Photo: Golder O’Neill (third from left in the striped sweater) with students and staff of Shenandoah University at the new DiGiCo SD9 in Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre

When a new piece of gear is specified for a theatre install, a variety of technical issues and requirements naturally influence the purchase decision. However, sometimes the final deciding factor ultimately comes down to a manufacturer’s people. That was very much the case when New Market, Maryland-based Acme Professional recently installed a DiGiCo SD9 at Shenandoah University’s Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre in Winchester, Virginia.

While the university has a noteworthy traditional music and recording program and the venue is used for everything from concerts and recitals to dance performances, Ohrstrom-Bryant is really all about one thing—musical theatre. The venue hosts numerous productions each year spanning both long-running chestnuts and productions of more recent Broadway hits. The recently ended 2015 summer season included performances of A Funny Thing happened On the Way To the Forum and The Music Man, as well as the musical version of The Addams Family.

Acme Professional’s Pete Cosmos reports that he initially specified another manufacturer’s console for Ohrstrom-Bryant, but that changed after members of the teaching staff attended last fall’s AES Convention in Los Angeles.

Golder O’Neill heads up the school’s recording program and, as the resident “gear guy” along with colleague Adam Olson, was tasked with checking out consoles at the audio trade show with an eye on replacing the analog desk that had been installed when the theatre opened nearly 20 years earlier.

“We got there pretty late,” O’Neill recalls. “Most of the people on the show floor were already packing up their booths and we had a hard time getting anyone to talk to us.” Until they got to the DiGiCo booth, that is, and US Sales Manager Matt Larson stopped the load-out activities to power up the SD9 again and demo it to the late arrivals.

“Matt showed us a number of things that were going to help us,” he continues. “Even something as simple as the ability to copy the settings and routing of one channel strip and copy it to another has saved time and just made for a better audio experience. But the most convincing argument was not about features. It was really educational.”

Like many school theatre programs, the audio staff running shows at Ohrstrom-Bryant primarily consists of students. “These students are learning how to use technology that they will be expected to know how to use when they leave school and get out into the ‘real world’. Matt, quite rightly, pointed out that a majority of shows both on Broadway and in other musical theatre centers around the world are mixed on DiGiCo consoles.”

Shenandoah has its roots as a conservatory of music; musical training and the conservatory came first and the designation as a university came later. The school has always been about training students to make a living in music. Those roots made the decision to go with the DiGiCo SD9 an easy one once it was understood that this would be the same tool that students would come to use as working professionals.

The venue’s heavy schedule—especially in the summer season—also made the move from analog to digital crucial. “The summer musical theater season is the busiest and most important period of the year for us; we do four productions in an eight-week period,” O’Neill reports. Each show is in tech rehearsals for a week before performances begin. And with the short period allowed for the season, there is no break. The next show in the schedule starts tech rehearsals during the second week of performances for the show before it.

“Moving to the SD9 has been about more than just feature sets or overall audio quality, although those are great,” O’Neill says. “But the ability to be developing one show while all of the settings for the current show are saved and recallable all on the same console has made things much easier and smoother.”

As with any educational institution, what the staff wants can be secondary to other concerns—especially financial ones. And even after O’Neill knew what he wanted, he needed to sell that idea to the administration.

“Technology is changing so fast,” he says. “And if we are going to really educate the students in the theatre audio program and prepare them for being able to work after they leave school, then we have to have state-of-the art tools for them to learn on and, even more importantly, that they can get actual mixing time on. That was the argument that sold the administration.

“For me, there was no real light-bulb moment—no specific feature that helped me know that the SD9 was right for us. But Matt’s personal approach really clinched the deal. If he was willing to stop all of the packing activity at their booth to talk to us and ask us about what we do and what is important to us—and then thoroughly demo the SD9 while everyone else was leaving—then I knew that this was a company we could count on to stand behind its product.”