Sunday, September 29, 2013

Snow Crash

Well, the crazy system I am running "Drowsy" on finally let me down.

It has been a show full of fun.  Opening night the main rag slipped the lower pulley and barely made it in and out, and the work lights were left on, spoiling the opening blackout.  One night the follow spot got locked out of all cues and they had to turn it on manually.  Which was good, because the next night the "robo-light" (some moving light, I don't know the make or model) didn't light, and they had to cover for it with a manual follow-spot.

I'm running all the sound through my laptop.  Well...everything but backstage and conductor's monitor.  Us old-school techs are scared of depending on a computer.  I've seen a BSOD in a booth.  I've had to restart a Mac a couple of times, too.

Here's the set-up; wired microphones along the proscenium line, four wireless belt-packs on actors.  All plugged into a Mackie 1602 mixing board.  Then the group outputs of the Mackie are run into a MOTU firewire interface and into the computer.

In the computer, Reaper takes the different buses (proscenium mics, wireless mics, off-stage chorus mic) and processes them with compression and graphic equalizer.  (Plus there's a little corrective EQ done in the MOTU itself with its on-board DSP.)  Then Reaper exports to the primary firewire outputs, which are plugged directly into the house mains.

The other outputs of the MOTU are being sent to effects speakers.  QLab speaks to those.  And as I mentioned in a previous post, QLab is also generating MIDI events which are translated into a serial signal via a Processing sketch, and sent to an Arduino that switches the practical ringing phone on and off.

Saturday I had no signal on the vocal bus.  Same night we lost the moving light.  And, of course, it was the night I had friends in the audience...!

There's no intermission.  There really isn't a spot in the show where it was safe to reset the systems or otherwise do anything more than the most conservative problem-solving.  So I routed all the mics to the one working bus and worked with that.  Which didn't sound anything as good, but got me through the show.

Part of the problem was, I couldn't send any useful diagnostics to headset, and the average vocal material was too low to tickle the meters.  As it turned out, I still had the chorus mic bus, and that would have helped me zero in on the problem.  But the only times I had a hot enough signal to trace via metering, were times I didn't dare do anything that might kill the signal.

Well, following the show I could.  And it turned out...Reaper was fine.  The computer didn't crash.  Even the MOTU was fine.  The problem was on the group faders on the Mackie.  For some obscure Mackie reason, if the button to assign a group back to the main bus gets some corrosion in it, the signal out of the unique group output goes dead as well.

All it took to restore the sound was pressing the button a couple of times.  Today I sprayed the button, and the show went flawlessly.

And, yes; the contrast between not having the computer properly in the loop, and having the corrective EQ and dialed-in compression I'd set for the vocal mics....well, it was a huge difference in how transparent the reinforcement was.  So I am prepared to say this was a good way to do it.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Details, Details

The V150 hull is closed up and watertight now, and is probably printable.  I'm doing most of the detail work before I send the test mesh in, though.

Yesterday was turning it from a solid model to a hollow model.  And that was a lot more painful than I had expected. 

First, all of Carrara's automated tools bollixed on the mesh.  So I had to do it manually, one plane at a time.

Then I checked dimensions.  And the thickness I'd eyeballed was way under.  The minimum printable wall thickness is 0.7mm, and I was aiming for a margin with 1.0mm (or a little more).  That's almost 6 centimeters in the scale world.  Let's put it this way; the bottom plate armor of the real thing is less than 1/4 the thickness I have to make it in order for it to work in the 3d printer.

A lot of this would have been much faster if I hadn't made the doors and vision blocks and hatches as framed "holes" in the mesh.  For the battlemat version, none of the hatches need to open and in any case it would have been faster to do the extrusion and thickness if I had the simpler slab sides.  Lesson for next time.

So all that ate up a day.  Today was starting in on detailing.  Although the print will support details as fine as 0.2mm (a bit over a centimeter on the real vehicle), I've enough experience both with how smaller details can collapse or fill in, and how much I have to exaggerate details in order for them to be properly visible in scale.  On the real vehicle, for instance, the outside of the vision blocks is mostly a weld line, with a small retainer plate holding a gasket.

In the model, I am extruding the whole edge a couple of centimeters.  And, yes...since the shapes are already in the model, I'm making a smoother mesh and less material waste by extruding many details instead of adding them on.  The only exception so far is the exhaust shroud.

I've also been tesselating the various curves.  Originally, I intended to subdivide the entire model.  But Carrara's tools get a little funky around some shapes, and I was having to dial up the Sub-D to ridiculous levels in order to smooth out the puckers.  Plus the mesh was wrapping around itself in places and might end up unprintable as a result.  Oh, and Carrara crashed a lot.  It doesn't seem to like Sub-D on a model with multiple surfaces.

To do all these small details I'm jumping around between nicely drawn plans of a V150S, a walk-around book of the V100, and a plastic model of a late-issue foreign-export V150.  Many details don't match, of course.  Some are just plain difficult to find reference on.  I have a fairly good sense of what should be on a Morrow Project era V150, and I'm able to chart my way around some of the things present on Thai and Philippines reference photographs that shouldn't be on this version.

But with all that, plus the issues of having to build a mesh that can be 3d printed, means accuracy is pretty much gone by the roadside now.  I'm eyeballing everything at this point.  At least the basic hull shape is about the right proportions and angles.  And I've got the locations and more-or-less sizes of the various hatches off of references.  But the details and curves and thicknesses are all eyeball and trackball now.

A few more days.  I should be able to test the hull with the Shapeways software tonight, but I still have undercarriage, wheel hubs, turret detailing, and random bits like filler caps and jerry cans to do before the thing is complete.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

More Fun With Math, and a Joke

I did a little calculating on the printing cost.  Unfortunately, once you assume a hollow model, the final price is exquisitely sensitive to the wall thickness.  So the difference between a generous thickness and getting right down to the margins of what is printable is a range of 4:1 in cubic centimeters of plastic, hence cost.

And this is the point at which the project forks.  The original request was for a hex mat model; detailed enough to be representative, but no functioning hatches or interior detail and, indeed, few small details of the sort that might break off in transit to the game and back.

The laser-sintered nylon (PA 2200) Shapeways offers as "White Strong Flexible" is the best choice for this, and can print down to a wall size of .7 mm, but given the strength should probably be between 1 and 2 mm in wall thickness for this model.  At $1.40 a cm^3, the hull comes out under $25.  So as a guess, the entire model is around $40 in this material.  Sans wheels, which as solids add as much as $8 to the print.

Since I intend to add some of the surface details, including suspension and hubs, jerry cans, lifting eyes, etc., I figure the complete and total print cost will be a bit over $60.

Here's the current state of the thing:

I am ready now to close up the hatches and vision blocks, add thickness to the walls and make them "watertight" (necessary for printing), and then extrude some select surface details around the vision blocks and hatchs.  The Rh202 barrel is just a mock-up for me; the final print will omit the gun barrel as it is too thin to print.

Actually, I have one other step before that.  Right now the mesh is at arbitrary scale (it is scaled to how big the drawings were in the workspace).  I need to fiddle with the bounding boxes and so forth in order to get a true scale representation, so I can keep the printable mesh within the Shapeways design rules.  Of course Carrara is poor at dealing with changes to its workspace defaults (and what else is new?)

The second fork is a diorama version with posable hatches (although I shudder at the idea of interior detail).  The thinner walls are more than offset by the possible upgrade to SLS ("White Detail" on Shapeways); a full $2.99 per cm^3.  I've worked with the SLS more than I have with the nylon, so I am not a good judge yet whether this materials upgrade is strictly necessary.

There has always been a military modeling community in 1:56, although they tend to gravitate to World War II era.  There is a growing number of models available of later armor these days (by much better modelers than I am), but, as yet, obscure post-Vietnam armored cars are not among them.

So there are people who could make use of this.  Enough to justify the effort, I don't know.

The putative third fork would be Poser-izing it.  Which would be a pain, mostly as my current mesh has extremely poor flow, is not Poser-optimized, and isn't UV mapped either.  Wouldn't hurt to have another 3d model in my online store, though...

Someone landed on this blog with a search for theater tech jokes.  Given time I'd remember a few.  At the moment all I remember is traditions at certain theaters, like "Pumatic" tools at the Rep (due to a badly spelled drawer label on the road box).

And a few lightbulb jokes.  The kind of theater person who says each, you can probably fill in on your own...

"How many ___ does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"

"It's a LAMP, dammit!"
"It's not a prop or a set piece.  Get an electrician to do it."
"Ooh, I like it.  Keep it!"
"Five six seven eight!"

And related, there's the one a bass player told me; "One, five, one, five, one, five, one, five, one, five......"

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hunger Games

Hard to concentrate like this, but made a little more progress on the V150.

For some reason, I don't trust the TimeLine set of plans.  The Cadillac Gage plans are cleaner and more detailed -- even though they are of a V150S.  Unfortunately, the TimeLine plans (and the Hobby Boss model kit) are the only ones with the 20mm turret I wanted.

So first thing I did today was remove the "stretch," bringing the hull I'd made off the Cadillac Gage plans closer to the dimensions of a standard V150.  There were multiple places where the plans disagreed, and several where they were unclear, so I compromised.

More compromises with the turret.  The TimeLine plans don't match the Hobby Japan model.  And, unfortunately, I've had a lot of trouble finding photographic reference of that turret.  Well, more or less.  I've found several similar turrets.  Enough to conclude that there are a lot of variations, and that I am probably fine with modeling whatever seems clear and resembles as much of the reference material as is practical.

Similarly, I've been quite unable to track down information on the actual wheel wells (whatever is behind the cut-outs).  The best I can figure, from the V100 walk-around book, is the they have a curve on the trailing edge and are squared off on the leading edge.  Which is pretty bizarre.  And they also get a "plank" on top of them on the inside; it is an obvious larger slab that sits over the flattened top.

For this, I've decided to go with what is on the Hobby Japan model and live with it.  Because there's enough to model already on this thing.  I still haven't figured out how I'm breaking it up to make it printable.

And then Carrara started crashing for no discernable reason, and while I was wrestling with that my dinner burned.  Tomorrow, I take a crack at tires.  Then start making hatches.


And NOW I'm tired.

There's a Little Black Bug On My Wall Today...

Well, actually, a whole bunch of them.  They really like rice, and if I don't clean out the rice cooker promptly they will swarm in the kitchen.

It is still hot, and I've been suffering with a sinus headache for a week or so now.

And I'm broke.  Desperately so.  I'm in the middle of a four-week run of a show that is paying pretty good, plus they promised a bit extra for all the crawling around under the building tearing out old wires and tracing bad ones I had to do to get everything working by Opening Night.   And my personal mics are on rental for a pretty decent fee as well.

I don't have any dates, though.  I don't even have a contract in my hands.  The only thing I'm relatively sure of is a very small check for hourly work that will show up around the end of this week.

I've probably got enough gas in the car, and rolled oats and udon noodles in the pantry, to make it to that check.  But I'd really, really like to have enough on me now to smog and register my car before the next late fee arrives.

And the toughest thing?  When I am hungry, and have no money for food or anything else, I tend to nest.  As if hibernating until the snows retreat and the money starts arriving again.  I don't go outside much, I don't work out.  I even move slowly, as if it is essential I conserve every little calorie.  And that's a really, really lousy way to job search -- or to complete home projects for a few extra bucks.

My Car, it's Full of Holes

I have three days off before I have to get back to the monkeys.  Time for a bit of 3D!

This is the start of a printable model of a V150 armored car.

Well, V150S at the moment.  Cadillac Gage first came out with the "Commando" during the Vietnam war.  The V100 went through a bunch of changes, from squared-off wheel wells to ever-changing numbers of vision blocks on the sides.  The V150 series adds some more changes, and the "S" model was the first "stretch," about 50 cm longer.  Cadillac Gage had few enough orders that they optioned the heck out of them, with all sorts of different turrets/wells/pedestals/boxes on top, different hatches, etc., etc.  And that's not even counting what some of the end-users did with them!

Anyhow.  I have some nice drawings of a V150S, a Hobby Boss kit in 1/35 of a late-serial-number V150, a walk-around book on the V100, and some other references.  And I'm not going to try to make every variation.  Heck, Bruce Morrow bought enough of Cadillac Gage's entire factory output that he could have the things customized however he wanted them.

So I'm not sweating the details.  I'm building a generic that more-or-less fits the median of these variations; my major guidance is what I've good a good reference for.  Followed by what is easier to model.

Anyhow.  Current progress is a mostly-done hull (I have details in the back and a lot of work to go on the underside).  I've cut out most of the hatches and vision blocks, even though for the printable model I'll probably fill most of those in again.

And, yeah, you do end up with quite a lot of holes (and I haven't even included the firing ports!)

Saturday, September 21, 2013


Finished my first sewing project.

(A few weeks ago, but this is the first chance I've had to take a picture).

 I figured a tool roll would be a simple project to get used to using the new machine.

And it would allow me to get as intricate as I cared for with different kinds of edge treatments and so forth.

I thought about camo, steampunk-style canvas, even custom-printed fabric, but then I found this cute upholstery fabric at Discount Fabrics and decided to make it carpet-bag style.

There were supposed to be two straps but I only bought one buckle (was hoping to find something nice in brass).

 Lined it with a tighter-weave khaki I found at Stonemountain.  Stitched both pieces together and zig-zagged to protect the hem from fraying.  No, I'm not running out to buy my own serger!

Tried bias tape, flat-felled seam, and self-bias, but then found some fake leather stuff at the fabric store that was simple to stitch in place even with a standard foot.  Held it in place with binder clips while working.

Seamed the pocket parts, attached them to one edge, and worked my way down; pulling them around each tool to form the pocket and stitching the excess in.  If I did it again, I'd run a pulling thread for a neater gather.  That's a piece of soft plastic rescued from an over-the-door shower bag over the VOM, allowing me to use it without removing it from the bag.

The original plan was a fold-over.  I actually worked out all the dimensions on a piece of drafting paper first, which was the pattern I cut the shell from.

But the rounded corners looked funny if you folded it in half.   And the number of tools made it too fat to roll well.

So now it rolls without any folding, and the major downside to that is it flops a bit in the middle.  Ah, well.

Next project will be a 4th Doctor frock coat.  Either that or a new pair of work pants.  Depends on how insane I feel that day.  I learned a lot on this project, including how long it takes to sew even something simple.  Even if it had been a total failure as a tool roll, it would have been a success as a learning project; I played with all sorts of tapes and interfaces and different stitches and seams.

But it works as a tool roll, too.  I am using it every day.


The Cold Equations

Lord Kelvin once said:

"I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be."

Numbers are a tool.  They are a way of characterizing a thing or effect or event in a form that can be manipulated and translated usefully.   Doing the numbers is the only proper way to do engineering.  And even a quick-and-dirty order-of-magnitude is an invaluable tool for figuring out basic problems.

Even if (or, perhaps, especially if) the numbers reveal a painful truth.

I have been tasked with creating a printable 3D model of a Cadillac Gage Commando (an armored car).  I scanned and cropped the reference materials, started reading about variations in hull shape and accessories.  And refreshed my memory on the Design Rules for the "Fine Detail" (objet printer) material at Shapeways.

To within a power of 2, that particular printer is as detailed as an extrusion-molded plastic model kit.

A quick calculation show that at the intended scale of the final model (1/56) I could represent surface details as fine as 1.2 cm, with extrusions as fine as 5.6 cm.  Which is almost fine enough to represent individual grab bars to scale.

Even using conservative values, I appear to be obligated to make an effort at detailing headlight assemblies, vision blocks, gun ports, hinges on the hatches, etc.  So this model is going to take a while.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Plague on Both Your Capacitors

A mildly amusing bit of propinquity.  I'd gotten involved in a forum discussion about the chemistry of capacitors -- a poster had the odd idea that ceramic caps weren't really ceramic because "ceramics don't contain metal."

Anyhow.  I also needed a recharger for the batteries I was using in the wireless mics, and I pulled apart my broken charger.  And found right on the main board a fat, 470ยตf capacitor with electrolyte bubbling out of the blown top seal.

The manufacturer's stamp is "Xunda," which is identified as on the list of suspect brands -- brands of electrolytic capacitors involved in the "Capacitor Plague" of the early part of this century (the last wave of cases was around 2010 -- right about when I bought this charger).

Rarely have I found a problem that obvious, and that easy to fix.  Unfortunately it seems some other part of the circuit was hurt when the cap failed, but the charger is mostly working now and that is better than it was.

Which leads me to digress about serendipity.  I love those moments when external events force an artistic change that is better than what you would have had otherwise.  The great story comes from "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  A huge sword-versus-whip fight scene had been choreographed, but after a week in Tunisia Harrison Ford was nearly doubled over with dysentery.   And he pled with the director, saying something like, "Look, I've got this pistol right here, it's been part of my costume since the first day.  Why can't I just shoot him?!"

And they changed the scene and created one of the most memorable moments in the film.  Probably helped, too, that the expression of exasperation and pain and disgust on Indy's face at that moment was very real...

Two stories come out of the New Who episode "Planet of the Dead."  The original scene called for a pristine double-decker bus to be sitting in the middle of an alien desert.   But an accident befell the bus at the docks in Dubai.  Working quickly, they re-wrote the episode to explain the damage to the bus as resulting from the passage through the wormhole.  And this was wonderful.  It made the central problem (that they needed the protection of the bus's metal skin in order to travel back through) vastly more real.

Later scenes aboard the wreck of an alien ship were filmed at an abandoned factory back where it was still winter.  Davies threw in a line of typical Doctor Who technobabble about the skin of the alien craft being made of some material that got colder the hotter it was outside.  But that didn't matter.  The contrast between the sweaty desert and the chill of the ship (chilly enough the actor's breath fogged up) was powerful and effective, made the alien ship more alien, and conversely underlined just how hot and dry the desert was.

Not that Doctor Who didn't do this kind of quick juggle all the time; from coming up with an in-story reason why Louise Jameson stopped wearing brown contacts as Leela, to explaining why someone other than Fraser Hines was playing Jaime for a couple of episodes.  Often the scripts were changed to work around problems with the prop/costume of the monster de jour -- a move "Jaws" also made that strengthened that film immeasurably.

Anyhow.  My own story of the moment is a lot less interesting.  We did a voice-over session with the actor for an in-show answering machine message, and the usual pre-show speech (the "turn off your cell phones, fire exits are to the rear" speech).

I recorded in the lobby and I got way too much room tone.  It sounded fine for the answering machine, but sounded terrible for the pre-show.  I tried notching, gating, every trick I knew, and I couldn't rescue the recording.

Until the other shoe dropped.  If the recording session had been fine for an answering machine message -- then make the pre-show speech into an answering machine message!  So I added some rings, beeps, and line noise and the cue was done, without having to schedule a new voice-over session.  And it is funnier (the preview audience loved it) and plays very well with the oddly central role of the telephone in many scenes of the framing story.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

ET Phone Home

In The Drowsy Chaperone the MAN IN THE CHAIR goes out of his way to explain to the audience, "Yes, records" before he puts one on the phonograph.  Oddly, though, he doesn't mention that he is using a dial telephone, and an answering machine with those little tape cassettes.

I am living in future shock once again.  When I started in theater sound phones were common and easy to find.  Not any more!   


Today I got the QLab-controlled phone working.  But I haven't decided if I really want to trust that particular Heath Robinson for the run of a show.  The original reason for the contraption was that the Stage Manager was going to be running sound cues, and I didn't want her hammering at the button of a Tele-Q in the middle of a cue sequence.  Thus a system that will start the phone ringing as a loop with one push of the GO button, and stop the loop with a second push (which also cues up the answering machine sound).

I was also hoping to save having to run a wire for the 90 VAC ring signal; going with electronic control would mean I could send data backstage instead, through the existing snake.

But things change in tech.  The Stage Manager is no longer running sound cues, and whilst cleaning up the old wiring I threw a chunk of recycled garbage cable up anyhow.  So I already have a button and I've been using it in rehearsal and, really, it works fine as is.  The only reason to continue with the electronics is to prove I could do it.

Start in QLab.  With the MIDI license, QLab will create and send a MIDI event.  I picked, arbitrarily, note #64, with noteOn for a ring and noteOff for silence.  A GOTO cue (another one of the special cues unlocked with a QLab license) sends the pointer back to the first cue again, and pre-delay on the various cues sets the ring cadence.

(The Bell standard is 2 seconds on, 4 seconds off, but I'm using a faster and more theatrical 1.5/3).

It took a bit of experimenting, but the way to end the loop turned out to be putting them all in a group cue, ticking "go to next cue" in the group cue settings, checking the "continue" box in each of the MIDI cues and the GOTO cue.  Then, I dropped the entire group cue on a RESET cue, which turns off the GOTO and exits the loop.  Which auto-follows (the "continue" check-box ticked) to a second noteOff MIDI cue; this way, no matter where I am in the loop, hitting the "Phone STOP" cue will turn off the bell.

Had things gone according to plan, the Stage Manager would have been using this pair of cues to control a sound effect while I finished wiring the actual phone up.

Anyhow.  QLab does something non-standard in MIDI and it doesn't always show up as a MIDI source to other applications.  I'd had this problem before.  So instead it is patched into the handy freeware MIDIPipe.  This creates a new virtual MIDI source called "MIDIPipe Output 1."

The next application in the string is a clickable (Java virtual machine) application written in Processing.  Using the MIDIBus library, it detects the MIDI note events sent from QLab.  Then it writes a "p" or a "o" to a selected serial port, depending on whether it saw a noteOn or noteOff. 

It is pretty much a garbage ap at the moment.  I hacked it up from the Wiz software, stripping out the XBee signaling and pasting in basic MIDI functionality from a MIDI Bus example program.  It has at present no way to select ports other than re-compiling.  Heck, it doesn't even NAME the ports it is using.

The older generation of Arduinos use an FTDI chip to show up as a virtual serial port over USB.  This is what I'm using here.  There is an Arduino on the other end of a USB cable, and when it sees a "p" or "o" at the serial port it sets the output level of two pins.

One pin holds an LED and is there as a blinkenlight.  The other is running a 5v relay via the venerable TIP120 power darlington.  The only other components are a resistor on the input of the TIP120, and a diode backwards across the coil of the relay (to protect the rest of the circuitry from the field-collape induced surge.)

And, finally, the relay closes the connection to the steady 90 VAC at 20 Hz from a industrial-strength piece of rack mount gear I happen to have lying around.  If I had to generate the entire ring signal from scratch this would all look rather different.  As it is, all I have to do is switch an existing voltage.

And at that point the actual dial phone on the stage rings, just as if it was forty years ago and still in ordinary use.

An annoyance I'd expected but hoped to avoid; QLab breaks the "Reset" cue every time the program is closed and re-opened.  Next performance, all the "Reset"s were still listed and looked normal, but none of them worked.  I had to delete the old ones and write new ones.  For every single phone cue.  And it looks like I have to do this each and every performance.  That is going to get old fast.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A New Show, a Diagetic Onion

I'm in tech on a musical in a different building than usual.  Different challenges, different approach.  I thought it might be interesting to both elaborate and contrast.

The last show I did was "The Wiz."  My artistic approach was presentational, even artificial; all of the music (from the live band), the singing, and the sound effects were summed together into a mono mix, which was presented at nearly equal volume to every seat in the house.  There was no attempt at localization or worldizing, or even an effort towards separation.

In terms of effects designs, I made no pretense at diagesis.  Even the sound of the twister was consciously an effect.  Actually, consciously a musical effect; it was a synth patch performed live every night on a keyboard!

The vocal reinforcement was also artificial.  Loud, obvious, with strong compression and plenty of reverb.  There were additional vocals during many numbers, and for this the back-up vocalists were in full view of the audience and singing at close range into stand mics.

The show in tech now is "The Drowsy Chaperone."  Which may be the only completely diagetic musical in the traditional style (I am discounting rock-format shows where all the songs are in-show being performed with the on-stage band).

Certainly, there are a number of musicals where characters are actually singing within the world of the play; "The Sound of Music," for one.  "Singing in the Rain" for another.  What makes "The Drowsy Chaperone" unusual is that every moment, every sound of the play within the play is explicitly meant to  be coming from the on-stage phonograph.

The way I see it, there are two kinds of effects in the show.  The effects within the external show -- the New York apartment of THE MAN IN THE CHAIR -- should be approached with utmost realism.  The effects from within the musical he is listening to/imagining are just that; effects. They are whatever the people who committed the original 1928 Broadway production to shellac chose to include.  Which makes them, in my mind, more presentational than real and localized in the same generalized sonic space as the singers and band.

Were I doing this show in a larger space, I think I would present that same mono mix of all elements, with only THE MAN IN THE CHAIR (and those elements of his world that interrupt the action) as localized (and hence diagetic).

The space I am in is compromised.  It is very small, with a ceiling too low to allow center cluster or front fills.  The actors are close, the band is backstage but loud.  Oddly enough, the vocal reinforcement becomes subtle; it can't really be anything but, because the physical layout of the space only permits a few dB gain before feedback.

The equipment is also challenging.  I have been spoiled at my other theater; the multi-speaker Meyer system is run by a central Galileo processor with cross-over, room equalization, corrective delays.  And then we tweak further at the front end, via the digital console.

On "The Wiz" I had strong EQ notching in the main vocal bus, courtesy of the LS9's available 32-band graphics.  I also tend to do a few other tweaks to seat the vocals properly.  Plus, of course, individual tailoring of the sound of each microphone via the dynamics processing and parametric equalization available on every single channel.

I'm doing "Drowsy" on an old (non-digital) Soundcraft.  Plugged pretty much directly into a pair of JBL Eons for FOH.  For mics I have a mere handful of Sennheiser G2's, plus some chorus mics hung from the proscenium.  (As is usual for the latter, I only get useful material from them when someone is standing no more than six feet away).

And this is where achieving simplicity becomes complex.  Because the goal is simple; gentle reinforcement of the small number of body mics and some judicious area micing.  The supra-diagetic nature of the show within the show means placement or localization is unimportant.  Just push a little sound out, as seamlessly as possible.  If the amplification is obvious, this isn't a problem; we don't really know what technology the recording engineers brought to play in 1928 and we can explain quite a lot as due to vagaries of the recording process.


To get simple clean sound means the right mic and the right speakers for the space.  And if you can't get those, then processing that -- with all of its compromises -- makes the mics you have and the speakers you have as clean and direct as you can achieve.

Because you are in a real world.  A hall with distinct acoustics of its own, that the speakers interact with.  This is why you have to tune the system to the house.  And you can't do that with a naked sound board and a handful of gaff tape.

There were many and sundry odd things that apparently were tax write-off donations to the theater over many years.  A Rane processor.  Video router.  A second board.  Multiple firewire interfaces.  The first on that list actually has the best long-term potential.  It is unfortunately a Windows-only machine and even if I had the funds to put an emulator on my current laptop I don't have the time to get it all working.

So I turned to the last.  Last night was the big experiment.  And it worked well enough I think I will run with that for the run of the show.


As it turns out, the MOTU firewire interface I found lying in the basement has some nice onboard DSP.  I'm using it for a low-end roll-off and a bit of compression, because it was hitting the inputs of my computer too hard.

And then I'm taking that signal in, and running the DAW in real-time.  Mostly for the graphic, where I notched out almost excessively to wrench enough gain to make the proscenium mics worth using.  Over the next few days I'm going to experiment some more and see if I can't split out a second bus for the wireless mic send.

The other tasks for the DAW are a small amount of delay, some limiting, better overall EQ tailoring, and perhaps a little reverb (at least on the wireless mics -- they sound more like they are in the space when they aren't completely dry).

On TOP of this scary bit of rig is QLab, feeding out the same firewire interface.  Because the aesthetic of realistic sound within the world of the framing story -- the New York apartment -- requires multiple effects speakers.

There's a speaker hidden inside the cabinet with the phonograph.  Actually, I tried the phonograph itself as a sound source and it was wonderful sounding, warm and real.  But, alas, the old tube amp is aging and the capacitors are shot; after being run for twenty minutes it started to hiss and crackle in a way that would be unacceptable for the production.

On the other side of the stage, a cheap Radio Shack iPod speaker is hiding near the answering machine.  This is both localization and wordizing; the speaker is small and tinny like the answering machine it is simulating, and it is in the same environment where it bounces off the nearby hard surfaces in a sonically distinctive way.  Our ears are very, very good at hearing these nuances, and it adds immeasurably to the realism of a sound effect.

The phone is an actual dial phone.  I had thought I was done with this forever, but just before I threw away my old Bell Labs generator this show comes along.  (As it turns out, one of the other designers owns a Tele-Q, which is a very nicely engineered built-for-theater ring box).  At the moment, I am ringing the phone with a button, and it is wired through the scavenged remains of some of the bad XLR I had to pull down during load-in.

My intent -- in the next few days I may have another report -- is to replace button with relay, stick electronics in between that will take a MIDI event as a trigger, and run a, yes, physical phone from QLab along with the rest of the sound cues.

Friday, September 6, 2013

You'll never have lunch in this country again

First an aphorism;

"If you are a little behind on a project, skip lunch.  If you are a lot behind on a project, have a good lunch."

It's one way to work smarter, not harder.  The instinct is to push yourself.  So you push even though you are physically slowing down, and you are getting stupid.  When you are really far behind, tunnel vision sets in.  It is too easy to fall into this behavior pattern of just working, working, through the night, maybe somehow it will okay.

Eat.  Rest.  Take breaks as necessary.  Get enough sleep.  All of that time will return to you twice-fold as it is only when you are rested and fed that you can reach and sustain peak efficiency.

And if the project is in dire trouble?  This is the best time to stop cold.  Don't grudgingly stop to eat, race through a meal, throw yourself back into it.  Go away.  Get out of the shop, put some kind of mental barrier out there (like clearing the work table and setting out a proper meal).  Because the thing to do it not just keep plugging and somehow it will all work out (even though sometimes it does -- generally to the detriment of everyone else on the project as well).

The thing to do is stop and figure out what you can change.  Where you can cut corners or compromise, or how you can add more labor, or if there is something that can be moved from the Friday deliverable to delivery closer to opening.  Find a better way to solve the project.

At the very least, work out priorities and target dates and figure out where you actually have to be.

But don't just blindly keep pushing until you collapse.  I've seen it.  I've done it.  It isn't pretty.

Second, an observation.

Stage Managers are the Sound Effects Man during rehearsals.  Sometimes this can be a problem, as they are leading the cast to expect something quite different than what you were going to design.  It is the same effect as temp tracks in Hollywood.

But I've noticed lately -- and the is multiple stage managers, in different theaters and different towns;

Sirens go "Wee woo wee woo."  And telephones go "Ring ring.  Ring ring.  Ring ring."

Thing is, I'm not in Europe.  The standard telephone ring in the US (when we still had dial phones) is a single ring (2-second ring, 4-second pause).  Not the double-ring of England.  And the siren (before electronic sirens) was a long wail, not the European two-tone.

Why are those the standards?  Is it because they are easier to pronounce?  Is is because no-one remembers any more what a Bell telephone sounded like?

Incidentally, my upcoming show I'm intending to ring an old dial phone.  I have a couple of ring signal generators (90v AC at 20 Hz.)  My intention is to switch it via MIDI, however, so QLab can run the phone just like any other sound cue.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Paths Not Taken

I was just reading the chapter on wigs in Rosemary Ingham ("The Costume Technician's Handbook") and I was reminded again that theater gives us a chance to try on a different life.  For the audience, perhaps more vicariously, but even they have the chance to spend some time in the company of people of another place, another time.

Our lives are shaped by choices, many of which we may not have even been aware of making at the time.  In all drama, we get a chance to try on a different life path and see how it feels.  It can be argued that all drama is essentially about humans, but I feel theater is even more focused this way; it will always be human beings in the same room with you, sweat and spittle and all.

For the actor, it is exploring a different skin.  A different set of choices, part of a different environment.  As any designer you are also part of that exploratory process; you make choices about the clothing that imagined new person wears, how their voice sounds to others, what their dwelling looks like and what objects they surround themselves with.

But we are also exploring the larger world they are part of.  This to a designer is the most exciting part; creating a place on stage.  It may be a faithful echo of somewhere real.  It is more likely (forced both by reasons of Art and reasons of Contingency) to be fanciful.  But the good ones -- when all the designers are working together -- will have that ineffable sense of a real place.

Even as a tech you get access to these other worlds.  You visit in the houses you create.  (I've made breakfast in more than one box set -- helps when the designer has asked for a fully functioning sink and kitchen!)

And the process of doing theater gets you a visitors pass to other places and other fields.  The cast of Mr. Roberts took a field trip to an actual W.W. II cargo ship.  (I went, too, to record the sounds it made.)  I very much enjoyed my techie days when I was driving a truck, picking up welding gas cylinders in the industrial zone on the other side of the tracks, and otherwise hanging out for a short time with tradesmen in the craft of the moment; plumbing, tile, finish carpentry, laminate, etc.

Via theater I've been backstage at fashion shows, in national parks palling out with rangers, in the kitchens of classy hotels, even amongst the scientist-engineers within the workshops of The Exploratorium.  Been at a skii lodge in the off-season, helped tear down a fence on a cattle ranch, been inside private schools both Catholic and not and been on more than one Army base.

And that's exciting.  Vicarious, but still a comforting way of having been able to at least dip your toes into what it would have felt like had your life made different choices.