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!)

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