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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Behind the Scenes: Carl Wurzbach, Sound Engineer

Get acquainted with some of the people who make things work at BAM. Carl Wurzbach is BAM’s sound engineer, interviewed by Sandy Sawotka, BAM’s director of publicity.*

Q: Carl, as the sound engineer for the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, you play an important role in a wide variety of BAM productions. Can you tell us about your main responsibilities?

A: BAM does it all: opera, rock & roll, modern dance, Shakespeare, even MTV specials. It’s my job to provide whatever the visiting company needs for that production’s sound and video concerns. Everything from the placement of the large speakers you see, to the dozens of little ones you don’t see—around the theater, in lighting booths, and in dressing rooms. As many as 60 microphone inputs may be used to get a band sounding good for the audience, as well as another 60 for the monitor mixes that the performers need on stage. My duties also include ensuring that the titles are perfectly executed for our foreign language productions. In addition we make certain that the video screens and projectors used in each show do what the director and designers want them to do. We also make sure the backstage communications systems provide the stagehands, electricians, prop people, carpenters, and sound folk with the ability to see and hear everything that happens on stage. Cues are called, the lights, scenery, and actors move, and the magic happens... when I am lucky, I even get to mix the show.

Q: How do you communicate with the performers, if necessary, while a show is in progress?

A: During a dance or a play, if the artist cannot leave the stage, they’ll make a gesture or two that hopefully gets the backstage crew’s attention but not the audience’s. We respond from the wings, and oft times a game of charades takes place as we try to “discreetly” pass information. In a band setup, a monitor engineer will exchange hand signals with the band members determining what instruments they need to hear and at what level.

Q: Have you made some musical discoveries through BAM engagements?

A: I’ve sometimes found myself having to mix something I am not particularly fond of. In order to be familiar with the piece, I’ll sit through multiple listenings. As I study the score and learn the geometry and tapestry of the piece, sometimes an interesting switch gets flipped. I see what the band or composer is trying to say and I wind up appreciating something I had disliked. This job has made me see great things in places I would have avoided.

Q: Are there any performers these days that require/request no sound amplification at all? What makes a performance particularly challenging in terms of sound requirements?

A: The most difficult shows to mix are the ones where certain sections of an orchestra or choir need to be amplified but the artist doesn’t want it to be apparent. I will hide microphones as best I can inside the setup. I will also hide speakers as well, dressing them into the setup as tables or stands. They are placed near the instrument they are amplifying so the psycho-acoustics are not altered and the amplified sound comes from its proper location. I make it sound as natural as possible, and if I have done my job right, you have no idea I did it. Truly humbling.

Q: I see that sometimes you sit alongside a sound engineer that works for visiting performers—often an internationally-based ensemble. How do you communicate without a common language?

A: BAM usually provides a translator to help in such situations, but they usually just introduce us and try to help us with simple things, the placing of speakers and such. But once the rehearsals start, the passion kicks in and the translators just seem get in the way. This is where we resort to gestures, making faces, strange noises, silly looks, and my favorite, the quick sketches on a pad that provide the fastest and most accurate transfers of information. These also create a very nice bond between the crews. “A-Ha” is “A-Ha” in any language, as is thumbs-up. Oh, and M&M’s are the international sound candy.

Q: How many years have you held your position?

A: I have been the head of the sound department for the BAM Opera House for [13] years.

Q: How do you deal with the noise of the city while you’re working?

A: They do not make a volume control for the subway, so we hope it works itself into the piece. I have been here so long I no longer hear the train as it runs underneath the show; it has become a part of our atmosphere. On the other hand, I love the way the emergency sirens either interrupt the world the show has created or add new meaning and insight as the universe becomes the director of the show.

*This interview originally appeared in the December 2010 BAMbill.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome Man - behind the scenes making it happen!