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Memphis revisited: Gareth Owen reflects on his award-winning sound design

The West End musical picked up Oliviers for sound and choreography this year

The first thing likely to strike the average West End-loving techie audiophile about the Olivier-award winning show Memphis is undoubtedly the number of ‘Elvis’ mics that pop up during the proceedings. Ironic, then, that none of the Shure 55s are actually used as ‘practicals’ – that is, as functioning microphones.

“The initial idea,” says sound designer Gareth Owen, “was to build Shure UR3 wireless plug-in transmitters into the bases of the mic stands so that all the mics you see on stage would be ‘real’ or ‘live’. But, as it turns out, if you get the sound just right on a normal cast microphone – in our case, a DPA 4066 – then you can ‘effect’ it and make it sound like anything you want.”

Memphis tells of the birth, and spread, of rock’n’roll in 1950s America. With a score written by Bon Jovi keyboard player Dave Bryan and writer Joe DiPietro, it follows the rise of DJ Huey Calhoun who brings underground black music to the ears of the mainstream white population. It contains all those winning musical themes: forbidden love (here between white boy Huey and black girl Felicia, currently played by the outstanding Beverley Knight, left in main pic); an outsider, rejected but then accepted; a pivotal decision that will change lives forever; big characters and even bigger songs. You know the routine.

And win Memphis certainly has won: the original 2010 Broadway production bagged a glut of Tony awards, while, last month, the current Shaftesbury Theatre version saw Owen walk away with the Olivier Award for Best Theatre Sound Design last month. (The choreographer skipped off with an Olivier too.)

Part of that sound design, then, is in the authenticity of the presentation. When Owen talks about “getting the sound right”, he’s referring to the correct positioning of the 4066s on the heads of the actors, using the tiny ‘booms’, which direct the capsule to the side of the actor’s mouth. (Owen jokes that when he mentions the word ‘boom’ in the presence of a director, he always carries one on him, to make it quite clear he’s talking about tiny invisible support rods, and not the long boom poles seen swinging above an audience’s heads in TV recordings…)

“So, when we get it right,” continues Owen, “we can give Huey a ‘radio’ effect when he’s in the DJ booth, or that loudspeaker ‘Tannoy’ effect in the department store, and it sounds natural and correct.

“And so, we ended up not using any of the 55s as practicals.”

Dave Palmer and Andy Yianakki, number one and number two operators on Memphis respectively, say that this show is the closest show to an all-out rock’n’roll gig they’ve ever worked on. “There’s a mild-mannered approach to musicals, all quite traditional. But it’s nice to mix a show where it’s almost rock,” says Palmer. The musical that won Owen and his team the Olivier last year, Merrily We Roll Along, was mild-mannered indeed: all “strings and reverbs”, says Owen.

“I struggled with Memphis at first,” he admits. “In the first half there’s very little in the way of ballads, so it’s relentlessly loud at the beginning. I was initially a bit uncomfortable with that, and I was searching for light and shade. But Dave Bryan and the director Chris Ashley said, just rock it out. I thought, are you sure? Every now and then you try to give the audience a rest. But Memphis is loud song after loud song – and quite a lot of shouting by Huey in a ‘Robin Williams, Good Morning Vietnam‘-kind of way. I was desperately trying to find the light and shade in that… Which, it turns out, hasn’t been a problem!” Maybe the show should be retitled Merrily We Rock’n’Roll Along

The PA, supplied by Orbital Sound, is all d&b: “A full V-Series around the proscenium, T-Series centre cluster, and J Infra subs – which don’t often make it into musical theatre because they are so bloody big and difficult to locate in the theatre!” Older d&b E and Q Series boxes are used for fills and foldback.

“What is it about d&b? I guess I’ve grown up using it, I understand what it’s going to do, but not only that: d&b have a voicing policy where every speaker sounds basically the same. What that means is, when you put a vocal into a big proscenium box, and then into a small delay speaker, you get the same sound between the two.

“What I’ve found is, time and time again, the voicing on different speakers in a range have a different sound. So I’ve had to re-EQ the boxes, not to match the room, but to match other speakers. It seems to me, some speaker manufacturers set out to make [their boxes] sound the best they can, but not necessarily the same as each other. And that’s very important in the theatre.”

If Owen is a d&b man, then he’s equally an Avid man too.

“I was pretty much the first person to use the Avid in theatre, and I struck up a good relationship with Sheldon Radford there, I was able to [advise on] creating a mixing desk that did exaclty what I wanted for theatre. So now, in the VENUE desk, I have the perfect desk for theatre. And I’ve been working on the S6L too – I’ve been sitting on my hands waitng for it to come out! I’ve used other desks, but now it’s Avid all the way.”

What was Owen’s biggest challenge about putting this show together?

“Stage foldback,” he says immediately. “Because with a full band on stage, and what are effectively omnidirectional vocal mics on stage, then getting a clear vocal sound out of the DPAs, and eliminating and reducing bleed from the upstage band when they roll downstage for the second act, it’s tough!”

It’s a nine-piece band: four “blowers”, as Palmer calls them, guitar and bass, two keyboards, and a drummer. A drum screen helps to tame the kit…

“You’ve got horns blowing on to the stage, you’ve got the kit too. And you can’t tell them to play more quietly!” says Owen “Getting a vocal sound to cut through that for the monitor mix… Imagine putting Bon Jovi on stage but getting them omni mics to sing down. That would be pretty tricky!”

Tricky, but not impossible. And that, ladies and gentlemen of theatreland, is why Owen wins awards.


(All photos: Johan Persson)