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In a Theater State of Mind

George Petersen • Editor's NoteNovember 2019 • November 13, 2019

The evolution of theater sound continues at an accelerating pace. Once upon a time — actually just a matter of decades ago, sound for live theater was mostly one or more people in a backstage sound effects crew, with a couple of tables of odd percussion (and often electro-mechanical) devices to create audio to match onstage action or ambience — a large metal sheet for thunder, a hand-cranked 90-volt magneto to drive a telephone ringer, the classic half-coconut shells for horse hooves, and so on.

In the early days, voice reinforcement for live shows was pretty much non-existent, but that was from a bygone time when actors were actually trained in vocal projection.

‡‡         Technology to the Rescue

Typically, microphones hung overhead were pretty ineffective and mics in footlight positions along the edge of the stage tended to pick up more footsteps than dialog. The 1960’s brought early dynamic shotgun microphone designs — such as the Electro-Voice Cardiline Model 642 and the Model 644 Sound Spot. These became a popular choice in theatrical applications, usually as two to four attached to a hanging overhead batten, but in truth, these offered low-fi, low-output performance and did not exhibit much in the way of directivity below about 3,500 Hz. Hardly a revolution.

Along the same time, R&D into wireless microphone systems began picking up steam, with work by beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, Shure, Sony and Vega. In transmission quality or audio performance, these early units were hardly up to today’s standards, but the race was on. The 1964 production of Funny Girl (starring Barbra Streisand) was the first Broadway show to use RF bodypack mics with lavaliers, and suddenly the genie was out of the bottle, and later advancements in miniaturization (in both transmitters and transducers) made for the rise of modern RF systems. In fact, it’s the rare production today that doesn’t incorporate wireless headworn mics.

Anyone who thinks a typical arena rock show mix is difficult has never worked in live theater; the job of the console operator is infinitely more complex in a modern musical production. Not only does that mix involve dozens or more RF mics (which must be carefully muted/unmuted as soon as an actor enters or leaves the stage), it also includes mixing a band (or full orchestra), along with syncing sound effects cues, while changing ambiences to enhance the stage action. The old 16-channel consoles don’t quite make it when you have 40, 64 or 96 inputs at the FOH position.

However, the theater sound engineer is not left alone, and technology returns to the rescue, with essentials like RF coordination/monitoring software, mix groups for all those 28 chorus members, cue/scene automation and virtual sound checks for tweaking/refining mixes between performances. And while theater SPLs have been steadily rising to near rock concert levels, smaller loudspeaker systems, such as the compact line arrays spotlighted in this month’s Buyers Guide (page 50) can do what once would have been impossible while offering a more discreet look — and improved sightlines — as well.

Lately, theaters and performing arts centers worldwide have seen that investing in a modern sound system is a smart move that gives a competitive edge to their venues. We look at five such examples in our Installation Spotlight on page 46. Audiences today have become used to high-quality sound playbacks, and there’s no excuse for an outmoded system with inadequate (and uneven) coverage, questionable reliability and poor performance.

Whether for theater or music, perhaps one of the most exciting developments in live performance over the past few years has been the emergence of immersive audio systems. These not only can have the ability to change the acoustic signature of a space, they can also add pinpoint localization of sounds that takes the fan experience to the next level. David Kennedy continues his exploration of the available technology in his series, “Immersive is the New Surround,” on page 56. Check that out.

There an old adage “May you be cursed to live in interesting times,” but for this resurgence in live theater (including the Broadway production of David Byrne’s American Utopia, also featured in this issue on page 44), these are truly interesting times, and I for one, can’t wait to see — and hear — what more is to come.

For FOH editor George Petersen’s video intro to the Nov. 2019 issue of FRONT of HOUSE magazine, go to:

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