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Manchester Royal Exchange reimagines West Side Story with KV2 Audio

The sound was designed by Richard Brooker, and the show will be back in 2020 for another run

Manchester Royal Exchange theatre has put on a West Side Story production with the help of KV2 Audio.

The production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is the first ever not to feature Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, having been adapted for the theatre’s in-the-round configuration by Aletta Collins. The re-imagined production was directed by Sarah Frankcom and mixed by associate sound designer, Owen Lewis, with the sound designed by Richard Brooker and delivered by KV2 Audio.

“As a theatre, the Manchester Royal Exchange is brilliant because it’s so intimate,” said Brooker. “There are 700 seats, but not one is further than 9m away from the stage. However, it’s a very challenging venue in which to deliver good sound, especially for a musical, and particularly when the majority of the audience already knows every word and every note of every song.” 

Brooker has been using KV2 Audio loudspeakers since 2013 and decided to specify them for West Side Story. “I simply can’t imagine how I could have achieved the same results using anything else. One of the biggest issues in the Royal Exchange is that you’re extremely limited as to where you can put speakers, so as a designer it helps to know that the tools at your disposal are the very best and that you’re used to using them.”

Brooker’s design is based on concentric rings of loudspeakers to serve each of the three tiers of seats that are divided into seven separate blocks around the stage. There are 14 front fills sunk around the edge of the stage floor, while the main vocal system, comprised of seven KV2 Audio EX10 compact, high-output, full range active loudspeakers, is flown in a ring above the stage. 41 vocal delay speakers form part of the concentric rings to supplement the front fills and main EX10 vocal ring. “The EX10s deliver unbelievable vocal clarity and a true, natural sound,” he declared. “Combined with the front fill speakers, I can pull the image down to the stage to make it appear as though the sound is coming from the actors rather than the speakers above their heads.”

A ring of seven compact, low-profile ESD25s flown above the EX10s serves the upper gallery. “Space restrictions meant that we couldn’t put in another ring of EX10s – we had to have something physically smaller, so the low-profile ESD25s were perfect. They have the same amazing vocal clarity and natural voice as the EX10s.”

In addition to the vocal system, Brooker specified a pair of EX10s in a L/R configuration for the band system. Due to the in-the-round nature of the venue, the 11-piece orchestra is not located inside the theatre itself, but rather in a specially designed sound-proof booth in the foyer equipped with a video relay so that the musicians can see the stage and the cast can see the conductor. “The band system is completely separate from the vocal system,” he explained. “We went for a L/R configuration as we decided that we’d like to have the sound of the band coming from somewhere other than the stage as is the case for the actors, and coming from a specific place, as if the band was in the theatre with the audience. The band system also acts as foldback on stage and avoids any nasty timing issues we may otherwise have encountered.”

As a complement to the main L/R system, Brooker also provided for a comprehensive delay system based on the compact EX6 two-way active loudspeaker. He specified a total of 16 EX6s across the three levels of seating, supplemented by six wide-dispersion, under-balcony EX26s for the upper circle. Finally, a pair of EX2.5 dual 15-inch subwoofers flown up in the roof complete the design. “The result is a superbly rounded, powerful yet totally natural sound that enables the audience to lose themselves completely in the music and the atmosphere.”

Sorcha Steele, head of sound at the Manchester Royal Exchange and associate sound designer, is in full agreement. “Having worked with Richard on four previous productions here at the Royal Exchange, it’s been great to have the opportunity to build on the successes we’ve had with his system designs. In a space that can be very unforgiving with sound, having clarity in the vocals and definition in the music is hugely important, especially with the complex scores of West Side Story. KV2 Audio has been instrumental in being able to deliver that. It sits well in the space, moving between dialogue and musical numbers feels very natural and not overly processed. Overall, I think it has been a huge success and I look forward to the production returning to us again next year.”

The show will be coming back for a second run in 2020.

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