Sunday, February 16, 2014


I had two people come up to me after Opening Night, and I've realized there are basically two classes of comments; those from people who understand what you are dealing with, and those from people who don't.

This is not to say that all sound people who comment will be positive. They may just pat you on the back and say, "Tough show, eh?" We designers also have a tendency to let people design their own way, even if that means letting them dig their own hole, rather than jumping in with a, "Have you considered adding compression here?" All in all, though, comments from people in the biz tend towards, "Good work sorting out the material they gave you to work with."


The second class of commentators are often very polite in manner, even tentative. The rarer positive comments are, "The show sounded good." The negative are almost always, "I couldn't hear (so-and-so, or this-and-that)."

And I don't know how to take this. I mean, sure, there are some FOH people out there who came from rock and roll and who consider mixing theater to be slumming. They spend their entire time getting a good sound from the drums, they crank the bass up to window-rattling level, and they let the vocals go because they simply don't care about that.

But most of us chose theater. Chose musical theater. Which you would suppose means that we have a love of the medium. Which means you'd think it would have occurred to us sometime during the last decade or two that "hearing" (really, understanding) the lyrics is important. (Heck, one could even say, paramount.)

So it is unlikely to be that I don't know the lyrics need to be audible. How likely is it that I'm just too lazy to do it? Well, let me set the stage for you. Opening night, party on stage following. When this person came up to me, everyone in the building was laughing and chatting with friends and drinking champagne and eating the free pizza. And here I am in the back, still working. Stripping sweat-wet mic bags off the wireless, pulling sticky tape off the elements -- all in all not very nice work.

And I've been working like this for two weeks of a long tech. Lots of twelve hour days. Do you really, really think that I'd do that, but turning the, "don't suck" knob on the board over a few more points was too much effort?

So I don't know what's going through the head of the people who couch their comments in this way. This is why you don't hear this kind of comment from sound professionals. Because they know that the only reason I'm sitting back there at that board for every single show is to put my ears in the space and be able to make the choices that lead to the best possible sound for that show.

I think maybe these comments are more a, "please, someone tell me why this had to happen!" sort of comment. That is, that they didn't have the listening experience they hoped for, and they will ask anyone they can in what they recognize already is a forlorn hope that it can be fixed somehow.

Except that isn't the flavor of most of these comments. As tentative and polite as they are, they are always couched in the accusatory. That I could have simply "turned up the vocals" and then it would have been perfect, but I chose for whatever reason -- cussed-mindedness or gross incompetence -- not to do that.

The illusion that a mix can be resolved to two knobs (how loud the band is, how loud the lyrics are) and getting the ratio right is as simple as turning one of those two knobs is, of course, sister to a host of similar illusions.

When you've got twenty people singing and dancing and a band playing and one of the solo lines isn't as clear as it should be, the illusion is that since David has a body mic, then if you were to turn up the knob connected to David's microphone, his solo would become clear.

Really, more than half the time, if you turn the knob that is indeed connected to the body pack David is wearing, David will not get perceptively louder. Far too often, you can't fix the issue at that simplistic a level. You have to do something else in order to pop David through the mix.

This is of course not exactly true. David may not be singing properly in the first place (meaning there is nothing there.) Or he might be singing, but the choreographer has chosen to have him clapping hands in rhythm at that moment and the clapping sound completely masks the lyrics. Or the system is close to saturation, and turning up any microphone ends up increasing feedback or room nodes or other distortion.

Plus, everything in a show happens in context. David may sing his line moments after a loud cymbal crash. At any other moment of the play he would be fine, but in this moment, ears are still shocked and you'd need more volume to compensate. Or Charley, Susan, David, and Lisa all have solo lines one by one but Lisa doesn't have a body mic -- and the only way you can keep Lisa's solo line from standing out and sounding ghastly is by working the levels down through the solos. Which means you've chosen as part of the total song to make that particular moment not as perfect as it could be.

Directors, I am convinced, too often experience plays in terms of isolated moments. They spend so much time rehearsing single scenes, or even single pages, they lose track of the context. This is why transitions between scenes are so often so bad. They simply didn't occur in rehearsal, and they had to be worked out in Tech. Which plays hobb with sound and light designers, of course, since over half of our work is in the transitions.

(Indeed, even in Tech it isn't unusual for transitions to be skipped over, or not done in time; the cast will break, help shift the set, then rehearsal starts again on the next scene on the work list).

I've touched before on the illusion that volume is everything. Reality is that perception is non-linear and context-dependent. What the audience member knows is that they didn't understand the lyrics. To them, the only translation is that they needed to be louder. To the professional, what is understood is that the ratio between those frequencies containing necessary information and those that confuse the picture has to be large enough. And the values of these two items change from moment to moment with changing context; during a loud moment perceived midrange is lower, and following a loud moment perception of similar frequencies as well as the higher frequency range are both dampened.

I've said this over and over but it still bears repeating. Turning up is not a panacea. At best, turning up is a temporary (and thus dangerous) solution.

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