Friday, October 26, 2012

On a Dilemma of the Horns

I am so very, very tired of having to apologize for late sound, and having to go with compromise cues because there is no more time to tech.  But I haven't figured out yet how not to land in that situation
. the movies, the editing of the sound -- and dialog and music -- has to happen to a locked picture.  Which is to say they have to wait until everyone else is done.  So every other delay in the production ends up hitting the editing department.

But I don't quite understand why this has to happen in theater.  Sure, it is inarguable that you can't time a transition cue until the actual set change has been worked out.  And you can't dial in final levels until you've had a chance to see what adding the band, and bringing up the body mics on the actors, does.  The show I'm teching now is wildly dynamic, meaning the appropriate level for the same sound effect varies by up to 30 db depending on where it falls in a scene.

And, of course, since the frequency response of the human ear is non-linear, a sound that sounds "crisp" at one volume will sound "muddy" at another.  But since the perceptual volume is constantly adjusting, you are not aware of it being a louder sound -- only of the sound now having a different frequency content.

And a lot of effects cues are noise cues -- are sounds approaching the complexity of white noise.  Water is the worst; running water or rain has a multitude of different perceptual components, from thrum to hiss to burble to glop, and as the overall frequency content changes (due to required level changes to meet appropriately with underscore music from the pit and amplified vocals from the body mics), different components will rise to the top of the perceptual mix.

In short, the river cue that sounded perfect in rehearsal will, once you add the band, sound like someone pissing into a bucket.

So, yes...the frequency content changes in tech rehearsal.  The timing changes in tech rehearsal.  Often set changes and costume quick changes and so forth are underthought in rehearsal, meaning they aren't problem-solved until Tech Week.  Meaning rehearsal is a poor guide whether you need a 2-minute cue or will just skip it because it is only a five-second blackout after all.  Volume is of course all over the map.  Placement may be roughed in -- although blocking tends to change once on set -- but how you execute that placement is entirely dependent on the installed speakers.

That still doesn't quite explain why most of the work can't be front-loaded, with only EQ and level tweaks, and editing for time, once you hit tech.

There is another physical element.  Often as not the pit can't be set up before tech.  Often, in fact, the band doesn't show up until late in tech week, and is added to the mix.  Outside of sitzprobe, most of rehearsal will have been to piano, with music rehearsals usually sequestered from acting rehearsals -- so there is no good guide to where underscore falls or how thickly orchestrated it might be (unless you happen to be the Music Director as well as the Sound Designer.)

Often the needs of set and lighting means you can't even set up the pit physically until the band actually needs it.  And inevitably, the first night the band is in the space, they show up twenty minutes before downbeat and spend all that time re-arrangeing themselves for sightlines and so forth.  Meaning that, unless you have a skilled A2 -- or several -- you are not going to be able to set up pit mics on that first night.

And in many spaces, you get only two days with the band in the space before you go in front of an audience.  Meaning one day to try to dial in foldback monitors, band monitors, and reinforcement.

RF equipment is fragile and touchy.  Again, as much and as vigorously as you test the microphones before hand, you won't find many of the problems until they are actually on actors.  Costume issues, hetrodyne, local RF interference....all of these can be predicted to happen but not ameliorated until you are on the actual set in the actual building with the actual actors in costume.

Plus, once the whole band is on, and vocal director/music director is listening to the vocal blend that will actually be sent to the audience: well, that is when they realize they are short tenors in the mix, or that some dialog isn't cutting through, or that the mic trade that looked good on paper clashes with a set movement.  So you find yourself having to change the mic assignments on the fly.  And, inevitably, coming up with more channels on short notice and somehow cramming them into your plot.

What I want is a new approach.  Some insight that will make it possible for me to be no later than the Lighting Designer in getting stuff into tech and ready for the Director's review.  And I say this knowing that one of the issues is that sound effects take much, much longer to write than lighting cues.  Changing a sound effect is more akin to re-hanging a light than it is to tweaking a level.

What I may have to settle for, if I can't come up with some new way of working, is more tricks.

Here's some of the things I've learned already:

1) Have spares in your wireless mics/plot.  You know you are going to lose units.  You know there are going to be last-minute requests.  You have to fight tooth and dewclaw for this, though -- they will always want to know "how many mics can we have" and they will always plot out every last one of them.  You pretty much have to lie or even drag your feet to make your spares uncounted or even physically unavailable.

2) A new trick; since early tech is when you will be messing with getting mics on to bodies for the first time, set up foot mics as a back-up, patched straight to the conductor's monitor.  That way the band will still have something in monitors when the lead's mic fails and you can't stop rehearsal to fix it.

3) Bring sound effects to rehearsals if you can (in the current show, this would not have helped; most of the sounds are transitional and utterly dependent on scene changes, and the director was not available to meet until only a few days before tech).

(Musicals are more frustrating than straight plays in this regard.  In a play, if they are going to rehearse pages 6-12, then you get pages 6-12.  In a musical, the same chunk of what will be actual running time is split up between dance rehearsal, blocking and lines, music rehearsal, and set change rehearsal.  And half the time your cue ends up falling into one of the gaps "between," so it never gets done in the rehearsal hall).

4) Do compound cues in the playback (QLab is great for this).  Compounding means that instead of re-rendering the sound file, you can simply turn down or move in time one of the elements being played back.

I am tempted based on the experiences in this show to rule that effects get played out a minimum number of speakers.  What I mean is; you usually play effects through speakers that give an illusion of location, and through speakers that give a better quality sound to the audience.  It is a lot like the technique in lighting to follow up a practical (an on-stage lantern or sconce or whatever that has actual light bulbs in it) with boosters in the area around it.

The thing is, the placement -- the illusion of location in space -- is dominated by the effects speaker, but the timbre is dominated by the house speakers or whatever you are using as a general source.  Which means you spend a lot of time walking the house, listening to what the effect sounds like from different seats, and adjusting the relative levels of both speakers.  And making an overall level change will mean (because the speakers have different power levels and different acoustics and thus respond differently) that you have to go back and edit that ratio again.

And if either of these speakers are in use elsewhere in the signal chain (both I and the designer I worked with over a whole bunch of shows like using the orchestra foldback as effects speakers), you may hit a change of gain-staging or EQ imposed by other requirements (a request to increase monitors, feedback issues, etc.)  And that will totally change all the cues that include those speakers as part of the mix.

Each additional line that is added increases the interaction geometrically; if it took twenty minutes to dial in a single effects speaker versus the main House bus, it takes forty minutes to dial in that, plus wings.

I keep thinking it should be possible to create more cues earlier.  My experience with the directors at this particular space is that they either don't have or don't communicate their ideas for sounds until very late in the process -- almost too late for it to be possible to create them at all.  It is possible that if I stepped in earlier with my own design I could hammer that through instead.  It isn't my preference; I feel that sound comes organically out of the production, as opposed to being an auteur idea imposed from outside the collaborative design process.

And realistically, from a design standpoint I don't know if I can do this.  I am remembering too well the hole I got into on "Willie Wonka" when the concept I came to the table with didn't work -- but I didn't realize it until we were in dress rehearsal!  That was a show where the last-minute rethink was mine, not the director's.

But, yes...through a combination of being committed to my own ideas, and developing lots of ideas and lots of alternatives early, I could possibly save some time later in the process.  But the trade-off isn't good; on this particular production, half the cues are ones I would have never seen coming before we were in tech, and out of the remaining cues...2/3 of them didn't make it through first preview.

So if I had prepped the entire show, with alternatives, months ago -- I'd still have just as much to create from scratch during the harried days of tech.  The major difference would be that I'd be throwing away a lot more completed work!

At this point I've invested roughly 140 hours in the production.  My design fee is $400.  At those kind of wages, to be brutally honest, there is no way in hell I am going to do an additional 80+ hours on spec; doing cues that have a 90% chance of getting cut before they ever make it to tech.

So, really, the only take-home I have at the moment is how necessary it is to continue to communicate and to educate just how long it takes to make sounds -- to make the effects, to hang the speakers, and to adjust the levels.  There still seems to be an illusion that you can download the perfect sound and crank the volume knob over on "the sound system" until it is at the perfect level, then you leave it there through opening weekend.

But I'm getting through.  Bit by bit.

And next show, I promise, I'm going to come out of the gate with strong desires of my own that I will express with created sounds; that is to say, I'm going to lead with a concept and fight for it, and see just how that sits in the mix of the developing collaborative process.

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