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Young People’s Theatre Remains Timeless with New Audio Upgrade
Over a decade in the making, the audio upgrade to Toronto’s storied Young People’s Theatre (YPT) in September 2022 finds the 57-year-old company entering an exciting new era.
28 February, 2023 by
Young People’s Theatre Remains Timeless with New Audio Upgrade

Published by Professional Sound Magazine – February 2023 edition.

In addition to the construction of a new 12,000-square-foot facility, YPT 161 Studios, across the street at Front and Frederick Streets in Toronto, the project involved the transformation of YPT’s existing space and a comprehensive overhaul of their audio, lighting, and electrical systems; deepening YPT’s capabilities for educational and community outreach and providing a cutting-edge environment for incoming technicians, sound designers, and productions. 

YPT is one of those spaces where, when you mention to people that you worked there, people – if they grew up in Toronto – 100-percent they saw shows there when they were kids,” says Joshua Hind, lead de- signer and consultant on the project, who worked at YPT as a stagehand early in his career. “And, if they work in the business, they pulled calls here at some point.” 

Previously, Hind worked with Cirque Du Soleil in the Resident Show Division on facilities like LA’s Kodak Theatre and Vegas’ Mandalay Theatre for the Michael Jackson One show, among others. After the completion of the YPT project, he returned to Cirque, but coming back to YPT for a time offered Hind an opportunity to “get back to the show side of the industry,” he explains. 

When the pandemic put the boots to the company’s plan to build an entirely new space, Hind found himself in a different but familiar role, shifting from Production Manager and, once again, acting as a consultant on a theatre build in spearheading the upgrade of YPT’s existing facility. “The rest, as they say, is history,” he says, laughing. “So, I was the General Theatre Consultant and, once the project launched, Project Manager for the Replacement of Theatrical Specialized Equipment. That’s a catch-all term that covers all the stuff that’d fall out of the building if you turned it over and shook it – lights, dimmers, speakers, all that. I worked with vendors, and other consultants, managed procurements, and oversaw the project.” 

The scope of the project was ambitious and included re-designed box office/concession spaces, upgrades to the dressing rooms, prop, set building and scenic painting workshops, as well as the design and installation of a new, state-of-the-art sound system for the 123-year-old Heritage venue at 165 Front St. Originally, the building was a stable for the Toronto Street Railway Company’s fleet of horse-drawn streetcars, then a steam power plant for transit operations. In 1921, it was converted to a warehouse before ultimately becoming YPT’s home after the 1977 renovation. 

“Our previous system was Apogee loudspeakers and an old digital console,” Hind says, adding that over the years they’d upgraded, but that 1980s-era PA was still their core system. “Every year, we do a holiday musical, which helps pay for making art the rest of the year, but we had to [use] a rental and take the old PA down because it just couldn’t cut it.” 

When exploring options, Hind reached out to GerrAudio: “Ian Robertson (GerrAudio’s Manager of Technical Services & Industry Training Specialist) put together a loaner package for us, and honestly, I was hoping to have the system for an afternoon, but they said, ‘just use it for your show and see if you like them.” 

That was only a portion of the Meyer Sound system they ultimately ended up with, Robertson explains, “But they liked the tonality, clarity, and performance of the speakers and wanted to go ahead with a design based on Meyer.” 

“Compared to our old, ‘literally held together with duct tape’ PA, the Meyer system was night and day,” Hind says, adding that while other manufacturers’ products were considered and offered viable options, “Gerr leaned all the way into the project. They were like, ‘what do you want? Here’s some equipment. Play with it.’” 

Christie Lites, who’ve recently added audio integration to their services, took care of the install. Christie’s Ben Renzella says: “Our conversation started with lighting. Josh and I have done a number of projects together, and when Josh heard Christie was doing audio/video installations, he reached out to me. We put the package together and ended up bidding with the Meyer solution from Gerr.” 

Generally speaking, the install was fairly straightforward, Hind notes. “There are a lot of hang positions and structure, and working with James Craig and the gang from Real Services (Christie Lites’ sub-contractor), who did a lot of our low voltage and the speaker installation, was absolutely terrific.” 

“It’s a unique space,” Robertson explains. “There are physical obstructions and seating positions that are different than many theatres, so we had to be creative with where we put speakers for various reasons and still maintain the best coverage possible.” 

YPT’s Head of Audio, Mike Mills, had clear goals for the system. “Because we do a big musical every year and our previous system didn’t offer a whole lot of flexibility, we wanted a package that would allow us to do any- thing that we want for musical theatre,” Mills says. To achieve that flexibility, in addition to Meyer loudspeakers and processing, YPT also purchased a new DiGiCo console with an integrated Klang monitor solution, Clear-Com wireless intercom, a comprehensive, multi-purpose microphone package, and a QSC solution for distributed audio. 

For loudspeakers, YPT’s PA comprises Meyer Sound Ultra-X40s as L/R elements, one UPQ-D3 for the centre channel, and three 750-LFC subs hung behind the UPQ-D3 in a cardioid configuration to maximize low end for the audience and minimize unwanted low-frequency spillage onstage. 

“There are four Ultra-X40s for under-balcony fill,” Hind explains. “We have a mezzanine that runs around the space, so there’s a pair suspended off the mezzanine to cover most of the lower orchestra level, and the other pair hit the upper orchestra, left and right, and our upper balconies.” He adds that the balcony was built in 1982 when YPT realized they required more space. “But it’s an oddly shaped balcony, so the left/right Ultra X-40s in the air are there to help us fill in that section.” 

As for the decision to use a single UPQ-D3, says Robertson, “One single speaker, if you can cover everything from that one position, is the best way to go, and that UPQ covers the lower section and on up into the rear area of the theatre.” 

Accessibility throughout the venue was a predominant consideration. “We don’t have a ton of under-balcony seating, but right in the middle, at the back, we built a new accessible seating area, tripling the amount of accessible seating in the space,” Hind adds. That area and the wings are covered by four Meyer UP- 4slims, ensuring those in the accessible seating area have the same experience as the rest of the audience. 

“YPT also has those elevated balconies off to the left and right side of the house. On the house right side, underneath the balcony, is where the FOH console is. Because it’s not dead centre, we added the UP-4 slim speakers, which are very low profile, up against the underside of those balconies to cover the FOH position and the accessible seating area,” Robertson notes. 

Additionally, YPT purchased a number of ‘hotspot monitors’ – Meyer X-20s and X-22s – that can be used for foldback or effects speakers according to the needs of any given sound designer or production. The choice of having an inventory of speakers that can be deployed in various layouts instead of a fixed surround system was a decision made early on, partly based on input from sound designers YPT works with. 

“The idea of making those portable and easily deployable was paramount because you want to offer whoever the designer is the maximum amount of flexibility,” Robertson elaborates. “So, instead of establishing fixed surround positions and hoping that that would be sufficient for everybody’s needs, we created a portable, versatile system they can put wherever you want.” Given the amount of pipe throughout the space and the mounting hardware, those can also be hung in a wide range of locations, “Very much like a lighting fixture that you can tilt it on both axes, rotate them horizontally, and tilt it up and down vertically. So now they have an inventory of speakers they can drive off of individual control sends from the console and do all kinds of interesting things.” 

Combined with Meyer’s immersive Space- map Go platform, that provides even more flexibility. “The system is running on Galaxy processors,” he adds. “And the nice thing about Spacemap Go is that it’s entirely flexible as to where you put your speakers. So you’re not tied to a specific loudspeaker layout. 

However, how that’s used going forward largely depends on the sound designer. “In theatre today – and this is true not just in audio,” Hind says, “but also in video, there are basically two types of designers. In sound, I’ve found this to be true for a while. There are very technical designers who’ll come in and do their own mapping and really take advantage of the immersive tools and Waves (which is part of our control/processing system as well). Then there are designers who just want to make music and/or interesting soundscapes and just have that amplified so the audience can hear it. For the holiday musical, the sound designers tend to be more on the technical side, and I have no doubt they’re going to use the heck out of all the tools we’ve got.” 

In choosing all the systems inhabiting YPT, ensuring the theatre is on par with and technologically similar to other spaces in Toronto was critical, Hind adds, citing the choice of a DiGiCo Quantum 338 console and three Dante-based I/O racks for control. “We’re a theatre where stagehands who are typically early in their career are going to come and work. They need to have equipment that exists in other theatres so they can call their pals when they get stuck. Then they go to the next theatre, and the experience of working for us has supercharged them to go and work in those other, bigger theatres.” 

“My original choice was actually an SD10 T because I wanted the theatre package for programming for musicals,” puts in YPT Head of Audio, Mike Mills, adding that it ultimately made more sense to go with the Quantum, which, being a more recent offering is even more future proof. 

The integration of KLANG’s immersive monitoring system (comprised of KLANG:vokal IEM mix system and eight KLANG:kontroller remote units) and DiGiCo was also a plus. “We weren’t really familiar with KLANG,” Hind continues. “But Gerr was running a training (session) at the Elgin and said, ‘Come over and take part in the training session and see if you like it. Once they got their hands on it, our people thought KLANG was great.” 

“We were looking at an Aviom system, but when we asked Gerr for advice, they suggest- ed KLANG, and it’s phenomenal,” Mills says. “We’re mixing monitors and FOH from the Q338, so allowing musicians to customize and control their mixes themselves with KLANG gives me a little more freedom and flexibility and definitely saves time.” 

When it came to wireless systems, choosing Lectrosonics LMb Digital Hybrid Wireless belt packs and VRT2 receivers, Hind explains, was a direct upgrade from their previous system. “We had an older version, so it’s technology we know, and Christie put together a great charging solution for us with reusable batteries that met our environmental requirements.” 

Having a greener footprint is increasingly critical, Renzella adds: “So we provided a Fisher Amps rack mount solution. I was just looking online looking for an integrated solution, and that fit because it’s all right there, in a rack where you need it.” 

When it comes to having things where and when you need them, the choice of Clear- Com was obvious and spoke to the mandate of providing industry-standard tools for their crew and incoming productions. 

For comms, they installed a HelixNet digital PartyLine with eighteen wired belt packs and a FreeSpeak EDGE digital wireless system with six belt packs, which will be used in both the main theatre and the new building. 

“We didn’t upgrade The Studio Theatre – it will be another phase (of the project) at some point,” Hind says. “It’s our ‘B’ space, a 115-seat black box. It did get some new speakers out of the deal. Most of its other systems weren’t upgraded, but we did create network interconnects so that we could have comms in there. And we can also run program video in there easily because our program video is all NDI – all over the network as well. So we could throw a stage box in there, put it on the network easily, run intercom.” 

As for the choice of Clear-Com: “In my experience, there are really, for this type of thing, only two options, Clear-Com and Reidel. In a market like Toronto, if you put something in that isn’t Clear-Com, it’s just like everything else; you’re limiting yourself when you need to add a beltpack or get something fixed. So it was an easy decision.” 

Previously, they’d been experiencing a variety of issues, including unwanted radio signals and dropouts, says Shanna Miller, YPT’s Technical Director. “When you have designers trying to focus, that’s something they don’t need on their shoulders. Having intercom that fully supports us throughout the venue is a great advantage for designers and our staff.” 

As for the difference – and the new possibilities the new systems offer – she adds: “Night and day is a good way to put it. We’re much more future-proof. And, being able to have stage management talking to someone backstage, and a designer speaking [individually] to their operators simultaneously, that saves time and provides more freedom.” 

Freedom and reliability were also the watchwords in the decision to dramatically expand their existing microphone package with a mix of high-end and midgrade elements, including Shure 58s, 57s, 81s, and a new drum mic kit. 

DPA products were a significant part of that effort. Among them DPA 4061 and 4080 Lavalier mics and 4099 instrument mics. “We did some experimentation and landed on DPAs,” Hind says. “All of our designers were big fans, and the late Peter McBoyle – who was a friend of mine and certainly one of the, if not the preeminent theatre sound designer in the country – we got his advice, and he said, ‘DPA or nothing.’ So, the 4080s are going to be our go-to presentation mics. We’ve already used them a few times for that.” As for the 4099s, he adds, “YPT didn’t have instrument mics previously – it was always a run over to L&M to rent them – so we went from nothing to having a substantial mic pack.” 

“The 4061s are reliable,” Mills adds. “They don’t ‘sweat out’ very often. They’re very concealable, lightweight, and paintable. They’re perfect for what we do with the annual musical. Previously we had some 4080s, and we stocked up with some more, but before, we didn’t have much in terms of microphones, so every time we did a musical, we’d have to rent them for the band and everything else.” Beyond the issue of dealing with the odd beat- up rental mic, “If everything is in-house, it gets people comfortable using the mics – so, for me, it was just ensuring we have everything available here and, again, have more flexibility.” That flexibility is also baked into the venue by way of their new distributed sound, video, and communications system. “Before, all of our program sound was run off of...” Hind pauses, “I don’t even know what... A prayer, I think.” Not so with their new infrastructure – a QSC-based system comprised of a Q-SYS Core Nano, AD-S4T 4-inch and AD-S6 6-inch loudspeakers, GX Series amps, and a variety of touch panels for control. The system covers the entire venue – from the theatre and public spaces to the green room and shop areas. 

“The audio playback system we did our- selves,” Hind adds. “It was easy to replace, and we’ve done that with M1 Mac Mini computers and a new QLab 5 license. The only things we don’t have yet are our QLab Remote Go But- tons. Because of supply chain issues, you can’t find one for love or money these days.” 

Renzella adds: “Our lead integrator on the project, James Craig, and I have done a lot of installations in many different spaces, and the QSC DSP line has served us well. From a program audio standpoint, Josh wasn’t specific about a product. We know what the QSC system can do and how we can integrate it well. And they’re just scratching the surface of what it can do with their current usage.” 

In every case, the overarching plan was to ensure that YPT remains a cutting-edge space well into the future to serve both up-and-coming pro- duction staff and the roughly 150,000 patrons who attend YPT productions annually. 

That was a focus right from the start, Hind asserts. “Literally, in the first paragraph of the RFP documents – and this is a direct quote – it says: “The overall watchword should be ease of use. YPT is informally known as a training house where stagehands spend the early years of their career building skills as technicians and heads of department before moving to larger houses. To support this reality, YPT is willing, broadly speaking, to trade some technical sophistication for greater reliability and a lower barrier to learning.” 

“Creating better professionals is some- thing we should all be working towards,” Miller concludes, as is creating excitement for a whole new audience. “The students that come here are the future of theatre audiences. So, this is how we all keep working; this is how we open up ways for young people to learn some- thing about themselves and others to start conversations. If we don’t do that with youth, we’re not going to have an audience later.” 

Kevin Young is a Toronto-based musician and freelance writer. He can be contacted at [email protected].