Monday, December 3, 2012

The Sound of Music

What does an actual Sound Design look like?

I am going to risk being more biographical than usual by giving a breakdown of a show that is currently in production.

As I've said in earlier entries, the elements of a sound design/responsibilities of the Sound Designer are:

Vocal Reinforcement

Orchestral Reinforcement


Foldback and Monitors

More below the fold, plus a pic of a special prop bonus.


This is a 350-seat house with a Meyer-designed sound system.  For this production we were able to get 20 channels of wireless microphone working.  "The Sound of Music" is a classic Broadway musical with a stately scene progression that makes it easy to plot microphones, and to mix.  Our original hope was that we would have at least a dozen NUNS, as well as a dozen NAZIS who would sing at the start of the penultimate Kaltzburg Music Festival scene.  Fortunately for me this didn't happen! (Although I did really want to surround our audience with uniformed men and boys singing the Horst Wessel Song.....!)

So the final plot is the VON TRAPP family (seven children!), MAX and ELSA, MOTHER SUPERIOR and the four NUNS with speaking parts, ROLF, and two NAZIS/male ensemble; the GAULEITER and the ADMIRAL.  If I had one more free I'd put it on the BARON even though he only has two lines.

(Oh, and FRAU SCHMIDT (Neiiiigh!) is also on mic.  FRANZ is not).

If we did have the extra NAZIS, this would have forced us to make a mic swap from male ensemble to female ensemble within little more time than a scene change.  As plotted, there are no microphone changes, and the cast can concentrate on their many costume changes instead!

Most of the cast is wearing Countryman B3's taped over one ear with transpore tape.  Some of the younger ones have their mics woven through braids and clipped to hair to save them some of the anguish of tape.  MOTHER SUPERIOR'S rich, opera-trained voice is coming through a Sennheiser ME4, which is clipping a little on her peaks but otherwise produces a richer, fuller tone.

All of the microphones are compressed a little, gently EQ'd (mostly low-end roll-off up to about 125 Hz), then run through a bus with a small amount of additional compression to blend them, plus an overall digital delay of around 20 ms to let the natural voices take precedence.  Plus a gentle "Stage" reverb to seat them in the acoustic space.

This is the quietest band we've had in a long time, so the design is more towards reinforcement than replacing the voices, leading to a more natural sound.  However!  The little ones have varied skills in vocal projection and that means we end up with several extremely hot microphones on stage in their scenes.  Meaning an unnatural sound to anyone that gets close to them, and a lot of handling noise and other random popping and crackling.  I spend half the show ducking GRETL's microphone -- everytime she gets picked up and an older actor is suddenly six inches from her extremely hot mic.

The kids are also inconsistent from line to line -- particularly my BRIGITTA, where I am playing a guessing game where best to start the fader; she ranges a good 40 db in vocal production over the same line on different nights.  And compression is no panacea; compressing voices like hers enough so that a barely-spoken murmur or mumble would be heard would mean every bit of costume noise, any dialog closer than six feet of her, and even the band itself, via picking up the foldback monitors in the microphone, would be boosted unacceptably.  So instead I have to make a best-guess at every moment she is on stage, with my finger on the fader to make the fastest adjustment my reaction time allows.

Over the last couple weekends, as I started really learning the show, I experimented with doing smaller ducking on a line-by-line basis in addition to the major duckings I had plotted long ago (for instance, the CAPTAIN/MARIA duet is almost entirely solo'd through her mic, as she has the weaker voice).  I found that line-by-line was not compatible with the style at this theater, which combines overlapping dialog with lots and lots of vocal reaction.

(In fact, the latter is one of my biggest bears in mixing there.  The cast makes a LOT of vocalizations, and often they are louder than the actual dialog.  So I have to be constantly trimming and ducking and choosing my battles in order to get the actual dialog about the giggles and gasps and improvised lines.  It is always painful around the littlest ones, who will yell 30 db louder than they will sing...and, inevitably, they will be directed to cheer loudly a millisecond after the last note of a -- much less robustly projected -- song.)

For the opening song in the Abbey I'm leaving the vocal fader low and bringing up the reverb bus by itself; basically adding artificial reverberation to the natural voices a la the electronically enhanced acoustics of some concert halls.

I usually hang two reverb buses on the vocal channels, allowing me a choice of both the generic sweetener, and a more in-your-face reverb for certain songs.  I tend to give different songs a different character.  For this show, this is more naturalistic; I've left off adding extra reverb to songs with the exception of songs taking place in the main hall of the Abbey, and at the Concert Hall.  And in both of these, that reverb is also applied to dialog in that space.

In ORCHESTRAL REINFORCEMENT the band is, as usual, pretty much loud enough already (in fact, one of the two drummers alternating is rather much too loud already).  I reinforce for the usual reasons; to blend them better with each other, to produce similar levels at all distances to the stage (and on the stage), and to bring out upper frequencies and sonic nuances that would otherwise be lost in the rumble.

I have to say again -- most drum kits sound like shit live.  Especially if they are tucked away a little, what leaks out isn't crisp, but is boomy, muddy, and sounds like someone beating on cardboard boxes and old pots.  The drummer is the only person who hears a decent sound.  Unless you can stick a microphone within a few feet of where her head is, and share that sound with everyone else.

But that in turn depends on the drums being quiet enough in the first place that the mic'd sound can dominate the acoustic space.

Fortunately my other players are upright piano, flute, and violin.  I am concert-micing the latter two; mics at least eight inches away so the sound is similar to the direct acoustic sound.  The piano is mic'd from about the same distance, but at an arbitrary point on the soundboard; the result is some wolf tones from resonant peaks the mic is too close to, but with a little gentle EQ it is an honest and pleasing piano sound.

As is often the case, these are sub-mixed before being brought into the board.  There is an inevitable trade-off when you start bringing 20 or more mics into a 32 channel board.  In this case, the Firewire interface for the sound effects is hogging 6 input channels, so the band lost the toss for dedicated mixer channels.  Thus the outboard, rack-mount compression and reverb.

Compression?  Yes.  As horrible as the very concept is -- as loathsome as it is to a piano-player and lover of the piano like me -- the piano just had too much dynamic range on mic thus is being gently compressed.  The attack is slow to preserve as much as possible of the character, and it is an analog, optical compressor, too.

The reverb is on flute and violin because almost all close-mic'd instruments need a little room tone to sound right, plus winds almost always sound more cool when there is some reverb on them.  That's out of my old Lexicon MX200, which has been doing this kind of duty for me for years.  (When I'm really crazy I use a different reverb patch, usually a small room, on the drums).

So, basically, the philosophy of the orchestral mic'ing is also gentle reinforcement.  The only time I crank it is during the curtain call.  The rest of the show I essentially leave the master fader alone, simply supporting and focusing the natural sound which is already in the room (the orchestra is on stage).

I'm going to segue to FOLDBACK AND MONITORS and come back to effects.  The orchestra submix is sent pre-fader to side fill monitors.  Because this set comes so far downstage, with action along the length of the apron, the only option I had for front-fill monitors was to attach them at about eight feet up on the edges of what would be a proscenium for a building without such an open plan.  With cargo straps.  It is rough, but it works.

Our long-range plan is to build a dedicated stage monitor system.  Actually, I could repeat what I've done before; hang a spare mic on the first electric, and run it through my Audio Buddy as a pre-amp then to whatever powered monitors we can spare to put back in the dressing rooms.

During rehearsal I hacked into the Galileo speaker processor, adding an output from the bus sent to the front fills.  Now it is actually a dedicated mix bus output from the sound board, but that means the monitor speaker is only receiving vocal bus and a little orchestra.

For the purpose of monitors, a single microphone is actually superior.

EFFECTS:  One effect is not an "effect" per se.  The Angelus Bell that starts off the show is so closely linked to the score it seemed best to have it performed by the pit.  Because our building is actually a converted church, I went and built a carillon for it.  Which is to say; I strapped a JBL Eon powered speaker to the rafters high over the stage (back where the old organ loft had been).  This is fed from my old Roland M-OC1, a MIDI sound module.  (In fact, the M- series modules are rack-mount breakouts of the sample library expansion cards built for the flagship JV80 keyboard.  The M-OC1 is about ten megs of orchestral samples, and includes a couple of nice church bells).

Since it was there, with a little Ozone keyboard right by the drummer, we added additional bells during the wedding scene in Act II.

This was almost a "doorbell and birdsong" show.  I pulled a stock doorbell and door knock from my collection and they worked well enough in rehearsal that I never changed them.  The birds went through more evolutions.  Even though I spent some time looking up native birds of Austria, most of the time spent on those cues was editing them down.  This is almost always the case; animal sounds as raw effects are far too continuous for most scenes.  So you thin them out with cuts and by adding a fader track in your editor.  And you combine and juggle them to hide the loops and repeats and make the soundscape change a little more over time.  And you basically make it lively at the top of the scene then thinner and quieter after 4-12 seconds have passed.

The "almost" is because we developed over meetings a conceit that in many of the scene changes, we'd be looking in on Nazi Party members in an office somewhere in Salzburg, as they handed out leaflets, gathered signatures, listened to speeches, practiced marching, etc.  And there would be a radio in all of these scenes as well.

Well, when it all came together, the radio prop wasn't in most of these scenes, and the band was playing over them anyhow.  Loudly.  So the conceit is still there, but I'd hate to say it adds anything essential to the show.

The central material is all found audio; period speeches, radio programs, and marches.  I did manage to sneak in a few seconds of the Horst Wessel song.  Over that is laid the same shortwave wails and static I have been using for fifteen years now -- ever since I recorded the sounds of a friend's massive period radio (that was while I was designing "Annie" for the first time).

Okay, that's too chatty, not organized enough.  Here's the major cues:

n  Angelus Bell (played live from pit)

/// birdsong and atmosphere of the hills (CUT)//

A  First Nazi:  German radio broadcast (in English!) cross-fades to village street sounds (with goat!)

B  doorbell in the VON TRAPP villa

C distant bells -- for this, I set up a mic in the audience and played the pit bells, then processed the recording to make it sound distant.

n  Boatswain's Whistle  (the CAPTAIN is playing it live)

D Night outdoors (this was nightingale, now it is wind and an owl)

E...  Thunder.  Lots of thunder.  These are almost all thunder sounds I purchased for the last time I did the show.  You need a variety to keep it from sounding silly and repetitious.  I ran them through side fill speakers for distance and room tone and through the subwoofer for rumble.

F  Rain.  There's a little scatter of rain, then we pretend someone must have closed the window and it cross-fades to a softer rain-on-window sound.  Then it drops out arbitrarily shortly before the song. All of these are focused towards the window; the original speaker plot had an effects speaker right under the window but there is absolutely no room for anything with the scenery movement taking place there.

G Outdoors Day.  More birdsong, including the national bird of Austria.

H Second Nazi:  This is the only time you actually see the radio.  They are listening to a speech or something, with frequent cheers.  Actually, the raw audio is an English-speaking commentator on the day when Hitler spoke at the Hero's Plaza in Vienna, following the annexation of Austria.  Which makes this cue several weeks early at least!  The cheers are overdubbed in arbitrary places.

I Third Nazi.  This time they are marching, and I used a long cut of an orchestral version of the Wehrmacht marching song "Erica."  Which is about a flower which is sort of the German equivalent of the Austrian Edelweiss.  I overdubbed marching and a Drill-and-Ceremony command on top of it.

J...oops, sorry, there are various knocks-on-doors.  Stock sounds, played through a single speaker located near the door.  What do you want?

K The first "Flight" cue.  This is where the cues got complex; they were built in Cubase from many, many individual samples, with fader automation and added VST effects.  Anyhow; the first effect happens at the end of the concert scene and is sirens and whistles, followed by engines starting, car doors slamming, and cars and motorcycles pealing out with a few horns here and there.  When I do sounds like this, I always have a rough story in mind.  Such as, in this case one motorbike was already in motion when a car peeled out and nearly hit him; nervously, the bike hit his horn, then continued off.

L Radio.  In the early part of tech this was a nasty blank spot; set movement in a blackout and nothing happening visually or audibly.  I built a generic "things happening on the airwaves" cue that featured Morse Code.  Then they re-blocked the ensemble, and the band started playing, and I've ended up taking the volume down and cutting the cue early.  Such is life.  The Morse started with an online translator widget, which I fed part of Kurt Schuschnigg's call for a referendum in the days prior to the anschluss.  Then I stuck the MIDI file into a cute little freeware "chiptune" VST synth.

M Nuns on Radio.  In the original meetings, there was also a radio in the MOTHER SUPERIOR'S office and she was listening to it at various points.  Well, the radio prop does show up briefly in the Abbey before the VON TRAPPS arrive to hide themselves.  And SISTER MARGRETTA still makes a remark about listening to troop movements.  As if!  Anyhow.  After weeks of reading up on radio procedures in the SS, I took my old US Army radio operator experience and made up a conversation.  And although I had a voice actor selected, his schedule and mine never permitted the recording session and I finally had to record my own voice.  Which I then processed with such things as a limiter set so hard it clips badly, plus a little Time Bandit to tweak pitch and time (and make it sound worse).

N Searching.  This is generic crash box sounds as the Nazi's search the Abbey.  The only interesting thing is that I broke up the sounds into three different tracks; the crashes, a layer of footsteps, and a layer of idling vehicles outside.  Each was looped individually in QLab, and over tech I adjusted the relative volume levels to better fit the evolving stage picture.

As in many shows, the effects are hosted in QLab on a Mac laptop being operated by the Stage Manager.  A brand-new 50-foot firewire cable links it back to the Presonus interface, which in turn spits six analog channels and two digital channels to the sound board.  Each channel is sent to a different mix bus, allowing effects to be placed individually within a specific mix of speakers.

Because of the nature of a live musical (which has a wider potential dynamic range than a straight play), all the effects channels are linked and a fader on the top (aka Custom) layer of the sound board controls them.  So far, there is only one spot in the show where I really adjust the sounds as they are playing.  Other than that, we tweaked levels during full tech rehearsals (that is, with the full band playing) until they sounded right, and those are the levels they play back at automatically, without any further input from me or the Stage Manager.

Oh, yes, and there was a joke, too.

During Paper Tech, when it was brought up that a partial blackout would mean that the audience would be able to see the white gazebo set-piece "roaming around" as it was brought on stage, I joked "Too late; you've awakened it."  Which is a quote from "The Story of Eric and the Dread Gazebo," known to most D & D fans. 

The Stage Manager laughed so hard I knew then and there I'd have to build an arrow, stick it in the gazebo, and let him discover it.  I looked first to see if there were any cheap arrows at my local art store (which has a lot of kid's stuff too).  No luck there.  So time to build.  Total cost about three bucks, and maybe six hours work, mostly because I was in the middle of other things and couldn't set up the power tools and bench vise to do things properly.  So it was mostly hacksaws and hand files.

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