A few months ago, I wrote a (slightly wry) article on the ever-growing noise of moving lights and scenery in theatre [“Bloody Moving Lights;” ED, Dec. 2003], my main complaint being that it was all far too loud and that no one had seemed to notice or care. Ironic then, that just after that article was published, I was asked to design a show that required me to make the set louder.

Jailhouse Rock is the new project by Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson (the writer/director team behind Buddy). Based on the original 1950s Elvis musical, the show is essentially the story of Vince Everett, a young man who comes from the wrong side of town, winds up in prison for manslaughter, and once inside, discovers he has a great singing voice. He gets spotted on a talent show, and upon his release, we follow his rise, fall, and rise again, running in direct parallel to the birth of Rock and Roll.

The set, designed by Adrian Rees, is a perspective row of cells over two levels running left and right of center, leaving a triangular playing space. Set pieces are either trucked on through the cell doors or flown. The insinuation is that wherever Vince is, the prison and the State watch every move he makes. It is one of the strongest stage images I have seen in a long time.

Bettinson (who also directs) wanted to fulfill two fundamental elements: a story with a central character whose journey would engage and absorb the audience, letting them care about him and his situation; and a musical style that, rather than simply supplement the story, is an organic, integral part of each character.

For me, the brief was, as ever, complex and constantly in need of expansion. The early script called for the music to emanate from the set; people banging cups and steel bars to make rhythmic patterns with vocal sounds over the top. Later, adding an acoustic guitar or harmonica then slowly adding a double bass and semi-acoustic guitars right through to a full drum kit, electric bass, and electric guitars, all played by the cast, not an on- or off-stage band. Bettinson required the music to be as raw, gritty, and earnest as life in prison in the mid-1950s.

With Act One set mainly in the prison, what could never work with this script would be launching into a number with an unseen band playing the score. Everything had to be legitimate and have a motive for being there. It became immediately obvious that this was not going to be your average “Elvis jukebox/review” show.

From the early set design and model showing, we knew the set would be steel and that we could deaden it in places to change the timbre of it. We knew we had a free license to get the cast to hit it with whatever we needed, as long as we could justify it. The problem was that steel is pretty “un-tuneable” and not particularly dynamic. Adding tin buckets and plastic tubs gave us more percussive texture, but we still had no actual musical notes. David Mackay (musical supervisor and arranger) stumbled across a performance group who used cut-down drain pipes: regular grey, plastic drainpipe that, when hit at one end with a heavy piece of plastic sheeting, would emanate a musical note (of sorts) out the other end, and by changing the length, it becomes tuneable. These groups of pipes were worked into the set as part of the heating system and played with what looks like paintbrushes.

We also have underscore to deal with, and whether we are in the prison or not, this all has to be played by the inmates on set and in character. One scene in the prison laundry uses the hisses from the steam presses as part of the rhythm track.

Multiple unproven sources requiring miking, coupled with a 22 strong company, makes Act One a tough challenge.

Act Two throws a few more “challenges” our way. We see our lead man perform in a recording studio with a traditional five-piece rock-and-roll band and do a TV special to a click track and a few impromptu semi-acoustic numbers. All fine, until you get to the Finale/Concert/Act Three, which evolves into a full rock-and-roll show, complete with a V-Drum rig disguised as paint tins, violins, trumpets, saxophones, and more guitars than a Stairway To Heaven convention.

So to recap: we now have 24 drain pipes, 12 cell bars, three harmonicas, a bass harmonica (a contraption that looks like the inside of an A/C unit), two laundry presses, a slide guitar, three semi-acoustics, a piano, a lap steel, two upright basses, an electric bass, three electric guitars, two violins, a banjo, a banjo ukulele, a Gretch drum kit, a V-Drum kit, an accordion, and 22 cast members. And this is before considering the foldback issues and the size of mixing desk.

First to solve were the cell bars. Whatever we used had to be discreet, durable, and have a high signal-to-feedback ratio. At first, I looked at guitar pick-ups, which could be glued to the bars; we had, in the past, miked a tap floor in much the same way. It works, but not that well.

I then remembered my John A. Leonard lessons at The Guildhall and the C-Tape system of miking pianos. A quick Internet surf led me to the suppliers. Once received, they were glued to a piece of rigging in the stores at Autograph Sound Recording's HQ and hit with UPM frames. Pro Tools recorded the results, which were then emailed to David Mackay.

The pipes were not that difficult once you conceded that each one would need to be miked individually. I knew that they would have to be closely miked and that the mics would have be able to cope with a high SPL. This meant using a drum-style mic (which meant using the Sennhieser E604) and lots of them. The next problem was how to control and mix them.

The steam presses were another little problem but easily solved with the aid of some relay-to-midi triggers, courtesy of a midi solutions F8 footswitch controller. We fitted a tiny momentary switch to the center of each steamer. When the switch makes contact, it is translated into a midi note that is sent to an Akai S6000.

It was obvious, by this point, that we needed our traditional Cadac out front, but we knew we couldn't tie up 36 channels of Cadac real estate on pipes and bars. I know the Yamaha DM2000 well, so I was immediately seduced by the cut down DM1000 giving us the inputs, outputs, and dynamic control we needed.

The other issue that was brewing was that it was becoming obvious that none of the instruments were going to be able to be cabled in the conventional way. They moved around the set too fast to use cable, Dis, and stage boxes. It would also look ugly and detract from the reality of it all. This left us with only one option; all the instruments had to become wireless. Together with the crew's dedication, Autographs' three decades of expertise, and my blind optimism, this was at first scary, but ultimately successful.

The electrical pick up instruments were not too difficult once you got around the gain issues into the pack; the acoustic instruments use Sennhieser MKE2s fitted to them. Once again, we see all these instruments on stage played by the characters so seeing big mics above them was just never going to be an option. Everything had to remain as low profile as possible. My favorite pieces of miking are the harmonicas. We couldn't get close enough until Jo Wredden (the shows No. 2 operator) came up with concealing the mics inside bandages worn on the actors' hands. Genius.

The only cabled mics on the show are the vocal mics. In Acts One and Two, we use the Shure 55, as this is so well recognized as the “Elvis miking.” Luckily for us, the Shure reproduction sounds pretty good after some careful EQ and compression, as long as the singer stays on axis. In the concert section, the experiments end, and we stick to what we know, Shure Beta 58s. I had to have at least one tried and tested product on the show!

The stage set up may be esoteric, but front of house is more formulaic. A 140-slot Cadac J-Type running SAM software handles the main mix with two Yamaha DM1000s on sub-mix duty for the set mics and the one click track we have. A myriad of Autograph custom computers keep everything talking to everything else over the wireless LAN network.

The main PA system is Meyer M1D, which is being pushed to its limits (literally). It's a great box, and to be honest, trying to fit anything bigger into a West End house is almost impossible. There is also a compliment of Meyer UPMs, MSL2s, and UMs handling down fill, cluster, surround, and front fills.

Foldback has been hard work. A challenging set but with a very understanding scenic designer, we managed to get large apertures cut into the floor to mount UMs down stage left and right and then a further two UMs just upstage of the proscenium. We also have the luxury of eight IEM packs. All the foldback is handled by an automated DM2000 backstage. During set up, we made use of Yamaha's Studio Manager control software so that we could take one of the wireless tablets and mix the IEMs and generic foldback in situ rather than stuck behind the desk. The system works well due to the immediate contact it achieves with the cast.

The show itself is just starting to settle, and box office looks healthy. It's been tough. Aside from the physical problems, the dynamic of the show is hard to crack. It runs the full spectrum, from an intimate play, to a play with music, to a full-on rock show. My main struggle has been designing a system that can cope with that kind of dynamic sweep. The sound of the show is fundamental to its success, so the producers keep telling me. That must be why we did our time and EQ session at 2 in the morning…but that's just me ranting… again.

Simon Baker is Autograph Sound Recording's Sound Designer and the 2003 LDI Sound Designer of the Year.

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