al.com - January, 2011
by Thomas B. Harrison
Josh Murray, audio engineer for the Saenger Theatre in Mobile, Alabama.
|Tempe's Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences
MOBILE, Alabama — When concert and opera audiences leave the Saenger Theatre, they seldom drop by the control booth to offer kudos for a job well done.
Josh Murray doesn’t mind a bit. He understands the peculiar nature of his work as audio engineer for the Saenger. Like a baseball umpire, he can take enormous pride in flying under the radar. People only notice an umpire when he blows a call.
In Murray’s case, the equivalent would be the piercing squeal of feedback during a symphony concert, or a bit of crackle on a lavalier microphone during an opera performance. This is the stuff of a tekkie’s nightmares.
On a good night, the audience will leave the theater smiling — not wondering who put the buzz in the sound system.
“The idea is for the crowd not to realize anything’s going on,” says Murray, “to make it look seamless if you do have to address a problem. I mean, things happen. You’re dealing with thousands of watts of electricity, plus the stage equipment — anything from a guitar pick-up all the way down to a microphone, you know, a patch-cable connecting all this stuff together.
“There are so many variables in the system that anything can go wrong at any time. So, you’re kind of always on edge.”
Not “on edge” as in scared or timid. More like “vigilant.” Murray and his Saenger colleagues understand and accept that some things are beyond their control.
“You can have the greatest sound check in the world that goes smooth as silk,” Murray says. “It makes me nervous when the sound check goes easy. There’s gonna be something every night. It’s just the nature of the beast. I like to get it out at sound check, but it doesn’t always work that way.”
Moments of panic are pretty much unavoidable, according to Murray.
“Oh, sure, I have a moment of panic every third show, a moment of absolute freak-out,” he says. “I mean, there’s two thousand people in here, and if you make a mistake every one of them is going to see it. And you’re gonna know about it. You may even read about it in Sound Off.
“Yeah, it’s pretty high-pressure at times, you know, but I like that. I work better under pressure.”
However, on those nights when everything runs smoothly and the gears mesh, the feeling is oh so sweet. Mobile Opera’s “Candide,” for example, which featured musicians, a large cast and a chorus. The potential for disaster was huge, but the sound was exquisite.
General director D. Scott Wright and artistic director/conductor Andy Anderson, among others, applaud Murray for his efforts with “Candide.”
“I really enjoyed that,” says Murray. “It’s challenging to have that many lavaliers (wireless mikes) coming and going, and trying to blend the orchestra and vocals. It keeps me on my toes.”
Murray says he used more than a dozen lavaliers for “Candide,” plus audio enhancements for the orchestra and upstage chorus.
Like an opera production, the Mobile Symphony Pops concert poses challenges for an audio engineer because so much is happening on stage. Plus, the symphony audience knows what it wants, “which is to not sound in any way amplified,” Murray says. “That’s tough with as much sound gear as in here.”
Murray says the Saenger Theatre is “the nicest one installed in Mobile, period.”
“It’s top-of-the-line pro audio equipment,” he says. “They didn’t spare a dime doing this right.”
The only component the system does not have is a digital console, but the theater’s Soundcraft MH4 analog board works just fine.
Murray, 30, came to the Saenger five years ago after many years far from his native Fairhope. He left the Eastern Shore years ago to attend the Conservatory for Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, Ariz. He subsequently did an internship with Crescendo Recording in San Francisco and later lived in Tuscaloosa and Atlanta.
He and his wife Corrina Murray, co-owner of the marketing/design firm Optera Creative, live on Dog River. They are expecting their first child, a boy, on May 17.
Murray has toured with rock bands and buried himself in studio work. He knows and understands the tools of his trade.
“When I arrived they’d finished the install, so a lot of the infrastructure was in place,” he says. I haven’t changed much. What I’ve done is utilize the flexibility available within that gear.”
Murray says there are two schools of thought among audio guys: “Get the (sound) as loud and powerful as possible and blow people out the back of the room — “that is the opposite of my approach,” he says, “which is sound reinforcement, not sound domination.
“The Saenger is an a cappella hall, built with the idea that you don’t need amplification. With that in mind, I start with the stage and whatever is generated off that, and I just reinforce what’s already there.”
With today’s technology, a sound man could blow out the back wall, he says. A few visiting audio-tech people have tried. That’s when Murray becomes a system technician whose task is to protect the system from damage and be a liaison between the house and its visiting crew.
“Engineers are very set in their ways,” he says. “Once you accept that (the Saenger) is an a cappella hall, you (accept) that you’re here to be heard but not noticed.”
One might imagine an impressive, room-size sound system in the Murray household. One would be wrong.
Murray says he owns a set of Zenith Allegro speakers that belonged to his father. The speakers are stacked in three tiers — Allegros on the bottom, a set of Vegas in the middle and a pair of JBL bookshelves on top.
“The tuner is, like, an early ’80s Sony and the volume knob is this big,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. It’s got LEDs, which was cutting-edge at the time. It’s neat, but I guess it’s a byproduct of being surrounded by high-tech gear all the time. My home setup is pretty simple.
“With modern-day audio, especially home audio, everything’s 5.1 or 10.2 with DTS and Dolby, and you know, I’m kind of simple. I like a real basic home-stereo-mix setup. As long as it’s balanced well and sounds good, I don’t need to have an airplane fly over my head in the house. Save that for the theater, you know?”