"It’s hard to see how this production could be improved on. Festive family theatre rarely gets better than this." Nigel Smith for The Stage
Well after the excitement of Spamalot earlier in the year, I was delighted to be invited back to the Mercury Theatre Colchester, to design their summer musical production Peter Pan.
This Actor Musician show followed in the foot steps of the successful Wind in the Willows last year, with a few familiar faces in the cast. I had been looking forward to be working again with Matt Cullum and Daniel Buckroyd, along with my old friend Richard Reeday who composed and musical directed the production.
I had loved the challenge of last years Wind in the Willows with Cajon's, Accordions and Tubas, all needing amplifying in a way that would allow our cast to move freely around the stage and auditorium. I was looking forward to some more crazy micing on radio mic packs and I was not disappointed! The Mercury Theatre have a great team and I know Joey, the venues sound engineer, had also been enjoying finding mic positions for DPA 4061s on tubas and wooden boxes too!
The most challenging of all, was micing the accordions in a way that provided an even capture of the full spectrum of sound an accordion produces, but also in a way that was portable, didn't hinder getting the instrument on and off, and looked fitting with the style of the show. After some research it would seem we needed at least two mics maybe three.
We did some experiments and come up with a nice combination using the JTS CX-500F flute mic using the units boom to get the mic away from the keys and a little more equidistant from all the notes. We then used a JTS CX-500 DU on the low frequency port of the accordion for the low notes. This worked well, but two mics mean't two radio mic transmitters for each accordion. Not ideal when the actor is already wearing one. I discovered a little box that takes two mics of this type and powers them, allowing a mix of the two to be output to one XLR. Originally designed for a Chinese folk instrument the
Hu Qin, this box performed just as we needed to mix the two channels down to a single XLR, that could then be connected to a singe Sennheiser transmitter for the shows.
After early talks with the team and following on from lessons learned from last year's Wind in the Willows, another challenge arose for the sound of the show. With a small cast in both these shows and all the music being played on stage, we soon discovered that in busy production numbers all the cast would be needed to ensure a full sound. This was great but your big numbers in musicals normally take the action somewhere. We had musical numbers that were fab, but at the end of the number all the cast would still be there in the same costumes and the set wouldn't have changed as everyone was playing!
We needed to record elements of the playing so that some cast could change and move some of the vast set around, like the change from The Nursery to Mermaids Lagoon etc. In discussions with Richard the shows composer, we thought it was important to ensure that the recorded sections and live sections were indistinguishable. Some times this would just be a few instruments with some live additions and other times it would be all recorded. The only way to do this and ensure it was seamless, was to record our cast playing with the mics we would use for the show in a very live way. I selected the mics for the live shows and recorded into logic using the shows Digico SD9T as a big sound card with help from a madiface, this way when we played back through qlab everything had an identical signal path, be it live or recorded. We utilised over 30 channels of Qlab playback for the show with each live instrument having a paired dedicated QLAB channel also.
This method worked wonderfully, meaning the live cast could play the opening sections of a number, put down their instruments to move set and change leaving our Captain Hook to play Violin to the tracked band almost without you noticing. Once set they could pick up their next instruments and join back in for the next section. The use of Vamps and Devamp cues or loops, helped us in technical rehearsals deciding how long we needed before everyone was ready to join back playing again.
I love the stripped back earthy feel these shows at the Mercury create. Both Matt and Daniel have a real way of drawing in audiences to the action. Something I hope we've managed to achieve with this production.
As I write this little round up, I'm already preparing for the Mercury's Pantomime. Hopefully slightly less accordions, Cajon's, pots and Pans there though.