Friday, November 7, 2014

The Wheels Come Off

Last night was the performance I feared. All the compromises I'd been forced into depended on certain things being true, and all of those things changed; leaving me in a place where the show sounded like ass and no amount of knob-twisting at FOH could save it.

I'm composing what may be a career-ending email. They think they need a Sound Operator. I think they need a Sound Designer, as well as a Sound Engineer. At the moment, they are blocking me from doing what a Designer does, meaning they are basically getting an Engineer for Operator's wages.

And, well, this gives me a chance to talk a little about roles and functions. Because that may be a little confusing to those new to the industry.

In some very small theaters, it actually does operate like it does in the excellent web comic Q to Q; the designers run their own shows. Well, except for sets -- Set Designers are rarely employed as the running crew for their own show!

For most of the industry, the jobs are broken out. The kinds of skills, experience, and maturity required of a designer is incompatible with the kind of wages, stipend, or volunteer nature required of the person who will be there on every performance.

In that construct, a Sound Designer is the person responsible for creating effects, making mic plots (often the Director and Stage Manager will take a hand in those as well), setting levels. The Sound Operator is the person who sits in the chair in the booth pressing "Go" on QLab, or out in the house at a Front-Of-House (FOH) mixing position mixing the show from night to night.

Both of these titles are show-related positions. Both are hired for the show, by the show; usually contract for the Sound Designer, contract or stipend for the Sound Operator (when they are not a volunteer or a student picking up lab hours). At a well-organized theater, there will often be a Master Electrician as well; this is a salaried employee (or a seasonal hire) who maintains the equipment.

In many cases, the ME is also responsible for lighting, including the schedule and hire of crews for hangs, focus, and strike, and doesn't spend a lot of time cleaning up the sound closet. In almost all cases, the system itself is a Contractor install, and was probably designed by a professional audio contractor. The sad reality to this being, as well, in many smaller theaters and particularly in schools and recreation departments and churches, the sound system is designed by people who do corporate sound, not theater sound. The systems do decently at reproducing rock and roll music at moderate to high levels, and very poorly at supporting musical theater.

In any case!

As you move up to bigger ponds, the food chain becomes longer as well. Whereas for a drawing-room comedy in a box set a mere "Sound Operator" will suffice for playing back effects (and in most budget-conscious theaters these days, the left hand of the Stage Manager is forced to suffice in this role) to actively balance the vocals on 20-40 wireless microphones the Sound Operator needs a bigger title.

Preference among us working stiffs is to use the same one used by the bigger world of live music; FOH (or Front-of-house mixer). And when the number of mics and the budget around them is sufficient, they start getting little fish of their own.

An "A2" is a catch-all audio assistant. (The A1 -- not that you ever hear the term -- is the FOH). The A2 lives backstage and deals with all the things the guy or gal stuck out in the middle of the audience can't. On a big music show the A2 will supervise a whole crew of mic-shifters. But back to the musical; in those, the A2's primary job is their alternate title; Mic Wrangler.

A good Mic Wrangler will hover over every quick-change, making sure the microphone survives the exchange of clothing and wig and the quick dab of fresh make-up. They will get instructions from the FOH or Stage Manager to swap out ailing microphones, tape up dangling wires, and they also have the unhappy task of pulling batteries and wiping the things down after every sweaty show. The really good ones have their ears open all the time, and will prophylactically change out suspect microphones before you even have an issue at the console.

Go a few steps more professional, and the crew increases again. Dialog Mixer (one person mixes the vocals on songs, the other mixes them on spoken material). Band Mixer. Monitor Mixer. Backline techs (people moving among the musicians keeping their equipment in working order. In the live music world, mixing band monitors is so important a task it is not just a different person than the FOH, it is often in a different location altogether -- Monitor Beach, often to the side of the stage for easier access.

But that's not theater. Maybe Broadway, but not the theater most of us see. We're basically lucky to get an A2, and good luck trying to crawl into a typical crowded pit to fix a keyboard issue or plug a mic back in.

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