It is not easy for a young audio company to compete in London’s Theatreland, but Andrew Johnson and his company, Pressure Wave Audio, are making their mark. Andrew’s latest project is the sound design and audio equipment supply for Southwark Playhouse’s production of the Stephen Sondheim classic, Company. The complexity of the design and restrictions on space dictated the need for a small, yet powerful and versatile mixing console. Andrew looked to DiGiCo’s diminutive SD9 to fulfil the brief…
“Southwark Playhouse is a very complicated venue with a lot of acoustic challenges, so we’ve tried to keep the sound system as simple as possible, whilst still dealing with the demands and complexities of the show,” explains Andrew.
“We’re running separate band and vocal systems and the desk is dealing with all the processing and EQ for all outputs. This means that we’re not only using the desk to EQ the system, but to time it as well. A lot of people would use external processing for that, but we’re really taking advantage of the power of the console and, because we have the ability to set delay time within the groups and matrix outputs, it gives us a lot of flexibility.”
Southwark Playhouse is located in a railway arch directly beneath the lines coming in to and out of the extremely busy London Bridge station. The space is incredibly reflective and the challenges are multiplied because of the noise of trains running overhead.
“To cope with that, we’ve recorded the trains and introduced them into the show,” says Sound Operator No. 1, David Sharrock. “People can’t tell the difference between recorded and live and the cast naturally talks slightly louder at those points to overcome the extra noise.”
“Because of the challenges of the venue, we used a central mono source for the band, which is located in a separate room,” adds Andrew. “We have audio coming from the band and from the cast, who are effectively underneath the speaker system in the auditorium.”
Initially, Andrew used a classic band/vocal system, but the show’s director asked them to make the sound a bit more ‘spaced out’. “We’ve ended up putting the band through the vocal system, which then leads us to intricacies of timing,” he says.
To accommodate this, the vocal system is distributed around the room and the band system is central behind the cast, which removes foldback from the show floor and eliminates the issue of sound from several different sources, in a reflective room, interacting.
“With the SD9 being as flexible and powerful as it is, we’ve been able to allow for different timings,” Andrew continues. “The band is delayed in the vocal system back to the band system, as well as matrix outputs which adds the band into the vocal PA.
“We’re running several matrix outputs and groups, and all 40 channels from the board as well, both mono and stereo. There are a total of 42 inputs into the SD9 with all our effects returns”
The complexities of the performance itself mean that David Sharrock doesn’t have the luxury of using automation and mixes on the fly throughout each show.
“Our wind player, for example, sextuples off one chair,” he smiles. “We have two mics for her, which have been gained according to the type of instrument she’s playing – at one extreme the flute is subtle, at the other the piccolo is loud and high pitched – but she’s between her instruments so quickly, I would have to use several hundred snapshots just for her, so it’s easier to mix live.”
In fact, almost every sound on the show is live. There is no click track for the band and the singing is entirely live. This means that Andrew, David and Sound No. 2 Anthony Coleridge are very dependent on the board for the quality of its audio.
“It’s a very quiet board in terms of its self-noise floor,” he comments. “We’ve got a lot of high gain mics in the pit and for the cast as well. Having a board of such quality allows us to mix the show and not have influence from the board affecting the way it sounds. That allows us to have much more control over what we do.”
As an up and coming sound company, Andrew knows that Pressure Wave Audio is very much a small fish in a big pond.
“It’s a challenge getting into a place like Southwark Playhouse, and it really helps to be able to offer a system that can rival the quality of what bigger companies can offer. The cost effectiveness of the board really gives us an edge.
“With its feature set, the SD9 one of the most economical consoles on the market, but the audio quality rivals that of many a musical in the West End and on Broadway. When you’re sound designing, you want an input that’s crystal clear and is going to sound the same coming out as it does going in - all SD Series consoles do that and are way ahead of anything else on the market.
“The SD9 has given us high quality audio that fits in within the client’s budget and a size that fits into the small amount of physical space we have. Perfect!”