One of the most talked-about theater productions in recent years has been White Noise, now playing at Chicago’s Royal George Theater. This controversial Whoopi Goldberg-produced musical examines the music industry and its willingness to repackage virtually any content, no matter how objectionable, in the relentless hunt for the next big thing. Sound designer Garth Helm and associate designer/programmer Brian Hsieh have packed an amazing amount of technology into the show, with a pair of Midas PRO Series digital consoles anchoring what Helm likes to call “the biggest little show ever”.
The Chicago production, also planning a Broadway run, incorporates a lot of detail in its sound design. To accommodate all the inputs and outputs required in the design, White Noise utilizes a PRO9 console for primary mixing duties, augmented by a backstage PRO3 for monitors, both supplied by Sound Associates Inc. “The PRO Series has all the capabilities of Midas Digital in a small footprint,” notes Helm. “Plus, it’s got that great Midas sound. It’s a perfect fit for musical theater.”
Hsieh agrees. “In the theater world, we’re very cue-based. For White Noise, we have 100-plus scenes programmed into the PRO9,” he relates. “Almost every scene carries MIDI commands to at least seven devices, with links and follows. We’re able to take any number of the 24 wireless channels and put them on the VCAs needed for that scene. And every line is a fader move, and every scene changes the layout of the VCAs. So we use a lot of automation, and we’re constantly on the VCAs throughout the show.”
Musically, White Noise combines both rock and hip-hop instrumentation. The band inputs are accessed via the PRO9’s POP Groups, divided along instrumental line: drums, keyboards, guitars, bass, effects, and ten playback tracks.
The biggest challenge for the audio team was designing a system that would handle the show’s huge I/O requirements. The production uses 88 input channels at front of house and 48 at monitors. On the output side, there are 35 individual mix outputs from FOH and 24 from monitors.
The show is also using a Klark Teknik DN9696 high resolution audio recorder to capture the show’s musical performances. “Our game plan is to create a live performance soundtrack CD,” explains Helm. “Instead of bringing in a remote truck, we’re using the DN9696. It’s a great recorder, and integrates seamlessly into the Midas network. We’re capturing each input individually during the performances, and then we will take them to a recording studio to mix and edit.” The DN9696 offers 96 tracks of recording with 96 kHz, 24-bit resolution.
Operationally, the PRO9 handles all the house mixing chores, while the PRO3 does the monitor mixes, also providing the additional inputs, outputs and processing the show demands. Brian Hsieh explains, “We’ve using three CAT5 cables to pass a total of 144 channels of audio back and forth between the front house and monitor systems. The PRO3 is the source for all the monitor mixes, which includes IEMs as well as wedge mixes for the band, plus various stage foldback speakers. Those mixes are static, so there’s no need for an active monitor engineer for the show. We use the KVM switch on the PRO9 to access and program the PRO3 from the front of house - very convenient!”
Asked about what qualities of the Midas PRO Series make it particularly useful in the context of musical theater, the first thing Garth Helm mentions is sound quality. “First and foremost, the sonics of these desks are the best out there,” he states. “Between the preamps, the EQ, and the time management system, the Midas digital platform is so close to their analog sound, I can’t really say that I can hear the difference between the two.”
The other factors that Helm calls out are the depth of automation, the ease and flexibility of the routing system, and the quality of effects, as well as the compact size of the control surface. “As a sound designer, sound quality and technical ability will always be first for me. But economics are also a factor; ask any producer on Broadway,” he says. “At $150 a seat, if you can save six or more seats by having a smaller footprint at front of house, there’s your business case for the PRO Series right there.”
Hsieh agrees that the Midas PRO Series has already earned its stripes in the demanding world of musical theater. “A big positive for the Midas is how good it sounds. As far as ease of use and the control surface, I think Midas takes the cake over anything else out there right now. I’m also a big fan of the networking scheme, how easily it’s implemented and how flexible it is. But ultimately, the thing that really keeps me coming back to Midas is the relationship. They are always there if I need support, and they really take an interest in their users. When I make the investment in their product, they become invested in how I’m using it. It’s very gratifying. That, to me, is valuable beyond anything and really sets them apart as a company.”