Disney’s musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame arrived at Vienna’s Ronacher Theatre recently, bringing the songwriting of multiple award-winners Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz to the stage of one Europe’s grandest opera houses. Sound designer Gareth Owen, another award-winner, returned for his sixth production of Hunchback—and this time he used Soundscape by d&b audiotechnik (opens in new tab) to enhance the sound of the show.
A leading proponent of d&b Soundscape, Owen has been a key user of the system since first using it for Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Starlight Express in Bochum, Germany in 2018. Today, he employs Soundscape on about half of his many worldwide productions.
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For spaces architecturally designed for a classical, more ‘purist’ musical performance, Soundscape can help to make the sound system more transparent – and therefore more fitting—to such environments. “Soundscape was the overriding choice for this show, because it’s the right show to use it for—it has this sweeping orchestral score, just crying out for Soundscape,” Owen said.
In terms of sightlines, too, Soundscape was the better choice. “The room is a relatively narrow space with a tight proscenium: a traditional proscenium system would close that stage aperture by maybe 10%,” said Owen. “Soundscape was the right choice, and I haven’t regretted it in the slightest.
“The theater in question is definitely a parameter. The Ronacher was designed as an opera house. Its acoustic is perfect for opera, but putting in speakers feels almost sacrilegious. I would say a large part of this process has been using Soundscape to deal with that acoustic.”
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At the center of Soundscape, the DS100 processing engine enables new creative opportunities and capabilities. With the software module En-Scene, it allows designers to position and animate the sound sources as ‘objects’ within the space. This spatialization can be accurately localized and the resolution perceived across the entire auditorium. For a musical production alive with singers, dancers and movement, this tool set creates a seamlessly ‘real’ and immersive experience for the whole audience.
Providing further powerful creative possibilities is the En-Space module. This offers an additional design dimension, allowing the performance and audience to be enveloped in the acoustic ‘signature’ of a choice of venues. These signatures, created by the complex recording of these venues’ acoustic fingerprints, are available to the sound engineer to enhance a performance.
Soundscape enables a higher standard of creativity and listener experience. In Owen’s words, “With a traditional sound system there’s a ceiling to the quality that you can achieve. You can get there relatively quickly, but you can’t go past it. With Soundscape, that ceiling is higher: the overall potential of what you can achieve is higher. But the process to get to that point, or indeed to get to the point that you could get to with a proscenium system, takes longer—but you can do it.”
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Soundscape opens up endless creative possibility, and the results speak for themselves. Owen’s most recent Olivier Award (for Come From Away) and his Tony Award (for MJ: The Musical) were both won for shows using d&b Soundscape. “Audio is vital to both shows,” said Owen. “It’s a defining thing about MJ of course, and with Come From Away it’s crucially important because it’s a dialogue heavy show, and if you don’t hear every word, the whole thing falls apart.”
Soundscape can be used in conjunction with any d&b loudspeaker system. For this show, Owen’s team, including Associate Sound Designer Andy Green and Assistant Sound Designer Rob Jones, chose d&b’s new AL90 – their first proper outing with the A-Series and Soundscape. Nine hangs of three AL90s are on an advance truss, interspersed with V-Subs. More low-end comes from SL-Subs on the deck, while built-in E6 front-fills across the stage front complete the picture.
A TiMax D4 tracking system is used to automatically position sound objects and update object positions. A new module within the En-Snap Show Automation, which was developed by Gareth’s company Show Control Ltd for Soundscape, allows integration of the tracking system into the Soundscape workflow and automation.
“With this, you can do things like turn the trackers on and off for different people at different times,” said Owen. “So, if you’ve got people singing offstage, you don’t have their objects sitting in the wings, you can program them to be spread around the stage. We used the d&b R1 for system setup, but all of the manipulation of objects and tracking systems control was done via En-Snap.”
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Mixing is via a Stagetec Auras, which Owen described as “a jaw-droppingly, fabulous-sounding desk—head and shoulders better than the competition.”
For Owen, designing a musical production in an opera house, while employing both a “fabulous-sounding” digital console and the creative power of d&b Soundscape, this is far from a simple A/B test. Consequently, he is characteristically reluctant to lay credit for the successful result at any single door. “But what I do know,” he said, “is that with the combination of those technologies we have managed to achieve a sound in this theatre that, to my understanding, is better than any sound they’ve ever achieved here before.”
“If you have a show like Hunchback where there are so many inputs from different people standing all over the stage, it’s really helpful to hear who is speaking," commented head of sound for VBW Theatres, Patrick Polly. "It helps the intelligibility a lot.
“Gareth and his team, as well as all the local sound crew, did an amazing job. It was fun working with them. We got a lot of very positive reviews, especially for the sound of the orchestra.”