Friday, March 14, 2014

Venue Design

I'm trying to do some system upgrades at a local theater.

The main problem we are facing is that it is a multi-use, multi-user facility. And it has no resident engineer. So each individual designer or facility user has made changes, usually undocumented, sometimes stupid, to what has become an accreted pile of barely-works and what-is-this.

The current administrators are in complete agreement with me that we want a turn-key approach. Actually, a more nuanced view of it is a "venue" approach.

Out there in the bigger world of live sound, there is a permeable barrier between the house system, and the FOH console. The incoming act is always given permission to do whatever they need on the front end. But the system they patch into -- with the limiters, cross-overs, and other shaping tools -- they don't have blanket permission to muck with. Only if they can convince the venue engineer will they be allowed to adjust how the system itself is configured.

In this case, I want to set that barrier even a little further out. One of the users is a classroom setting where all they need is a talkback microphone and a way to play iPods through the system. For this, I do not want them to be even touching the FOH mixer.

We also have some inexperienced sound designers coming in. For them, I want them to be able to walk in to an FOH mixer that is already working, and a sound effects playback computer already hooked into the system. Because I don't want to make them think they have to go behind the rack and start yanking out cables just to get the sound for their show working.

This makes, however, for a potentially expensive, and very likely complex, system. What I'm trying to do is have hard-wired defaults, and offer flexibility within a parallel patch system; so whether you chose to patch directly into one of the surround speakers or not, it will remain part of the configured "mains" input.

This requires a bunch of summing mixers.

My best of all possible worlds would be a big line mixer mounted in the rack, with a custom acrylic shield locking out the majority of the knobs from the casual user.

But I can't seem to find one with enough inputs to handle the ability to route SFX playback to any of the speakers in the "mains" system. So my fallback there is very possibly going to be to hide a couple RDL (Radio Design Labs) "Stick-ons" inside the rack. This would allow me to have a firewire interface permanently wired into the house speaker system in such a way that cues can be played back into individual speakers or groups of speakers.

My vision of the "mains" processing, however, is that the front speakers have 31-band graphic, and the rear surround are on a delay. So the only place I really can patch in a direct-to-speaker would be post-processor anyhow. So maybe having an RDL stick-on as a line-level merger is the smartest way to add this option. Better yet, it is an option I don't have to include at this time.

A similar issue is the front-of-stage foldback speakers. They are sometimes used for sound effect playback, and sometimes used for foldback of band or pre-recorded music. They would also be handy for Stage Manager announcements during rehearsals, of course. This would be a lot of summing mixers to try to integrate all these different users, though.

On the "classes" end, I want them to be presented with a vanilla mixer that has nothing to do with whatever the main stage shows will be using. In fact, I think they don't need a mixer at all; they can adjust their playback volume via the iPod itself, and the talkback can be a preset. For this, I'm willing to assume having these components "permanently" wired -- with a switch on the talkback mic, of course -- and preset levels on the rack mixer, will suffice. If actual conditions during the class require they tweak their levels, it doesn't effect anything else.

Of course even soft-switching is not a panacea for idiots and live mics. So it would be very nice to have a limiter in circuit. The iPod, too -- I have yet to see any user, anywhere, mute the system before yanking the plug out of an iPod.

Another element for this is that the talkback might want to be sent to the dressing room monitors during main stage shows. It might be safer, however, to make only the Clear-Com headset capable of paging backstage -- because doing it the other way leads to the potential of dressing room announcements being sent to the audience during a main stage performance!

For classic reinforcement, I want the option to have the board either in the booth, or out in the house. What I want to do is run an audio snake out to the FOH position and leave it there. One way or another, this means they will be disconnecting the mixer itself and dragging it around. Since they have to patch into the line mixer to get access to their outputs anyhow, I am tempted to add a patch bay to the system. Or I could hard-wire the system end of two snakes (one for booth, one for FOH) and trust that it will never occur that both systems are in use simultaneously.

The last major system is the enhanced dressing room and booth monitors. For those, I'm using a simple zone system driven by one microphone. This is truly turn-key; the only thing the end user will ever do is turn up or down the level of one of the zones. Which in itself is dangerous enough (this is why you do not put volume controls on dressing room monitors. Because a random cast member will turn it down so they can listen to their tunes or talk on their phone, and never remember to turn it back up again, and no-one will realize the monitors are down until someone blows an entrance).

The main option I have is to add an input; either from the Stage Manager's headset, or from the talk-back mic, or even a dedicated booth-to-dressing-room annunciator. This, at least (even the option for automatic ducking!) is already included in the unit I've spec'd out.

All said and done, what I'm trying to achieve is a TNG system -- Star Trek, The Next Generation, that is. Which is to say; that it is clean and intuitive in the default state, but endlessly reconfigurable to almost every option imaginable should the need arise.

1 comment:

  1. My current theater has a pretty decent handle on this (minus the source speakers).
    It has 3 places you can mix from: the obvious FOH analog mixer, a "default" 8ch mixer by the SM position backstage, and behind the main audi area is a floor pocket with LCR inputs on xlr (eg: for an incoming tour's console)
    All three of these get mixed down to LCR in 2 Symetrix DSP (which are confirured together for 16ins x 16outs). So all three mixers can be live at the same time. Pretty smart.
    Now onstage are various floor pockets. A sample floor pocket might have 7 xlr that go to the patchbay at FOH, and 1 more that labeled "Default #". That last one goes to the Default mixer. The Default mixer has a total of 5mic inputs, plus CD/tape, and ipod (soon).
    This all means that I can run any theater show, concert , etc on my FOH console, AND a touring act can patch into the audi floorpocket and mix their show, AND the SM can patch in one SM58 for that talking head Q/A that happens before my call time.