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Sound advice: Behind the scenes with the Hollywood Bowl's audio wizard

by Tim Greiving | The Frame

Fred Vogel prepares for an evening performance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California on August 4, 2017. Daryl Barker/KPCC

The Hollywood Bowl is one of the largest natural amphitheaters in the world. Every summer, as many as 17,500 people fill the seats to hear the L.A. Philharmonic play two to three shows a week.

If you’ve been to one of these concerts, you know that you can sit up in the nosebleeds and still hear the subtleties of a flute solo. That’s thanks to sound engineer Fred Vogler and his crew — and some of the best amplification technology on the market.

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I visited the Hollywood Bowl stage at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday. It was already starting to get hot, and the stage was already beginning to fill with players from the orchestra, warming up before a morning rehearsal.

“In this type of show,” Vogler explained, “we have about 140 mics on stage, instead of 40. So we individually mike everybody. We have overheads, we have area mics, and we have individual mics. So nobody is left un-miked. So that means every string player, the piano, the harp, each woodwind player, each brass player, each percussion.”

Performers warm up for rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 4, 2017.
Performers warm up for rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 4, 2017. Daryl Barker/KPCC

The L.A. Phil was going to be playing the entire “Raiders of the Lost Ark” score by John Williams live with the movie, a type of concert that has become a summer staple at the Bowl. Conductor David Newman was standing near the podium, preparing for rehearsal, and Vogler — the principal sound designer and mixer here for the past 15 years— was overseeing his team of audio engineers as they set up microphones.

Audio setup for the orchestra of the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 4, 2017.
Audio setup for the orchestra of the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 4, 2017. Daryl Barker/KPCC

“I go around and ‘Vogler-ize’ the mics, as the guys like to call it, and just make sure that they’re kind of aiming in the right place or at the right height,” he said. “The level of experience here, and quality of musicianship — you know, it’s like having a high-performance car, quite frankly. We get to really ride it fast and furious. And this venue affords a pretty good show.”

In addition to the 20 or so classical shows each summer, Vogler oversees jazz concerts, world music, rock bands, artists like Tony Bennett, movie nights like this one and — at the end of this season —even the Muppets. Each show requires a different approach and different numbers of microphones.

Some nights it’s all about a warm blend. Some nights, like tonight, it’s about individual moments — so he has a microphone clipped to every single violin in the orchestra.

Each instrument of Los Angeles Philharmonic has an individual mic for their performance at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 4, 2017.
Each instrument of Los Angeles Philharmonic has an individual mic for their performance at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 4, 2017. Daryl Barker/KPCC

“The equipment is not just electronics,” he said. “It’s also a tool. It’s something that is just operated differently. Similar to a pianist, you know. The pianist is not making the piano, stringing the piano, moving the piano, tuning the piano. The pianist is playing the piano. And, you know, the operator at the mixing console is using the equipment in that kind of fashion. You know, I’m not soldering or wiring or configuring the console — I’m using it artistically to make sound, or combine elements and then distribute elements.”

Vogler led me over to the side of the stage, back inside a small, buzzing control room — a tight space packed with computers and cables.

“All roads go through here,” he said. “This is the heart of all audio. We’re on a tech floor, so there’s cabling below us, there’s cabling above us, through the conduits. If something goes on in here that’s bad, then it’s going to be bad everywhere.”

The physical construction of the rings of the Hollywood Bowl are designed to enhance sound at the outdoor venue, as seen on Aug. 4, 2017.
The physical construction of the rings of the Hollywood Bowl are designed to enhance sound at the outdoor venue, as seen on Aug. 4, 2017. Daryl Barker/KPCC

With the orchestra ready to start rehearsal and “Raiders” cued up on the big movie screens, we made our way up the steps to a small bunker in the center of the amphitheater. This is basically the captain’s bridge — hidden in plain sight among all the seats, about 200 feet back from the stage — where Vogler works his magic during the show.

“Well, first off, [I’m] trying to see that, in fact, I’m getting all of the mics I think I’m getting,” he said from his command post. “I’m listening to them — sometimes will listen to them locally here. So we can bring up an individual mic and go, ‘OK, that’s what that cat’s up to.’”

The console is Vogler’s instrument. He rides levels and pushes buttons, changing the balance and effect of the music that the audience hears.

Sound engineers and performers prepare for rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 4, 2017.
Sound engineers and performers prepare for rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 4, 2017. Daryl Barker/KPCC

“Whoa! Getting a lot of horn there,” he said, reacting to a closely-miked French horn coming loudly through a local speaker. “See, those horns are just killing it here. Let’s get this down, first off. I can turn off all my spot mics, and just go with my hanging mics. Or, I can turn off my hanging mics and go just with my spot mics. But you can hear there’s a lot of horn — John Williams loves French horns — so that’s a big element, typically. And if I mute my brass and horns, you don’t hear much in the house. They play a big role.”

The scene with Marion (Karen Allen) encountering snakes comes on, filled with loud screams and sound effects.

“When you turn off all that pesky dialogue and sound,” Vogler said before doing so, “it’s so much more civilized. I can just listen to the music!”

To hear the story, click the play button at the top of the page.

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