Friday, February 10, 2012

Stone Knives and Bearskins

Two highly technical shows opening within a week of each other. The first opens tonight.

800-seat house, nearly sold out for opening weekend at $45 bucks or more a seat (not counting that thrice-damned GoldStar), 14-piece pit orchestra, thirty-four cast members one of whom was the star of the Broadway production. And, oh yeah, the half the cast are singing into elements salvaged from the recycle box, the band is going through an old Mackie mixer and on the bass is a twenty-dollar mic gaff-taped to a chair.

Show business is of course all about wood spray-painted to look like gold, canvass walls standing in for marble halls, and princely robes salvaged from old fur coats. But this is the most absurdly old, damaged, duct-taped together, barely tolerable gear I've ever been forced to apply to a show that is intended to sound this tight, slick, pop, and in-your-face.

The quote I've been using all week is from original-era, the-one-and-only "Star Trek." Spock is trapped in the past, and is trying to build an interface to his tricorder with what he can afford to get at a ham radio supply store in Chicago in the middle of the Great Depression. A local walks in on him as he is in the middle of struggling with his jerry-rig, and he snarls, "I am endeavoring, ma'am, to construct a duotronic memory unit utilizing stone knives and bearskins."

My wireless mics are a grab-bag of different brands, over half of which lack the punch to even make it to the sound booth. I have receiver packs tucked into every corner of the stage, with miles of XLR running every which way trying to get to and make use of every last one of the sadly limited house wiring. One single solitary snake would help immensely, but the over-protective house goes prompt critical if anything like that is even suggested.

My hookup is a nightmare, and another nightmare faces my A2 as he struggles with multiple mic changes. We've changed so many things in patching around problems there is no longer anything resembling an order to who gets what and where it is located and what input channel it uses. And the directorial team keeps asking for additional voices to be added to the overstressed list.

There is no frequency plot and never will be. Hetrodyne interference is just a fact we live with.

I'm spending hours every day with fine-blade x-acto knife, heat-shrink tubing, and a magnifying face shield repairing breaks in the tiny 2mm cables and rewiring the tiny TA4 and locking 3mm mini jacks and trying to turn more of the bucket of tangled old dead elements into something we can use on stage.

The pit is ankle-deep in cords (which is not unusual for a pit, but I prefer to keep my pits much neater). And as scary as the mix of old cranky underpowered microphones on stage is, the fact that the band is sub-mixed on a mixer that no-one is watching is even scarier. The only control we have from front of house is to turn the submix up or down.

(Well, okay, at this point in the evolution of the hookup, I could break it into three sub groups. But I am not even sure I have the channels left on the FOH mixer to handle that, the sound booth is badly designed and you can't hear what you are doing from inside it (!!) and the mixer has enough on his hands already without trying to mix a band as well.)

So I spent preview night mostly standing behind the brass section, setting up a band mix on headphones. Tonight we hope to try it....ONCE!! the house speakers before we open the doors and let the opening night audience in.

No pressure.

But on the whole, I'd rather be knapping flint. Bearskins I can do without, but stone knives actually sounds kinda cool.

I'm revisiting this post years after the fact with a belated after-action report. First off, amplifying the band was a fail. The kind of material we had, a dedicated mixer (the person, not the board) would have been required, and the reasons that wasn't going to happen were as much politics as they were technical.

The cast was so physically stressed in some numbers they couldn't achieve the necessary vocal production. Given an ultimatum to get more gain before feedback ANY WAY we could, we made the gamble to blow multiple times our budget on as many E6 elements as we could get on short order. 

It was all very stressful, very depressing, and despite the show selling incredibly well and making a ton of money both me and my business partner decided that would be our last show with that organization.

I actually ran into the producer years later, when he came out to the theater I'd been working almost exclusively at for the last ten years and proceeded to clean house, firing EVERYONE who had been there before (with the sole exception, I believe, of one lighting designer).

Which led pretty directly to me giving up on live sound entirely and getting a day job.

And, yes...I now own a box of obsidian and some basic tools and I have indeed tried knapping a stone knife. No bearskins involved, however.

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