Birmingham Rep’s new stage adaptation of George Orwells’ classic novel Animal Farm has opened to rave reviews, with an epic d&b Soundscape-powered sound design by Tom Gibbons.
The ambitious production sees War Horse puppeteer Toby Olié’s beautifully crafted horses, pigs, birds and more revolt against their human farmer master. Pre-recorded dialogue is played back live, with on-stage actors moving the mouths of the puppets. A key aspect to the realism of the surreal piece was accurately positioning the audio script parts to each puppet as they speak.
“I knew from early conversations with the director, Robert Icke, that there would be very little live dialogue in this production, meaning that almost all of the audio parts needed to be mapped to the puppets within the soundscape wherever they were on the stage, and even when they moved,” says Gibbons, who is an Olivier Award winning sound designer. “The audience needed to believe that the voices were coming from the puppets’ mouths to captivate them, connect them with the animals and create the magic. To achieve this, the d&b Soundscape system was at the forefront of my thinking right from the start.”
Gibbons road tested the capabilities of Soundscape at d&b audiotechnik’s Nailsworth UK base. He was aware of its two software modules, En-Scene and En-Space, the former of which would enable him to perfectly position each piece of pre-recorded dialogue to each puppet. “Soundscape was the only viable solution with the object-based positioning power to programme the complex on-stage dialogue as we needed,” he says.
Gibbons’ audio team comprised production sound engineers James Melling and Andy Josephs, along with Johnny Edwards (Sound no.1) and Raffaela Pancucci (Sound no.2). They worked with d&b EAS Adam Hockley to specify a Soundscape-optimised loudspeaker array, to complement Birmingham Rep’s installed d&b delays and surrounds.
The main system comprised five d&b Y10P loudspeakers, flown and evenly distributed over the top of the proscenium arch. On front fill duty were seven d&b 44S loudspeakers, with two powerful d&b B22-SUBS adding authoritative bass. These were all supplied to the production by Cardiff-based, theatre specialist AV company Stage Sound Services. At the heart of the system was the network controlled and Dante-enabled d&b DS100 Signal Engine.
“From a loudspeaker placement perspective, it’s important to try and cover as much of the audience from every sound source, and repeat with all of the others,” explains Adam Hockley. “The Birmingham Rep has quite steep raked seating, so we needed to think about dispersion. This is why we chose the Y10P with its wide horizontal dispersion as the main upward and downward firing loudspeaker.
“With Soundscape, the front fill is a really important part because that’s what really helps to pull the audience’s attention back down to the performance on stage from the larger, main loudspeakers, which are flown above. This area needs a higher resolution because they’re closer to the listener, and the 44S fitted the bill. Subwoofer-wise, the B22-SUB left and right of the stage really helped to achieve that dynamic in the low frequencies and resulted in some really memorable moments.”
Gibbons recorded the actors playing the parts of the animals in an acoustically dead environment in London, in the months leading up to the Birmingham Rep premiere. He then used the d&b En-Space room emulation tool to add in reverberation signatures in post-production.
“We auditioned a few of the En-Space settings, ranging from a small, to a medium theatre, and then large,” he says. “I was keen to recreate the sound of the theatre we were in, taking into account its size, shape and variables, so that it sounded like the animals were speaking live in that space. Recording it dry, we didn’t get the acoustic energy that you get in a theatre, with a live voice in front of an audience, but En-Space managed to add that in really well. It gave the dialogue life and realism, along with complete consistency across all of the pre-recorded parts.”
Support came in the form of Adam Hockley’s visits, both to rehearsals and get-in at The Rep. “My background is theatre, so when a show uses d&b products, I feel like I’m not only working for the manufacturer, but also as part of the production team. Soundscape is exciting new technology, and I want to learn how people are using it and help them to achieve their creative vision.”
Gibbons is enthused: “I’d very much use Soundscape again. Once you set up the system and the sound objects, assign them to the puppets and input the dimensions of the stage, it really is very easy to programme. It worked brilliantly.”
Animal Farm now moves to a touring run.