31 July 2014

A Palladium performance for Gareth Owen and d&b

Multi-award winning sound designer Gareth Owen is no stranger to the sometimes-fickle nature of the West End. This year he scooped the Olivier Award for Merrily We Roll Along at the Harold Pinter Theatre whilst simultaneously making the sound design for 2014’s most notable early closure, I Can’t Sing – The X-Factor Musical. However, the abruptly shortened run at the London Palladium in no way detracts from what Owen’s design achieved in the iconic Edwardian auditorium.

The mighty d&b audiotechnik J-Series is famed for its performance as a touring system for large indoor and outdoor, stadium sized venues. So it seems a little incongruous that this is what Owen chose to install in the two thousand, two hundred seat venue as he himself explains, “I believe this is the first time ever for a J-Series installation in a West End musical but from the outset it was clear that what was required was a system that could provide accuracy, flexibility and power in equal measure. The show moves from a very speech orientated beginning through to a ‘Beyonce at the Superbowl’ style ending with every conceivable audio accent between. When I originally went along to the theatre I asked Steve Jones from d&b’s Nailsworth office to come along. He is great at thinking outside the box and always brings good stuff to the table.”

The auditorium presents a sound designer with the classic challenges of early 20th Century theatre architecture: multiple balconies with deep overhangs, side boxes left and right of stage and a highly vaulted ceiling, although in this case there was a hidden surprise rigged up there, more of which later. The extensive range of loudspeakers offered by d&b allowed Owen to make very specific design choices beyond the initial choice of J-Series for main arrays. “The V-Series, both V8s and V12s were the ideal choice for the gallery, while in the centre we opted for T10s. The shape of the room requires careful and cunning use of fills and for this we went for a selection from the E-Series. It was also the E-Series that was the preferred option for the delay system: a really important part of this show - E6s in the stalls and the circle, E1s in the gallery and E3s in the spaceship – yes, a spaceship - that was rigged over audience for the finale. The result of such an array of speakers, carefully placed to bring every part of the audio experience to each and every seat in the house was that, despite the show having an undoubtedly ‘big’ sound’ we didn’t have a single complaint throughout the whole run.”

“There were more than a few boxes in this design so we took the decision to build a false proscenium to hide the speakers so as not to scare the audience, after all we had a dozen V-SUBS and a couple of J-INFRAS to cover the low end! Set designer Es Devlin did a wonderful job of camouflaging the system; in fact teamwork and collaboration were key to this production. The spaceship is a prime example of sound, lighting and set design all functioning in perfect harmony.”

Owen is full of praise for the team who supported him on the show. “Orbital Sound were our suppliers and installers and did their customary sterling job, offering support when, where and if required. Dave Palmer, who mixed ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, operated the show; his number two was Simon Brynley-Fowler; my associate sound designer was Russell Godwin and our assistant designer was Zoe Blackford. Chris Mace, winner of the PSNE award was the production engineer. From the initial ideas and first visit to the venue with Steve Jones, we developed a theory and built the system up around that. The J-Series might not, at first, appear to be the obvious choice but we wanted a system that would deliver the power we needed without sounding loud. The major advantage with a box the size of the J-Series is that it lets you do this – it combines extremely high output and headroom with d&b's customary transparent and detailed audio performance.”