Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


The roar of the greasepaint… from the quiet stage

Sound has long been a major part of the theatre experience, but it is now much more than the accompaniment for musicals or noises off in drama.

The theatre has always been a broad term covering acting, directing, writing and different styles of comedy, musicals and drama. It has become broader over the last ten or so years with the advent of adaptations of films as either musicals or straight plays and shows based on the back catalogues of “classic” bands, as well as revivals of Shakespeare and 20th century plays and new works more influenced by cinema and television than theatrical tradition.

In all of these productions sound has become even more of a key component, not just for the band or orchestra or playback for musical extravaganzas but also incidental or scene setting underscoring and effects in straight plays. The extent to which audio can make its full impact depends, as ever, on the budget available for a show, vying for a share of the pie with lighting, staging and other production costs.

The appetite for theatre appears newly whetted in recent years, reflected in the number of new venues being built – in the Middle and Far East especially – and older ones undergoing refurbishment. Jason Osterman, a senior consultant with Theatre Project Consultants says the type and amount of sound equipment put into a new venue can depend on several factors: “The usage of the building counts so if that is fairly well defined at the beginning you either specify something that fits it or leave it to companies to bring in what is needed. But you have to consider how much rental stock is available locally. And the level of technical knowledge among those using the systems is critical. If they know Midas or Digidesign (Avid) desks that’s OK but now networking such as Dante is an issue and people need a lot of knowledge for that.”

On the loudspeaker side the line array has become almost as ubiquitous in theatre as it is in live sound touring. Osterman observes that this is because they are a “know quantity”, with West End theatres are now particularly home to this rig configuration, to the extent where “you can barely see the proscenium arch”, as they vie with moving lights for real estate.

During this year’s ISE show d&b expanded its White range of installation loudspeakers with the xC-Series column, designed to give high vertical directivity. This has potential in the theatre sector, which is looking for ways to further control the emanation of sound. Martin Audio is among other manufacturers also looking at this. Applications engineer Robin Dibble comments that the aim of such technologies is to create “the quiet stage”, which has advantages for theatrical production, especially with the growing number of small headset microphones being used.

Different dispersions
Martin is promoting its new Differential Dispersion (DD) horn technology as a possible solution to this problem. The DD6 passive two-way cabinet is already available, while the self-powered DD12, featuring integral networking and DSP, was introduced at Prolight + Sound in Frankfurt.

“We’re hoping DD is going to be the next big thing in theatre,” says Dibble. “It’s designed for under balcony fills and the DSP and networking gives direct control of each individual cabinet in terms of delay and equalisation.” He adds that delays and achieving greater image clarity are of increasing importance, particularly with the growing use of surround sound and tracking systems such as TiMax and TTA (see boxes).

Luke Hyde, a project manager with hire firm Dimension Audio, comments that new cardioid sub-bass arrays, such as the passive units produced by d&b, are also contributing to the emergence of the quiet stage. “That allows us to counteract low-end signals going on to the stage,” he says. “That helps when you’ve got a performance that is very live, with a number of radio mics open at the same time.”

Hyde says that in his experience spectrum reallocation has “not particularly” affected wireless operations in the theatre sector. Chris Jordan, head of sound and theatre at rental company Blitz Communications, is less optimistic: “Even mid-scale touring shows like Fiddler on the Roof [starring former Starsky and Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser in a show with sound design by Richard Brooker] have approximately 30 radio mics. There is a squeeze on requirements in general with demand for more wireless systems but there is less and less spectrum available. It’s going to get difficult.”

Jordan reflects that digital technology is now firmly established in theatre sound, from mixing consoles – the DiGiCo SD7 is a major part of Blitz’s stock – to iPads and other tablets for controlling some parts of the system. Line arrays, or at least line array elements, Jordan agrees, are now in widespread use but argues that older technologies are not yet fully out of the picture. “Shows in the West End are still using point source systems,” he says. “We did Merrily We Roll Along with a simple point source system and that has been nominated for an Olivier Best Sound Design Award [sound designer Gareth Owen], so they’re not dead yet.”

A more pressing issue, Jordan adds, is the amount of noise pollution in productions coming from moving lights and other mechanical and electrical stage hardware. “The background level of noise in some shows is quite offensive,” he observes. Audio sources are increasing in auditoria; surround sound is finding its way into theatre more regularly as the influence of cinema makes itself felt on the older artistic discipline.

Far from the Madden crowd
Sound designer Rory Madden says the need for surround is judged on a production by production basis. “It can play a great part in an effect that can be controlled,” he explains. “You can draw the stage out to the audience and it’s nice to have the control of where you put the sound in the room.”

Madden continues that digital consoles and control systems are “evolving day by day and are incredibly powerful”, which is “very exciting” in terms of what can be achieved. “Their size, relative to what we make them do is astonishing, compared with ten years ago how many seats were being removed and killed from sale. Digital consoles include all the processing internally for most of the needs of reverb, dynamics and EQ. Snapshot scene recall and the ability to trigger external playback systems are all benefits of going digital.”

On the subject of the quiet stage, Madden says in-ear monitoring helps keep the levels down, as well as allowing the performers to “look in to their art”. Miniature wireless mics and headsets have also had a major impact on how theatre shows are designed and produced. DPA has been a leading choice for this and is now considering taking that experience and combining it with IEMs to produce something that can do two jobs in a single package.

Mikkel Nymand, product manager and tonmeister with DPA, says there is general annoyance among performers and technicians in having to accommodate two wireless belt packs, one for the mic, the other for IEM. “We are a microphone manufacturer, we don’t do wireless systems,” he says, “but one of the ideas we have is to see if we can combine some IEM capability with headsets. But we’re not there yet.”

Form and function
The combining of functions and features is something that has already happened in other parts of theatrical audio. The front of house console is now a networking and matrixing hub, with integrated effects and processing, as much as a means of mixing the show. The advent of digital mixing in theatres has additionally made scene management achievable. This is now available on the Allen & Heath GLD series through version 1.4 software. Product manager Nicola Beretta says users had been asking for features such as cross fading between one scene and another, with the ability to send messages to other systems, such as on-stage lights.

The MIDI capability of the GLD, and other digital desks, is of particular use in connecting to external devices such as digital audio workstations for playing in cues. Beretta says networked MIDI over Cat-5 cables is far more convenient than 5-pin DIN and allows for larger networks to be built, especially through the use of Dante, which is now available on the GLD as a plug-in card.

Sound designer Gareth Fry favours Yamaha consoles because of their MIDI handling. He says QLab has become “the standard” in the UK for computerised playback, while in general loudspeaker systems have become more complex. Fry specifies mainly Meyer or d&b, unless there is a rig already in the theatre. He is currently working on two forthcoming productions: the West End transfer of the stage version of Let the Right One In, which Fry describes as a play with music; and a revival by the National Theatre of A Small Family Business, written by playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn.

Let the Right One In will feature a combined d&b and EM Acoustics rig. While this version has gone back to the source ‘young vampire love’ novel rather than the just the film, Fry says in general it is difficult not to be influenced by cinema and television in all aspects of modern theatre production, including sound design. “At one time you’d have something like a Noel Coward play where all the action would take place in a drawing room and the characters would enter or leave as the drama went on,” he comments. “In the last ten to 20 years plays have been written with very short scenes that take place in different locations. It’s difficult to change sets quickly enough in those circumstances so sound and lighting have to set the scene more than they used to.”

Sound has always played its part in theatre but even as cinema proves move of a role model the luvvies must be hoping that Danny Boyle’s observation that audio is 80 percent of a film becomes applicable on their stages.