A slice of tech life – touring in China

We are on tour in China, for the International show “Chicago”

A slice of tech life – touring in China

Our resident Splitbeam technician, Jeff Thomson, shared this with us whilst on his travels.

Saturday 20 October 2018

“I’m in Nanjing today. It’s my day off, finally. I’m currently on tour with the international tour of Chicago 2018/19 as sound number two. My roles on this production are mainly system tech and deputy operator.

I was supposed to have been documenting this tour from the beginning of the China leg, which was 3 weeks ago, and the fact that I’m only getting around to making a start of it today is testimony to the way things go when you’re touring mainland China, doing a new venue each week – there is simply no time!

The tour kicked off in Auckland, New Zealand and then moved to Wellington. We had a local technical provider on that side, which made it a lot easier to do the in’s and out’s and helped us, as the touring crew, to focus on learning the show and find our individual roles in the team.

After a week off after New Zealand, half of which was spent in the air between New Zealand, South Africa and China, we opened in China in Chongqing (yes that is a real place). This is my first time in mainland China – the closest I had been was Hong Kong, which it turns out, doesn’t count at all.

The venues here are all vast, with extreme architecture, special effects lighting and plenty of seats, but not much in the way of acoustic design or treatment. Stepping into one is always impressive.

We were in the Poly Grand Theatre in Chongqing. On arrival, we were greeted by our translators (thank goodness), local crew as well as venue staff. Being our first city in China, our team of four was joined by Matt Grounds (Sound Designer) and Victor (freelancer, apologies on the surname) to help with the new rig and setup. We began load-in on Sunday 30 September, my birthday lol…

Opening night (preview) was Tuesday 2 October, giving us +-60 hours to get the show in, the most we will enjoy for the China leg. This gave us time to learn the rig, and myself time to work closely with Matt on the system design, as this has become my responsibility since. It is my job to try and recreate his design throughout China and forward, as realistically as possible.

At the heart of our system is the Digico SD7T (naturally), and at the extremities are D&B’s Y-series array and point source boxes, as well as the V-series single 18” subs. The cast’s voices are captured by DPA 4061’s (of course), while the band is mostly done with DPA 4011’s and 4099’s, with a few Shure’s, AKG’s and Sennheiser’s scattered here and there.

We used our own motors for rigging points, flying the array, while doing a ground array with the subs and throwing in some in-fills for the extremes of the front row, as well as some E6’s for front fills. Most of the venues in China are quite protective and strict about their buildings, which prevents us from using the usual tricks for rigging and cable runs. This includes screwing front-fill plates into the stage, or even gaff-taping cables onto the floor. The front-fill dilemma actually caused a few hours of brainstorming, but we eventually got a position we were happy with, sitting on-top of the venue’s barrier that covered the gap between the auditorium level orchestra pit and the stage.

The idea behind the sound design of Chicago is to take you back to the 1920’s, being more acoustic and natural sounding than what we (and audiences) are used to Nowadays (see what I did there?). This worked relatively well in Auckland and very well in Wellington (being an intimate venue), but was a bit of a challenge in Chongqing – a huge arena of a space with sound bouncing around more than a toddler on Red Bull. We had to bring our overall level up, and go a bit more “concert” style with the design unfortunately, but we got away with it.

Overall, it was a success. The team was happy. The jetlag, long hours and dirty air eventually caught up with me, resulting in my missing the opening night party and turning my day off into a sick day, but luckily I was mostly back to my old self after a day of rest.

Matt Grounds and Victor said goodbye, and we were on our own. The team is made up of Tom Meehan (HOD Sound/Operator), myself (System Tech/Deputy Operator), Thembani Matshabane (Radio Tech) and David Tsai (Assistant Radio Tech). We each have our specific roles, but are all willing to help out wherever it’s needed, which is really important when you have hardly any time to get a show loaded in.

Thankfully we only had a matinee on the Sunday of Chongqing, which meant we could begin loadout at 5pm, a luxury. Being our first time packing the rig up and doing the truck pack, it took us 6.5 hours to get the container doors closed. Onwards with a flight to Dongguan - the Poly Dongguan Yulan Grand Theatre.

Load-in started at 8am on Monday 8 October for myself and Tom, with a bit of a site recce and points check before Thembani (Tee) and David joined us at 9am. I decided to go with a similar design to Chongqing, with our arrays of 14 Y-8’s and 2 Y-12’s on our own motor points, and the centre cluster of 2 Y-8’s and 2 Y-12’s on the downstage fly-bar – a bit of a risk for me, but we were safe as the downstage edge of our deck fell behind the bar by a few metres. This meant that we could get great vocal localization from the centre cluster as our zero-point, but still get decent gain before feedback. It worked. 

We weren’t able to do a ground array of the subs unfortunately, and so had to double-stack 2-a-side on the stage. We didn’t have the luxury of a barrier for our front-fills, but in true touring fashion of ‘making a plan’, rigged them on microphone stands in front of the stage – which actually worked really well and looked quite neat, so we have carried the idea through with us to Nanjing. Fills weren’t necessary, the array covered the audience easily as the seating started quite a way back.

Our current general schedule is as follows:

Monday – Travel day

Tuesday – Load-in (+- 8am-1am)

Wednesday – Load-in, tech, opening (+- 8am-11pm)

Thursday – 1 Show

Friday – Maintenance and 1 Show

Saturday – 2 Shows

Sunday – 2 Shows and load-out

This means we now have about 36 hours to get the rig setup. Possible, but still tight. We are naturally getting quicker with it though. Day 1 is spent getting the PA and infrastructure in, and day 2 is for setting up the bandstand and smaller bits, like foldback and comms, etc.

Every venue has its challenge. This one was for me. Basically, up until lunch on day 1, I am checking rigging points and plotting the system. The original plan was to have the pit down with no additional seating. I did the drawing for this, only to be told at lunch that they were now putting seats in the pit. Back to the drawing-board. On completing version 2, I was told they had changed their minds and gone back to the original plan. Back to the drawing board. 3 hours behind from the get-go on day 1. 

This has resulted in 2 things:

  1. We now do a site recce when we arrive in the city on the travel day, to make sure my drawings are okay and that all our points are possible, etc. We also check for other things like cable runs and power locations, as well as venue tanoy systems, etc. We confirm then and there about the pit seating.
  2. I now save each version I do of the drawings, in case the same happens again. I wish I didn’t have to learn the hard way.

Despite all this, we managed to get 3 or so hours of sleep and get back to the venue for 8am the next day to tune the system before getting the bandstand ready for band seating and soundcheck, followed immediately by cast soundcheck and then tech. We made it! The venue has a Meyer system of surrounds and fills but has no idea how to use them or even where to patch into them. We were unable to utilize their box fills as planned, but luckily our arrays managed to cover the lower 2 boxes perfectly, and they weren’t selling the top ones – so we got away with it.

Loadout started at 10pm this time round as we didn’t have the luxury of only doing one show. We finished at 4am. 6 hours – a bit better but not as great as we had hoped. We were actually doing really well until we had issues with a pin in the right PA, and then the motor with the other side of the PA. Hopefully next time we can get it done and packed in 4-5 hours.

Another flight. We arrived here in Nanjing on Monday night and a few of us went straight to the venue (Poly Nanjing Grand Theatre) to do our sight recce. This proved to be extremely productive and we have all agreed to do it wherever possible.

I decided to change things up here a bit. The venue, although beautiful, is challenging when it comes to acoustics, especially in the 2-6kHz range (which is the vocal range lol). It is made up of curves and edges which throw the sound right back into the back of your head when you’re in the auditorium. A really strange sensation. To combat this, I decided to firstly try and activate the room as little as possible, and avoid the side walls and edges as much as possible. The venue is a fair amount smaller than our previous one.

2. We are also utilizing the house motor points for our arrays and centre cluster. We have rigged their 6 points in 3 pairs, with 4m truss sections. Each point is only 250kgs. With our gold proscenium being a lot smaller than the venue’s proscenium arch, the outer points (for our main arrays) weren’t as far out as I would have liked, but the only other possible rigging position was much too far upstage for any usable gain before feedback. The spot between the pros, iron and false prosc was much too tight to get a curved array into. With the smaller room, slight sight-line issues from the balcony as well as lower load-limit, I decided to change the L&R arrays to 12 Y-8’s a side. This helped prevent throwing high frequencies into the side edges. I then changed the centre to 6 Y-12’s with the idea to pull as much vocal out of the L&R arrays as possible and put them into the centre, which was now covering the whole auditorium (including the balcony for the first time) by being 6 wide-angle boxes. As we had to go relatively high with the arrays and centre for sight-lines, I used the front fills as our zero-point, to help bring the image down again. We had to do double-stack 2-a-side subs again, as this venue has ‘desks’ in front of each row of seats, meaning that if we did a ground array we would be firing straight into a solid wall. Again, the downstage of our deck is starting well behind the venue pros, and so I delayed the front fills back to line-up with that. I threw fills in to help the extremes of the front few rows, as we did not have Y-12’s at the bottom of our L&R arrays to help there.

The plan worked really well… maybe too well. We had gone back to the intimacy and localization of Wellington. This was a bit of a shock to the ears at first, as we have grown accustomed to the concert version of China. However even I had to admit that it was a bit “too acoustic” for the venue, and as much as I was loving it, had to bring the level slightly up and do a few tweaks here and there to find a balance between the two. But I am really happy with the results. The sound is coming from where you see it. I learn more about the system and some new tricks each time, and my challenge for next week is to get the mix position (always tucked away beneath a balcony) to sound a bit more decent – without under-balcony fills. Challenge accepted!

Operating-wise, this has actually been the most challenging show to learn for me. I thought it would be relatively straight forward and simple, as there is not much to it – but I have found that that makes it more of a challenge. You are constantly level matching and avoiding phasing (most of the dialogue is done with the cast in each other’s faces), as well as keeping anything unnecessary out of the system, to keep it as clean and acoustic as possible. This makes it really busy. 

Don’t even get me started on the courtroom scene – don’t bother trying to do it on-script, there is no time. However, I am really enjoying it. The only challenge of mixing as number 2 is that you don’t get to keep the mix fresh in your muscle-memory. Combine that with mixing the show for the first time in a week, in a new venue, and it makes my first show for each week a bit of a stress, but that’s the gig. Thankfully Tom is strict on giving me at least 2 shows a week, to help keep some form of the show in my fingers lol…

I will now work on the drawing for the next venue (Wuhan) with photos and venue drawings, and hopefully get it to a point where Monday’s sight recce is purely double-checking everything will work!

Next update will be once the smoke has settled in Wuhan.

Until then,

Jeff Thomson

Senior Audio Operator – Splitbeam

(Sound 2 – Chicago International Tour 2018/2019)


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