Goodspeed’s Jay Hilton is skilled in the art of sound design

Jay Hilton, resident sound designer and audio supervisor for Goodspeed Musicals, photographed at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Jay Hilton, resident sound designer and audio supervisor for Goodspeed Musicals, photographed at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

If you see a stage musical and don’t even consider the sound design, well, you’re not alone. Even the Tony Awards eliminated the sound-design category starting in 2014, before reinstating it in 2017 in response to a backlash from people who work in theater.

At the time, the New York Times reported two members of the Tony Awards Administration Committee saying the elimination had to do with the fact that many Tony voters “do not know what sound design is or how to assess it” and that some voters see sound design as technical rather than artistic work.

The truth is, when the sound design works well, theatergoers tend to take it for granted. Often, so do critics.

Like many a sound designer, Jay Hilton — who is the longtime resident sound designer and audio supervisor for Goodspeed Musicals — rarely sees his name turn up in reviews of the musicals he works on at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam or the Terris Theatre in Chester.

“I read reviews sometimes, and they will talk about how powerful and how crystal clear the vocalists are, what a voice they had, or an eight-piece band sounded like a full pit (with a) nice rich sound,” he says. “And they don’t say anything about the sound person … Those are sort of my good reviews.”

Here’s some of what being the sound designer at Goodspeed involves. Hilton works with the composer, orchestrator, musical director, director and choreographer to create the sound of the show — whether that means sound effects, how they want the music or vocalists to sound, and, most important, ensuring that audience members can hear each word and note.

And if theatergoers might not realize all that Hilton does, one important group really appreciates his talents: his Goodspeed compatriots.

Jenn Thompson, who directed “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Oklahoma” at the Goodspeed Opera House, says she’s “a humungous fan” of Hilton.

“(Sound design) is one of the most crucial aspects of design for me as a director. It’s invaluable, largely because you can really deepen … the audience’s experience, deepen a world,” she says.

In a musical, a lot of sound design ends up being handling how the music and voices “go together and getting the balance of that right, which is an art form unto itself,” she says.

Indeed, most people have been at venues where, during a musical, all the sound seems to be coming out of the speakers, almost as if the vocals weren’t originating with the actors onstage.

One of the things Thompson really appreciates about Hilton’s work is that “his enhancements of voices is so detailed and subtle that it doesn’t feel like — I mean, you can hear every word — but it doesn’t feel like they’re mic’d. He’s able to maintain this really very tricky, immaculate balance of enhancement without it (feeling like) amplification.”

There was a time, of course, when theater performers weren’t amplified; body microphones didn’t yet exist. Actors were trained to lift their voices over the orchestra in the pit.

But with the progression of technology, amplification became possible, and the public became used to it. With that came a change, too, in the way scores were created for musicals.

Michael O’Flaherty, the veteran music director at Goodspeed, says the amplification at Goodspeed started when the theater began doing shows that have bigger, brassier scores like “42nd Street” and “Mame” about a decade ago. It became difficult for the orchestra to play low enough, especially considering how exposed the musicians are at the Opera House; a sound system was necessary.

Beyond that, O’Flaherty notes, “The theater is a wonderful acoustic space, but it’s very different depending on where you sit, because of the balcony.” He says that the sound is, for instance, different for someone sitting under the balcony than it is for folks upstairs.

Hilton’s challenge is to disperse the sound as evenly as possible.

“He has struggled for years trying to figure out speaker placement,” O’Flaherty says. “There are some very small speakers now lodged under the balcony downstairs so those people tucked under there don’t lose out. He also works very hard orchestrally because our orchestra is spread out across the front, because the house is so small. If you’re sitting on the side where the drummer is, you’re likely going to hear a lot of drums. If you’re sitting on the side where the reed player is, you’re going to hear a lot of reed. So he tries really hard to balance that, by sending some of the reed player’s sound over to the other side and vice versa.”

Sound judgment

It’s a fine line to walk, too, between not making everything too loud and yet still making it effective for theatergoers. Here’s an example: Rob Ruggiero, who has directed numerous shows at Goodspeed, says that sometimes in previews, audience members’ response might be tepid. They’re getting the show, but they’re not as engaged as the director might hope. Ruggiero says a sound adjustment can make a profound difference. It can help the audience to “get more excited, get more engaged, get more responsive because they feel IN the show. They don’t feel the show is on the stage away from them and they’re an observer.”

“Sound takes that work on the stage and connects it and envelops the audience. You can have great acting and great sets and great costumes, and if sound doesn’t connect those dots and make it feel immersive, make the audience feel immersed in the experience, then they can feel distant from the experience, they can feel outside it. We want them to feel in it — that’s the most exciting place to be,” Ruggiero says.

But if a sound designer goes too far, a theatergoer can feel assaulted by the sound, he notes. Hilton never crosses that threshold.

“I think Jay’s personal aesthetic, Jay’s history, Jay’s taste level always creates a great balance,” Ruggiero says.

Changing the mix

In working on sound design, Hilton takes his cues from a variety of factors, including the orchestration, how the actors are moving, and even the lightning.

“If it’s a dreamy sort of song, they’re dreaming, they’re reminiscing, they’re deep in thought or something like that, it’s going to have a different sound than a ‘Modern Major-General’ would have for ‘Pirates of Penzance,’” he says.

Indeed, a dreamy ballad might call for the sound to be a little more lush, which might be accomplished with reverb or with how the band is mixed.

Hilton says he does whatever the team feels the style of the piece requires. Shows that are wordy or where characters have heavy accents might need the lyrics to be way out on top in the mix so the vocals aren’t being overpowered by the band; if theatergoers can’t hear the words, they can’t follow the story.

He deals with other issues, too, such as mic placement. The addition of a hat or a big scarf for an actor in a scene, for example, could require moving the microphone.

Another challenge comes when musicians are onstage with or as part of the cast. The lavalier microphones the actors wear are omnidirectional and pick up sounds all the way around it. So if a performer is singing next to someone playing a banjo, the mic might mostly pick up the sound of the banjo. The solution could be having the musician play the banjo less loudly at that point or separating the two performers a bit more.

The instruments in the orchestra are mic’d, too. The violinist, for instance, has a tiny mic on an overhead boom that comes very close to the instrument’s bridge.

As for the technical aspect of the work, here is just one part of what Hilton’s responsibilities involve:

By the time the actors are put into mics for the first time onstage, all the equipment has been installed and the preliminary programming has been done. One of the things Hilton then does is add delay time to speakers, essentially adjusting for the speed of sound. With the delay, a speaker that’s closer to audience members doesn’t make sound till the sound from a farther-away speaker reaches it, and they can join together. Hilton also adjusts how much of each mix will come out of each speaker system — maybe more vocals out of certain speakers or less band out of others.

During the show, the sound engineer does the mix of all the microphones and all the orchestra. The engineer is responsible, with Hilton’s guidance, for blending all the music together in a mix.

Developing effects

When it comes to creating sound effects for a show, Hilton can pull from the collection of recordings of effects he has accumulated over the years. He rarely uses just one effect, though. For a match strike, for instance, he might combine three sounds. For footsteps used in the recent production of “A Connecticut Christmas Carol,” he mixed together four different sounds — none of which are footsteps. One, for instance, was a chain being dropped, and another was a boom that had a cannon-like sound.

If the show is a period piece, he, of course, uses era-appropriate sounds; if the storyline is set in the 1930s, for instance, a plane can’t sound like a jet.

The possibilities have developed and expanded a good deal since Hilton first started working on effects at Goodspeed, back when the theater owned just one record collection of sounds effects from the BBC.

Moving from lighting to sound

Hilton, who grew up in Enfield, North Carolina, notes that they weren’t teaching sound design yet when he got his theater degree from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

(Hilton met his wife, Donna Lynn Hilton, when they were both students at East Carolina University. She is now Goodspeed’s line producer.)

Hilton focused on lighting and started at Goodspeed in 1985, as a master electrician. It just so happened that it fell to him to build sound effects.

He worked with a number of Broadway sound designers who were attached to shows that were staged at Goodspeed, and he tried to absorb information and pick up as much knowledge as he could.

“I kind of liked what I was doing with sound.” Hilton says. “I had a little bit of knack for it. … I became the go-to person to mix the shows. It just grew from there.”

The first show that Goodspeed had mics on everyone was “Happy Days” at the Opera House in 2008. Up until that point, they put perhaps a half-dozen microphones on the principal characters and were only mic’ing or running certain instruments like violin and keyboards through the sound system. (They never put mics on a trumpet or trombone, for instance.)

Directors who have worked with Hilton have nothing but praise for his work and for him as a person.

“Jay is a very easygoing, gentle personality and, in a room full of very passionate voices, it’s usually a welcome calm, but he always is engaged and has his eyes and ears on what is happening,” Ruggiero says. “I would say Jay is wonderfully collaborative. Even if he doesn’t fully agree sometimes, he will certainly try to deliver what is important to a director.”

Working in sound design satisfies some of Hilton’s artistic side, and he appreciate that the job is different every time out.

“I enjoy the musicians, I enjoy working with composers and musical directors — I really enjoy that a great deal,” Hilton says. “… Most of the time, a lot of people who come through here are so much more talented than I am, so anytime I can be a small part of that, to help something be successful, is fulfilling.”

Ruggiero says, “I’m telling you, a great sound designer can make all the difference, and the bad sound designer can cause great damage. So it’s a critical position and one worthy of great respect when done well.”

k.dorsey@theday.com

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