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Malmo motion detection: Stagetracker at the Opera

TTA system takes to the stage at Swedish Opera House refurbishment amid a number of technology firsts, including the new Sony wireless system, writes Dave Robinson.

The Malmö Opera House in southern Sweden is a most imposing building. Designed by renowned Swedish architect Sigurd Lewerentz with colleagues Erik Lallerstedt and David Hellden, the structure, which was completed in 1944, is considered a masterpiece of functionalist architecture. Forbidding and severe from the outside, once inside, the foyer offers a complete contrast with clean lines, bright, open spaces and elegant marble staircases. The auditorium was built along equally grandiose lines with a maximum seating capacity of 1,511 and one of the biggest stages in Europe: 25m wide, 25m high and a total area of 600sqm. In a word, huge.

Malmö Opera House has been in the process of upgrading its audio system for some time now, with a large part of the work being done this summer. Whilst some may have been sunning themselves on faraway beaches, technicians from Swedish systems contractor and distribution company, ARVA Trading, were working up a sweat installing a Stagetracker FX real-time performer tracking system from TTA; the first of its kind to be installed in Sweden. In fact, the Opera House has been clocking up a number of “firsts” to its name; as well as the Stagetracker FX system, it also boasts the world’s first installation of Sony’s DWX digital wireless system (used in conjunction with DPA radio mics), installed by ARVA 18 months ago.

“Our system is now digital throughout – as well as the Stagetracker system, we also had a DiGiCo SD7 console and a full Optocore optical fibre network installed this summer,” confirms head of sound, Bengt Frienholt (pictured, left with and sound engineer Jonas Johansson). “The difference it has made has been remarkable, not just in terms of sound quality but also to our workflow. The system is far more flexible, easier to use and we have more control than ever before. The biggest challenge was getting used to all the new equipment in just four weeks of rehearsals before the premiere of Les Misérables!”

So what prompted the investment in the Stagetracker system, then? “I’ve been looking at audio tracking technology for a long time,” says Frienholt. “Ever since we have been using amplification on live productions, the challenge for sound designers has been to bring the sound back down onto the stage so that the audience perceives that the voices are indeed emanating from the actors themselves and not from the sound system somewhere over their heads! In our case, this is even more of an issue given that we have such a huge stage and therefore the distance between the actors and the loudspeakers is quite considerable. Unfortunately, the systems that were available at the time were simply not workable – too expensive, far too difficult to implement, and unreliable. Until, that is, TTA developed its Stagetracker FX system. It’s very easy to use and furthermore, it is delivered with a fully integrated version of QLab’s show control software.”

Tracking the action

The Stagetracker FX system uses a combination of hardware and software to track the positions of performers on stage and apply these positions to their microphone signals automatically and in real time. Previously this was a long and difficult procedure that demanded complex calculations for an often unnatural-sounding result. TTA’s Flemming Sørensen explains: “The V4 Tracking Engine software has changed all that – it does all the difficult stuff for you. Once the Radio Eye has been installed above the stage, all you need to do is enter the height of the Eye from the stage floor. All the other parameters such as tilt angle and offset from centre stage position are calculated automatically.”

The Radio Eye detects the positions of the Turbo Tags, small, lightweight RF devices worn by the performers. Each tag must be entered into the matrix-managing V4 Tracking Engine (a one-time only process) which produces audio localisation and tracking. The Malmö Opera House currently has 16 tags and is looking to upgrade to 32 in the New Year.

According to ARVA Trading’s technical manager, Ronny Sjöstrand, the TTA Stagetracker FX is the “missing link” in the sound system. “You can make any improvements you like to a sound system – improve the network, upgrade the PA system etc, but at the end of the day, it’s still only a loudspeaker system stuck up in the roof! The bit that is missing is the relationship between the PA and the performer on stage, and that is what TTA provides. It’s about giving the performer back his voice so that it sounds as if it is coming from him (or her), even if it is amplified. However, this element has been sacrificed up to now because it was technically very difficult and expensive to achieve. However, I’m glad to say that the TTA system has changed all that and finally made performer tracking and localization accessible to everyone.”

Opera House sound engineer Jonas Johansson, who uses the system every day on Les Misérables, is in full agreement. “It’s straightforward to implement and very effective. The integration with QLab is a real bonus and adds value to both systems. We also use Stagetracker for effects, and we’ve even used it on conferences to bring the voice down to the speaker. Now we’ve got it, I don’t see why we wouldn’t use it on everything! Audiences have had a great response to the new system and have reported a direct, audible difference and an improvement to their Opera experience, which is great news for us.”