The Last Ship made its returning debut at Northern Stage in Newcastle, UK, in March 2018. This musical, written by Sting and Lorne Campbell is a drama with some fine songs bound together across two strong interwoven narratives.
For the production itself sound designer Sebastian Frost used d&b Soundscape, a unique signal processing technology, with two optional software modules: En-Scene a sound object positioning tool, and En-Space which allows designers to add room emulation of reverberation signatures particular to any given space, real or imagined. Frost harnessed this technology to his own vision of how the musical should be perceived and enjoyed by all audience members.
Frost was first inspired by Soundscape at a demo in Hall 14 at d&b HQ in Backnang. Frost comments. “What I heard was much more than simple panning or delay of sound; you were not just placing sound objects in specific places. This was a more scientific approach… this was the creation of a sound field within which the creative possibilities appear unrestricted.”
Recognising the specific demands of musical theatre, d&b then arranged a more applicable demonstration. “The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham is a typical multi-level theatre. What was immediately apparent was that as I went into the theatre it had the same effect I’d heard in Backnang; that effect is that the sound field is opened-up to the entire audience. In that sense hearing is transformational.”
Beyond his own desire to ‘open the sound field’ to the entire audience, the Last Ship presented Frost with a second strong justification for implementing Soundscape. “When I sat with The Last Ship designers 59 Productions and director Lorne Campbell there was one aspect of Northern Stage that affected everything. The stage is wide and relatively speaking not so high. What they wanted was a clean line to stage so they could use full height and width to accommodate large scale scenic video projection. Typically, they would have used a line array system of some sort at this venue, but that was not a realistic option with the video projection being contemplated.”
As well as installation of multiple loudspeakers throughout the auditorium, the technical parameters of Soundscape requires a horizontal array of discrete sound sources across the top of the stage. While these can be line arrays, it’s also possible to use point-source loudspeakers, which is where Frost saw the advantage. As Northern Stage’s Production Manager Chris Durant observed at the time, “Here we have six d&b V10P across the proscenium, each laid horizontal with the horn rotated to present the 110 degrees wide dispersion. Six Y10P are down the room on the delay line, and there are twelve front fills. The Y-SUBs are all tucked away up on a bridge above the audience. We would normally struggle here with loudspeaker positions with relationship to lighting positions and sightlines, and in this case, we have scenic projection to consider which only makes that harder. But instead nothing intrudes. At most there are the E6 front fills across the stage, but that’s it.”
With direct support from d&b, contracted audio supplier Stage Sound Services took Frost’s design concept, made the ArrayCalc assessment of the auditorium and installed the system with Frost’s Production Engineer Owen Lewis, assisted by Durant’s house team. “The system went in quickly and easily and sounded good the moment we turned it on.” said Frost. “Because it sounded good from the off we were in a good enough place to be able to experiment and play around immediately with the creative elements. Having the freedom to put the band where you want proved highly advantageous, here they were physically positioned off stage left, but for most of the show I have most of the instruments placed around the stage as a whole.”
“This idea that you are within a sound field presents a different listening experience for the audience. Normally if you sit in the front rows close to the front fills what you hear is a simple mono source… Not with this system. Relative to where you happen to sit each loudspeaker is delivering something subtly different, but as a listener you are completely unaware, tilt your head to one side or the other and the loudspeakers are completely undiscernible.”
Beyond Frost’s masterful use of En-Scene to provide an authentic source oriented listening experience, he also used the En-Space function to great effect, most noticeably for an intimate scene between two actors placed within a video projected medieval stone built chapel. Producing that distinctive reverberation, and as an added touch, making it appear to emanate directly from that space on stage as if we the audience were sat distanced from the protagonists at the opposite end of the nave.
“The audience don’t necessarily know what has happened, but everyone comes out the theatre saying the voices are fantastic. To be honest the way it has worked with the show has changed the possibilities of sound design throughout the genre.”