In Control: Sound Designer Gareth Owen Talks Audio Solutions

by Wilson Burke

Award-winning sound designer Gareth Owen has been very busy of late with multiple, concurrent stage productions, including Bat Out of Hell, Wind in the Willows, and 42nd Street—all running in London’s West End, as well as A Bronx Tale and Come From Away on Broadway. Bat Out of Hell is currently playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto prior to a return to the London stage in 2018. His current design for Bat Out of Hell perhaps harkens back to the start of his career mixing rock ‘n’ roll before he moved into mixing musical theater and then becoming a sound designer. 

Designing the audio for a diverse range of theatrical productions, Owen needs a live sound system with the power and flexibility to create the perfect sound for each production regardless of the genre. Recently Owen talked about relying on Avid’s flagship live sound system—the Avid Venue S6L, as well as his use of Allen & Heath’s ME-1 Personal Mixer, to support his work on several musical theater productions.

Master of Control

As long-time members of Avid’s distinguished user community, Owen and his team at Gareth Owen Sound were the first to adopt Avid Venue S6L for Broadway and West End productions, using its extensive programming capabilities to craft much of each show during the production phase.

“Every show is different, and some are polar opposites of each other in terms of sonic requirements—for example, Bat Out of Hell is a balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll musical, as loud as any concert, while 42nd Street is the traditional book musical, all about subtlety and transparency,” said Owen. “The S6L takes these varying musical styles in its stride, tackling them all as if it was designed specifically for that purpose. The sound quality is far ahead of any other console I’ve used. There’s a clarity and transparency to the sound of the S6L that’s a new experience for me. And it gives me the power to explore my creativity without being hemmed in by the technology.”

Owen and his team are currently using the S6L console for several shows, including Come From Away, A Bronx Tale, 42nd Street, Young Frankenstein (West End), Bat Out of Hell (Toronto), and Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (Germany). They will also be using the console for a number of upcoming productions, including Donna Summer (Broadway), Come From Away (Toronto), Prince of Egypt (Denmark), Starlight Express (London) and Strictly Ballroom (London).

“We are honored that one of the world’s top sound designers relies on Avid’s comprehensive tools and workflow solutions to mix the biggest musical theater productions,” said Avid President, Jeff Rosica. “As well as giving Gareth and his team the control and creative flexibility to support the most sophisticated productions regardless of genre, the Avid Venue S6L console’s sound quality is second to none.”

Monitoring the Situation

For monitor control on a number of his shows, Owen has recently specified an array of Allen & Heath products across three of London’s biggest theatre productions. Employed to solve the issues of personal monitoring for musicians in the West End shows, the ME-1 Personal Mixer is at the heart of the systems, which Owen has used for Wind in The Willows (London Palladium), Bat Out of Hell (London Coliseum), and 42nd Street (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane).

“This is the future,” says Owen. “We have three of the biggest shows in London, two on Broadway and Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame running out in Germany, all on the Allen & Heath set-ups and we couldn’t be happier. It’s been a truly great choice.” Rather than being driven by a traditional console, the ME-1s are fed by an Allen & Heath dLive DM64 MixRack in each situation, with the MixRack controlled from touch-screen PCs running the company’s Director software. As such each of the installations allows for a remarkably compact solution to the complex needs of each production.

With different musical line-ups—ranging from the orchestral 42nd Street to the electric band in Bat Out of Hell—the shows bring varying challenges in terms of monitoring. But the flexibility of the ME-1 and DM64 systems has placed control in the hands of each player, as Owen explains. “We have older, very experienced brass players who want everything kept very simple,” he says, “and young drummers who want every one of the 40 stems from a show coming into their mixer, so they can do really detailed mixes. And their ME-1 gives them that choice and control. And the fact that the DM64 has freed us from having to use a large mixer to drive the ME-1 units is fantastic. Our monitoring stations are very often below stage, so space is a real consideration—the DM64s with the Director software is a very powerful, convenient solution for us.”

Owen has already won two Olivier Awards for Memphis and Merrily We Roll Along; has Olivier nominations for Top Hat and End of the Rainbow; been nominated for two Tony Awards for A Little Night Music and End of the Rainbow; and won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Come from Away. His sound designs can be heard all over the world including London’s West End, New York, Las Vegas, and Germany, just to name a few. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 25 million people have watched shows with a sound design by Owen.

He has mixed a wide range of music as well—from rock to pop, including: The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, Elton John, Geri Halliwell, Def Leppard, Liza Minelli, S-Club-7, The Who, The Stereophonics, Celine Dion, One Direction, Guns N’ Roses, and many more. In addition to his extensive work in rock and pop audio, Owen has also worked on a wide variety of classical concerts for groups like The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, The BBC Concert Orchestra, The London Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic.