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Sound of the stage: Meyer Sound provides for London’s National Theatre

Meyer Sound has secured a three year partnership with London's National Theatre. Fiona Hope caught up with Helen and John Meyer at the announcement ceremony to discuss the partnership, their consistent work with the theatre sector, and the secrets to Meyer’s success on the stage

Meyer Sound has now become the Official Sound Partner of the Olivier Theatre, London’s National Theatre’s biggest auditorium, following the collaboration that saw it provide its LEOPARD and LINA line array speakers for Stephen Sondheim’s 2017 production of Follies. As part of the official partnership, the system is being used for Follies‘ revival this year, and has become the permanent house system of the Olivier Theatre. Following the announcement event came the Follies production itself, embroiled with all the right glitz and glamour of the ‘20s and sudden, bedazzling breaks into song, with Meyer Sound’s system proving perfectly discreet and powerfully clarifying of all the subtleties and expression that permeated the show. 

With natural sound and optimised clarity, the system emphasises minute details; that is, the taps of the dancing shoes and the muffled whispers between forbidden lovers. 

As for specifics, renowned sound designer Paul Groothuis’ design for the 2019 Follies production is anchored by left and right arrays of eight LEOPARD line array loudspeakers each, plus a split centre cluster with three LEOPARD line arrays for the longer throw, and six LINA line arrays for closer orchestra seating. It also comprises six 900-LFC subwoofers along with 14 point source loudspeakers (UPM-1P, UPJ-1P, MM-4XP, UPA-2P, UPJunior and UP-4slim) for fill, delay and spot effects. Six additional LINA line array loudspeakers, configured as two arrays of three each, provide fill for the outer edges of the balcony. Also contributing to the sound success of the show were Dominic Bilkey, head of sound and video, Jonas Roebuck, sound no.1 for the production, and Alex Caplen, sound and video supervisor of the Olivier theatre. 

Helen and John Meyer, founders of Meyer Sound, were present for the special event, eager to speak with a raft of attendees keen to discuss the show’s sound after the performance. We managed to squeeze in some time for ourselves to catch up with the Meyers about their partnership with the National’s Olivier Theatre and Follies, and to get some insight into the company’s extensive work in the world of theatre… 

How did the partnership come about? 

Karen Ames, VP of communications: The National Theatre really liked the Meyer Sound system they already had for the first Follies in 2017, and wanted to keep it. We agreed a three year partnership with them that entails working to make sure they have equipment if and when they need it, and helping sponsor some educational programmes for young sound designers, allowing them to work on Meyer Sound systems. 

Can you tell me more about the educational programme? 

KA: Many of the members of the National Theatre sound team came up through the ranks from the educational programme. They do seminars and training sessions using Meyer Sound products once or twice a year, inviting young sound designers in to see the show, tour the equipment and experiment with it. 

John Meyer: The tech guys were talking tonight about how they had a lot of problems with the system before Meyer; people couldn’t hear and complained. They got some Meyer Sound products and realised that they could get better coverage. This is the best way to teach sound design, with high quality products, and it’s really exciting to see sound designers successfully take our equipment and cover the whole room. That’s really what the education is all about. We need sound designers to understand it, because sound is very complicated. 

There are a lot of companies making sound equipment, but it’s not like medical equipment where, if you have an MRI machine, for example, there are regulations that you have to make it to. With sound, there’s a lot of variation. Everyone seems to see it like photography, but it’s not. Photography is around 100 years old, whereas sound is about 30-40 years old. Sound is new, and it’s really important that young sound designers realise that. People look at speakers and they just see them as objects, like they’re buying light bulbs, they have no idea that they’re not all the same. 

Helen Meyer: In this particular show, there’s a lot of dialogue that’s important to hear, it has so many moods and levels of emotion. You don’t want to lose any of that, and that’s why it’s so important to work closely with sound designers on the best equipment. 

JM: It’s not just us, but it’s the microphones and the wireless transfers. All of that stuff has to be very high quality, and again, there’s a huge variation on it all. Sound designers have to learn to sort and find equipment that makes it work. 

The immersive quality was very impressive. How does Meyer Sound approach this? 

JM: The main thing is not to get it too loud, because there is direct sound coming towards you from the powerful singers. You’re just trying to enhance it. If you get it too loud, then all of a sudden the sound just sounds like its coming directly from the speaker. We’re building speakers that mean you don’t have to make it loud to make it work. The tendency is, if the system isn’t clear, you’ll turn it up to try and make it louder. If you watch people talking, if they are talking to someone who doesn’t quite know the language, they talk louder. They think that helps, but it doesn’t, it just makes someone angry that you’re shouting at them. It’s hard to teach people not to do that with sound, and the equivalent has to be very good to succeed. That’s why this is so exciting, because they did it, the show is at work, and people can hear it works. 

Has Meyer Sound always worked with theatre? 

JM: Yes, our first sale was to the Old Globe theatre in San Diego, and within the first couple of years we were doing Cats in London. We also provide for Wicked on the West End. 

HM: From the very beginning, we were working with Broadway and the West End. We work with theatres around the world, it’s a big part of our business. We have the kind of equipment that really works well with theatres like this because it’s small, it can be hidden in the sets, and it’s versatile. We’ve also worked with opera houses, and musicians like Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, and Metallica. 

JM: A lot of people think it was just rock and roll, but The Grateful Dead actually cared a lot about the sound and its quality. PA was always just like walkie talkies, it was just enough information to hear what was going on, but it was never hi-fi or high quality. It started out just for conventions, and to talk to people at baseball stadiums, but we wanted sound to be full-range and nice to listen to; to bring hi-fi into this world. No one yet understood what that meant. 

Back then, it was really hard to hear at Broadway and West End shows. So, we started working with them to show our speakers would enhance it. People often see technology as taking away from theatre, when the fact the audience can’t hear takes away from it. Why are we running lights? They weren’t there during Shakespeare’s time? Because we want to build a scene, just as we want to bring sound in so people can hear. Don’t you think Shakespeare would’ve used this equipment? 

Does this match up to the vision you had in the beginning? 

HM: Yes, it makes us very proud. We’ve evolved, much of our equipment now has a lot of digital capability, it’s much more directional than it ever has been, and we have more versions. It is wonderful to see it used this way in such a complicated show. They were even mic-ing the shoes so that you could hear the tap, they were mic-ing a lot of it. All of that has to be done just perfectly, you don’t want to have any sense that it’s not natural. 

JM: You don’t want technology to take away from the performance either. We don’t want to break the belief structure that what is happening isn’t actually happening because the audience is enjoying the show. If you promote too much that you are doing all of this technological stuff, it can also take away from it. 

HM: It’s a secret technology thing, but it makes it more enjoyable. You’re watching them dance and you hear that clicking of their shoes and it’s just a really nice effect, and I think that’s what our systems enable the sound designers to do. It gives them a creative tool that they didn’t have before.