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Les Miserables: Master of the House

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Officially London's longest running West End show, Les Mis is now in its 30th year, and is without doubt one of the all-time greats. Shaftesbury Avenue's Queen's Theatre, the show's home for the last decade, benefits from the work of renowned sound designer, Mick Potter, and all the kit was deployed by leading audio rental house, Autograph, so it's hardly surprising that the sound in the auditorium is just as impressive as the show's unbelievable, 40-strong cast.

Although many of you will have undoubtedly seen this magnificent production, here’s a quick summary of the plot: Set in early 19th Century France, Les Mis is the story of a French peasant, Jean Valjean, and his quest for redemption, after serving 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. After breaking parole and starting over, thanks to an inspired act of mercy from a particularly understanding Bishop, Valjean is then hunted down by the ultimate bad cop, Javert. The story jumps through a revolutionary period in France, where a group of young idealists decide to make their last stand at a street barricade, and there’s even a love triangle entwined in there to boot.

It was Cameron Mackintosh, in cahoots with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) that first brought Les Mis to the UK. After listening to [Les Mis songwriters] Boublin and Schönberg’s concept album in 1982, he drew inspiration to bring [Les Mis writer] Victor Hugo’s story to the stage; and on October 8th 1985, it debuted at London’s Barbican Theatre.

Despite some initial bad press, ticket sales immediately soared, and it’s now arguably the most loved musical of all time. After the West End, similar heights of success were achieved on Broadway, and Les Mis has now been seen by more than 70 million people in 42 countries, and in 22 languages around the globe. It’s still breaking box-office records everywhere, 29 years on. And if you need more convincing, just look at the phenomenon that was Tom Hooper’s 2012 movie adaptation: it won three Academy Awards (was nominated for eight), and grossed close to half a billion US dollars worldwide. Enough said.

KEEP CALM AND GET DYNAMIC

Sitting down to watch Les Mis in a quirky old auditorium like the Queen’s Theatre is a fantastic experience; it has that effortless ‘oldy worldy’ vibe, and although acoustically it’s pretty unforgiving, Adrian Cobey does a tremendous job at mixing the sound, especially considering the amount that’s going on at any one time... So what’s his secret?

“Staying calm, and riding the faders... All the time!” Cobey smiles, giving a demonstration on his DiGiCo SD7T console at the back of the theatre. I notice not even half the stage is visible from FOH, and ask him how much of an issue that is during the show. “Not much really, as the line arrays and the subs are all buried within the panels, so I get the bottom five boxes or so, plus the delays; some subs are buried in the ceiling here, too, which gives a great image in the room. Also, the surround plays a big part. It’s never a point of source; the big moments just happen around you, which is great, as you can just drop them away at any time. A show like this, where there are so many intimate moments, but also a lot of big battles, means the dynamics are enormous.”

Despite the console’s fantastic bells and whistles, as Cobey puts it, he works with the SD7T in a surprisingly manual fashion. Most of his previous experience in mixing theatre has been with analogue, and he says it’s virtually the same in terms of operation working with the DiGiCo.

“It doesn’t work any other way Les Mis - and it’s a very delicate beast. We don’t have click tracks, so there’s nothing to hide behind; it’s all about the cast, the band, and the FOH operator. So all we’re doing scene by scene is using the control groups, and just recalling what we need on those faders at any one point,” says Cobey, who started out on stage himself, playing in bands, before fusing his love of electronics and music, and hopping behind the console. “Sure, I’m sending various MIDI messages out to other bits of kit to change for individual scenes, but beyond that, it’s line for line all the way through, and then I’m using all the DiGiCo’s internal effects and processing, which are great. All I’ve got outboard-wise is one external reverb.”

BEAUTIFULLY ORCHESTRATED

The Queen’s Theatre has quite a shallow orchestra pit, so a fair bit of the sound “just comes straight out”, Cobey says, which can make the intimate moments quite difficult to deal with.

“Once you get to a certain point, you really don’t have any control. Every instrument has a DPA mic on it – there are 25 DPAs in total in the percussion room, which is buried under the stage, so it’s very well isolated,” Cobey explains. “They’re such high fidelity microphones, and we’ve been using DPA here for years. We’ve got everything close miked with DPA 4061s, which are superb for capturing the detail of the instruments; and we’ve also got everything miked with overheads, which we use DPA 4011s for. The overhead mics are going straight to the surround mix, and that’s all part of Mick Potter’s design: making it bigger as opposed to making it louder."

A plethora of string instruments are utilised on Les Mis: violin, viola, cello, bass, and a keyboard to back up the string section; and there are three woodwind players, who also double up on clarinet, flute, and sax. Furthermore, there is a trumpet player and trombonist, the latter of whom doubles up on the french horn.

“They’re all on the DPA 4061 and 4011, in one combination or another, and we wouldn’t use anything else, as the combination of high fidelity and clarity is unbeatable,” insists Cobey. “I don’t crush much, compression wise, either; and sometimes, because of the arrangement of the show, I end up doing some backwards mixing: When it dies away, you still need to keep the ball in the air, as it were; it’s all about following the dynamic of the show, but also just keeping that energy up, so it doesn’t die away. The dynamics of the show are immense, and it doesn’t run like a typical musical. The principles singing these songs are all the same shape; it’s a sung through musical, so there’s never time to rest.”

HATS OFF TO THE CAST

For the performers, foldback is non-existent. They rely on the sound of the mic, and the mix out front; and from my seat, bang in the centre of the stalls, it sounds incredible.

“We’ve got all 40 cast members on DPA mics, too; they’re so discreet, and the capsules are tiny. We close-mic everyone with a 4061, and the principles each have a pair, one is a backup,” Cobey explains. “It’s a tricky balance, really, as in the ideal world, you want a mic here [mimics singing into a handheld], but that’s just not possible in theatre, as all theatre producers want them hidden. Thankfully, the DPAs are not only durable, but they really do deliver; the quality of audio is fantastic, and in this environment, you’re as strong as your weakest link, so that’s crucial.

“There are also an extraordinary amount of hats being used on this show, and we put a 4061 on each of them, too. It might sound strange, but often, as soon as a cast member puts on a hat, the mic on their forehead becomes covered, so that’s the end of that! So we just add them to the hats, and then we paint up the 4061 capsules to suit the respective performers’ hairlines, so we have every base covered!”

PEOPLE PERSON

It’s a tough job, mixing for theatre – no doubt about it. So what advice can Cobey offer to any wannabe theatre engineers?

“[smiles] Don’t dive into Les Mis as your first job in theatre, as it’s a big ask! I’d say get involved in amateur theatre, and bug people; keep on their case, and watch what they do. As a friend of mine says, be a sponge – but without making a nuisance of yourself. Ask to dep on shows, certainly. Being at the desk comes a bit later, but being involved in musical theatre is about learning the radio side of it, and then being involved in the cast; and there are a lot of departments you have to liaise with. Mics travel through wigs and wardrobes, so being a people person is a big part of it.

“You also have to love it to do it, as it’s different every night. People are always on holiday, and the nature of how the Musician’s Union works means we never have the same set of musicians in; we can have up to eight deps per performance, and that can really affect the show. Not in a bad way, but you end up building up a database of things in your head, really; that’s how I treat it as I come in the building when I see who is on, who is off, and who is covering what, and so on. It’s your job to have that snapshot in your head out there, and do your best to recreate what the designer wants on that day.”

SHOWTIME

I was genuinely gobsmacked throughout this Les Mis performance. It’s powerful, and it’s moving; it’s hilarious, and it’s heartbreaking. In short, it’s a bloody masterpiece. What was also evident was the work of the crew, as Cobey had told me about earlier. The scene changes were entirely seamless, and to me, it looked like the whole production went without a hitch. Audio-wise, it was just magical, and although it wasn’t loud, it somehow filled the auditorium; when the chorus sang, they were bang on the money, and some of the solos were mesmerising. A shout-out must go to the brilliant Tom Edden for his portrayal of Thénardier, and to the awesome vocal talents of Carrie Hope Fletcher, who has clearly made Eponine her own. To the whole cast and crew, a big thumbs up. The only question left is: When can I come again?