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December 01, 2023

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Before the curtain can rise, before the first note can be played, and before the first voice can be heard, Alan Alford and Matt Kraus are the maestros behind the scenes. As sound designers for AES Indiana Yuletide Celebration, Alan and Matt are the ones who make sure that the music coming from the stage out into the audience is perfectly balanced and mixed.

Long before opening night, Matt and Alan begin to work on show elements such as securing enough wireless microphones (more than 40 are used during the show) and determining needs such as sound effects and voiceovers.

Matt, a seasoned freelance sound designer hailing from New Jersey, brings a wealth of experience to the table. His résumé includes everything from theater productions on Broadway to rock ‘n’ roll concerts, and he has even lent his expertise to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Matt’s Yuletide Celebration journey began in 2005 when he was asked to fill in toward the end of the show’s run. Matt has worked on about 10 seasons of Yuletide Celebration since then. “Our role is to make sure that Maestro Everly’s music is heard by the audience the way he would expect it to,” Matt explains. “As he is conducting, we are listening and adjusting. I make sure Alan has what he needs to be able to mix the show as it is happening in real time.”

Matt makes sure that the performers can hear what they need to on stage, in addition to making sure that each cast member is properly amplified. He also helps to mic featured artists, such as the tap dancer, to make sure that the sound is balanced with the orchestra. Matt will also create any needed sound effects. For example, the whistle in ’Twas the Night Before Christmas was recorded by host Sandi Patty years ago and is reused every year.

Matt heads back to New Jersey after the first couple of shows, leaving Alan and his team to run the remainder of the performances. During every performance for the past 18 years, Alan has been at the audio console that sits on the left side of the theatre, listening and adjusting the sound throughout the entire show. He has more than 110 audio input sources at his fingertips, ranging from microphones on the stage, on the performers, and built into the set. More than 56 inputs are scattered across the stage for the orchestra, mostly placed on microphone stands.

As Alan listens to the performance, he uses faders on the sound board to control the sound, which act like volume controls. With a slight slide he can make a singer louder or bring out a section of instruments within the orchestra. He pre-programs as much as possible, but there is plenty to adjust within each show. “It’s a constant ebb and flow of the ensemble and how we have to change the balance of the individual voices as we go along,” says Alan. “Sometimes people sing louder than the day before or stand closer to someone else and their microphone is picking up background noises.”

Alan’s preparations begin with a libretto several weeks before opening night, and he meticulously notes the sound requirements for each part of the show. During rehearsals, Alan works at the console training his fingers to learn the choreography of the fader levels. At the same time, Matt moves around the theatre doing critical listening to check the balance of the sound in all locations. “This show demands a more advanced sound system and ways of controlling it,” says Matt. “But when the show comes together and feels like beautiful music and when the curtain lifts that first night, you realize you’re creating something special.”

In addition to Alan and Matt, Kit Williams, Patrick Feeney, and Steve Martin work as stage technicians, plus JD Fackler and Rod Fish are working backstage as assistant audio staffers ready to jump on any technical issues that may arise. When it all comes together and Alan hears the cheers of an appreciative audience, “it’s magic,” he says. “Hearing that applause and seeing the excitement of the audience is what every entertainer strives for. It’s great to be part of that beautiful experience.”