Sounds of success

30-year-old Autograph keeps pace with the times

LONDON — The newly calendared Cameron Mackintosh-Disney tuner “Mary Poppins,” due in the West End next year, and the musical version of “The Lord of the Rings,” in the works for a 2005 bow, are among projects on the books at Autograph Sound Recording, celebrating its 30th anni this year.

Three-fourths or more of Autograph’s work consists of big musicals, and it is expected that composer A.R. Rahman will use its upgraded Studio 2 for some weeks while prepping for the massive “Lord of the Rings” project.

There is no Tony or Olivier for sound design, and many might think the job begins and ends with an audience’s ability to hear the show.

But for 30 years now, Autograph has been raising what might seem a purely technical craft to something very much approaching art. What would “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” be without the audible technical whir of Anthony Ward’s sets, not to mention a beloved, child-friendly milieu devoted to the car? Or “Les Miserables” without the clamorous sense of a country in the throes of revolution?

“I don’t get off on running a business,” says 55-year-old Andrew Bruce, chairman and co-founder of Autograph. “I get off on being a sound designer.”

But the greater the design and technical expertise, the more sound (forgive the pun) the business. Autograph boasts an annual revenue of £5 million-£6 million ($8 million-$10 million).

Headquarters is a spacious 1790s building in North London that was the first factory of Windsor & Newton, the British art supply company.

While a permanent staff of 24 beavers away, Bruce and Terry Jardine, Autograph’s managing director, take their perch in Studio 1, which has been refitted to do post-production on movies and voiceover work while catering to inhouse needs.

Part of their $400,000 upgrade in facilities is the adjoining Studio 2. That room boasts a brand-new D5T, a state-of-the-art mixing console — made by Digico and specifically designed for large-scale musical use — that will reduce the size of such back-of-the-auditorium behemoths by as much as 50%, increasing seating capacity. “It will make producers very happy,” says Jardine, “by giving an awful lot of revenue back.”

Add in Autograph’s work not just as sound designers but as consultants and suppliers of equipment, and you have proof of the phrase for which Jardine expresses a cheerful distaste. “I hate the expression,” he says, “but we’re a ‘one-stop shop.'”

To many outsiders, of course, sound design is merely synonymous with noise. “There have been times,” says Bruce, “where I have been exasperated by people’s confusion between exciting and loud. A director says something’s got to be more exciting, and you know what he means: ‘Louder!’ People expect it loud because it’s not a spectacle otherwise.”

So it can be rewarding to think small as well as big — the Donmar Warehouse’s recent revival of “Pacific Overtures,” for instance, was performed by a cast that didn’t seem to be miked though in fact it was, so subtly had Autograph’s Nick Lidster done his job.

But it’s the large-scale projects, where sound expenditure can easily exceed $1 million, that require the most attention and time, whether you are figuring out where to hide the mike on a bald-headed Engineer in “Miss Saigon” — “We’re a hostage to haircuts and hats,” Bruce admits — or using sound to supplement an onstage chorus when “it’s quite obvious they cannot sing and dance and be asked to do what they’re doing onstage and produce a sound anybody would want to listen to.”

Sometimes, says Jardine, the job can seem thankless. “Very few critics will say when the sound for a show is good, because when it is, people don’t really notice it.”

That’s the paradox of the sound designer’s task, which would seem entirely to be about volume. “As far as we can,” says Jardine, “we try to be unobtrusive.”

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