There's a British expression, “in at the deep end,” which one usually tends to think of in terms of other people and their sticky situations. Having recently joined Orbital, the theatre sound specialists, and working on the highly anticipated new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Bombay Dreams as one of my first projects, I have came to appreciate the meaning of this old adage in very personal terms.

Giles Rowland

Though I've worked on a fair few West End musicals and plays over the years, this was my move into the big leagues; nothing had prepared me for the sheer scale of Webber's latest blockbuster. I was to work alongside sound designer Mick Potter, his associate Tim Clark, and production sound engineer Greg Clarke to steer the show from Mick's plans and Webber's vision through the warehouse, into the theatre, up to first night, and beyond. This was quite a step up for me, and I ranked pretty low in the roster of names involved.

Fascinated with the tidal wave of interest in Bollywood currently sweeping the UK, I couldn't wait to get involved with this show. It fuses themes from Indian cinema with Bollywood composer AR Rahman's music and Meera Syal's script. London is abuzz about this project, hoping it will be the West End's next big hit.

As I walked through the doors, the production process was already in full swing. There was an atmosphere of calm overlaying organized chaos, and a feeling of trepidation as the team focused on their duties. Quite a few people, myself included, were paddling furiously under the surface. My arrival midway through the production process of such a major West End musical was no easy task; it was a case of sink or swim as I rolled up my sleeves for the final wave of preproduction.

Sound designer Mick Potter had embraced some of the latest developments in sound reinforcement for the show. Still, all this made for a lengthy preproduction process as a huge range of new equipment was tried, tested, and put through its paces in the comfort of the warehouse. The lineup for the show included Yamaha's PM1D digital FOH console, Meyer's M3D line array and, at the other end of the scale, d&b's compact new E0 speaker.

Soon after my arrival I checked in with Potter and the design team, all three of whom were based at Orbital throughout preproduction. Part of the Orbital warehouse was made available to the Bombay Dreams team, so they could work with the equipment and be involved with the build of the show first-hand. It was my task to be a liaison between the design team and warehouse manager Eric Simpson. His team were busily building and testing each element of the system, which was still in a state of flux as elements were changed in rehearsal and new songs arrived from the composer.

I found Mick and Tim poring over the Yamaha PM1D. Although Orbital had adopted the PM1D as its FOH console of choice over a year ago, it was not a desk I was particularly familiar with; turns out I wasn't the only newcomer to the PM1D. In-house expert Drew Mollison updated the desk's software to Yamaha's latest release and gave us a whistle-stop tour. With some relief we realized that this beast was just a bigger version of the known and loved Yamaha 02R.

Since it hasn't been around very long, there are still a few glitches in the PM1D's operating system, and we found a few bugs of our own. Fortunately, Orbital has a close relationship with Yamaha's R&D department, and because of the high-profile nature of this project, a call to our “hotline” set in motion the wheels of another software update.

Due to the many computers and digital audio devices in use, Bombay Dreams also boasts what is probably the largest count of UPSs in the West End. Mick has ensured that all key elements are backed up with a live spare with automatic changeover. Even if the console and its backup should fail, the show could still be operated by a laptop, over a radio, or Internet link if necessary. Breaking this show would be difficult indeed, and much of the rehearsal process was to be spent proving all the backup systems.

Next, I headed down to the Apollo Victoria Theatre to help out onsite. Perhaps “theatre” was a rather optimistic description of a once-grand venue undergoing intense restoration. When we loaded in the equipment, the former home of Starlight Express was a construction site, and where the train tracks and audience once sat was now a huge empty space, undergoing a gradual transformation back to its former splendor.

Production engineers Keith Hutchinson and Steve Owen, who emerged covered in dust and debris from one of the Apollo's ceiling voids, greeted me. It was the task of the onsite team to crawl through previously uncharted territories of the theatre, and they had spent weeks running cables for the delay and surround speakers and installing the show's communications infrastructure. Now we would see if everything matched up.

While the theatre was being restored to its Art Deco glory, all the installation work had to be carried out simultaneously. Mick's chosen delay speakers were d&b E3s, which I painted a tasteful shade of stone before rigging them onto specially constructed curved bars. D&b's latest offering, the E0, came into play for surround-sound duties. A total of 48 were installed around the sides and rear of the theatre to wrap the audience in the sounds of the Indian subcontinent.

As work progressed, the speaker situation became a bit more tangled. Meyer's massive M3D line array, which formed the main PA for the show, was selected by Webber himself in a blind listening test last summer, and although gaining quite a solid reputation in the worlds of arena shows and concert touring, I was told this would be the product's first use in theatre. As the cabinets rolled into the building, we were left in no doubt about the sound levels on the show.

Because we were using the M3D in a new environment, we wanted to get to grips with the line arrays before moving to the tight deadlines of the theatre. It was clear that the line arrays were going to take some working out, so production engineer and rigging supremo Jem Kitchen took the unusual step of preflying the arrays on a specially constructed truss in the Orbital warehouse. With the M3Ds flown, we could check the angle calculations and test the loading with the added luxury of terra firma. Meanwhile, living up to the company name, theatre specialist Unusual Rigging constructed special hanging points for these boxes on the Apollo Victoria's gold-leafed proscenium.

The sheer size of the cabinets presented problems also, as production designer Mark Thompson expressed concern about their impact on his set design. A delicate period of negotiations followed, and at one point we thought that the M3D would be returning to California to be gold-leafed also. Thankfully we were spared from being the owners of the world's only gilt-edged line array, and it was decided to drape the cabinets with gauze instead. Another great artistic compromise!

As I sign off, the production process is about to start, with cast and band joining the sound, lighting, and set teams at the theatre. So far the experience has been an eye-opening one, and my inauguration at Orbital has taken my knowledge up several notches. I've also come to realize just how crucial it is to keep all channels of communication flowing in order to fine-tune a system and fit it perfectly into an auditorium, while ensuring that the system will meet the expectations of the producers and directors. It's all about commitment and attention to detail — not to mention a passion for theatre. I might still be in the deep end, but I think I can swim.