Theatre Sound Feature: Putting audio centre stage

An upturn in projects involving both provincial and major city theatres means that this is generally a productive period for pro-audio suppliers. But are restrictive preservation orders and an over-emphasis on tradition inhibiting the prospect of further progress, asks David Davies.

Despite ever-increasing competition for the public’s attention and income, attendance at theatres throughout the UK and Europe is at a buoyant level. While the economic gloom that pervaded the 2008-2013 period certainly had an impact, a combination of crowd-pleasing comedies, jukebox musicals and inspired revivals of more serious dramatic works – witness, for example, the rapid advance sell-out of the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring production of Hamlet at London’s The Barbican Centre – is helping to keep audiences coming back for more.

In particular, recent data suggests that the appetite of younger people for the theatre has undergone a renaissance, with a 2013 report collated by Ticketmaster indicating that 87% of 16-19 year olds were likely to attend a theatrical production – compared with 66% of 45-54 year olds. Initiatives like the Travelex cheaper tickets scheme pioneered by the UK’s National Theatre have undoubtedly played a starring role here.

But while there is plentiful evidence that audience profiles are experiencing substantial renewal, the same can’t always be said of the theatres themselves. The UK, in particular, has an aging network of venues, with many sites in London’s West End dating from the Victorian or Edwardian eras. The collapse of a ceiling at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Apollo Theatre during a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in December 2013 prompted a wider debate about the state of the capital’s theatres – but the reality is that in many cases, preservation orders and/or structural issues limit what can actually be done.

Nonetheless, within these parameters, there has been a surge in the number of upgrade projects taking place – and the good news for audio suppliers is that improving sound quality is at the core of many of them.

Market Conditions

As the founder and MD of a company with a 20-plus-year specialism in supplying and installing audio systems in theatres, Orbital Sound’s Chris Headlam is ideally placed to observe that “we are emerging from a period of drought in terms of new installations in theatres. During the downturn a venue that was contemplating spending £100K on a technology revamp would be very inclined to wait it out. But now people are starting to re-equip.”

In particular, Headlam points to healthy levels of interest from smaller London and provincial theatres – with notable recent projects including audio upgrades at the Battersea Arts Centre and Wolverhampton’s Arena Theatre – while noting that the traditional heartland of the West End “also continues to do good business for us”.

Theatres’ long-running need to accommodate more traditional productions as well as visiting musical acts and more unusual one-offs means that there needs to be capacity for hired-in systems alongside permanently installed specifications. Not surprisingly, then, this means that a lot of recent projects have revolved around networking and connectivity upgrades with the objective of ensuring that venues remain as flexible as possible.

Cabling Challenges

Nick Chmara, technical director of cabling and connectivity specialist VDC Trading, confirms the high level of demand for upgrade projects at UK theatres, pointing to recent installations at two landmark venues in London’s Hammersmith – the Lyric [see Box] and, on a supply basis only, the Eventim Apollo.

“It would be correct to say that the greatest challenge [in this area] is dealing with the intricacies of the existing infrastructure,” says Chmara. A venue like the Apollo “might have had plenty of work done but it still has its art-deco element inside, and that has to be respected”.

Minimising the visual and practical impact of cable runs is one enduring consideration, then, but that isn’t the only aspect in which “you frequently have to get creative. For example, the faceplates will often need to be as unobtrusive as possible, and that can require working very closely with the theatre owner/operator to identify the right solution.”

Chmara remarks that accommodating the needs of visiting acts can be another critical factor, as in the case of the SSE Audio Group installation of a new L-Acoustics PA at the Eventim Apollo. To accommodate “a range of options for tying into the installed fibre optic multicores” (in the words of SSE installations director Emma Bigg), SSE engaged the services of VDC Trading to assemble the HMA connectors and opticalCON fibre optic connectors that will enable quick and hassle-free changeovers.

“Cosmetics and fascias and so on are one element, but a lot of the driving force for these projects is determined by whether these venues are going to have in-house systems set up continuously, or whether they will be set up for bringing in external systems on a regular basis,” says Chmara. “For example, a venue like the Eventim Apollo is used for everything from theatrical productions to comedy and rock gigs.”

Although the company is rarely involved at present with new-builds in the UK – “I would say there is more potential for that overseas” – the current level of interest from existing facilities is “very encouraging”, confirms Chmara.

Making Life Easier

More generally, upgrade projects are often underpinned by a desire to make life easier for system operators – an increasing number of whom, it should be noted, have grown up on a purely digital workflow-based diet. For example, Headlam points to the burgeoning interest in utilising Audinate’s Dante media networking technology.

“In all honesty we have been very pleasantly surprised by how strong the demand is for Dante. It makes sense as it’s become pretty much universal across manufacturers, does what it says on the can, and the infrastructure is highly cost-effective.”

Above: Blake Addyson (left) production supervisor at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas alongside Bill Mester of StageTech and an Allen & Heath GLD-112

Some of the same impulses lay behind the now habitual selection of the latest generation of audio consoles and, in particular, their incorporation of user-friendly and accessible interfaces. Allen & Heath’s experience of the market is a case in point. “The customisable surface concept that we offer with the iLive and GLD [digital mixing systems], allowing complete strip layout changes per show, per user log-in and per scene, has gone down particularly well with theatre technicians and operators,” says Allen & Heath brand manager Leon Phillips.

More generally, physical size and ease of use are among the key requirements when theatres are selecting new consoles. “Often there are several operators driving the sound, with different levels of experience,” says Allen & Heath product manager Nicola Beretta, who adds that “scene management is another area where theatres are particularly demanding. [For example] our iLive system offers in-depth scene editing and the possibility of partial scenes to store selected parameters only, plus the ability to import scenes from visitors’ showfiles without disturbing the venue’s output patch and configuration.”

Loudspeaker selection is also driven by a need for quality, flexibility and mass acceptance. d&b audiotechnik’s head of business development and market intelligent, Henning Kaltheuner, explains: “Audio systems must be capable of covering the requirements of many different kinds of performances while still integrating visually in the building design. This again emphasises the demand for compact systems that provide a high-SPL headroom with an uncompromising sound quality. The same trend for more varying programmes in the theatres also means that touring productions are becoming more relevant to the portfolio of a venue. Accordingly, this requires that systems are accepted by the sound designers and engineers of touring or temporary productions.”

In terms of microphone capabilities, the primary objectives for theatres can be summarised as durability, consistency, quality and flexibility, says DPA Microphones product manager Mikkel Nymand.

“Many multipurpose venues must be able to meet different needs, but the demand for optimal audio experience remains,” he says. “That is why moving microphones closer to performers – and also acoustic instruments – has become more and more common, and the need for high-quality bodyworn and clip-on mics has grown so much. Earlier you needed to orchestrate the music and ensemble to fit the venue; now more is expected from either smaller ensembles or crossover ensembles.”

Closer Collaboration

While the specific layout of individual venues might herald significant logistical challenges, there is general agreement that the standard of co-operation between all the stakeholders involved – architects, venue operators, sound suppliers, consultants and so forth – is now of a more consistently high standard than it was, say, a ?decade ago.

“There is more conversation and at an earlier stage, that is true. Maybe it’s down to too many bad experiences [for theatres] in the past,” suggests Headlam.

“Nowadays consultants and architects are generally well aware of audio requirements in new buildings, often working together with the integrator towards a sensible compromise of performance and intelligibility on one side [and] architectural design on the other,” Beretta continues.

Kaltheuner strikes a tone of slightly greater reservation, though: “For the high-end installations it has become easier to have the requirements for acoustics being respected [earlier on] in the planning process. However, many venues are still too lively with very long reverb times. Sometimes this is quite useful for a manufacturer like d&b offering solutions that provide good results under critical conditions with regard to reverb times.”

Above: The d&b audiotechnik T-Series system at Battersea Arts Centre

Listing Limitations

Although venues are certainly engaging with new technology – and not just on the audio side, since home theatres and gaming are among the factors leading theatregoers to expect an evermore sophisticated visual experience – several interviewees believe that there are some longer-term questions that will need to be addressed if they are to be made fully fit-for-purpose.

“Great improvements can be made, but I think there is a balance to be struck between theatres being both monuments of performance as well as monuments to architecture,” comments Chris Headlam, for whom the primary problem can be traced to too many preservation orders that prevent venues from moving with the times. “And what’s more, it’s a bit of a UK problem; there are fewer limitations in Europe, where as a result they have a greater number of both technically superior and audience-friendly venues.”

Debate around the preservation of all manner of post-19 century architecture – in particular, the listings awarded to 1960s Brutalist concrete structures that may or may not be viewed as aesthetically desirable – means that this is only one part of a far wider conversation that needs to take place. For now, theatres can perhaps be grateful that technology suppliers and installers are thinking evermore astutely about subtle but enduring improvements that can be made within sometimes limited parameters.

Waxing Lyrical

Originally established in the 1890s but subsequently demolished before being faithfully recreated during the late 1970s, the Lyric Theatre remains one of London’s most influential theatres, hosting a wide range of dramatic productions as well as comedy performances and live music sets. Accordingly, the theatre is currently in the midst of an expansion and development programme to ensure it serves all these needs and more into the future.

One aspect of this work centres on the 550-capacity Main House, where a production of Bugsy Malone was the final cue to invest in a large-format digital console and accompanying fibre optic infrastructure, as head of sound Nick Manning explains: “I had tried out a number of different consoles over previous years, in particular during panto season, but it was the realisation that the cost of hiring [for this long run] was virtually the same as purchasing a desk permanently that provided the prompt to go ahead.”

Impressed by his experiences with various DiGiCo consoles, Manning ultimately opted for an SD10 desk and SD Rack, supplied through Autograph Sales and installed with all corresponding infrastructure, tie-lines and so on. “It basically means everything is built into the structure of the theatre so, for example, there is no need to ever run lots of multicore around the place,” he says.

Alongside this project, Manning and his team – in conjunction with long-term collaborators VDC Trading – have also been implementing a flexible audio infrastructure in a new building constructed at the back of the existing site. “There are rehearsal rooms, TV/edit suites and more, all geared towards giving opportunities to young people,” he says.

Not uncharacteristically in a project of this kind, ongoing work has revealed “the need to change some things about and bring in additional cabling”. But collaboration with VDC as well as contractors such as Base Build Services and theatre/acoustic consultants Charcoal Blue has made this as smooth a process as possible, says Manning.

Next on the agenda for Manning’s team is some work on the other primary space in the older building, the 110-capacity Studio theatre. “We really want to think about improving and upgrading that as some of the cabling is 40 years old – and frankly sounds like it too! But looking at the Lyric as a whole, we have definitely made a lot of improvements,” he concludes.