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A Conversation with Nick Lidster
Nick Lidster would still be one of London's best known theatrical sound designers had he no other credits besides his work on numerous productions of Les Miserables. But those are not his only credits; Lidster has worked on productions of Miss Saigon, Five Guys Named Moe, Aida, The Secret Garden, Madame Butterfly, and The Who's Tommy. Lidster even presided over the installation of a Meyer Sound system in the Paul McCartney Auditorium at Liverpool Insitute for the Performing Arts. Lidster's association with Les Miz started when he became a sound system operator one month into the show's landmark run at London's Palace Theatre. Since then, he has worked on several productions of the show, plus Les Miz concerts, including the 10th anniversary concert held at the Royal Albert Hall. The Scandinavian and Berlin productions of Les Miz featured sound design entirely by Lidster. The show is expected to run in Berlin until 2005.
What's your normal process for approaching the design of a system?
I usually collect together as much information about a production and venue as I can at the beginning. I read the script and listen to recordings of music or songs from the show. I look at scale drawings of the venue and design the loudspeaker system from those. I also study the cast list and orchestra line-up together with the script to decide what microphones we will need and what control equipment and sound effects systems we require.
How do you deal with the changes in venue sizes on touring productions?
While the performance aspect of a show usually stays the same, the loudspeaker system needs to be very flexible to cover the various auditoria around the UK. For the current Miss Saigon tour, I looked in detail at the plans for the first year's venues – Manchester Palace, Dublin Point and Edinburgh Playhouse – and from these drawings was able to design the loudspeaker system, knowing from experience that the system would work for all subsequent venues.
What are your criteria for determining the types of speaker systems you incorporate into your designs?
Primarily, I consider the sound quality of the loudspeakers. Then I look at the auditorium shape and size. I work out the coverage required and the type of amplification and sound that will be necessary. And last, and by no means least, I consider the rental price!
Are there any considerations or differences in designing a loudspeaker system for a play versus a musical?
Replaying recorded sound effects through loudspeakers is a lot more forgiving than a system designed for amplifying live musicians and singers. This isn't to say that sound effects design is not an art form because it most certainly is, but you tend to need more specific control of loudspeaker systems on musicals to provide very even and controlled amplification. This helps you in several ways. Smooth loudspeaker coverage allows for a more natural sounding show and better delay imaging with the actors. Also it helps you to get better amplification levels before feedback.
What factors usually determine where you are going to place your speakers?
Where the actors perform and where the audience is seated.
What EQ and alignment systems have you used?
I have been doing this job for 20 years so I have used many systems. The latest ones I use are Meyer Sound CP-10 complementary phase parametric equalizers and the SIM audio analyzer, XTA DP226 controllers, BSS TCS804 delays, Varicurve and Omnidrive systems, and Yamaha and Klark Teknik graphic equalizers and delays.
What do you try to accomplish during your EQ time? Is there a different approach in designing a system for imaging and localization of sources versus a show where the feeling of power is more important?
I will usually (align the) delay (for) a loudspeaker system first so that I can equalize it more effectively and quickly. Because of this process I think about imaging from the first minute of the process. I try and achieve clarity and an even tonal balance during EQ time, paying attention to the evenness of the loudspeaker coverage in a building. However, it is worth remembering that at low amplification levels, vocal clarity often relies on a visual connection with a performer. People will often say they can't hear an actor if they can't see their face and therefore it may be necessary to amplify the voices louder with respect to the orchestra at the back of the gallery, than in the middle of the stalls where you have good visual contact. Therefore, I am not always quite so interested in every area of a theater sounding the same.
I do try to delay high power arena systems to (be synchronous with) the stage. However, it is as important to make sure that each main PA system is timed correctly with its adjacent side fill hang, sub bass and front fill. Good, honest timing and EQ principles do apply to large-scale amplification. It is possible to set up a loudspeaker system in a football stadium and still get a feeling that the performers are driving the show.
How has the EQ/alignment process changed over the years?
The latest EQ and delay systems allow you to control them by computer. You can literally walk about a theater with your laptop and change the sound of any loudspeaker during a show. A far cry from the "good old days" when you would have to position three colleagues in various equipment areas with Motorolas, and talk them through each and every change you required.
Is overall SPL generally an issue?
Not usually for the audiences in a theater, although we do consider where we put loudspeakers so that the audience is not being needlessly deafened or offended. We do have to consider and control SPL in orchestra pits. These levels can get pretty loud. Obviously with musicians playing week in and week out, noise "dosage levels" can become a huge issue for them and the "noise at work" legislation guidelines for dealing with these problems are the same as they would be in an office or factory.
Based on what people are accustomed to these days do you find any differences in the balance of the mix or levels as opposed to when you first started? And has the audience's tolerances changed any in terms of intelligibility or levels?
Yes, I think so; everyone these days has a sound system of some kind with a remote control, which is set the way they like it.
Modern acting styles have altered. Actors used to sing in a more operatic style, but now singing performances are more natural in scale. These performances are quieter, and require more amplification. Musical orchestrations are also much bigger than they used to be and they generally don't reduce that much when somebody is singing. This again drives the voice amplification louder.
Sound reinforcement in theater has improved massively in the time I have been involved in the business. This process has led to some very nice sounding designs being devised that are both clear and have good vocal intelligibility. However, their basic design concepts are still the same; you hear the performer coming from the stage and the orchestra coming from the pit. Unfortunately, this is becoming ever more difficult. Indeed, with the recent massive increase in the level of general background noise coming from scenery control motors and noisy lighting equipment, the average level a sound system now has to run at to get above basic background noise is becoming ridiculous.
Nevertheless, theater is all about human interaction and storytelling and I still believe people like the notion that the singing and acting is coming from the performer on stage. And while modern shows allow us to step out and stretch the boundaries some of the time, essentially the criteria for normal theater musical sound design stays pretty much the same as it ever has.
When do you use a line array instead of a single box or conventional cluster?
I would generally use a line array when I have a large auditorium where the seats or viewing areas are such that you would see every part of a conventional PA.
What are the advantages of self-powered systems versus conventional systems?
The advantages are that you don't have to build racks and racks of amplifiers and pull lots of heavy loudspeaker cables in.
Are newer theaters generally better for accomplishing your goals, in terms of acoustics and technical facilities? Do older theaters have an edge in some ways?
Modern theaters are better than old ones in virtually every respect. Their auditoria have better, plusher furnishings and carpets. Most have been acoustically treated in some way. So yes, they can sound better and certainly these dryer sounding auditoriums help with vocal clarity. Older theaters such as the Palace Theater in London have extremely good natural acoustics and these can nicely compliment a realistically amplified show. I like modern refurbished venues best, such as the Hippodrome in Birmingham. These theaters offer the best of both worlds; great new facilities and nice, pretty Victorian auditoriums.
Do you work in newer theaters or PACs with permanently installed systems?
No, not yet!
How important is compatibility among various speakers used in a system? Do you prefer, if possible, to use loudspeakers from the same manufacturer?
I think it is important to base a sound design around a particular core brand of loudspeaker equipment because it is important that loudspeakers you select sound similar. However, I am also interested in using certain loudspeakers for particular jobs rather than being overly brand conscious. So I do combine loudspeaker types if I need to.
If you could select one design as a personal favorite or best, what would it be and why?
There are a few I like, but I think it has to be Andrew Bruce's original sound design for Les Misérables at London's Palace Theatre. This is probably because I spent three years of my life learning how to mix and work with performers on that sound system.
If you've had experience working overseas, for instance, West End vs. Broadway, or with different cultures, have you encountered ways of working or requirements for sound systems which were different than what you'd been used to?
No, I think the human ear is a pretty universal instrument and the theater sound design rules are more or less the same everywhere you go.