The big musical shows currently in the West End, on Broadway and on tour around the world, use sound equipment of a degree of sophistication, and cost that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Custom-built consoles, multiple channel radio microphones, and racks of digital processing equipment are the rule, rather than the exception. Three or four staff to a show is not uncommon, and the budgets for a big musical sound system would keep a fringe theatre company going for several seasons. It's easy to get carried away with all this technology and money, and to lose sight of a part of the theatre sound that has been around for a long time. Straight plays don't often need 50 channel consoles; it's comparatively rare to perform the works of Shakespeare with the aid of 25 radio microphones, and digital effects devices are seldom of much use to the plays Oscar Wilde. It's worth going back in time for a few hundred years to see just what has been available to the theatre sound man since before the days o Andrew Lloyd Webber.
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