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Theatre beats the downturn

Despite financial pressures, theatres are investing in new audio systems and are increasingly aware of the challenges presented by the forthcoming spectrum changes. David Davies reports.

The onset of a global economic recession might be expected to deal a hefty blow to consumers’ disposable income and hence their spend on entertainment and leisure. But one of the most intriguing aspects of the current slowdown is the extent to which the live performance business – not least theatre – has retained its lustre.

Buoyant attendance figures in theatreland ‘hubs’ such as Broadway and London’s West End have dominated the discussion, but interviewees for this feature also reported robust regional and smaller city markets in Austria, China, Germany, Italy, Russia, Scandinavia, Spain, the UK and the US. While levels of state subsidy clearly have a fundamental influence that is subject to country-by-country variation, the sector does appear to have emerged from the maelstrom relatively unscathed.

Everyone who spoke to PSNE indicated that audio has risen in importance in the theatre world during the past five years. Console manufacturers cite strong demand as the move towards digitisation continues apace, while loudspeaker specs are also a popular target of upgrade spend. The one segment that continues to be the subject of patchy business is wireless systems, where long-term uncertainty over the implications of spectrum reallocation has led some to delay new investments – but even here enquiries are now beginning to pick up as the future for PMSE (performance making & special events) users becomes more certain.

Meyer Sound’s director of technical support, John Monitto, observes: “Audio quality standards have definitely improved – as technology gets better, the expectations increase. Whether theatres can afford to upgrade to meet audience expectations is another subject.”

For every observer saluting the resilience of the theatre market, there has also been a critic ready to take the sector to task for ‘playing it safe’ and relying on musicals and big-budget revivals to pull in the punters. But while the likes of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s much-publicised Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies (sound-designed by Mick Potter and making extensive use of DPA 4061, 4066 and 4088 miniature mics, incidentally), have undoubtedly set the cash-tills ringing, more taxing fare can also do the business: the latest production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has enjoyed two extended spells in central London.

Focusing on the West End, Autograph’s Duncan Bell says that there has been a “huge diversity” of shows in the past few years, with overall quality “as high as it has ever been”. Moreover, “if there are people who are genuinely saying ‘I can’t afford to go the theatre’, their places may be being filled by those who think ‘I can afford to go to the theatre but not to Majorca for half-term’.”

In all honesty, theatre has always relied on a judicious blend of the crowd-pleasing and the challenging, and a shift in favour of the former is to be expected in a time of financial uncertainty. “This is the biggest economic downturn since WW2,” says Orbital Sound MD Chris Headlam. “Those who criticise the industry for being conservative are missing the point. Ensuring that theatres stay full is the crucial part.”

Not only does this mean that theatre staff and actors stay in work, it also ensures that a steady stream of investment in theatres’ technical infrastructure can continue. While most West End venues rent in equipment for specific productions in line with the requirements of sound designers, directors and producers, many regional theatres have permanent specs that are the subject of formal renewal programmes and ad hoc upgrades. But even with the present uncertainty, new spend has continued – these days, the customer pretty much demands it…

“People have better sound systems [at home], so they want to see higher standards with regard to audio, visuals and effects,” says James Gordon, MD of DiGiCo, whose SD8 and SD9 consoles are expanding the company’s presence in the regional theatre market.

“Audiences are used to listening to Blu-ray DVDs in 5.1,” says Headlam. “The sound of a Christmas panto has to be at West End standards – it’s not a tacky process anymore.”

So, how are these expectations manifesting themselves in terms of core audio systems? Loudspeaker-wise, there is an ongoing trend, says EAW Europe’s Moray McMillin, in favour of “addressable, networked, self-powered systems, [while] demand for line array still seems strong. Responding to these developments, EAW brought out the NTL720 (very) compact line array two years ago, and since then we have added the NTS250 companion 2×15” self-powered, addressable sub.”

In addition to noting the popularity of its smaller Ultra Series products, Monitto says that theatre producers are increasingly pursuing “more immersive audio. We have seen a growing interest in implementing Active Acoustic Systems (like Constellation) in theatre shows that can stay in a single state or vary depending on the scene’s requirements.”

For providers of stand-alone amplification, the onus is on enabling greater power from fewer boxes as theatres seek to deliver more impactful sound – but without incurring additional energy costs. Powersoft business development manager Thomas Mittelmann says that “with musicals and other performances at rock ‘n’ roll levels on the programme, most houses need ever-increasing output power with proper headroom. Our trademark ‘Green Audio Power’ is based on the fact that Powersoft amplifiers are extremely efficient, meaning they draw much less power from the AC mains, and this results in a significantly reduced electricity bill – without any trade-off in performance or reliability.”

In line with developments elsewhere, console manufacturers report a continued and accelerating migration towards digital systems in theatre, although Cadac’s Bob Thomas points out that “it is still a mixed world out there. Certainly, the market is in transition, but the level of enquiries for analogue consoles is still very good. We continue to produce about half-a-dozen big analogue desks for theatres each year, and expect that to be the case for at least the next 3-5 years.” Thomas nonetheless admits to being “very interested” to see what impact Cadac’s S-Digital console has on its analogue sales when the much-anticipated desk is launched, probably later this year.

Where digital desks are being specified for permanent installation in theatres, it is often as part of a fully integrated, networked solution that may take shape over an extended period, with further pieces of the jigsaw being added as and when funds allow.

Soundcraft Studer’s VP of marketing, communications and product management, Keith Watson, says that the group has seen increased interest from this sector since it implemented a new, functionality-focused theatre strategy two years ago. “Theatres are becoming increasingly sophisticated and [are using] networked systems to enable not only system control across Cat5 and optical communications, but also [to deliver] feeds to broadcast, podcast and recording facilities,” he says. “For example, in Germany, we have implemented protocols including Optocore in response to demands from installers.”

“Theatres may not be able to invest in all aspects initially, but when they settle on an LS9 or M7CL, it is with the knowledge that they will be able to tackle the rest of the infrastructure,” says Yamaha Commercial Audio UK deputy general manager Karl Christmas.

Carey Davies, design specifications manager at Allen & Heath, also puts investment in digital desks into a broader context. “The ‘console’ has in fact become one of many control options in a distributed audio and control network centred around our DSP mix ‘brain’,” he says. “Venues need little convincing of the benefits of seat-saving small footprint, on-board processing, distributed control options, single cable networked audio, integration with other systems, memory recall and operator access security. What is still the harder message to get across is that the seemingly high price of digital systems easily offsets the cost of the bulky outboard racks and heavy traditional cabling it eliminates; a real financial advantage.”

As part of theatre’s embracing of the digital domain, there is also growing interest in sophisticated show control, playback and matrix systems. Out Board is among the beneficiaries, and reports a steady increase in business from the theatre market, driven by its two latest launches: the TiMax2 Soundhub multichannel delay matrix system & playback server and the TiMax Tracker radar show controller for tracking actors and performers. “For many years, people with larger stages have been trying to get things to sound authentic with regard to the visual position of someone on stage conflicting with their sonic position. TiMax Tracker allows them to do that easily,” says Out Board director Dave Haydon, adding that Scandinavian countries continue to be among the most enthusiastic early adopters of new audio technology.

As indicated in the introduction, the one area that has suffered in recent times is wireless technology. With PMSE sector access to UHF spectrum subject to considerable change on an international basis, it is understandable that some theatres have opted to delay spend until the outlook becomes more certain. Manufacturers and representative bodies such as the BEIRG Pro Users Group and APWPT (Association of Professional Wireless Production Technology) have sought a fairer deal for PMSE over many months of campaigning, and with tangible results. For example, in the UK, the PMSE sector now has guaranteed access to Channel 69 until mid-2012 and is sure of its eventual destination (Channel 38), although the extent to which the government will help with the costs of replacing redundant equipment remains unclear.

Apparently encouraged by recent developments, theatre personnel are demonstrating a greater willingness to purchase new wireless systems. Sennheiser UK business development specialist Alan March says that a change in mood was palpable at the recent PLASA Focus: Leeds event. “There was more interest [in new system purchases] than I had expected. Some people seemed to be happy to plough ahead and replace worn-out equipment, while others wanted to see what the outcome of the compensation scheme might be,” says March, who expects Sennheiser to introduce a Channel 38 version of its G3 wireless monitoring system by mid to late summer.

Whether or not theatre staff move quickly to replace equipment that will be rendered obsolete in the not-too-distant future, at least there is now general recognition of the changes to come.

“Certainly the West End and larger touring productions are aware of the current situation and are already investing in future-proof products,” says Peter James, managing director of Shure Distribution UK.

“I believe that the level of awareness, in both the subsidised and commercial theatre sectors, is high at the technical and executive levels,” says Peter Roberts, a freelance theatre consultant who represents SOLT (Society of London Theatre) and the TMA (Theatrical Management Association) on the BEIRG Steering Committee. “This is due largely to the efforts of BEIRG, SOLT and the TMA [in] ensuring that the information has got out into the industry and to the industry’s backing of their efforts, [as well as] the active and public
backing by senior management from both sectors.”

AKG Acoustics’ VP marketing, Alfred Reinprecht, says that “theatre operators/tech managers [have been] very aware of this changing process for years now” and are “fighting for their ‘own’ frequency spectrum areas for professional wireless applications”. AKG has addressed changes with a host of product developments, including the DMS 700 digital wireless system with “a very large tuning range” and new frequency versions of premium wireless systems such as the WMS 4500 and IVM 4.

implemented by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), HME’s pro audio sales director, John Kowalski, says that “some of the smaller market operators are aware of the overall issues, but may not know specifics other than [that] their wireless microphone, intercom and in-ear monitor systems may be operating illegally. Many users have prepared by removing, replacing or modifying equipment that operated above 700MHz, and some are still waiting to hear about someone else being cited or fined by the FCC before they take action.” As for its own product range, HME has only had to make relatively minor modifications to accommodate the changes and notes increasing adoption of its DX Series of Digital Wireless Intercom systems, which allow users to operate outside the UHF spectrum.

Despite the many areas in which theatres are investing in audio systems, there is some feeling that audio can still be perceived as a lower priority than other areas of the technical infrastructure. Midas Klark Teknik brand development manager Richard Ferriday – who describes theatre as “a key growth area” for Midas – says that “transparent audio reproduction is essential to complete the illusion; however, catering for the visual senses typically [gets] top billing when it comes to the production budget.” The way ahead, suggests Ferriday, is for theatre audio equipment and personnel to be “flexible, faster and smarter.”

He cites an example in Turkey, where a Midas PRO6 has been installed into the new Muhsin Ertugrul Sahnesi, one of 11 state-funded theatres in Istanbul. It is hoped eventually all 11 will be equipped with PRO6s, facilitating the transfer of shows. Infrastructure is also in place to network the PRO6 to a Midas XL8 and PRO6 in the Harbiye Conference Hall next door. “This theatre is a benchmark for Turkey, and will allow far more complex productions than previously possible,” says Volkan Konuralp from Midas’s Turkish distributor Atempo.

But while audio may sometimes lose out on new investments, it’s clear that the sector is prioritising theatre more than ever before. The ABTT Theatre Show has seen audio representation increase by 90% since 2000, while Lab.gruppen, Nexo and Roland UK are among the major companies making their ABTT debuts at the 2010 event, which takes place in London this month.

All concerned may need to hold their nerve over the next few years: theatre budgets could be on the receiving end of cuts as governments seek to plug their colossal budget deficits, while
cognitive devices also threaten an unwelcome coda to the current spectrum debate. But to quote the oldest theatrical maxim of all, the show must go on – and doubtless it will.