Total Production


11 June 2008

To mark this year's ATTB show, TPi charts the rise of lighting and sound innovation in theatre since the birth of ABTT's annual trade show in 1978.

(London) - To mark the start of this year's ATTB show, TPi charts the rise of lighting and sound innovation in theatre since the birth of ABTT's annual trade show in 1978.

Two major developments took place in the early 1950's, which would alter the face of theatre technology. Altec Lansing launched their legendary Voice  of the Theatre speakers and Strand Lighting their Pattern 23 theatre spot. 

Although nearing the end of its production, almost half a million Pattern 23s were still in service when the Association of British Theatre technicians' Trade Show made its debut at the Donmar Theatre, precisely 30 years ago.

As visitors walked those early trailblazing ABTT Trade Shows, seeing the very early microprocessor-based manufacturers who had developed their memory-based systems starting to reap their rewards (and their penalties), there was little that informed or
anticipated the automated world we now live in. Today, computer-controlled fully integrated light boards are able to handle generic and moving lights on vast, channel-hungry lighting plots, with relative ease. And on the sound side how did the mighty Voice of the Theatre metamorphose into the ubiquitous line array technology of today?

It was around the start of the 1980s that the big guns started to fire. Strand’s Galaxy desk and Vari*Lites’ first groundbreaking VL1 luminaries, with the Series 100 controller, burst on to the market; the shoots of an incipient theatre technology industry quickly rose to maturity and ABTT had become a fully-integrated show by the time it arrived at the Riverside Studios (via the Roundhouse) in the mid-’80s. And what a journey it’s been.

Other inventions that marked the start of the ’80s were colour scrollers (or changers) and dichroic filters. Colour scrollers — mostly operating under analogue control (Avolites,
Rainbow, Morpheus, and Wybron were among the early providers) enabled colour gels to be changed non-manually. To have one fixture producing more than one colour was truly groundbreaking — but then so was the birth of dichroic colour which filtered into the theatre world in the next decade.

This highly-accurate colour filtering technique, producing light with a much higher (and more intense) colour saturation, has also come along in The ABTT Theatre Show’s lifetime. In the same lifetime the early resistance dimmers were being replaced by smaller thyristors, which disappeared off to a remote rack room; and now everything is digital.

Early into the next decade, generic lighting was redefined when ETC launched its seminal Source Four ellipsoidal spotlight — combining the energy-saving power of a 575W HPL tungsten halogen lamp with the patented dichroic reflector for unprecedented imaging and literally the coolest beam on the market.

The lighting community eventually accepted the DMX512 protocol in 1988 as the de facto standard in the entertainment technology industry and today any lighting product today needs to be DMX-addressable. The arrival of Ethernet then enabled whole systems to be networked with many universes of DMX being carried down one cable.

Lower wattage lamps (producing higher output) had done their bit for energy efficiency, but the carbon footprint had not been truly minimised until LED sources started to be developed as energy efficient solid-state lighting. With the birth of white LED light
and LED spots and battens, production lighting promises to be revolutionised yet again.

The Catalyst system and media server, designed to integrate the video and lighting worlds, was developed by WWG towards the end of the millennium and licensed to High End Systems in 2000; essentially this allowed the incorporation of images and video into a traditional lighting design — while lighting designs themselves could be pre-visualised in 3D using one of the popular programmes such as Cast’s WYSIWYG.

Most of the lighting developments — as in the audio domain — are traceable back to the computer and devices enabled with MIDI or DMX (with timecodes used for synchronising purposes), make the job easier.

In the audio world, the first motorised fader automation systems for consoles were already in recording studios by the time the first ABTT Trade Show came along. However, the technology didn’t really migrate to the theatre world until the 1980s, when the growing requirements (and complex scene changes) brought the necessity for computer automation of consoles and pre-programming, assuring that cues could be followed and the standard repeated night after night.

Flying faders, VCA automation, snapshots, recall… these and many more phrases entered the sound engineer’s lexicon. As technology migrated from the recording studio world, so did Cadac, who, in 1989, entered the theatre sector, with a custom console for Martin Levan and Autograph Sound Recording on The Little Shop Of Horrors.

For an entire decade, Cadac made the West End its own, right up until the start of the new millennium, when Yamaha launched the PM1D and Orbital Sound introduced it to the theatre industry with its installation at Sadlers Wells in February 2001.

The new desk architecture brought a radical reduction in real estate, freeing up much needed seating. The reduced control surface communicated with under-stage racks via
200m SCSI and coax connections. The only other occupants of the control area were a
MIDI keyboard for manual sound effects and an I/O rack.

Everything was getting smaller, including loudspeakers. And following the pioneering
work of Paris physicist Dr. Christian Heil in the early 1980s, which produced the first
widely acknowledged line array system for his company L-Acoustics, the world slowly went line array mad... with Heil’s V-DOSC leading the way.

It also went processing crazy as images were enhanced and acoustic and source variations compensated for. Out Board Electronics’ TiMax imaging system provided live surround
sound animation and spatialisation’. LCS Audio’s VRAS system also arrived in theatres, adding early reflections and reverberation to the existing acoustics of a space, allowing operators to match the room’s acoustics to the programme material at the touch of a

Richmond Sound Design’s show control and sound manipulation devices would appear in the sound designer’s armoury while systems arrived to ‘track’ the positions of the performers on stage, by applying positional information to the signals from actors’
microphones as they moved around the stage.

Everything has now become more sophisticated - from the comms systems to the digital desks - and since everything is scalable (and on a reducing cost base), digital technology has come within the realms of the smaller provincial theatre in terms of affordability.

The modern digital mixing console comes with onboard plug-ins, Pro Tools support and full hard disk multitrack recording back-up. DSP sound cards containing the entire signal processing functions have largely replaced outboard equipment and offer vastly extended capacity and capability from a greatly compressed footprint.

With automated stage rigging lift gear and chain hoist control par for the course, the
theatre has become a much safer environment than it was 30 years ago. The need for rigger training, safety standards and certification led many of the industry’s leading rigging and trussing companies to form the National Rigging Advisory Group with the result that today the industry has seen the introduction of a recognised skills card for
Entertainment Rigging.

And finally, when this year’s ABTT Theatre Show opened in June (it was renamed as the Theatre Show in the late ’90s), The Theatres Trust held its second annual conference at the Cottesloe Theatre on Building Sustainable Theatres, highlighting the need to improve
environmental management and reduce the carbon footprint of theatres. The ABTT is a proud sponsor of this event.

The theatre world has changed in tandem with its surrounding world, and the impact of climate change on theatre buildings and the challenges of achieving zero-carbon new theatres by 2019 is the goal. The theatre world may well be a better place, and certainly
more energy efficient — but we are starting to face up to our responsibilities.

With thanks to the ABTT


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