The Linbury Studio theatre, housed within Covent Garden’s spectacular Royal Opera House, recently accommodated a 14-night run of SUM, a new opera based on David Eagleman’s best-selling book Forty Tales from the Afterlives.
With a reduced capacity (from 400 to 150), the audience surrounded the orchestra pit, and was treated to a particularly intimate 90-minute piece, which encompassed 16 of Eagleman’s 40 takes on what the afterlife might have to offer, from the thought-provoking to the witty.
Rather than utilize the venue’s house console, engineer Steve Watson opted for his recently purchased DiGiCo SD11i, which, he says, thanks to its small footprint, intuitive user interface, and vast array of features, made the job of balancing a particularly dynamic 14-piece band and a selection of soprano, counter tenor, and baritone singers, a whole lot easier.
Unusually for a theatre, FOH position was located several tiers up, looking down onto the pit, which often made it tricky for Watson to hear exactly what was going on sonically.
“I guess you could say the mix position is interesting,” he smiles, peering down at the auditorium floor below. “From up here, you’re out of the focus of any of the [10 main] five separate stereo sends of speakers and [four] subwoofers. Thankfully, the composer, Max Richter and I spent a lot of time working on the sound in the space together during rehearsals; then I’d get his opinion from down on the floor and would work out how best to translate that from up here, via the console.”
Watson utilized all 32 input channels of the SD11i, though the total input count was 41, as he was able to take advantage of the console’s flexible inputs to generate numerous stereo inputs to handle the incidental sounds and effects via his Macbook Pro running Logic through a Motu for four stereo and one mono sound effects and an effects return via a direct out from the Harp.
There were two casts in SUM: one performed the first show, the other the second on two show days and alternating for the rest of the week. Watson says utilizing the SD11i’s Macro function helped make this transition smooth and seamless.
“Because we had two casts with three singers in each, I had three vocal lines; using the Macros, I could go in and set presets, so each vocalist had their own individual setup, and I could make it the next cast’s setup and save their respective settings every night too, which was fantastic,” he enthuses. “Another great thing about the Macros is that I can pick an alternative input for vocal backup mics, so if I need to switch to it quickly, I can – instantly, in fact, and no matter what page I’m working in.
“I can just reach up to the Macro and switch it to the backup input and it’ll follow the same signal path and pick up the EQ, dynamics and FX etc; it really is a brilliant application and again saves channels.”
The user interface of the SD11i and its sizable touchscreen are also big plus points, according to Watson, who loves the fact that “everything is right there in front of you”.
“There’s no trying to find stuff or need for any extra assign button pushing required to get one bank of faders or another on the screen; it just always shows exactly what you’re working on right there,” he states, “and you have two layers of 4 banks to tell you what’s going on so, so it works very well.”
Due to a strong vocal section, and the fact that the band is so heavily strings-based, it made for a very dynamic show. To make sure everything sat just right, Watson used the multiband compression within the console.
“I use it pretty much wherever I can, to be honest. Its excellent. Often the operatic vocals were at a pretty high level - sometimes extreme, in fact - so it came in very handy for controlling that,” he explains. “But also, because in some of the passages the singers were speaking over the music rather than singing, I used the dynamic EQ, which is brilliant, because you can boost and cut various frequencies dynamically to cope with the changes.
“Once you’ve got used to the different voices it then kind of looks after itself, so the clarity and power remains in both the sung and the spoken word, which really is essential in this show.
“There is a lot of dep-ing in the string section too, and with the players arriving five minutes before doors you never quite knew who was going to be giving it more ‘welly’ on the night, so the excellent compression is a good way of keeping it all reasonably consistent.”
Although the vocalists relied solely on the ambiance of the room for foldback, Watson did send clicktrack IEM feeds to the Orchestra pit via the SD11i, and says it is “brilliant for providing monitoring – and not just in a theatre environment as it can handle 12 Mono or Stereo outs.”
Watson spends a lot of time on the road with bands, and over the last few years has worked closely with Sandi Thom touring the UK. A lot of her shows in recent years have been blues oriented productions with a full five-piece band, but in smaller and more intimate venues, some of which aren’t particularly geared up for this calibre of show.
“I always wished I’d been able to tour a console like this in these situations,” he says. “I decided to buy the SD11i as it can handle these shows and venues brilliantly, either as a FOH console, as a combined FOH and monitor solution, or an add on monitor console.
“Having this facility in these environments can also add so much production value to these shows and, with such a small footprint, it doesn’t take up any vital audience space. And of course it’s so easy to transport, I can get it in the back of my car on my own in its wheeled road case. In short, I think the SD11i is absolutely spot-on for what it is and for the market it’s after.”