Adapted from screen to the stage, Back To The Future has arrived in the West End, running at the Adelphi Theatre in London until July 2022. Needing audio that would do justice to the original songs of the 1985 film score such as ‘The Power of Love’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode’, as well as new music written by composers Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, while remaining clear and unobtrusive to deliver some of the more emotional moments, the production saw Gareth Owen take on the sound design.

Back to the Future (Pic: Sean Ebsworth Barnes)Back to the Future is one of the most dynamic shows I have done in a long time,’ Owen states. ‘The music jumps from 50s Jazz to Rock ’n’ Roll to sweeping orchestral episodes to really quiet and emotional moments – so I needed a system that would deliver power as well as clarity.’

For musical supervisor Nick Finlow the challenge for the sound design lies in tying together the visual and the audio, without letting one outshine the other. ‘Back to the Future is a huge show in so many ways,’ he says. ‘It is visually and technically stunning, has a big cast, a large pit orchestra supplemented by programming on track, and is playing to audiences in a large theatre so the sound design of the show not only has to match the rather epic nature of what the audience are seeing, but it also must support the score, which ranges from big orchestral moments to full company production numbers and also includes much more intimate moments.’

Launched in 2018, Owen was the first sound designer to specify d&b audiotechnik’s SL-Series it in the West End, and found it clear that the broadband directivity control highly effective in a theatre environment, where line arrays are often flown extremely close to the proscenium walls due to sightlines and spacial restrictions.

‘d&b’s SL-Series loudspeakers guarantee optimal audience coverage while keeping energy off the main stage thanks to the active speaker design, making for a quieter stage, keeping the audio clear, all without a drop in level for the audience,’ he says.

Back to the Future (Pic: Sean Ebsworth Barnes)For Back to the Future, Owen went a step further with KSL arrays for the balcony tier as well as for the main proscenium. An unconventional choice, but it has paid off.

‘This was the first time I put KSL speakers in the gallery and it proved really effective. It’s the most reverberant space in the theatre as its closest to the often heavily adorned ceiling. Using a highly directional box up there meant exciting the room much less, making for better intelligibility and creating a better audience experience in these, often lower priced seats.’

No Back to the Future adaptation would be plausible without the famous DeLorean. The creative team behind the musical have created a technical masterpiece loaded to the hilt with stage tech – including d&b amplifiers and loudspeakers – making it move, speak, flash and huff and puff – all with room for the actors to spare.

The successful theatrical delivery of the DeLorean is a personal highlight for Owen and one sure to be inscribed into the books of musical theatre history. For the audio part of the car, d&b’s longer established speaker series’ were the best fit for the job, surprising even the sound designer with their power-to-size-ratio. 

‘The DeLorean in the show is an absolute marvel of theatre technology and stage design,’ he says. ‘It’s packed full of lights, smoke machines, moving mechanisms and sound. All of which had to fit into a really tight space. We managed to achieve incredible sound effects with two Y7Ps and two E6s – I didn’t think they’d do it, but they delivered the necessary output. It’s incredible.’

The production also relied on support from d&b partner Orbital Sound, who supplied the kit – all the different needs of this show were covered through a collaboration between the audio department and the rest of the production team, despite having to ‘wrestle’ for room in the car.

Finlow is delighted with the results: ‘What’s so important for Back to the Future is that the sound design is malleable - helping us portray the most dramatic moments but also the most intimate. The sound design certainly delivers on that front and collaborating with Gareth in bringing the musical vision to life was very effective.’

For Orbital MD Chris Headlam, working on this show was a great way to shake off the Covid blues. ‘Back to the Future was always going to be an interesting journey,’ he says. ‘With the reputation of one off the biggest and strongest film titles of all time at stake, audience expectations were extremely high for this one. It’s not easy to transcribe film to the live stage, but in this case, it’s been a great success. Everyone who has been lucky enough to see the show and hear the show agrees that this is an almighty production.’

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