Returning to the Royal Albert Hall at the beginning of the year for another successful run, Raymond Gubbay’s production of Tosca, included a sound design that once again benefited from the experienced ear of Bobby Aitken and his ubiquitous combination of audio equipment, which includes both a DiGiCo D5T digital mixing console and XTA digital signal processing.
In recent years, the majority of operatic performances that Aitken has worked on at the RAH have been performed in the round – and Tosca is no exception. Although he applies the same basic principles to all such productions, there is no opportunity to ‘cut and paste’ from one show to the next and each production is treated on its own merits.
“What we’re trying to achieve from one opera to the next is fairly constant, because the room doesn’t change,” says Aitken. “However, if we try to input information from the previous opera, it just never seems to work. We have to do it from scratch every time.
“Working on Tosca, or any opera, always brings the same challenge. An ‘in the round production’ means a singer will be performing straight to some of the audience whilst their back is to another section, so the challenge is to make where the sound is coming from believable.
“An additional challenge is that the operas at the RAH are all sung in English, which means you have to be able to hear all the words, yet we still need to make it sound unamplified.”
Aitken’s audio set up is complex. “As far as vocals are concerned, we bring radio mics into the D5T and then straight out on direct outputs,” he explains. “We don’t mix any radios on the DiGiCo. We simply use the faders and then we’re straight into the TiMax Talent Tracker [a system that, as it suggests, tracks where the actors are on stage at all times], with all the individual vocals and mixing done on the TiMax matrix.”
So with TiMax performing mix duties, why does Aitken insist on using the D5T? “It’s the sheer number of inputs,” he says. “We used to use an analogue desk, but now the place would just be full of frames because we have maybe 40 or 50 vocal channels, 60 or so orchestral channels and then effects returns. You end up with well over a hundred inputs and on an analogue desk that’s just physically too big.
“We do mix the orchestra on D5T and we also have a complete backup on it, so should the TiMax system fail, we can instantly switch back to the console.”
The show also employs a Meyer PA with system control via XTA DP448s, a product Aitken says he always specifies these days. “The way the system is set up means there are no subgroups or matrix strips to lose level in, because we’re bypassing the desk and going straight to the amplifiers,” he explains. “So all that has to be done via the XTA units.
“There’s a lot of system setup involved. We get in late Saturday night/early Sunday morning and technical rehearsals run throughout Sunday. On Monday morning, we’re straight in and everything’s flowing by then. We do timing, level balancing and EQing throughout Monday.
In all, Aitken used around a dozen different XTA processors and despite new products coming on to the market, he has stuck with XTA. “I looked at a new processor from a different manufacturer last year and tried to use it on Grease,” he smiles. “But I found it very hard to do the kind of stuff that I was used to doing with the XTAs.
“XTA has been around for getting on 15 years. In the early days, they did a lot of work with us sound designers, a legacy which remains to this day, and they’re always willing to take on board suggestions,” he continues. “It’s a small part of my overall system, but the fact that it works reliably and just gets on with the job is enormously important. Especially on a project like this where there’s so little time; you can’t afford to have things go wrong.
“In reality, the most important part of my job is my relationship with the artists and making sure that they’re happy that day, not the equipment I’m using. So if it all works properly, it makes life that much easier!”