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Nun so challenging: audio magic for Sister Act in Paris

Guillaume Schouker reports from the Parisian set of Sister Act, where FOH Bertrand Billon has found some useful working habits

Based on the hit 1992 film comedy of the same name, Sister Act the musical was written by Cherie and Bill Steinkellner, with lyrics by Glenn Slater and music by Alan Menken.

The 2009 West End production was produced by Stage Entertainment, Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Reno for Sis Acts LLC. Goldberg was also a producer of the 2011 Broadway adaptation and co-producer with Stage Entertainment of the 2012 French adaptation, which has been showing at the 1,600-seat Théâtre de Mogador in Paris since September last year.
Bertrand Billon, head of sound and radio technology, says: “Most of the sound system for this production is provided by Orbital Sound in London, plus additional equipment by France’s Dushow.”
With sound design by Tony Award-nominated Gareth Owen, the French version of Sister Act is identical to the UK show as far as the audio equipment list is concerned. “The mixing system, front-of-house and monitoring are exactly the same,” remarks Billon, “as well as the sound reinforcement system. Of course the EQ set-up and sound diffusion system are adapted to each theatre.”
Owen reveals: “I guess the biggest challenge with Sister Act, regardless of which country we are in, is to get the balance between the vocals and the band correct – a particularly difficult task when you consider that the show is rather loud in places and the cast all wear omnidirectional microphones on their foreheads!
“This is made all the harder by the fact that we do the show in many different languages, many of which I don’t speak naturally. This means that, although I might know that I can hear the vocals, I’m not always sure that the audience can understand them, as I don’t speak the language fluently myself. Local experience and advice is essential here and we would be lost without it!”
In the FOH position, a Digidesign VENUE console with 96 inputs is handled by engineer Nicolas Lemperier. There’s one DigiRack stagebox for the cast microphones and a second one for the live musicians located in the orchestra pit.

“This console offers all the essential characteristics – audio quality, powerful processing and reliability – which are critical when we give seven performances or more per week for one year,” says Billon.
The main line arrays in a L/R configuration consist of two clusters, each with 14 d&b audiotechnik T10 mid-his, a B2 sub and three Q-subs for the front stalls and dress circle; then two more clusters with six d&b T10 plus one Q-sub for the upper circle.

The central cluster is made up of two distinct systems that include three d&b T10. Frontfills are d&b E3, plus several extra in the hall. On stage are arranged three lines of Q7 sides and one E3 frontfill. The delay and surround sound system for the theatre mainly comprises L-Acoustics 8XT (with LA4 amplifiers) and Meyer Sound UPJunior for the upper circle.
Billon explains: “The central cluster has a very important role in this type of show. It plays the role of diffusing the vocals for the orchestra and the dress circle.
“A split central cluster offers an important advantage: you can modify the gain and the equalisation of the two sections without altering the whole performance. Of course, separating the central cluster in two sections makes a loss in the coupling, but we don’t suffer because we are not talking long range.”
Three different sets of orchestra share the everyday music section, each orchestra includes seven musicians (drums, percussion, bass and double bass, guitars, flutes and saxophones, two keyboards – one of the two being played by the conductor).
The microphones used for the cast are DPA 4066 (headset version of the 4060) and Countryman B6, (without headset). “We can place the microphones rather low on the comedians’ foreheads to ensure good stability. These DPA mics feature a sound quality that is a reference in this field.
“The Countryman B6 is a spare microphone for the principal Deloris character (as made famous by Whoopi Goldberg in the film). It is much smaller in size than the DPA, two DPA capsules would have been too visible.”
Based on a PC platform system, the CSC Show Control software from CTR Electronics is used for all the sound effects during the show and officiates as a MIDI Master, dynamic automation and audio player. “It offers extreme flexibility in the set-up control and modifications, and even on the fly, as it is very often the case during rehearsals,” says Billon. “We are not using any multi-track system for this show and, due to the automation complexity, the use of a system such as Pro Tools is not justified.”
Full of experience for having been involved in The Lion King, Zorro, Cabaret and Mamma Mia! musicals in Paris, Billon says: “My role today is to find the right compromise between respecting the specification sheets, the financial realities and the operating ergonomics. During the season, we host a number of conventions or guest-shows and we have to insert those plans in our set-up with a minimum of impact on the production or the customer. I can now identify upstream points that can turn problematic, so manage them with the designers before any concerns are raised.”
Billon concludes: “Once we’re done with the phenomenal work during the rehearsals, it becomes a real pleasure over the performances feeling the osmosis, the listening and interaction of the comedians, musicians and technicians, until it becomes real alchemy. That’s what will make the evening not simply ‘good’, but ‘magical’.”