The new End of the Pier show

Worthing Pavilion is one of four performance spaces run by Worthing Borough Council and Simon Gray, its Theatre Sites general manager. It’s an end-of-the-pier theatre enjoying a wide range of performances but was in need of an audio system upgrade.

The elderly JBL/Crest system dated back well over two decades and the demands of the venue, the advances in technology and audience expectations have changed a lot over that time, says Gray. He has been the driving force behind the installation of a new EM Acoustics sound system that went in at the end of November, just in time for the Pavilion’s Panto season.

“I wanted to look at the audio in all the venues as they hadn’t been updated. I am constantly trying to keep the venues’ production levels up, and here the audio is the thing that we’re focusing on to improve.”

The upgrade began, as they all do, with settling a budget and agreeing the resourcing. Venues working within local authorities know that this can be a painful task: not so at Worthing. “The powers-that-be recognised the need for quality and were really on board with this,” says Gray. “Without the Council’s support for the arts, this would not have happened. Overall, it ties in with a general raising of the status of Worthing, as a town whose demographics have got a whole lot younger in the last decade.” The Pavilion’s shows range from pantomime and stage shows, to one-man talks from the likes of Grayson Perry, Contemporary Circus and gigs with The Horrors, DJ Fresh and the Fun Loving Criminals. So the new system had to be flexible and deliver quality, good levels and total intelligibility across the venue.

Gray discussed the project with Andy Huffer, sales director of HD Audio to get ball-park ideas and budgets. He then spent time researching speaker systems, visiting several UK manufacturers before settling on EM Acoustics. Gray liked the systems and had confidence in the product and company.

For the various shoot-outs, Huffer involved Gray’s seven-strong technical team to get broad opinions from those who are going to be working with it. As well as performing well, the system needed to be seen as a quality installation to potential hirers. “When promoters and production company’s visit our venues and see a recognised high quality professional audio product, they start to take the venue seriously - it gives you something extra over other venues in the area,” says Gray.

Huffer explains that the system design would have to work with a range of events, and give the wide auditorium even coverage in a range of differing seating setups and stage layouts. “The design started with three hangs along the front, but centre hangs can be a bit of a pain. We took the option to just do two slightly larger 90-degree arrays left and right, and two 60-degree out-fills running mono, and two delays and that covers it.”

Technical stage manager Martin Wright says: “With our varied program of events we were looking for both SPL and clarity. The EM system provided that, and although it’s an odd-shaped room we were able to eliminate a lot of the dead patches and reflections from the curved ceiling. We have really good coverage now - the distribution on the HALO Compacts is phenomenal, plus we have the out-fills at the top and the delays to cover the back and balcony areas. A lot of our patrons like these areas ... the front row of the balcony is a premium position now that they’re getting better sound coverage.

To keep within budget and still have the best possible install, Gray and Huffer took the slightly unusual decision to share the build work. “There were certain things we could do by utilising the house crew as much as possible - to pull in cables, patch cables,” notes Huffer. “This only works if you have confidence in the ability of the client to do this. We produced the boxes and supplied loose cable for the in-house team to run in. We were reusing a lot of the main pros’ arch infrastructure for the arrays, subs and out-fills, so the house team pulled in all the new cable and a lot of the remote boxes were terminated.”

Gray knew his team were up to the challenge: “I know Andy does this all the time, but for our crew it’s not what they normally do. It’s been full on, and I couldn’t ask any more of them. It’s been great how well we’ve all worked together.” The system main arrays each have six EM Acoustic HALO-Cs and a pair of EMS-118 subs; the two out-fills have a pair of EMS-126 each. The two delay arrays have a pair of EMS-129 and the front-fills are four EMS-61s.

In the basement beneath the stage was the old Crest amp rack - apparently a marvel of wooden cabinetry sitting on a plinth - an essential feature for a seaside installation. “It was a lovely wooden cabinet, with dovetailed joints,” says Huffer. “It was on a plinth because it’s in the basement of a pier venue, so there is a risk of flooding. The new rack with its three 4-channel EM Acoustics amps, also has a flood gap at the bottom to be on the safe side.”

HD Audio built the patch boxes, something that Huffer believes is important to get right: “If it’s a bit shabby and doesn’t work then that’s no use to anyone. You often see the accumulation of work on these old installations - someone’s done a patch box here and then another one has been added years later.” Huffer’s patch boxes are almost a labour of love. Gray agrees: “I’m really glad we’ve done it this way because of the amount of time it saves with everything properly labelled.”

Installing a completely new sound system during the set-up for a major show like the Christmas pantomime is less than ideal. The panto’ is one of the Pavilion’s most complex set-ups, with a big set, re-rigging of the stage lighting bars and - as the show is Peter Pan- the addition of a flying rig. But it also highlights the challenges when the real world deviates from the plan on paper.

“It has been good having the new system going in at the same time as the panto’ set, as we can see how it will work for real,” says Huffer. “So when things like ‘soft masking’ turns out not to be soft masking at all, but as acoustically transparent as a plank of wood, we get the chance to play around with the system while it’s going in to make it work well.”

Huffer got lucky on the delay rigging points, he says: “For the delays we found some nice, sturdy beams that put them in a reasonable position so the system was up and tuned in a day.”

By the third day of the install, when we visited, the system was tuned and delivering even coverage across the auditorium, something new for the Pavilion, sums up Gray: “When you walked across it wasn’t consistent, but this is now. It’s really constant - it’s good to not hear any difference!”

Reprinted from an article by Tim Frost by kind permission of Lighting and Sound International

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