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What role is audio playing in theatres and on stage?

Theatre has transformed over the last 20 years with dazzling productions requiring the sound to match

The floating stage of the Seebühne juts into the waters of Austria’s Lake Constance. The foundations of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, on the southwest slope of the Acropolis Hill, Athens, were built in 161AD. The angular Oslo Opera House emerges from the Oslofjord like a mighty iceberg. And in Cornwall, the Minack sits atop the cliffs, brooding over the Atlantic waves. Yes, there are certainly some spectacular theatres out there.

Theatre productions have also transformed into an audio and visual extravaganza over the last two decades and crowds are lapping it up. A National Theatre report in 2014 found almost twice as many people visited the theatre every year in London ­– 22 million – as those who attend England’s Premier League football. Meanwhile, the Society of London Theatre found gross sales of £633 million in 2015 for West End theatre shows, up 1.6 per cent on the previous year. It is harder to find overall figures for theatre attendance in Europe, but considering the range of shows on offer, it also appears to be a popular pastime.

With high audience expectations, the rise of outdoor theatre, heritage considerations and touring performances, audio has never been more important on the stage.

Changes and emerging trends

Ian Thomas (pictured), Allen & Heath’s install sector specialist, has spent the best part of a decade installing technical systems in auditoriums. He says one of the main emerging trends has been the uptake of digital technology and the need for installers to have in-house networking experience. He comments: “In a bid to future-proof venues for as long as possible the requirements for structured cabling, whether that be copper and/or fibre has increased dramatically. The majority of technical theatre equipment is now networked, whether that be audio, lighting, video and communication, with each of these systems requiring an increasing amount of bandwidth.”

James Kennedy, operations manager for Peavey Commercial Audio, which recently installed audio in the break-out zones at the Birmingham Hippodrome, agrees that networked audio is a major trend. “New protocols and standards, like Dante and RAVENNA are key for distributing audio cleanly over five connections, rather than lots of analogue lines. It’s better to make theatre cable-free from an architectural point of view, and from an installation time point of view it’s more economical.” Being able to connect into a system through a tablet or smartphone is also key, he adds. “From a wireless point of view, it’s important these days as people want the ability to walk around and tweak systems, rather than being in one central place.”

For Dave Haydon, from UK-based company Out Board, vocal localisation in real-time, is becoming a strong trend theatre both in London and Europe. Haydon says the TiMax SoundHub delay-matrix, either Cue-driven or with TiMax Tracker performer tracking to control is being used in shows such as Hamburg’s Disney’s Aladdin production (pictured), which recently won a European LEA award for Best Show. “The London Aladdin show which opened at the Prince Of Wales Theatre in June 2016, uses the same TiMax “source-oriented reinforcement” (SOR) vocal localisation with SoundHub and Tracker, and also uses the TiMax object-based dynamic 3D spatialisation for immersive panning of genie reveal sound effects and floating surround deep “spooky voice” effects for the Cave of Wonders scene,” he says.

Producers Stage Entertainment are also currently using vocal localisation for the European tours of Ich War Noch Niemals in New York and Polanski’s Tanz der Vampirs, which will open in Moscow, says Haydon.

James King, director of marketing at Martin Audio, has seen theatre transformed over the last twenty years especially for musicals, where he says the audience expectation of a visual and audio feast has continued to rise with each new extravaganza. “Propelled by advances in technology, the bar has never been higher and the combination of high ticket prices and social media has meant that audiences are equally quick to denounce as they are to stand in ovation,” he explains. “It’s also worth mentioning that it wasn’t until 2004 that sound design was recognised as a category in the Laurence Olivier awards and a generation of theatre practitioners have been busy leading sound design deeper into the realms of art.”

Theatre heads outdoors

The increasing popularity of outdoor theatre not only presents challenges from a technical perspective, but also for its management, as it is treated much more like an event, rather than the traditional indoor theatre production, says Thomas. “Suddenly the very controlled environment of a theatre space is removed and so many external factors have to be taken into account,” he comments.

A major influence is the weather, especially in countries where it can be unpredictable, adds Thomas. “Technical equipment requirements include being rated for outdoor use and should also be rugged and as light as possible to withstand the rigours of being rigged and de-rigged on a regular basis. Production techniques have to be adapted as natural light and background noise can distract the audience, making blackouts, scene changes and creative lighting more challenging,” he says.

Autograph Sound’s Nick Lidster knows all about dealing with the external factors of outdoor theatre as he has been the sound designer for fives years for the oldest permanent outdoor theatre in the UK, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. He is responsible for the loudspeaker design and set up for all their shows, including a six-week run of a new production of Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS) earlier this year (pictured).

“The Regents Park Open Air Theatre auditorium is very large, it is in a central London park, there is no natural acoustic in the seating bowl, it is surprisingly noisy during the summer evenings, as it is on the Heathrow flight path, there is traffic noise, various local sports activities and The Hyde Park concerts to overcome,” he explains.

“You literally can’t hear what is going on during a show if the sound system fails. My basic loudspeaker design is very large, and is based around two large drops of Martin W8LM.”

But for JCS, Lidster rigged ten MLA Compact per side and six MLX subs in a reverse cardioid design, two stacks of three per side. “This meant we could get lots of energy firing into the audience, especially at the low end, to give us that typical early 70s rock gig sound,” he says. “There was also the noise leakage issue, with local residents and park users to consider, which is why I swapped out the LM for Martin MLA.”

In terms of overall EQ, Lidster went for the rock preset, but softened it to give a more suitable, clearer sound. He continues: “We used the Hard Avoid setting to be just above the mix position, dropping off sharply just above the operators’ head. There was no bleed above the top of the seating bowl, and thanks to the cardioid subs there was no need to prevent bleed at the back of the stage either, as the level was extremely low. We programmed just a 3dB variation from front to back of the auditorium so that I had a massive and consistent sound everywhere; the show ran at around 95dB average.”

Meanwhile, the TiMax is well established for large-scale open-air theatrical productions such as the yearly lakeside Thunerseespiele, which has featured fully spatially-amplified productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, Titanic and Aida, plus even Romeo & Juliet on skateboards and stunt-bikes in a massive half-pipe stage, says Haydon.

Heritage theatres

Historically, many theatres are over 100 years old, which means heritage comes into play for installations.

Allen & Heath has helped with sound system upgrades at theatre venues such as Vienna’s Konzerthaus – opened in 1913, the Buxton Opera House in Derbyshire, UK, which began in 1903, and the The Cirkus Arena in Stockholm that was originally established as a circus in the 19th Century.

Thomas has encountered constraints due to some form of listing and says the ability to install a system with minimum disruption to the building, in terms of structural alteration and aesthetics, should always be a consideration. “Digital and networked systems are a key development in mitigating these issues as facility panels (and containment runs) can be limited to a couple of RJ45 or fibre connectors/cables, rather than the large and unsightly analogue versions of the past,” he says. “This also has the added advantage of future-proofing the building for longer and ultimately reducing costs in terms of cabling, man-power and future upgrades.”

Earlier this year, both the King’s Theatre Glasgow, which was established in 1904, and the Bristol Hippodrome (pictured), which opened in 1912 – and has been designated by English Heritage as a grade II listed building – had K-array KP102 systems installed.

Stuart Graham, Ambassador Theatre Group’s head of technical operations, which owns both theatres, was a driving force behind the audio upgrades, but said putting in a big line array system was not a good option considering heritage requirements.

At a K-array system demo at Stage Electrics’ Bristol headquarters, Graham says he was blown away by the clarity at distance and the punch from such a little box. “Add to that the size of K-array cabinets and the fact that we’re in listed buildings with narrow prosceniums and not particularly great rigging positions, we needed something that could bolt to the wall and stay there, but leave the rigging points free for touring productions to bring in their own PA,” he comments. “In some of the old cantilever theaters with large balconies, some have restricted views, there is more and more automated equipment and more and more equipment in the air, so we don’t want to be restricting sight lines anymore by putting big speaker boxes up and that’s where we get the benefit from the K-array.”

Audience expectations

When the updated production of Starlight Express (pictured top and right) opened at Bochum’s Stadionring in Germany, it featured for the first time the MLA Compact. Advertising itself as “the fastest musical in the universe” it fell to sound supervisor Riccardo van Krugten and system engineer/installation manager, Georg Hentschel to ensure the production to find a single system to cope with the fast roller skating action. “We wanted a stereo set-up for the orchestra, and a separate system for vocals, positioned above the main performance area,” he says. “This required a PA solution that would reproduce music and vocals equally well.” Another issue was the need to reduce spill and crosstalk from the PA speakers into the fast moving 25 Microport headsets.

Since the new production promised “to take audio engineering to the highest level”, van Krugten knew that the audience expectation today is far greater than it was two decades ago. He was also mindful of past complaints concerning vocal intelligibility and clarity in parts of the auditorium. Nine manufacturers were invited for two shoot out sessions of (mono) arrays rigged side by side.

To evaluate the competing systems, Riccardo prepared a file in ProLogic containing samples from the show (and other vocal recordings of different tonalities) – as well as music that everyone would recognise. “For the second half of the session we had the Starlight rhythm section and three cast members perform live from different positions on stage,” he said. “The MLA Compact never left any doubt it would handle reliably whatever kind of audio we threw at it.”

Rental stock and touring theatre

Autograph have deployed Martin Audio’s CDD-LIVE! in London’s West End production of The last 5 years at St James’ Theatre, while over at Hackney Empire, Sleeping Beauty will start this month. King comments that CDD-LIVE! is set to have a significant impact on live theatre events as it will mean fewer speakers for less hardware costs, as well as less set up time and intrusion on line of sight.

For UK sound rental specialists dBS Solutions an investment in several Allen & Heath Qu Series mixers this year, was specifically to cater to a growing need for compact touring mixers.

These were used for international touring productions of James And The Giant Peach and Red Riding Hood The Musical and key to the requirements of both productions was a ‘fly-able’ mixing solution of under 30kg. dBS provided a Qu-16 partnered with an iPad Mini and MacBook.

Director of dBS Chris Bogg (pictured) was commissioned to sound design the international tour of Roald Dahl’s James & the Giant Peach, which opened in the UK, before jetting off to Singapore, Hong Kong and the UAE. The show was a challenge –originally it was set out and budgeted as a play with some music – but then with newly commissioned music by Harry Sever, the production expanded into a full musical complete with live instruments on stage, comments Bogg. “The tour took in such a wide variety of venues from the very well equipped to places with the most basic of speaker systems. I knew we would have to take everything we needed apart from a speaker system,” he adds.

Bogg used the QU 16s USB audio and Midi, which allowed for playback directly into the console along with MIDI commands to change the desks many scenes throughout the show. “Although the desk is compact it’s full of features. I even made use of the onboard DCAs jumping cast members into and out of boys and girls chorus DCAs in the musical numbers. This worked well for the busy numbers and helped get the mix under control,” he explains.

Rental company Orbital Sound also made investments this year with theatre in mind, including in Powersoft’s X Series amplifier technology. This saw the company graduate from driving the sound during pantomime season to full touring duty in provincial theatres around the UK on the hit musical, Chicago. Orbital’s new Powersoft X8 8-channel amplifiers provided the touring production with 32 channels of amplification in just 8U.

The increasing importance of sound in the theatre is, in part, down to new and improved technologies as well as going hand in hand with the trend towards more immersive theatre, and cross-fertilisation between theatre, film and radio, Kings adds. Hopefully the audience is standing to applaud.