Commonly used equipment in the UK theatre sound industry
This is a rough guide to the mic’s, mixers, speakers and other equipment that I encounter in use, or use myself, in theatres on a day to day basis.As we are often visiting theatres that might not have updated their equipment in a couple of decades I’ve tried to include older equipment that is still in circulations as well as newer products. This isn’t a definitive list, as many people have different needs and presences. Different manufacturer’s and products catch on in different parts of the world, so what’s popular in the UK might not be popular elsewhere.
Mic’ing up Actors
Sennheiser MKH416 - A popular rifle mic, often rigged to the FOH boom, or on a flybar or LX boom. The 416 was released in the 1970’s and is still on sale today.
Sennheiser MKH60 - A popular rifle mic, often rigged to the FOH boom, or on a flybar or LX boom. The MKH 60 was released in the 1980’s and is still on sale today. It is slightly longer and provides more directivity than the 416. An improved MKH8060 design was released more recently but I’ve not seen it in use much.
Crown PCC160 - A popular "surface" mic, a line of these can often be seen on the DS edge of a stage, spaced at 1.5m-ish intervals - they are a discreet method of mic'ing up the front centre section of a stage, though can also pickup footstep noise. These have been around since 1985 and some will have seen heavier use than models purchased more recently.
DPA 4011ES and 2011C - these are both popular mic’s to have run along the front edge of a stage. For really invisible float mic’ing a DPA 4060 can be used, but as these are omnidirectional there is often less gain before feedback.
Shure SM58 - well-known vocal mic. Beta 58 is an improved design.
Shure 55SH - period-look vocal mic.
Neumann KMS-105 - these super-cardioid mic’s offer better feedback rejection, gain and sound quality over an SM58, but are correspondingly more expensive.
A radio mic is a complex piece of kit, that requires a lot of knowledge & experience to use well. They are high-maintenace, expensive & don't have the sound quality of a cabled mic. Avoid VHF and budget systems - they are often much more susceptible to interference, poor sound quality and you will be unlikely to use more than a couple of them at a time. Of note, a radio mic system typically comprises a mic capsule, a transmitter, an aerial, and a receiver. A specific manufactures’ transmitter and receiver are usually designed to work with each other, and aren’t normally compatible with others. Most systems can be used with a range of mic capsules (or inputs from guitars, for example) so the correct, or preferred, mic capsule can be chosen for the specific task. Different transmitters have different connectors requiring the mic capsule to be terminated with the appropriate connector for it to work with a specific transmitter.
Sennheiser make excellent radio mic's but are expensive. You may come across older model transmitters like the SK50 (which are quite big and bulky), but the 5212 transmitter is very popular as it is very tiny and robust. In 2012 they released their Digital 9000 belt-packs, but these were generally too big for theatre use. In 2019 they released the digital 6212 transmitter which is an equivalent size to the 5212 so will likely see wide usage. The lower cost Evolution system is very popular for lower budget shows, but uses a 3.5mm connector for the mic capsule, which is less durable.
Shure also make excellent radio mic’s. Their UR1-M analogue transmitter has been very popular, again because of it’s small size. They have also recently released their ADX1M digital transmitter, which will likely see wide usage.
Sony have recently made a strong entry into the UK theatre market with their DWT-B03R digital transmitter.
Trantec were very present in the theatre sector for some years but I’m not seeing them around so much anymore. They have more budget-conscious radio mic’s which can suffer from durable issues in an 8-show week environment.
All of the manufacturer’s make handheld radio mic’s, which are all fine!
Radio mic capsules
DPA’s 4061 microphone has been the industry leader in the West End over the last ten years, with the previous leader being the Sennheiser MKE-2. Whilst they were small capsules when released, the more recent DPA 6061 and the Sennheiser MKE-1 are positively tiny in comparison. Radio mic capsules are typically taped around a performer’s body, from wherever the transmitter has been hidden, up to where the mic will sit, normally in the hairline. Consequently, they have quite a tough life, experiencing a lot of dancing, physical movement, sweat, hairspray, make-up and skin toxins. In theatre we treat mic capsules as consumables, that is to say, they won’t last long before they break and need replacing. Some performer’s may need a new mic capsule each week, some may last a year - it all depends what the performers show track is like.
Headset mics are common on shows too, providing more gain before feedback and more seperation between each mic. DPA’s 4066 has been popular, though I find the headband fiddly, with a much improved version on the new DPA 6066 headset. Countryman E6 headsets are also popular too.
Mic’ing up musicians
This is a tricky one, as there are so many choices and so many personal preferences dictating what is used. Some people mic up instruments using a range of microphones whilst some prefer to mic up everything using the same brand of microphones to ensure the characteristic of the mic is consistent across the band. Both works.
For a long while there was a fairly classic combination of mics that were used for mic’ing drum kits - an AKG D112 on kick drum. Shure SM57 on snare, Sennheiser MD421 on toms, AKG C451’s on overheads and everything else. The D112 looks like an over-sized egg. The Shure 57, or Beta 57, if you prefer, is a useful all-rounder mic, working well on brass too. The Sennheiser MD421 works well on percussive instruments, and brass instruments, thanks to it not clipping even with very loud sounds. The AKG C451 was launched in 1969 as a modular design with interchangeable capsules, then rebooted in the 21st century with a fixed cardioid capsule, it is useful on string and other delicate instruments.
Increasingly more and more manufacturers have developed drum mic packages, with Audix being popular, and mic’s that clip-on to the drums are more popular as this means there are less mic stands in the way of the drummers sticks.
There are a range of lovely microphones that work well for string instruments or anything else of a more delicate nature.
The AKG C414 has been around for decades in various revisions, from the original models that required a large external power supply to the latest versions identifiable by their LED lights. As well as sounding great, they have switchable polar patterns making them a flexible and useful mic to deal with many circumstances, though they’re not small.
The Neumann KM184 is a lovely sounding cardioid pencil mic too.
BSS’s AR133 is still the DI Box of choice, used to electrically isolate keyboards and other electronic items on the stage to minimise hums and buzzes.
Show Control and Playback
Whilst in the above sections we’ve seen microphone designs endure from the 1970’s to today, playback systems have developed and changed rapidly over the past thirty years. Up until the late 1990’s 1/4” reel-to-reel tape was the most reliable high quality way to play back sound, sometimes used in conjunction with Akai or Emu samplers. Over the late 1990’s MiniDisc players proliferated rapidly, followed shortly afterwards by CD’s as recordable CD’s became easy and affordable to make. In the early 2000’s Stage Research’s SFX v5 software took over, providing 16 outputs of audio off a PC computer. V6 was developed, co-inciding with the release of Windows Vista, one of Microsoft’s worst operating system roll-outs ever. At about the same time, a new piece of software, Figure 53’s QLab entered the fray, running on a Mac and costing much less than SFX at the time (they’re about the same price now).
Ableton Live is a popular piece of software for show playback, designed for live performance it is very stable and more flexible than cue-list based software. It also works more musically too. There are other bits of software out there too, such as CSC and Ovation.
Theatre went digital many years ago when it came to mixing desks, and there are very few analogue desks still left in use (there is a Cadac J-Type on Wicked, I believe).
Small format mixing desks.
Yamaha have ruled the roost for small format desks for years, with the 01v96 dominating for many years, which was ahead of it’s times with 40 inputs, 18 outputs, full MIDI control, PC/Mac offline editing and many theatre-friendly software features. It was followed up by the LS9, which moved away from the old-fashioned bus/aux architecture, and was a great desk but with a terrible user interface; and more recently the QL1 and QL5, which are great desks with great, large touchscreen interfaces and built-in Dante audio networking. With consistently strong reliability and world-wide support these desks have proved massively popular in the theatre industry.
Large format mixing desks
For a while, Yamaha was mirroring it’s success with small mixers with it’s larger mixing desks. The PM5D desk was widely used for many years, until DiGiCo entered the market. DiGiCo, in conjunction with sound designer Andrew Bruce, developed theatre-specific software for their consoles, that blew away the completion, and still do. Every other manufacturer has largely ignored the specific needs of the theatre market, especially the needs of a large scale musical that will be doing 8 shows a week with multiple understudies on for each performance. Yamaha brought out the M7CL-48 and then the CL range of mixing desks, which serve mid-scale theatre reasonably well. DiGiCo culminated in releasing the SD7T, which is very much the Rolls Royce of theatre mixing desks, and the more modest but very powerful SD10T.. Yamaha have recently released their PM10 and PM7 mixing desks, and developed some theatre-specific features for them, which are great.
Dynamics and Effects
For many years, external hardware processors were used for dynamics control (compression, limiting, de-essing) but the majority of mixing desks have these built-in nowadays.
The Lexicon PCM 81 and 82 have been stalwart external reverb units for many years. Replaced by the PCM 92, these are still useful units to have as most reverbs built into mixing desks aren’t very good. Sadly the user interface on these units is appalling so it’s a good job they sound good.
Whilst most mixing desks provide rudimentary delay, pitch shifting, flanging and other effects, we are increasingly seeing software being used to replace these. Apple\s MainStage software and Ableton Live both provide lots of different effects unit types, all optimised for live use. The Waves Soundgrid system is a hybrid hardware/software system that allows allows the use of computer FX plug-ins. All require a computer to host the software and typically use networked audio to get the sound to the computer. Obviously the risk of a crash is greater when it comes to software units.
Signal processing and spatialisation
Most theatre sound systems have more speakers than we have mixing desk outputs. We also often need to mix and process signals in ways that a mixing desk can’t necessarily do. We typically use DSP’s to do this, which nowadays are essentially a computer in a box with some inputs and outputs, and a piece fo software that lets you drag-and-drop virtual processing components around and cable them up how you like. This allows for huge flexibility and control of a large and complex system. In the early 2000’s, BSS’s Soundweb 9088’s were hugely popular for this. Their sequel, the Soundweb London didn’t quite catch on. Yamaha’s DME 32, followed by the DME24 and DME64 proved very popular, especially with the later sharing the MY range of expansion cards that all their digital mixing desks used. They are both in common use today, with the DME24 having a single MY card slot (providing 6in, 16 out) and 8 analogue in and out, whilst the DME64 has 4 MY card slots to provide 64 in and 64 out, with 16 ch.s of cascade to additional units. The DME Designer software (PC only) is a bit clunky. Following on from the DME is the recently released MRX7-D, which has 64 in and 64 out built-in Dante channels, an MY card slot and 8 analogue in and out. It has vastly better editing software but significantly lacks MIDI control (control can be done using undocumented network commands), Some people are using QSC Qsys systems too, but I’ve no experience of them.
Increasingly we want to do more sophisticated vocal reinforcement than sound systems have typically been capable of. Systems like Outboard’s Timax, d&b’s Soundscape and L’Acoustics LiSA are all designed to allow better placement of sound, eg a microphone, in space. The systems operate in different ways but fundamentally they all rely on the system having some sort of model of the venue, where the loudspeakers are located and where we want our sound to appear to come from. They can then use techniques like delay or volume panning to place the sound. For the best sound this often requires each speaker to be individually amplified.
Amplifiers have typically been a bit boring, except when they’ve broken, wherein a lot of sparks can suddenly become less boring. Increasingly we’re seeing amplifiers that are a lot smarter than a box with a power switch and a volume control. Nowadays they are more likely to have various audio interfaces and some signal processing (EQ, delay) built-in. They also allow us to remotely monitor the performance of the amp, and the speakers connected.
Speaker systems are often large and expensive, so we often visit venues that have 20 year old speaker systems as much as we visit those with new speaker systems.
In the UK theatre industry, d&b, Meyer and L’Acoustics have been the dominant players for the last 15 years or so. Over that time we have seen a shift away from using lots of point-source boxes (i.e. using a single speaker to cover an area of audience) to using line-arrays. We have many theatres, some that seat 15 people and some that seat 1500 people. What is a big speaker for one venue may be a tiny speaker for another.
d&b speakers are all passive, in that they require separate amplifiers - specifically, ones made by d&b. This allows the amps to optimise the signal to send to the speaker, and prevents us blowing up the speakers accidentally.
The older range of d&b speakers can be found in many venues stil. The d&b E9 (oringally launched as the 902) is a 12” speaker, used by many on the proscenium arch, or to form a cluster of speakers. It has a 90° x 50° dispersion but it has a 10 degree downward tilt built into the cabinet. The d&b C6 / C690 (oringally launched as the 602) is similar to the E9, but with a tighter 60° x 40° focus (and doesn't have a 10 degree tilt). The d&b C4/7 is a large, long throw speaker with a 35° x 35° dispersion, this is ideal for tricky acoustic environments. A great speaker but the rigging system is a nightmare. The d&b E3 - d&b must have sold a lot of these boxes. A modest 6.5” unit with a 90° x 60° dispersion it was ideal as a front fill, surround or delay speaker in larger venues, or as a main PA speaker in studio spaces. The d&b E0 speaker was only around for a few years before it was replaced by the E5 speaker, but this 5” speaker was ideal as a small discreet delay speaker. The d&b b2 sub-bass was used in larger venues, this monster twin 18” sub has been great for low and infra sub bass effects. A real room shaker. It’s still present in many venues.
Typically this generation of speakers was driver by d&b P1200 amps with custom cards installed for each speaker type, or EPAC amps, single channel amps that could be configured for the range of speakers.
In the early 2003-4, d&b updated it’s range. d&b Q7’s and Q10’s largely replaced C6’s and E9’s (though officially they were replaced by the plastic E12, which didn’t catch on particularly). These were narrower boxes with twin 10” drivers, and dispersions of 75° and 110° respectively, and both sharing a 40° vertical dispersion. They had a brighter mid-range than the E9, which some people liked and others didn’t. There was a matching Q-Sub with a single 18” driver. Sharing a similar cabinet size the Q series also featured the Q1 line-array element, and Q1 line-arrays were common for vocal reinforcement. They were not super powerful and I find that many Q1 speakers I come across sound “tired” due to being driven too hard a lot. The smaller T-series line array was launched, which saw some use - it was slightly too big for small venues, under-powered for larger venues, but just right for some! D12 and D6 amps launched, two channel amps that could be configured to run the whole range of d&b speakers. d&b’s ArrayCalc software allows the user to create a model of the auditorium and plan loudspeaker placement and coverage very effectively. The E-series also saw the introduction of the E4, E5, E6 and E8, which range from the small 4” to the larger 8” cabinet. These are all super useful as smaller fill and delay speakers, whilst the E8 is pretty beefy and can be used as a main speaker for smaller venues.
2012-14 say the release of the V and Y-series range. The Y series feels like a much improved version of the Q series, slightly smaller again with twin 8” drivers. Y7P and Y10P are for individual point-source use, 75° x 40°, and 110° x 40° respectively. The Y8 and Y12 line array elements (80° wide, and 120° wide) were also a definite improvement on the Q1’s. There is a Y-Sub too. The point source Y’s are popular speakers for the side of a proscenium, whilst a small array of Y8’s can do larger venues. D20 and D80 amps were released at this time too. Despite most of the world having moved to Dante audio networking, frustratingly these amps only have AES and analogue inputs requiring some form of conversion from your signal processing before you get into them. The larger V series, which is twin 10”, a single 8” and two 1/4” drivers, again with a range of point source versions and line array versions, is great for large venues and is designed to throw sound a long way. Personally I find them a little harsh in the mid-range but it feels like they’re designed to be heard from about 40-50m away. The d&b B22 has replaced the B2 sub but essentially feels like the same speaker.
Originally Meyer speakers were passive, requiring separate amps and controllers. The controllers were made by Meyer but any amps could be used. This sounds good in principal but in practise was messy and fiddly to setup. The original passive UPA is an excellent FOH speaker and is popular around the world. It is similiar in size to the d&b E9. You may see UPA’s suffixed as 1a or 1c, which are the original passive versions. In the UK and US it's pronounced as it's spelt: U-P-A, but in the rest of the world it's often pronounced as a word: Upa. In the 1990’s A USW twin 15” sub-woofer was often paired with the UPA, but I found them a little underwhelming. The Meyer 650 dual 18” sub was often a better companion.
Meyer moved to active designs in the 1990’s, where the amplifier and controller are incorporated into the speaker cabinet. This was a vast improvement on the previous set-up, though of course does mean heavier speakers and more mains & cable distribution is required. The UPA-1P and the UPA-2P are the powered versions of the original UPA, with the 1P offering 100° by 40° dispersion, and the 2P offering a 45° by 45° dispersion. The UPM has long been a popular box, again originally available as a passive version, and then as an active speaker, they remain unique for their narrow dimensions allowing them to sit on very narrow prosceniums, ideal for small theatres. They have a 100° by 100° dispersion, and are equally useful for front fills and delay/fill speakers. The MM4 is a super tiny 4” speaker that is very useful in situations where only a teeny tiny speaker can fit. On the larger side of things, the CQ and MSL speakers were very popular speakers, with 15” drivers they were seen on countless musicals as the main speakers for the music reproduction. CQ’s can still be found in many venues, particularly in the USA. The CQ1 has 80° by 40° whilst the CQ2 has 50° by 40° dispersion, and both go super loud!
In the 2000’s it felt to me, though its probably unfair to say, that Meyer lost it’s focus on the theatre market, and moved their attention to producing large line-array systems, that were great for concerts, but often a little too big for theatres. Certainly I drifted away from using them as other manufacturers improved their point-source offerings and developed small format line-arrays. Recently we’ve seen Meyer develop more theatre-friendly products again. The Leopard series line-array is a lovely sounding box, with twin 9” drivers, it is similar to d&b’s Y-series. Unfortunately there isn’t a point-source version of it, nor is rigging available to use a single Leopard box on it’s own. 2017’s LINA is more compact still, based around twin 6.5” drivers. Until recently Meyer was lacking modern point-source speakers to match with it’s line-arrays, to use as fills for where the line-array couldn’t reach. 2019’s X40 and X42 (110° x 50° rotatable, and 60° x 50°) look to replace the UPA1-P generation of cabinets with dual 8” speakers. 2018’s UP4slim seems to replace the UPM with dual 4” drivers and a similar 100° by 100° dispersion. Meyer’s point-source range is growing but still has holes, especially for smaller sized cabinets, but they seem to be heading in the right direction. The Galileo Galaxy system processor offers simple signal processing but lacks the programmability of system like the MRX7-D. Mapp XT software allows a venue to be modelled and to plan loudspeaker placement and coverage very effectively.
As Meyer seemed to lost focus on point source speakers, British company, EM Acoustics rose to fill the gap in the market. Tonally quite similar to Meyer, but costing far less than both Meyer and d&b, their speakers have proved very popular. Predominantly they are passive and don’t require any specific amplifier or controller, though EM do now sell these. Whilst the original EMS-121, a UPA sized box, and the 8” EMS-81, didn’t catch the world on fire, their smaller cabinets and innovative sub-bass speakers spread quickly. The EMS-51 is a 5” speaker, similar in size to an E0/E5, it’s affordability meant it was very popular in theatre with the large quantities of small cabinets we often need. The EMS-61, is a 6” E3/E6 size cabinet. The EMS-81X is considerably less chunk and more refined than it’s first generation version, and I’ve happily used these as main speakers in smaller venues. The original EMS-122, now updated to the EMS-126 and EMS-129, has been very popular - it’s 12” speaker and very chunky HF allow it to go very loud. The 126 has a 60° x 40° dispersion, whilst the EMS-129 has a 90° x 60° dispersion. There are a range of sub bass units to match in varying sizes. One of the more interesting, the i-12 goes very low, and whilst it’s not massively powerful, it’s a great unit to use in a smaller venue where a d&b b2 wouldn’t fit.
I’m going to start off by saying I don’t really use L’Acoustics products very often, so my experience here is limited. Many other sound designers use them a lot though. L’Acoustics entered the theatre market with their pioneering line-array systems, with their smaller DV-DOSC system being popular in the 2000’s. Their newer KIVA line-array (dual 6.5” 100° wide cabinets) are a great size for theatres, whilst their KARA (dual 8” 100° wide) are great for larger applications. They have also traditionally had a good line of pint source boxes, of which the old MTD range has now thinned out to two larger boxes , of which the 108 8” box is a popular fill speaker. It’s been replaced with the X line of cabinets, which range from the 4” X4i, the 5” 5XT, the 8” X8, and the 12” X12. Don’t ask me what the logic of that naming scheme is though. L’Acousitcs have also made some really interesting cabinets, such as the ARCS range, which can create really wide centre clusters, recently updated with the A15 Arcs system. Their Syva system is a great and very narrow (well the top bit is) near field speaker.
Small FX speakers
The JBL Control 1 has been a cheap, small and nice sounding speaker for many years. Unfortunately attaching it to a wall, staff bar or anything is incredibly fiddly, not to mention the PITA of bare-end terminals. Where possible we’ve moved away from using these as the labour of installing outweighs the cheapness of buying them. Instead EM Acoustics EMS-41 or EMS-51 are popular choices. Thomann’s the box pro Achat 104 is also a good cheap box, which comes with an NL4 speakon connector and a rigging frame all included in the price. You may also come across the venerable EV S40 speaker too.
QSC, KV2, Coda, Opus and the others
There are a number of speaker manufacturer’s that produce speakers that are used for theatre shows very successfully but that haven’t necessarily seen widespread adoption. KV2 produce some really interesting and innovatively designed speakers that have been used on a fair few musicals recently. Opus, now defunct, produced some amazingly clean speakers that defied expectations. And there are many companies that produce speakers that are used for applications like rehearsal rigs, such as QSC’s K-series of speakers.
We typically provide monitoring to the cast and musicians of various aspects of the show so they can hear what they need to hear to do their job. Sometimes this can involve any of the speakers above mounted around the stage or pit, we often provide more tailored solutions. Sennheiser Evolution IEM systems are very popular in theatre. Shure PSM systems are also popular. These are often combined with generic ear-bud headphones, Sennheiser HD25 headphones or custom ear-moulds, often made by ACS.
Increasingly musicians want to control their own foldback mix. Aviom systems are very popular for this, both the original A16 series, and latterly the A360 series.