The Broadway stage adaptation of the feel-good movie Billy Elliot, about a coal miner’s son who dreams to dance, was recently awarded 10 Tony Awards including Best Sound Design, and in addition, the show scored 10 2009 Drama Desk Awards, which also included Outstanding Sound Design.
The show’s sound designer, Paul Arditti, is an award-winning veteran of theatrical productions since getting his start at London’s National Theatre in 1985. Together with long-time friend and periodic collaborator, Academy Award nominated director, Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot marks the duo’s first alliance on a musical production.
Since its debut in London, the show has enjoyed continued success and recently celebrated a four-year milestone. An Australian version opened in ’07, with the Broadway production launch in November of 2008.
For the extensive audio portion of the NYC theatre install, Arditti was forced to diverge from what had previously been implemented in London and Australia, taking into consideration several factors including analog-versus-digital platforms and reliability issues, plus the theatre’s limited FOH real estate allotment.
Arditti custom-configured a DiGiCo D5T system from the ground up with help from associates John Owens (UK) and Tony Smolenski (US), and Masque Sound, a US-based live sound reinforcement specialist, that ultimately helped make Arditti’s vision a reality. He also secured veteran Broadway production sound engineer Robert Biasetti, who had worked with DiGiCo consoles previously on several Broadway productions.
“Both the London and Australia shows were mixed on a Cadac J-type console,” Arditti explained. “While I was very happy with this console in London—it is undoubtedly the best sounding analog mixing console I have used—we had a lot of reliability issues in Australia and I was concerned that these issues would plague us in New York. Also, the J-type is a very large desk, and the space available to us in New York was insufficient to squeeze in all that hardware.
“After taking a long, hard look at all the digital consoles available, the D5T was the only serious choice. I had used D5Ts and D1 live consoles in the past and liked them very much, so that influenced that decision. In addition, I chose it for the reason that it is the best sounding digital desk I have heard, but also because it is an industry-tested model, is cost-effective, is one of the only consoles with the input channel and output bus capacity the show requires, it fits our mix position, the control software does what we needed it to do, and because it will be compatible with our future plans for the show.”
The custom-configured system includes a DiGiCo D5T Surface (w/Optical Option and Combi Card Installed), DiGiCo D5T-RE (w/Optical Options, and Combi Card installed), DiGiCo D5-TC Control Surface, DiGiCo DigiRack (w/MADI Pods), 2 DiGiCo DigiRacks (w/Optical Pods), 17 DiGiCo Input Card Mic/Line, 4 x 15’ DiGiCo Optical cables, 1 D5T to RE Changeover (unit able to swap: MIDI, all GPI/O connections, Overview screen), 8 DiGiCo AES SRC Card Combo AES I/O Card, and 5 DiGiCo Analogue Output Cards.
Billy Elliot’s extensive audio requirements made full use of the expanded digital console for a total of 140 inputs and 46 outputs to and from the D5T (although there are well over 150 other inputs which feed other sub-mixers in the system): 55 analog inputs from the band, 48 wireless/wired vocal mics, 18 digital inputs for reverb and effects returns, and a further 19 analog inputs from the music playback system.
In addition, there are 35 digital outputs from the console and 11 analog outs. The 24-channel sound effects system is controlled by SFX software and is mixed on a smaller digital mixer, which merges with the outputs of the D5T into a system controller.
Separate band and vocal sound systems were designed with very controlled coverage in the auditorium to maximize the vocal power of the children’s voices without feedback. The concern was also to make the lyrics always audible, even with big music and the relatively small voices of the kids.
Arditti knew from early on that, with Elton John writing the score, the band would sometimes need to be fairly loud. And since London, it has doubled in size to include a richer brass section, which made the vocal/instrument mix increasingly more challenging.
The sound system of over 180 loudspeakers includes many speakers for sound effects dotted around the stage, several wireless speakers built into props, and a comprehensive auditorium surround system.
“Amongst my favorite sequences,” said Arditti, “are the riots during ‘Angry Dance’, the massive miners’ pit lift, and the cassette recorder playing ‘Swan Lake’ which swells into the ‘Dream Ballet’ sequence, filling the theatre with the orchestra as Billy flies around the stage.”
For the Australia show, Arditti designed a ‘Tap Floor’, which is also incorporated into the Broadway production. It comprises 96 piezo-electric pickups distributed across the majority of the stage area, which are set into the subfloor under the parquet.
“The intention is to pick up and amplify tap dancing from anywhere on the stage, without risk of feedback or interaction with other live sources,” said Arditti. “The usual solution to this problem (which we use on Billy during his ‘Angry Dance’) is to run wireless mics down the legs of each actor, to the dancing feet. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the costumes, this is mostly not an option. The ‘Tap Floor’ allows the choreography to take the actors anywhere around the stage, and still to be effectively miked.”
“With some experimentation, we discovered what spacing of the pickups worked best, and how to mount them in the floor most effectively. The audio from the pickups goes individually into 96 channels console. The mixer then splits the floor into zones, and applies compression and gating. The stereo output of this mixer feeds a stereo analog input on the D5T, where the audio is finally EQ’d and routed to the sound system.”
Production sound engineer, Robert Biasetti—whose previous Broadway production stints include Annie Get Your Gun, Baz Lurhman’s La Boheme and Legally Blonde, among others—mans the FOH command post. Biasetti contracted with Masque Sound in June for the show’s build, which took approximately six weeks from start to finish. Because of the massive scale of the show’s I/O requirements, Biasetti says he undoubtedly found the presets to be one of the most useful features on the system.
“This show has a large cast, and most of them alternate between ensemble cast roles throughout the show. Also, with four boys sharing the role of Billy and two boys sharing the role of Michael, the D5T’s aliases and presets are invaluable tools that are used every day, enabling us to make it all work well.”
Both agree that the D5T’s sonic quality is nothing short of exceptional. “The mic preamps are transparent and the desk sounds as good with 40 channels of wireless mics open as it does with one,” Arditti commented. “I am happy to say that feedback from the performers and musicians has all been very good. When they get the chance to have a listen in front of the speakers they are impressed.
“Audience members regularly comment positively about the sound, which is also a testament to the mixing skills of Bob Biasetti. And of course, Billy Elliot just won the Drama Desk Award for “Outstanding Sound Design”, and was nominated for a Tony as well, so it seems that at least some enlightened voters got it right!”