Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Props where props are due

When I started in this business it was as a scenic carpenter. I don't mean a carpenter that is good to look at (although I remember one nice young lady who interned at the Park...) "Scenic Carpenter" is the general hand of the set-building trade.

As a scenic carpenter you are expected to be familiar with not just wood and standard theatrical construction (the muslin flat, the platform, the basic staircase), but also a fair bit of both house and finish carpentry (hanging doors, building cabinets), but also non-wood materials. As a carp I was also a welder with stick and wire (and a very small amount of gas), sculptor in styrofoam, chicken wire and glue-muslin, a fairly amateur plumber and electrician (for what we call "practical" set furnishings from desk lamps that light to sinks with running water), and a smattering of other materials and skills including laying tile, pouring concrete, threading pipe, casting with resin, running an industrial sewing machine, and so forth.

(Plus there is rigging and the basics of stage machinery...but that's a whole other subject).

Out in a medium-sized shop -- like Boston's Huntington Stage -- the carps are doing the more basic work as well as lifting and carrying, one or two are better welders than the rest and do the brunt of the welding, and one or two will be split off for most of a week on any special projects the Master Carpenter/Shop Foreman doesn't take for her own. Often you'll have one or two people who are better with finish carpentry as well, a handful of interns who are best kept putting legs on platforms, and part of your crew will "float" from building to helping the scenic painter and her team.

The connected field is props building. Most of the work of the Props Mistress (or Props Master) is wrangling, renting, and scouting for the things. Few companies can afford the time to build every lampshade and pocket watch, and there is no sense in building a dozen parasols from scratch when someone in the area has something that will work for purchase or rental (or that can be suitably modified).

Sometimes, though, you have to build it (and far more often, you have to repair it!)

As a props builder in a theater most of your labor will be things like spray-painting washers gold (to make heaps of quick-and-dirty money for a period show). Only every now and then do you have an important, detailed, actor-carried practical prop like Oaklahoma's "The Little Wonder."

In re that specific prop: The description in dialog is that it is basically a simple prism viewer with a folding knife. The dialog says you wait until the victim is holding it at eye level, unfold the knife, then shove his hands down and into his gut. Forget that. I made mine more of a Speed Racer gag; the knife comes out the viewing lens.

Mine was constructed from several pieces of nested pipe, PVC and steel. A rubber dagger was pressed against a spring and held there by a cut-off bolt running through an L-shaped slot. Turn the front ring, the bolt slips out of the "L" and travels to the end of the slot with a satisfying "chunk" of steel against steel; popping the spring-loaded blade six inches out the business end.

Practical props (aka props that have moving parts or other functions) are the most fun and the most difficult and also the least frequent build you'll have. More typical of the things I built was a fake speaker, painted Navy gray and mounted on the set for Mister Roberts. As I recall, the round body was sonotube, the bracket was 3/4" plywood as was the front ring, and the grill was expanded steel over cloth. The decorative bolts were 3/4" nuts roughly filled with hot glue and painted gray like the rest of it.

My proudest "build" was actually a rescue; the "Man of the Year" award broke on stage on Saturday night and I found the original mold in the props shop and pulled an all-nighter casting and painting the replacement to have it on stage for the Sunday matinee.

Since moving over to the Electrics side of the house (which is generally divided into lights and sound, the former being tasked with any electrical stuff that isn't stage machinery like a motorized turn-table, and the latter dealing with only those things that are part of an audio or video chain), I've not been building many props. Among other things, I don't have a scene shop handy anymore.

I have built a couple little things on my own, however. Last year I went on a small but personally expensive spree and bought more power tools than really should be installed in a small studio apartment. I'm still barely on the edge of what I could whip up with a good basic shop. It is amazing how fast you can work when you can shift from bandsaw, chopsaw, bench sander, drill press, etc., as you refine a shape.

I have hopes of doing some more personal props during the year. My last one was a monster; a thirty-pound full-scale replica firearm with moving parts. Talk about prop buildings involving lots of different materials and techniques; it included welding, brazing, hot-bending, plastrut, sculpting, detail painting, metal fabrication, and 3D printing.

But that's the direction I'm going now. I don't have connections to a theater right now that would want me to build big, complicated things for them. Unless they have moving parts or electronics...then it is possible it might happen. So instead I'm doing stuff for fun, for friends, and the sort of stuff used by the cosplay crowd.

Which was part of why I was learning to program the AVR; I wanted to have (and now basically do have) a tiny computer I could stick inside a hand prop that would sequence lights and sounds and motors in any way desired.

My desired project at the moment is some kind of fancy-looking science fiction gun. Not something from any existing movie or TV show, and not of the more common big and heavily weathered look; something that is more small and elegant and highly detailed like a 1930's cigarette lighter or a well-built machine tool.

The most likely next project is going to be making some M18 smoke grenade mock-ups. I'm just waiting on some empty smoke-in-a-can to come my way so I can cut off the lids, replace them with a resin cast lid/fuse adapter, and screw my eBay-purchased fuses into them.

Friday, August 26, 2011


I notice several visitors have been to the posts where I talk about my cheap one-button MIDI devices. I currently make them with Arduino, which is these days pretty much a no-brainer (one resistor, and the MIDI library already packaged in the IDE.) I've been working on doing them both by bit-banging one of the cheap thru-hole AVRs (aka ATtiny45), and by leveraging TeensyUSB or a similar USB-AVR breakout board to send MIDI over USB. There is also a new solution based around the latest crop of Arduino's that makes use of the fact that the Uno uses an AVR (ATMega8U2) instead of the older FTDI chip for USB.

Anyhow. I'd gladly document, or even make an Instructable, on my cheap MIDI solutions if I thought there was sufficient interest. Someone answer this post, and we'll see.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Kids Speak Out

It seems strange to hang wireless microphones on kids. But the sad reality is that area mic'ing doesn't give you the volume before feedback, or even more importantly, the intelligibility gained by having a head-worn microphone.

Children's theater is a strange bird. Often as not it is a school program or a church program, and there are very few people on board with experience in technical theater. At the same time, some schools are affluent and some have friends: the gear you will find covers the entire range from two channels of Radio Shack special to 24 channels of top-of-the-line Shure ULX. The only thing that remains the same is that the gear will be stuffed in a closet, often covered with grime, and no-one will know how it works.

One of the toughest hurdles I have to cross is getting people to understand the implications of gentle support. That we need the band to play softly (but enough in monitors to keep the kids on pitch and time!) That the microphones are SUPPOSED to sound like they aren't on. And that the preferred position is NOT taped to the cheek one inch from the mouth.

The default, sadly, is usually to tape mics as close to the mouths as possible, EQ only to control feedback, and leave everything on and loud for the entire show. Once they hear how good it sounds with a properly tuned and adjusted system, though...expect to get hired again. And again.

The kids are a delight. The first day I show up, at least one member of the cast will recognize me from a previous gig and yell, "It's the mic guy! We're getting mics today! Yaaaay!"

Then of course as soon as you get them on mic they'll forget they are wearing it, and touch their faces, adjust their hair, talk just before an entrance, or even try to whisper directions to another actor while on stage. Sometimes they'll forget their entrance entirely and you'll put up their mic only to hear (loud!) dressing room chatter. Oh, but then there are the times between scenes in a stop-and-go rehearsal where it seems half the cast is tapping on their mics with their fingertips and calling, "Is my mic on? I don't think my mic is on!"

Two things save you here. The first is that dressing room chatter, and quick-changes in the wings, are loud. Both have distinctive spiky patterns on the meters. You don't even need to PFL that mic to know it shouldn't be turned on. On-stage singing and even dialog tends to be softer and has a rounder volume contour. With practice, you'll learn to recognize it from the meters alone.

The other is that half your ensemble is marking it. Take a quick stroll through the PFL into a pair of headphones during an ensemble number, and start muting each microphone where all you hear is tentative, breathy, whispers. By the time you've winnowed it down to just the strong singers you've got less than half a dozen mics up -- and much less chance for accident.

It will still sound like a full ensemble. Since we are doing reinforcement here, direct acoustic energy is still coming from the stage. And almost no-one in the audience will ever realize little Bella and Cindy and Evan are singing into dead mics.

The best sound, as with adult actors (particularly women) is with a head position. I go through multiple packs of the cheapest hair clips Wallgreen's stocks; generally tape just below the hairline, hair clips at roughly 2:00 and 10:00 o'clock, and depending on the length of the hair, presence of pony tail, style of costume, a third clip near the base of the pony tail, or tape around the 7th cervical vertebrae (high enough to keep the cord from developing a loop, low enough to catch as little as possible of the fine hairs along the back of the neck), or clipped to the neck of the costume.

Bobby pins work but you have to take the time to reverse them (aka use more than one, pointing in opposite directions). Toupee clips need to be prepped ahead of time because most of them will not close over the thickness of a mic cable.

However, children's theater tends towards costume dramas and shows about animals (Seussical, Narnia, Jungle Book, Aristocats, etc., etc.) All the things going on and off heads makes the ear position necessary.

Let me stop and point out here that although it is tempting to tape to ear/along cheek to achieve that last couple of possible dB from a quiet-voiced actor, what you will end up with in most cases is merely a louder breathy, indistinct mumble. The sound has to start with the actor. In borderline cases bringing the microphone closer (better to use a true "Madonna-Mic" like a Countryman E6) is a worthwhile trade-off, but apply this on a case-by-case basis; not as a default solution.

I can not emphasize how important it is to demonstrate the ear position to your assistants, and to check on them frequently. They will inevitably migrate. You want the microphone to follow the cheek bone (generally right below it). This means it effectively points towards the philtrum, not the mouth -- but this is where it is supposed to go. When you don't keep an eye on the taping, they'll end up being angled down and have the element right on top of the drum membrane surface of the cheek. NOT a good sound.

For adult actors I'll tape as close to sideburn as possible. For kids, it depends mostly on the costume. A good default is the "point" of the cheekbone. Put the element there, put the tape behind the head of the element (not over it). Yes; again, some people don't understand the physics. They see the hole in the front of the mic (the grill) and think that's where the sound goes. They don't understand that the entire head is an acoustic device and you change the character of the sound by putting tape over it.

Many kids have thick enough hair that you can spare them the uncomfortable tape behind the ear and hairclip to the hair tucked behind their ear instead. When you do have to tape, try not to catch any hair, and if the skin is oily, wipe down with an alcohol prep pad first. For the smaller kids, tearing the tape down the middle to make a narrower strip also helps.

And a non-technical note on this. It isn't smart, not these days, to get backed into attaching all the mics yourself in some dark corner of the theater. Get several people involved, get the parent volunteers, stage manager, director -- people who have been properly vetted and fingerprinted. I've never seen it happen, but all it takes is one parent mis-hearing what their kid said and you will have a very short career in children's theater.

As with any actor, or any musician, be respectful, make sure they understand what you are doing before you start sticking tape on their faces or fiddling with their hair, and answer questions. Tell them why a microphone has to be in a certain place, tell them how it makes them sound better. Get them to understand a little of how the microphone works, and they will work for you in making sure it is set up right and it stays right through the performance.

Treat them like professionals.

A last couple of tricks. Almost everyone uses those over-the-door shoe bags to hold the prepped transmitters. When you arrive for the show, put in fresh batteries, condom the mics, check to see that the connector is secure, the clip light isn't flashing in a way to indicate a broken element, the fuel gauge shows a fully charged battery. Wrap it loosely and stick it in the shoe bag under the actor's name (or character name; whichever is most convenient and informative).

When the mics come off again, be profligate with the alcohol pads. They don't loosen tape any, but they do numb the skin slightly. Be gentle in getting the tape back off. If the tape is really stubborn (and painful!) use a little goo-gone on a rag first. Pull batteries, bags, condoms, moleskin et al and set the mics back in the shoe bag to air out. Hang the bags to dry outside.

Many children's productions will be double-cast. It is unfair for a class production to have one person get a starring role and everyone else has to play spear-bearers. As partial answer to that, most programs will have an "A" and a "B" cast alternating performances.

Since often these are drawn from the same pool of performers, you can simplify your life a little by assigning microphones by actor instead of character. Then when the "B" cast comes on you re-patch the channels and re-assign the EQ and other processing. On a digital board like the Yamaha LS9 this is literally a matter of a single button press; change the soft patch and call up the new EQ et al just by loading the appropriate show.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Is this thing on?

Finished up the current musical while trying to recover from a bout with the flu. Sunday was two performances, then strike. An hour after leaving the building I was asleep. Woke up at midnight, ravenous. Ate, went back to bed and slept till noon.

So now I'm shopping for wireless microphones. Finally decided it makes the most sense to own a few channels of my own, and rent them to those (few) clients that are willing to pay a few bucks for gear. Browsing eBay over coffee, with the widest possible search parameters so I can pick up those gems that got mis-catted and thus missed by everyone else.

I'm pretty much determined to put together a rack of 4 to 6 Sennheiser G3's. I've been using that model quite a bit of late and I have been very happy with their performance. But I'm keeping my eyes open. I am too "Shure? Unsure!" to want any more SLX's that aren't for a really, really good price. And I know ULX's are out of my price range at the moment, and most of the UC's are in the dreaded 700 band. Plus of course I know better than to get anything with the name "Nady" on it.

I've got one eye open for antenna distros. Although I shouldn't need one for my Sennies, I have wished for a while I could talk one of my clients into hanging one on their small collection of SLX's. The built-in quarter-waves barely punch a signal from stage to wing! But this is the company that will only grudgingly pay rent on some much-needed channels -- talking them into almost a thousand bucks of directional antenna and antenna distribution is not really on.

I'm going to be pushing pretty hard at the short-lived surplus from cashing out my IRA to do this much. Down the road will be getting B3's for all my mics, plus purchasing one or two snap-on transmitters so I can offer hand-held as an option as well. And...if it turns out I'm not getting a clean signal in the venues I work...antenna distro for them, too.

Oud Laptop finished the show with flying colors. At this point I'm leery of cracking the case again to experiment with the ATA connector. Well...there's a children's musical in the same building, so I'll wait until that is over before I take the laptop home.

Meanwhile my rebuilt gighertz titanium has lost picture. I think I got some oil from a Chinese take-out in it when the latter got loose in my gig bag. So on the schedule for this week is to strip it down again, clean it, test the fans are still running, clean the connectors -- and prepare to install a new display inverter perhaps. I'm hoping it isn't VRAM at fault, which I believe is soldered on the MOBO. Or worse yet, the LCD itself -- you can get them surplus, but they are a huge, huge pain to replace.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I owe, I owe, yet off to work I go

I am signed on to three different musicals. One is ongoing, with the last of 34 performances happening this weekend. Immediately following I load in a one-weekend show that opens, well, that very Friday. Then on the closing night of that show I race off to another town for a sitzprobe and a recording session, from there to one week until tech and two weeks until opening. Fortunately, I'm not running the board for that last; because I hop on a plane for my first vacation out of the country in almost two years.

With six or more performances a weekend, my time off is roughly a three-day weekend. Minus the time spent in doing repairs and maintenance on the ongoing show. Minus, last "weekend," assisting to set up yet another musical (that I am fortunately neither designer nor operator on) and the "weekend" previous to that, loading in, teching, and running board for a children's musical.

You'd think I'd at least be picking up a bit of money. Not quite. The fee for any of these shows is a bit over a thousand dollars. Which sounds like a nice lump sum, but consider; broken out over four hours per performance (with set-up and clean-up) it already works out to barely over ten bucks an hour. Add the hours of tech week (rarely is a tech week a shorter commitment than 40 hours) and time at home in the studio preparing effects, and you are talking not much over seven bucks an hour.

Add to that; even though the show is MOSTLY evenings and weekends, with call times as early as 4:00 PM in the afternoon for prep and repairs, and the fact that you didn't even leave the building until ten or eleven the previous night, it is very hard to schedule another job. Particularly because my field is, well, theater; the other jobs calling me ALSO want me on evenings and weekends. And even places like UPS or McDonald's are not going to be really happy about having someone cancel shifts without notice because something broke at the theater and they have to go there to repair it instead of working their scheduled shift.

So you are basically restricted to working shows serially. With a four or five week run, plus one or two weeks of necessary technical rehearsal, designer's runs, rehearsals and studio time and meetings, you basically can get two shows in three months (if you are actually running the board. If all you are doing is designing, the block of time you have to free up is rather smaller, AND you have a lot more flexibility in when you schedule the work you have to do). At 1,200 to 1,400 for a design-and-run, this breaks down to under a thousand a month income from the theater work.

And that's before expenses. Such as all the technical gear, including powered monitors, microphones, cable, DI's, and so forth I typically provide without charge.

So want to run board for your own shows at a midsize (sub-regional) theater level? Be prepared to live frugally.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sound Effects for the Musical

Sound effects in musicals are an odd beast.

Well: just as in straight plays, there are plays with many sound effects, and plays with few. In the latter category come those drawing room comedies where all the action takes place inside a box set and nothing happens but an occasional phone ring. These are the designs you can (if you'll forgive the pun) phone in.

There are also plays, such as any of Shakespeare's, in which the play could be done with strong sound effects, but generally aren't -- mostly because most directors don't think in terms of sound. The same play, then, can be reduced to "A bear roars off-stage," or in other directorial hands be a through-composed seamless and continuous panoply of quadraphonic ear candy.

And then there are plays in which the environment or elements in the environment cry out so for sound effects it is hard to find a director who won't want them.

Musicals embrace all three of these worlds. But then they add another dimension; that they are, well, musicals. There is singing and a band playing for much of the running time.

This hits your sound designs with three constraints; intelligibility impact, limited space, and necessary timing.

Take the last first. In "The Jungle Book," Shere Khan needs to roar several times. All but one of those roars are in the score. Which is to say; they have to happen at a specific moment in the orchestration, and occur on the beat. In "Into the Woods" there is a baby cry that is scored in the Entre-Act. In "Seussical" the opening of the Egg has to occur over and within four specific measures of the score; heard before the first bar and concluding with the last.

There are two techniques that help greatly with this. The first is to record the rehearsal. I used to do it on mini-disc, now I just use my laptop. Sitzprobe is a great time to do this. This is also a great technique for certain cues in straight plays as well. Record the actual scene as sung/performed by your cast and/or orchestra.

Back in the early days I'd use a stopwatch and jot down time through the scene in question:

0:0 thomas in
0:5 "what'cher doing?"
0:12 falls in water
1:33 approx scene end

Now I take the recording from rehearsal and make it the top track in CuBase. I can then do a rough synchronization with that as a guide track.

When I did this for the dogfight for "Your a Good Man, Charlie Brown" I knew that I was not going to depend on the scene staying in lock step to the exact time they'd spent in rehearsal. I designed a dozen cues in total that would come in, or cross-fade, at specific moments in the action.

So this is how I built that show; I started by making a rough cut of the entire scene as it would be heard in performance. Then I saved the original file and began to edit; for each sub-cue, I muted the elements that would happen in the next cue, and extended the events that would happen in the current cue, and rendered a sound file that was long enough to cover any change in the timing. Then, in Qlab, I built a show that would fade out or cross-fade the previous cue as each new cue was played. This gave me the ability to do a constant engine sound of the Sopwith Camel that could still react to the power climb and stall out that happen at various moments in the music. The ack-ack, machine guns, and so forth were layered on top to be played simultaneously with the engine noise bed.

The same technique is wonderful for composing musical underscore for a scene in a straight play.

But back to musicals. Another trick I've been using more and more is to hand over control of a sound effect to the band. Since of course they know where they are in the music at all times, and they can see the conductor's baton to get accurate tempo.

In many cases, it is most appropriate to leave behind your own ego, and hand the sound over literally; let the percussion player do something instead of making it a recorded sound effect.

If it has to be recorded, like the baby from "Into the Woods," I've been handing a MIDI device to conductor, keyboard player, or percussionist. A small sampler (like the Boss "Doctor Sample") does the trick. A laptop and the right software would too. Or stick a keyboard or MIDI drum pad down there and route it to a sampler, soft sampler running on a laptop, or the show playback software.

Or you can have a button. I created my own MIDI button a while ago using the Arduino as a platform. Since it is detecting a state change in 5v TTL, I can run it through two hundred feet of XLR cable without worry about dropping signal. The conductor or drummer gets a box with a big red button on it. The wire leads to the brain box in the booth, and Qlab gets the signal via MIDI to trigger the sound effect.

Ineligibility is shorthand for the problem that in a musical, there is already a lot of sound going on. Singing, the orchestra, the sound of the actors in motion, moving scenery -- all of that conspires to make a congested sound environment. Often as not you will simply have to omit a sound effect because it would get in the way of the audience being able to hear the more important things (like the lyrics.)

This runs into the third constraint I mentioned, in that it also compels you towards sound effects that are short in duration, simple in form, and that have a limited frequency range.

That last constraint is that, again, with all the other noise going on nuances are going to be lost. And with the fast-moving nature of a musical, and the necessity that the effect be finished and over before the next verse of the song comes in, the pressure is towards sounds that are instantly identifiable and that can speak their piece and get out of the way.

The musical is rarely a place for nuanced, expressive sounds, or complex environmental sounds, or detailed story-telling. What you want instead are sketches, cartoons; sounds pared down to the minimum that expresses the idea.

As a for-instance, I have a "Palm Beach" cue in my current production. Surf and seagulls. The cue was constructed so the seagulls make a single loud establishing chatter, and there is one loud wave, then the birds fall silent and the waves drop down to a lower level. So the sound only plays at volume for 3-4 seconds before dropping down to an inconspicuous background. The surf, too; I started with the most generic surf sound I have, and equalized it to bring out as much wave froth as possible and take out pretty much everything else.

Played baldly, the cue sounds horrible. Seated into a scene that starts with loud orchestral underscore and seques immediately into a song, it works quite well.

My first stop for these cues is to find the most generic lion roar or train whistle I can. The art is to find that sound that even played at half-volume over a phone will be instantly identifiable. Hollywood is very good at this. The thing is, those "instantly recognizable" sounds are rarely anything like what those things actually sound like. No dog in the world ever said "bark" after all (or "wan," for that matter.) Eagles do not sound like a red-tail hawk. Most monkeys do not make the stock "Eee, eee, eee!" sound. Snakes inhale as well as exhale (aka hiss). And of course a real gunshot sounds like a stick slapped on a hard surface and a real punch lacks, well, punch.

The next step, besides the inevitable equalization, is to trim the cue for time. Often I've had to use Time Bandit or similar to shorten the cue. There has never been a musical with enough time for an airplane to actually make a full pass; instead I take the best sound I have, cut a section out of it, and apply pitch shifting, panning, and volume envelope to create a new and much shorter fly-by sound.

It is pretty much part of the above, but many of these ultra-short cues will still be compound cues. It has to do, again, with audience expectations. Four seconds of "chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff" might not be enough for the audience to run through all possibilities in their minds and arrive at "Oh, a train." But if you add a (very shortened!) train whistle on to it, you can have a four-second cue that they will recognize is supposed to be a train. It is, as I've been saying, a sketch of a train, a cartoon, the kind of outlining a landscape painter does to create the illusion of a fir tree with a dot of paint and a brief brush stroke. Given time to think about it, the audience would find that a fairly ridiculous excuse for a train sound. But in the context of a scene change in a musical and all the artificiality that entails, it works.

Games are a good place to see this sort of art of compression. Not modern FPS games -- RTS and TBS games like the Civ series, the earlier Warcraft, Sim City, and so forth. Think of those games where you click a "build farm" icon and get a two-second sound burst that says "Hi, I'm a farm."

So here's the rough process for designing these things:

1) Read the script and talk to the director (the first design/production meeting, an interview, an email -- whatever it takes to get a basic idea of where they are going with the show.) This is not a time for minutiae; this is a time to learn if the show is realistic or not, what period it is, how much the director is open to sound effects, whether it is the kind of show where live practical effects or orchestral sounds are more appropriate, and so on.

On a recent production of "Your a Good Man, Charlie Brown" the idea was presented in the first meeting that the entire show occurred as if on a playground, and that everything that happened was being acted out by children who were playing the environments as well as the parts. This led into discussion of "detoxifying" the "Red Baron" scene (trying not to have a lot of war sounds in a play with and for children) -- and a moment of inspiration when we realized the direction to go there was to play the entire scene as if children were playing war on the playground and to make all the airplane and battle noises from actual recordings of children's voices.

2) Spot cues. I like to take the script to my favorite cafe and have a leisurely brunch while marking it up. I usually make a complete pass of the script sticking colored tape markers where ever there is something that might be a sound issue. I even use several colors of tape; one for scene changes that might involve a background or environmental sound, one for spot cues, and one for potential vocal processing -- such as the Ghost of Christmas Past, or The Knight of the Mirrors, or perhaps a character who is temporarily down a well.

What you are looking for are several things. You are looking for artifacts on stage that might not make the right sound by themselves...a prop gun, for instance, that might need to have an effect when it is fired. Or a vacuum cleaner, which might not be practical and would again need a recorded cue.

You are looking for changes of scene or time that could benefit from something to underscore them. For instance, one scene may be "that evening." To emphasize that the time of day has just changed, throw in some crickets. You are also looking for places to enhance a setting. The sewer in Guys and Dolls is a giant set-piece scene that wants to be amazing. Add some drips and steam to make it come to life.

You are looking for things that aren't on stage but are either implicit or explicit parts of the action. In the latter, "Listen to the howling of the wolves!" says a character. You probably want some wolves for them to listen to! In the former, the scene might take place on a street corner, and even though no-one mentions the cars passing by, to leave them out of the sound picture would be odd.

And, of course, you are looking for the explicit sound effects described in the script. Please be aware that in some musicals, there are effects that don't get mentioned in the script but that DO appear in the written score.

3) Tentative cue list. This is a list that shows page number, kind of cue, and a brief description. I use my tentative cue list as a reference for coordination with the other departments; "These church bells heard on page 33. Are those a sound effect, or is that something the orchestra is playing there?" Or, "This door slam on page 15. Are we going to have a practical door for that or do you want a sound effect?"

So my list is not just sound effects, but also includes even those things like starter pistols, crash boxes, and actors yelling lines from the wings that I am pretty sure are not going to be pre-recorded. Because you want to ask. And if it turns out it is a sound effect, you've already thought a little about how to do it.

This list gives the director a firmer sense of how much sound you intend to use, how realistic you are going with it, and so forth. And it gives them a place where they, too, can say "I've added a bit in rehearsal and we need a siren sound on page 3 for that," or "We've cut the business on page 114 and there is no sewing machine anymore."

4) Pulls. I make up a pull list. This is not the list of actual sound CUES. This is a list of the individual sound EFFECTS. For instance, effect might be "Ocean liner hits iceberg." I know I have plenty of stock water and boat sounds, and those will be easy to pull, but the pull list reminds me I need to search for something that says "Iceberg." As much as I can, I break down the problem and come up with tentative solutions so instead of doing giant library searches for "Titanic disaster" I can do a specific search for "ice sliding across metal" instead.

My method has pretty much always been to start a directory for the show and make sub-folders for major cue groups (On "The Jungle Book" my sub-folders are "Monkeys, wolves, tigers, elephants, jungle backgrounds, water, sand and weather, other.") Then I copy from my SFX libraries so all the files are right there, consolidated.

I need to look for gaps and go purchase/record/synthesize new sounds. And I need to audition sounds -- playing one tiger roar after another to narrow down the best roars for that particular production. And the pull list is also a track of work completed versus to be done.

5) Trials and tailoring. This is where you want to be in the theater if possible, and in the rehearsal hall if time permits. You want to listen to the sounds on the actual speakers and as much as possible (given the schedule) within the show context. The biggest problem here is that orchestras do not get integrated until very late in the rehearsal process. You have as little as two days with the full orchestra until you go in front of an audience.

Trouble is, you won't really know if the sound is going to work until you hear it in place. Worse yet, the director has no idea. Some directors will try to second-guess you -- and with a musical to manage, they don't have time for discussion. They are liable to say "It isn't working, cut it" without giving it a chance to be heard in context. These are the times that professionalism, trust, and a soft touch are most necessary.

To get through a musical you have to work fast and stay fluid. It may work out best to have a bunch of sounds in progress and to play from the actual work files during rehearsal instead of from fully rendered cues. Because then you can make changes on the fly and even try it again if the rehearsal permits. Be prepared in the fast pace of tech for a musical to have days of work turn into a discarded file because the scene works better without the effect -- or to have last-minute requests for something new and ridiculous. (My favorite at the moment is the last-minute request for a sound of "..the snakes getting zapped by love.")

6) Installation. This is where you shift sounds from "stuff you are playing with during rehearsal" to actual numbered cues entered into the Stage Manager's book, called to an operator, and executed from show software.

I've done sound effects both ways. I like the control you have as designer to chose where exactly to hit a sound effect for best integration with the music and flow of the show, and pinpoint volume control to seat it into the mix, but running sound effects whilst mixing microphones can get rather exciting.

The best solutions I've had are using a MIDI keyboard or my MIDI button so I can hit the sound effect without having to move my hands too far from the faders I am mixing. Still, there are far too many times when you've got a complex scene with multiple actors getting into each other's microphones, a bunch of fast entrances, and a bad microphone you are trying to track down before it blasts the audience with noise, and the sound cues end up getting skipped in the fuss.

My second preference would be to have an operator running effects off their own copy of the script. They can then nuance their performance to the flow of the show, and they can be given "hot" buttons to fire off mickey-moused effects that would otherwise be too fast or too risky to design in implicitly. For instance, ad-lib train whistles, gunshots, thunder crashes.

However, basic theater politics holds that you will only get a volunteer or intern to do this, and they WILL be subservient to the Stage Manager, so it will be a very hard fight to get them off headset and given the freedom to take their own cues. As much as possible, theater will attempt to nail down any chance at spontaneity and will turn your sounds into discrete and distinct moments that will be fired at pre-determined moments linked only to the words in the libretto -- and not to any real sense of what is happening on stage.

Fortunately, a musical is generally tight enough in timing that this works for most of the cues. A good Stage Manager will slide the timing to make up for late entrances or a change in orchestration the pit just came up with or other changes in the flow of the moment that make the sound cue not work as well in the original spot.

What you have to do is (and this happens for sound design in straight plays as well) is to break into that mindset that says the words are everything, and that "Actor says the key word" equals "sound effect happens here." It is also true on lights -- sometimes it is a surprisingly uphill battle to get it understood that where the cue was designed to happen is as the actor crosses the threshold -- and the fact that they are saying their line a beat earlier then they had during rehearsal has nothing at all to do with where the CUE belongs.

Revisiting Sound Design: Tricks to Get You Through

I'm just finishing up something like a dozen shows nearly back-to-back. All of them were musicals, and on most of them I was the sole designer. Most were also children's or youth theater (which brings an additional set of constraints) and several were on extremely short tech schedules (which also introduces certain constraints).

When you are designing sound for musical theater, you are really doing three different (but intersecting) designs. You are designing sound effects (which for a straight play, would be the only thing you did), designing vocal reinforcement of the singers/actors (which for some musicals, is the only thing you do), and designing the reinforcement of the orchestra (which is basically the same job as doing sound for a live band).

Taking the last first, I work at a couple of rental facilities where it is not uncommon to have a band come in without their own sound guy. So as the house tech, I figure out how best to mic them up, work up some plausible settings, then mix them from the console during the performance. This you may be doing for stage musicals as well -- but for the musical, your primary requirement is to make it work for the combined performance. (Often as not, that means asking the band to turn down instead of mic'ing them to get them up.)

First step is learning what you've got to work with. Is it a small space and there are few or no wireless microphones for the cast? Then the task is control of the band -- getting them into a pit or behind a wall if anyone lets you do that! Is it a medium-sized house, the actors are on mic, but the band is tucked behind scenery far upstage? Then you may need to mic them, not for sheer volume, but for presence and intelligibility.

Often as not the first, last, and only thing you'll do is stick the piano into foldback monitors so the cast can hear the music while they are singing. You want this in place as soon as possible -- they'll be wanting it for rehearsals as well. Since we're not recording a concert grand playing Rachmaninoff here, an SM57 stuck in the lid of an upright, or (my new favorite) an SM/PG81 aimed at the soundboard from about six inches away is fine. Often the keyboard will be electronic. Here you will want a DI (Direct Box) for clean signal to the sound board. In many of the cheaper keyboards, though, there isn't even an audio out. And if you plug in to the headphone jack, it will cut off the onboard speakers and you'll have to drag out a monitor so the keyboard player can hear themselves again. It is a simple and stupid trick, but aim a small condenser mic at one of the speakers from a few inches away, looking straight into the speaker. It's good enough to send to foldback monitors.

Also in re that, try not to aim the monitors at the audience. The best monitor is front fill. I have a pair of FBT speakers (Jolly 5RA) that have a really tiny footprint and a really wide pattern. I also use (in bigger houses) a pair of Yamaha MSR-100's. I stick these on the front edge of the apron, or bolt them to the front edge of the stage even, so they are as much out of sight as possible and don't get in the way of dancing but cover the width of the stage.

Depending on the shape of the stage, you may need to bolster these with a second or even third set of speakers from the wings. I've used speakers aiming sideways from the wings, speakers sitting behind the proscenium arch pointing upstage and in at a 45 degree angle, and hanging overhead from the flies.

Walk the speakers. Get a keyboard player, or record some MIDI, or plug a laptop into the piano DI and play a CD and check your coverage. You want a nice smooth flat coverage across the prime playing areas, and as little as possible leakage into the audience. Also keep in mind that during the show there will be a whole chorus standing between the speakers and the rearmost singers -- this is where having additional coverage from sides and above can really help.

But on to the rest of the band. Again, you aren't recording. Most theaters are small enough that there will be a lot of direct sound already. In fact, in most cases the drums will be too loud already, and the bass "loud" enough to be heard from the back of the house as well. Plus, once you've turned up the monitors until the cast is happy, piano will also be quite loud. And if you've got a standard Broadway score and ten or more pieces in the pit, you'll already have enough brass to blast the socks off anyone in the front half of the audience.

Your aim is to achieve three things; to balance the orchestra with itself (aka make the soft instruments loud enough to seat correctly in the mix), to achieve flat coverage into the depth of the seating (aka to make sure the people in the back of the house hear the orchestra nearly as well as those in the front row), and to make the orchestra sound "good."

The latter is where the difference between loudness and presence comes in. I mic drums, for instance. And I put a DI on bases. Sure, you can hear the bass from the audience. But what you hear is undefined flabby mush. Left alone, the bass would sound like a truck passing outside; nothing but low frequency rumble. So you add to the existing low-frequency content with mid and high-frequency that defines and shapes the sound until it actually sounds like a string bass from out in the audience. That same remark is true of the drums.

There's a couple of different ways you can go about planning this. Me, I attend orchestra rehearsal/sitzprobe and take notes, and I try to have a chat with the conductor/music director to get an idea of where they are going. I find out where the band will be located. Usually I can get a pretty good guess of how much reinforcement will be needed, and at that point I can rough out a pit plot based on how many circuits I have available and what mics are in the building.

At one house I work at we usually have an orchestra of over twenty pieces, and they are often tucked away where they can't be heard as clearly. Unfortunately that same house has almost no microphone circuits. So there I've learned to mic by section. For "Into the Woods" I had a grand total of four microphones; a strings section (large diaphragm condenser positioned above the section), winds section (which also picked up a fair amount of brass), percussion overhead (mostly to boost vibes and marimba), and the piano mic.

Remember, your aim is to lift the soft instruments, and to bring presence to instruments that would otherwise sound muddy. You have to listen to the sound of the band in the building without the mics, and work from there. It rarely hurts to make an educated guess beforehand and have some mics already set up, but you really won't know what you need and what will work until you've heard the whole show in context -- and that includes the singers.

And this essay is long enough for the moment. Call this Part 1: in Part II I'll talk about sound effects for musical theater.