean crashes and moves around the room. Youíre in the middle of this James Cameron-esque, Ďperfect storm at seaí kind of thing. As youíre building a cue like that, first of all, you build it in something like Pro Tools in the studio and bounce it out to multiple tracks so that you can then remix it in the theater. Itís always going to sound different in the theater than in the studio, because itís a different space. You mix it all up and do all the sequencing and volume automation and everything and you have a problem: You canít hear the music because thereís too much high end in the waves. So you very quickly want to pull one of those wave tracks out, the offending ocean track, run it through a low pass, get it back into the sequence, and be able to run it again in the 3 or 4 minutes that it takes for everyone else to reset what theyíre doing, so that you get another pass at refining your work. 

How much time do you have to perfect the sound? 

In most cases, you only have a couple of shots to get it right. But perfection comes in later, during preview performances, which last from 2 to 4 weeks before the official opening. The whole show goes through this process of refining and refining and refining in front of an audience during the preview period, where you can make corrections and then see how they work out. 

Giving Props
Which tools do you find the most useful? 

EQs, compressors and limiters, volume leveling, things like that when I'm in the theater. In the studio, thatís when you sort of use the more creative tools like Enigma or MetaFlanger. When youíre in tech and fixing and refining, itís a bit like the mastering process, where youíre going to be reaching for MaxxVolume or C4 or L1, L2, L3 or MaxxBass to tune the low end. In the studio you have more time to be creative, and that's when you look to the fun stuff. 

Do you use convolution reverbs? 

I use the IR1 a lot on Utopia, actually. I use the sort of the large and medium hall settings and came up with one that worked well in the theater for the music tracks and then sent that around to the surround system. So youíd have the music tracks coming out of the main left-right system, and then the reverb track using IR1 coming out of the surround speakers in the theater, giving a big space to the music. Itís a bit like sending the music to a live reverb except that itís prerecorded and controllable from within the sound effects playback engine. That way I was able to use a convolution reverb live.

How can you do automation in a theater environment? 

Well, you have an automated console, you take a cue and it moves your faders. You might have a cue at the beginning of a song which sets up your orchestra for that number: more harp, less drums, etc, and when you get to the next song or section, you take another cue and it adjusts. Itís a bit like mixing with volume envelopes on a DAW, except that youíre doing it live. Youíre doing it in this sort of cue-based way and every once in a while, when you hit that ĎGoí button, itís going to trigger sound effects as well, which will be completely automated in volume and routing and whatnot. But automation is for the things you don't want your operator to have to worry about. Theater is about space, not a two-dimensional two-speaker or even five-speaker space. Youíre dealing with a three-dimensional higher-lower-further-closer image. Thereís depth and thereís width and even sort of beyond what youíd think of as 5.1 which makes it quite different from film sound. Anyway, automation let's you take advantage of all that space. 

How about outboard processing?

Absolutely, yeah. I used the MaxxBCL with Jonathan [Deans, sound designer] on Cirque Du Soleil's KOOZA. We also used it on Coast of Utopia, not so much to juice up the bass but just to make this sort of nice warm lovely image; itís very useful for that. I have put one on my next show as well.

For LOVE, JD [Deans] had four to six BCLs and we routed them to various different outputs in the theater. Thereís one for the main left/right, thereís one for the subs, one for the seat speaker systems and a few more.

Curtain Call
Whatís it like to mix Cirque du Soleil? It seems pretty intense.

In structure, itís sort of the same thing as Broadway, but in practice, it tends to be a little bit different; the way in which you mix is different. Thereís not a lot of dialogue, so you get to have more of your fingers on individual elements of the music, rather than a Vocal/Band/Reverb model. Cirque always has some sort of story, there are always some through-lines, but it is told through the acrobatics, the music and the imagery. This allows a lot more room to be musically expressive with the mix.

The music is ever-changing and depends on whatís going on with the act. And the sound effects are always mixed like another musical element. Thereís a general automation setting but the operator will have control over how it fits into whatever else is going on.

What challenges does vocal mixing present in a stage show?

Just like in the studio, the more control you have, the better able you are to translate what youíre hearing in your head to what youíre mixing, quickly and efficiently. Any of the EQs, like the Q10, or SoundShifter which always do exactly what you think they are going to do, are incredibly useful from the creative end. In terms of making something work when you go into the theater, something like C4 which gives you such tight control over the band and has such a sweet kind of natural sound, is incredibly useful when you have to really carve out the midrange of a sound to make room for the music, or room for vocals, or dialog, or whatever. Those are the sort of things you find your self coming up against.

Another situation is where you have a LONG soundscape or texture that is not constant in volume--itís fine for a long time and you get to a certain point and itís too loud, and you get to another point and itís too quiet. To be able to even that out with something like MaxxVolume or L1 or L2 or L3 is really nice. MaxxVolume worked brilliantly on South Pacific. Say you have a bird track that needs to run for eight minutes, and thereís one annoying bird that keeps popping out every two minutes, it just doesnít pop out anymore. I also use Renaissance Reverb a lot because itís simple, itís trustworthy, and itís fast. I know what itís going to do. I can just put a little bit of space on something and be done with it.

Leon on His Presets
C4 Presets 

"Extreme vocal clarity. I have used this in a number of instances where vocal clarity trumps all other concerns. It works well for a poor recording that needs to be played back in a very reverberant space. I wouldn't recommend using it with headphones, but if you have to make an announcement in a cathedral, it should work pretty well." 

IR-1 Presets 

ďThese are the basic reverb settings that we started with for Coast of Utopia at The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Not very complex, but tailored specifically for that theater. The music was bounced to a multi-track playback system, and we always bounced the reverbs separately so that we could remix them in the theater or put them in a different place than the music.Ē 

TrueVerb Preset 

ďDistant on ocean. Used for sound effects and music, also in Coast of Utopia, for dreamy, middle of the ocean solitude.Ē 


 Download Free Presets by Leon Rothenberg

ColdPlay: Daniel Green / FOH Engineer / Coldplay

Do you have particular chains you use regularly?

For vocals, I always use the C4. Chris's voice has very wide range, so itís great to have dynamic control across 4 frequency bands. I combine the C4 with a Renaissance EQ and Renaissance Compressor. For vocal effects, I think H-delay, is best sounding delay plugin

For the guitars, I use a PuigChild. followed by the Renaissance EQ.

I use two bass drum mics, each using the same chain: PuigChild, Renaissance EQ, MaxxBass. Both are routed to a single group for further processing using the API 2500 compressor and a little more EQ with the API 550B.

What about bass and master buss?

Nothing on the master buss. On the bass, I use a PuigChild 660 into a Renaissance EQ.

All plugins?


Norah Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr : Brett Dicus, FOH / Post Production Sound Designer

Do you find latency to be an issue? How do you deal with it?

Latency with MultiRack can be an issue with vocals, when used in monitor world with certain interfaces. Iíve been able to use as many plugins as the computer processor would allow. I have had to keep the buffer size small as the larger sizes do increase the latency, which mostly bothers me when dialing in FX and so forth in the headphones. In general, it has not been a problem at FOH as long as there is not already a bunch of time/latency already in the system, such as with a very old digital crossover or an over-engineered install.

What are your favorite Waves plugins?

C4, Z-Noise, Renaissance Reverb, MaxxBass, C1... My favorite plug-in should be plugin C4 because of the ability to contour the response times of the individual bands. The Restoration bundle has proven indispensable when working with our recorded live tracks. Noise, hums and buzzes are inevitable in the live world; the Waves tools have helped to clean up everything to a level never realized before.

Which plugins do you use for various sources?
On Drums: MaxxBass, Kramer PIE Compressor, Renaissance Reverb Ė I like the sounds and response. Iíve been using the PIE Compressor for my compressed drum group.

On Guitars: Renaissance Compressor, PIE Compressor, PS22, Cranesong Phoenix. My current tour already has great guitar sounds, so not much processing is necessary. The plugins Iíve listed I use to help me find a place in the mix for everything. Turning mono sources into stereo, creating distinct tone signatures for similar sources, and getting mid-range sources to mix together is a big challenge in a live show.

On Vocals: C4, Renaissance Vox, Renaissance Reverb, H-Delay. The C4 on the vocals has proven my favorite plugin of all time when contouring vocals. I use the solo feature of the band pass to help focus on issues just as I would in the studio. Now, if I need to work on the sibilance of the vocal or the low-mid I am a lot more efficient having band passes available with the push of one button.

I use Renaissance Reverb and H-Delay because they sound great. Their parameters are efficiently mapped to the control surface making operation just outright enjoyable.

On Bass: MaxxBass, C4 Ė Every venue is different. There is no perfect system tuning for a room that works for every show. You canít fix problems in a mix with system tuning either. So having the ability with C4 to contour the threshold and release times makes system tuning easier, and allows us to use less EQ in the low and sub bands.

On Master Outs: Renaissance Compressor, Q10, Brainworx Control V2, V-EQ4. Nothing fancy.

Tell us about your signal chain, from the stage mics out to the FOH speakers.

We use a diverse selection of microphones ranging from Shure to Neumann. All of our mic pre-amps are the Digidesign D-Show preamps Ė into the desk through all of the plugs listed, and then out to the PA via either Dolby Lake or Meyer Galileo to Meyer MICA. Most sound companies still drive their PA with analog drive lines, but we are starting to see more and more digital drive lines in the touring world.

Rush, Shakira, Def Leppard: Brad Madix, FOH Engineer

When did you discover Waves tools?

I first used the VENUE on a Shakira tour some years back. We were recording a show, and she flew her studio engineer Gustavo Celis in to sit in the truck and oversee the recording, it was all digital recording to Pro Tools. Gustavo was accustomed to working on an SSL, I guess, because he asked the guys to put an SSL channel on every track. Voila! They had configured a 72-input SSL, complete with buss compressor. I suddenly realized how powerful this could be live, and that it could actually be done.

What are your favorite Waves plugins?

I have four go-to plugins: SSL E-Channel, SSL G-Master Buss Compressor, API 550A EQ, and C6 Multiband Compressor.

SSL E-Channel is just a great all-around, multipurpose plugin with great EQ, compression and nice, soft gating. I use it on all sorts of things, but I really like the edge I can put on a guitar with it: cutting, without being grating.

SSL G-Master Buss Compressor is great across drums. I pop it in on the drum buss at the start of every tour.

The API EQ is great for tonal shaping, and you don't have to be shy about cranking the knobs around. Even with crazy boosts and cuts, it still sounds natural. I love it on bass, but I use it on all sorts of things.

C6 is a great problem solver, especially on vocals, since the tone can change radically depending on how the singer is positioned relative to the mic at any given moment. There are four things that happen commonly: something nasal-y or honky in the 800 Hz range, something biting in the 2 kHz range, "plosive" pops down low and tweeter-popping ess-es way up high. C6 can take care of all of them at once, and the two very surgical parametric bands are a huge help.

Slash, Linkin Park, Kid Rock : Kevin "Tater" McCarthy, Monitor Engineer,

What are your favorite Waves plugins?

SSL G-Master Buss Compressor, L2 Ultramaximizer, C4 Multiband Compressor. I only use the plugins on my outputs to my in ear mixes. I use them in the chain of L2, C4, then the SSL-G. I set the L2 a little different depending on the mix. With the C4, I pretty much have a standard setting for all my mixes. Then I top it off with the SSL-G for a finishing touch.

What is your Waves ďsecret weaponĒ?

Right now, on this tour itís Vocal Rider for Slash's clean tone. He plays his clean tone very dynamic, so it helps me keep the levels even.

Matt Redman, Charlie Hall, The Kristian Stanfill Band : Stephen Bailey, FOH Engineer,

What are your favorite Waves plugins?

CLA Classic Compressors, C4 Multiband Compressor, Renaissance Reverb, and H-Delay.

Which plugins do you use for vocals?

Depending on what the vocal sounds like, I will use one of the four models of the CLA compressors. They add something that "utility" compression can't. Especially with dynamic choirs, the C4 does wonders. I've found it can start to sound a little funky when I have to put more than around +/- 5 dB of EQ on choir mics, so instead I will just use C4 and compress problem bands Ė typically high-mids.

How do you control lead vocals using Waves plugins?

If there is a tough vocal to mix, I will use C4 to try to balance it out without changing the tonality too much by only using EQ.

Do you use any plugins on the main mix bus?

Yes. I am a fan of using a touch of L2 to bring out some subtleties and filling out the mix. Sometimes I'll put C4 on the master bus with a high threshold and hard knee, just in case something starts getting out of hand.

Describe your signal chain, from the stage mics out to the FOH speakers.

Mic > Stage rack/Desk > EQ > Dynamics > Misc plugins > System DSP > PA

What is your favorite Waves "problem-solver"?

C4. One of the most versatile plugs I've ever used.

Do you record or virtually sound-check the services?

Yes and yes.


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