Wired for Sound…

Marcello Lo Ricco is the one sound tech that everyone is scrambling to get. 

It’s late on a Wednesday night.  Well it’s only 7pm but it feels later than it actually is, possibly because I’ve been stuck doing a lighting plot for around six hours longer than I wanted.  I’m tired and hungry and just like every other tech week of my life to this point, tensions are running high.  I’ve got mothers telling me how to stage numbers, a choreographer who has been throwing a perpetual hissy fit for the past three weeks and 70 kids running in every possible direction, other than the direction they’ve been instructed.   High school musicals… uggghhh… never again!

As we round the final turn before dress rehearsals and get the cast up on stage for first mic check, I notice we are behind time, perhaps two to three hours behind time and, after a three month build up of pressure, I snap and yell out to our sound guy, Marcello.  “Come on mate, can you f**king move this thing along?”  My frustration gets the better of me.  He just smiles back.. clearly he’s been in this situation before and is an accustomed to handling creative types  with a temper.  “Hughesy… I’m working as quickly as I can.  If it were any other tech, it would take twice as long.  Think about it… Be thankful that it’s me.”

He was professional, to the point and more importantly, he was right.  He’s the best.  I thanked my luck, apologised for swearing at him and let him get on with it.

I soon found that my opinion was echoed by just about everyone Marcello Lo Ricco has worked with.  I caught up with a founder of Octave Theatre Company Bec Skovron.  “Marcello is an utter joy and a blessing to work with. In the chaos and stress of an extremely short bump in period (usually three days), March is ever the calm, quiet, zen-like worker. He is ridiculously patient, and despite his crazy-busy schedule, he'll always make time to answer our phone calls, return our emails, or answer our stupid questions.  I think sound is the first thing people complain about, and the hardest thing to get right. Audience members don't realise just how difficult it is to get the sound levels perfect, and well-distributed so that everybody's happy. We keep working with Marcello because we know he's the best… like, by a long shot. He and his staff actually care about the quality of the sound, they work feverishly to get it right, and then during the run, they take it personally when they miss a cue … and likewise when they nail one, they're high-fivin'!”

Photo: Dave Banen

Musical Director for PLOS & CLOC – Bev Woodford offered “Sound reproduction is the bane of my life with shows. I have recently experienced a long awaited for dream – an open pit and a sound technician who understands. It has been a dream to work on a show with Marcello designing the sound and it has finally happened. He definitely understands what an MD needs and has the equipment to back up any requests. I worked with him last year for the Guild Awards and it made an extremely difficult and tiring day so much easier. Individual players went to him with requests and he patiently worked through each one.”

I struggled to find anyone who could say a bad word about him.  Did I expect to? Well, not really, but a bit of balance in this article might be nice. Nope.

I asked March what the most ridiculous thing he’d been asked to do.   “I’ve been asked if I can auto-tune live vocals.  We often get asked to set up a ten piece band in the space that really only fits five and another is being asked to mic up a 24 plus cast in 15 minutes, including sound checking.”

What’s the funniest thing you heard over cans?

“I’ve heard a few people talk about their opinions of others, but honestly I don’t sit there listening to conversations, I just flick through to check on them.”

How did you get into the sound industry?

“I was surrounded by music as I grew up.  [I was] influenced by my older brother who was involved with singing and playing in bands. I followed his footsteps in singing and dance when I was around seven years old and by the time I was in my teenage years I was spending most of my time in and out of school rehearsing and performing in shows. During this time I had the opportunity to spend time in recording studios where I would sing on recordings including TV commercial jingles and I remember thinking that I wanted to know how the sound engineer would fix the mistakes and make it all sound good.

This kind of exposure was possibly my earliest memory of wanting to be a sound engineer and my interest and experience developed from there. During high school my singing teacher had a recording studio and was also an engineer who would record and produce singers and he took me under his wing and let me sit in on recording sessions. Soon he helped me in purchasing an eight track recorder (which used tape, no computers!) and this is when I started recording my own band as well as other people’s music.

While I was at uni studying music and drama I became more interested and involved in sound design for musical theatre. Later I also completed some formal audio engineering studies and soon after was touring with some artists that I was recording in the studio at the time as their live sound engineer.”

What does the role of a sound designer involve?

“A sound designer for musical theatre involves everything regarding sound, both creative & technical. I don’t have a text book definition but in my opinion the sound designer works to create the best possible sound to assist in conveying the narrative and emotion of the show. The sound designer works closely with the production team to discuss and understand the show and specific requirements including attending production meetings and rehearsals in order to create a sound design that will suit the show, venue and budget.

Some of the sound designer’s responsibilities include system design, which involves microphone selection and positioning for cast and orchestra, selection and positing of speakers, speaker system tuning & aligning, fold back for cast, orchestra and backstage, configuration and programming of mixing consoles and equipment, radio frequency co-ordination and preparation of radio microphones, the creation and editing of sound effects and programming of playback systems, advice on acoustic treatment of a venue where required and equipment hire, delivery, maintenance and redundancy.

Other tasks involve selecting appropriate sound crew for bump in and out, making the sound operator familiar with the design to mix the show the way it should sound and also training radio microphone technicians. The sound designer is sometimes also responsible for the communication systems such as comms used by the crew and visual communications such as MD and stage cameras and TV monitor feeds.”

When and why did you create your own sound company?

“I started my recording studio in 1997 when I invested more into some serious recording equipment and I was getting enough recording work to justify it.

I was working as a freelance live sound engineer for some sound companies and venues for some time before I expanded my own business into the area of live sound design, production and equipment hire. I did this from a growing frustration of not being able to achieve the standard of production I knew I could deliver, being bound by relying constantly on other people or companies for services or equipment that was most often inadequate, poorly maintained or simply not available. Having the business experience from running the studio for some years it was more of a natural progression rather than a decision that was made to expand.

These days my company LSS Productions operates from two separate locations, one being our main offices and warehouse which is where my staff and I work on sound design and production for live shows and events.  This is also where the equipment hire department is located. The recording studio remains at the original location.”

Tell us about your studio…

“In the middle of the year 2000 I started drafting plans to build a new recording studio and it wasn’t until 2004 that the studio was finally finished after some delays in the process. The studio is professionally acoustically designed and together with all the nice equipment and microphones is quite a versatile space for working on recordings.”

Who are the most difficult clients?

“This is a dangerous question! Fortunately I enjoy working with most people. When I’m sound designing a show it is easiest to work with people that are organised. It’s frustrating to have to keep chasing people for information. Everyone is different and working with so many kinds of personalities if one of the things that I find exciting. Of course some personalities need special attention and a particular approach and I think this is definitely an industry where you need to be able to deal with it all.”

Is it about getting better equipment, or getting the most out of the gear you have?

“It’s definitely not just about better equipment. The same equipment could be used by two different sound designers with dramatically different results. You want to be using decent equipment to begin with but what you do with the gear you have makes all the difference.”

Which is the hardest theatre to work in?

“I can’t think of one in particular that’s hardest as they all have their positive and negatives but the hardest theatres to work in are theatres that weren’t originally designed as a theatre. This is often because these spaces weren’t acoustically designed to be theatres so it’s difficult to control sound from reflecting and bouncing off surfaces making it a bad sounding room. These same venues sometime lack the facilities that make it practical to work efficiently and with limited physical space having to work on top of others to get tasks completed. Some of the black box type theatres are like this and surprisingly often take longer to bump into than a large theatre for this reason. Theatres that don’t have a good sound operating position are also hard to work in. If the sound operator is in a bad position then they can’t be confident that what they are doing is sounding the same to the audience.”

Which is the best theatre to work in?

“I tend to enjoy working in the larger theatres because there is usually space and large orchestra pits. Places like The National Theatre are great and for a council owned venue the Frankston Arts Centre is well designed, although the new orchestra pit lift there is certainly a step backwards for sound.”

What show have you seen recently and was blown away by the sound?

“Nothing recently but last year in New York I was blown away by In the Heights. I still think about it constantly.”

What’s the hardest thing to get right when it comes to sound?

“Consistency of the sound mix/balance between performances is what I strive to maintain. In the design I need to take into account the factors that can alter the balance from performance to performance and where possible put practices in place that can help assist in keeping the consistency. All factors related to sound are variable and can change the balance of the sound. These factors include the number of people in the audience as this changes the acoustic of the venue and even the change in temperature makes a difference. Fill in/deputy  musicians can change the balance of the sound especially on the driving instruments such as drums and piano. Actors voices, if they are sick or tired, can influence the amount of volume coming from them as well as accidental changes to the position of microphones on actors or in the orchestra. External noise and distraction to the sound operator during the show can also be a problem.

Operating sound is certainly not the same as operating a lighting console that is already programmed. I think this is a common misconception. There’s no go button on the sound desk, you can save scenes on a digital mixer but this doesn’t do the job for you, it just can makes aspects more manageable to operate in ways, it still relies on the sound operator to physically ride the faders and balance the show manually.”

What’s the quickest bump in you’ve ever done?

“The quickest would possibly be the Music Theatre Guild Awards that I’ve been involved with in the past two years.  Lucky I’ve got a great crew or it wouldn’t be possible.”

What’s the biggest mistake you ever made on the desk?

“One comes to mind. I had been working with the orchestra and cast for a sound check of a good solid hour and was happy with how it was going. Then my script dropped on the digital desk I was using and it hit the recall button accidently which wiped all the settings. I wasn’t happy.”

What do you love about theatre?

“I love the creation process and working with so many talented people [working] toward the same goal. After the many hours and lack of sleep at times it’s a great sense of satisfaction to see the show being enjoyed by an audience and in a way I feel like it’s a way of giving. As corny as that sounds it’s the truth. I love that I can bring my experiences in music and performance to sound and feel it gives me an advantage in understanding what is needed.”

With so many glowing endorsements, I ask you to ask yourself… “Is the sound of my shows up to scratch?” If the answer is “no” or even “maybe” then you need to speak to Marcello Lo Ricco and the LSS Productions team.  These guys are the absolute best of the best.