Monday, November 3, 2014

Poppins_03: Building In-Situ

Turns out this was not the best show to do a detailed account of the sound effects process. "Poppins" is an odd beast. The impression I got from the Broadway Cast recording, and the early orchestra rehearsals, turned out to be correct. The Director came to the same impression independently and strongly agreed with the choices we had to make.

Which is, in essentials, that this is a show about silences. About exposed melodic lines, about pauses, about the air between delicate, Mozart-like arpeggios. And it is practically through-composed; there is very little space that doesn't have music in it, and the music is harmonically and rhythmically complex. I watched our Music Director beating out a problematic section for a struggling singer; 4, 2, 4, 2, 4, 2, fermata, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 4 rit and long fermata...

This isn't like "A Little Princess." In "Princess," the material was strong rhythms (often expressed through simple ostinato) and long, legato vocal lines. This left a ton of sonic space where continuous background sounds were not only not distracting, but added (I think!) to the total effect.

In "Poppins," the rhythms are practically implied by light, lilting runs. Filling in the spaces harms the feel of the music.  And as far as sound effects go, in addition, most of the magic performed by MARY is accompanied. It is in the score. So, all in all, there really aren't a lot of effects.

In addition to this design issue, there was a process issue. The sound effects we did have fell into two categories; transition effects, and spot "sweeteners" for some of the physical effects. For the former, discovering what worked for transitions required the entire acoustic environment to be in place and in timing; the orchestra, the actual set movement, and any additional cover we added (we added BERT to several of the transitions in order to give the audience something to look at while the set was being moved.)

The orchestra is still (several days after opening) changing their make-up, and the very books they are playing. In addition to altering what selections they are playing during transitions, if and when they will vamp, and their dynamics during transitions. The set crew is still refining; we didn't finalize which pieces are even on stage until First Preview, and the order that pieces move is still as of the close of opening weekend a bit...fluid.

Fortunately, my choice for transition effects was a new sample set. I'm using the venerable, low-profile shareware VSamp for this, driven by a 2-octave Ozone keyboard I can park right under the laptop to the right of the sound board. I re-assigned the modulation wheel on the keyboard to Expression (CC #1) via MidiPipe, and set Expression sensitivity in the envelope section in VSamp so I can use it for real-time fades and crescendos. This does mean I'm basically making a Vulcan Salute with one hand while mixing BERT's vocal and selecting scene presets on the LS9 mixer with the other, but it works.

In many places I'm simply sitting tacet and letting the band play. In others I'm forced to play out a little more with my rain and wind and thunder -- in order to cover the distracting noise of the flying system being reset for MARY's next magical entrance!

In the case of the practical effects, they were of course delivered late in the day (among other things having to wait for set building to finish so they could be installed) and the actors are still developing their timing around them. Fortunately the Director understood perfectly that I would be unable to cut these cues until all of that happened. And I'm making some small timing and volume adjustments still.

(Techie stuff; both of these are screen-shot via the Quicktime player and edited in iMovie. To get the audio stream off Reaper and into Quicktime sound was passed through SoundFlower. For "Poppins" these are my actual build files -- during the show, of course, rendered stereo tracks are played back from QLab. For "Princess," this is a comp of two mono busses recorded off the board during performance, combined with the effects files in Reaper in order to reconstruct a semblance of the performance experience.)

Thus, this was the abbreviated process:

For underscore/transition effects, auditioned wind and rain and birdsong over the speakers, tweaked EQ a bit and created seamless loops that could be loaded into the sampler. Tried that out during dress and set an overall level and sensitivity for the sampler before finishing the gain-staging.

For practical effects sweetening, waited until I saw the actors actually doing the effect, then constructed brief "story-telling" sequences for each using only my own memory for overall timing. They simply aren't going to match that closely. Fortunately the kitchen sequence can be broken into four individual cues (and another four for the magical restorations), meaning there's at least some vague correspondence between stage action and accompanying sound.

Really, though, "Poppins" proved a lot less interesting as an effects show, and a lot more interesting from a reinforcement and system design perspective. Which I may get into...when the dust clears a little.

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