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14–18: War story – part 1: The “lightbulb moment”

On 20 April, the Nekkerhal became the platform for one of Europe's biggest-ever theatre productions – and audio reinforcement plays a key role.

Released to coincide with the First World War centenary events across Europe throughout 2014, the musical 14–18, produced by Studio 100, is currently running at the gigantic Nekkerhal venue in Mechelen (Mechlin). Its enormous stage, mobile stands, moving set pieces and an overwhelming sound and lighting set-up that takes the audience into the stupendous brutality of the Great War. 14–18 is Studio 100’s 11th musical and, as with the massive success story of Daens, de musical, which attracted over 220,000 visitors in 2008, the production company decided to continue with the creative trio of Frank Van Laecke (director), Allard Blom (script) and Dirk Brossé (composer).

One of the dominant features of the show, and a spectacle in itself perhaps, is a 1,880-seat mobile grandstand, built after a year of research and design. During the show, the moveable seating travels back and forth through the venue over a distance of 100 metres, as soldiers fight in front of the audience and the cavalry – with real horses – attacks from behind, bombs explode and aeroplanes fly overhead. A crew of 300, including some 70 actors and 23 chorists, take part in 14–18. Three kilometres of light trussing carries some 1,225 lights, while laser-controlled stage platforms move over the floor.

Pieter Begard, managing director of Studio Haifax, the contractor for sound reinforcement, says the musical’s production team opted for his company for the prestigious project because of their working experience with the Coda ViRAY system, found to offer the correct characteristics and dispersion for the size of the hall and production. Studio Haifax operates the biggest Coda ViRAY inventory in continental Europe, and the current production is undoubtedly the biggest Coda ViRAY set-up in the world.

The sound design was drawn up by sound engineers Marc Luyckx and Guido Olischlager. “Our first assignment was to design an audio configuration for the moving stands without using mounted speakers,” comments Marc Luyckx. “We looked at various solutions like miniature speakers behind the seats and individual in-ear sets for the public.”

“The ‘lightbulb moment’ was to fly all of the speakers in the venue’s roof, and then to have the stands driving underneath,” continues Pieter Begard. “Steered by a main matrix system deciding which speakers to operate, the audience would then have a full surround listening experience without even noticing the difference in audio levels when the mobile stands are moving.”

In total, Studio Haifax installed and flew 108 Coda Audio ViRAY cabinets, 18 Coda SCV-F subs and 44 12” Coda Audio G712 top cabinets in the roof of the Nekkerhal. Eight Coda Audio SCP 2 x 18” subs are installed under the stands for extra low-frequency output for sound effects like bombs and explosions, and seven front fills (Coda Audio D5s) and four (Coda Audio G308) monitors complete the speaker configuration. The FOH mix position is situated on the moving stands, with all of the cabling (audio–video–lighting) on a gigantic festoon. The maximum distance between the FOH console and the amp racks measures over 300 metres, with both connected via fibre-optics.

“The speakers are clustered in triplets, three on each row, offering sufficient dispersion to cover the whole stands,” explains Begard. “Each row consists of thee Coda ViRAY cabinets, two central flown subs and four G712 speakers. Some of the G712 cabinets are used as surround speakers for the stands, and then, when the stands move, act as extra monitor speakers for the artists on stage.

“With so many speakers, the challenge was to reduce visual hindrance for the audience – we wanted to create the atmosphere of a cinema theatre. The technical ceiling was completely painted in black, with sound baffles on the ceiling and behind the speaker cabinets.” The Coda Audio cabinets are powered by 80 channels of Coda LINUS 10 amplifiers – 14/18 is also the first event to use the new LINUS Con loudspeaker management system.

Begard believes that for 14–18 virtually every ViRAY cabinet in Benelux is being used at the Nekkerhal for at least a six-month stretch.