Theatre and Opera

The Nutcracker delights in d&b Soundscape.

© Steve Jones

It may be a simple tale steeped in childhood fantasies of animated toys and dancing sweets, yet this delightful story has proven to be hugely popular for ballet companies and audiences alike. Like all great fairy tales, this one, derived from E.T.A. Hoffman’s ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’, carries a worthy moral: from bravery comes reward, and cruelty begets nothing. When the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) hosted Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production, it was determined that Tchaikovsky’s most successful musical composition be presented in a manner that would have thrilled the Russian composer.

“This was the first-time d&b’s Soundscape has been used on a show since the new house system was installed,” said the show’s sound designer, Bobby Aitken. “With such potential we had to focus on the essentials, doing anything different at the RAH is enormous, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. Some things tempered the challenge: Nutcracker is simply an orchestral piece, there is no speech save a little bit of narration, so in that sense it’s a nice introduction to using the potential of Soundscape in the RAH.”

For those unaware, Aitken is one of the UK’s most acclaimed sound designers, not least for his almost thirty years of presenting opera at the RAH. “Soundscape is a sound environment modelling tool added to the d&b inventory in 2018,” he explained. “What interested me is the software based within the DS100 signal engine, which offers two main areas of impact: object-based placement (up to sixty four objects), and acoustic emulation. Early in 2018 I was one of several sound designers consulted by Oliver Jeffery, the senior technical manager at the RAH, when they first decided to take the house audio system into the twenty-first century. Having eventually decided upon d&b as the primary sound system, one of the most significant decisions they took was to ensure the system was Soundscape ready.”

Steve Jones, who led d&b support for Jeffery’s team, explained the design thesis, “Once Ollie and RAH management had made their decision, their preliminary directive was to make the house system the best possible, to make it entirely attractive and usable for any production contemplating the unique challenges of presenting amplified productions at the RAH, and as much as possible they wanted to make it future proof. That refined over time to be a L/C/R deployment of d&b V-Series with an extensive range of delays and fills to cover the choir stalls and upper reaches of the promenade level. Bobby recommended that we look at taking this further. Initially, he pushed hard for Circle delays which led, almost inevitably, to contemplating the potential for Soundscape, which only requires two additional hangs of V-Series either side of the centre hang, between it and the outer Left/Right. Bobby’s master stroke was to push for such enhanced Soundscape delivery beyond the main auditorium into each and every box.” No small undertaking with the almost one hundred and fifty boxes packed into the vertical wedding cake structure of the house audience areas.

“For Nutcracker, the decision was taken to rig those two extra hangs of V-Series across the front of the stage, the cornerstone of any Soundscape system,” continued Jones. “Along with Ben Evans from the RAH sound team, we encountered one dilemma in realising Aiken’s target. The issue was with lighting and video projection angles, and although Richard Thomas from lighting and 59 Productions for the video were very accommodating, solutions had to be found. The dilemma mainly emanated from the need for those multiple V-Series hangs across the front of stage. With the unique vertical aspect of the auditorium, even though the throw distance isn’t great in relative terms, the coverage angle from top to bottom is acute. With PA hangs in certain locations, that became a real challenge; Richard in particular deserves a lot of credit for solving those conundrums.”

However, that change was not without compromise: solving the overriding tension between projection of light and video throughout the auditorium saw the PA trimmed 4m higher than usual. “Fortunately, that was compensated for by the orchestra platform being raised significantly to extend the stage out over the auditorium stalls about half-way down the room for the ballet dancers,” says Jones. “With that aspect set, we were able to re-assign the choir fills (just a slight rotation, outwards) to perform the task of the stage out fills we’d removed to accommodate projection and lighting elements (there being no audience seated in the choir stalls).”

“It’s not an enormous amount of work, but it is demanding,” confirmed Aitken. “Getting all the loudspeakers in the right place and sorting the positions for the requirements of video projection; those things take time.”

© Steve Jones 1/2
© Steve Jones 2/2

That considered, for a three-day presentation of five performances sandwiched between Christmas and New Year, was it worth it? “Absolutely,” says Aitken, “and the great thing is the potential for next year. We now have all the data from this year, which means we have more time to develop other things. That said, we achieved two clear goals that I had envisioned when I first made my decision. For the sixty minutes before the show there was lots of corporate entertaining going on in and around the auditorium, so we introduced sound effects, little motifs with a touch of reverb that evoked noises of toys being crafted from within Drosselmeyer’s workshop, or the sounds of reindeer sleigh bells travelling around the room. Yes, you could do something comparable with a more conventional surround system, but the key was to be unobtrusive; like hearing birdsong on a walk through the woods, it needed to be delightful, directional, but incidental. With surround-sound we could have done that in the main auditorium, but not into all the individual boxes. But with loudspeakers in every box it could be done there and with subtlety.”

Aitken continues, “The other goal concerned the orchestra. Doing opera in the RAH over the last few decades I’ve always wanted it to sound more natural; to make it bigger, more filmic. Paul Stannering, my mix engineer, and I spoke about this a lot. With the limited time constraints, it was simply not possible to explore this idea to its full potential – that’s why the data collected is so important. But workflow wise it was a joy and we achieved a great deal. It’s a very different MO for the mix engineer: there is no mix buss, so if I ask Paul to make the orchestra a little brighter, he has nowhere to go in the normal way of operating. Once you are over that concept then it all falls to hand.”

“For me, the show sounded noticeably different from anything I’ve ever done in there before. I know it’s a cliché, but it didn’t sound amplified. We could, as we did in rehearsals, drop in the mutes and the band disappeared - it was extraordinary. The difference was in the region of 12dB of gain, and yet when back in use it just didn’t sound like it. I was super happy with the results, it was a great sounding orchestral show.

“How you perceive the sound of the orchestra is a very subjective area, especially when you try something so new; it’s not just what I think, there’s the conductor on stage, the leader of the orchestra, the head of music for the ballet, and the producers, so there are a lot of opinions. In this instance, I was asked to attend a meeting with all of them in the conductor’s room after the first rehearsal. I must confess as I walked down there, I did wonder what I was going to hear. I spoke to all my team before I went and told them all how good it sounded and how pleased I was with what had been achieved. When I got in the conductor’s room, I discovered all six of them were delighted, every member of the various music departments loved it.

“Putting anything classical and amplified into the RAH is always a risky strategy, and the Press will never be less than honest. For Nutcracker, people loved the show and it was very well received by the Press.”

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