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“Be More Chill” on Broadway

by Bryan Reesman • in
  • April 2019
  • Theater Sound
• Created: April 5, 2019

Be More Chill photos by Maria Baranova

The latest teen musical sensation to hit Broadway, Be More Chill, found acclaim during its initial 2015 run at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ. But it was not until its soundtrack album became a streaming hit with tweens and teens that the show ascended to a 2018 off-Broadway run and quickly after, jumped to the Great White Way, with the Broadway production officially opening on March 10, 2019 at the Lyceum Theatre.

The fact that technology helped spur the show’s success is highly apropos. The story focuses on awkward, nerdy high school junior Jeremy (Will Roland) who wants to capture the heart of Christine (Stephanie Hsu), who is the geek girl of his dreams. To become more socially adept, he takes a pill that implants a Japanese supercomputer in his brain called the SQUIP (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor), which is represented onstage by a human avatar (Jason Tam) who emulates Keanu Reeves while wearing Matrix and Tron couture. His SQUIP teaches him to be more chill (be cooler) and to become liked by the in-crowd, which actually threatens his relationship with his nerdy best friend Michael (George Salazar) and even risks alienating him from Christine. Directed by Stephen Brackett, the musical is ripe with ‘80s and ‘90s references.

Jason Tam plays the SQUIP, a computer in the brain of Jeremy, an awkward high schooler

‡‡         In the Mix

The show delivers a brash, effervescent pop-rock score reflective of its teenage angst, and it pushes higher volume levels than your typical Broadway show. It was reportedly louder during previews. “It’s really tough by what you gauge as loud,” remarks sound designer Ryan Rumery, who boasts over 250 plays and musical on his resume, although this was his first time designing sound for a Broadway show. (He received a Drama Desk Award nomination for Empanada Loca in 2015.)

Sound designer Ryan Rumery

“I’m an indie rock drummer, so I play festivals, I tour, and I record,” Rumery continues. “Theater was my entry point into New York. When I first moved to New York, I would go to these musicals. They’d have a band on stage, and you could see the guitar player shredding but not hear it. I thought, ‘Why are we so apologetic about it?’ So when we were off-Broadway [with this show], it was a full-on concrete room, and that didn’t play any favors with us. A lot of different people were worried about it, and rightfully so. I feel like I’m the last vessel that information passes through until it gets to the audience, so I have a responsibility to adhere to what the writers want and also to what is going to be the most successful mix and vibe for the longevity of the project. I take that very seriously.”

Once the show hit the Lyceum Theatre, various people with meters were constantly measuring the sound levels and reporting them to Rumery. “We take some moments to really soar, and then really find the moments where it can be more of an acoustic indie vibe,” he explains. “We kind of fluctuate back and forth between those, and turn some of the sound effects down that were loud off-Broadway, making those better in the mix.”

Lauren Marcus, Will Roland, Katlyn Carlson and the company of Be More Chill.

Rumery’s team includes live engineer Matt Evra-Silver along with A1 Scott Kucker and A2 Jordana Abrenica, whom he says are the lifeline of the show. They are running a Yamaha Rivage PM7 console and use 100 channels. “I have another show out with the Yamaha right now and it’s a great console,” says Rumery. “That console wants to be hit. When we do push up, it becomes a visceral experience in some of the songs. I think we did do something different in comparison to what to Broadway does.”

They did augment the PM7 a bit. “I’ve never liked Yamaha reverb,” admits Rumery. “In the studio, I really love using the Lexicon PCM 96, and we ended up using it. It was a game changer for us. On the PM7, you can get yourself in trouble because it has a lot of different plug-ins. In audio world, we use plug-ins and think of them as fixing something. A lot of the time it just gets you in trouble. The guy that I learned the most from mixing is Craig Schumacher, who mixes and works with Neko Case, Calexico, Iron & Wine — those indie groups. I’ve played on projects he was producing, and he would get some stems or get a project done. He’d play it and go, ‘This sounds like crap!’ He’d look in the Pro Tools session and take all the plug-ins and take everything off of it. All of a sudden, it sounded better.”

Stephanie Hsu plays Christine, Jeremy’s (Will Roland’s) love interest.

‡‡         The Minimalist Approach

The sound designer notes that sometimes in our digital era we have discounted the most important two things: analog instruments and the people playing them. “We can get close, but these are two things that we can’t replicate with a plug-in,” says Rumery. The PM7 includes modeled 1176s, various new Portico preamps and Rupert Neve EQs and compressors. “The analog ones in the studio react differently, so it was really about being judicious when you use them.”

Take the drum overheads, for instance. He really clamped down on the 1176s but was not getting the full sound. He also used Neumann 184s, his “mainstay overhead mic” on drums, and when he went back and played the drums he also was not satisfied. So he started taking stuff off of the PM7.

“It has a Silk feature on it,” says Rumery. “It works great on the vocals — red makes it brighter, blue makes it warmer. I ended up not using Silk on the band at all. I know all the players. They’re great musicians. I ended up sticking with the Yamaha compression just because I knew how it reacted. We initially toyed with adding plug-ins, but ultimately decided that wasn’t the authentic sound of our show. I’m doing this because of my ears and my intuition. You have to put some of those gadgets away and just realize that it’s still rock ‘n’ roll and indie music, and the reason why classic records sound amazing is musicianship, instruments and smart mic choices.

Katlyn Carlson plays Chloe Valentine, one of the popular girls. Photo by Maria Baranova

“The PM7 is organized into three chunks,” continues Rumery. “It’s great for a guy like me. I think a lot of theater designers do a lot of programming and iPad programming. I have to touch the console to know what I’m doing. I have to feel what 5 dB or 10 dB feels like. I have to move it to do it. [It is important] for me to do that and to be able to have a desk where I don’t interfere with the mix, even during previews, because I set all the band mix and mixing until it gets to a point where I can really move around the house. That’s just how I work. It’s how my brain works.”

The sound designer praises the “awesome” orchestration of the show, but he also found it a challenge due to its complexity. On top of the standard rock pit instruments, a vocoder and theremin are present. He needed to smoothly blend the analog and acoustic instruments with the electronic elements.

“[After] having that little area of the console to myself, I don’t know how I could do another musical theater project without that, to be able to go back there and not interrupt the flow of your mixer,” he says. “A musical goes by so fast and there’s only so much the person mixing it can do. This is the first time in my life where I felt like the workflow was better. Plus I’m at the desk, so even during the show we’re whispering back and forth, more this or less that. We’re able to do that together. Someone finally got it, and it’s really a smart put together. It’s by far the best Yamaha desk I’ve ever heard.”

The cast of Be More Chill. Photos by Maria Baranova

‡‡         Capturing the Sound

The seven musicians — who are located upstage behind the cast and masked for most of the show — include a drummer, bassist, two guitarists (who double on acoustic and guitar #2 on ukulele), a brass player (flugelhorn, trumpet) doubling on theremin, a keyboardist/musical director, and a second keyboardist who also plays flute, two recorders, and tenor and baritone sax. “It’s a lot to manage, and it was definitely like a wild horse to rein it all in,” says Rumery.

For the drums, Rumery used Neumann KM 184s for overheads, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, a Shure 57 on the snare, and an Audix D6 for the kick. Both of the guitar rigs are on Line 6 Helix, which Rumery has begrudgingly become a fan of, and he is running them out through Radial DIs. “I don’t want to monkey with anything in how it comes to the desk because the musicians who program it know what they’re doing,” he says.

For the 5-string bass, a Radial DI is being used with a little bit of Yamaha compression. He put a Shure SM57 on the trumpet, flutes and recorders, a clip-on DPA 4099 for the reeds and a Mojave Audio MA-201fet on the baritone sax. “ I feel like the 57 is such a discounted microphone,” says Rumery. “People think they need to use something expensive and fancy like a Neumann. The 57 really saves you in a live situation, because it cuts out so much of the garbage around you, and these musicians are so close together back there.”

The Be More Chill cast includes 10 people, which are miked with DPA 6066s and the new Sennheiser 6212 pack. They finally switched over to them in mid-March, because this was a new pack that Sennheiser had just come out with, but due to the recent government shutdown, “they weren’t able to register the frequency with the FCC and we got majorly hosed,” recalls Rumery.

In terms of the P.A., the main L/R system is the Meyer LEOPARD, with a Meyer LINA center cluster. The new Meyer UP-4slims were used along the front of the deck. There are four Meyer 1100 LFC subs — two flown, two below the deck — and two 700-HPs below the audience seating for a couple of key moments. Those subwoofers come into play during the song “The Pitiful Children.”

“It’s just littered with it,” reports Rumery. “The SQUIP death has it, and there are a couple of sound effects that I have elsewhere in the show. The Lyceum is an old theater with a chiller chamber underneath the audience where they used to put ice to cool the theater before it had a modern air conditioning. There are still the old holes in the floor from the ice system that allowed air to come up to the people sitting in the orchestra section. I thought ‘why don’t we put something below the audience?’ I didn’t know where or how I’d use it, but with the vibe of this show, I knew I’d want this.”

He reminisced about the fun, cool rock shows he had gone to and how he could really feel the bass, which made him like he was a part of the experience. He sought to replicate that experience for this show but only for optimal moments. “Because of more orchestration and vocal intensity level, we had an insane sound system where we’re using UPJs, Juniors and UPMs — all delayed to the main rig,” he says. “The under-mezz and under-balc are all UPMs too. There are a lot of boxes around the space to get it even.”

The cast of Be More Chill. Photos by Maria Baranova

‡‡         The SQUIP Sound

The show also includes sound effects, and Rumery built the different sound effects for the SQUIP so they were fresh and hark back to different Sci-Fi movies. He also used “our killer system that we put together to punch those out into the mix and startle people whenever they get shocked. That SQUIP death is still one of my most favorite moments in theater — the sound and the video and the lights. We do that pitch shifting on the SQUIP — every word, we’re just taking him down a semitone. It was really cool to come up with those ideas. There are different effects on his voice at different parts to the play. Sometimes, he sounds more human, sometimes more godlike. Those are all Yamaha onboard effects, and we use the Eventide [H3000 plug-in] on some of that. It was fun to dig into that stuff.”

Rumery enjoyed working on Be More Chill, and he also admits that it was the most rigorous process he has been through. It was his first Broadway musical, and he knew from his peers what that would entail. “As far as energy, making sure you’re eating the right foods, being awake and alert,” he says. “But as far as fun goes, this musical is something that’s in my wheelhouse. I understand how each one of these instruments work, how they should sound, and it was a true joy just to really make that happen. The amount of positive feedback that we’ve gotten from it, to hear the audience reaction, and just to be a part of my tiniest little sliver of involvement on the project is insanely rewarding. It’s really fun.”

‡‡         The Most Important Thing

While working on this show, Rumery was reminded to trust his ear and not always exploit all of the bells and whistles that technology provides. “It was humbling to be reminded of that and to really be smart about how you use different effects,” he says. “Keep using your ear. That’s the best thing that we have as musicians, engineers, and artists.”

Be More Chill

Crew

Director: Stephen Brackett

Sound Design: Ryan Rumery

Live Engineer: Matt Evra Silver

A1: Scott Kucker

A2: Jordana Abrenica

Lighting Designer: Tyler Micoleau

Projection Design: Alex Basco Koch

Set Designer: Beowulf Boritt

Choreographer: Chase Brock

Costume Design: Bobby Frederick Tilley

Hair & Wig Designer: Dave Bova

Music: Charlie Rosen

Music Director: Emily Marshall

Music Contractor: Michael Aarons

Production Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels

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