Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s and Tim Rice’s much-loved Jesus Christ Superstar hit the arenas of the UK in September. Riding a tidal wave of expectation, newcomer Ben Forster took the title role, with comedian-songwriter Tim Minchin as Judas, former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm as Mary, and ex-Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles as Herod.
The whole production required 14 trucks to move it around the country. SSE Audio Group supplied an L-Acoustics PA for the stadium rock power, with DiGiCo SD7 and Yamaha PM5D consoles deployed for monitoring duties (for Seamus Fenton and Nick Lythgo respectively).
Out front, two engineers were kept on their toes manning a flagship Midas XL8 digital mixing system for a cast of 40. While Lloyd-Webber’s studio engineer Robin Sellars concentrated on changes in the 10-piece band mix, it was down to engineering legend Roger Lindsay to stay on top of the demands of a tricky vocal mix.
If there’s a subtext to the tour, it seems to be ‘Theatre versus Rock ‘n’ Roll’…
I wouldn’t say it was versus… Andrew Lloyd-Webber conceived it as a rock show but it ended up as one of the longest running shows in theatre.
He did it in America as an arena show when it was first released in 1972, and for the last 40 years that’s always what he’s wanted to do again. This is the first time he’s been able to realise that.
So, not versus; it’s more like an ‘adjustment’ of two different worlds, then – we’ve been finding a common ground to create that crossover from a theatre production to a large arena.
There are people on JCS who have spent their lives in musical theatre, and they are now coming into the rock arena; and for the rock people, they see how a show like this works in theatrical terms. What challenges has that created for you?
Primarily: numbers. If you start with a conventional rock tour, you’ve got a band with three or four members, say. JCS has a 10-piece band and 40 singers – all of whom sing a line at some point. That’s a big difference.
Also, most rock performers, other than the lead singers, don’t move around the stage much. We have 40 performers, all moving, all singing and changing roles. It’s never static. So the complexity and the number of those changes make a big difference. There isn’t a moment where you can go on to ‘cruise mode’, which with most bands, you can.
In one song, there are 16 singers and 16 individual lines, one after another – you wouldn’t get that in a rock show. I was constantly programming mutes on the XL8 to start with, too, because unlike a rock show, where the mics are handhelds or on stands, the whole cast are wearing headset mics. Wherever they go they are always miked, so you have to be careful when a performer goes offstage… same thing if they are coming on and they clear their throat: you have to mute that mic until the line is about to be delivered, then you fade it up. So has this meant warning actors NOT to clear their throats?
It’s more about discipline for what we do. Trying to tell them not to chatter offstage is not really practical. The engineers have to be on top of our game, and learn the show, and know exactly when lines come and go. Did you seek out any ‘theatre sound operators’ before you took on the task?
Initially I spoke to sound designer Mick Potter who has done a lot of Broadway, Vegas shows and so on. We realised very quickly that although we are both engineers, what we do is entirely different; we discussed a co-operative venture but it wasn’t going to work. This HAD to be approached as a rock show.
What challenges did you face?
One of the big problems was microphone choices. With 40 singers, all on headsets, I needed something that was rock solid. Typically, the mics that I’d been led to understand were normal in the theatre, weren’t going to work here.
I was worried that I was going to a gunfight with a knife, but I wanted something that would deliver enough weight and gain before feedback, and give me a fat enough sound. I was less concerned about physical appearance and more concerned about having a mic that worked. I didn’t know if such a mic existed. So what did you do?
We had a shoot-out, a blind test at SSE HQ. The outcome amazed us. The AKG we chose – the C 544 L – was way ahead of the rest. It’s a big and sturdy condenser headset, great for this application. There was some opposition at first, because they don’t look pretty. But it was Andrew [Lloyd-Webber] who resolved it – he said, it’s a rock show, the audience will expect to see mics, that’s what you need to do the job.
Throughout the tour, there’s been no redundancy and no failures. We just bend them to shape and off we go. We’ve been using them with Shure UHF-R transmitters/receivers.
What advantages does the Midas XL8 present to you?
Primarily: sonically. I love the way they’ve captured the analogue console legacy in a digital console.
Are you a ‘Midas man’?
My first digital console was a Harrison! But I have an open mind. And Midas has been consistently good.
Speed of access is important. With analogue, everything is there; with digital, you generally have to go looking for things.
The beauty of the XL8 is the POP (population) Groups – a way of accessing things you need without globally switching layers.
For this tour, the channel count was going to be high (96 in fact), so an XL8 made more sense because access is better as you have more real estate available. And it’s worked out exactly where I want it to be: it’s much quicker to navigate, sonically it never disappoints, and getting up to speed with it again was quick because it’s very user-friendly.
How has the arena tour been?
Up and down the country, all arenas are different – but I’ve got [SSE’s] Pete Hughes and Chris Courtney with me, they’ve been incredibly good, tuning the system and plotting it in advance so the PA is aimed exactly where it needs to be while keeping it at exactly the right level, so we’re not exciting the room too much.
Loud enough to have plenty of punch but with no resonances to spoil the picture. They do the work and I take all the glory! What’s the main thing that you’ve learned?
You can’t be lazy, you can’t sit still. And I think it makes you a better engineer. I’ve had to raise my game, which is never a bad thing. What’s the best bit?
I still like ‘Superstar’. But the whole show has lots of light and shade – how could Lloyd-Webber write that when he was only 21?!