Zorro Rides Again

Internationalism at its best: Spanish flamenco, Russian actors, American sound design and a German AURUS 

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It’s five years since AURUS proved itself for the first time as a mixing-desk for musicals. At that time, German Stage Entertainment, the leading musical production company in Germany, sent its production of Aida on tour, supported by an AURUS together with NEXUS. Meanwhile, STAGETEC technology has gained an excellent reputation on the international musical production scene and, wherever quality matters most, it has become simply the tool of choice

It was not yet obvious at the time of the Aida production but the AURUS deployment also marked the beginning of the end of an era. At least in Germany the writing was on the wall for analogue touring consoles in the musicals business. It took another four years until a little piece of this digital wave washed over to the USA. A new version of the musical production Wicked was intended to go on tour with reduced touring equipment. The solution was a digital NEXUS audio network, which replaced the previous copper analogue cabling. Internationally renowned sound designer Kai Harada was in charge of the tour.

»Wicked Management said they want to make the second tour smaller. Compared to the first tour the only thing we could change was cabling. Because the theatres are the same, the cast is the same size, the orchestra is the same size, we couldn‘t take away speakers, we couldn’t take away microphones. But we reduced cables by at least half by using the NEXUS system.«

Working with NEXUS convinced Harada to such an extent that the next co-operation was not long in coming. Since the end of 2010, another joint production of Stage Entertainment, with Harada as sound designer, relies on STAGETEC technology: the musical Zorro in the MDM Palace Theatre in Moscow.

»Zorro had been produced in London and Paris with a different sound designer. The music was composed by the Gipsy Kings, and obviously the guitar was very important, but for the show in Russia they cut one of the guitars. It was quite a challenge to make the show sound big even though there were only seven people in the orchestra – two keyboards, bass, drums, percussion, two guitars and a third guitar on stage.«

The musical in Moscow‘s MDM Palace Theatre tells the story of the legendary Zorro, fighting the eternal struggle of good and evil with daring sword fights and breathtaking acrobatics. During the day, Zorro lives a quiet life as a minor aristocrat, Don Diego de la Vega, in the countryside. But at night he transforms himself into the avenger of the oppressed, wearing a black cloak and mask!
Zorro is now almost a hundred years old and the subject of numerous books and films. The musical was produced in co-operation with Isabel Allende who, in 2005, published an adaptation of the story as a novel. For the musical, the music is composed by the Gipsy Kings and John Cameron.

However, in contrast to broadcast and in comparison with the classical genres such as opera, concert and theatre, digital audio technology has still a long way to go until it gains a strong foothold in the world of musical production. The frequent performances, high price of admission and of course, the massive console function capacity required for musicals are some of the reasons for the hesitant entrance into the digital age. And for good reason, an unreliable console can cost the organizer a lot of money if a performance has to be aborted or cancelled completely. On the other hand, analogue mixing consoles have now reached an age where the risk of failure is now much higher than that of their long-established digital counterparts. This is true certainly for STAGETEC consoles at least, which have established a very good reputation for reliability.

»I found the NEXUS system very easy to use; it was relatively easy to come up with a system for Wicked in America, and it was also easy to set up. It‘s been absolutely great; very stable, and I absolutely love the way it sounds.«

The sound mix of a musical makes extraordinarily high demands on a mixing console. As a rule, a great many input channels are connected – between 100 and 140 channels is far from unusual! If the sound operator is to keep everything under control during the show, the desk must have not only sufficient logical channels but also a relatively large number of physical channel control strips. In addition, it’s an essential condition that every channel control strip
gives direct access to the most important parameters, i.e. that it offers controls not only for levels and panning but also for EQ, buses, routing and dynamics! Here lies one of the many AURUS strengths. Since its debut in 2002 as the »Direct-Access« console it has featured an almost analogue style control surface. For two-person-operation, which is common during the setup phase, this is an important consideration.

»The thing that I like most is that it sounds great. That is the most important thing. At the end of the day, what comes out of the speakers sounds really, really good and that is what matters.«

When it comes to automation, a digital AURUS is superior to an analogue desk as a rule. Over many years in theatres all over the world, the scene automation has been tested and improved constantly. Today it encompasses the entire functions of the desk and has become an important tool for mixing musicals. The ever more complex productions require scene-by-scene changing of the routing, control over external effects machines and players and a large quantity of logic functions.
These logic control requirements can be quite complex as Zorro demonstrates. Some scenes require the playback of pre-produced sound effects at exact points in the music. Responsibility for starting playback at the correct bar precisely rests with the conductor - not the sound operator. For this reason, the conductor’s desk has a push button installed which triggers a logic input in the adjacent NEXUS base device. NEXUS then generates a MIDI command which triggers the player to reproduce the desired effect. However, to ensure the correct effect is played out; NEXUS first checks the position in the console scene automation list before it generates the MIDI command.
This ingenious combination of NEXUS logical functions and AURUS scene automation is especially useful when events have to be started in mid scene. In a scene where no playback is required, the push button is disabled. This guarantees that the list is always in the right place and will not jump to the next scene accidentally as would be the case with a less intelligent solution. Without this logic circuit, the conductor would have had to be provided with a custom labeled MIDI panel with a dedicated connection to the effects player via long MIDI lines with repeaters.

»The conductor hits a button that triggers a NEXUS GPI event which tell the AURUS to send a specific MIDI note back to a computer which plays the click track. We used a lot of these features, plus just simple on/off commands for microphones, through the NEXUS.« 

The eight channel Zorro sound effects are played back by a Macintosh computer backed up by another player which operates synchronously. If problems occur, the sound operator can switch to the backup machine without interruption – another security feature which is by no means standard everywhere.
The venue for the musical, the MDM-Palace Theater in Moscow, was a conference centre until it was refurbished. Therefore, conversion into a musical venue is not without its challenges. There are no balconies and all the seating is on one level with a much shallower rake than is typical in a purpose built theatre. The auditorium is also particularly wide at the rear and both these factors impact the PA system.

»Just filling this really big room with as much sound as possible without being too loud – system-wise I had a lot of surround speakers because at the beginning of the show the cast comes through the auditorium to get on stage. For a lot of that it was very useful having AURUS to do programmed value changes, level changes for cues at the beginning and for special effects. That was great.«

To achieve front localization for as many seats as possible and to provide an accurate perception of the position of actors on the stage, Harada opted for many single speakers each of which could be addressed individually. One of his trademarks is the use of a relatively large number of speakers to create quasi parallel FOH systems for the various signals, for instance one for the voices, another for the music, and a third for the effects. Thus, the various signals are mixed only at the acoustic level. This prevents unpleasant reciprocal effects and enables a more transparent sound to develop.

»A musical is usually more complex than a rock-and-roll show. For me, and especially on Zorro and on other shows I did in the past, it is important that it still sounds natural – that you still think the sound is coming from the performers. And that is about system tuning and balancing and telling an operator how it should sound.«

In this arrangement, NEXUS is not only in charge of routing the sums to the correct PA speakers but also responsible for adding the individual delay to each signal. In this way localization is enhanced, reinforcing the spectator’s perception that the sound emanates from the stage, not from loudspeakers.
Thanks to the AURUS’ N-1 matrix there is no practical limit to the number of signals that can be mixed individually. The matrix offers the capacity for up to 96 separate sums – which is of course just a theoretical number for an application such as this! However, 26 different sums are mixed for Zorro, not including the monitor mix for the musicians since this is realized independently via an Aviom system which makes it possible for the musicians to create their own individual mixes.

»Two Spanish guitars play the show and they were training a third one who was Russian. There are six Flamenco dancers from Spain in the show and they were also teaching the Russian actors as well. The production has a Russian company, a British director, a French music supervisor, French sound company, Dutch Lighting company, my German associate, Christian from STAGETEC Germany, me from America, and not to forget a great Russian sound crew, including the extremely talented mixer Sergey Korneyev – that was really great.« 

The sound design of a musical is constructed from many small mosaic tiles. In an ideal world, they all complement each other in the end to create a colourful and vivid sound picture. So far, this has been true for every sophisticated musical that has been supported by STAGETEC technology. Incidentally, there is another show running currently with very similar requirements. Kai Harada is also in charge of the sound design for Hinterm Horizont (Beyond the horizon), a German musical at the Berlin Theater am Potsdamer Platz. The Stage Entertainment Germany production employs the company’s second AURUS/NEXUS system for the audio. That says it all – the perfect sound production will be crowned a success again in 2011! 

Kai Harada (left) is a freelance sound designer working globally on musical productions. For many years he worked with Tony Meola, a long-established New York sound designer. Above all, he believes his main task is to plan the whole audio system including the FOH system and the microphones, to arrange the mixing and to program the system together with the show operator until the sound corresponds with his conceptions.
In addition to Kai Harada, we thank Michel Weber (right) of Stage Entertainment Germany and Christian Fuchs for all the information and their support! 

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