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Australia's Cabaret Nets Award with Meyer System
In Australia's live entertainment industry, there's no higher accolade than the Helpmann Award, established by the Australian Entertainment Industry Association (AEIA) to recognize excellence and distinguished artistic achievement. This year's presentation was a particular triumph for a Broadway-originated revival of Cabaret that has been touring the country's lyric theater circuit. In addition to awards for Best Musical, Best Musical Direction, and in several acting categories, Cabaret also took top honors in a crucial technical category: Best Sound Design. For the designers, John Scandrett and Julian Spink of System Sound in Prahran, Victoria, the recognition was made all the sweeter by the challenges they overcame along the way — with the help of a versatile collection of self-powered loudspeakers from Meyer Sound.
"Julian and I were engaged to provide complete sound design from the ground up," Scandrett says. "We specified the speaker system, as we did for other shows such as Chicago, Man of La Mancha, Footloose and Hair. Since using the very first UPA-1A compact wide-range loudspeakers in theatre in Australia many years ago, we have amassed a facility that includes predominantly Meyer speakers, and we use them for virtually everything we design. There is nearly always something in our Meyer range to suit each purpose in a given job."
Even with the right tools on hand, Spink admits, "This wasn't an easy show for us." In part, the challenges stemmed from the need to achieve the sonic feel of a cabaret in fairly large theaters. "The reinforcement is supposed to be present or close in character, as might be expected in the environment of a small cabaret room. Even though it's in a much larger space, it's not supposed to be obviously amplified. The musical instruments are played by cast members on stage, for instance, and most of them have a lot of natural power, so reinforcement needs to complement that in volume, quality and apparent location. This demands being able to work at very close to natural live levels, but with consistent tonal quality, intelligibility, and level distribution throughout the entire house."
Another challenge was designing to accommodate the variations between the venues in cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide. While all range between 1,600 – 2,200 seats, each has its own distinct acoustical character and rigging constraints. In Sydney's ornate State Theatre, for example, "heritage protections" limit rigging and speaker placement options, while deep, low overhangs create pockets in the stalls and mezzanines that are acoustically isolated and difficult to reach from the front.
"Rear delay speakers were not only desirable," Scandrett says, "but absolutely necessary. And because of sight lines and a very limited weight-bearing structure, they had to be very small but still of a quality to match the rest of the system." The solution was MM-4 miniature wide-range loudspeakers — two rows in the stalls and one in the mezzanine — with additional coverage in the upper circle provided by UPM-1P ultra-compact wide coverage loudspeakers. The MM-4s are also used for front fill. "We're able to fit them in-between the festoon lighting on the front of the show deck," Spink explains.
As the tour moves on, tailoring of the design is required at each stop. "There is a rather wide variation of parameters across the board," Scandrett says, "and although it is expedient to maintain as much 'status quo' in the sound design as possible, we cannot help but vary the speaker design to suit the particular venue."
To make that work, the speakers have to be adaptable to different applications. "We tend to change the function of some of the speakers in each venue," Scandrett says. "For instance, we can rig a UPA-1P horizontally or vertically, and this gives us great flexibility in coverage." At the same time, he adds, "being largely self-powered means that the Meyer cabinets can be relied on for consistency of quality, without the potential set-up variations of passive systems. And the cabling of a system can be more creative to suit the specific application."
While the makeup of the system varies from place to place, the setup has generally been built around UPA-1Ps and CQ-1 wide coverage loudspeakers, a combination that Scandrett and Spink have referred to for years as the "workhorse" of their theatre designs. Scandrett says the UPA-1Ps are used for center overheads, generally one facing out and two angled down or vice-versa, depending on the venue. "We consider the 100-degree horizontal coverage of these speakers to work well in a central location, and the performance is excellent."
One or two pairs of CQ-1s are used at the proscenium. "If there are multiple seating levels in the theatre," Scandrett says, "a second pair of CQ-1s are used to increase the vertical coverage. The CQ-1 has quite considerable low end performance — below 100 Hz — which means that subs can often be considered optional for musical theater shows."
Even so, Cabaret uses 650-P high-power subwoofers and PSW-2 high-power flyable subwoofers, mainly for gas chamber sound effects at the end. "We try different things with the position of these speakers in every venue," Spink says, "as the low-end response of each theatre is very different. Sometimes we couple the subs up, flown or ground-stacked, and sometime we spread them out."
In venues with particularly difficult acoustics, Scandrett and Spink have recently moved toward swapping out the CQ-1s in favor of Meyer Sound's new M1D ultra-compact curvilinear array loudspeakers in arrays of four. "We use the M1D setup when we need a better horizontal spread and more flexible vertical spread of the band mix," Scandrett says. "With eight units in the center, we get longer reach and improved direct-to-reverberant ratio in reverberant rooms. "
Band amplification and localization in the very near-field, meanwhile, is handled by UPM-1Ps. "We chose these for the wide pattern and low profile," Spink says. "We mix the band into these speakers as a Left-Center-Right mix, so we were interested in the 100 degree pattern. They are located under the catwalk, which obviates any need for band foldback to the vocalists."
While the collection of components is diverse, together they achieve the goal of strengthening the sound without disassociating it from its on-stage point of origin. It's a combination that not only caught the notice of the Helpmann Awards, but also fit the vision of Cabaret's director, B.T. McNicholl. "The requirement," Spink says, "was to achieve the most natural and credible vocal and instrumental quality and image possible, while still delivering big moments in the show's 'money numbers.' I'm pleased to say that we appear to be satisfying all expectations."