JBL VTX A8 sound system for the RSC's acclaimed My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican
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JBL VTX A8 sound system for the RSC's acclaimed My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican

Header image: Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.

Music, dialogue and vocal incantations, in their many expressive forms, set the backdrop for the enchanting world stage premiere of My Neighbour Totoro—the Royal Shakespeare Company’s hit production of the Japanese animation classic. Such is the 1988 film’s cult status, the short season at London’s The Barbican, replacing the animation with magical puppetry, broke box office records for ticket sales in a single day.

Award-winning sound designer, Tony Gayle, who specialises in musical theatre, took up the RSC’s challenge of designing a unique soundscape, with the often-beguiling audience sound delivered in all its component parts by a HARMAN JBL Professional VTX A8 dual 8in compact line array.

Through this advanced speaker set up audiences are treated to a cocktail of rare sonic beauty … from a 10-piece orchestra (nestled in the stage set’s tree house) combining contemporary instruments (including vocoder) and percussion with strings and brass, the vocal incantations of singer Ai Ninomiya and a mash up of Joe Hisaishi’s exquisite original film music as well as new orchestrations by Will Stuart. This was complemented by a meshing of Japanese and English lyrics and dialogue, as well as sound effects. All the while, the puppetry transports Studio Ghibli’s original fantasy film, adapted for stage by Tom Morton-Smith, to a magical spirit world.

The RSC approached him based on past joint collaborations, “They were looking for someone who could handle the commercial aspect and keep to what the original creators wanted.” Initial workshops were set up almost two years ago.

With so many different sonic textures to deliver Tony Gayle knew his choice of PA was crucial. “Joe Hisaishi is iconic and was one of the cults from 80's era of Japanese animation. This show means a lot to a lot of people.”

The more he watched the original film the more it became obvious that the JBL solution would be the ideal vehicle to broadcast the varied content with total integrity. “The music became more simple and beautiful with repeated screenings,” he said. “I knew the VTX A8 would do it justice and make my design a lot smoother and easier to put different genres through it. That really excited me and made a big impact.”

"I knew the VTX A8 would do it justice and make my design a lot smoother and easier to put different genres through it."

Tony Gayle, Sound Designer

The beauty of the JBL VTX A8, he said, is not only the power and clarity it demonstrates but the unique waveguide and wide open sound separation produced as a result. With its 110° dispersion Tony Gayle knew that the system—which he first used in the touring version of Carole King’s Beautiful before adopting it for Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical—would be a perfect fit for the Barbican’s 270° flared auditorium.

JBL VTX A8 installed at the Barbican for the RSC's production of My Neighbour Totoro. Photo by Richard Ecclestone.

The show went out to tender and Autograph, who also enjoy a close relationship with the RSC, were the successful bidders, purchasing and supplying 14 VTX A8 elements, divided into two 12-box hangs. They also invested in four VTX B18 subwoofers, Crown I-Tech 4x3500HD amplifiers and all the requisite rigging. Hire Manager, Will McGonagle, said that having worked extensively with the sound designer on previous shows, they were keen to win this account. “We invest in sound designers as much as the equipment itself,” he stated.

Having carried out due diligence on the VTX A8, representatives from Autograph’s loudspeaker department undertook training at HARMAN UK distributor Sound Technology Ltd’s demo facility in Hertfordshire. “They came back very impressed,” he reports. “Pretty much everything sounds fantastic these days but what impressed them was that the rigging was very straightforward as were the dollies with the stacking lids—and production engineers really appreciate that.”

Tony Gayle was aware that a perfectly good house system already existed at the Barbican. “While I knew we would be able to use some of the delays and surrounds, I was adamant that I wanted to use the JBL A8 for the main house system. The entire house team was very welcoming to that idea, and was keen to play with a new system,” he says.

The footprint of A8 became important once it was in the air. “It’s sleek, inoffensive and everyone commented on how neat it was. You don’t think of it as a big rock ‘n’ roll system,” said Gayle. Complementing the A8, the four B18 subs are ground stacked under the arrays. “Because of the way the room is designed, once you have two big arrays that virtually covers it.” 

The biamped system is powered by four Crown I-Tech 4x3500HD amplifiers.

Crown ITech HD amplifiers installed at the Barbican for the RSC's production of My Neighbour Totoro. Photo by Richard Ecclestone.

RSC’s Head of sound, Jeremy Dunn, and associate sound designer, Steve Atkinson, were also happy with the choice of line array. The latter readily endorsed the selection, having been introduced to JBL for a Stratford show at The Other Place back in 2018 (featuring JBL VTX F-Series point source, CBT, and AE Series), and been impressed with their “innovative approach to loudspeaker design”. He recalled, “I remember coming out thinking we needed to hear more of this product!”

Steve Atkinson, Associate Sound Designer, Royal Shakespeare Company. Photo by Richard Ecclestone.

 “The A8 is a perfect fit for this show,” Atkinson continues. “It’s an incredibly impressive system. The A8 footprint scales perfectly [into the auditorium]. The coverage is excellent, you don’t

obliterate the people at the front with high SPL for those at the back to get the same experience.”

As for prep, all the magic took place in Autograph’s yard, where it remained for three weeks before loading out. “Everything was built from scratch with this job in mind,” says Will McGonagle, taking up the story

Meanwhile, Steve Atkinson believes that the quality of the PA sound was equally down to the prep by Harman’s Principal Application Engineer, Steve Ellis. “Stuart Moffat, our PSE, who had also worked with Tony Gayle on Get Up, Stand Up! had the app with a copy of the settings Steve generated, based on Tony’s initial calculations.”

In fact the team utilised the impressive JBL Array Link mobile companion app that works in conjunction with JBL’s Line Array Calculator 3 software to assist deploying JBL VTX Series line arrays.

Left-Right: Mark Edmondson, Sound No. 1; Tess Dacre, Sound No. 2; Steve Atkinson, Associate Sound Designer. Photo by Richard Ecclestone.

The RSC man says they were delighted with the sound Tony Gayle and desk operator, Mark Edmondson derived from the mixes, applying very little digital processing in the signal path due to the clarity and transparency of the JBL system.

In terms of optimising the hangs, he said, “We just needed JBL Performance Manager to shade the levels vertically. Horizontally, you can really hear the amazing RBI [Radiation Boundary Integrator] waveguide. You get the same audio experience right out at the boundaries of the auditorium—the sound doesn’t fall off the edge.”

JBL’s RBI design maximises transducer density and improves horizontal directivity by combining the mid and low frequencies so the transition across each band is seamless.

Steve Atkinson describes Performance Manager as “really intuitive.” He goes on, “They have definitely R&D’d it thoroughly and the way of configuring the system in Performance Manager has been nicely thought out and designed. Though Steve Ellis set us up, we were easily able to make adjustments on the fly.”

Now My Neighbour Totoro is up and running Autograph are leaving nothing to chance. They hold tested spares of all sound inventory deployed and in the event of anything going down claim to be able to get replacements to a West End show within 40 minutes.

And when the show loads back into the warehouse towards the end of January, Autograph’s hire manager predicts plenty of future use for the VTX A8. “We have many enquiries for JBL and there are projects where we are asked to offer design services where the VTX A8 would fulfil the brief.”

The final word comes from Tony Gayle, “People sometimes raise their eyebrows when JBL comes into a theatre, but the more they hear it the more they see it’s really nice, clear and transparent … and that’s the key takeaway.”

My Neighbour Totoro is playing at the Barbican until 21 January 2023. For more information please visit https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2022/event/royal-shakespeare-company-my-neighbour-totoro