Musical theatre is always a challenge from an audio perspective: plenty of cues, a ton of I/O, masses of RF, and lots of bodies on stage. But here’s the thing: 40-45 isn’t showing in a theatre. Equally, there is no stage or PA system. Instead, this unique production is set in a bespoke, expansive pop-up just outside of Brussels with a 70m-wide blank canvas area, where the 1,600-strong audience, like the show’s 50 cast members, is constantly moving – and listening entirely on headphones.
This is musical theatre with a twist, and some. 40-45 is a story of love and loss, centring around a family torn by religion and war during the German invasion of Antwerp in 1940. The ever-changing set (there are about 15 main scenes) is brought to life – and, at times, death - by a series of stunning LED screens, which act as glorious, harrowing, and exciting backdrops: there are RAF Spitfires, German motorbikes, resistance shoot-outs, and celebratory drinks in a Belgian bar. It’s the height of true interactivity.
40-45 provides an immersive experience from start to finish, where the audio quite literally moves around your head, and the audience quite literally rolls about in tribunes of 200 at a time, each tribune moving individually, with the occasional low-end rumble coming from down below courtesy of three subwoofers. At the core of the audio is a DiGiCo SD7T console with expander, running Quantum 7.
“No other console on the market could handle this show; the automation system, and the functionality of the DiGiCo Theatre software is worlds apart from the competition,” says sound operator for tonight’s show, Igor Dockx, from the technical area, which houses the DiGiCo setup. “It’s so much more capable, way easier to program, and more forgiving; and it allows you to make changes in real-time over multiple cues, which is a necessity here.”
There are always 20 to 25 actors ‘on stage’ at any one point – sometimes more – and many of these are singing, too. As a result, the SD7T expander is wholly dedicated to the 25-piece choir, with the main SD7T controlling the rest of the show.
“The idea is that the audience uses headphones, and the cast uses IEMs; the principles have a stereo mix each, and the choir members share a number of mixes, all of which are mono,” reveals Pieter Doms, 40-45’s main sound operator. “We are using all of the busses on the SD7T, so we’re running 140 channels total, and utilising 190 snapshots, as each show needs to be pretty much identical to the last. We then have 32 stereo mixes, and 33 mono auxes; we use at least one band of EQ on all of the principle cast members as a dynamic band to duck down [around the 3k mark] when they get really aggressive.”
The audio distribution system – designed by Amptec - was manufactured as OEM by Glensound: 800 bespoke headphone boxes, each with a built-in preamp, and 100% wireless; a stereo mix is sent to the receivers located on each audience tribune, and from there, audio is distributed to the Amptec dual-boxes, located between the audience seats.
“There are 1,600 sets of headphones in use, all of which are tested before every performance, and we have a 50-strong crew,” says Doms. “Because there are three official languages in Belgium, a live translator will often be brought in, and we can patch that audio direct to each and every seat if we need to thanks to the way the headphone system has been designed. It’s very flexible, and the headphone panning will always be accurate, depending on where your seat ends up in the arena.”