FEATURE THEATRE SOUND DESIGN
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From Chekhov to the
As Charlie and The Chocolate factory continues to break box office records at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, the show’s multi-award winning sound designer Paul Arditti talks with Jim Evans about his craft and his approach to this highly skilled chosen profession.
any of the older theatres you work in must be acoustically
challenging – how do you overcome the various problems you encounter?
Funnily enough, the older London theatres tend to have great acoustics. Sprague and Matcham really knew what they were doing 100 years ago. Te biggest problems are often associated with more recent theatre architecture: flat, hard, parallel surfaces and reflective, gentle, modernist curves.
I think it’s very important that sound designers consider the acoustic treatment of auditoria as part of their brief. It’s quite possible to improve the sound of a room without spending a lot of money, particularly for long runs or ‘sit-downs’ where there is time to analyse and fix things. For example, before we mounted Billy Elliot in Australia in 2007, we commissioned Arup Acoustics to help identify a long-standing acoustic problem in the circle of the huge Capitol Teatre in Sydney. Using Arup’s data, we were able to design six large acoustic panels, which we hung from the auditorium ceiling. Te panels absorbed the energy from a long acoustic reflection between the stage and the auditorium, which was being propagated and actually amplified by the smooth, concave, plaster ceiling. Te result was that vocal clarity – both amplified and acoustic – was much improved.
Mixing consoles – which do you favour and why?
Te flexibility, physical size, channel count, programmability, audio quality, plug-ins, and reliability of digital
24 June 2014
consoles are difficult to argue with. I prefer DiGiCo to Yamaha for bigger shows, as they are arguably more customisable for use with musicals, but I’m happy mixing on Yamaha kit too.
How do you decide which loudspeaker systems to use?
With sound systems that I am able to specify myself – usually rented, for commercial productions – I rarely stray from speakers made by Meyer, d&b, L-Acoustics, and maybe EM Acoustics. It’s important to be able to predict how your chosen speaker is likely to work in a new show and place, and that means having experience of how this speaker has performed in several previous installations. Here’s another issue worth
considering when choosing loudspeakers: whether it’s better to go powered or unpowered. Powered speakers may be better if there would otherwise be a very long cable run between amp and speaker. Unpowered speakers may be better if invisible cable runs are required, or if one amp channel is to power several speakers, or if there is a weight restriction.
To what extent do you rely on in-house systems?
West End theatres and Broadway theatres have no in-house equipment or infrastructure so everything is brought in for the show. Shows in subsidised producing
theatres like the National Teatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, and the Almeida, need to be designed around existing equipment lists and infrastructure. Tankfully, most theatres whose
staff are used to working with freelance sound designers allow us
Award-winning sound designer Paul Arditti. Picture: Nik Dudley
a certain amount of leeway to move speakers around. It’s very rare that we are stuck with a system we can’t customise.
How have developments in microphone technology affected your approach to sound design?
Te changes to sub-miniature mics, as used with radio systems, have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary over the past 10 years. For most musicals we are still striving for ‘invisible amplification’. Essentially we look for the smallest, most resilient, highest sound quality, omnidirectional mic we can buy, and then leave it to the brilliance of our sound number two to camouflage and position the mic on the actor’s head or body.
Do wireless systems give you much more scope?
Teatre musicals rely massively on wireless technology. Luckily, the biggest improvement over the past decade has been in the reliability of radio kit. As directors’ expectations rise, we find we need more radio mics, more in-ear monitors, more wireless loudspeakers, more communications channels, and more remote switching. We are on a continual search for more radio bandwidth.
“For most musicals we are still striving for ‘invisible amplification’.” Paul Arditti
Recent digital radio mic systems, like the Sennheiser 9000 series, have offered a simultaneous step forward and backwards. We can squeeze more channels into our available radio bandwidth, and the audio signal is less compressed, but digital pack sizes are far bigger, run far hotter, and introduce a very unwelcome extra few milliseconds of latency.
Which have been your most problematical productions to work on?
Charlie and Te Chocolate Factory, because of the simultaneous combination of fast and complicated lyrics, full musical arrangements, child actors, and athletic choreography! Really, there is only one rule for sound design in musicals, and it is to hear the words. I have learnt that sometimes, however well designed the sound system and however brilliant the sound mixer, it is impossible to make every word comprehensible. Audible, yes – comprehensible, no.
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