For the thirtieth anniversary of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Starlight Express, the production was given a major overhaul. Lloyd Webber created new songs, committed out-of-date characters to the scrapyard and put the show on twenty first century tracks. This included a technically ground-breaking new sound design by award winning sound designer Gareth Owen, together with sound designer Russell Godwin and production engineer Andy Green.
Owen wanted something entirely new, and was convinced the Starlight Express theatre was “the perfect space for d&b Soundscape.”
For sound designers, d&b Soundscape offers new creative possibilities compared to traditional left/right stereo system. In Soundscape, sound ‘objects’ can be independently positioned: sources can be placed precisely where the eye tells the brain they should be, or creatively manipulated for effects. Most importantly, the chosen sound image is consistent across the audience area.
“Soundscape allowed me to create different types of band,” says Owen. “There’s quite an intimate number, like a little pub band; for that I grouped all the drums together in one place, put the guitars and the bass and spread them around and kind of ‘drew’ a little pub band on the screen. It sounds like you’re hearing the groups of instruments together.”
“I ended up being very, very happy with the result at Starlight Express – so did my client, and so did everybody with experience of the show.” – Sound designer, Gareth Owen
“… for one of the more electronic numbers, I spread everything around the surround field, so that everything was coming from all over the place. After a while we started animating those objects as well, so we would have guitars swirling around the audience, and wrapping it all up in reverb. That was a lot of fun.”
Starlight Express was a full 360˚ surround implementation, with that came some challenges.
While Owen initially wanted to use hangs of seven V-Series cabinets along the front truss, Steve Jones, d&b, advised that the smaller Y-Series would be ample. d&b ArrayCalc and EASE modelling demonstrated that hangs of eight boxes were needed as a minimum to achieve the required front-to-back vertical coverage, so to preserve sightlines as far as possible, Y-Series was specified. Owen commented, “…it’s all working absolutely beautifully.”
Owen chose the Avid S6L console as his front of-of-house mixing desk. This integrates directly with the d&b DS100 signal engine, the processor at the core of Soundscape, via the soundscape OSC plug-in for Avid. This enables the positioning of objects directly via the desk, although the team is also extensively using mouse and touchscreen operation to drag objects around within the d&b R1 remote control software.
The system design includes a backup DS100 signal processor. “We’re running two DS100s in dual redundant mode,” Owen explains. “We’re using the Autograph Dante changeover box, and running 64 streams of Dante into both units, then taking the 64 streams out of both and running them into the switch, so we actually have a main and back-up DS100. …we didn’t have to touch it once – at absolutely no point did it even hiccup.”
“When I first said to Russell and Andy that we’re doing something totally different on our first big show for Andrew Lloyd Webber, they did look at me like I was nuts. But to their credit they supported me and made it work. And Phil Hurley and his team at Stage Sound Services, who supplied the show, did a brilliant job. They supplied the initial Really Useful Group workshop and looked after us so well that we all said, well, why would we talk to anyone else?”
Finally, to underline his satisfaction with Soundscape, Owen says, “I always invite the cast into the auditorium to listen, usually to the overture of the show. Usually I sit them somewhere I know the sound’s good, but this time I made a point of saying they could walk around the theatre, and listen from anywhere they liked – knowing what a great job Soundscape does and knowing how the design was delivering consistency around the space.”
Their reaction? “There were tears,” says Owen. “Personally, I didn’t think it was that bad.”
“Traditionally I’ve treated sound effects as channels of audio. Mixing and creating sound effects in Soundscape, you don’t send things to channels, you send things to objects and then you place those objects where you want them. Once I got used to it, it gave me a lot more power.” – Sound designer, Gareth Owen