Samuel Beckett’s work reimagined in No Knife’s performance11 November 2016
Mic Pool is a sound designer who won a Tony Award for Best Sound Design on the Broadway production of The 39 Steps. His recent credits include Sherlock The Best Kept Secret, The Captain of Kopenick (Olivier, National Theatre), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Kings Speech. Pool started his career as a chorister at Magdalen College, Oxford before training in theatre sound at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London.
Once assigned No’s Knife – a journey into the soul of Samuel Beckett with piercing insight into gender identity and the human condition – Pool set about designing a sound system that would allow the production to apply a whole range of electro-acoustic reinforcement and transformation methods, utilising a seven-zone multi-channel loudspeaker system at the The Old Vic near London’s Waterloo. Effectively, he created a 7.1 surround sound design with all loudspeakers delayed individually to all seven zones. He explains: “The performance combines recordings of Beckett’s text with live treatments in various permutations. It is a very minimal design, but very detailed in some aspects needing, at times, live timing down to one syllable within a word. The intention is that there is an imperceptible reinforcement of (performer) Lisa Dwan’s voice, which travels through a range of acoustic environments. The main thrust of the design work has been developing the most transparent and accurate vocal reinforcement system achievable and a complex and reliable system for the vocal treatments.”
Coincidently just prior to the show’s two week run in late September, The Old Vic upgraded its permanent installation PA system to a d&b audiotechnik Y Series, which was supplied by Autograph Sales & Installations, and installed by Michael Paver, deputy head of sound at The Old Vic, who also mixed Pool’s No’s Knife design. The main hang system comprises six Y7Ps (two per level) and two Y Subs, powered by two d&b D80 amps. Pool says: “The Y series loudspeakers give perfect coverage for 90 per cent of the house. To ensure that there are no seats where the experience of the sound design is anything less than optimal, some seats, primarily at the extreme ends of rows and at the back under overhangs, are covered by additional time aligned loudspeaker systems utilising d&b E3s and E0s.” Martin Audio Effect 3Rs are used as surrounds and are also part of the permanent installation. There are side and rear surrounds on each of the three audience levels.
A Yamaha QL1 was Pool’s console of choice, supplied by Autograph, with all 32 input channels used. Unusually for a show with one radio microphone and back up for Dwan, both a Sony DWX Wireless systems was used with a DPA 4061 head, for minimal playback and effects. Commenting on the suitability of the DWX, Pool adds: “Lisa’s performing voice is the most musically spoken word instrument I have ever heard. When she speaks loudly it’s as loud as an opera singer singing fortissimo with no hint of shouting, and at her quietest and most intimate her voice is close to the noise floor of the analogue microphone electronics used in the recordings. The Sony DWX preserves every nuance of her performance and combined with the DPA 4061 head is one of the cleanest microphone signal paths I have heard – cabled or wireless.”
Pool (pictured) used the Rupert Neve Portico 5033 EQ emulations on the QL1, as his main vocal channel equalisers, which come as a standard feature of the QL series. He comments: “These are surgically precise and musical EQs for vocal use. The output of the EQ fed seven channels were used to route the vocal microphones to one of seven Yamaha DME64N mix processor inputs, depending on where the actor was standing on the stage, which generated individual delay times and levels for each zone to every speaker in the house. That allowed us to precisely image vocal reinforcement to the actor’s mouth for each of the 700 seats in the theatre.”
In addition, the QL1 handled outputs from FX processing and 16 channels of QLab 3 Playback. The console sat on top of a 19” rack housing the playback equipment and interfaces and only required four house seats to be removed. The remote software provided easy access to all console features and allowed Pool as designer to edit detailed aspects of the mix, while the operator concentrated on firing the system automation to sub syllable timings and controlling the levels using the DCAs.
Pool is more than happy with the acoustics at The Old Vic. “They are very good because it provides a good live first arrival of the sound direct from the actor to the audiences ears. It means the imaging of the reinforced vocal sound is very precise and stable.” He concludes: “This is a rare opportunity to work on a detailed and nuanced production of a work by one of the finest writers of the 20th Century. It is a great celebration of the musicality of the human voice and the spoken word, developing a system of purity and complexity in pursuit of a barely perceivable end result. It has required intense concentration and a willingness to strip away anything superfluous in the sound design, until we are seemingly left with nothing.”