For the next three and a half months I will be on tour with Springer Theatricals doing a musical review called Route66. The first thing everyone asks is, “Where are you going?” Well, I could list all of the cities here, but the truth is that I don’t know any of them and I doubt that most people would. Springer Opera House is in Columbus, Ohio and our first show will be in Huntsville, Alabama. I will make another post about the Springer, but first I would like to introduce, The SAC Rack.
Named after the piece of software that it was built to run, Software Audio Console, The SAC Rack is a 56 in/26 out recording studio and live sound digital mixer in a box. It includes a MacBook Pro running OSX and Windows7, a firewire audio interface, and a wireless router with draft-n. The remote computer is an older PC running Windows7 connected to a USB controller.
This setup allows me to do two very important things: record the show and setup fast. One of the first things that I will do on this production is to make a multi-channel recording of the show. This will allow me to listen back and set my scene memories in SAC, the mixer. Then, when it comes to running the show I can basically just go through the scene memories and take notes.
Then, when we are on the road I save myself the laborious task of running a multi-pair snake because the controller is wireless. I can put The SAC Rack close to the musicians on stage, then setup my FOH (front of house) position wherever I want.
This is what I’ve been wanting to build for a while. All I have to do is plug in power, plug in mics, and go. The funny thing is that the first thing I’ll probably do is take it all apart. This is because that it would be better to combine my equipment with the material from Springer so that everything is connected together in a single rack.
The pictures are from when I was doing tests in different parts of the house. Check my twitter feed on the top right of this page for more photos.
Earlier this month I completed the installation and optimization of a Meyer Sound UPJ-1P at The Georgetown Palace. Out of the many suggestions I had made to improve the sound at this antique cinema turned theatre, this was the best first step.
The installation took a day, mostly because the technical director and I had to do everything ourselves including running cables, building scaffolding, and drilling the ceiling. I thought steel cable would look better than chain, but chain is what they had. I painted it black and tried to make it look tidy, but the biggest eye sore wasn’t the chain, it was the fact that the speaker was not centered in the room. This was because it was mounted horizontally as I had aligned it to the high frequency driver, not the center of the box.
After measuring its performance, the biggest surprise was that the off axis point in the balcony read almost as well as the first row. This was a great discovery because it may make delay speakers for the balcony unnecessary. Unfortunately, I haven’t been to see any productions post-install, but when I do I will update this post.
- Post installation measurements are similar to predictions. Off axis points were found at the edge of seating areas. This will ensure less wall reflections. Surprisingly, the off axis point in the balcony read almost as well as at first row. Thus, delay speakers may not be necessary. Recommend further experimentation.
- Reflection from back wall is strong. Recommend temporary installation of heavy curtains until acoustic treatment can be made.
- Measurements throughout the room show the existence of many and varying room modes due to standing waves created between parallel walls.
Image shows three room measurements super imposed over a simple rendering of The Palace Theatre including the UPJ and its On Axis guideline. The amplitude measurements at 8kHz are used to demonstrate speaker focus.
From what I have heard about The Georgetown Palace, they have steadily increased their production value over the years. Each new conquest must have lead them to take on ever bigger challenges. While the productions have grown, the physical and technical confines of their theatre have remained the same. As an end user, a sound designer and operator, it was a shock to hear that they were working on Man Of La Mancha, a play which calls for 19 actors and a 19 piece orchestra. The work draws me in and I lose perspective, but looking back at the two pieces I have done for The Palace I realize that they were both too large, production wise, for the space.
At the same time, I respect them for setting big goals. It forces everyone to grow and learn at an exponential rate. For me, it was a chance to test out new show control technology that I had been interested in. This would allow me to automate the mixing of the entire show.
See photos of the show here.
When I first accepted the job I knew that I would have to come up with a smart solution to 1) bring all elements under control and 2) enjoy my work. My idea for show automation came from two places. At the end of August I was working at The Vortex on Dragonfly Queen. Their normal mode of operation is to hire a sound designer and then find a volunteer untrained operator for the run. This seemed fine for 8 inputs, but Man Of La Mancha would have 26 inputs of actors, musicians, and playback. The answer came while reading an article by Richard Ingraham about his sound design for Evil Dead. He had used a piece of software called Software Audio Console to setup a digital mixing environment within a computer with a series of scenes that an operator could simply recall at the right time to effectively automate the mix. Obviously show control technology has been around for a while and he must not have been the first person to attempt such a design, but the piece of software that made it all happen was the big find for me. It provided me with the solutions I needed to 1) Automate all parameters of the mix and thus bring a high level of control and consistency to the show and 2) work from any location with a wirelessly connected laptop.
Once I got the OK from Ron Watson, the director, I setup a system combining my own material with that of the theatre’s to run the show. I contemplated completely removing the mixing console from the chain, but thought better not to shock people too much. This also left the operator with some means for level correction from show to show. Contact me if you want to know about exactly how I did this.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to write the 120 mix scenes I needed to automate the show during tech rehearsals so I planned to record a run through on multi-track and use it as a kind of virtual sound check. At first I planned to rent a stand alone 24-track recorder, but later discovered that the same company that made SAC (Software Audio Console) also made a recording program called SAW (Software Audio Workshop). It could link with SAC through internal buffers and thus I was able to record, playback, and mix between the two pieces of software on the same computer. It worked great.
I used the first recording to set all of my channel mutes as actors entered and exited and musicians started and stopped. The sound operator then stepped in and I was able to focus on setting levels using a second computer as he recalled the channel mutes during tech rehearsals. I then recorded another rehearsal and used that to add level and FX automation to each scene. It took 10 hours, but it was really nice to be able to go over and over a particular scene without anyone in the theatre. Also, I didn’t loose a tech rehearsal to the second recording because SAW is not only able to feed SAC, but also record from it. That means I was running the show with SAC, but also recording with SAW, neither one affected by the other.
By the time dress rehearsals started I was able to sit back and take notes. I am simplifying a lot, because there was lots of other work going on, but I am focusing on this because it was such a nice change to be able to make daily critical advancements in a show’s sound without needing to memorize all the nuances of the entire play over the course of weeks.
This production was fraught with technical problems. I won’t list every one, but they ranged from wireless microphone hiss and pop to complete mixing board failure. Instead I would just like to write about the three main problems that affected the show control I had setup. They were a bad firewire card, a bad audio interface, and bad communication.
Windows doesn’t play nice with firewire, called 1394 in PC land. It is rare to find PCs with firewire ports. I need them to connect to my RME Fireface 800. My solution was a PCI-express to firewire card from Syba. It worked fine for the first week, but as processing demands increased with the complexity of the show, errors began to occur. I blamed the computer’s performance and decided to buy an additional audio interface and move some processing onto another computer.
My original plan was to use the same computer for mixing and playback. I accomplished this with a piece of software called SoundMan-Designer from Richmond Sound Design and by looping the SMPTE ports on the Fireface. When memory errors started to occur I decided to move playback to a separate system, which is a better idea anyway. This did not solve the memory errors and lead to new problems because the Tascam U-144 interface I bought had very unstable drivers and would cause playback to quite unexpectedly. I didn’t know this at the time, though, and decided that is was the fault of SoundMan-Designer. I harassed their technical support person with questions and eventually decided to buy new software and redo the playback cues. So I bought Show Cue System during an all-nighter at the theatre and hoped for the best. The next day I was still having problems. Fail. (Note: SoundMan-Designer is a great piece of software and was not the cause of any problems)
To make a long story short, a week after the play opened I bought a replacement firewire card from Belkin, moved the playback software back onto the original computer with the mixing software, and everything worked fine. Beware using firewire in windows, but also beware buying computer hardware with many varying reviews. No amount of driver swapping can fix crap hardware.
The third problem, bad communication, took me a little while longer to figure out. I realize now that I should have been able to predict this, because I’ve been working with musicians for a long time, but I suppose I had stars in my eyes. I thought that maybe everything would go so smoothly with the show automation that no one would even know that someone wasn’t manually mixing it every night. My hopes were too high, though, because I failed to communicate to everyone exactly what was going on.
During the first week I said, “This will lead to a more consistent show.” What I should have said is, “This will lead to a more consistent show because every setting will be exactly the same every night and you won’t be able to change anything.” What I forgot is that musicians are used to being able to ask for changes at any time. During the course of a show the musicians continue to develop their performance. Surprise, during the second week they began asking for changes in the monitor mixes. They were pretty surprised when I said, “No, everything is set. I can’t change it anymore.”
Of course I could have made changes, but there is such little headroom in the mix in a small room like The Palace that any changes would really have called for an additional tech rehearsal to be sure of no adverse consequences.
In the end it was the right decision, but it might have gone more smoothly without those technical problems and if I had communicated more clearly from the beginning. While it feels like success for me because I was able to implement so many new technologies and complete a large production on a tiny budget, I failed to regain trust from the cast and crew in the audio as a whole.
From an audience perspective, The Palace’s production of Man Of La Mancha was a success. The set and lighting look great and we have some excellent actors and musicians. Reviews have been favorable and most people have had a good time. The automation of the mix took the sound to a new level. If something wasn’t right one day, it was fixed the next, in most cases, and less susceptible to daily prejudice. Also, with the difficulty of mixing the show out of the way, all energy was focused on the the few problems that did occur and magnified them greatly. No one was worrying whether or not the operator would remember to turn them up for their solo or off for their exit, only whether or not that one technical problem would be fixed tonight.
If you are a theatre professional yourself and are thinking of using similar forms of show control in your production, consider carefully the communication needed before hand so that everyone is on the same page.
A new work of opera called Dragonfly Queen by Chad Salvata just opened at The Vortex. I would call it a fantasy Gothic opera. It could have gone several different ways but a strong design team and a great director were what made it a great piece to watch. Even if the play were in a foreign language I would still enjoy it. Here is a clip.
Victory Wings Sample by NathanDoFrangos
This was my first position as an Assistant Sound Designer. My job was to implement design by Roy Taylor, resident Sound Designer at The Vortex. One of his goals was envelopment. He wanted the audience to feel like they were surrounded. This was new for me since my goals for the last couple of years in sound design have almost always centered around direct sound. I put up a tiny fight at the beginning because this seemed like a mistake to me for such a small venue, but didn’t have much to say since it was my first time working with them.
The first direction I received at production meetings was that I should install a stereo system in the set that would play the backing tracks for the actors to sing along with. If you read my last post about stereo systems then you have already predicted what came out of my big mouth, “But do you think the two halves of the audience in this L-shaped seating area will hear in stereo?” By the time we had hung speakers behind the audience and put playback material into those as well, I realized Roy was going for envelopment. Depending on the music, sometimes it would sound like it was coming from the back or in front.
My next concern was with the omni-directional microphones on the foreheads of each of the singers, who you can see here (Photography by Kimberley Mead). Not only were they singing in front of the main speaker system, but they were often in close proximity to one another and the vocal PA. Later their voices were even sent to the rear hanging speakers that were pointed right at the stage! What I discovered is that this is the method that The Vortex has been using to amplify voices for some time now and that they have a system of dressing and hiding the mic and transmitter. I often spend a lot of time in my work trying to get finicky mics to stay on people’s faces, but in this production I hardly had to lift a finger is this regard. The actors themselves discovered the best way to dress and secure the mics from the beginning.
One of my favorite parts of Roy’s design was keeping the backing tracks low. Although everyone wanted it to feel like a Rock Opera, pumping up the volume would have severely affected vocal clarity. This was due to the fact that the composer had a lot of activity in the tracks in the same frequency area as the vocal range. Since the vocalists were so dynamic they would have dropped in and out of the mix.
This was also my first time to train a sound board operator. I did my best to setup all of the equipment so that it would be easy to understand. I wish I could have provided more direction, but in the end all I could say was, “Mix it so it sounds good.” I’m not really sure how to explain to someone how to mix music from the ground up so I just threw her into the water and made corrections as she swam along.
In the end it turned out well and while there were things I would have changed, I think Roy was happy with the result. My next show will be Man Of La Mancha in Georgetown and I am working on a show control and automation system to provide for an easy to operate consistent show. More on that later.