There is little than can compare to the sheer joy of listening to the assembled voices of several thousand youngsters singing their hearts out. In motivational terms alone, what Young Voices does for the primary school age children of the UK is sensational; to be planted front stage centre in one of the UK arenas and perform in front of an equally large audience is a memory most of them will carry for the rest of their lives. How do we know this?
Arthur Mazzer who works for Britannia Row Productions Ltd (Britrow), the company that has provided the sound system for these events since their inception, was once one of those early choristers. “We all like music,” he said, “I don’t think you can work in this industry unless you love it, and for me singing was what started me off. In that sense Young Voices was a magical experience.”
Astute readers will also note there is likewise something magical about providing sound reinforcement for such a presentation; just exactly how do you capture and amplify seven thousand voices in a large reverberant hall like Manchester Arena?
“It is a really tricky show,” said FoH engineer Colin Pink with some measure of understatement. “Seven thousand mostly eight year olds means one of two things; either not a lot of level because they’re not focussed, or they’re shouting with excitement, so there is a strange dynamic. That’s something that conductor David Lawrence masterfully brings under control during the three short hours he has available to rehearse the children in the afternoon before that evening’s performance.”
Young Voices runs a national programme that teachers can access and plug into enabling all those who take part to spend the preceding school year practising the songs in this years’ programme. Even so it is an entirely new group of children that performs each day.
The PA system features left/right and side-hangs of V-dosc plus a monitor system of four hangs of Kara across the back of stage facing up into the grandstands where the children are seated. “It can get a bit fierce around 1-2 kHz, so you have to change your way of thinking,” Pink explained. “Twenty to 30 condenser mics won’t work.”
In a scene reminiscent of Blue Peter in its pomp, Pink had an insight and appeared at an early Young Voices NIA concert some years ago with fibreglass matting and resin, which he fashioned into parabolic reflectors. “I had come up with the idea of a skewed parabolic dish when we played the Albert Hall the year previous.” Must have been those flying saucers overhead. “We’ve all seen those zero degree dish and microphone combinations for picking up sportsmen talking on the pitch. I had a re-think and worked out the maths for something that covered 90 degrees horizontal and five degrees vertical.” That it worked is no better evidenced by the fact that Pink has now contracted a commercial specialist, Project Plastics, and had six of the dishes manufactured in clear acrylic. Each has a Neumann KM184 positioned at their focal point.
“Between the five to 20 metres across which I’m picking up the children’s voices I get a drop of just 2.7dB.” There is a downside to this, while the dish collector focuses the voices into a coherent whole, this has the effect of reducing the sense of scale, so Pink still retains a number of individual condensers to add that size to the mix. “Never the less, the use of the dishes gives me an extra 20dB headroom on the input gain compared to the condensers.” In such a reverberant environment, that’s not to be sniffed at.
The second part of managing the sound environment is the monitor system, which is partly fed from Pink’s Digico SD7 with a front of house mix, leaving the skilled hands of Dee Miller on stage right to blend this with the task of feeding nine musicians, guest performers, plus MD and Conductor Dave Lawrence, with IEM mixes. “The kids do need to hear what they sing, but at least with child voices there’s no bottom end so I can apply high-pass filters for a good starting point,” said Pink. “That still leaves the tricky bit of making it all phase coherent,” he added.
Timing is thus critical, the small band are some 15 to 20m in front of the singers, so Pink delays the band to the voices. “I keep the system delay to a minimum,” said Britrow system tech Nico Royan. “And Colin’s design keeps as much of the system in the same physical plane as possible. When I first came to this job I thought, ‘how hard can it be?’ But with seven thousand kids wrapped around up in the grandstands just try thinking about where is point zero for this performance and you’ll see the dilemma.”
Then there’s the little matter of dynamics, “there are quite simply some songs the kids prefer to others,” said Pink. “It’s also not unusual to find they will sing the verses quite muted, only to belt it out, (+9dB is not unusual) for the chorus.” Fortunately this seems to be a fashion thing, and across the almost twenty concerts at variously London’s O2, Birmingham NEC, Sheffield and Manchester Arenas, the children tend to favour the same songs, “so I do quickly learn where I’m going to have to work hardest.”