Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Broadcasting the sound of theatre

As the demand for live theatre direct to cinemas continues to grow, sound engineers are combining broadcast, live sound and post-production techniques.

Broadcasting is usually associated with radio and television but as a description of distributing live or recorded performances to a wide audience it also covers digital cinema relays of plays and musicals. As the demand for live theatre direct to cinemas continues to grow, sound engineers are combining broadcast, live sound and post-production techniques to retain the power of the performance and take it to the cinema audience.

In the early days of television there was the view among those developing the technology, the establishment and early broadcasters that people would not have TV sets in their own homes. Instead they would go to special venues and watch transmissions of live events, as well as scheduled programmes, on large screens. That idea was soon undermined as TVs made their way into front rooms but – 60 or so years later – there are echoes of it in live event cinema.

These relays of theatre, music or operatic performances from major venues in the UK, the US and Europe bring performances to wider audiences, usually those who can’t get tickets for hot shows – or can’t afford them – or aren’t able to get to the theatre in question.

An audio specialist in the field is SounDesign, run by Conrad Fletcher, who describes the work as a mix of four disciplines: broadcast, live sound, film dubbing and music. “It’s very challenging but ultimately very rewarding when we get it right,” he says. Fletcher worked for the BBC but began his career in sound in West End theatre and so sees what he does now as “a sort of return to my roots”.

To bring the four different strands together for event cinema, SounDesign created the Mixbus, an eight metre long, under 7.5 tonne mobile equipped with a Studer Vista 8 console in a suite that can be configured for various surround sound formats, with monitoring for 6.1, 7.1 and SDDS.

Mixbus was named Pro Sound Audio Team of the Year at last year’s PSNE Awards for its work on NT Live, the digital cinema relay of shows from the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. Last month SounDesign worked on the NT’s 50th anniversary celebration, involving excerpts from 22 plays and three musicals in a two and a half hour presentation, distributed to international cinemas and broadcast on BBC2 in stereo and BBC2 HD in 5.1. Also in March it was part of the first 4k live to cinema transmission when War Horse was relayed from the New London Theatre.

Fletcher says MADI is used “an awful lot” in this work; depending on the theatre, although he says most now use Digico consoles, it is possible to interrupt the MADI stage boxes or take a feed direct from the desk. “For War Horse we had two MADI streams and one stage box,” Fletcher explains. “We needed redundant feeds and I wanted us to run off the broadcast sync generator, so we used four DoTec MADI sample rate converters to decouple the digits and make us independent of each other.”

Microphones are necessary for d-cinema productions so that every line is heard by the remote audience but in such a way that the performance in the auditorium is not affected. “We use a combination of radio mics, plant mics, float mics and a 5.1 audience set-up as well as feeds of all effects and music mics,” says Fletcher. “The object is to make all the radio miked actors sound like they are being heard with a boom. During rehearsals a lot of effort goes into getting perspective into the mix. We have found that varying the perspective even a tiny amount makes the show more involving. Every line is hard mixed and then placed to match the shot.”

On NT shows Fletcher and his team get two rehearsals before going live to cinemas. They multitrack the first rehearsal from incoming feeds on to a 128 track MADI recording system based on Merging Technologies Pyramix. Fletcher says an important step is to watch a rehearsal at a cinema and do two to five days rehearsing “off-site” until everyone knows the show.

Ian Sands is another leading exponent of audio for live theatre broadcasts. Already known as a sound recordist on TV drama and feature film productions, Sands has worked on a number of theatrical events for production company Digital Theatre in recent years, including the Olivier Award winning Merrily We Roll Along (pictured), Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Don Giovanni. His approach is to watch each play, have discussions with the theatre crew and then record three performances.

Instead of using a mobile, Sands and his crew usually build a control room in the theatre, based round an Allen & Heath iLive series console connected to JoCo Black Box or SADiE XRX recording systems. Sands agrees that there has been a considerable shift to MADI but says audio over IP systems, notably Dante, are “coming along as well”.

The productions Sands has worked on have called for in the region of 28 radio mics, plus effects play-in, music (if necessary) and an audience mix. “We do ISOs of everything, sometimes ending up with around 55 tracks,” he says. “From the recordings we can repair anything if the performance is going to post-production. We can also do something like ADR in TV drama or film, where, if a line has been obscured in performance, we get the actors on stage without an audience and run through the dialogue without any action to get a replacement,”

Sands comments that on some productions the channel count is over-specified to ensure all the words are captured clearly and cleanly. “For Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman [in 2011] with David Morrissey there were only 14 actors but 25 mic channels on the desk because there was a lot of doubling up with people playing more than one role,” he explains. “In that case we allocated faders to each character rather than the individual actor, which made following them easier.”

For the audience the result of all this effort is a cross between watching television and going to see a movie; the performers may perhaps feel the same nerves and trepidation as their predecessors in early TV when most shows, including drama, went out live.