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A Wales of a time: Talking spectrum, Shure and Saturday Night Fever with Stage Sound Services’ Ian Barnard

Jon Chapple catches up with the RF/comms engineer for Wales’s biggest sound company

Wales. Cymru. Cambria. A green and pleasant land of rugby-playing Methodists where men are tenors, placenames are vowel-free and the biggest name in sound and video hire is Cardiff’s Stage Sound Services (SSS).

“We’ve tried to set ourselves up as a one-stop shop for corporate events and theatre shows,” explains SSS RF and communications engineer Ian Barnard (who, it should be pointed out, is, as far as we know, neither a tenor nor a rugby player), “with a really vast range of gear and people who can design, manage and operate all the [equipment] at every level.”

SSS is currently supplying sound for UK tours by Oklahoma, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Blood Brothers, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoa, and Saturday Night Fever, as well as West End shows Women on the Verge, The Audience, The Railway Children and The Nether. Although theatre sound and video is, according to Barnard, SSS’s “bread and butter” (comprising about 60 per cent of its business), the company also has a significant sideline in corporate AV (about 15 per cent) and has supplied the UEFA Champions League and events by Vodafone, Peugeot and Unite the Union. The remaining 25 per cent is “made up with sales and general hire”, says Barnard. (Pictured below right is the junkyard set from the 2014 revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, for which SSS provides sound and video.)

Outlining his role at Stage Sound Services, Barnard (pictured) explains: “I was brought to SSS as a theatre expert; I was mixing shows and supporting theatre shows until we moved to a building in April 2013 and decided that radios and comms were too specialised and complex to not have a dedicated person looking after them. I’ve been doing that since.”

Audio equipment-wise, SSS’s speakers are mainly d&b audiotechnik and EM Acoustics supplemented by a smaller stock of Meyer Sound, with power from d&b and Lab.gruppen amps. Desk highlights are “six DiGiCo SD10s, five Yamaha CL5s, a couple of [Avid] VENUE Profiles and lots of smaller Yamaha stuff”, while mics are a mix of Shure, DPA, Neumann and Sennheiser. Finally, on the radio front, SSS is up to a modest 236 (!) channels of Shure – “mainly UR4D+, but we just bought some ULX-D”, says Barnard.

Time, then, to discover how theatre sound compares to corporate events; the future of the 700MHz band; the problem of stagnant wages; and the aftermath of working in a collapsing theatre…

PSNEurope: How is the health of the theatre sound market at the moment? How has it changed since you started out?
IB: There’s certainly no shortage of work; however, shows seem to have increasing expectations but falling budgets – certainly at the level we are. That squeezes both us and the people working on the shows. Someone told me recently that sound operators №2s on National Theatre tours are being paid the same as they were 15 years ago!

You were in the Apollo Theatre for the Curious Incident incident in 2013 [part of the theatre’s roof caved in during a performance of The Curious Dog in the Night-Time]. Any other theatre horror stories?
We were only providing video gear for the show so we weren’t allowed in during the health and safety investigation, but when we eventually got the gear back it took us about a month to clean it!

I think we’ve been lucky with shows and haven’t really had any real horror stories. Just small ones – like when I was working at a corporate party and during the band the power distro – not ours! – went bang and started smoking. It was a mad 15-minute scramble to get some lights and the DJ plugged into lots of 13A plugs throughout the venue, but we did it.

Does any gig stick out in your mind? Do you have a favourite tour?
Bizarrely enough, the show that sticks in my mind is a Welsh-language version of [Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater rock musical] Spring Awakening that I mixed and toured twice. I don’t speak a word of Welsh! It was quite a learning curve. We toured a truss structure and built a small 150-seat theatre inside. Hard work, but the people were great. The stage crew were some farmers ‘in real life’ and were the best crew I’ve ever worked with! They didn’t seem to get tired – ever! One guy’s catchphrase was, “If I can get my arms round it, I can lift it.” I believed him 100 per cent!

What percentage do corporate events make up of your business? How does a corporate AV job compare to theatre sound – both in the challenges/disciplines involved and in terms of reward?
The corporate world is usually technically easier – less radio mics, simple lighting – however, there can be a lot more pressure. At least with theatre you get a few rehearsals before you do it for ‘real’, but for corporate events you usually get talked through it once and then that’s it! (Picture above is SSS’s view at the UK Investment Summit 2014.)

Tell us a bit about the history of the company. You mentioned earlier that it started almost 20 years ago in the owner’s living room…
Phil [Hurley] started designing and operating sound and lights at school, which turned into freelance work for a local lighting company, Stage Lighting Services, mainly doing am-dram shows. That expanded until Phil started Stage Sound Services. The two companies have grown up together, being able to offer clients full technical design, hire and support.

What sort of kit are you fielding for your current tours?
We like to try and meet the requests of the system designers of tours and large shows – mainly because we understand that the designer and engineers will have decided on that kit for a reason, be it if it does the job very well or is just what they’re used to. Our hire stock now is mainly a list of gear that will be acceptable to most designers.

A typical show would have a DiGiCo SD Series or Yamaha CL5 desk, d&b or EM Acoustics PA and Shure radios.

Lots of Shure radios…
Shure was chosen a while ago – they could offer a smaller hire company a great product for a decent price. As we’ve got bigger, they’ve continued to provide us with great products at prices we can translate into competitive hire prices. They’re a really approachable and supportive company, so we really like working with them!

We’ve also got analogue party line systems from both Clear-Com and RTS; single- and dual-channel wireless comms from HME and all the various boxes to connect them all together; and a large stock of Motorola DP3600s, some new DP1400s and a Motorola repeater so we can cover pretty big sites with radios. The Railway Children currently has 40 DP3600 handsets to cover the entire workforce.

You’re involved with Shure/SDUK and their Wireless Mastered training sessions. Are you supportive of what they’re trying to do with raising awareness of loss of the RF spectrum?
We’re fully behind the efforts of SDUK and BEIRG [the British Entertainment Industry Radio Group] to bring the plight of our spectrum to light. We are members of BEIRG, and I think the training that SDUK are doing is a big part of the solution – but, unfortunately, it does rest with Ofcom and we have to trust that they will make decisions with PMSE in their minds. (Pictured below is the Close Brothers Motor Finance Conference 2015; Stage Sound Services was on sound and video duties.)

What do you see as the solution to the challenges posed by the diminishing spectrum available to wireless mic users?
Personally, I think that if Ofcom do decide to sell off the 700MHz band and also allow white space devices to operate in the remaining TV bands, then the licensing has to be changed. I look after licensing for SSS and I have to make decisions about the TV bands to use based on the info that Arqiva give to me. That has turned out sometimes to be completely different to the actual spectrum usage in the venue, so I have to then try and change the license (which we’ve had to buy in advance) all the while the show is running on frequencies that work, but are technically unlicensed. Add to that white space devices that Arqiva have no control over and you’ll be turning up to venues every week with no idea of the RF environment you’re going to have to deal with. In those situations the gear and the licensing has to be flexible enough to deal with the very high channel counts that the shows are demanding.