A few thousand people were lucky enough to see the run of Danny Boyle’s award-winning Frankenstein at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank two years ago. That show, for the record, employed a Funktion One system to carry Underworld’s “deep, dark, death-like” soundtrack.
But everyone who has ever seen a production at the Olivier – the largest of the NT’s three venues – will have encountered the Frankenstein’s monster that is the in-house PA system. Ed Ferguson (pictured, centre), head of sound for the Olivier, was responsible for wrangling the beast.
“I inherited a system that had grown organically – [Meyer] MSL2s and 650s for music, and a mixture of d&b E3 and E9s as a vocal system. Tannoy and Duran Audio were in there too for surround. The way that grew is, you’d find holes in the system and buy items on a show budget to ‘Polyfill’ those holes.”
A roll-over on the NT’s capital expenditure two years ago meant the sound team had the budget and the opportunity to revisit the Olivier’s design and replace it with something that was not created from a hybrid of parts.
This upgrade project has been split into phases. First in was a new EM Acoustics PA to replace the “mish-mash” of stage and surround speakers. “On-stage speakers are used for anything from spot FX to giving focus to vocals or music,” says Ferguson. The boxes vary from the 5” compact EMS-51 to the 15” EM152, all powered by Lab.gruppen C Series amps.
But, says Ferguson, the upgrade stalled when it came to the bigger ‘vocal and music’ system, because of the greater budget commitment.
Initial design considerations led to a number of demos to explore whether the concept of a line array would work in the theatre.
“And it was such a headache, because in the Olivier we had to find a system that would satisfy the hugely different styles of plays. I had to look at what the old system had given us, how we’d used that – and more importantly, what it didn’t given us.”
Ferguson says he was keen to move away from a fixed system, and arrive at a flexible solution that would hand the power of control and creativity back to the sound designer – rather than holding the designer hostage, which is what the old hotch-potch arrangement did.
The final decision was between a choice of three – Meyer, d&b and L-Acoustics. “We knew these brands would stand the test of time, and still be relevant in 15 years,” he says.
Ideally the size and width of the Olivier dictated that if a line source gave enough throw for ‘music’, then a point source centre cluster for the vocal system would be required to tie the whole together, “but the whole system needs to be flexible and capable of doing anything”.
The ‘vocal’ system needed to be adaptive, too. “Sometimes we mic up actors just to ‘energise’ the space – rather than amplifying them – and that requires transparency in the PA.” [This is a case of: if you can hear the speaker, it’s too loud.] “But in addition to that, when we need high SPL, it should supply that too.”
Ultimately, then, the Olivier was after a system that was capable of doing more or less anything. Not a small demand for any sound reinforcement system.
The three finalists got whittled down to two… and L-Acoustics emerged the winner.
“We’ve got a tie-line infrastructure in an amp room, whereas the Meyer speakers are self-powered and that would mean additional infrastructure which we didn’t have,” he reveals. “Also, there were questions of maintenance for such a powered system.
“It was a hard decision to make – but the ARCS tipped it.”
The ARCS II point source array in the central cluster position, that is; and the ability to create a horizontally-coupled 120º dispersion by flying six 22.5º cabinets. “ARCS are designed for a wide space like the Olivier,” says Ferguson.
Add that to two flying KARA line array columns on the proscenium and you have a winner.
Ferguson worked with HD Pro’s Andy Huffer (pictured, right) and L-Acoustics’ Chris Vass (pictured, left) throughout the process. Huffer has had an association with the National Theatre stretching back to 1996, when he first supplied equipment through Marquee Audio.
The L-Acoustics gear (at a total cost of around £150,000) went in at the end of May, piggybacking on a rare ‘dark period’ for the Olivier, scheduled in order to upgrade the existing flying system. (This rigging upgrade is part of the ambitious NT Future scheme, which will see around £70 million, raised from a number of sources, including profits from War Horse and an Arts Council grant, spent on overhauling many aspects of the National Theatre complex.)
The ‘LCR’ vocal and music system comprises nine KARA cabs per side plus the aforementioned six ARCS II centre hang, on chain hoists so that two people can rig/de-rig the lot during a change over day between shows.
Six SB18 have been installed under the stage; eight 8XTi delay cabs and two 12XTi coaxial sidefills, permanently installed, bolster the sound to the trickier areas. It’s all powered by eight LA8 amplifiers.
The system was tuned over three evening sessions, one of which included renowned sound designer Paul Arditti making final adjustments on the eve of the run of Timon of Athens. (Arditti’s tweaks were “small”, reports Ferguson.)
London Road, for which Arditti also designed the sound, followed a week later and saw the KARA/ARCS set-up put to the test for a full musical production.
There’s still a little work to do, perhaps, admits Ferguson. “Yes, there are little tweaks here and there – we would like to add to the system – it’s a work in progress. But I love it.
“Chris Vass has been good at supporting us and coming up with solutions, and really happy with what we have so far, considering the weight that was on my shoulders to make the right decision!”
Ultimately, Ferguson says the new rig “is wonderful in its simplicity – considering we’ve come from a system with multiple speakers from different manufacturers, rigged at various points, to, basically a LCR with a row of delays.” Once upon a time, the Olivier created a monster: but the creature is finally slain.