Interview: production sound engineer Chris Mace

You are working on the production of Memphis at the Shaftesbury Theatre at the moment. What was the concept for this?

With the style of music it needs quite a large PA, a lot of big speakers, a lot of sub, and a lot of energy in the room.

Are there any big issues presenting themselves?

Space is probably the biggest issue with this theatre. It’s a tiny theatre. It’s nine metres wide by nine metres deep so it’s quite a small stage to try and fit moving bits of set and a lot of stage monitoring. The band’s on the stage as well.

What is the basic setup – mixers, monitors, mics, and speakers?

This one is an Avid VENUE at front-of-house, an Avid VENUE on monitors, a d&b V-Series on the pros for all three levels, a d&b V-SUBs sub array, T10 centres, J-INFRA subs downstairs, a sub array downstairs, and then 120 small d&b speakers throughout the theatre.

What’s been your favourite project of the last 12 months?

Probably I Can’t Sing. That was something we could really get our teeth stuck into with the complexity of the sound system that was there and the sheer volume of it. It was something like 280 amp channels and 360 speakers so it was something you really had to plan. There was no margin to really screw up on that one. If we got ourselves in a tangle with that many speaker lines and amplifiers we could have been there for weeks sorting it out.

What did winning the Best Theatre Sound award mean to you?

To be honest I’m a bit shocked by the whole thing. It’s not very normal for someone in my area of work to be nominated for an award; it’s usually the more creative types. I try to work with the same people and I think it means a lot to them as well, to be recognised with the work that we all do on different jobs.

How do you overcome the various problems you encounter from the acoustics in the theatres?

It’s very difficult in the London theatres because of all the architecture, the plasterwork, and the marble work. Generally these kinds of theatres do have fairly good acoustics because they were built for doing sound without any amplification, but a lot of the European theatres aren’t built like that and they are more like factory buildings turned into theatres. It’s very easy to say, “We want the whole roof acoustically foam tiled, we want drapes hanging here,” a bit like they do in arenas with drapes hanging up to dilute a lot of the reflections in the building. But English theatres you can’t really do much anyway. If it sucks, it sucks. You have to stick with it and you have to do whatever you can with your speaker positions to make it as unreflective as you possibly can. Europe’s the best place. Just do what you want.

Mixing consoles – which do you favour and why?

We pretty much only stick with the Avid one for musicals and we’re all just looking forward to the new Avid S3L-X.

How do you decide which loudspeaker systems to use?

We tend to stick with d&b because we’ve had great success with d&b. We’ve never really made the move over on to the Meyer side and it’s all about ‘stick with what you know’. Depending on the size of the show, depending on the style of the show music-wise, depending on the theatre size, they have a good range of line array systems from J-Series down to T-Series, and now with the new Y-Series there’s a bigger range, there’s four different speakers to pick from for the main arrays. And small speakers, well whatever fits in the hole basically, whatever’s not too intrusive on the ceiling, but mainly d&b again because matching the small speakers to the big speakers makes our life a bit easier.

Which have been your most challenging productions to work on?

I think most of the gigs in Europe. There’s a big culture difference between the ways some of the European countries do theatre in comparison to us, so you have to be very careful about not upsetting everyone as soon as you walk in because they’re not doing it the way you want them to do it. There’s a potential three-month stint in Brazil; January, February, and March on a show. It’s not confirmed yet. That could be challenging again. The language is not such a problem in countries like Holland but certainly Brazil could be a problem. The European ones are more challenging, but they’re challenging in different ways. They’re challenging more on a personal level because you’re working with people that you don’t work with normally. In London I think the challenge is the difficult working environment in the theatre, the amount of people and the amount of equipment that’s here.