Thursford welcomes a new era of sound with d&b Soundscape.

The Norfolk village of Thursford, known for its steam engines, musical organs and fairground rides, as well as its spectacular theatrical shows, will be delivering a new, immersive sound experience with its Thursford Christmas Spectacular this year, thanks to a state-of-the-art d&b Soundscape from audio technology and solutions company, d&b audiotechnik.

Designed and installed by Southby Productions, the system features 143 loudspeakers covering the 40m wide performance stage and is – to date – the highest-resolution d&b Soundscape system installed anywhere in the world.

Having been impressing audiences with its shows for 45 years, Thursford takes great pride in its high production standards – and for 2023, it was time for a sound system upgrade. Sound designer Mark Rogers explains, “Because our room is very wide and not very high, we’ve never been able to use line arrays, so we had a distributed point source system with over 50 boxes. This meant that pretty much every audience member heard most of their sound from the speaker nearest them.”

© Southby Productions

As the shows increased in complexity, the challenge of balancing sound became more of a compromise, with some elements sacrificed in favour of others. Nor did the system allow for any concept of sound localisation – a failure exacerbated by the stage’s extreme width. Rogers recalls, “When a sound began, we could see audience members trying to work out where the thing was, and in those few seconds, the performance had lost their attention.”

Rogers, who had long been aware of d&b Soundscape, partly through working alongside sound designer Sebastian Frost, an early pioneer of the system, recalls a discussion with colleagues after working closely with Southby Productions and d&b Soundscape on an opera season: “We asked, ‘How could we ever go back to mono after this?’”

Returning to Thursford, he talked up immersive sound, hoping it would one day solve their limitations. Fortunately, the venue’s owners, the Cushing family, are firm believers that only the best is good enough. They soon gave the go-ahead for an upgrade, and the Southby team presented an on-site demonstration. “It didn’t take long to convince everyone that Soundscape was the way forward!” says Rogers.

With Jack Page from d&b audiotechnik as design lead, the team from Southby Productions, including Carys Thomas Steer, Digby Shaw and project manager James Southby, then began working with Thursford’s sound team on a design that worked for the unusual space. The result, based on d&b ArrayCalc iterations, includes two adjacent 360˚ Soundscape systems. It was installed by Southby’s crew in just two weeks, and handed over – on-time and on-budget – to a grateful Thursford team.

The system has 17 d&b Y10P point source speakers, along with 18 44S cabinets as front-fills, covering the main stage. The Y10Ps are at 2.35m intervals along the stage’s full width, making this the highest-resolution Soundscape system yet. Its two 360˚ surround fields include 22 T10 cabinets and three 4S speakers, along with a series of T10 and 44S delays. The sub array consists of 10 V-SUBs, plus four SL-SUBs (in INFRA mode) in the centre of the array. Two DS100 processors provide the power of the d&b Soundscape system.

© Southby Productions

A TiMax tracking package with 34 tags is deployed among the huge cast on this vast stage, with the ensuing complexity elegantly managed by Atlas, a new interface solution from Flamingo Software. Atlas, says Rogers, is “fantastic for controlling spatial audio in theatres” while Southby’s Head of Soundscape, Aaron Holloway-Nahum, calls it “an absolute game-changer for Soundscape.”

The master control is QLab, and the show file contains over 900 cues. Atlas also receives tracking data from TiMax and then sends the necessary OSC commands to the d&b DS100s to control object positioning, En-Space reverb sends, and other settings.

Naturally, with the endless creative possibilities comes an increased workflow and a steep learning curve.

The main change at FOH is a lot more screens! We now have Atlas, d&b R1, Waves, QLab, Wavetool, Smaart, TiMax and Reaper, as well as those in the DiGiCo SD7QT. In some ways, the operation of the mixer is simpler: previously we almost maxed out the matrix with complex routing, but now that’s all handled by d&b Soundscape… But we also use a lot more groups: there’s a group for every object send, and there is a lot of re-routing of channels to different groups/objects throughout the show.Mark Rogers, Sound designer

The newly available resolution also requires more microphones than ever before. “We used to rely on perhaps 16 on-stage performers being mic’d, which was sufficient because it was more or less irrelevant where the singers were. But with Soundscape, you can hear every mic clearly.”

He continues, “We now have up to 30 mic’d singers, increasing the already vast workload of my colleagues Ian Savage and Ed Mackay, who are also looking after the TiMax tags. We try to ensure that Tag 1 stays with Mic 1 etc – but with such a complex show, that’s not always possible.”

As well as d&b Soundscape’s En-Scene localisation capability, Rogers is also using En-Space room emulation.

One highlight is when the cast process into the aisles for traditional Christmas carols like you’d hear in Kings College, Cambridge. The En-Space Cathedral setting is gorgeous, and has had cast, crew, and audience in tears. You forget you’re in a farm shed!Mark Rogers, Sound designer

The new system has also had a positive effect on collaboration. “We work more closely and earlier than ever before with choreography,” says Rogers, “and we anticipate working more closely with lighting on sharing tracking data for automated effects, and with the music team on issues such as realism versus illusion. Our arranger and composer Jonathan Smith is also delighted, and the possibilities of the Soundscape system have already given him inspiration for new arrangements.”

The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that it’s now such a realistic listening experience. It’s almost as if the PA isn’t there at all; when we push the faders up it’s as if the orchestra simply becomes louder, with the sound emerging from its original sources – the instruments. The detail has also hugely improved, especially with the orchestra’s more subtle instruments. Also, it no longer feels like you’re trying to shoehorn 150 channels through a single loudspeaker - it’s now a pleasure to mix.Kieran Lowe, Head of Sound, Thursford
© Southby Productions

And for the audience? “It gives us the chance to engage our audience more fully,” says Rogers, “to tell stories in ways that enhance their experience, without them being distracted by technology, without their attention being diverted by an unnatural dislocation of sound and vision.”

He adds, “We’ve not made a big deal about Soundscape to our audience – it should be almost invisible to them. We’ll know we’ve done our job well if new visitors love it, and returning visitors don’t notice why they enjoyed the show more than they ever have before! And, so far, it seems to be working out that way.”

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