Monday, June 20, 2011

The "Cert"

In Evan S. Connel's book "The White Lantern" he mentions an old medieval ship-building document called a "Cert." According to Connel, this was a chunk of wood with the basic dimensions of the ship on it, which also functioned as a contract to build.

I have not been able to find verification of this, but it is such a handy concept I've used it since. To wit; the idea of boiling down a complex project to a set of numbers that, if executed according to the ordinary standards and practices of the craft, are sufficient expression of the artistic intent.

As an antithesis, let me quote from Howard Bay (Stage Design, Drama Book Publishers 1974):

Lighting folk accumulate too many pieces of paper. Frustrated engineers unable to find an excuse for flashing a slide rule, they make up for it with complicated documents. This pseudo-organization leads to chaos at dress rehearsal time. With a full complement of actors, singers, dancers, musicians and stagehands in suspended animation, the light designer amidst his squawk box, headphones, and little beaver assistants with containers of coffee, is scrambling between blueprints, board diagrams, focusing charts, clipboard and cue sheets struggling to find one light and match it up with the one switch that turns it on and off.

Paperwork is good. Paperwork is indeed a great thing. But the worst error of confusing map with territory is thinking that lots of paperwork is a substitute for lots of actual work. And the second error is trying to make the map too detailed, too filled with what should be clear in context.

If it is sanely possible, there should be a few, even one, key piece of paper that is small enough to fold into a pocket and take on stage, and simple enough so a single glance is enough to tell you which microphone is which (or which light, or whatever). In the middle of a song is not a good time to be squinting at fine print on an elaborate diagram!

The other thing we are trying to do here is leverage skills (of your A2, of yourself), and contextual knowledge, and to thus escape duplicative effort. What you want is not a sheet that tells a completely inexperienced hand how to screw a mic clip onto a stand, but a sheet that will either remind you of what you planned (or what you already did but already forgot), or tell an experienced hand the basics of what you want done.

Much depends in the latter on the actual experience and rapport your A2 shares with you. Some wireless microphone wranglers, I can just say "ear, hair, hair, ear" and they'll put the mics where I want them. Others, I have to instruct them more; they may have learned bad habits of taping mics too low, for instance, so I need to train them to my preferences before I can say "My usual ear position" to them.

And some depends on the flow of the gig itself. Plenty of times I've been at one end or the other of the signal chain and the only thing we've shared is "I put a mic on the kick and there's one overhead on the hihat side." We basically hope that the other person will have either done about what we would have done, OR will have done something that their experience tells them works. And when we hit sound check, a bit of EQ will probably be enough to make it work for this show.

Because at least when it gets to paperwork, sure you can try to spell things out, but describing exactly how a kick mic is aimed is something you really have to see. So the most detailed I will normally get is "Oktava on the fiddle, looking down at the face 6-8" just above the bridge."

And when I put it on the "cert," on the diagram I will refer to during the performance and also the next time I set up that act, this is what I will put:

Okay: The above is a fake; I drew that one for this blog entry. But that is the basic principle. The numbers are usually channel numbers, and when possible my channel numbers match snake numbers as well (if not, I might notate it on the rough plot as well).

I've identified the microphones that matter most; anything else is probably pulled as needed. But let's look at the IMPLIED data. First off, the mic'd cab means we probably need a short mic stand. The overheads, on the other hand, are going to require tripod boom stands for stability and placement. The DI will require a pair of quarter-inch cables to connect to the keyboard.

And, really, a good audio person would probably guess that we wanted the only dedicated kick mic in the house, so would put the D6 there unless I specified something different. Same logic for the cab mic.

This doesn't show the exact placement, of course, or settings on the DI (ground lifted? Pad in or out?) or whether roll-off or pad is engaged on the mics. But this is the glory of standards, again. A good A2 can guess, and I will probably remember, and even if we get it wrong the default is good enough and probably won't kill the show.

But now for something completely different:

This is what I call a "Rose" diagram, after the compass rose found on a map. This is a diagram that encapsulates the heart of a lighting design. Although there are many nuances of specials, of area plot, of cuts and edge and so forth, this is where to me the heart of the concept lies; in the interaction of colors and angles.

I grew up on the Rosco book so most of these are Rosco colors. Why X as a prefix? Because when I started, the last sheets of Roscolene were leaving inventory, and Roscolux was taking over! Fortunately, this happened long before the Lee and Gam books (and the even less-used Cinecolor book) needed to have unique prefixes.

While I am working out the lighting scheme I'll often have several different roses, one for each basic "look." This is a combined rose. The lavenders from the left are always balancing the key, but daytime scenes are in the Rosco 08 and darker scenes are in the Rosco 61. Same for the twin back lights; the Lee 119 for night, the Rosco 14 for day. The x66 comes slanting across as moonlight in one scene, and the x35 in an extremely low angle for dawn in another.

The angles of the diagram are the angles relative to the acting areas. The length of the lines has a rough correspondence with the height angle (the angle to the floor). Notations are given on a couple of them for potentially unusual instrument choices.

With nothing but this rose, I could re-create 80% of a lighting design I'd completely forgotten about. And a different designer, given this to work from, could still get within 60-70% of my original intent. Because matters such as how much coverage per instrument -- hence how many areas in the area plot -- are as much photometrics as they are design. Hang positions are dictated by available pipes and position of scenery.

Not to say there isn't a great deal of artistic choice in all of these matters, but the fact remains that the essentials are in this diagram. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy at the moment of an even more useful scribble; the Magic Sheet. This is the sheet that, in conjunction with the rose as a key, links the area hit by each light in a system with the channel controlling it.

(As an aside...I used to have strange conversations at one house when a designer hadn't provided detailed paperwork and they realized during dimmer check that a light wasn't working. The point I could never get across is that if the rest of the lights are working, you know what the system should look like. Since you know that, you should have a good idea where the bad light physically is. Or, easier; since you know the channel that isn't coming up, and the dimmer number is in the physical patch, all you have to do is trace the cable from that dimmer to find the light you wanted.)

((Or, to make things even simpler, do a Broadway check and fix the one light that isn't lit!))

When I'm working out details of a design there are some elements the rose is not as suited for. It still is the best place to refer back to solve problems, but sometimes a different diagram makes it easier to visualize the solution in the first place:

In this simulated diagram, the left side shows how I wanted a rim light effect on the actors, with their shadow sides filled somewhat with diffuse lavender light (the x54) and an overall fill of deep blue (the Lee 119). The greenish-blue x66 also shines through a gobo to cast window patterns on the floor.

In the outdoor scenes, no gobos, but the street lamps are given practical bulbs and have boosters that throw pools of amber at their feet.

And some time, I'll have more to say about lighting design. I'm missing it a bit myself; haven't had a show for about a year.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


I believe in back-ups. I believe in redundancy. I used to say about parachuting, that you carried a reserve 'chute for when your main failed -- not "if."

I had a little recording session recently. My original plan was to do what I usually do; record on to the hard disk of my laptop via a firewire interphase, and carry a minidisc recorder as back-up.

At the last minute the venue changed; they would be on the main stage. So my modified plan was to run through the sound board into the firewire etc., and use the ability of the sound board to record an mp3 onto a flash drive as back-up.

But they looked like they were already starting when I arrived. So I quickly stuck a new battery in the minidisc and double-stick-taped it to a mic stand and turned it on. Then instead of mucking with the sound board I just pulled a power cable and set up laptop and firewire right on stage near the talent.

Unfortunately, my usual laptop had suffered a magic smoke leak earlier in the week. I'd loaded the drivers on to a borrowed replacement, but now that I needed it, it wouldn't recognize the firewire interface.

So back to Plan B. Grab the mic leads, run them over to the stage snake, turn on the house board, slap a USB thumb drive in the slot and assign the channels to record. Clean signal, the chip is recording, all looks good. The talent is ready to start and I give them the thumb's up. Made it with seconds to spare!

Over the next five or ten minutes I pack up the extraneous gear on stage, haul the laptop back to the sound board, and jigger up an adapter to make it echo what the USB drive is doing (but at higher audio quality).

The session ends. I pop the thumb drive......and it is blank!

So #1, the 48 kHz recording to hard drive, is missing the first ten minutes. #2, the mp3 recording, is completely blank.

But #3, the third recording, my little minidisc recorder, is still humming away where I placed it at the start of the session. And the quality is acceptable.

Once again, having not just ONE backup, but TWO backups saved the day.

One of the tricks to this is that each backup should be as independent as possible. In fighter airplanes, they will have two sets of control runs and one will be electrical and one hydraulic. In Army demolitions they'd have one electric firing chain and one chemical (aka time fuse).

The worst mistake you can make is to create a pinch point. I once saw a bit of rigging where the chain that backed up the terminal connections was attached to the same hardpoint as the rest. That's not a backup; that's just more stuff to fall "when" the hardpoint fails.

In my system above, there was no mic splitter. Whether the firewire or the sound board was first in the chain, if that item failed both recorders failed. However, sound boards are robust. It is much more likely to have the microphone fail, or the recorder fail. So hanging a backup microphone or using a backup recorder makes sense -- duplicating the board, not so much. Still, having the secondary backup as a completely independent system (the minidisc had its own mic, its own wire, even its own power supply) is a good thing.

When you are running sound effects off a computer it pays to have a backup. The easiest backup is to have to key cues on CD. The downside here is that you are going to miss a cue or two as you switch over.

Some people run two complete computers, kept in synchronization. So far I haven't seen anyone automate the switch-over, but the theory is that if anything in the chain fails you throw a couple of switches and everything from computer through audio interface is swapped out.

And in any case you have an entire working copy saved in a media that allows it to be loaded on to a replacement computer. Qlab is very nice for this; it will create a complete self-contained show backup with the "Bundle" command.

In the cast of wireless mics, professional shows (well, any show that can afford it) will stick two microphones on the leads. One pack is the primary, the other is switched to if there is any problem. It is however often difficult to find enough working packs and gaps in the RF band to fit that backup in!

Even in your basic band on stage, it helps to have another microphone or two you can quickly move into place. This leads to several of my basic rules of stringing cable to an onstage band:

1) Always designate a spare snake channel.
2) If there is a cable run that is hard to get to, always include at least one spare cable in it.
3) Set up a spare mic prepped and on a stand so the entire thing can be run out to the band by your A2 (assuming you have one!)

Of course there are a couple related basics:

1) Don't tape down until you've checked for signal.
2) Don't dress out all slack; leave slack at the business end. If you tape it down, you WILL end up having to move it.
3) Label. Things get moved and unplugged.

And that's all I have time for this morning.

I've been promising some more technically detailed posts. I have a few pages of stage plots and mic plots and so forth to scan at some point. I don't know what the audience is at this blog yet, though. I see some fairly technical questions ending up here via Google searches, but I have no idea if this is a place where they might get the help they are looking for.

I need a bit of feedback (the good kind, not the audio kind!) I'd like to know where I should be taking this in the future.

Friday, June 17, 2011

I Hate Wireless Mics

When I started theater, it was as a carpenter, working towards set design. When I got sidelined into electrics it was largely lighting, and when sound become the major part, it was sound design and music composition.

But the last several years the growing field for me has been reinforcement of musicals. A little FOH mixing, a little sound effects, but most of the hours have been dealing with wireless mics.

I bring three skills to the table that are causing people to call me back. One is skill with sound. A more important one is skill in maintaining, fixing, and often doing spectacular last-minute improvisations to keep those sensitive fragile expensive things running. The last is being calm as inevitably some of them fail anyhow in messy and noisy ways.

A truism said a long time ago; the best wireless microphone made is almost as good as a microphone on a wire.

On the microphone side, these are extremely tiny electret condensers; ultra-fragile and essentially impossible to repair (even rewiring the connector takes nearly an hour of work under a bright light and a magnifying glass). And to help them hide on an actor, the wires are also thin and fragile. But we take these fragile, expensive little bits of precision audio and we stick them with tape to a sweaty actor who proceeds to jump around on stage, then tear the entire thing off in a hurry for a quick change (and oft as not leaves it in a wadded heap on a dressing room table).

On the transmitter side, another piece of precision electronics strapped to a sweaty actor, getting sat on and hit, getting the cord bent and yanked on...and it is a micro-power transmitter, putting out barely more power than an RFID tag. Which means the poor RF signal has to fight its way through the bags of salt water surrounding it (aka actors), the humming ballasts of lighting and dimmers, the electronic hash of the typical slapdash theater wiring, skeins of data cables and monitors and who knows what else hashing up the air with RF noise.

But the worse part is, that theaters have never been rich places, and with the current economy every possible (false) savings is being applied. Meaning equipment that should have been re-conditioned or retired long ago is asked to somehow make it through another show, and another, and another.

I've got packs that have drifted so far off frequency (with aging crystals) that they now show up on different channels. I've got elements so corroded inside they sound like a cell phone stuffed inside a pillow.

And it is the talent to somehow keep these things running and to do horrible, horrible things to the signal chain to hide the poor quality and try to control the errant noises, that is getting me work these days.

This is not helped by the fact that the theaters are often too cheap to hire an operator. So whereas the Set Designer and the Lighting Designer can go out to dinner on Opening Night then take the weekend off (and not come back until Strike), I am working each and every show.

Which usually means sitting at the board trying to keep from developing an ulcer as I wait for the next failure. And staying alert and hyper-aware and ready to leap into action to do whatever it is I can brainstorm at that moment to get the sound back up and continue the show. There are no good nights. There are only nights with the fewest (and least obvious) number of failures.

Needless to say, I don't fall asleep easily after those shows. I am usually so wired I can't relax until near dawn.

Sound has always been the end of the business where the most visible error to the audience is achieved with the least possible effort. In lighting, often as not you can accidentally turn on or off a light and most of the audience will never even know it. In sound, you can hit that same one button by accident and the entire audience will know instantly. And hate you for it, as the female soloists' microphone goes dead right in the most intense part of her song, or a screech of feedback erupts from the pit, or a quiet moment on stage is rudely interrupted by a cab company dispatching a car.

Vast, too, is the distance between what you could do with that singer and that band with good gear, in a controlled studio environment, and what you have to make do with because of the practicalities of getting through an entire show. It means there is a terrible urge to tweak and nuance, to adjust EQ minutely and try to find the magic compressor settings and get the exact amount of decay on the reverb to make that moment of that song sound as good as possible -- knowing full well that in the context of the screeching, failing microphone of the next song, no-one will ever notice or care.

It's like detailing the body of a car with bad brakes and an engine that only fires on two cylinders.

It is thankless work, of course. Everyone notices the failures. The best mention you can get in a review is not to be mentioned at all. Each mistake and each failure makes you look bad (and hurts the show), but the lack of obvious error is rarely remarked upon. When all goes right, the show is merely transparent. The band plays, the actors sing. Only when the signal chain drops (or worse, spits out bad noises) does the illusion that you are "just listening to the music" fall away.

At the very, very best, the directors and the other people you are on the production with will understand why a mic dropped and commiserate. Which is only a small help when you are going to be beating yourself up over that dropped mic until you finally fall asleep at 4:00 AM.

The less clue-full abound, however. But it all descends down to that error of microphones as MSG (just add mics and everything sounds great). And to an inability to understand how human perception adjusts to dynamics. No, I know it doesn't seem loud to you at the moment, but that is because you are used to it AND THAT DRUM IS FREAKING LOUD!

You get these conversations where a music director or artistic director will listen to the cranking band, and turn to you and say "The band isn't THAT loud. Why can't you turn the microphones higher? Is it that the speakers aren't big enough?"

No, the speakers are big enough. The issue is almost never that you can't get the sheer volume. The issue is that you can't achieve that volume without screaming feedback. And the subtler issue following that is that even if you could get the volume without the feedback you wouldn't get intelligibility. Oh, yes, and even if you could do all these things, the band would just compensate by playing louder.

The worst of all possible worlds is when you've got a kid cast, or untrained adults, and everyone looks to the magic of wireless microphones as if technology can somehow transform mumbling little Johnny into a source of clear song that can power over a nineteen-piece live orchestra.

With these sensitive, touchy, and often sheerly ugly sounding bits of technology, you would be best to have them running at very low levels, doing nothing but subtle enhancement. But, no. You are forced to bring them up to ear-splitting levels, and insane amounts of amplification of every bit of noise that comes down that long and fragile signal chain.

When Little Johnny is looking at 173 dB of amplification of the electrical signal, and 90 dB of the actual audio pressure, the tiny movement of microphone against cheek becomes as loud as a snare drum. Tiny electrical charges formed by the movement of his wool sweatshirt are amplified into crackling like a police radio. And when a cable tears and the phantom power for that little electret element is grounded at a full 5 V*O*L*T*S potential, it cracks like a cannon at the climax of the 1812 Overture, sending every meter into the redline and physically tearing the cones out of your speakers if your limiters didn't react fast enough.

And when Little Sally's mic conks out in the middle of the quarter, her unamplified voice vanishes like the Minnow sailing into the Bermuda Triangle. And when Little Sammy stops saying his dialog in a breathy little whisper and gives a full-voiced shout during the chase scene, every microphone within twenty feet peaks. put on extra-strong compression and peak limiting, you notch for every last possible speck of gain, you EQ everything but the most essential frequencies out, and you watch the mics like a hawk, but even if and when everything goes well and you don't have songs peppered by the additional percussion of actors fumbling at their mics because the tape itches, and amplified gossip from the actress who was SUPPOSED to be on stage but got involved in an interesting conversation in the dressing room instead, you end up with sucky sonic quality and a performance that sounds like it was done by mechanized dolls inside a tin hut recorded over a cell phone.

So I've got coming up, a show with a reasonable set of mid-range packs in decent repair that are not, unfortunately, paired with any elements that still work properly (and has millions of quick changes and everyone in the cast has masks and hats and other appliances), and another show in which some of the packs are as old as I am, NONE of them can be trusted to work for the length of a single performance, we don't have enough to cover the cast, and the company is so short they even stiff me on fresh batteries.

So, no, I'm not in my happy space right now. Hence the rant.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My World

I had a new cell-phone in my pocket during the last gig, so I took the chance to take a couple of pictures.

This would be my "front of house" position (rather, at the back of the house -- can barely hear from here, but I least I can sorta hear.) To the left is my old Powerbook, running Qlab -- for this show a simple adapter cable from the headphone jack was sufficient (for other shows I have it plugged into an 8-output Firewire box). In the middle the LS9: you can just barely make up my Korg Nanokey double-stick taped to the sound board. On this show I had three "hot buttons" for spot effects in addition to the usual play, stop, "rewind" controls. On the right is my marked-up script, and the banks of Sennheiser receivers.

Rinsing out the Countryman microphone elements in denatured alcohol. Normally I'd do them one at a time! You can also see one of the many cards full of hair clips I bought (and that the cast kept walking off with).

THIS one was taken a while ago, from my beloved Oly -- an Olympus Camedia C-3020. Sure, you can get more megapixels, and fancier this and that, but it is almost impossible to get this kind of low-light performance for that price point these days. Image stabilization, auto-follow, smile detectors, and other things that don't work so well, but good behavior in dim artificial lights? Forget it.

LIGHTING is where I spent much of the preceding ten years. This was typical of small shows in conference rooms, where we set up our own booms and ran extension cords everywhere in an effort to secure enough power. You also might have noticed I've picked pictures where it is difficult to tell what the actual building or show it was.

BUT THIS is the real world of theater to me. The back side of flats, the ungainly legs of platforms, creaky-looking escape stairs. Mysterious labels and a paint-splotch legacy of tens if not hundreds of previous shows. There -- wasn't that yellow used for the farmhouse in "Oaklahoma!" Or maybe it was the embassy wall in "Don't Drink the Water."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


So I worked four performances and a strike in one day. The next day I crawled out blinking and stupid to attend the first sing-through for the next show I'm contracted on.

A cast and crew of some sixty people. A complex show, complex book. Some really good singers. I find myself just marveling at the ability of these people to sing a score cold, with nothing but the sheet music, their fellow actors, and a piano. And to make it sound that good!

This was also the designer's presentation; costumes was there with their sketches, sets was there with a lovely model. Director has deep thoughts, a giant collection of reference books.

And me? What gives me the idea that I can support these musicians, these singers, the entire design team? That I have the skills and wit to wire up the sound system, sort out the microphones, create the sound effects, and sit there during performance with my fingers on the controls that can in a split second turn the sound from "great" to "suck?"

Every show gives me this humble feeling. Every show, too, starts as a seemingly impossible mountain: what is it shaped like, how is it to be built, what are the parts and tasks?

But like every show, you take out the spoon to move that mountain one pebble at a time. Make the meetings. Make lists and charts. I've been listening to the original Broadway cast recording, I've made the first pass through the script to indicate possible sound effects and vocal processing. I'm scheduling meetings. Through these small steps eventually it all starts to make sense.

But, still, the feeling of riding a tiger never leaves. Each night, as I face that sound board and the overture starts, I worry that I won't be up for it this time; that I'll forget where I am (which I have!) or my fingers will slip (which they have!) or something will break (which they do!) So far, it has yet to totally spoil the show. But even the lesser evil -- the fear that I will give that audience and those talented performers less than the best that is possible and less than they deserve -- yes, that is always there.

No, I don't sleep well on performance nights. Sometimes it is dawn before I can unwind enough to sleep.