On the sound side of things, life in the UK is thriving. Orbital Sound, for example, might have 10-15 shows in their London shop at any one time, and an average of 30 projects up and running. Autograph Sound Recording reports doing 22 shows in the first four months of 2001, working at a pace that's hard to imagine. Ramping up its activities in the sound market is Stage Electrics, as the company mounts a new offensive to break into the West End. Others specialize, such as Wigwam, in rock-and-roll sound, or Wembley, in the niche loudspeaker market.

Autograph was founded in 1973, when Phil Clifford and Andrew Bruce, both sound engineers at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, joined forces to create a hire, or rental facility. Clifford has since left the company, as has subsequent partner Julian Beech, leaving Bruce as sole owner and chairman of Autograph. He has had an award-winning career and concentrates on his design projects as well as technological advancement for the industry.

Today the company has a 2,000-sq.-m. facility in North London with a staff of 25, including administrative staff, the hire shop, and eight in-house designers, including Bruce, who leaves the day-to-day running of the company to managing director Terry Jardine (also a sound designer) and financial director Duncan Bell.

Bruce is also the principal of Autograph Sales, a separate entity currently housed under the same roof, but with a separate staff. The firm acts as a distributor for several lines, including Meyer Sound, Avenger, Clear-Com, and Intellabox PA-speaker systems.

The design and rental wing of Autograph considers itself a “theatre specialist,” with West End productions and tours of shows like Cats, Les Miz, and Fosse to its credit. Recent projects include the London production of Bounce, as well as Closer to Heaven, a new musical by the Pet Shop Boys, and The Witches Of Eastwick, which opened at Drury Lane and subsequently moved to the smaller Prince of Wales Theatre.

The sound for Witches was designed by Bruce, using the L'Acoustic d-V-dosc loudspeaker system. Autograph also supplied the sound rig for the revival of My Fair Lady, which moved into Drury Lane in July. The Nelson Mandela tribute concert in Trafalgar Square last year marked the first use of Meyer Sound's line-array speakers in the UK; these were rented from Autograph for the occasion. This fall, Bruce is designing the new musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as Autograph embarks on another busy year.

The design staff at Autograph does plays as well as musicals, with Matt McKenzie recently designing the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet, and Simon Baker designing Feelgood, a political satire that toured the UK before a London run. Back on the musical front, Jardine will be designing the upcoming production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at Sadler's Wells, and expects to use Meyer loudspeakers and a Cadac console. “This is a popular musical with a lot of sound effects,” he says. “The challenge here is to make sure the children in the production are audible and intelligible.”

In terms of new technology, Bruce and Autograph is often at the cutting edge of product development, working with such companies as Cadac for consoles and DAR for playback equipment. “New technology is also driven by what the freelance designers specify,” notes Jardine. “So you go out and buy it. If you like a certain piece of equipment, you adopt it and the in-house designers will use it as well.”

New technology is also a major concern at Orbital Sound, a London-based company that does theatrical and corporate audio design and rentals, with a full-time staff working under Chris Headlam, managing director, and Robert Brown, operations director. “Our main thrust is the supply and design of sound systems for the theatrical market,” explains Headlam. “We also work closely with companies such as Imagination, which is a theatrical company doing exhibit design in a corporate environment.”

Corporate projects teaming Orbital with Imagination include product launches for the Ford Motor Company and the “Talk” and “Journey” attractions at the London's now defunct Millennium Dome. “We maintained those attractions as well; luckily, they were rental agreements, and we got our gear back when the Dome closed,” Headlam says.

“The corporate business is seasonal in the UK and is rather flat or slow at the end of the year,” he continues. “On the other hand, theatre is more stable, generally speaking.” To fill the gap at the end of the year, Orbital stays busy with Christmas pantomimes and other holiday performances. “Rentals are our core business, so that freelance sound designers become our clients as well.” In the West End, Orbital has gear on several long-running shows.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is also an ongoing project for Orbital, which provides sound systems to the Pleasance and the Gilded Balloon, two of the larger “fringe” venues. Sebastian Frost takes care of the systems for the Pleasance, working with Tom Lishman, who provides onsite technical support for this cluster of 12 small venues borrowed from Edinburgh University each summer for the festival.

Frost and Lishman also work with the BBC, mixing Radio 4 shows for a live audience as well, with the BBC remote truck parked in the courtyard. One of the most extensive sound systems put into the Pleasance was for The Donkey Show, a disco adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which later transferred to the West End.

For the past two years, Orbital has been based in a listed (landmarked) Victorian house in Brixton, an outlying district of London. At the moment, the ground floor and two upper floors are used for offices; a large basement area is under renovation to accommodate the technical services department.

Out back is a warehouse for sound gear, located in a large “barn” once used for vehicle maintenance. Large skylights add natural light to the facility, which is set up with a “circular” system for moving equipment in and out as needed. There is now a warehouse manager and a staff of four who sort and store the equipment, as well as ready it to go out on a show. “We have our own truck for deliveries and are conveniently located near the West End,” notes Headlam.

“It's clear that digital technology will be the future. We have to face that.”
Terry Jardine, Autograph Sound Recording

In keeping with the former function of the warehouse, the old service area currently houses Headlam's stable of go-carts and a Lotus in need of repair. There are plans to turn this area into soundproof studio and rehearsal space for theatrical productions (but not rock and roll). “We need to isolate sound coming in from the warehouse,” notes Headlam, indicating where two new walls will be built with offices and restrooms sandwiched in between as buffers.

Orbital has a special relationship with d+b audiotechnik, a German loudspeaker manufacturer, serving as its UK dealer. “We have staff trained to design and service their systems,” Headlam points out, adding that Orbital stocks every speaker in the d+b range, from the small E3 boxes to the large C7 and C4 units, which can be used for rock-and-roll shows in arenas, or smaller touring musical shows such as Leader of the Pack, Elvis: The Musical, or The Roy Orbison Story. Freelance designer Rick Clark also used d+b boxes on the UK production of Chicago. “These speakers are expensive but revolutionary-sounding,” says Headlam, “and you get what you pay for.”

(Orbital also works closely with Level Control Systems; Headlam is a good friend of LCS founder and sound designer Jonathan Deans.) Headlam also champions the new PM1D mixing desk by Yamaha. “This console replaces the traditional desk and output processors as well and takes up less space in the theatre than the traditional Cadac-style desks,” he notes. “It's good financially for the producers.”

While Bruce and the other Autograph designers frequently use the larger Cadac consoles, Jardine concurs that the Yamaha desk is of interest. “This may be the first time an equipment decision is producer-driven,” he says, agreeing with Headlam that the extra revenue produced by removing fewer seats to accommodate sound equipment is certainly appealing.

“We had a Yamaha board in here for a week and were quite impressed with it,” Jardine says, adding that the new console still needs some software tweaking. “You have to be careful and not use these things early on and should wait until all the bugs are worked out. But this is a big question and it's clear that digital technology will be the future. We have to face that.”

Interested in encouraging young talent to come into the audio field, Orbital started a training course held in conjunction with the Royal National Theatre in London. The roster of instructors ranges from professional sound designers such as Paul Groothius, who designed the current revival of My Fair Lady, Chris Shutt, who designs for Theatre de Complicité, and John Taylor, a d+b representative who lectures on electro-acoustics.

“Sound is a very competitive market,” says Headlam. “Training for the future of our industry often gets overlooked. There is no apprentice system here like in other industries. Hire companies have the money to do training and should take the responsibility.” Simon Whitehorn, one of Orbital's in-house designers agrees: “Schools don't have the resources to always update their equipment. We can provide a link.”

Orbital is also outfitted with an in-house studio that can be used for editing, creating sound effects and the like, using Akai samplers, zip drives, and jazz drives from transfer of files, mini-disk reproduction, and all forms of playback equipment. There is also a sound effects library on CD for designers to use.

“There are a lot of levels of theatre. It is easy to talk about the big musicals, but we try to work with other areas as well. I think it's important that's there's more than just the West End,” says Headlam, confirming Orbital's commitment to festivals like Edinburgh and to working with opera companies such as Opera North and regional theatres throughout the UK. Headlam also sees a future possibility of teaming up with a company in the US. “The shows and designers move back and forth across the pond so frequently, it might make sense,” he says. For example, Theatre de Complicité's recent production of Mnemonic in New York was equipped with gear from Orbital, including an Amek console.

A company we should be hearing more from in terms of audio is Stage Electrics, which was started as a company called Sounds in Transit by David Whitehead, who drove speakers around in a van 22 years ago. Today, Whitehead is the managing director of a firm that handles lighting, sound rigging, staging, and rentals, with 220 employees located in branch offices around the UK, including London (on the ground floor of DHA in Waterloo Rd.). The head office is in Bristol, where Glen Beckley has recently taken the post of project manager for the audio production department.

Beckley was formerly at Wigwam, a company founded by former sound engineer Mike Spratt. “They are at the top of the tree for rock-and-roll arena sound,” says Beckley, noting such projects as the Spice Girls' world tour. Wigwam also has a link to the church market, and the gospel-evangelist circuit, handling sound for the likes of Billy Graham.

A fan of the Yamaha PM1D digital console, Beckley also works closely with manufacturers ranging from EAW and Soundcraft to BSS. “We design and equip everything, from a military tattoo in Edinburgh to the sea trials of a cruise ship,” says Beckley, who admits he is taking a serious look at the West End. “We hope to break into this market. We have lighting rentals on some shows and would like to carry this over to the audio side.”

Competition from Autograph and Orbital, clearly the key players, will be stiff. “Autograph is the benchmark by which we should all measure ourselves,” says Beckley, tipping his hat to Bruce and company. “They have a stable of very talented in-house designers, while Orbital strives to supply the freelance designer with what he wishes.”

Beckley sees Stage Electrics as somewhere between these two models, noting that “if you control the designer in-house, you can often specify what you have in stock. But you also want to please the outside designer, so you have to think long-term about equipment.” He also sees the industry at a crossroads in terms of technology. “We are facing radical changes in terms of high-quality digital equipment for audio. The system of software upgrades is a more viable way of looking at things. The designer is now only limited by the power of his computer and his own creativity.

“To stay current,” he says, “we must change the way we have been doing sound for the past 20 years and move from analog to digital. You have to change the approach of what you do, beginning with the way you approach the desk. You also have to think in a more logical way and structure systems to work with the new technology.” For Beckley, this means a new paradigm of designing sound systems from the ground up to embrace the digital desk.

A niche player in the UK audio industry is Paul MacCallum of the London-based Wembley Loudspeaker Company, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The company was started in 1971 by a former service manager of Goodman Loudspeakers, a famous make in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and located in Wembley. MacCallum joined the company in 1974 and took over in 77.

A musician, MacCallum (who currently plays in a nine-piece soul band called Bob) services and repairs loudspeakers, vintage and rare items, including 1950 Wurlitzer jukeboxes, and old amplifiers.

“There are a lot of levels of theatre. It is easy to talk about the big musicals, but we try to work with other areas as well. I think it's important that there's more than just the West End.”
Chris Headlam, Orbital Sound

“People find me by word of ear,” he says, sitting in an office overflowing with pieces and parts of old and new cabinets. “I work for musicians from BB King to Canned Heat, as well as discos, cinemas, rental companies, and the corporate market,” he adds. MacCallum has worked with so many bands and musicians over the years that talking with him is like taking a walk down the memory lane of the music business, with a completely original vintage Rickenbacker bass in his office as witness.

Wembley also manufactures its own cabinets, including the B Line 18-800 with an 18" woofer. “This is designed for people who want awesome amounts of bottom end in a small cabinet,” says MacCallum, who launched the model last year at the Notting Hill Carnival, a two-day festival held in August in London. “This event draws bands with big sound systems with 30,000W to 50,000W — that's a lot of power.” He also cites the use of big sound systems for the new musical trend toward bangra, Indian club dance music with a lot of bass.

“We are facing radical changes in terms of high-quality digital equipment for audio. The designer is now only limited by the power of his computer and his own creativity.”
Glen Beckley, Stage Electrics

MacCallum also makes custom components for venues such as the Royal Opera House and the Royal National Theatre, where the goal is “good quality that lasts a long time yet cannot be obtrusive,” he says, adding, “You cannot use stacks of speakers. We also work with a lot of provincial repertory theatres, looking after their systems or selling them bits and pieces.”

For a nightclub in the stands of a racetrack in Ireland, Wembley manufactured custom speakers with 15" cabinets that could be flown, as the client didn't want any bass speakers on the floor. What makes Wembley unique as a company is that it works for musicians as well as manufacturers who need their loudspeakers repaired, no matter how old or battered they may be, but the company also manufactures component and boxes for niche clients.

All things considered, the UK audio industry seems rather robust. “Yes, the industry is healthy,” affirms Jardine. “The musical has not died in spite of predictions, and we have shows like The Full Monty and The Producers coming over as part of a new wave of American musicals. And there is a lot of other work, such as revivals. Who cares if there aren't as many new English musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber.”

For Beckley, it is an exciting time for sound design. “We are standing on the edge of a new era with a wide range of creative opportunities available,” he says. “It's a question of diving in.”