Since opening at Newcastle’s Northern Stage back in March, The Last Ship has been garnering acclaim across the board. Based on the new book by Lorne Campbell (the original book was written by John Logan and Brian Yorkey), the show features music and lyrics from Sting, which draw on the artist’s personal experiences to tell the story of two childhood sweethearts set to the backdrop of the collapse of the shipbuilding industry.
The production itself is equally revealing. Sound designer Sebastian Frost has engaged with Soundscape, d&b audiotechnik’s signal processing technology (with two optional software modules: En Scene, a sound object positioning tool; and En Space, which allows designers to add room emulation of reverberation signatures particular to any given space, real or imagined) and harnessed it to his own vision of how musical drama should be experienced.
“d&b had a quiet word in my ear about Soundscape 18 months ago”, said Frost. “Then at the invitation of Wigwam I went to hear a demo in Hall 14 at d&b HQ in Backnang about a year ago. The experience was inspirational because the main thing you want from any system is for it not to restrict you in anyway. Currently there is a great deal of chatter in audio circles about creating immersive experiences or 3D sound environments, that’s not what’s happening here. What I heard was much more than simple panning or delay of sound; you were not just placing sound objects in specific places. This was a more scientific approach; the creation of a sound field within which the creative possibilities appear unrestricted.”
Recognising the demands of musical theatre, d&b arranged an appropriate demonstration. “The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham is a typical multi-level theatre, whereas Hall 14 was a full 360-degree environment,” Frost continued. “Having the opportunity to play around and see if we could combine Soundscape with a more conventional proscenium-style deployed system was ideal. What was immediately apparent was that as I went into the theatre it had the same effect I’d heard in Backnang; that the sound field is opened-up to the entire audience.”
Beyond his own endeavour to open the sound field to the entire audience, The Last Ship presented Frost with a second justification for implementing Soundscape.
“When I sat with The Last Ship designers, 59 Productions, and director Lorne Campbell there was one aspect of Northern Stage that affected everything. The stage is wide and not so high. They wanted a clean line to stage so they could use full height and width to accommodate large scale scenic video projection. Typically, they would have used a line array system, but that wasn’t a realistic option with the projection – the intrusion of line arrays was unacceptable. That’s when I saw how Soundscape would be a perfect alternative.”
As well as installation of multiple loudspeakers throughout the auditorium, the technical parameters of Soundscape require a horizontal array of discrete sound sources across the top of the stage. While these can be line arrays, its also practical to use point-source loudspeakers, which is where Frost saw the advantage, as Northern Stage’s production manager Chris Durant observed: “We have six d&b V10P on the proscenium, each laid horizontal with the horn rotated to present the 110 degrees wide dispersion. Six Y10 are down the room on the delay line, and there are 12 front fills. The subs are tucked away up on a bridge above the audience. We would normally struggle here with loudspeaker positions with relationship to lighting positions and sightlines, and in this case, we have scenic projection to consider. But nothing intrudes. At most there are the E8 front fills across the stage, but that’s it.”
One of Frost’s more imaginative uses of Soundscape was to create phantom loudspeakers using the zoning function within En Space, creating the auditory illusion that a loudspeaker is radiating sound from a position where no loudspeaker exists.
With direct support from d&b, Stage Sound Services, the contracted audio supplier, took Frost’s design concept, made the Array Calc assessment of the auditorium and installed the system with Frost’s production engineer Owen Lewis assisted by Durant’s house team.
“The system went in quickly and easily and sounded good the moment we turned it on.” said Frost. “This proved advantageous, as with Soundscape EQ works in a different way; thinking about how boxes work together in a traditional design makes no sense. Because it sounded good from the off we were able to experiment and play around with the creative elements. Having the freedom to put the band where you want proved highly advantageous; here they were physically positioned off stage left, but for most of the show I have most of the instruments placed around the stage as a whole. When you consider how the band’s physical position will alter venue to venue, being able to do that is fantastic. And it is great for the audience as they have a sense of the soundscape, the positioning of all the sound information as you have determined you want it to be heard. This idea that you are within a sound field presents a different listening experience for the audience. Normally if you sit in the front rows close to the front fills what you hear is a simple mono source; tilt your head to one side and you hear the same thing from another speaker close by. Not with this system. Relative to where you happen to sit each loudspeaker is delivering something subtly different, but as a listener you are completely unaware; tilt your head to one side or the other and the loudspeakers are completely undiscernible.”
Frost continued: “There are thousands of positioning cues, maybe 10 times as many as an average musical. Without the 4.2 beta version of QLab managing that would just not have been possible. The analogy with lighting holds; I had to say to the actors, ‘your positions on stage are really important, we do need you in the same place at the same time.’ However, we don’t want to straight jacket the actors and once Joe [Sound No.1] had comfortably passed the point where he felt he needed to have his head in the book, he found instead he could keep his attention on the actors and cue to them – so they had some freedom.”
Frost also used the En Space function to great effect, most noticeably for an intimate scene between two actors placed within a video projected medieval stone built chapel, producing a distinct reverberation that appeared to emanate from that space on stage. He also added subtle hints of ‘location’ reverberation to voices appropriate to the projected surroundings.
Joe Green, who programmed all those cues into the desk, agreed with Frost’s analogy: “You spend more time watching the actors on stage to be sure they are where they should be. The cast get it, the blocking is no longer just visual: it’s no longer the case that if you miss your mark you will be stood in the dark, miss your mark and you won’t be in your sound. That’s helped by the fact that the cast hear themselves as the audience do, its self-monitoring. They are not subjected to hearing a power-alley come back at them from the room. In terms of programming the show, it’s about the same as any musical; the challenge is for [Newman]. As the tour moves arounde his gig is about updating cues, especially when entrance points change.”
Newman was unconcerned: “For set-up, you will spend less time listening and setting the delays – that process of moving around the auditorium trying to blend the transitions between different elements of the system – than you would with a conventional PA. Instead you will spend a bit more time at load-in actually getting it set accurately in the positions plotted in ArrayCalc.”
“That is true of all system design,” said Frost. “But getting it right in ArrayCalc means that when Soundscape is ported into R1 and then to the system we have little to do. Normally with something like the coupling of the low-mids, you look at one box and it produces a certain result. Look at the whole horizontal array and when you measure it you get another result, and then you have to go back and work through them till the system responds as you want. With Soundscape, once it was in that all became straightforward. The audience don’t necessarily know what has happened, but everyone comes out saying the voices are fantastic. It has changed the possibilities of sound design throughout the genre.”