Saturday, July 16, 2011

Mic Station and Medical Dispensery

I've added to the stack of supplies kept in the room where we apply microphones to actors. In addition to transpore surgical tape, we've added toupee tape, Tegaderm, moleskin, latex exam gloves, rubbing alcohol, alcohol swabs, and a pair of suture scissors (for cutting the various tapes). Plus an assortment of Decocolor paint markers in various skin tones, bobby pins, barrettes, and wig clips.

I haven't tried the Tegaderm yet. I've learned how to use toupee tape, though. Nasty stuff to work with. It is double-sided flexible tape. Very flexible, very sticky. It's like trying to work with flypaper made of gauze. You stick the stuff to the actor, stick the microphone element on top of it, and then put some transpore tape on top of that so hair and fingers and random set pieces don't get stuck to the actor as well.

The moleskin, I am cutting narrow strips and putting around the heads of the elements just behind the grill. It absorbs incoming sweat and keeps it from dripping inside the microphone element.

The Decocolor markers are to paint elements up or down and get them closer to the actor's skin tone. The paint does rub off in time, and toupee tape will pull it right off, meaning frequent touch-ups. When choosing element colors or painting elements, work down; lighter colors will read as scars, but darker colors usually read as shadows, or stray hairs. Or so I am told!

Another fact of life for wireless microphones is some actors are mic-killers. It's not their fault. Just for whatever reason, microphones fail when put on their bodies. Many shows will have one. Just treat that actor's mic with extra care and suspicion and don't stint the microphone check.

And while we're on the subject: There seems to be this impression (including among board operators who should know better) that microphone check means bringing every actor on to the stage, asking them to sing as loud as they do in the show, and adjusting their trim.

Sorry, no. To be blunt; that's why you are on the board. Expecting the actor to perform cold, without accompaniment, and sound ANYTHING like they will for the show is no better than setting a number blind and expecting it to be good.

Once your mics are dialed in, microphone check is to confirm they are still working properly and working the way you set them. If they sound obviously different, or you had to change an element or transmitter or the actor needed to change placement, then you start messing with the gain and the EQ until you think the mic is dialed in again. And then you tweak again when you hear it in the context of the performance.

Barring that kind of obvious change, don't mess with them! It's stupid. You'll muck up a perfectly good set of mic settings based on what random thing the actors do during mic check and what your tired ears are telling you on a cold morning.

Many, many actors will attempt to do mic check by wandering out with the mic held on with their hand, because they haven't gotten to taping it down yet. They will of course give you mic check without the wigs, hats, glasses, false noses, or whatever will be coloring their voice during performance. Work with stage management to explain to them why this won't work.

But use your regular pre-show mic-check to listen for problems, listen to the sound of the mic, and get a leg up on a congested or hoarse actor or anything else that may have changed and will affect the performance. Don't use it to re-design the show.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Lessons Learned

My show opened. There were a few issues with the sound and I made a few stupid mistakes, but at least I didn't turn the knob:

In some facilities there is a regular post-mortem discussion about what happened, what went wrong, what went right, what can or should be done differently on the next show. The main trouble with these is they tend to come after everyone has put the horrors of Tech Week out of their memory, and are already working on the next production.

So mostly I have a few things I'll take home myself, and try to remember the next time I do a similar production.

Wireless: Nothing really new there. Elements die. I had six failures, of which only one happened in sound check before the show and could be corrected then. The others failed on stage, in front of the audience. I've learned a long time back that this happens, though, and having a smart and fast person backstage, and a clearly marked box of spares, is mandatory.

The worst loss we suffered is losing a mic just before a big solo. The others, I was able to compensate or kill until the replacement was put on the actor, and the worst hurt to the show was the burst of noise when the mic first died.

Also underlined was importance to check RF with the full show in operation. I tested a spare mic and had good signal, but when we put it on stage as a replacement during the show hetrodyne interference made it unusable. That poor actor spent a substantial part of his time between scenes in the dressing room with a technician taping new pieces of electronics to his skin.

My solution to the Countryman E6 "behind the ear" connector seems to be working out. I strip the heat shrink off, spray de-oxit on the connector, put a drop of solder on it to stop it from turning, and stick a single contiguous length of heat shrink over the join.

I've also now tried out toupee tape. It works quite well, although it is a pain to apply (you apply the tape to the actor, put the microphone on top, then put micropore tape over that.) Next up in my experimental substances is Tegaderm -- if I can find a cheaper alternative than a fifty-dollar box of it.

The Band: We had some ongoing keyboard issues...something was hitting something too hard and causing a slight crackle. So far we've been unable to track down where that clipping is happening (if it really is happening). Taking the gain down on the monitor sends helped the musicians a lot, though.

Switched out the basic DI on the bass for an ART one-channel "tube" jobby, and the change in sonic quality was immediately obvious.

My drum overheads didn't make me happy. They had a nice picture of the kit by themselves, but too much snare got in them and smeared the snare. If I had the ability to throw a few milliseconds delay on them maybe I could correct...but instead I re-purposed them, putting one over high-hat and crash, the other over ride and percussion toys. There's a moment in the show where I would love to have a pair of tom mics with a hard pan, but even with the other changes we made in the pit there's just not enough channels left on the board or even in the snake.

Snare is now a beta 57 aimed at the side of the snare. It still isn't tight -- even with a little compander action and some heavy EQ -- but it is better.

SFX: Playback hasn't had any problems other than the Stage Manager getting a couple wrong cue numbers in her book. My main issue has been the lack of an overall volume knob. Especially for ambiance effects, it helps so much to be able to adjust for the band volume, the actor's energy, the noise level in the house, etc. All of that changes too much to be really able to set a single level for a sound cue that will always work.

Although I started the show with sounds thrown mostly into speakers on the set, over the opening weekend I moved most of the ambiance underscore sounds to the house speakers instead -- especially when volume levels are getting extreme (and this is a VERY loud show, musically) -- it is better to move the effects out of where the actors are trying to hear, and push them out of speakers aimed directly at the audience instead.

I did manage to free up a single channel so several pre-recorded vocals (in one case, an actress who is unable to wear her wireless for one scene due to stage action) could be brought up on a fader grouped with the rest of the vocal faders and sent to the same vocal bus.

But what I really want is a single fader right by my master vocal fader and master orchestra fader that allows me to adjust sound playback levels for all cues on the fly. I've had that for other shows. I got talked out of it for this show. I was wrong -- I need it.

Added a quick back-stage monitor by sticking a Beta Green in the flies, running it to a Audio Buddy two-channel pre, and then running that out to a pair of daisy-chained JBL Eons. Dressing room monitor achieved, without costing any more board channels.

The main thing I noticed monitor-wise is that I really, really need a line of communication to the band. I need a system that doesn't hog cable and channels, that can be used in privacy without cast listening in, and that allows two-way communication and paging.

I'm looking around but I don't see anything obvious right now. Most people seem to be using walkie-talkies, cell phones, or setting up a second intercom. I'm thinking I may be able to find or build or re-purpose an intercom with integrated paging lights. And if I am really, really clever, set it up so I can patch it into my own phones and/or the band's monitor system (which is partially headphones also) -- if nothing else that will save fumbling around with multiple headsets.

In the best of all possible worlds this would be my personal kit, small enough to stick in my gig bag, and I'd set it up wherever I was to get through sound check and take it down after the show is up and running.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Too Many Wires

Sometimes it is nice to step back. Instead of each time pushing the boundaries a little, and doing a show that is even more ambitious than the last, you simplify a little and do a show that is entirely within your comfort level. One learns doing these, too; when you aren't to accomplish the near-impossible, you can actually spare a few neurons to look around and deal instead with finessing things a little.

This is not one of those shows.

I've maxed out the LS9-32 I'm using. Of course, I did this once before and used a sub-mixer on drums. But this time I'm achieving it by running almost all of my sound effects on a completely secondary system of speakers. The only connection between the two is a single pair on S-PDIF that comes out of my Firewire and into the two track digital input on the board.

Over at another house, I have a Dante card allowing the sound effects computer to send 16 channels in digital to the sound board -- without tying up head amps and the physical input jacks. At several other theaters, an ADAT card is used instead, with venerable old firewire interfaces being used as translators.

On at least one previous show, I just dealt with having sound effects limited to a simple two-channel playback. I'm still toying with the idea of using associated scenes in the sound board to reset the input routing on the fly, but although this would allow me to place individual sound effect cues in specific speakers/buses, it would not allow simultaneous multi-track playback.

For instance, in this show I have one moment where I am playing an ambience as a multi-channel surround, and on top of that I add a cell phone ring placed into one specific speaker near the actor.

Anyhow, Ood Laptop is happy playing back the cues from Qlab. My battered Korg Nano-key is used as a controller, with the keys labeled tape player style (play, stop, forward, rewind). A firewire cable feeds an FP10 interface, giving Qlab a potential 10 output channels to play with. At the moment all of my sounds are 2-channel or even 1-channel effects, but I mean to add a couple of layers using Qlab's Sound Group function to play extra effects into the surround speakers.

The FP10 sends two channels up to the mixer on S-PDIF. Two channels are routed directly to a pair of JBL Eons I've set up in the back of the house as surround speakers. The remaining active pair goes to what had been the theater's hard-wired side fill monitors.

For those, I had to splice into one cable (the monitors are on Speakon connectors and we don't have any of that in cable form. Actually, we are pretty shy of any audio cable in the theater). I shifted the position of the monitors to make them effects playback speakers. Also, since I was bypassing all the usual processors, I re-purposed the theater's old Quadraverb in order to use the five-band EQ function. This added a tremendous ground loop until I ran through a couple of inline balancing transformers. Also, one of the speakers is out of phase; rather than trace wires I added an XLR in-line phase reverser too.

The brunt of the show is the wireless microphones. 18 channels, a couple channels spare which are left unpatched (I'll have to physically patch them in to use them), plus one wireless taped to a moving set-piece and used to pick up an ensemble there. The latter is an old Shure, and to get it through the unfriendly RF environment I stuck the receiver under the apron and ran it though the snake.

Because it is a digital board we are able to put parametric EQ and compression on each individual microphone, plus some light reverb to seat them in the space. Between board and the Galileo speaker processor and the Meyer speakers is various levels of corrective EQ, contouring, phase correction, and time correction; the microphones are routed to a combined mono patch of center cluster, house mains, and house delays (a set of speakers 2/3 of the way back from the front of the stage).

To dial this all in we set up three laptops running Studio Manager, SMART, and a link into the Galileo. Plus of course reference microphones at various places around the house. I did not do this dialing myself -- I just looked over the shoulder of a more experienced person who did it.

Yamaha DSP isn't wonderful at this price range, but it is okay for what we are doing. Except for one mic, that needs some processing I can't achieve on the board. That is tying up additional channels and outputs, and adding more wires plus possibly a stomp switch to turn on and off the outboard effect.

I've been tempted several times to just stream the channels into my laptop, process them there with VST plug-ins, and take those back out. But real-time sound going through a laptop is a little scary. People do it. I've also seen people with laptops that crashed in the middle of a show. At least in the case of the sound effects playback I can add a second laptop that could be switched into the circuit in a handful of seconds.

There's also an ensemble mic tucked backstage. Our teen cast is vocally doubling the little kids who appear in a couple of scenes. The illusion is not bad; the off stage ensemble strengthens the sound (and the pitch centers!) and yet is still vaguely believable as issuing from the visible actors. This is my tried and true off-stage ensemble technique; a large-diaphragm condenser set high, well above head level, on a sturdy tripod, and an ensemble instructed carefully to look at the conductor and sing to the audience (instead of trying to crowd around the microphone and sing to it).

And the God Mic, a wireless handheld, which due to less robust circuitry tends to cut out when you get it too close to other active transmitters. Right now it is being used by the director and thus the receiver is stuck on a seat in the middle of the house on a long cable. When we clear the house and shift everyone into the booth I'll drag the receiver back up to the FOH position and find a space for it there amongst all the other equipment.

Finally we come to the "pit," which is on stage. I could easily run more on the pit. Oddly, for all the time I've spent with live music acts, I have yet to really mic up a standard drum kit. I have probably hung a great many mics on tabla than I have on kick and snare. The full rock setup is mics on every tom, mics top and bottom of the hat and snare, two mics on the kick. Well, this isn't quite that. Two overhead condensers (the good trick with them is to get them equidistant from the snare), a mic just inside the port (only the third time I've actually had my hands on a mic designed for kick -- this one's a D6) and one on snare. There isn't room for a 57 in there so I'm making do with a small condenser. At them moment processing is near nil. I'm messing around with a gate on the snare is all. IF we ever get an actual sound check with the band we'll be able to dial it in some.

Keyboard on dual DI, electric base with DI only (he didn't want to bring his cab to this gig), 'cello on condenser mic (unless he remembers his personal DI for the built-in pick-up), and a multi-guitarist with a full laptop-oriented rig and a Behringer board (and a separate condenser he supplied for acoustic guitar).

We're doing a poor-man's hybrid version of IEMs on this show; four tailored mixes are sent backwards through the snake to the band, which terminate in a pair of mixing boards (the Behringer and my old Mackie 1202). From these, monitor mixes are created for a pair of headphones and one (or possibly more) powered speakers. At least this show the conductor is on headphones, and he can tailor the amount of vocal feed he gets by just reaching below his keyboard to the mixer there. This seriously cleans up the usual monitor hash. However, the piano in the drummer's monitor is still howlingly loud; there is almost no drop in keyboard level as heard in the back of the house when I mute the rest of the system!

I think my preferences would be to snake out each wanted instrument to band in a situation like this; using pre-made mixes is asking for trouble, as there is no hardwired communication between FOH and band on this show -- and no sound check to really dial in and lock down the monitor settings.

As a last wrinkle there's yet another monitor mix sent out to a remote dressing room. Before we had the cast on wireless this was driven by a microphone in the house. For this application I've made very successful use of something as simple as a beta 57 in the grid. In this case, I had a CAD multi-pattern condenser set to omni, on a stand in the second row of the house. I may end up rigging something for the actual performance, but down the road we are going to add more of a semi-permanent solution -- and one that doesn't task the increasingly limited channels on the FOH sound board.

Because of the fluid nature of rehearsal, the band already added a PCC at the foot of the apron so they wouldn't be in complete dark when the actors weren't using their body mics. The problem with general pick-up is, as always, that you get lots of foot scuffling and scenery moving and off-stage chatter and air conditioning noise, and it isn't necessarily that easy to hear the action on stage properly. At least for this sort of use, there is essentially no feedback issue (which there would be if you were trying to use area mics for re-inforcement).

During rehearsal I also hijacked the kick mic's input for a conductor talk-back mic, and something else for a talk-back for myself from FOH. Plus I ran MIDI back through the snake so the conductor could "try out" two different keyboards from out in house and hear what they sounded like from there. I need a better solution for communications with band. The problem is, they want to talk to me without the whole building hearing them, and I can't be wearing a headset just waiting for that moment. For this show, it might be simplest just to drag a Clear-Com headset out to them.

I have five different snakes running, and a whole spool of individual cable. My circuit plan is almost unreadable. Because of various compromises of available channels, available circuits, and which direction an individual snake may be running, most of the numbers do not line up. The band monitors, for instance; they come from mix buses 9-12, are sent from omni outs 5-9, are picked up on the main stage snake channels 13-16, and miracle of miracles, are actually channels 13-16 on the band snake as well. The off-stage mic, on the other hand, changes identity numerous times. And I haven't set up the custom fader layer yet! (Plus I am very tempted to throw the entire band into layer 2, and then flip a few elements back to the custom fader layer from that...which means fader 31 will be channel 40 will be input 28 will be snake 14....)

The routing inside the board is a similar monstrosity, to the point where I can't even remember how I set up the dressing room monitor. And this is where the real downside of complex, pushing-the-envelope setups is; if anything throws a wheel during performance, it is going to take just that much longer to get to the appropriate element and switch it off, fix it, or swap it. Already there is a 19th wireless receiver tottering on top of the racks, dealing with a transmitter that crashed during rehearsal (with no spare in the same frequency band, of course!)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Running on (Soldering) Fumes

I'm a bit under the weather this week. Did get a lot of soldering done, though; repaired...

Two laptop computers
A power supply for same
A pair of headphones
A half-dozen wireless microphone elements
A portable heater

Just got some more parts in the mail and the next half-dozen wireless microphone elements are on the table. If I can find time around making microphone bags, creating sound effects, setting up speakers, programming the sound board...

As I struggle to make the new novel move foreword, I realize the DIY philosophy is important to me, and is going to be a part of it. Heck...the protagonist of my first novel was a machinist, and even though it wasn't that kind of story she managed a couple of nice hacks (including a McGuyverish improvisation at the climax that almost got her killed but ended up saving the day.) And this works in with my desire to show some of the Bay Area, where I live, and some of the circles of people that interest me. Maker's Faire. The Crucible. Boutique stomp-box makers. Luthiers and Early Instrument builders. Experimental music.

Theater is after all my vocation and there has always been an element of improvisation and re-purposing and dumpster diving in it. It is not at all unusual to have to do something that properly belongs in a trade or craft -- bending wrought iron, painting in oils, running plumbing, making hair appliances, etc. -- and not having the funds to get a professional. So we end up being self-taught stitchers, electricians, welders, woodworkers, and so on. And not infrequently a show will bring you in contact with new materials and new skills you have to pick up (usually quickly!)

I am not up to writing an essay on the DIY philosophy right now. I've got a cold, collapsed on the sofa after a meeting and only woke up because I am starving. I have until the saffron rice is ready to write this.

But let me try to share a couple of things you should have to be a Maker.

1) A careful confidence. You start with assuming the thing is possible. That you have the mind to learn the skills, that your fingers are sensitive enough to carry them out. The more different kinds of things you learn to do, the more this confidence that you CAN pick up a new skill will grow.

2) I said "careful" for a reason. You also need humility. You respect that there are people with skills and you commit to learn from them. You also must have a healthy doubt in your own ability. Recognize your limitations, recognize your comfort zone, and more than anything else be aware that many of these things can maim or kill you. It is not saying too much that you must assume there are hidden dangers you haven't even imagined, and you treat the process with respect and look for mentors to try to show you where those dangers are.

3) Look forward to failure. Many people never attempt things because they don't want to fail. Many people will hang on to a broken thing, never daring to try to fix it for fear they'll make it worse. Word; if it don't work, and it's too expensive to take it to the shop, YOU CAN'T MAKE IT WORSE. You can't get less than useless. At the absolute worst case you will still learn something from opening it up (even if the thing you learn is "Hey, those things can't be repaired, can they!" Be aware of failure, be prepared for it, intend to learn from it. Maybe the first throw will be awful. If you studied why it went bad, the next throw is merely bad. And, eventually, you either make a pot you like...or you realize pots aren't for you, but in the process you've added more general knowledge and manual dexterity. Which brings us to:

4) The more you do, the better you get. You will never be perfect. You will never know it all. Start small if you can, work up. With each project you will not only get better, you will become a better judge of how big a project you can attempt.

And this essay is already longer than I intended, but some examples from this week:

The power supply. It had a loose wire. It sometimes worked if you jiggled it. It was long out of warranty, and expensive enough to be worth investing a few hours trying to repair. The fact that it sometimes worked meant that, in all probability, it was all in good working order (except for the one loose connection.) So the first step is, as with all repairs, crack the case and look inside.

I don't think that case was supposed to be opened. But since it was broken already, I couldn't make it worse. I took a razor saw and cut it apart. Inside, the problem was nicely obvious; the plug wiggled, and there was a nasty black mark of the sparks from a loose connection. Clean with some emery paper, re-solder, squeeze the case back together along the cut line, and drip CA glue into the crack. It may not look quite as nice, but it works as well as if it just came from the factory.

Actually, better. While I was inside, I slapped a meter on it and verified it put out 24 VDC in operation. Looked up the right ballast resistor and purchased a bright green LED. Soldered up the LED and confirmed you could see it through the case when lit. And soldered it inside before sealing the case. Now the power supply has a light to tell me if it is plugged in or not.

Headphones. One muff stopped working. Manipulated it, and it worked for a moment then stopped again. Again, obviously a loose wire. Plugged them in, turned up the volume, and carefully felt along the entire exposed wire that went from one side to the other. The bad spot was inside a swivel. Fortunately, I have a bunch of scraps of similar wire around from repairing all those wireless microphones. The only issue was feeding the new wire through all the little plastic parts.

Heater. Stopped giving heat, but the fan still works. Had a three-position switch; fan only, low heat, high heat. Pulled it apart. On visual examination the heater element looks fine. No loose wires, no discoloration. Traced the circuit; the thermostat and safety switch are "upstream" of the fan. That is; there is nothing specific to the heater element that might be broken. Except for the switch. So as an experiment, cut the wires and wired the element in parallel with the fan. It works. So went back, spliced the heater on to the first switch position (I don't need a "fan only" setting anyhow) and boxed it back up.

Laptops. My working laptop went dark suddenly. Tried to restart, wiggled the power cord. Magic smoke came out. This is not a good sign. The thing about the laptop is, I worked my way up to it. I did RAM a long time ago -- that's easy. Getting to the HD is a little tougher; you have to open up the back. Swapping the optical drive was next; that's even more connections you have to remove. Each time, you see, was a small step beyond my current comfort level.

Popped the keyboard and, yes, a nice scorched area on the motherboard and several of the SMD components are toast. This is not going to start again. Assuming the HD and other parts are still good, I went on eBay and found a "stripped" laptop of similar model (no HD, no RAM, etc.)

Swap the parts over, including my good optical drive. Lights up, goes into boot cycle but can't find the drive. Hrm. Stick a boot CD in. It boots. Drive is still invisible. Pull the drive, stick it in an external case. Drive reads good. Just for a lark, see if the laptop will boot from the external drive. It does. Stick it back in. No boot. But now there's an error message, and the system profile has an unknown device on the SATA bus.

Pry the drive out again. And THIS time I notice the other side of the connector, on the new mobo, is loose.

So I tried to re-solder it (and I am NOT set up for soldering SMDs). No joy, but doesn't work, and I really can't make it worse at this point. So back to eBay, order a new mobo, and stick the drive back in the external case again to boot from that and rescue some files I needed to work on.

New mobo shows up. Now I'm really out of my comfort zone...have to pull and swap a laptop motherboard. But as it turns out, it is just like a drive....just even more screws, even more connectors, even more little things that get caught and have to be carefully wiggled free. The boot CD is still in the drive and when I power up, it boots from that. But still no HD!

At this point I'm firmly in repair mode, though; I booted with the back off, half the component still uninstalled, and bits of sticky tape holding it together in lieu of putting all those fumbly little torx screws back in. So...the one thing I haven't swapped recently is the bit of cable that leads from the HD to the mobo. I swap this. It boots! Finish the smoke test, box it back up.

And since I've got a pretty good idea what's going on now, I stick the mobo from the second computer (the one with a busted SATA connector) into the original laptop (the one with the charcoal-colored motherboard from which all the magic smoke has leaked). Stick a spare HD I have lying around into the external case...and after some struggled, convince the boot CD to install a clean system on to it. I promptly christen the reborn laptop "Ood Laptop," as it is now carrying its brains outside its head, on the end of a gray USB cable.

And it is now time to eat.