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Theatre audio: creating perfect sound in 100-year-old buildings

Phil Ward investigates new layers of audio reinforcement for the theatre and discovers the latest trends in audio tech…

Let’s hear it for Frank Matcham. Between around 1880 and 1914 he designed, redesigned or refurbished something like 175 theatres across Britain, most of which have come down to us as iconic landmarks, cultural treasures… and acoustical nightmares.
Working for Moss Empires, he gave us London’s A-list of period venues, including The Hippodrome, The Hackney Empire, The London Coliseum, The London Palladium and The Victoria Palace – all built between 1900 and 1911. For the provincial credentials, just consider The Tower Ballroom, Blackpool. Nothing Victorian or Edwardian, it seems, escaped his attentions.

Despite a hundred years of gradual – very gradual – improvement in acoustic design since those heady days of stunts and stucco, this is the hinterland of auditoriums awaiting the modern production as the industry dovetails itself in and out of them. And there seems to have been a figure like Frank Matcham for every country across Europe, meaning you can’t expect sleek Scandinavian ergonomics just because you’re no longer in Prince Albert’s backyard.

Column inches

Dealing with these spaces demands inch-perfect reinforcement, and the rental-installation sector has seized upon truly sophisticated measures only in the last few years.
It’s about to get even more sophisticated, and there may even be a fusion of column arrays and ‘immersivity’ that will change the game completely. But first, let’s find out what an old technology reinvented for the digital age is doing to tackle the nooks and crannies that older systems failed to reach.

Jamie Gosney is an audio system designer with
Stage Electrics, the UK-wide specialist installer offering sound system design for every kind of live performance space – not least theatre. For him, the Matcham paradigm is bread and butter, with a side order of knowing your onions.

“We’re currently working on a classic old Victorian theatre designed by Frank Matcham, which is a No.1 touring house but they do their own productions as well,” Gosney tells PSNEurope. “The system has to cover every level of the auditorium – stalls, balcony, grand circle, dress circle – for these productions, while allowing for the fact that a touring company will always bring in their own system. It almost has to fit into the fabric of the building so it can’t be seen, blending in with the architecture as it should do – that’s a really important criterion for me.

“It also has to cater for comedy, jazz, drama and all the amateur musicals they put on each year, which means a full system able to cope with a typical theatre orchestra. There’s a number of good products out there right now, but I’ve favoured the K-Array: it’s very discreet, really good quality… not cheap, but it does the job in hand very well. It’s powerful, and the vertical dispersion from the column is very narrow – you’re able to direct it where it needs to be and keep it off hard surfaces like the front of the balcony.”

He continues: “Equally importantly, it fits into the fabric of the building architecturally and when a touring company comes in the theatre does not have to take it down. It really is a permanent installation, meaning it’s set up and tuned properly. There are certain systems you can install that might appear to do the touring jobs as well, but when the tours turn up they expect you to take it down in favour of what they have on board – even if it’s exactly the same system! Literally, I saw this happening recently at a theatre that had the same subs as were on the truck – but we were still obliged to swap them over.”

Gosney can’t explain the politics behind this, but he is confident that for most purposes his new systems are keeping the customer very satisfied.

“We’ve done The Bristol Hippodrome, The King’s Theatre in Glasgow and The Edinburgh Playhouse, and they’re all permanently installed theatre systems designed for whatever production they need to throw at it,” he explains. “We’re being asked to take down traditional theatre systems and remove all the black boxes – point source loudspeakers mounted on the prosceniums – and replace them with small, discreet columns very often covered in an acoustically transparent material that matches their housing. You actually can’t see them unless you look really closely. It’s a process we’re often being asked to do these days, and once they’re in, the reaction is always positive: it sounds great, you can’t see it – and you don’t have to take it down because it’s in someone else’s way!”

With or without a big touring system muscling in, this generation of theatre sound upgrade is essentially a switch from point source to line array.

“Inside these column speakers, like K-Array,” says Gosney, “is a line array in the purest sense: the ones we’re using at the moment are 1m long with eight 4-inch drivers inside them, spaced evenly apart. That creates a 10° vertical beam – the horizontal coverage is 110° – and having a beam that narrow means you can fire it down the stalls across the tops of people’s heads, right to the back beneath the balcony, and stop it hitting all the hard surfaces. From that you get fantastic stereo imaging, because you’re listening to direct output rather than reflections, and fewer loudspeakers. In Bristol, there was no need for us to put in under-balcony delays at all.”

Being line array, there is also a 3dB drop-off over double the distance, as opposed to 6dB, an added bonus to the improved intelligibility. Gosney singles out K-Array’s Kobra, Python and Vyper models as particularly theatre-friendly – and the Anakonda flexible array, which literally snakes around difficult corners and edges. L-Acoustics’ Syva offers similarly narrow vertical dispersion, and Gosney is considering it for one application because of “brand snobbery” – “and because it’s difficult architecturally; most of the time they have to ground-stack, which creates sightline difficulties, so they want the same kind of discreet solution but ground-stackable.”

The number of column-style options is on the rise. Via one reseller or another, you could have a conversation about d&b audiotechnik’s xC Series; the Electro-Voice Sx600; Apart’s COL Series; the JBL CBT Series; the Tannoy VLS Series; Turbosound’s iNSPIRE; LD Systems’ SAT range; the FBT Vertus; Pan Acoustics’ Pan Beam; the Community E Series; and the Bose Panaray. Most, if not all of these, are networkable, which in theory places them in the line of fire of any type of DSP dreamed up by a research institution near you – including spatialisation, the sound reinforcement industry’s final front ear.

What goes surround, comes surround

Now let’s hear it for Martin Levan. After establishing a successful career in the studio, Levan spearheaded a reinvention of theatre sound design with a series of innovations largely enabled by his association with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the doyen of Matcham theatreland. Speaking in The Echo, the magazine of The Association of Sound Designers, in August 2014, Levan uttered these words: “Don’t fight the auditorium – the live sound doesn’t, and it is this very fusion that forms the sonic landscape, enwrapping the audience, enticing them to engage with the musical performance. Even without consciously realising it, the audience will sense their environment and be influenced by the acoustics. If your sound does not create harmony with that environment, the audience will hear its presentation as disingenuous and will not fully embrace it. Communication, the business we are in, is always a two way street and in order for it to succeed, requires both parties to willingly participate.”

The sentiment certainly echoes the thoughts of Chris Headlam, MD of London-based theatre sound expert Orbital Sound. If column arrays are helping to sign a peace treaty with the auditorium, the new generation of immersive signal processors should be the mechanism that ratifies it. Headlam has recently invested in the d&b audiotechnik DS100 Soundscape processor, not exclusively for the Matcham footprint but very much with its typical content in mind.

“The three elements to it – localisation, immersivity and room acoustics – are actually three key elements in musical theatre,” Headlam says. “It certainly addresses Martin Levan’s point about fighting the room: it’s part of the audience experience, of walking into a three-dimensional space. We’re embellishing that point with a system of the kind that traditionally has been called ‘surround sound’, but which is less complicated and less bespoke than before.

“Sitting in a space and being part of the show, as opposed to having it thrown at you from the proscenium arch, is how audiences want and deserve to experience the theatre today. Soundscape, largely thanks to its Dante-based network architecture and a 64 x 64 processing matrix, gives you that right out of the box. We’re getting to the point when you can create something where the audience is inside it, rather than outside looking in – and we as Orbital can achieve that show-in, show-out.”

Technically – and the adverb vibrates with knowing winks – the technique can be used with any networkable loudspeakers. “Although it’s easiest with d&b loudspeakers, because of the way the configuration files work,” adds Headlam. “It’s really a question of which is the best speaker for each particular application. Nobody covers everything. If we wanted something really transparent – almost hi-fi, with a very wide and very even dispersion – we’d go for something that doesn’t have a horn it in. At Orbital we believe that horns inherently add distortion. For 3D systems, we find that Flare Audio’s range works really well for precisely that reason: there is no horn. Furthermore, you don’t need very high SPLs.”

This is a regular claim of the 3D brigade and one that should bring joy to the hearts of Levan’s disciples. By distributing the programme to more discrete outputs, each element has less work to do, can maintain greater headroom and puts less stress overall on the breaking points of the entire system.

“We’ve been conditioned,” continues Headlam, “especially since line array came into theatre, to throw the sound firmly off the proscenium arch – and just about every line array is potentially over-powered for these buildings. It’s the exact opposite of the studio monitor, which is the level of precision that audiences actually expect. There are many benefits of line array – rejection of feedback, raw grunt when you need it – but we’re paying a heavy price. Martin Levan brought a studio mentality into the theatre, and we owe it to him to develop this mindset further and treat the delicacy of these spaces with the respect they deserve.”

Juke box durable

If the rock and pop stage musicals of the last 20 years are mostly responsible for this proliferation of line array, it’s because they are essentially gigs. Left behind, the arrays are used for a host of other productions passing through as well, and the habit has stuck.

“But in that journey,” warns Headlam, “we’ve lost track of the fact that the audience needs to be immersed – not ‘addressed’. It’s alien to being engaged as an audience. We’ve been sidetracked by the idea that if it’s a rock and roll show we need a rock and roll line array, but whereas it’s fine in a 2,000-capacity hangar like Newcastle City Hall, it doesn’t work in polite theatres.”

Bobby Aitken has been a designer of theatre and live performance sound for over 25 years, and runs both Bobby Aitken Associates and, with partner Scott Willsallen, a blue-sky consultancy called Remarkable Projects. For him, the technological niceties have their place somewhere behind more essential artistic criteria.

“The increase in the number of these spatialising systems right now is good for everyone in the market,” he says, “because it raises awareness of the whole issue and of all the possibilities. It’s what everyone is talking about. But I would say that my approach has changed 180° over the last 10-15 years. I used to be very picky about loudspeakers hitting targets, especially using short line arrays, but I’ve stopped worrying about it like that. On principle, I won’t use line arrays unless I have to. I do have to on many occasions, of course, but if I have to throw less than 20m I’ll use point source – and not worry too much! If we’re talking about a piece of lightly amplified musical theatre, getting one or two extra degrees here and there is not relevant.”

With ‘360’ comes tracking, if you have a dynamic narrative and the wherewithal to get it right, and this commands more of Aitken’s detailed attention.

“The last small, traditional theatre I did was The Divide, a speech and ambient music drama at The Old Vic in London,” he continues. “It was a TiMax show, the performers wore trackers and we had a surtitle board above the stage, just below the proscenium. We managed to get five KV2 Audio EX10s and EX12s up there in a line, and that was pretty much the source with a couple of boxes out wide for effects – and a small surround system for the music. With just five main sources, plus TiMax and the trackers, it was just perfect. Without the trackers you just can’t quite connect the audio with what you can see. I don’t think people would literally walk out if it wasn’t tracked, but subconsciously you get much more immersed in the storytelling.

“You don’t need to become obsessed with timing all the loudspeakers for a relatively static 360 production. The brain works it out pretty quickly – until the source moves and all the timings change. Then you need the milliseconds to be nailed. And for most plays nowadays the actors use radio mics a lot, and the plays are underscored, so by necessity you have to balance the speaking voices with the music and effects.”

Aitken believes that if the new 360 processors are solely deployed with line array elements, using the classic proscenium arch spread, their suitability for Matcham-style theatres wanes.

“If that was the case,” he says, “in most West End theatres half the audience would lose line of sight.” Apart from TiMax, his direct experience is with L-Acoustics’ L-ISA format, and it’s significant that these encounters have taken place in arenas where full line array would be the norm without it introducing the kind of ergonomic trade-offs that modern architecture ought to eliminate.

For traditional theatre, it seems more likely that compromise solutions using discreet column arrays, sharing sound-zone responsibilities on the assumption that not every seat can achieve 360 Nirvana, could creep into workaday theatres in an endless game of cat-and-mouse with the suspension of sound reinforcement disbelief. As in London’s St Martin’s Theatre, home of The Mousetrap since 1974 and designed by Matcham acolyte William Sprague, no one’s giving the game away.

“Sound is immersive anyway,” reflects Aitken. “You don’t need to call it that. And however you configure it, whatever you’re aiming for, the system must not distract you with its programming demands. The real talent lies in understanding the story that’s being told.” 

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