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Gareth Owen and Orbital Sound deliver musical magic for Memphis

The West End musical explores the racial challenges of '50s Tennessee

The musical Memphis, featuring original songs by David Bryan, co-founder of Bon Jovi, and sound design by Gareth Owen, opened recently at the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End of London.

At the heart of the show’s all-d&b audiotechnik sound system is a pair of Avid VENUE control surfaces, Owen’s regular mixer of choice. d&b’s V-Series forms the core proscenium system (V8 and V12 cabinets), complemented by V and J-Infra Subs, and a T-Series centre cluster. Overall, the complete system totals some 120 speakers, including a combination of E8/E6/E0s as outfills, E6 and E0s on front fill duties and 57 E6s deployed as delay, to fill the theatre with the big sound required by the production. Amplification is from a mix of d&b audiotechnik D12s and D6s.

“We really don’t have time to work out the bugs in something dramatically new, particularly on a major new production such as this,” explains Owen, commenting on his choice of d&b equipment. “I’m all for trying out new products, but I prefer to experiment in a controlled manner. Our approach is to make considered incremental changes so that we can make careful comparisons and identify pretty much straight away if something is working for the better, or not.”

A significant innovation for Memphis is the communications system, which integrates the Clear-Com FreeSpeak wireless intercom system (used by Owen for the first time on I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical) and new Helixnet four-channel remote, the latter on its first ever use.

“Helixnet is just so impressive, giving us 12-channel comms down a single cable so you can pull up any channel on any pack,” says Owen. “Clear-Com has been working closely with the team to finetune certain elements, such as the latency on the side tone, especially on the four-channel status, as you do tend to get an echo on your own voice back into the headset, which is mildly off-putting.

“It’s great that [rental company] Orbital has that relationship with the manufacturer. We went through something of a learning curve with FreeSpeak on I Can’t Sing! and, as with Helixnet this time, the Clear-Com guys are great about supporting us and tweaking it to iron out any issues that we encounter. The result is a fabulous radio communications system, and we are extremely impressed with it.”

Another departure for Gareth Owen Sound on Memphis is the introduction of Shure Axient AXT400 receivers in conjunction with the UR1M transmitters. The Axient bodypack transmitters were slightly too large to hide on an average cast member, but the combination of the standard micro UR1-M packs combined with the AXT400s is proving “a real success”.

Many senior members of the Gareth Owen Sound team are working on Memphis, including associate designer Russell Godwin, assistant designer Zoe Blackford, head of sound Dave Palmer, sound number wwo Andy Yiannaki, associate production engineer Andy Green and Pro Sound Award-winning production engineer Chris Mace.

The show stars British soul singer Beverley Knight opposite West End star Killian Donnelly (pictured above right) in a story set in the 1950s underground nightclubs of Memphis, Tennessee, exploring the racial challenges of the era and featuring a mix of rock and roll, blues and gospel.