Theatre and Opera

d&b Soundscape enhances storytelling for The Lehman Trilogy.

The National Theatre’s production of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes, encompasses one hundred and fifty years of Lehman Brothers’ story, from a shop in 1850s Alabama to the bank’s world-shaking collapse in 2008. A cast of just three actors portray every character: generations of Lehman executives, their families and business associates, all perfectly choreographed amid Es Devlin’s revolving set.

The audience’s engagement with the spoken word is vital: from the outset, as Simon Russell Beale steps onto the stage as Bavarian immigrant Henry Lehman, the voices hold your attention. Occasionally, as the set revolves, a glass wall passes between actor and audience, yet the voices remain uninterrupted – precisely from the actors’ lips. It’s as if theatre sound reinforcement has achieved complete transparency.

Sound Evolution

The Lehman Trilogy was first staged at the Lyttelton before moving to the off-Broadway Park Avenue Armory in New York. The NT’s Dominic Bilkey, the play’s co-sound designer, says, “The original had the benefit of being in an auditorium where the whole audience were within the sound field of three large arrays. We were able to use LCR panning with upstage delay zones to provide a reasonably coherent image for the performers.”

For the New York transfer, composer and co-sound designer Nick Powell agreed with Bilkey’s suggestion to try a new technology which promised to further enhance the connection between performer and audience – the d&b Soundscape. “It was brand new, and Dominic fancied trying it out,” says Powell. “He and Jamie, our operator, disappeared off to d&b for a few days and basically programmed the show by watching the video and tracking the actors’ moves. It was quite a brave decision to try it.”

Success with Soundscape in New York’s wide, spacious Park Avenue Armory, was followed by the challenge of moving to London’s Piccadilly Theatre. “The Piccadilly presented some additional challenges, given the depth of the balconies and the need to cover such large areas using delay lines,” says Bilkey. “We had to ensure adequate resolution for the En-Scene software to provide locational positioning for the performers, whilst working within the architecture and limitations of an early twentieth century theatre. We solved the problems by modifying and adding to the existing install, providing additional tie-lines and rigging points.”

The Piccadilly System

Bilkey’s solutions included an unusual deployment from the d&b product range, and a first for a West End show: “The stage, due to the revolve, is raised so any delay line in the stalls would be highly visible to the audience towards the rear,” he explains. “We decided to try something a little unorthodox, using d&b 16C column speakers, in a horizontal configuration, with the HF driver rotated and some customized rigging. The low profile of the box, coupled with its ability to throw, was a winning combination and was more successful than we could have hoped.”

The delay lines for the circle use eight 16Cs plus eight E5 loudspeakers, while E8 and E5 boxes are used for the stalls delay lines below. The front system comprises ten Y10P and five Y7P on the advance trusses, covering the stalls, dress circle and balcony. These are supplemented by eight further horizontal 16Cs as front fills across the front of stage, where “their incredible throw is extremely useful across the stalls,” says Bilkey. The upper balcony is covered by a single delay line of T10 loudspeakers in horizontal, Point Source mode, while surrounds comprise mainly E5 boxes: sixteen in the stalls, twelve in the circle and eight in the balcony - supported by a pair of E8s.

Sub reinforcement comes from two flown V-SUBs and two ground stacked B6 SUBs. Onstage are two V10P, two Y10P and two B2 SUBs. The system is fed by two DS100 signal engines (effectively cascaded), via eight DS10 AES Bridges, with amplification from twenty five D20 and three D80 amplifiers. The system was modelled in d&b ArrayCalc. All the audio equipment for the production was provided by Phil Hurley and his team at Stage Sound Services.

Controlled Precision

“We use two Q-Lab workstations, one for all the Soundscape tracking, and another for all the other content,” says Powell. “I did the music and sound effects, which kind of blend together. At the National, when we didn’t have Soundscape, the Q-Lab sound effects were plotted using the traditional kind of outputs. But for New York, we set up four extra Q-Lab outputs that were assigned to Soundscape rather than to a specific speaker output.”

Using these outputs to Soundscape, Powell can achieve both exact localization and completely uniform audibility, with ease. “There’s a moment where the janitor picks up a radio and carries it off-stage. It is a practical radio, but the volume needs to reach the back of the auditorium, so we put it through Soundscape. And it’s amazing – as he picks up the radio and walks out the back door, Soundscape tracks that move precisely.”

Soundscape also lends some discreet support to the power of Powell’s music, played live by Candida Caldicot. Powell says, “We also use it a little bit on the piano but – trade secrets here - it’s a MIDI piano. And yes, Soundscape locates the piano sound in its position, but also there are times when it’s used to create a more full sound, when the music kind of swells up, and it does that spatially, as well as volume-wise.”

Invisible Technology

The resulting sound is extraordinary, the locational precision all but removing the perception of amplification. Bilkey says, “The response has been very good. There has been much discussion about whether the performance is mic’d or not. The conversation becomes more interesting as people realise they can hear and locate the actors even when they pass behind the glass walls.”

He adds, “Soundscape has allowed us to take a simple version of the design, and translate it firstly into a very large scale venue with difficult acoustics, and then into a theatre with deep balconies, where the LCR concept of the original design would have been impossible to achieve in such a simple manner.”

Powell says, “Because Soundscape came into Lehman once we’d already done it, my input didn’t change that much. So I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to write music, and create a complex effects design, using Soundscape from the get-go . . . That could be lots of fun.”

He concludes, “The nice thing about Soundscape on The Lehman Trilogy is it’s not flashy, it’s just used to make the storytelling more effective . . . I’m really impressed with it.”

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