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Yamaha PM1D desk in a class of it’s own at high school musical

Jan,2009

Despite a general atmosphere of doom and gloom currently surrounding the British economy, the determination of some media commentators to talk ourselves into a recession is proving, in some cases, to be rather wide of the mark. Unfounded stories of theatre productions closing ‘due to the credit crunch’ are one example of this, which are doing the live production industry no favours whatsoever.

Fortunately, however, the reality is that many live productions are continuing to do excellent business in the UK market. Proof, if any were needed, that you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers.

One theatre show which is continuing to do spectacularly well is the UK touring production of High School Musical. The stage version of the Emmy award-winning television phenomenon is appealing to just as large a percentage of UK ‘tweenagers’ and their parents as its American counterparts.

The production company for Disney Theatricals is the UK branch of Stage Entertainment. Based in Amsterdam, Stage Entertainment employs around 5000 people worldwide and produces many highly successful theatrical shows. With head of UK Production Adam Speigel being well respected for applying his talents to shows such as Fame The Musical, Saturday Night Fever, Dirty Dancing and the multi-award winning Hairspray, the production of the High School Musical tour couldn’t have been placed in better hands.

“We’re in the enviable position of having had extremely high audience sales to date, typically mid to high 90’s as a percentage. We’re also seeing excellent pre booking for the next six months ahead,” says company manager Eamonn Byrne, veteran of a long list of West End shows and musical tours.

“The tour, which started last Christmas, was originally scheduled to go out for six months but currently we’re contracted until July ’09. And I see no reason at the moment why it shouldn’t continue well into 2010.”

He continues, “Since I joined the company, the thing that’s struck me most is the extremely high production values right the way across the board. The quality and size of the cast, technical departments, set, choreography and music is very impressive.”

VERSATILE

High School Musical is a show in which, perhaps more than most, high quality sound is critical. The songs are memorable, the audiences know them and they want to sing along. But, as sound designer Rick Clarke notes, there is still a story to be told and so the system has to be both high quality and versatile.

“There were a number of challenges to designing the audio system,” he says. “Obviously, because it’s on tour, it needed to be a very fast rig to set up and break down. So there are no delays, all sound is from the proscenium or an overhead cluster.

“But the biggest was really designing a system that could handle a show where the noise from the audience is routinely hitting 106dB at front of house, yet keeping the sound within sensible levels because it’s a young audience. That is a very fine balance we had to strike. You want to keep some dynamic integrity in it, without being overly loud.”

Supplied by theatrical sound specialists Orbital, Rick specced a Yamaha PM1D console at front of house, with a d&b Q series PA. 32 Zaxcom head-mounted radio mics with DPA capsules are also utilised, while the nine piece band comprises two keyboards, two guitars, bass, drums, percussion, trumpet and sax. The PM1D supplies feeds to individual Aviom mixers for the musicians’ monitors.

“In order to bring some subtlety to the piece while the ‘story’ is being told, I designed it to be mixed with a narrow sound spread for those parts, but then the mix goes much wider for the songs, where the audience is all joining in,” says Rick.

“The wider image gives the perception of louder levels, but it’s not necessarily the case. To achieve that there are a lot of panning and time parameter changes, so I wanted a digital console which allows all those parameters to be changed with a single button press.

“Given the arduous tour, the console also had to be extremely reliable, so for me the PM1D was the only choice. And, of course, all the EQ and processing is built in, which helps to speed up installation and removal,” he continues.

“The digital desk also means a smaller footprint, so the venues can sell more seats. You do actually get promoters ringing up, saying ‘We’ve sold all the seats, can you move the sound desk?’.”

Effects-wise it’s not a particularly complex show, but there are key moments where the sound team - Damian Teasdale, Olly Steel and Seeta Mistry - have to be really on their toes, for example the scene with a basketball drop.

“The basketball drop sound effect has to coincide precisely with the actual drop. There’s no cheating on that, it has to be triggered manually by the operator,” smiles Rick.

“We did think about bringing in some vocal augmentation for the big, end of show number, as the cast are getting tired by that point. But we decided against it. The company can sing, so we thought we’d let them!”

GRUELLING

With a touring company of 56 - 31 cast, nine band members and 16 stage / technical crew - putting on the show in no less than 31 UK towns and cities, the tour is a major undertaking and it’s a gruelling schedule, with very little margin for error. But Rick Clarke’s sound design has mitigated as many of the variable factors as possible.

“The sound system has been put together so well that we’re pretty much prepared for anything,” confirms Olly Steel.

“The venues vary dramatically in size and shape and, such is the speed of turn around, that we have to make decisions very quickly during get in. We usually do the get out on a Saturday night, travel what could all day on Sunday to the next venue and then start the get in at 8am on the Monday morning. By the afternoon we’re sound checking and ready for the curtain to rise at 7pm. All this happens pretty much non stop throughout the tour.”

To help maintain the integrity of the sound design, Rick Clarke has appointed two production engineers for the get in at each new venue.

“Once we’ve set up the sound system, we use Smaart Live to time align the PA. We then hook up the Yamaha Studiomanager software to the PM1D and remotely access it via our Reco tablet PC,” explains Damian Teasdale.

“This allows the production engineer to walk around the venue and make fine adjustments to the system even after the first performance has started and the audience is in. It means I can concentrate on operating the show - and with 83 inputs and 46 outputs I need to keep pretty focused.”

All of this highlights the sheer commitment that has gone in to the High School Musical tour, which is all helping - in contrast to the head shaking of the doom-mongers - to make it such a huge success.

“The level of commitment that the whole crew shows is great,” says Damian. “At the end of a hard week and a get out, you can be driving for 10 hours the next day, sleep in a strange bed and then be up at seven the next morning to do another week all over again.

“Exhaustion does creep in but everyone stays focused with the aim of putting on a good performance. When the audience starts screaming at 110dB, I know we must be doing something right!”

Company manager Eamonn Byrne agrees. “I think it’s fair to say that this show could have gone out as a much smaller production and we would have still sold tickets. But the huge success we’ve had is proof that with the right product and the maintenance of high production values it’s still possible to have a hit show.

“People still want to be entertained and, as my predecessor Robin Francis used to say, the kids that come to see this show today are the theatre audiences of tomorrow. If we capture their imagination now, we’ll help to lay the foundations for a far better future in UK theatre.”

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