Twenty-one years after Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore had young couples surreptitiously wiping away tears in cinemas (and briefly made pottery fashionable), Ghost has returned from the entertainment afterlife in the form of a West End musical. Combining live acting and music with complex lighting, video and special effects, the show’s sound designer Bobby Aitken specified a DiGiCo SD7T for Front of House mix requirements, which has allowed the team to stretch its remit to handling more than the audio.
Directed by Tony Award-winning Matthew Warchus, the show opened in July at the Piccadilly Theatre and is currently booking through until January next year. Working closely with associate Simon King and Ghost’s Head of Sound, Ben Evans, Bobby designed a system that had to work very closely with the other production disciplines.
“The SD7 is more of a production hub than just an audio mixer on this show,” he said. “It does so much. Of course it mixes the band, the vocals and audio streams from various playback machines, but it also serves as the timing and synchronisation hub for the entire production
He continueed, “Because it is such a technically complex show, with video forming many of the set elements, the band, video and lighting have to be locked together. We use Ableton Live as a kind of ‘master lock’. It is started at the beginning of every song and produces a click track that the band plays with. It also provides additional audio playback and, importantly, SMPTE and MIDI time code, which we then put out to the video and lighting guys for synchronising parts of their production with the show. Everything basically comes through the SD7T. We also use the code to start many of the “non-orchestral” audio files.
“The mixer is very deeply programmed; all in all we use about 110 stereo inputs, 28 stereo aux busses and 32 matrix outs. We step through 170 snapshots in the course of the show.”
Additionally, a DiGiCo DS-00 is located sub-stage that feeds a personal monitor mixer for each musician, allowing them to handle their own 16 channel mix. There are about 60 cues on the DS-00, which are fired from MIDI commands from the SD7T. “The DS-00 is basically unmanned, it’s pre-programmed and just gets on with it,” said Bobby.
Live stage shows also mean that, however much a show is rehearsed, there will always be slight differences in the performance. To accommodate this, certain effects need to be fired manually. The SD7T allows this combination of technical and human elements to easily co-exist.
But despite all the automation and technology, it is still a live show with a 25-strong cast, so the SD7T has a significant number of microphone inputs.
“All the cast wear radio mics, a lot of them wear two. We mic them in the traditional theatre way, with miniature mics in the hairline so they are invisible to the audience,” Bobby said. “Radio microphones are still the most important single element in my work. We chose Sennheiser because they are the industry standard.
“Multi channel radio installations are still a complex beast, especially in the West End where there must be well over 100 channels operating within a square mile. The radio receiver rack is sub-stage. Lauren Coull or Poppy Ballon (sound # 2 and 3) monitor it throughout the show, but we also have touch screens around the sides of the stage. If we hear an RF issue with somebody’s mic we can confirm the problem by auditioning the currently live transmitters, identifying the channel and swopping it out when they come off stage.”
In a show that has a plethora of special effects, one of the biggest special scenes is the ‘get off my train’ scene in the New York subway.
“Because there are a lot of human elements in it, we fire a lot of those sounds manually - as the ghost goes to punch somebody, we’ll hit go. We fire about 20 spot effects through that sequence,” said Bobby.
Of course, as in the film, the musical’s male lead (Richard Fleeshman) spends most of the production appearing as a ghost, which was manna from heaven for the sound department.
“The whole ghost thing was fantastically good fun,” Bobby smiled. “I really enjoyed doing it. We’ve got a 5.1 (ish) sound system and lots of sound effects running all the time, which I think work really well.”
Virtually every review of Ghost - The Musical has highlighted the show’s technical excellence, with the DiGiCo SD7T being a real star of the show - it’s just that audiences and critics don’t realise it is there - and the positive reviews and audience reactions seem to indicate that the show will be running for some time.
“I think the show will do well,” said Bobby. “There’s a lot to look forward to.”