Tuesday, February 25, 2014


We're now in the middle of the our run for The Music Man. 

In many small houses there just isn't the budget to hire a full pit. You can try to fake your way towards that sound by using canned (aka pre-recorded) music, or a full-but-synthesized score from something like Orchextra, or you can lump a bunch of keyboards and a few choice "real" instruments together and try to fake a full sound that way.

Or you can re-score. Given the period of the show and the emphasis on band music, our music director chose to re-score for a brass band. And he pushed to budget it, too. So we have two trumpets, two trombones (a tad shy of 76), and tuba. Plus piano and drums.

Which was the first issue I had to deal with. We also have a set built on a full-stage rake, and said rake was quite noisy underfoot. And we also chose to do sound effects practical and live. Which means actually mixing the show is easy. Engineering it was the hard part.

To fight both the brass band and the squeaky floor I went into the speaker processor and created a custom patch. Unlike The Wiz, where I was able to amp both singers and band to such levels as to allow the house system to dominate -- and thus I could set the house system to produce a nearly flat field across the depth of the seating area -- this show required I work with the acoustic sound that was already in the space.

I created a strong taper, emphasizing the front fill speakers and reducing the delay speakers over the seating to almost nothing. The taper was dialed to match as closely as I could estimate the natural fall-off of the brass band (who are seated in the back of the acting area). This also put more vocals in the speakers nearest the stage, helping the singers.

Of course it isn't quite this simple. The actors are projecting acoustic sound as well. The stage floor is making noise, and the inverse-square fall-off for that is sharper (since it is closer to the audience). And because of the nature of the speakers, the reinforced sound becomes more localized and brighter (aka more of the higher frequencies) as you get closer to the front and center (because you are looking straight down the cones of the tweeters).

So I trade off a little of the sheer volume necessary by knowing there is an element of perceptual volume both in frequency emphasis and in localization cues.

It does mean that where I am, at the "front of house" mixing position just at the fringe of the rear-most speakers, I really can't tell what the sound is like for most of the house. I did as much rabbits as I could through previews -- getting up to walk up and down the aisle and try to get a sense of what it sounded like closer to the front -- but now that we've hit performance, I'm mixing by a combination of instinct and intellect and indirect clues.

Effects are being performed live by the actors. The "Foley Table" full of train whistles and china cups (for horse hooves) and similar is also behind the acting area, roughly level with the band. But many of the effects are subtle, and have to be mic'ed.  So I ran this mic through one of the on-board processors to delay it about 25 milliseconds, and fed it strongest into the side-fill monitors, thus allowing the combined sound to "waft out" from the stage in a similar way to the on-stage action.

I wish I had been able to spend more time during the development of the effects. As is usual, the were rehearsed piecemeal and I simply am not paid enough to attend every single rehearsal in hopes of getting a minute of work done on one day, a minute on another. The thunder effect never quite worked but it was too late and there was too little budget for a thunder sheet. I may yet make up a slapstick as a backup for the firecracker sound, though.

This may have been instructive for the director, too, in seeing just how much effort it takes to get not just "a train sound" but the right train sound for that moment -- in timbre, in volume, in timing as well as in the specificities of period and style.

My feeling in effects like this, though, is that it is less important that the effect works as an effect. It is more important that it works as a performance. So I'll keep something even if it doesn't really sound like a train crossing warning bell, because it is an interesting moment and it breaks up the sonic landscape and it gives the audience one more thing happening on stage. And when it all breaks right, they even realize what it is supposed to represent (or they come up with some rationale themselves for what the sound is supposed to represent -- and that's all good, too!)

The last issue in this show I expected was electronics.  But due to a complex series of events, the live tuba left, and the temporary substitute music director didn't own keyboard (or a tuba, either). The theater has several Casio keyboards around for use in the rehearsal rooms. They have built-in speakers but no audio outputs.

The best one we have -- an 88-semi-weighted-key Privia -- had a USB connector, though. So I brought in one of my spare laptops and ran the Aria player packaged with Garritan Personal Orchestra. This was sent to one of my tiny but powerful powered monitors in order to make the tuba and piano sound appear to be issuing from the pit with the other (real) instruments.

It took several performances worth of tweaking but I finally got a half-decent piano and tuba sound out of it. Unfortunately, during the final performance of the weekend -- a performance already racked by electronic gremlins and a possible power outage in the building -- the software locked up just before "Marian Librarian."

We made a temporary MacGuyver by pulling the microphone off the brass section and shoving it up against the Privia's own speakers, and I quickly dialed that out to the side-fill monitors to give the actors something to work with. All of this was done with me trapped at the mixing board (no A2 on this show) and texting back and forth to the Concert Master between songs.

My guess is that either power outage to the keyboard or a loose USB connection finally locked the software. And unfortunately, no-one in the pit realized you had to go into the Aria preferences panel to reset the keyboard connection. Instead they restarted the computer. Which wouldn't have been such an issue (I of course muted the keyboard send to monitors and house as soon as they started having trouble)...except for that powerful monitor I'd tucked under the keyboard.

So right in the middle of the library scene the audience was treated to the full-volume sound of a Sonic Screwdriver (my custom start-up sound on that laptop). Well, The Doctor is a Timelord, after all -- he can show up in Iowa in 1914 if he wants to!

Once they'd ticked the checkbox in Preferences, the software worked properly again, and we finished the show with no further issues (well, aside from the lightboard re-setting in the middle of the show, the Clear-Com intercom shutting down for no particular reason...heck, and even the lights in the men's restroom decided to get in on the act! Gremlins, I say. Must have been gremlins.)

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