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Hop on the art express with tube UK

A passion for the art has seen the Manchester-based installation company carve out a niche

Unusual spaces for sound, particularly involving artistic performances, are a speciality of audio design and equipment hire company tube UK. From shopping trolleys, frozen rivers and noisy train stations to old cars and a disused warehouse, the Manchester-based company has hooked up sound in a range of wacky places.

Owner and managing director Melvyn Coote started the company in 2001 and expanded in 2011 when he opened another office in Slough, which is west of central London.

“We specialise in bespoke services for events, whether that be conferences, outdoor arts spectacles, the music industry, classical performances, spoken word, theatre, so pretty much across all areas and we obviously hold equipment ourselves and do full service jobs,” he says.

“We do full engineering design, so I think one of our niches is our sound system design and the details that are put into that. We put systems into unusual spaces and for really large scale outdoor events that require some pretty serious systems and programming.”

Coote explains some of the more unusual jobs have been outdoors, including for the European Council of Culture in Finland, where the aim was to create 3D movement of sound across a frozen river (pictured above), with the width of the audience 400m wide and 150m deep.

“It was for an outdoor theatre show and we wanted to create movement both left and right across the audience scape, and from the near side of the river to the far side of the river,” he comments.

“So we were designing a system that would incorporate all of those attributes and manipulating the sound… and making people sound like they were jumping from one side of the river to the other side.”

Hiding sound systems is also a specialty of tube UK, Coote explains, including for client Walk the Plank, which runs community based projects in the arts, including a parade called Manchester Day. One of these parades was where sound systems needed to be hidden in shopping trolleys so artists could build their characters above it (pictured).

“So we developed a way of putting small sound systems that were battery operated and the speakers were attached to the shopping trolley and they were able to create their characters on top of that and so it was a disguised sound system, it worked really well,” he says.

Then there was the local group from Oldham, who were modified car enthusiasts – they had older style cars that they had renovated and upgraded with larger sound systems, suspension and exhaust systems, explains Coote. They wanted to use the sound systems of the cars and synchronise them together.

“So it became six cars acting as one sound system, so each car was linked to a central car via a radio transmission. We had an RF link that connected all the cars together, so there were no cables between the cars, but they could all receive the same audio signal and play out the same music at the same time,” he says.

Coote says he has a keen interest in theatre and the arts, which has been developed both from watching shows and also running the sound for them, and this has spilled over into his business.

“I think that’s left me open to when projects like that come around, they are generally tight on budget because of where they are funded from, they generally take a lot of resources that are quite low revenue, but we do it as a company as it’s what we enjoy doing and getting involved in,” he says. “Certainly in community arts it’s definitely a driver for doing it and wanting to make a success of what they’ve created and enabling them to showcase their artistic talents and it becomes a passion, rather than a business decision.”

Historically corporate business has been the majority of tube UK work, although it has decreased in the last five years due to the economic recession, Coote comments, with the company picking up more work in the music industry. Recently, it has been contracted as the sound provider for the Albert Hall in Manchester (pictured), which currently runs around 150 shows year, while they are also doing in-house sound for another Manchester music venue, called Gorilla.

“Corporate is still a huge backbone of our work, probably about 50 per cent, while music warrants 40 per cent and the other 10 per cent is arts, theatre and special events and another source of work to shout about is that we are a sound provider for Manchester City Council, so most of their big outdoor annual events we have worked on for the past 10 or 15 years,” he says.

In terms of equipment, Coote says the company uses d&b for speakers and amplifiers, Sennheiser for radio mics and Yamaha for desks and system management.

“The downside is they are all very expensive, the upside is they are all excellent quality, they also – as a hire company – retain value very well as the quality is robust, sturdy, reliable, which is all things you need when you are doing anything with sound hire work because you want it to work when it arrives,” he says.

Working within a building’s architecture is also key to tube UK’s work and most often audiences don’t realise the planning and technical precision that goes into delivering a project, comments Coote.

One example is when tube UK installed the sound in an old disused warehouse for the Manchester International Festival, where an actor was delivering a famous prisoner of war monologue, called The Pianist, where the audience was 360 degrees around him.

“The remit was to create a transparent audience system, so when he had his back to the audience they could still hear him, but so it wasn’t obvious that the sound system was there, so again placing sound systems in the architecture of the building,” he explains. “The result was quite staggering if you were technical and knew what was going on, but from a standard audience point of view they didn’t realise anything was there as they couldn’t see it.”

Coote’s (pictured) passion for the arts is evident from his story about getting a phone call 12 hours before Victoria Station in Manchester was used as a ‘pop-up’ public tribute to Victoria Wood – the English comedian, singer, songwriter, screenwriter and director, who died in April.

A choir had put the tribute idea out on social media and expected a few people to turn up, but as the day drew closer, hundreds of people were expected to attend. As a result, the event had to move to a different part of the station to accommodate the capacity of the audience, says Coote, but there was the problem of no power or sound equipment.

“So we put the system together, all running off car batteries; we put it in the morning of the event. It consisted of the choir, a piano, speeches from the lord mayor of Manchester and it was hosted by Sue Devaney, who-co starred with her in DinnerLadies, so she also spoke as well. The audience that turned up was probably around 300 to 400 and everyone could hear absolutely clearly even though we were on a noisy platform.”

Tube delivered at the station – how could it not?