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Theatre sound: the pros and cons of permanent systems

A growing trend in theatres has seen visiting productions using their own audio systems rather than the in-house solution. Duncan Proctor looks at the pros and cons of the different approaches to theatre sound provision.

At one time it was considered a necessity for a theatre to have its own high-end sound system, but the last few years have seen touring productions increasingly opting to use application-specific rental sound systems. This shift has left venues with a question to ponder: is it still essential to have a high-end permanently installed sound system? The alternatives include specifying a significantly reduced system that is there to mostly support the incoming touring system; or installing a flexible solution that can be packed away or hidden from view when the next production starts.

“For theatre venues that most often host and cater to touring hit musical theatre productions carrying their own sound systems, an over-investment in the type of highly capable and costly system that can serve the needs of a general purpose performing arts centre would be imprudent,” states David Scheirman, Bose Professional’s director, global concert & rental business.

Rental or permanent?
However, there are drawbacks from having a multitude of different systems as opposed to one powerful in-house solution. “The result is less than ideal in that every new production means a different temporary system that must be setup and taken down, which can be time consuming and problematic for a venue with a tight turnaround,” says Daniele Mochi, product specialist at K-array.

Similarly for Alex Penn, SSE Audio sales director, a permanently installed system has a number of advantages over a touring system. “It will have been specified for the particular venue, taking into account balconies, circles and other parts of the theatre that a touring system may not reach,” he comments. “House systems can take into account the décor of the theatre and be painted to blend in with the surroundings with accurate colour matching. Units can be mounted to be unobtrusive, maximising sightlines and reduce the need to take out valuable seats. Subs can often be mounted under the stage, with discreet grilles installed and control/line equipment can be kept in an equipment room well out of the way.

“The house system can be fully ‘tuned’ to the venue, with both software and listening, so every seat experiences the same audio. This is particularly important for the spoken word, where audibility is critical. The bottom line is that the house system needs to be credible and attractive to the touring production.”

Bose’s Scheirman suggests another shift has occurred, with touring systems overtaking in-house systems in terms of complexity. “Today, the specialised, application-specific rental systems carried to support popular theatrical productions are typically more complex than most general-purpose in-house systems,” states Scheirman. “This naturally leads to a situation wherein a theatre that serves mostly touring shows will ensure that sufficient space and suspension facilities are available to support a touring show’s temporary sound system. Such venues typically do not over-invest in a sound system with limited flexibility. Yet, they still need a utility sound system for general operations.”

Hybrid option
There is another option, and that is to install a ‘hybrid’ or ‘long-term rental’ solution, according to Penn. “Basically SSE’s installations department will partner with the hire department to provide a system where the key components typically the main line arrays use a touring configuration in terms of packaging, flying and cabling. In essence, it means that the system can be rapidly ‘dropped’ and packed into flight cases for storage. This means that a theatre production can bring in its own system.

“When the London Palladium and its operator, the Really Useful Theatres Group, decided to return their theatre to variety for the season and open up the calendar to one-off events and touring productions they came to SSE Audio to look for a long-term rental solution. SSE commissioned and installed an L-Acoustics system on a rental basis. For SSE, this meant all the major components can be taken out to preserve the value of the rented asset.”

Scheirman asserts: “While some newer architectural projects may experiment with storage coves for an in-house system that can be hidden from view, this is certainly the exception rather than the rule. More common approaches include the sourcing and installation of specific loudspeaker types popular for theatrical production applications, or to maintain an effective utility system that can do general-purpose duty for events not requiring the temporary installation of show-specific systems.”

Next: prospects for integrators

Bose Professional
SSE Audio