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Q&A: West End sound designer Rick Clarke

Not afraid to speak his mind, Clarke is a big fan of d&b speakers – but he’s recently discovered something new…

“You can look right through me/ Walk right by me/ And never know I’m there…”
So go the lyrics to Mr Cellophane in the musical Chicago. Rick Clarke could call himself the Mr Cellophane of sound design: his designs have been used on 17 productions of the hit musical worldwide, while his ‘trick’ has been to ‘localise’ the sound to the actors, as though the PA system just wasn’t there…
Chicago is only a slice of a portfolio reaching back to the early 80s, when he left London’s National Theatre to go freelance; since that time he’s been a part of 42 West End productions, and around 60 worldwide (mainly ‘traditional’ musicals, if you will, such as West Side Story, Annie, Fiddler on the Roof and many more). Not afraid to speak his mind, Clarke is a big fan of d&b speakers – but he’s recently discovered something new…

How did you earn your stripes?
I started out at art college and failed to make a living as an artist in the early ’70s! With my ‘co-failees’ we formed a band called Medicine Head. I was the roadie and mix engineer. They became quite successful, with hits including One and One is One and Pictures in the Sky, and we toured for four years!

But we were getting up to nine gigs a week, and it was killing me. We did one particular three-gig day – in the afternoon, the evening and the last one late at night – and after that, I just resigned.

I looked at softer options, and did a few cabaret things, like [French crooner] Sacha Distel. I did lots and lots of plays, for people like [leading producer] Michael Codron. I had a studio near the Shaw Theatre in north London, just off the Euston Road – at one point I was doing sound effects by mail!
Then I was offered a job at the National Theatre in 1980, where I worked for four years.

What was working at the National like back then?
An actor described it as a like working for the civil service but with a chance to dress up! Our production of Guys and Dolls was important for the National Theatre at the time, and important for the West End because it ‘legitimised’ musicals in theatre. Up to that point there really has only been Cats, Evita, you know, Lloyd Webber stuff, but doing Guys and Dolls changed things.

I left there in 1984 with sound design contracts for The Hired Man and Me and My Girl. The latter was very successful: it did nine years at the Adelphi.

How did you get the sound design job on Chicago?
The show started in New York, and when it came to the UK to do a taster [in 1997] I did that design. And they liked that, so I got asked to do it for the UK version. Now I do sound design for the international and touring versions of the show.

Where did you first encounter Orbital Sound (who supplied the gear for Chicago)?
When I first did Chicago, I’d been talking to Orbital about using d&b as the speaker system. Up until then I’d been a bins and horns person; big industrial systems.

… which didn’t look very theatre! Was there a lot of choice for theatre speakers at the time?
Meyer Sound with their UPA, which everyone was using… but I thought they were overpriced. Plus, I preferred the sound of d&b.

What is your biggest issue, as a sound designer?
I would see shows in the West End – the sound would be mixed perfectly – and I would be watching mouths move but the sound was [obviously] coming from the speakers on the wall. That was annoying! That disconnect I always found to be confusing.

My ambition was to try and return the amplified sound back to the performer. Then I discovered the Haas effect. [Google it, I suggest – Tech Ed] I used that – whereby the first ‘source’ is the actor on the stage, and the amplified sound comes from the delay speakers. [Localisation of the source], that was my USP for a bit. Until everybody realised that’s what you needed to do.

What technology have you been impressed with?
The continued improvement in the quality of sound. There was a moment when digital didn’t sound all that good compared to analogue, but now, with the latency problems solved, it’s extraordinary. Clarity is improving the whole time. With any system, you improve the front end first and work your way to the back. So better radio mics, better microphones – DPA mics I use all the time. Also, the absence of noise in systems – now the only noise is from the lighting, and that can be terrible!

And more recently?
We’re forever striving to improve fidelity in systems. Like, in Richmond at Christmas I used Flare Audio for the first time. Not since the ’40s has speaker design changed. Flare Audio have brought a technology which seems to be unique and a vastly improved system – losing the colouration, making it a lot more ‘open’. At the moment they are very heavy [boxes] but the sound is great! I look forward to their products improving.

What other kit was being used on the show?
A Yamaha CL5 desk – it’s the first time I’ve used one. It’s a good format for that kind of gig; there’s an iPad app which you can use with it, but it’s limited.

What other problems are there in theatreland 2015?
Dynamic range is the most important thing. In order to have loud, you’ve got to have quiet. I go and see shows these days and it’s so loud. The imaging doesn’t work any more because it’s just loud!

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