Monday, February 4, 2013

Old School

We've had a bunch of different music directors.  It keeps things interesting, as each has their own idea about some of the ancillary tasks.  Several in the past brought in a group of friends to form the band and as a result delighted in jamming together for preshow, and even at intermission.  Lots of rock covers, jazz standards, and eclectic things like, for instance the Muppet Show theme.

Others either didn't realize it was allowed, didn't think it was appropriate, or didn't have a group of musicians with enough confidence in each other to assay that.  In fact, the last several shows in a row have been rather quiet for pre-show.

Many of our music directors have been keyboardists, and as such, usually brought their own.  When there was a second keyboard, they supplied that too -- or brought along another gigging keyboardist who owned several keyboards they liked and used.

For those that weren't, they usually made do with our upright piano.  The upright sounds good and we tune it before every show, but the main drawback is the height; it is hard for a music director to see over it.  For Sound of Music we rigged a video monitor -- the band was behind the set anyhow.  For the juniors shows (8-13 years) we usually have a minimal pit so we make do with upright piano, drums, usually bass (but for Peter Pan we had a wind player instead).

Carnival was a mixed bag; a teen show, meaning more ambitious than the juniors, but not quite the level of technical support of the main stage shows.  Our music director settled on two keyboards, drums and bass -- the latter two had played for us several times in the past.  We had an exceptionally brief tech -- three days to block, tech, and final dress two casts, and this was respecting school hours, too.  That meant there was really no time for experimentation, and barely time for discussion.

I know our music director could have come up with a couple of keyboards if need be.  But what got thrown into the hat was that they'd use the Privia from the rehearsal hall (a Casio digital keyboard) as the piano, and I'd supply the second keyboard.  What with schedule and so forth I ended up setting up the pit myself, selecting the base patches for keyboard II, and basically hoping they'd be able to use what I'd set up.

And, with surprisingly little adjustment, we did.

The Privia of course sounds ghastly.  And it doesn't even have output jacks.  You can connect to the mini-jack headphone out but it is fragile and it turns off the internal speakers meaning you have to add a monitor so the keyboard player can hear themselves.  I've mic'd the speakers on a past show or two.  It delivers a kind of C-80 piano sound, very noisy -- actually, it has a very cool burry tone to it when used with the electric piano patch, and I used that trick (a condenser mic an inch above the tiny built-in speaker) to advantage during Oliver!.

Fortunately, it is just expensive enough a keyboard to have MIDI jacks.

So I used double-stick tape to fasten my old Korg P3 Piano Module to the keyboard stand, ran a MIDI cable to that, and ran the output to the sound system.  The keyboard player used the internal sounds of the Casio and had complete control over her speaker volume.

Second Keyboard took us more fully into the retro past.  First off, the only controller keyboard I had to offer was my old Roland W30 workstation.  This is a keyboard/sampler/sequencer so old the operating system boots off a 3 1/2" floppy disk.  It also has a sticky A3; right in the middle of the keyboard.

For sounds, the better-sounding option would have been to loan my aluminium Powerbook running Garritan Personal Orchestra via the supplied Aria Player.

But in keeping with the theme, I instead hung my Roland M-OC1 Orchestral Module on to the MIDI output of the W30.  (Of course, I could have set up a custom patch disk on the W30, but that would have taken time and probably not sounded as good.  Probably!)

The Ochestral Module is a rack-mount (meaning, a metal box 19" wide, plus flanges) dating from the 90's.  It is a break-out of one of the expansion cards (aka, a ROM card) for Roland's flagship keyboard, the JV80. 

It dates from the heyday of what Roland called LAS (linear arithmetic synthesis).  What is basically means, is that you start with real samples from orchestral instruments, process the central part of the tone and combine it with pure electronically-generated waveforms until you have an unchanging tone that can be looped continuously for as long as you need.  Then you combine it back with a snippet of the attack (the noise transients at the start of most musical notes.)

(In late LAS synths there were four slots for what they called "partials," meaning you would actually play several samples simultaneously, and/or cross fade from one to the other either over time or as you changed registers.  It was all in all a rather flexible approach that led to fairly rich sounds.)

After that it is standard synth-era tricks; velocity and key-dependent filters and volume envelopes so the sound changes in nature as you go up and down the scale, and as you play softer and louder, and oscillator-driven similar filters and VCOs to apply a sort of artificial vibrato.  Modern philosophy is much more sample-oriented, and tends towards fixed-length samples with minimal looping, the actual transients, even the actual tails (as in, the sounds after stopping a note).

The rest of the band was a little more "modern."  The bass player brought in his own pre-amp/DI for his piezo pick-up, which sounded lovely (not all DI's are equal, and piezo pick-ups make this even more obvious.)  I had prepped only eight snake channels to the pit, and I was maxed out at the console with just six inputs -- any more and I'd have had to add a submixer.  So drums started with my generic overhead; a CAD GXL3000 set to omni.  In this case, moved as close to the xylophone as I could get it and still be out of the drummer's way.

I originally had a snare mic taped to the hat stand with spike tape.  It sounded good enough for this particular show I kept the angle after bringing in my stands.  Aiming at the side, low, from about four inches away and about a 35' angle.  I now understand why people mic both top and bottom of the snare drum!  (I still don't understand top and bottom of the hat).  For this show, the snare side gave the most of the circus feel, I thought.

But.   There was no time to tech, the house sound of course changes utterly when you put bodies in it, and I got a really nasty cold right as we went into performance.  I had the shakes, could hardly hear, and was struggling through the show to hold back a hacking cough.  Needless to say I blew a few entrances.  Also needless to say, that kiboshed any chance of really developing the sound of the show and bringing it to where it could have been.  And for that I am disappointed.

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