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Hats Off to The Yamaha PM1D as Fred Astaire’s Masterpiece Tours the UK Prior to West End Run

Dec,2011

The decadent world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is currently bringing its sparkling Art Deco delights to audiences across England and Scotland, in the first ever stage adaptation of the legendary 1935 film Top Hat. With some of Irving Berlin’s most famous songs alongside full ensemble tap dance numbers and perhaps the biggest collection of hats ever seen in one production, sound designer Gareth Owen chose a pair of Yamaha PM1D digital mixing consoles for this complex production.

A long-term PM1D user, it soon became apparent to Gareth that the show needed a huge channel count to accommodate all of its sound requirements.

“I like to use the PM1D for classic, older style musicals,” he says. “It sounds really good for this kind of show which, in this case, is very cinematic in its sound design. By cascading two PM1Ds together, it was also the only desk with which I could get the required number of input channels.”

The show’s high channel count stems from three main reasons. The first is that the 18 piece orchestra is all multi-instrumental. “We have a lot of different instruments,” says Gareth. “For example we have four violin players - but one of them plays the viola for some songs. There is also a point where every member of the orchestra plays percussion. The show has lots of stuff like that, which adds a lot of light and shade to the music.”

The second reason is that there are several big tap dance numbers which form Top Hat’s centrepieces, so many of the 40-strong cast have mics built into their feet and there are also a number of slope microphones in the floor. The third reason is all those hats.

“The hats were a major challenge for the sound design, without a shadow of a doubt,” says Gareth. “Every cast member wears a hat in virtually every scene. And it’s not just top hats - there are wide brimmed trilbies, big sun hats - all types that can cause real problems with the sound from hairline microphones.

“Getting a natural sound from the actors was the priority and so many of them ended up wearing several microphones. For example the leading man has two on his head, one on each foot and three different hats, all of which have a mic in them. The show’s radio channel count is huge.”

On the output side, the show has a complete A/B rig, with every loudspeaker position duplicated to ensure that there are no issues with phasing.

“With so many people on stage singing at once and the show featuring a lot of scenes with couples being very close together, I had to design an A/B rig to eliminate any phasing between the omnidirectional mics,” says Gareth. “Even the reverb sends are duplicated to keep the sound as clean as possible.”

With each orchestra member having a personal monitor, plus onstage foldback being built into the set, stage floor and roof, it becomes apparent what a complex sound design Top Hat has required. However, the PM1Ds have handled it with ease.

“We had both control surfaces throughout the production period and it was really cool to have Chris Mace, the production sound engineer, on one and me on the other, both able to quickly access anything we needed,” says Gareth. “For the tour itself we’re using just one, but using two for the design and rehearsal stages was invaluable.”

Running through to early December, the tour has received many positive reviews, with the audio team (completed by head of sound Mike Thacker and deputy head of sound Andy Yiannaki) pleased that its success has seen Top Hat booked for a run at the Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End from next April.

And then there’s the small matter of Gareth re-discovering the many virtues of the PM1D, which will also be transferring to London with the show.

“To be honest, before I started work on this production I thought that it might be my last run with it,” he admits. “But it has completely revitalised my interest in the desk. I came out of the sound design process having fallen in love with the PM1D all over again and I have completely re-thought my future plans.

“A huge part of why I’m still so enamoured with the PM1D is that it’s absolutely rock solid. When we were in production rehearsals I could concentrate 100% of my time on making the show sound good, rather than being sat at a console waiting for the sound techs to get it doing what I wanted it to do. To a sound designer, that reliability is worth its weight in gold.”

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