Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Few Lame Aphorisms

A few aphorisms I've been working on over the years:

Most things are easier than you think they are to do: but harder than you think they are to do well.

(Really...pulling an engine in a car, programming in C++, mixing a live many things seems so very complicated until you actually try it. But then, after you've done it a bit, you realize how really skilled the people are who do it for a living, and how much more you'd have to learn before you stopped being an amateur.)

You have to have a decent grounding in a subject before you can appreciate how completely ignorant you are in it.

(The more you learn, the better you understand how much more there is to learn. Only two kinds of people believe they have mastered a subject: and one kind is very, very rare. The other is, unfortunately, quite common.)

You can judge how close the scenery is to completion by how long it takes to get from one side of the stage to the other.

(As doors, masking, and prop tables get installed, you can't just stroll from one wing to the other.)

With the right mics in the right place the mix is basically done. With the wrong mics in the wrong place it is basically done for.

(If you set the mics right, turn up the faders and it will already sound great. If the mics are not set right, you can be playing with corrective EQ for days but it will never quite be as good as it should be.)

From Joe Ragey:

"Nothing is temporary in theater."

"It's going to be painted black; no-one will ever see it."

"If you did this in Chicago, do you know how much it would cost?"

Original composed music takes ten hours per finished minute. Sound effects are comparable.

(Okay, that's really more a rule of thumb!)

Borrowed from a book on aviation;

"You can't use the airspace above you, the runway behind you, or the fuel that's still back in the truck."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Continuing with the game, more efforts to look at what make a list of the ten -- or twenty -- great musicals.

But before I go on, I have to fold in another important ranking; which is whether I know a particular musical well enough to feel justified in commenting on it. At the very end of this scale, then, are those musicals I've heard of, perhaps heard a song or two from, but basically know nothing about. Next up would be musicals I've heard the buzz about, read reviews, but still can't really say I know. Following that are those that I know primarily from music and libretto. Next up are the ones I've actually seen (but my memory fades; I have seen "Me and My Girl," with Tim Curry even, but I can't tell you a thing about it other than a show-stopper number about Noblese Oblige and some hilarious business with an ermine coat.) Following that would be those musicals I've actually worked, but trumping that would have to be the ones I designed for. That, more than anything, gives you an intimate understanding of the dramatic strengths and challenges of a work.

But onwards, picking works more-or-less at random;

"Oliver!" : Not just one of the Holy Thirteen, not just one of that group of musicals with exclamation points in their title, it is also second only to "Annie" in the number of kids you need for it. Things being what they are, most of your "boys" will be, like your usual "Lost Boys," girls in disguise. At least, unlike "Peter Pan," there is no specific language in the script preventing cross-casting. Still, whatever the gender, this means dozens or more rambunctious youngsters racing all over backstage and the shops, and this is why for theater people the exclamation point at the end of "Oliver!" is meant to invoke a curse.

A Dickens book and fascinating characters -- although Fagin is as touchy as Shylock to put on the stage these days. It suffers, as does Annie, from the Candide-like aspect of Oliver himself. Although he is not the optimist of Candide or his red-headed distaff twin: Oliver instead goes through the show with a sort of wary surprise, accepting whatever fate comes to him with a round-shouldered shrug.

Strong characters, excellent songs, evocative period setting, and the sound business sense of a large kid cast and a favorite work of English literature behind it. It would be hard to argue that it does not do all those things that a musical would need to do to make the top twenty list.

"On the Town" : a jazzy score with oddly angular harmonies, an ode to New York and a magical twenty-four hours that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Extended ballet sequences, meticulous linking of themes and bridges to make it practically a through-composed work. The opening number apparently deeply informed by Gershwin's "An American in Paris" in it's energetic evocation of a modern city. The aching sadness-with-acceptance of the final sequences, that evocation of ships that pass in the night. And some really funny numbers in the middle "And what for did you stop?" "That ain't the highest spot!"

If I'm not careful the entire list would be Bernstein and Sondheim. With maybe a little Rogers and Hammerstein in salute to those who codified the form. And this is very much a "selections from" musical, with a thoroughly meaningless plot that exists only to string together songs. But it is very hard not to include this jazzy, modernistic, elegant, elegiac gem in the list.

"Jungle Book" : Not quite from the sublime to the ridiculous. Right, clever songs and fun characters, but its from a movie. The test is always; would you enjoy the musical as much if you'd never seen the movie? I'm not seriously considering it for the list. But what I might include it in mention for is as an example of a clever and wonderful thing Disney has begun doing. They are packaging shows for young people's theater. A cut-down book that can be performed without intermission. With the book you get a CD with all of the backing tracks already created for you by a studio orchestra. And, for most of the Disney stock, a second CD with performances of those songs to help those of your cast that haven't learned to read music. They even throw in the sound effects, clearly placed with rehearsal numbers corresponding to the tracks on the CD -- and to add chocolate sprinkles to the frosting, there's a little introduction to the theater, its language and lore and the basic do's and don't's, in the front of each and every script.

It's a slick deal, and it trades on the fact that there are a lot of people out there who have never seen live theater in their lives and have never heard of Eliza Doolittle -- but they HAVE heard of Doctor Dolittle, and Mary Poppins, and Princess Jasmine. So Disney trades upon the public familiarity with and love for their trademark properties, and the exceptional work by the Disney songwriters who made such gems as "Cruella DeVille" or "Let's Go Fly a Kite," -- and rakes in yet more cash to keep the power on in Uncle Walt's cryogenic chamber.

But they also make accessible and plausible a good, solid musical by a children's theater group; by a school, by a daycare, by a recreational department, by a summer camp. They smooth the way into that first production for a new generation of singers, actors and dancers. And we need that, if there is to be theater in the future.

"Oklahoma!" : Put the title number aside for the moment. ("And when we say.....a yippee-yadie-yay....we're only saying 'you're looking fine Oklahoma...'") This is a well-crafted work. And it is the work that brings in some of the pillars of the musical form; the second-act show-stopper that wakes up an audience grown sleepy on too many rich refreshments during intermission, the two pairs of lovers, one heroic and one comic, the extended dance breaks, the dramatic core, the comic characters and interludes...

Here's a secret. There's a device in "Oklahoma!" a device made even more bare in "Guys and Dolls." When one of us who do theater for a living spot this device, we greet it with a nod of appreciation; _this_ writing team knew how that massive complex mechanism called a musical runs. In "Oklahoma!" the device is the scene played entirely inside Jud's shack. Dramatically, of course, this moment away from the sweeping plains and open sky of the rest of the settings amplifies the unhealthy, furtive nature of Jud's existence -- and the squalidness of this lonely room where the floor creaks and the roof leaks gains the character needed sympathy. But even more -- and this is something too many production teams miss -- the tiny setting called for allows you to play the scene "in one"; in front of the act curtain, while the crew dresses the farmhouse for the big party. (In "Guys and Dolls," the scene narrows to a man on a telephone, giving the crew time and space to go from street scene to the sewers.)

"Oklahoma!" also gets another mention in the technician's book. If you see a cow head and trumpet in the box of props being rented, you know someone is doing "Gypsy." For "Oklahoma!" the tell-tale prop is "The Little Wonder." You see a kaleidoscope with a hidden knife blade, and you know what show is coming up.

"Oklahoma" is a bit wince-inducing in several places; the character of Ali Hakim, the itinerant and apparently "Persian" peddler, the shabby treatment afforded Jud; who seems to have had mostly the bad luck to be born to the wrong social class, and the classic basket scene in which two men literally bid against each other for a girl. But it also allows a more complex love triangle by providing the Dream Ballet, where the three actors are replaced for a time by three dancers; and Jud's infatuation with Laurey is shown to be perhaps not so one-sided.

If all else fails, though "Oklahoma!" should make this list for this; that here for the first time all the structure and traditions of the great American musicals appeared together.

"Gypsy" : Time to take the cow by the horns. "Gypsy," of course, falls under what has to be the longest -- or at least the loudest -- shadow in the musical theater; that of Ethel Merman. Rose is the most important character of the show, for all that she is literally on the sidelines for most of the story. How you interpret Rose is what makes the show. And...what we have to ask of every Rose when "Rose's Turn" finally rolls around; does she "got it?" Personally, I think you have to be guided by what a stripper says in an earlier scene; Rose could have been one of the best. That is what elevates her character from pushy stage mom living vicariously through her kids, to someone who never had the chance she deserved in the limelight.

Gypsy herself is slighted, having one decent moment early on ("Little Lamb,") with her final transformation all but off-screen -- from shy Louise to Gypsy Rose Lee takes place over a single montage, and we never really get the chance to meet her, as the focus belatedly shifts to Rose herself. Her cohorts in vaudeville fare even worse, with so little shown of their motivations, their dreams, or their fates -- Tulsa and his first-act tap number must do all that speaking for them.

It is a strange, mixed show. A show named for and inspired by a book about a great stripper, the rise and subsequent fame of Gypsy Rose Lee is nothing but a short montage and a dressing room scene. Where the show spends most of its time is in celebrating the fading days of vaudeville. The show is so much about taking a show on the road, hitching your wagon to that tawdry glittering star that is theater.

It might appear an inordinate part of this essay is about sex. Deal with it: entertainment is largely about sex. The strange conflict in Gypsy is that this wholesome 1959 musical, that spends so much of its time in the song and dance of the vaudeville era, spends its penultimate scenes attempting to simulate the most raunchy of strip clubs. Furthermore it requires that the young women we've watched grow from girlhood through the musical, finally reach their maturity by taking off their clothes in front of an audience. Obviously the strip scene is "cleaned up," and presented with humor ("You Gotta Get a Gimmick.") But it is still a strange turn after the bulk of the show.

It is a show that moves with economy, despite the variety of settings and gimmicks needed (Electra's outfit always brings out the electronics hobbyist -- as out-of-period as LEDs on chase circuits are, I expect the next version of that costume I see will be using EL panels and imbedded micro-proccesors.) At this point is worth noting "Gypsy" is the first show I did, way back in high school. However, I enjoyed rather more a production in a small theater with a smaller pit; although a jazz combo could not do justice to some of the more romantic numbers, it was an interesting and effective musical texture for the strip club scenes.

With the star-making (and unmaking), the travails of living on the road, and the essential dream of show business ("Some people can get a thrill, knitting sweaters and sitting still....") "Gypsy" is perhaps that musical that more than anything else, celebrates the musical itself.

"Into the Woods" : It's Sondheim. It's about what happens after "They lived happily ever after." It combines well-known fairy tales in surprising new patterns. It gives good characterization and motive to all the characters, be they Baker's wives or wicked stepmothers. The music is of course spectacular, and the songs at the very least clever.

The only production I've worked took the course of extending the framing story; instead of a story-teller talking to the audience, they chose to set the show within an orphanage, and as the story-teller begins, the children act out and begin the performance. This paid off in spades in the second-act number "Children Will Listen" and provided (I think!) more closure than Sondheim's original setting.

It is a strange show to come to grips with. The first act is mostly cleverness; weaving together a whole cluster of fairy tales and coming up with excuses for the character's paths to cross. The second act is more about stripping down these games to get at the emotional heart; at the real humans inhabiting this land. If there is a major flaw in this musical, it is that the material is just too rich. There is too much of it, too many ideas you want to highlight and explore. It also feels like Sondheim felt the same way -- towards the end particularly it begins to feel a little rushed, as if he too felt the weight of too many ideas and gave up trying to resolve them. But then again, that too is one of the lessons of the show; that life doesn't resolve as neatly as a fairy-tale. Sometimes witches lie and giants are good. And sometimes you have to take, not the path of heroism, but the path of lesser evil.

"Pacific Overtures" : I can speak to this, having worked on it, though not in a design capacity. Clever use of some of the framing devices of the Japanese stage, although these are perhaps not taken far enough. The absolutely glorious "Haiku" song, the frightening cadences of "Four Black Dragons" and the succinct summing up of the incredible changes into the quietly electrifying "A Bowler Hat" stand out among many, many excellent songs. It is also a show that, unlike "Mikado," demands the theater company reach out to the Asian American acting community for key roles.

Although you should not vote in a show just for the attempts to understand a complex time and a different people, "Pacific Overtures" is an effective modern outreach to the Pacific community even as it is a strong theater piece in its own right. It achieves its effects without reaching for affect; without falling into the sing-song cadences of "Flower Drum Song" or the cutesy names of "Mikado" in some attempt at crass Orientalism. It is -- and this should not be unexpected for Sondheim -- an honest and well-thought-out work by a man who knows his subject very well.

(As an aside -- one might fault "Flower Drum Song," but this was the team that also created "South Pacific." They did very well for their time in trying to combat racism, even if the presentations they often made of other cultures were so focused on certain surface attributes as to make them seem crass stereotypes to later audiences.)

"Bye Bye Birdie" : Dismissed. It's an odd little book; Elvis gets drafted, to the great disappointment of his groupies. And in a completely unrelated plot, red-hot Latin Lover Chita Rivera sings up a storm. Maybe the cleverest moment in the show is the anthemic "Ed Sullivan" where a theatrical musical sings to the television that is beginning to supplant it in the American eye.

And I've gone about as fur as I can go, at least for now. Next blog entry will be something appealing, something appalling, well, at least something different.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Top Ten Musicals of All Time

Been in a couple discussions lately about what would make the list of the best (or, perhaps, most important) theatrical musicals. "Sweeney Todd" and "West Side Story" of course make the list, but what are the other candidates I'd put on my list, and why?

Definitions first. Bernstein's "Mass" does not make the list, as despite the multimedia elements it is a concert piece, not a musical. Nor can "Turandot," the most nearly perfect grand opera; an Opera is a different beast. Thus, too, "Porgy and Bess" must be passed over, as its heart lies with the opera and not with the stage musical.

And definitions for the list. Those considered must first and foremost be entertaining. They must contain all the elements that the musical theater brought together; a strong book, a clever libretto, memorable tunes and solid musical grammar. And they must be stage-able; they must be pieces that work on the stage, within the four walls of the theater and the frame of the proscenium arch (even if they break both, as does the second "Candide" or, to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, "Starlight Express."

This is also not the list that is otherwise known as the "Holy Thirteen"; those musicals that everyone has heard of -- those musicals that, especially if your theater is dependent on subscribers, you are going to be doing over and over again. I shouldn't have to quote THAT list. "Annie," "Sound of Music," "Oliver," "King and I" know how it goes.

Well, without further delay, here are the thoughts I have at the moment:

"Sweeney Todd" : Perhaps the greatest stage musical ever written, although its greatness might come at the cost of full accessibility. But then, if accessibility were the primary measure, "Annie" or "High School Musical" would win. "Sweeney" is above all intensely musical, a mature development of the forms; combining tour-de-force combining of melodic lines in the way pioneered by "West Side Story's" incredible "Quartet," with memorable tunes, with advanced harmonies and late 20th-century innovations in orchestration, with classical emotional writing in the Viennese Grammar and solid vocal writing that would not be out of place in a light opera, with lyrics with the word-play of Cole Porter but that reach for the honesty of emotion of Bernstein at his finest. If Rogers and Hammerstein first evolved the form of the musical theater, and Kander and Ebb explored and extended its vocabulary, "Sweeney" is where Sondheim shows that he is the heir to the tradition; fully understanding the work of those who went before even as he builds upon it.

It is also a solid book; a tight, elegant plot, scenes fitted so closely and efficiently there is no gap, no mis-step in the unfolding of the many plot-lines. It is intelligent without being post-modern, self-aware without ever being self-mocking. It does what it sets out to do without ever having to hide behind the wink and the nod of "Oh, we're not really trying to be serious about this."

And for all the melodrama it is emotionally sincere. These are real people, though people of an operatic (or Greek Tragic) stature. And the most despicable of them is still understandable, even a potential object of pity -- but more importantly, of self-recognition. It is, more than anything, a musical that always operates on multiple levels at once; and yet, never slights one so that another may be revealed.

"West Side Story" : Never again would Bernstein and Sondheim meet in collaboration. Somehow, something struck between the ability of Bernstein to capture an idiom musically and bring out both the intensely honest emotion and the most aching harmonies from it, and Sondheim's ability to fit language to music with words that always did four things at once while never seeming busy, something came out that would never be seen again. The most nearly perfect musical, "West Side Story" is brutally honest in its emotional backbone, infectiously energetic in its music, simple and efficient in the mechanics of its plot. Some of the power has to derive from the "Romeo and Juliet" it uses as its dramatic skeleton, but many others have gone to that well with far less engaging results.

The street toughs are perhaps too prettified, and the gang violence is, today, curiously quaint. At least, unlike "Madame Butterfly" (or the musical-theater equivalent, "Miss Saigon,") the characters do not walk with a self-imposed blindness towards their fate. They strive, they struggle against it, and they even, at least in some small sense, win over that fate. This is not a musical that celebrates surrender.

Well, those two are a natch. But what else might make the cut? What else might I nominate?

"Candide" : Incredible music, on a strong literary back, but there is something just a little cold about the whole affair. Candide and Cunagonde are just a little too much presented to be laughed at, not with. One pities them, but one does not identify with them. And few musicals can carry off rape without being wince-inducing (at the least). "Man of La Mancha" perhaps (more on that later). "Fantastics" gets a pass, though; besides the in-your-face nature of it that allows you to laugh it off, the "Rape Ballet" is clearly celebrating something rather more consensual.

On the other hand, it is refreshing to have a musical that so carefully avoids making an arbitrary happy ending. At the very end of the show, following the amazingly lovely "Make Our Garden Grow" the sheep with the golden fleece falls over dead. Few musicals would dare end on such a darkly comic note.

Fortunately, we don't have to decide on these merits. "Candide" is more of an operetta than a musical, and can be dismissed on that ground alone.

"Showboat" : Should probably sneak in just on the grounds of being a pioneer (but, then, that might be grounds to let in "Rent" as well, as the first musical to really stand up and say "The heck with voice training. Ethel Merman is dead and we've entered the electronic age. So cast a bunch of pretty-looking 20-something non-singers and put headset microphones on them.") Also gets credits for being an American Musical that takes a good hard look at race -- and in a generation that wasn't quite so prepared to see it talked about. Of course, it also premiered in a generation that wasn't ready, outside of Broadway. to see "Old Man River" sung by an actual African-American.

Good music, of course (can't get on the list without it.) Like so many of the great musicals, contributed songs to the great list of jazz standards (but, then, so did "Babes in Arms," the Mickey Rooney "Let's put on a show! We could use the barn!" musical; giving us "My Funny Valentine," "Johnny One-Note," and "The Lady is a Tramp!")

"Carousel" : Rogers and Hammerstein at the top of their form. They had always made an effort to learn the musical idioms and the patterns and rhythms of speech of the places they set their musicals in. In "Carousel," the dialect of the New England fishing village setting comes through quite clearly, and adds immeasurably to the context of the story. It is one of the most bittersweet of classical American musicals, carrying a sense of loneliness and loss throughout its length. That, and the dramatically necessary slaps (worse of which is that the girl receiving the second must say of it that "it felt like a kiss,") makes it a difficult show to do these days.

It also manages somehow to combine both a fantastical and quite non-denominational view of religion (the scenes with the Starkeeper following Billy's death) with an uncomfortably missionary anthem at the climax (the moving full-choral reprise of "You'll Never Walk Alone.")

An odd show, not done enough, in some places pedestrian and ordinary, but the whole oddly lingers in the mind in a way that makes it a good candidate for the list.

"Cabaret" : Too often, the seamy nightclub antics of "Cabaret" are taken as excuse to put the cast in sleazy outfits, as if showing a little fishnet and black lace on stage is being "dangerous." It allows the production to pretend they are taking risks and shaking up their audience, when all they are doing is a little cheap flash; the musical has much more dangerous things to say, about the ways fascism and conformity and the creation of outsiders can take over a society, about the need for personal responsibility no matter where your citizenship lies or what race or creed they are dragging away that day, and the perpetual outsider status of the theater itself, that survives always as the court jester before the seats of power, mocking them while also mocking itself, taking their blows and giving them the spectacle they want so as to continue to survive -- and hoping that maybe, every now and then, someone in the audience will really listen. (To "...catch the conscience of a king.")

"Cabaret," like "Chicago," is victim of the curse of Bob Fosse; where you leave the theater mostly remembering the length of Liza's Minelli's legs. It does not help "Cabaret" that the protagonists are self-absorbed, insular in their "it can't happen to me" attitudes, and ultimately futile in their attempts to understand, much less effect, what is happening around them.

Another conceit that bedevils far too many productions of "Cabaret" is that the dramatic portions of the play can be played as if part of the presentations at the Kit-Kat Klub. This boxes-within-boxes idea infects production teams with its post-modern self-referential-ism, but few manage to transcend the empty cleverness of this game to give the dramatic material the weight it needs; the feeling you must have of the danger to Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz, and the helplessness of Cliff faced with the self-destructive nature of Sally Bowles.

(This is as good a point as any to mention that I am writing most of this from memory; character names and dialog and the names of songs will probably be jumbled or mistaken here and there.)

"The Secret Garden" : another oddity of idiom. I found the rustic English speech patterns and the musical motifs seemingly taken directly from local songs charming, but someone with more familiarity with the source might find them cloying. Also, the short Indian motifs provide an intriguing touch that might also be taken as cheap exoticism; not helped by the "rah rah The Raj" attitude expressed by several characters, no matter how true it is to the time and place.

Also, like a surprising number of American musicals, it requires virtuoso singing and extensive acting from a very young performer. At least "Peter Pan," inheriting the "Pantomime" tradition, can cast a mature female singer instead of a hypernaturally talented little boy.

Secret Garden inherits from its book a Garden Labyrinth (not maze) of cycles within cycles, death and rebirth, winter and spring, sickness and health, estrangement and forgiveness. It also has, to my ear, some of the most spooky and powerful choral moments in all-too-brief snippets; "It's a maze of ways," or "there's a heart that beats in silence" or "the master hears the whispers on the stairways dark and still."

"The Wizard of Oz" : To the torment of designers and technicians this remains a perennial favorite -- especially since the RSC version, other competing versions, or the Baum books themselves are always forgotten in favor of "Let's make it just like the film." It is a fun, fantastical little story, with rambunctious songs, that can stand up to the indifferent tech and struggling actors of a typical grade school production; as long as it is done in good spirit it will remain fun to watch.

Still, the long shadow of the movie is always there; one can never be sure if you are enjoying the young singer before you, or dreamily remembering the prior-to-her-self-destruction Judy Garland and that magical moment when sepia-tinted Kansas made way for early but oh-so-vibrant Technicolor.

When you get right down to it, its a bunch of incidents strung together with a bunch of unrelated songs. As fondly remembered as it is, it really can't be seriously considered as one of the great musicals.

"Phantom of the Opera" : The first problem with "Phantom" is with Sir Andrew himself. It is perhaps fashionable among theater circles to hate Lloyd-Webber. It is more understandable when you realize "Phantom" is still playing on Broadway but Sondheim is all but unknown to the non-theater world.

This invites a comparison that does not flatter one of them. Compare, say, when Raoul sings, "No more talk of darkness, forget these wide-eyed fears; I'm here, nothing can harm you..." with the comparable song in "Sweeney"; as Toby sings "No-one's gonna harm you, no-one's gonna dare..."

Raoul's song is sung straight. The lovers are temporarily safe, the male hero comforts the wide-eyed and innocent heroine. So straight, indeed, that one is tempted to play Raoul as a parody of male fatuousness. He does come across, the whole story considered, as a bit of a brick. In short, though, the song is one of easy, simplistic emotionalism, with a faux-heroic theme in a major key.

"Sweeney" does this and more. One can honestly -- the show always makes this possible -- salute Toby's young heroism, even as one realizes just how unfit he is for his self-selected hero's role. When he sings confidently "..I've got ways," you know he is lying to himself to boost his own self-esteem and flagging courage. Actually, it is this awareness Toby carries of how powerless he really is, and yet his attempts to still do what he thinks is right, that makes his character far more heroic than any handsome Vicompte.

Raoul sings his song to a suitable damsel. Toby sings to a lady many years his senior, on whom he has developed an unhealthy and even slightly Oedipal fixation. His brave words are betrayed by the reality about him; the bloody engine of vengeance that is Sweeney will not be stopped by so slight an obstacle. And the real evil is hidden right before Toby, in the stout form of Mrs Lovett. Sweeney's evil burns pure in the heat of revenge, but her evil is mundane and mercenary (but ever-so-frugal!) Sondheim twists the knife by having her sing the same song back to Toby....while feeling around for a suitable weapon.

Still, Phantom has slickly memorable tunes, and although the lyrics are mostly meaningless tish there are a few clever lines -- the entire "notes" scene is wonderfully fun, and I am surprised more theater people don't respond to the sentiments of "What a way to run a business!" Dramatic organ music, a challenging vocal role for the true male lead of the piece, and excuse for many spectacular set-pieces and special effects make for a memorable night at the theater.

And yet...and yet.... the book is inefficient. Characters and scenes come and go, starting something, dropping it, coming back later, leaving loose ends everywhere. Scenes are crammed in sideways and endways like airline carry-on baggage that's been tossed through by customs and quickly repacked, and the dramatic arcs fail utterly to build and sustain properly. What can you possibly say of a "Phantom" story that puts THE signature moment of the story -- the falling of the chandelier -- before the end of the first act? (Yeah, yeah, Sondheim makes the entire second half of "Into the Woods" about what happens after "they live happily ever after" -- but that was the intent in the book and was clear from the first moment of the show.)

When all is said and done, if it was not for the inexplicable romanticism over the self-absorbed and conveniently all-powerful stalker at the heart of the story, "Phantom" would fail to hold interest as a piece of theater.

"Sound of Music" : It's one of the Holy Thirteen. It has kids (but no animals). It takes liberties with history. And everyone loves it. It is, as a friend of mine in the business has said, "A charming family musical -- with Nazis." (One of the historical liberties becomes more blatant when you realize Von Trapp was Captain of U-boats. Oh, plus the great escape over the mountains? They took a train.)

One has to separate the philosophy of a song from its musicality. You can't vote in "Sound of Music" because you agree with the romanticism of "Climb E'vry Mountain," any more than you can reject "1776" and the powerful "Molasses, to Rum" (to Slaves) because you disagree with the sentiments of the singer.

"Annie" : Another Holy Thirteen, and worse. It is hard to avoid a musical with so many children in it, because children have parents and friends, and parents and friends fill seats. And everyone loves the show. And it's meaningless fluff chock full of feel-good messages. At least it's good-hearted fluff (and, as in so many things, the viliains get the best lines and the best songs.)

It is also for it's own good fortune not looked at too closely. A single orphan lucky enough to escape the Depression with not so much as a missed meal because she makes a sugar daddy of a war profiteer....well! The one thing the show gives the production team an excuse for is to go wild with Art Deco....maybe a little of the hovel in the Hoovertown and bleak orphanage, but after that it's all guilding and chrome and streamlining, Dusenbergs and movie marquees and dining rooms the size of basketball courts. One wonders if some production team will chose to take one more step towards fantasy and make a Steampunk New York for "Annie," with clockwork maidservants and dirigibles overhead. Or give a more realistic depression-era surrounding; which, oddly enough, seems to happen in the film adaptations (the ones you would think would reach instinctively for glitz.)

Again, though, you have to separate material from message. The audience can't help but root for and cheer the spunky little adolescent and her mysteriously infrequent dog (as staged, Sandy shows up just long enough for the audience to sweat whether the dog will own up to training and run towards the actress, or follow instinct and wander off in some other direction.) Bereft of that, there's not enough here to make a great American musical.

"Annie" also takes a flirt with old-time radio that it fails to carry through on. There are several distinct episodes celebrating the glory days of radio, but despite the fourth-wall break that is "Tomorrow" (when Annie sings it in the radio show, she is actually supposed to be, well, singing it) it doesn't make for an actual through-line. It becomes just more name-dropping, like the mention of Al Capone late in the second act.

"Man of La Mancha" : a clever framing device, though one taking liberties with history (again), lets the writers pull a positive ending from the bleaker one the original novel presents. A broad dash of Flamenco, although having nothing to do with place or period, make the music interestingly different. And the central rape is almost redeemed by dramatic necessity -- a good will most productions squander by abusing and terrorizing their Aldonza on stage to the full extent the local mores will allow. The play-within-a-play framework is so clearly presented as to make for no confusion on the part of the audience; refreshingly, as against the attitude too many writers appear to have that confusing and audience is hard and therefore they should feel proud when they accomplish it. And the songs are humorous and memorable; "Hail, Knight of the Doeful Countenance!" But does it truly do anything so well, or so differently, as to ensure its placement on the list?

"Anything Goes" : can you have a list without Cole Porter? He must get on just for his cleverness with lyrics. The jazzy score should be a win as well. And of course for sheer age it must win some sort of seniority. There are older shows, and plenty, but it has survived.

"The Fantastics" : A smart show, but it wins a place on the strength of representing a sub-genre in theater; minimalism, the presentation of ideas without the burden of fancy scenery (indeed, some shows might not survive at all without the massive sets and fancy special effects to wow the audience that their bloated scripts call for.)

"Chess" : The show that could only play in New York. No other theater crowd would dare go out to see a show that right on the marquee boasts that it is about a pastime of intellectuals. America, after all, where they had to change the title of the first Harry Potter book -- the public wasn't about to read something with the word "Philosopher" on the cover!

In a way it fails at this lofty goal; the Russian player Anatoly is the only major character in the musical to embrace the game of chess for itself. For the others, chess is only the way they prove themselves to the world, get the worldly goods they feel they deserve, or wrestle with their internal demons. Nor does chess itself nor any game particularly come across; for all that is shown of the game and its philosophies and peculiarities it might as well be badminton.

But, then, that depends on the production. Attempts have been made -- although this both turns it into an expensive multimedia extravaganza, and makes for an even longer evening. Few of the songs are as brisk as "One Night in Bangkok" and -- as is so in many operas -- one finds oneself wishing the characters would stop singing and get counseling for their problems instead.

"Miss Saigon" : This Pinkerton escapes responsibility for his actions by jumping on a helicopter. The musical does not escape so lightly; it is weighed down and eventually crushed by the weight of that damned helicopter. If it gets a place in the list, it is for this; as a forerunner and template for those musicals where the entire thing circles tightly in the orbit of some giant unwieldy set-piece; flying car, sinking ocean liner, singing plant.

The mixed message of Cris's guilt-free escape is abetted by the largely negative picture of the Asian characters -- with the major exception of Kim, who is much more of a survivor than poor Cho-Cho-san (until the play goes out of its way to demand its desired tragedy and her less-than-fully-motivated suicide). The best message in the show is Cris's shocked outburst "This isn't supposed to happen! We are Americans!" But this message of responsibility is undercut in the same way "Cabaret's" is; ultimately, the show teaches the futility of trying to escape, whether it is the quagmire of Vietnam or the long shadow of Puccini.

"Guys and Dolls" : Damon Runyon characters, Frank Loesser music and lyrics, and even the shadow of Sinatra can't dim the enjoyment of tight harmonies and catchy tunes and a plot that moves like a well-oiled machine. It is almost the sui generis of the American Musical. Not quite the perfect musical; Adelaide's Lament grates (as does her voice; this show is deep in the heart of that strange tradition that had one "heroic" couple -- Curly and Laurie would be the model in "Oaklahoma," and one comedic couple, with the same brassy, nasal-voiced red-head seemingly cast as the distaff of the pair in every musical of the period), and although Sky turns out to be a gentleman after all Sarah's alcohol-induced lessening of inhibition is a bit quease-inducing. But on the other hand it opens with "Fugue for Tinhorns" -- a perfect marriage of high art and low comedy.

And this essay has gotten far too long. I've barely brushed upon the shows I've mentioned, and there are major shows I have not touched upon at all; from "King and I" (suspect history, White Man's Burden from the distaff side, and all), "Wicked" (another sufferer of post-"Rent" scoring, with much of its strength in a source material it hadn't the skill or courage to use more of) or "Kiss Me, Kate" or "Urinetown" or "Pacific Overtures" or.....

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Music Technology and the Red Queen's Race

The Red Queen's Race was never more true.

I remember getting started in computer music. Software was hard to come by, and peculiar. Samplers were pricey, and the best sounds for the buck were in synthesis. So you had to sit down and learn; how to connect up all this gear, how to get decent sounds without breaking the bank, what the bargains were in used gear and what keyboards or modules were better avoided.

And you learned to use it. Writing Sysex messages (and calculating hexadecimal checksums by hand!) to get access to hidden but useful parameters like reverb type. Learning to program ADSR envelops and how to get the sound you were after with that strange beast that was FM synthesis.

At some point, though, it became more about trying to set up your studio and get the pallet organized and, basically, about trying to get DONE with all this technology; to try to get it out of the way so you could get back to writing music.

Some day, you told yourself. A few more patches to copy down by hand on graph paper, a few more floppies to load up with the samples you used most often, a few more tweaks of the patch name and library functions so when you sat down to write you could dial up "french horn" instead of looking through a manual and entering "bank 01, patch 122."

Except you never got there. The technology advanced on you. You were still organizing floppies when a hard disk came within your price range. You were still setting up tracks in MusicShop when another computer upgrade made Vision possible to run.

And the process accelerated.

Now here I sit. I have a rack of gear -- rack-mount samplers, reverb boxes, compressors. I just got back the mixer I'd loaned out, and I _could_ reconnect everything and patch through my Opcode interface to the one computer in the apartment that still has an old-style serial port.

On the other hand, I have CuBase loaded on the desktop -- which I'm just starting to learn -- which puts me firmly into the world of VST instruments, virtual synthesizers, sampler libraries on DVD-ROM. All I have to do is purchase several more instruments, add more RAM until I can play them, work out how to organize and label the library so when I am composing I can just dial up "french horn" instead of looking through .pdf files for "Garritan Personal Orchestra, 2nd instance, channel 3, section instruments..."

So when does the Red Queen get winded? When do I actually get to do music?

Time to put the mouse down and get in another hour on the alto recorder. It only has two joints. I can assemble it in a minute -- and be back to playing music.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Recording the Show

Every now and then, when I am mixing a show, I connect something to the board to take a recording of what is passing through it. Sometimes a performer, or a videographer, asks. Other times it is just for my own continuing education (to review off-line the sonic choices I'd made during the show).

But when I email an mp3 to a soloist or a band, it isn't as simple as pressing "record" during the show. There is a fair amount of work I have to do off-line, and some difficult artistic choices to make.

The first problem lies in the nature of the show itself. These are not recording sessions. We don't have the luxury of careful adjustment of microphones and player technique, or multiple takes. We have to deal with what happens in a live performance, with the mistakes, the crying babies in the audience -- and the compromises of getting set up on multiple performers with a small equipment budget and little time between acts.

The show is for the audience, not for recording. What is going into the board, and through the board, is optimized for playback on speakers.

Think of the following example; a trumpet and piano are playing. The trumpet is loud, and needs no help to be heard at the back of the hall. The piano is relatively soft, and needs amplification to be heard over the trumpet. This means, what the audience probably heard was more trumpet than piano. But what the sound board "heard" was much more piano than trumpet. If all you did was plug a recorder into the main outputs of the board, you would hear a very peculiar concert indeed.

Even more so, the bass and drums might not be on mic at all (the drums are loud enough on their own, and the bass has his own amplification.) You might chose to take a DI (a direct connection) from the bass, bypassing his amp, but that sounds by itself nothing like the sound that is coming from the bass cabinet during the show.

Depending on the complexity of the sound board, there may be options to split the signal in various ways, getting taps off the various microphones before the level and equalization that adjust what is being sent towards the audience. But, again, these are secondary; the primary need is to keep the clear signal to the audience (and to performer's monitors) and recording must subsist on handouts.

And then you have the nature of acoustic space. What it sounded like to a human sitting in that audience is NOT what it sounds like to even the best microphone placed in that chair. (The partial exception to this is binaural recordings played back through headphones, or certain area mic set-ups taken in a controlled studio environment).

A large part of the reason is focus. When you are sitting in the space yourself, you have visual and subtle audio clues that help you sort out the sound picture. You can see the band is over THERE. You can see that the person that stood up for a solo is holding a clarinet. You can see that the coughing is coming from a man near the aisle. This all helps you tune in on the sounds you want, and tune out the sounds you don't.

There is a miasma of subtler sounds, sounds we usually ignore; cloth rustling, low voices, feet shuffling, breathing. We can usually use our ability to focus within a real acoustic space to take these out of our perceptual picture. We are very good at that; at carrying on a conversation around an annoying noise or background music, at filtering out background noise. A microphone does not do that; it captures what is actually in that space.

(This is a particular problem for sampling the sounds of real artifacts for sound design. There are always other sounds intruding, sounds like distant traffic or air conditioner or passing plane, that you normally filter out of your mind. If they get on the recording, though, they often spoil it. The worst problem is when people without trained ears try to "help." They haven't learned how to unfocus their perceptual field -- they inevitably hand you back recordings filled with background noise they simply didn't perceive themselves.)

The ear has a couple of perceptual tricks to help it do this. One is the physical structure of the ears themselves. Between the stereo of a pair of ears, and the subtle equalization and phase distortions introduced by the pinnae (the external ear), and the skull, sinuses, and head itself, the human brain is able to sort out extremely subtle sonic cues about direction, distance, and qualities about the surrounding space.

When you walk into an environment, your ears take a quick measurement of what is natural and how the room reflects and absorbs. Your brain then compensates. Essentially, it notices that sounds are muffled in one room, and turns up the high end to compensate. Or it notices that there are a lot of reflections off the polished marble walls, and it decides to ignore them when localizing sounds.

The binaural recording technique was to stick a pair of microphones inside a dummy head, with plastic ears (molded from a real pair of ears). When done right the effects are spectacular; it reproduces so many of these subtle clues you can actually describe the shape and wall material of the room the recording was made in (for such information is indeed gathered by our ears).

One last trick ears have that even binaural mics don't; they move. The ear and brain can make lighting-fast comparisons between the different phase interactions that occur at sub-centimeter spacing (depending on the frequency of interest!) and thus compensate for much of the effect of room nodes and destructive reflection. A microphone, being immobile, is stuck with the comb filtering the natural acoustics imposes on its exact location.

Binaural recordings, no matter how clever, are far from optimal for the recording you made of yourself at Friday's performance. Your friend doesn't want to don earphones and close their eyes and go through the several minutes of adaptation to the captured aural environment. They want to load an mp3 on to their iPod, or open it right from the email, and listen to it on computer speakers or whatever they have handy.

Which means what you want to produce for these "off the board" recordings is not what the audience heard, either. What I aim to produce, in fact, is the emotional effect of being in that audience listening to that performance.

This is rather akin to motion picture sound. If you've had the chance to listen to the actual location audio (especially, that is, non-professional location audio, aka "what a microphone mounted on the camera heard" you know just how horrible it sounds compared to a movie soundtrack.

It isn't just that the movies can get their hands on $20,000 Neumanns. The essential difference again is one of focus.

Motion picture dialog, like book dialog, may look like human speech but it is compressed. They omit most of the hemms and haws and back-tracking and repetitions of real speech to create dialog that (mostly!) gets to the point and communicates plot-essential information quickly and accurately. Motion picture images have the same compression; it may be a baroque image full of movement and detail, but everything in it is carefully selected and subservient to the story-telling.

So, too, is sound focused. Instead of recording all the natural noise in the environment of the shot at hand, they take selected elements and push them, creating a caricature, a cartoon, a schematic of the real thing.

In the real world, walk across a room and open a door. Unless you are wearing heels and on hardwood or stone your footsteps are probably a muffled fumbly sound barely rising above the background noise, and the door lock makes a low indistinct sound that could be anything. Compare to a Hollywood movie, where the footsteps are clear and defined and the lock sings a little clearly metallic and mechanical song with a rising tone that says "I'm opening."

Which shades us subtly into not just the choices of clear story-telling, but the use of perspective in movies; how what you hear in a movie is guided strongly by how you are supposed to react emotionally, and by that strange game of "who are you being?" as you watch the film. To over-simplify, you hear a loud gun click because the gun is dangerous and important. You hear the clothes movement and footsteps of James Bond because you are BEING James Bond and you'd hear your own clothes move.

But back to recording!

My steps in re-creating the emotional effect of the performance are to, first; get the most isolated and direct sound I can (to remove as many distracting noises as possible), second; to tailor the sounds towards a specific effect, and third; to put back in an artificial and select approximation of the performance environment using such tools as computer-generated reverb and a select amount of sound captured from area mics and audience mics.

There is always a balance between honesty/accuracy and listen-ability. Consider the -- entirely hypothetical! -- case of a singer accompanied by an amateur guitar-playing friend. Who played badly. Honesty towards what the audience heard, and honesty towards the performer who might want to know what they actually sounded like in order to learn and improve, calls for leaving that poor guitar part in un-altered.

On the actual performance night, however, natural flaws of the space masked many of the flaws of the guitar. And the audience was emotionally favored towards the obviously struggling young guitarist, and was willing to forgive him. So to capture the performance impact and the emotional effect of that performance, you DO want to clean up the guitar a little.

And then, the song is the point, the vocal performer is the person who asked you for a recording, and that would seem to make the emphasis towards making them sound good even if that means hiding elements (like the guitar) that distract from her performance.

All of this, I have to balance. And one more thing, perhaps even more important than the rest.

A typical show may have twenty different acts. I take when I can multi-track recordings on to hard disk, with as many individual feeds as I can split off from the sound board plus as many additional spot and area mics I can hide in the performance space (quite literally...I once stuck a PCC under a choral riser to pick up a little of a drum).

So there are rather over one hundred individual sound snippets, with working files taking up 6-10 gigs of hard drive space, and almost two hours of actual songs to work through. And I'm not getting paid for this; it is strictly as a favor to my friends among the performers and for my own amusement.

So the last balancing act is between the kind of tweaking and tailoring that might improve the recording one more tiny bit, and getting the file done and moving on to the next song before midnight arrives. Even a rough mix of an entire night's worth of material takes a couple of days to do. Doing more does not make sense.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Spent a chunk of the day straightening out a tech closet. Which meant mostly a tangled mess of cables.

If you work with any amount of cord, cable, rope, wire, whatever, do yourself and your co-workers a favor and learn how to stow them.

What doesn't work: Coiling the cord tightly around the power strip or clip light or power tool. Maybe it feels all manly to yank that cord around and around, but it doesn't work. It puts permanent bends in the power cord so it looks like a big spring. And it comes off in the storage cabinet or tool box; and that spring shape is perfect for tangling with other things. Even when it works, it takes a long time to uncoil, and the cord won't stretch out properly but lumps all over the floor or workbench.

Worse: taking that long extension cord or audio cable or rope and coiling it about your arm. It doesn't stay coiled, and it just gets into tangles. Plugging one end of the cord into the other only makes things worse. And when you try to pull it out to use it, it turns into a bunch of loops and knots. So instead of being ready for sound check, you are struggling with a Gordian Knot. Not the way to have a happy client. Or a happy audience.

Here's what works; for long cables and cords that have no natural twist (that is to say, for _everything_ but natural-fiber rope), coil it in neutral lay. Which means, every other coil reversed (find a diagram online, or find someone to teach you). It uncoils like a charm; you can just drop the coil on the floor, take one end, and walk with it; the cables spools out without a single tangle.

DO NOT put the ends together (that only makes it harder to figure out which side to draw the cable from). DO NOT wrap the cable around itself to fasten the coil (that works great on braided rope, but is death to electrical cables). Fasten with tie line, a velcro cable tie, or, in a pinch, tape (the trick with tape, is; you start with the tape inside out, so you don't get gummy tape on the cable, then double the tape back on itself to finish wrapping it around).

Oh, and on that subject, Duct Tape is to be used to repair ducts. It is not to be used on floors, walls, and DEFINITELY not used on electrical cables! If you do mess up, Goo-Gone, or peanut butter, will help you remove the nasty residue it leaves. But it is still a chore.

By the by, if you ever tape cable down, here's a handy trick; don't pull the cable up, then try to get the tape off. That's a pain. Instead, pull the tape up first. Then pick the cable off the floor.

For stuff that is too short to be really worth spending the velcro ties on -- like short adapter cables, power cables, the cords on power strips and tools, the simplest and most elegant solution is to tie a knot.

Double up the cable (or triple it up) until it is a comfortable size to tie one overhand knot in. You might think putting a knot in the cable will shorten its life. Trust me, its a lot less stress than wrapping the thing around the handle of the drill over and over and over (which is what most people do). And it is much less stress on both the cable and most importantly YOU when it doesn't come loose in the tool box and ends up wrapped around your spare saw blades.

Some people just have to be fancy with their extension cords, and do a forearm wrap followed by the tight "hangman's" loops around the middle. I admit the bundle looks neat when done. But it takes forever to uncoil again, and it doesn't lay out straight. When you are trying to run power to a remote location every lump and kink in that extension cord is just wasted length.

However, extension cords are often so tortured they won't take a neutral lay. As nice as you try to coil it, it makes lumps. If you have one of these, then, give in to the urge to be fancy rope-knotting person, and daisy-chain it. A daisy-chain takes up space, and WILL come undone if given opportunity (say, kicking around the bottom of a tool bucket.) But it looks neat, and most importantly doesn't hurt the cable or put kinks in it; and it comes uncoiled fast and clean when you actually want it.

Which is the point of all of this. Life is too short to be untangling cables every time you open the tool box. And set-up is WAY too short to be struggling with a knotted-up cable. Who do you want to be, the person who says "Here's that mic you needed" or the person who is still ten feet short of the stage because their cable turned into a bundle of knots?

That's the biggies. There are a few other niceties you could follow. If you've got a lot of random audio cable, consider labeling them to length. Typical schemes are a modified "Roman Numeral" key with colored tape; each red band is five feet, each yellow 10', each green 25', each blue 50'. So a cable with a green and a red band is a 30 footer.

(When in doubt about color coding, use the rainbow as a mnemonic. The colors of the rainbow are always in the same order, traditionally named as "Roy G. Biv", for Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet. Given the vagaries of Sharpies, spike tape, electrician's tape, or available spray paint, you may only have a truncated rainbow of four colors. Organize them "Pink, Green, Blue, Magenta" or whatever, and you will always remember what order they are supposed to go in.)

If you are in the sort of work where everyone brings cables and they all end up in use, then label them with your own name or a distinctive tape color or some other marking you can tell people about ("Keep an eye out for any cables marked with purple spray paint; those are all mine.")

In some applications it seems to make sense to put a random but unique numerical signature on each end of each cable. That way, when you've got six cables running under the rake, and you don't know which is supposed to be connected to dimmer #6, you can look at where "5763" is diving out of sight, and pick up the matching "5763" on the other end. But as smart as this seems, only one organization in a hundred every manages to implement something like this scheme. And, yes, I've been including this on my personal cables as I rebuild them with proper Switchcraft ends, but I've done less than half of them so far.

Oh, and on a totally different scheme, when you are wiring electronics, red is VCC (or supply voltage), green is ground, and black is data lines. Unless you are lucky enough to have more colors. Black is also very common for battery negative, but my feeling is people will figure out green pretty quick (especially if they know household wiring, for which the color code is NOT optional. Use the correct UL codes in household wiring or face some very, very angry contractors).

And learn to coil them properly. Remember; you almost ALWAYS have a lot more time when cleaning up, then you do when setting up a show. Coil the the cables in the off-times, so when there's a sixteen-piece band due for sound check in one half hour those cables will not be what slows you down. Get into the habit of stowing tools carefully. There will always come a time when you need that tool quickly. If you put it away in haste, it won't come back out of the box when you really need it. And for nothing else is this more true than audio cables.

(The title for this entry comes from a lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson on a very different subject!)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Unlike Liberace in Every Other Way

I saw some TV show on the pianist and showman Liberace once. He was walking around one of his grand mansions, and there were pianos everywhere. Where there wasn't a piano, there was a piano keyboard theme; keyboard-pattern drapes, towels, counters, throw rugs...

Anyhow. Following a recent gift from a friend, my tiny apartment is now home to;

A 61-key Roland W30 "Sampler Workstation"
A 76-key Roland EP7 II "Digital Piano"
A 25-key M-Audio Ozone controller keyboard
A 37-(mini)key "Blue Man Group" toy keyboard
A 32-(mini)key Realistic Concertmate-500 (aka Casio sk-1 sampling keyboard)
A 32-(mini)key Sun-Mate "Melody Maker" toy keyboard
A 37-key Korg Univox Mini-Korg (analog synth, in sorry shape)

And you could probably count the non-standard 1-octave "keyboard" of my old but still surprisingly useful Yamaha QY-10.

What's really funny is I'm a lousy keyboard player.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Working Musician's Hours

So I had a long rehearsal last night. And the plumber showed up this morning -- woke me up so I could let him through the security gate. And he gives me that snide look; that look that says "Some people are so lucky they can sleep in until noon. The rest of us do a good day's work."

Asshole. Let me put this in context. It's not that I work late. It's that my work-sleep cycle is identical to yours -- it just takes place over a different span of hours!

Go to work at 9:00 AM. Leave at 5:00. Get up the next morning at 7:00 so you can breakfast and hit the commute. That's 14 hours between the time you left work, and the time you woke up.

I leave work at 11:00 PM, typically. That same 14 hours would mean I'd get up at 1:00 PM!

If our schedules were truly identical: assuming you had dinner at 9:00, caught the Late Show, and were asleep by midnight -- for seven hours of sleep -- I'd be having dinner at 3:00 AM and be in bed slightly before dawn.

Actually, I'm up at 10:00 AM most mornings. Since my usual call isn't until late afternoon, I make a slow morning of it; instead of being breakfasted and out the door by eleven, I'm doing paperwork, reading the news, cleaning house, and otherwise puttering about and ready to hit the road around noon. Not infrequently I'm at a job site by 1:00. Not only is that only four hours later than Mr. Morning Person, on the equivalent of his cycle he'd be showing up for work at THREE BLOODY AM IN THE MORNING. And he gives me a sneer for not showing up at work until after lunch!

Right. I know some people think "But I've worked late at the office plenty of times, and I don't have to change my whole schedule around." Right. How often? Do you do it five, six days a week? With no chance to recover on the weekend? Do you do it just for the crunch and take a break when the project ships, or is this your Normal and Ordinary schedule?

And what kind of work? Are we talking the typical slightly-more-relaxed late hours office, with someone being sent out for pizza and all that? Try doing a six, eight, ten hour shift WITHOUT DINNER. Without a dinner break. Without food. On nothing but cold coffee, with nothing but toilet breaks. Carrying 40-pound lights up swaying ladders or using power tools.

And leave that work not just hungry but dirty, sore, cold. Driving home at midnight, getting back to a freezing apartment.

I think us artists do damned well showering, putting away tools, cooking and eating a healthy dinner, unwinding from a tough day at work, and still being in bed by two.

Because when all is said and done it is a job like any other. We might do some crazy hours, and put up with some crazy conditions, but once you get into it for the long haul all ideas of pulling an all-nighter on pizza and beer and catching up on sleep when the project ships go bye-bye. Treat it like an ordinary day if you want to see forty; proper sleep, proper hygiene, healthy food.

And resign yourself to sneery-face morons who wake you up at nine AM and chuckle "Oh, those artists!"

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Return to Douse

Since the previous post I got my douser working, and then put it away. As it turns out, we didn't need the projector after all for what we were doing on that show. But at least I know have the thing in my kit, I know it works (I tested it in the building, on the actual projector), and the technology (and device) are not limited to that specific task.

One of the problems I ran into was physical space for all the desired connectors on the project box. This, and general simplicity, led me to get a 1.2 amp 5v wall wart and bypass the Arduino's power supply completely. I did add a couple of buffer capacitors on the shield, however.

No local store carried the opto-isolator I wanted. Another discovery I made was that MIDI hardware varies a bit within the physical spec. The device I was using to test the MIDI-in circuit on the breadboard turned out to put out a much stronger signal than the MIDI interface I meant to use for the final installation. I didn't discover this until after soldering up the circuit. Fortunately, one component substitution restored function; I bypassed the input resistor completely with a bit of wire.

There was a problem with the proto-shield I was using. These, available from a couple of sources, are small strip boards with pre-printed ground and power traces and headers that fit the standard Arduino layout. It makes it faster to create some basic circuitry around an Arduino. When I finished soldering and started testing the completed circuit, a number of things didn't work. Dreading the long hours ahead of tracing and repairing my circuit, I took the completed shield with me to dinner in hopes some idea for fixing it would occur while I ate.

Such an idea did. As I was turning it over in my hands, I noticed that although VCC was printed on the silkscreen, someone had made an error and forgot to include that trace in the copper! A quick solder job with a length of bare wire on my return home, and the circuit worked flawlessly.

In the final box, I had a jack for external 5v power supply, MIDI jack, a quarter-inch jack for use with a remote button (or sensor), and a red/green status LED. I love the red/greens. By strapping them across a pair of output pins you can indicate multiple conditions. I actually used up two PWM pins this time, meaning I could also dim the LED or have it pulse in "sleep" mode if desired. Right now, the software merely shines green for "ready" and red for "working."

The current software version sets the servo position by MIDI note number. In the case of switch input, the servo goes to a preset position and returns to "home" when the switch is released. There is also a test button on the main board that sends the servo to the preset position then automatically returns "home."

Although the software detects note velocity, it is currently locked to a default slew rate that inserts a millisecond delay between each step. But since the USB port is also brought out to the outside of the box, changing the software is easy.

Mechanically, the thing is as bulletproof as I could make it. The brass flag support and linkage was sweated together with silver solder and rides on plastic bushings. The Arduino is bolted to stand-offs. All the wiring is on ribbon cables, which connect to headers on the shield.

I am tempted to swap out the flag for a pointing hand, tweak the software to repeat octaves, and use it to point to current note being played on a MIDI keyboard. That being just one of the many possibilities I can dream up of for a servo in a box that can take commands over MIDI.

(Although I figured out and implemented Running Status in the software, I didn't get around to setting a CC mode, either...that would allow the servo to echo in real time the position of a controller knob, breath controller, or even a fader on a Yamaha mixer -- since that, too, can be set to spit out MIDI CC numbers.)

Monday, January 10, 2011


No, not a post about the success in finally bringing charges against the foul people who sold a box full of random parts and a super-glued car antenna to Afghans out risking their lives searching for roadside bombs. (Now if only it could be a criminal suit, for lives lost to pseudo science and snake oil, not just a civil one...)

This post is on projector dousing.

I was working on that big project for a friend (more about it later, and an Instructables eventually as well), but during my one required trip out of the house I got a phone call. So I'm loading in a show next weekend.

The show is renting an older video projector, and the lighting designer is concerned about the "digital black." See, a projector is a translucent LCD in front of a really bright light. So when you send a "black" picture, it is like printing white on paper; you still get the paper color (or in this case, light from the projector). So in the middle of your dark scene or blackout there's this big grey glowing square.

The newer machines have a douser; a metal slide inside the projector that closes over the lens. Older machines? Often someone will prop up a piece of black material in front of it (if they can reach the projector) or move the black material with a long string and some pulleys if the projector is hanging from the rafters (as is more usual.)

There are also commercial retro-fits. These devices sit on top of the projector and shift a flag in front of the lens on command -- usually DMX-512 (a standard protocol for theatrical light controls). They cost upwards of six hundred bucks and rent for no less than $70 a week.

I have servos. I have Arduinos. I knew I could make one up myself and probably spend less than that. And it would be custom-tailored to the way I do things, too. And it would be good experience in making micro-computer controlled servos, mechanical linkages...the latter of which, particularly, is going to be useful for my friend's giant project.

I made a proof-of-concept from coat hanger wire and the TG-9 micro-servo I picked up on a whim with my last order from Adafruit. Used the servo library packaged with the Arduino IDE, and drew power right from the Arduino board itself. It worked, but it felt a little fragile to be doing a five-week run of performances with.

Enter design constraints. A project like this calls for proper servo linkages, or at least a Grainger order (the big parts and tools company), but both of those are mail-order. The turn-around here is too short; it has to be working by the weekend, and preferably, several days before that (so I can tell the client I have one and they don't have to consider renting a unit). It also should not cost more than a professional model -- which means even the parts I can find suppliers for, I need to be budget-conscious about.

In the best of all possible worlds it would be solid, robust, and stable; it would be adjustable; it would partially disassemble for easier transport; and the parts could be removed or re-purposed for different projects down the road. Obviously not all these design goals will be met!

The current design is a project box that will be secured on top of the projector with a cargo strap. The mechanism extends out the front of the box to get in front of the projector's lens. A flag of black cinefoil (heavy-duty aluminum foil used in motion picture and theater industries for controlling stray light) is rotated on a pivot like a cat door.

Inside the box, noise-insulated with rubber stand-offs, is my new Savox servo...a 10.5 kg/cm monster I purchased at a local hobby store for this project. It draws up to 1.2 amps and is powered by either a battery pack or a "wall wart" power supply.

The Arduino controller is on it's own regulated power (so it doesn't brown out and reset when the servo operates) and may incorporate a servo sleep mode that will switch off the servo power via a relay. On the back of the box, besides power switch, test button and "on" light, will be jacks for a simple switch input and for MIDI input.

Since I'm developing general technologies here for other down-the-road uses, I'm going to implement a fairly complex MIDI scheme. The usual arguments for MIDI as a command protocol hold here, with the addition that this current show will be playing their videos from Qlab. This means that I can set up Qlab to spit a "Open the Douser" command a split second before it begins playing the video -- and this means the process is completely automated and operator-transparent.

(Since one person will be playing sound effects, videos, and light cues, making the douser operate automatically behind the scenes is a very good thing.)

What I think the protocol is going to be is; a NoteOn event will tell the servo to slew to a position corresponding to the Note Number (middle C being 0 degrees slew, etc.) The velocity will control the slew rate via a step-and-delay function, with velocities over 120 bypassing the step function completely. Separately, a CC message set (continuous controller) will allow real-time control of the servo.

For the current application, I may just set a simple NoteOn NoteOff pair at C60 for "go to douse" "clear douse." The rest is, as they say, software; you can always patch the firmware later to add more functions.

Which means that without much modification the box I'm building should be able to make a jar fall from a shelf or a marble bust nod in time to the music or whatever other theatrical uses occur to me as they come up.

A little explanation of technologies:

A SERVO is the black-box version of a gear motor and position encoder. All of the electronics is inside the servo housing. What you get out is three wires; power, and a data line. The servo is controlled by a PWM signal; Pulse Width Modulation. The relative lengths of the "on" and "off" portions of a single frequency are translated by the servo's internal electronics as a command to go to a specific position and hold there. The servo then monitors its own internal position as the gear motor turns the shaft.

The standard packaging is in convenient battery voltages like 6v and 12v, flanges to bolt the servo in place, a three-pin connector, and a knurled shaft that fits one of a variety of "horns" (cam-like shapes with arms that stick out and have holes drilled in them for attaching things or actuating rods to).

They range in price from four bucks to over a hundred. Typically, though, you can get one that will suit your needs for thirty or forty bucks (for animatronics-scale projects) or fifteen to twenty-five (for smaller robots and similar stuff.)

You can of course pull motors and linkages from old printers and whatever (scanners are really nice for this) but the convenience of the standardized voltages, protocols, and connectors... Find them mail-order, or at hobby stores with a good R/C selection.

ARDUINO: I've blogged on the Arduino before. From the artist's perspective, purchase an already-soldered board for forty bucks or so, connect a USB cable to your computer and install the free programming environment. Write code in basically simplified Java, upload with a push of a button. The Arduino has a power regulator that can handle a variety of batteries and external power supplies as well as running off of a USB connection. Along the edges are terminal blocks -- you can stick bare wires into them for breadboarding ideas, or make connectors for a more secure and nicer-looking connection, or use an add-on board that sticks on top (what the Arduino folk call a "shield.")

It's all 5v stuff. Monitoring a button or switch is as easy as connecting one end of the button to power and the other to one of the 20-odd pins that are available for digital input. Lighting an LED is as easy as wiring LED (and ballast resistor) to one of those same pins. You can literally stick bare wires into the terminal blocks for something like, say, turning an analog joystick input into a servo position (which is what I did for my first tests.)

The Arduino is the template board design and the packaging of open-source free programmers like gcc to make a user-transparent, plug-and-play, micro-processing environment. The standards of header design and program environment means stuff like C library functions for compiling MIDI messages or add-on boards for full-color touch-screens or relay boards are also pretty much plug-and-play.

At the base of this miracle, however, is the AVR chip itself; a one-chip micro-computer with internal clock, internal ADC and DAC (or, rather, PWM) converters, even internal ballasting resistors for inputs. The AVR can be programmed with a programmer (Adafruit makes one in kit form for a mere twenty bucks or so) and freeware compilers like AVR dude. Meaning you write in C, compile, convert to hex and upload to the chip. Which is a long-winded way of saying if you want the power of the chip you aren't constrained to the cost and form-factor and design decisions of the Arduino board; you can use a clone board, a related board, or a "naked" AVR chip instead.

MIDI: In 1981 a consortium of musical-instrument makers, Yamaha and Roland prime among them, got together to invent a language to allow the growing number of synthesizers and keyboards to talk to each other. The glory of the MIDI protocol is the open way it specifies things. It doesn't attempt to manage at any high level, instead it says "play the note you would play if a keyboard player were to hit the fifth black key up from Middle C."

This means that the format can easily be extended; NoteOn event Note#60 Channel#0 Velocity#100 can be as easily interpreted as "Third synthesizer from the left, make that car horn sound again" -- or, as later rationalized in the forms of the spin-off languages MMC and MSC, "Fog Machine, please fog at High Power for thirty seconds."

The MIDI physical layer is a five-volt opto-isolated data line in a five-pin DIN connector. The transmission is binary pulses (at an unusual BAUD rate of 31250 -- although most MIDI-compatible hardware is somewhat flexible) and the individual messages are simple enough most MIDI hackers can read chunks of it when expressed in Hex pairs.


Back when I was young I had, like many children of that decade did, a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars on my bedroom ceiling. Now what glows for me at night is blinkenlights.

When I was young, LEDs were only in certain electronics; in the displays of older pocket calculators, for instance. The high-intensity LED, and the ubiquity of LED lights that followed, was still in the future.

We humans have a magpie fascination for colored lights. Christmas Tree bulbs or holiday lighting, the similar sparkly colors of fireworks, or the lighting effects filling a nightclub seem to have an endless fascination for us. Even now -- with lights and displays, plasma and EL and cold cathode and backlit LCD, super-saturated colors and tiny jewel-like points of light and softly glowing colors that shift hypnotically across the spectrum -- we seem in no danger of reaching saturation ourselves.

Blinkenlights can have function, too. The lights on a modem or the glowing power light on so many appliances is useful information to the end-user. Inside, more lights may glow to inform the technician. The majority of the devices I've created myself have included a power light. An LED and a ballast resistor is cheap, and doesn't take up much space. And when you are trying to find out why the thing doesn't work, knowing it is getting power is a good first check. Since the LED is downstream of the power regulation circuitry, it tests that as well.

I also used to hang an LED on the clock output. Again, a cheap check that the circuit is running (and it also tells you more-or-less how fast it is running.) The Arduinos hang LEDs on the serial ports; even though we mere humans can't read those flickerings, we are very, very good at pattern recognition and can tell the difference between a normal program load and a hang. My RF MIDI remote I wired an LED on each receive channel. In addition, they chase in a specific pattern during the boot-up cycle, letting me know the program loaded normally and at least part of the circuit is running correctly.

Not all blinkenlights are actually useful monitors, however. Some are just there to look cool. Lay the first blame on one of the earliest computers. I can't remember the details of the story at the moment, but the technicians getting ready to display a UNIVAC or some other relay-driven monster realized that; A) it didn't look all that exciting while working, and; B) it was easy to solder light bulbs on to each of the accumulators. A pleasing flickering of "I'm computing now!" lights would happen whenever the computer was actually doing arithmetic.

Later machines had the advantage of big reels of magnetic tape memory that could spin and stop. Both rapidly were picked up by Hollywood, and lasted for many years after the "real" machines no longer used them. The BeBox, a computer much beloved by computer geeks of the 70's, continued this scheme by putting a bezel on the front with LEDs attached to the two accumulators of the CPU.

Conversion kits were available to put a BeBox type front panel on other early personal computers like the Apple II. The enemy of this tradition was increasing CPU speeds -- eventually the registers worked so quickly the blinking would have been too fast to see.

Not that this stopped some companies. The infamous case is the Thinking Machines CM-5, which had such a mysterious and official looking set of blinking lights on their front panel Steven Spielberg changed what Michael Crichton had specified and put a CM-5 in Jurassic Park. Well, he sort of did. Turns out that fine front panel was a dummy. The only connection it had with the computer itself was the power supply. All the blinking was from a chip on the back of the display panel itself. And that's all Steven needed to re-create the look of the "Supercomputer" for his movie. The rest of it was wood spray-painted black.

When I was younger, we wired up part of the "clubhouse" (the cottage in back that we sometimes rented out) with colored lights on extension cords. You could sit in one place and switch them on and off from there. It looked cool. I still do that, only the lights are thousand-watt fixtures that cost several hundred dollars each, and the "switch" is a computerized lighting board...AND I get paid to do it. As a kid, also, fascinated with Star Trek (the one and original series) I wired up more than a few "control panels" with illuminated switches and buttons that controlled nothing but their own light. The sophistication of video displays or other more complex interaction was at the time beyond me.

I've grown up. Moved out of the house, have my own apartment now. But as I lie in bed trying to sleep, I look around and see I haven't left that cluttered room full of electronics parts yet. All around me are blinkenlights. Power strips and surge protectors glow from every outlet. Battery chargers glow as well. Lights are on the sleeping monitor, printer, modem, scanner. Several computers sleep as well (except on those nights where I have one running, monitor switched off, doing an all-night render). My aging G4, particularly, has a sleep-mode light with the seeming aspiration of powering Tony Stark's next set of armor. As it pulses, it lights up the whole room. The nightlight in the bathroom, too, is bright enough to make it look like I left the lights on there. I swapped out the LED for a blue one instead -- so now it looks like a young Drew Barrymore should be whispering "They're here!"

On my desktop are, not always but often enough, test circuits and micro-computers and other things that also light up my twilight hours with glowing and blinking LEDs. I look around the darkened apartment, and as I fall asleep the thought occurs more and this where I hoped to be, as that child? Perhaps the essential difference is that for the child, these lights were mine; they were an artistic creation, an attempt to mimic something intangible about the experience of being in your own star ship somewhere deep in space. As an adult, they are merely the ubiquitous aspect of the cheap consumer technology that increasingly surrounds me. As a child, they suggested frontiers. As an adult, they seem to remind me only of the cheapness of my life.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Basics of Mic'ing a Cast IV

Now that you've physically attached the microphones to the actors, and gotten a clean RF signal back to the receivers, it is time to mix and process the sound and get it out to the audience.

We're going to assume for the sake of this essay that you have a sound system to use, and it sounds decent. That will not always be the case! Often a major stop on the road to getting the wireless mics to sound good is optimizing the sound system. Even in places where the sound system works well for playback of music or effects, it may not be optimized for wireless mics.

In the big houses, the wireless mics are on an independent system; they have their own amps and their own speakers. This physical placement of the sound source helps the listener to sort out voices from orchestration and sound effects; without raising the volume, the voices become easier to hear (exactly the same principle that is at work when you "focus in" on the speech of the person in front of you during a party or in some other crowded place).

In the really nice houses, vocal reinforcement actually comes from multiple sets of speakers; actors are cross-assigned so when two people are on stage, each is actually on a different set of speakers. Most of us will not have access to a system like this!

Other details; humans perceive height of sound sources less acutely then horizontal position. Thus it is better to have speakers high and centered rather than low and out at the proscenium. Feedback (or as the British so descriptively call it, "Howl-round") is often an issue with the kinds of levels necessary to get over modern music. Thus, speakers that are forward of the acting areas are a bonus.

A critical issue in the playback system and environment is intelligibility. Sheer volume will not make up for time smear, an overly "live" space, or flawed playback that emphasizes out-of-band frequencies at the expense of those frequencies that carry vocal consonant information. As little as a twenty millisecond mismatch between two sources reaching the same audience member can compromise their ability to pick out and understand the words.

Because, really, the Broadway musical is not a bel canto opera. It is utterly dependent on clear understanding of the lyrics. The loveliest vowel production must take second place to being able to understand the words. When the audience complains "they can't hear," it is never because they couldn't hear sound coming from the singer; it is because they couldn't understand the words.

Intelligibility, unfortunately, is too big a subject to go into in this essay. Just let it be said that there are formula, and there are ways to understand and enhance vocal intelligibility within a specific playback situation. In general placement, emphasis of the important frequencies, and control of reflections/reverb are the tools to achieve this.

Back to the mics. You have to mix them. You really have to have a human operator, sitting where they can hear what the audience hears (what we call the "Front-of-House" position; the best version is a sound board actually set up among the seats of the audience.)

The majority of musicals are incompatible with having all the microphones on all the time. Actors leave the stage. They change costumes. They also kiss, crawl into wardrobes, get buckets put on their heads, and otherwise do things that can sound distracting on a microphone. At the very least, you need to have a way to turn microphones on and off.

The traditional solution is to have a sound operator for the show, seated in front of a mixing board. They can work off a script, but more normally will learn the show by watching it until they have memorized all the entrances and exits, as well as any other moments that might require turning off a microphone.

Actors aren't always consistent, from moment to moment, song to dialog, or night to night. They get colds. They have problems with their mics. They follow screaming dialog with a murmured solo. Although just turning the mics on and off may be sufficient, actively adjusting levels is better.

Again, it is possible to automate this, or put it in the form of called cues, but there is no replacement for a live pair of ears. A good mic mixer really jumps a show up to a new level; that mic mixer can adjust vocal blends, adjust for softer dialog, push the singer up above a full orchestral tutti and ride the levels to nuance the natural dynamics of the song and of the show.

So assume you've got a mixing board, it is set up where you can hear the show, and you've found the cable to get all the receivers connected to it. Here's a few simple defaults I've found work most of the time:

Roll off the bottom. Even though the fundamental of a male voice may be down as low as 125 Hz, the definition of vowel sounds is closer to 1,000 Hz. Everything, really, below 400 Hz will thicken and muddy the vocal sound. And everything below 100 Hz is junk, as far as vocal reinforcement goes. Very few voices, in very few situations, benefit from what is down there.

My simple default is a shelving filter set somewhere between 100 and 200 Hz. For some reason digital boards have a very gentle slope on their shelving EQ; the stop-gap is to add another filter right at the cut-off to "fill in" the slope and make it more like a brick wall.

A trick borrowed from the movies is to gently boost 2 to 4 dB centered on 6 KHz. This is the range where consonants are defined, and adds brightness and sweetness to the vocal sound.

The sibilants live higher, starting at 8 KHz and running up through 12 KHz. Although you can try rolling off the high end (and you may need to, to control feedback; it is usually these higher frequencies that will get you in trouble), a better solution to sibilance is to use a faster attack on your compression.

Compression on every single mic channel is the last of my basic defaults. I default to 2:1 with an attack of around 40 ms, with a soft knee, with the threshold set above the average speaking level.

For many shows you can slide between vocal and dialog levels (many actors, unfortunately, sing at a softer level than they speak their dialog). The old Broadway standards are well-organized for this; five minutes of dialog, a musical introduction over dialog that allows you to gently bring up the microphone level, and then a song for five minutes. During the applause peak you sneak the mic back down.

For more modern shows things move too quickly, slipping in and out of song, dialog, underscore and fanfare. For those you may need to keep the compressor up high and live with the lack off fully optimal levels for some moments.

My last default is delay; I set a delay of about 10 ms between the moment the primary impulse of sound from the actor's mouth hits the ears of the audience, and the first impulse from the speaker carrying the wireless mic sends. As a rule of thumb, sound travels a foot per millisecond, meaning a ten foot difference in path length between ear-to-speaker and ear-to-mouth is already around 10 ms. So you add the two, and then give the result a good listen. In the geometry of a real space different seats will be a different sum of distances, so whatever delay you set will be a compromise anyhow.

The reason to introduce this delay? First, it helps control feedback. Second, though, and more importantly, by introducing a delay you leverage the Precedence Effect, also known as the Haas Effect. What is this? Most of our lives are spent in reflective environments, where over half of the sound energy reaching your ears is indirect. Thus, our brains have evolved to focus perceptually on the direction the first impulse came from. After all. you want to look towards the bear, not the reflection of his snarl off a cave wall! This perceptual effect is so hard-wired is that a delayed source will actually "vanish" -- even if it is several dB louder than the original.

Used correctly, then, this trick helps to fool the ears of the audience into thinking the sound is coming from the actors instead of from the speakers hung over their heads. It's effectiveness, and the exact parameters, depend on the acoustics of the actual performance and space.

The modern digital board simplifies many of these steps and gives you more options as well. On a traditional mixing deck, your on-board equalization is limited to high shelving, low shelving, and a movable mid-range with a fixed Q value (aka width). You can tailor the overall mic sound with a graphic equalizer -- this can help you to notch out feedback and room nodes, but it also colors the sound.

The digital board has parametric EQ; each available filter can be set to frequency, depth, and width or Q Factor. There is also often EQ on the outputs or group busses as well, allowing you to make global tailoring of the sound.

The digital boards also generally have compressors available on every channel. On an older board you need to hook up rack-mount compressors via insert cables -- it makes the mixing position rather more complicated-looking and crowded. In addition (DSP is cheap!) they will usually have several different reverbs that can be flexibly assigned. As well as, of course, delay that can be set on any output bus.

Both still allow you other tailoring tricks. Flanging or ring modulator for a scary artificial effect (think Dalek voice -- but I've used a similar effect for Man of La Mancha"s THE KNIGHT OF THE MIRRORS.) Octave doubling for an even more monstrous effect (I did this for THE LARGE AND TERRIBLE FROG from Frog and Toad.) Guitar amp distortion -- I love this trick for a live telephone effect on stage, or (in smaller doses) for a period microphone. Reverb, of course, but also slap-back delay and reverse reverb algorithms (the only thing digital boards don't do as well is give you access to a tap-tempo button).

I have found a small amount of reverb helps to "seat" a voice more in the space, making it sound more natural, and also gives the voice a little more body that can help it cut through orchestration.

And those are the basics. The rest is tailoring for the voices and for the show. For some reason that only makes sense to me I tend to boost heroic male characters in the manly 400-600 range, and give romantic leading ladies a little extra sweetness at 1-3 KHz. I play with the compression for "wild" voices, or to zero in on the balance between bite and sibilance. Many voices, many characters, will have characteristic timbres a little careful EQ can bring out. On the other hand, there are those problem voices; like actors with poor enunciation, but also, those peculiar fuzzy buzzing voices that just don't seem to have a nice sound you can bring out.

During the dial-in process you will be tweaking all of these settings. You will also be shifting microphones around, or trading elements. Sometimes something as simple as a shift of a centimeter on an actor's cheek will help to really zone in on a voice. Just like with mic'ing orchestral instruments, it starts with having the right mic in the right place. All the tweaking of EQ can't save a bad mic position.

But as I said, every performance is different. During the run of the show, things will change. Elements die; I have become familiar with a variety of specific sounds made by several brands of dying microphone. Countryman mics get a cloudy, fuzzy sound as the filters clog. A broken wire leads to sharp crackly sounds with sounds like electric sparking. The Shure WL93's die in a wonderfully musical way; they begin to emit soft chimes as the voice slowly fades away completely under them.

This is why during the run you really want two people. One is the ears of the show; she is on the board, listening, tweaking levels and settings from night to night, moment to moment. Hers is also the responsibility to creatively problem-solve; making the tough choices to deal with a bad mic on an important solo, or helping an actor through a sudden frog. There are times you lose a mic and end up trying to "chase" a solo through the mics of the actors standing close to him. There are times you have a loose wire and you can't afford to lose the you dial up the compression to make a limiter, EQ out the hum, and sweat it out until the end of the song.

The other person is the hands of the show. A good mic wrangler is worth the bucks; they are not only standing by on headset, but they are using their own ears and their own smarts; standing by through every quick-change with extra tape and spare batteries in their hands just in case. A good wrangler will catch dead mics and swap them out for you without you even having to pick up a headset.

And between the two of you, you might just get through a performance without having any problems the audience can hear.