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14–18: War story – part 2: What goes in comes out

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

In part one of this three-part feature, the team at Studio Haifax, 14–18‘s contractor for sound reinforcement, talked about the challenges of rigging up the enermous Nekkerhal; the “lightbulb moment” of flying loudspeakers from the venue roof and having moving grandstands underneath; and its Coda ViRAY inventory, the largest in continental Europe. Here’s part two!

The FOH console, a DiGiCo SD5, is located at the top of the grandstand, requiring some 350m of Optocore digital fibre cable to the amp racks and transmission equipment. “We have three main entries in the FOH desk, all 5.1, for the orchestra, the principals and ensembles and the sound effects,” explains Guido Olischlager, system FOH engineer. “The orchestra’s tracks have been pre-recorded at Galaxy Studios as there was no room for an orchestra in this landscape. The same SD5 is also used for monitoring control – the complete audio production is now handled by one system tech, and an extra monitor desk would involve extra staff.” (More to come on the recording process in Galaxy Studios in part three.)

A second challenge for Studio Haifax was to find partner companies to fulfil two other crucial elements in the sound design for the show: a reliable and high-quality wireless audio connection, and the right matrix to manage the extensive speaker inventory. “In addition to a substantial extra investment in Coda ViRAY speakers, we also decided to buy Sennheiser Digital 9000 and 2000 IEM series systems,” Begard comments.

Guido Olischlager says he opted to use the new Sennheiser 9000 digital system for a number of reasons. ���First of all, the digital system offers uncompressed digital audio – what goes in comes out. There’s no compander/compression codec like with other analogue/digital systems. [Secondly], the musical often has more than 20 people on stage, and the D9000 system has more room for the voices over the peripheral noise of the on-stage props. And, of course, [there ’s the] limited A–D/D–A conversion: the Sennheiser EM9046 receiver’s AES outputs are directly routed into the SD5 console, then channelled back to the speaker system and to the Sennheiser 2000-series in-ear sets.”

Initially, the production needed 40 digital wireless channels, but the double use of some belt packs allowed Olischlager to reduce it to 32. “We wanted to limit the number of frequencies and keep things under control, budget-wise,” he explains. “The nine principals have fixed belt packs, and some of the 23 ensemble members switch belts with children during one scene. We also need frequencies for the 12 stereo in-ears – plus the wireless communication channels, security channels and for control of the moving stage parts throughout the venue, covering a total distance of some 260 metres – and it’s the first time that we didn’t have any problems with the RF configuration … for a musical of this size.”

Jef Verbeeck, responsible for all the wireless audio connections, echoes the same enthusiasm. “The high audio quality, in combination with the sturdiness of the Sennheiser 9000 beltpacks and MKE1 microphones, is unique, and the ease of use of the Digital 9000 system is incredible,” he says. “We have a fixed spacing of just 600 kHz between every frequency for the 9000 series thanks to the minimal intermodulation. With the Sennheiser WSM [Wireless System Manager] 4.0 I have full control and overview of the wireless situation, and Sennheiser’s technical team [provide] full support during the startup.”

For Sennheiser, it was a major challenge to cover such a huge surface with wireless technology. The company’s Benelux technical team designed and developed a unique antenna distribution system allowing them to cover the whole area. “In total, we use six directional and two omni-directional antennas,” comments Christophe Van den Berghe, sales and marketing Director at Sennheiser Benelux. “Thanks to the distribution system, we’ve really played it safe to have maximum reliability.

“An extra factor was the moving décor elements on the playground – like massive metal reflectors. Knowing that Mechlin is situated in a very dense RF area… we configured the system so we can switch in a broad spectrum, allowing us to change frequencies if needed. The 4.0 version of Sennheiser WSM, used during the production, is now MAC-compatible and takes on full control of all Sennheiser wireless devices.”

In terms of wireless audio transmission, 32 channels of Sennheiser D9000 are used in combination with 32 SK9000 beltpack transmitters and 32 MKE1 microphones. The personal in-ear monitoring system comprises six Sennheiser EM2050 (12 stereo in-ear channels) together with 40 beltpack receivers (EK2000 in-ears and IE4 earphones).

Photos: Luk Monsaert