When I ask David Gray, the sound architect behind the Dolby Theater, from which the Oscars will be broadcast this Sunday, if this has been his toughest gig, he thinks a moment. "It’s right up there," he says.
Back joining Dolby in 1980, he worked 10 years on the road with acts like Frank Zappa and Steely Dan. Working with Zappa was a particular challenge. "He would tour Europe in the winter," Gray recalls, "because not many acts did." That made the markets less competitive, and he sold out shows—but it meant that Gray and his team were often schlepping Zappa’s sound equipment across the snowy streets of Europe and into frigid auditoriums.
Still, he says, this is "right up there."
The Dolby Theater—previously known as the Kodak Theater—is a highly modular venue. It can host awards shows, evidently. It can also play home to live acts like Cirque du Soleil, which was in residence for a while last year. Arguably, though, the toughest part of Gray’s job was to equip the theater with a system called Dolby Atmos, a kind of surround sound on steroids. Gray’s team first did this last summer, to coincide with the release of "Brave," the first film to use the system (on 14 theaters in the U.S. and Canada).
Previous sound systems tended to chop up pieces of sound into channels, sent over various sets of speakers in the theater. But Atmos urges sound designers closer to a "nirvana," says Gray, by allowing them to place specific sound "objects" just about anywhere in the room. "Atmos, at any one time, can have 128 [sound objects] running," he explains. "Pieces of sound can be placed anywhere in the room." The Dolby Theater has so many speakers (187 of them) receiving so many commands—including, for some showings, an array that runs vaulted overhead—that it takes three processors to control them all.
The problem of running speakers overhead was perhaps the greatest challenge, says Gray. "One of the first things that cost me sleep was, How do you do overheads in a room where the ceiling is 95 feet above the floor?" (The slide show above gives an indication of how he solved that and other sound architecture problems.)
It took a crew of about 70 people six days spread out over about a month and a half to install the system, says Gray. Because Cirque du Soleil needed the room by 11 AM each day, Gray’s team would steal in at 4 AM and work through the early morning hours.
The theater isn’t always in Atmos mode; this Sunday, it will be configured for a more traditional stereo surround sound mode, 5.1 Dolby Digital. Arrays of speakers don’t take priority when you’ve got a room full of movie stars, and camera setups that are just as interested in the crowd as who’s on stage. For an event that's about movies, rather than a movie itself, sound is perhaps a secondary concern.
"You have a lot of lighting, you have video playback monitors throughout the hall so the audience knows when you're going to commercial," explains Gray, "and you have to have the stage manager able to talk to the audience, with countdowns for when you’re coming back from commercial." The most important "objects" in the room at the Oscars aren't pieces of sound, but rather the Hollywood royalty and those figurines some of them will be toting home.
It might be a massive production, but relative to installing Atmos—or getting Frank Zappa up and jamming on a cold winter’s night somewhere in Europe—the Oscars are a relative breeze for Gray and his team.
"Basically it’s been pretty quick," he says.