Monday, May 26, 2014

Why Called Cues?

I just finished a lighting design, and as I step back from it I'm feeling a little better about it. I think the overall concept worked but I got too dramatic in places where a subtler touch would have worked better. The problem of having no tech time; I wrote all the cues on a bare stage, and there wasn't really enough time to tweak the looks later.

Anyhow, opening went okay. There were a couple of late cues, though; the Stage Manager got distracted. And it got me thinking; why are we still calling cues for lights and sound? Is this a historical hang-over that needs to be re-thought?

Let me explain. In theater, the majority of technical elements in a production are timed to the action on stage by dividing them up (sometimes quite artificially) into discrete events named "cues." During performance, the Stage Manager, on headset, steps through each of these events via voice commands to the appropriate operators.

Traditionally, lighting events are assigned numbers, and sound events letters. Deck and rail cues are usually named but in complex shows can be numbered as well.

This only makes sense in terms of deck and rail cues; those operators are often where they can not directly see the stage. For safety alone, they need to commanded both from someone with a clear view, and a single authority who can coordinate multiple elements to happen simultaneously (or as the timing of a set change or other action requires).

And there is sense to the position that the flow of a show is an artistic choice; that the nuances of how long to hold a black out or when to bring in the show curtain benefit from being under the tight timing control of a (single) artist.

Except. Except because of how this system evolved, there are a surprising number of exemptions. The pit, for instance. The most that a Stage Manager will ever cue is indication that they are ready for downbeat. Sometimes this is a cue light, sometimes a shoulder tap, sometimes just a light cue. The Music Director takes it from there.

Actors also perform a great many actions on their own impulse. The major exception is a blind entrance; when an actor has to enter in the middle of a scene, they also may get a shoulder tap from a crew member on headset (in some well-equipped theaters, this is a cue light system. At the Rep we actually had a system indicating standby, and a way for the actor to return "standby received," in addition to the GO.")

(Incidentally, a courtesy during tech is for anyone who isn't the Stage Manager to refrain from using "the GO word." Spelling it out is common; the Lighting Designer will say on headset, "Can you take the Gee-Oh at the end of LISA's line, please?")

And this leaves us in a place where if a bicycle horn is a pre-recorded cue, it happens only when a Stage Manager says into a headset, "Sound cue T, GO." But if for that exact same moment in that exact same script, a production choses to have the percussionist use an actual horn, that percussionist simply hits the horn when he judges the time to be correct (the closest approximation may be when only the Music Director has a clear view of the stage, and cues the percussionist with a wave of the baton.)

There are cues that are recognized as being necessary operator actions. An actor flicks an on-stage (fake) light switch and the scene lights change. Typically, those cues are handed off in a oddly complex and careful procedure, as if they were passing an armed grenade. This appears to be a frightening situation for all involved; for the Stage Manager who hates losing control for even a single cue, for the operator who has been trained to desire nothing more than to hit the GO button on command like they were Ham the Space Chimp, and the Lighting Designer who hopes the thing will come off properly.

The default setting is called cues. So much the default I've had to fight many times to be allowed to be off headset when mixing the show from FOH. And, yes; I have seen many people "mixing" a show they could not hear, as the constant natter of the ClearCom was in their ear the entire show. I've even seen Stage Managers cue microphones on and off, and attempt to give notes about the volume of the reinforcement -- when over half of what they are hearing is open microphone leakage from the backstage intercom channels.

The compromise I have argued for is to have those cues that depend on outside information (aka, someone backstage informing the Stage Manager via intercom that the dancers are ready) be made called cues, and everything that can be taken off action (or dialog, or music) be executed freely by the sound operator. I don't think I've managed to have this accepted more than once or twice.

And yet even this example is a little suspect; because if the point is that the operator has to wait until word comes from backstage, and they need to be on headset to get the go-ahead from the Stage Manager, what (outside of the element of a single point of command alluded to earlier), requites a Stage Manager and a lettered and official cue event be part of the story?

I've worked a lot of dance, and a lot of the light cues there are taken when backstage says they are ready, there may or may not be an official go-ahead, but me and sound look at each other, nod, and take our cues (together if need-be, on the basis of action or the timing of the music if need be).

The theory of the Stage Manager as the single point of command is a good one, but it has two fatal flaws. One is that actors seem to be able to time their movements to each other without needing a single time-keeper. And bands do much tighter coordination than any technical event, mostly by just listening to each other.

The other is that the Stage Managers today are already overtasked.

When I started in theater, the Stage Manager called the show. Board operators ran the light boards, sound operator ran their board, deck chiefs organized the shift crews, etc.

Now there are frequently many less people in the booth. I rarely have an A2 (Audio Assistant) when I am mixing FOH. Often there is no light board operator; the Stage Manager takes all the lighting cues themselves.

While, often as not, also running projections, possible sound cues, and still giving out deck and fly cues. And they are also taking notes for costume issues, flubbed lines, unauthorized changes in choreography, etc.

The reality for a long time has been that a good Stage Manager can manage to juggle all of these elements and get through all of the calls in time. (And plenty of shows, I've had a critical sound cue played way too late because the Stage Manager simply could not talk fast enough to get through all the preceding lighting cues, and was either unwilling or unable to trust her people enough to set up an alternate or truncated call for those moments).

I am prepared to say that, outside of key transition moments (like the top of the show), the idea that the Stage Manager can coordinate the timing of all the disparate events the way that a conductor leads a symphony orchestra is, well, a myth. Worse, a harmful myth.

We started with tens of lighting cues, and sound effects were rare events. We are now in the realm of 30-40 lighting cues happening over a single dance number (I'm back to talking Musical Theater; modern dance goes way past this figure), and hundred of sound effects happening during the show. Plus video, plus electrically triggered special effects.

We've been trying to cram these increasing numbers into the old way of doing things. Hence innovations like multiple chained cues. And we've been dragging feet at the adoption of new technologies because they refuse to fit well into the boxes. If you have a prop on stage that allows the actor to directly trigger by radio link a sound and/or lighting event, it doesn't fit neatly into the schema of lettered cues commanded serially by a single authority.

I say let's change the paradigm. Let's recognize lighting operators and sound operators as semi-independent artists, just like musicians (or follow-spot operators). Let's develop a communications and coordination system and protocol that treats autonomy as the default, not the exception. Let's work out "armed/safe" protocols -- deadman switches -- that will electronically prevent cues from being fired when safety is an issue (or the show would be compromised by an early cue).

Lets find ways to communicate with these semi-autonomous operators that doesn't interfere with their ability to follow the action and listen to the stage; but something that is simple to employ and clear and unambiguous so when coordination is desired on a particular event or sequence, it can be dropped in with minimal impact to the crew and the process.

In the system we have now, Stage Manager attention is being taken away from more critical show elements to handle minutia like push-focus lighting cues or background sound cues. The "all cues have a number or letter" doesn't allow prioritization; important stage events are missed because multiple people's attention (and the bandwidth of the stage communication system) was tied up with increasing the level of the special on the chair 5% when RODDY sat down. And on the flip side, the cannon shot -- combined prop, sound effect, and lighting effect -- is nine nights out of ten a comedically uncoordinated mess.

Let's embrace the freedom of non-discrete events; of shifts in level that are operator-timed to ongoing action, following actor movements like a follow spot does. Let's look deeper into electronic coordination of multiple technical events, and integrate sensor technology more fully into the mix. Let's free sound operators from headset, and Stage Managers from at least some of the meaningless minutia so they can better serve the needs of actors and directors and the production as a whole.

We can change the communications systems. We can change the structure of cues. But the important change is the tough one; a paradigm change in how we cue a show.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Make Philosophy

There is a particular intersection in the Venn Diagram of crafts, hobbies, high-tech entrepreneurs and DIY that has been packaged by commercial enterprises and largely embraced by a significant and growing number of enthusiasts as the "Maker" movement.

Like all movements, it is not monolithic or homogeneous, it is evolving, it will not last forever and it is far from perfect.

What I'm interested in asking is; in what ways is Maker different from past (and ongoing) activities with a similar label? Tandy (under different corporate owners of course) has been selling kits for leather crafts back at least to when they advertised in the back of comic books. Radio Shack originally sold surplus electronics parts to Ham enthusiasts. People in a thousand professions have had to create or re-engineer the tools of their trade, from physicists building an experiment to clarinet players improvising a ligature. And DIY is a well-established side of auto repair and home improvement.

My impression is that the Make movement differs (while still building on the groundwork of others) by being more focused on the process. This leaves us with an odd juxtaposition of technologically-aided expediency, and an embrace of failure (or, rather, iteration as inherent process). What ties those together may be innovation.

First on failure. Many communities exist within a framework of a well-documented, potentially regulated, mature technology. The impetus towards someone wanting to fix the brakes on their car or learn to play clarinet is to learn "how it is done." Learn established practice. In fact, not learning established practice is considered failure.

Make philosophy is about learning and innovation as an ongoing process. There's nothing wrong with failure. There's even less wrong with success.

Which makes a good pairing with the emphasis on finding new ways to do things. Since you are constantly innovating, you aren't at any point "failing to do it right." Instead, you are failing to make something new that works.  Yet.

This is something so basic if I was making this as a list of tenets, it would be #2. The reaction of many people to some task out of their comfort zone, whether it is cooking a cake or writing a piece of software, is a scared and frustrated, "I don't know how to do that." The proper reaction for a Maker is, "Cool! Something I don't know how to do...yet!"

There is what looks like a dichotomy between project and process. The process is paramount; Make is about Making, not about the results. But at the same time, the project is the form. The Maker does not set out to learn to weld; they set out to make a bike. Welding is one of the skills they need to learn in order to complete it.

It seems like a paradox, because they may get interested in welding other things, and the bike project may fail or be abandoned, but it isn't, because the take-home is that learning is simply better when it is task-oriented. And that's a big STEM lesson, too.

Theatrical arts are about expediency, and innovation is celebrated whenever it brings a new look to the stage or cuts down the labor in achieving a desired effect. Where Make differs from theater is an almost obsessive focus in leveraging new technologies. Innovation within Make could be characterized as, "Let's find a faster and more efficient way of doing this," but it is more often better stated as, "There's got to be a way to automate this/use lasers/use a computer."

So there is always interest in high tech. And that may make Make an artifact of an era; the moment when computational power and micro-manufacturing brought the price point down on CNC to where individuals could access it. 3d printing is already moving mainstream, and very possibly other key technologies embraced by the Make movement will follow, leaving them with little unique to say.

But this leads us into the third tripod of the philosophy; sharing. Crowd-sourcing, networking; all of these have been done by crafts and hobbies since there were mimeograph machines and public libraries willing to let clubs use a back room. Where Make is different is, again, the technological utilization; seeing the new social media as a way for collaboration to be broad-based and incredibly fast.

Which changes the shape of it. Clubs and guilds work on something closer to a cell structure, where a small number of practitioners act as gurus to teach the next generations. With wikis and Instructables and the blogosphere Make is more of an ongoing brainstorming session, a massive array of online whiteboards, in which skills are passed around and added upon in a constant round.

These I think form the core tenets. There are other threads, inherited from other movements; self-sufficiency, information freedom, open source/open doc/open hardware, recycling, greenware. The last are more observed in the intent than in the result, however! And there is a growing movement towards outreach; to get people who wouldn't normally consider themselves capable of crafts or repairs to get that confidence, and to teach the next generations. Make hooks into STEM that way; using Make as a way to create a new generation that isn't technophobic, and to inspire them to go deeper into sciences, math, and engineering than the often hacker mentality of Make.

Make no mistake; combining expediency, technological solutions, and crowd-sourced intelligence leads to a hacker mentality, a "I don't understand this but I downloaded some blueprints." And at some point you need to move beyond understanding just enough to build the gadget, to being able to engineer it properly.

Except. Except those sorts of deeper skills in science and engineering also seem to fall into the Maker embrace of, "I don't know yet but I'm dying to learn." More than any crafts or DIY movement of the past that I am familiar with, Make seems willing to dive into basic science; to pull out the calculators and look up the materials tables and try to get some hard numbers down.

I don't know if this is because the basic information is so much more widely available, or because we have tools that are disposed towards calculating and generating graphs (that is, a lot of Make is passing through computers at some stage or other), or because the kinds of tools -- laser engravers, CNC routers -- step away from some of the complexities inherent in tools and industrial processes with decades of history to approach tasks in closer to a spherical cow approximation. They are closer to brute-force, is what I mean. There are a hundred different milling procedures and tools on the manual end, but 99% of CNC milling is done by running one single tool around and around a whole bunch.

In any case, despite the drives to find new methods all the time, Makers have a deep and abiding respect for the traditions and skills of the older ways. So unlike the hacker, the Maker does not fool themselves; they recognize the need for engineering and the skills of the engineer. They are just more willing than most to throw themselves into something, with full awareness of the gaps in their knowledge and experience.

Which also might be a tenet. Beyond failure, beyond hacking, beyond innovation, there is an abiding attitude of, "I don't know if this will work. It might even blow up. So.....let's try it!"

Friday, May 23, 2014

People think we're automatons...

After all that hard work, there is one cue (well, one sequence) that I actually feel happy about it. Otherwise, I'm not thrilled by the lighting design I just completed.

On the other hand, I wasn't really there as designer. I was there as fireman.

So we closed a show, and immediately followed it with a remount using a younger cast (as part of our academy program.) I got the call on the day of tech, "Can you come in and help write cues?" Which I did, without having seen the show, without even enough time to read the script. So basically the director wrote the show, and I pushed faders.

Well and good. But it turns out we had to strike the plot, and re-hang for a second session. And that's when I went into damage control. I wasn't hired as a Lighting Designer per se, but without an LD, there is no way we'd be able to get a working plot and cues for the new choreography out of the limited time we had to work in. And since I didn't see an LD standing around, that meant me. I didn't take the job out of ego, or a desire to design, but out of the realization that it needed to be done and I had the skills to do it.

There's about eighty lights involved, not including practicals. So three 12-14 hour days in a row was just barely enough to get some cues into the board. Not enough time to design from scratch -- heck, I only managed to see half the show in rehearsal before I had to start writing cues. So I was stuck with the choices of the original designer, plus whatever had happened to that design due to things getting moved around by other users.

This is where you get into Total Theater territory.

It is one thing to do a design and be conscious of the needs of your design, your department, the integrity of your own work. It is another thing to be aware of how what you do impacts the other departments, and how your design integrates with the work of the rest of the design team. Whether it clashes, or whether the sum becomes greater than the parts.

And beyond that box in turn, is thinking of the production in a larger context. For me, there were two key things from that larger context. One was that I was inheriting another designer's work, and to some extent it would be a disservice to him to not use it the way he intended it. The more important thing was, however, that this was the second of two sessions. A second cast. Which meant that even though a lesser effort might have been appropriate for the production, the kids deserved to have at least as much attention on their lighting as the first group had gotten on theirs. They worked as hard with the music director and on their choreography, and they deserved that we give them a similar quality of lighting design.

The primary internal constraint was of course time. This was a reduced tech. We had an available dry-tech we couldn't use (not enough time to hang and focus and write), then one day of tech before we went in front of audience. We literally did not have enough time to paper tech an appropriate number of cues.

I was left in a rather familiar place. The place where you have to somehow make one cue, one look, cover too much ground. You get this a lot when a Director says, "I want the lights to be tight on the chair for this entire scene. I don't want any light elsewhere on the stage. ELISE spends the entire scene in the chair." Except of course for the brief moment where she gets the letter off the mantle, of course. And she only had one line there. And it is only one of the more important lines in the play.

John Byrne has talked about comic book writers who will present a similar problem to their artists; "In panel #2, Spider-Man throws a roundhouse at the cloaked figure, realizes it is Juggernaut in disguise, and turns to leap back out the window."

You shouldn't have to be a comic book artist to realize that doesn't fit in a single panel. Not even with clever placement of your dialog balloons.

Writing cues musicals in particular, you aim for key moments when you want a specific look, but if you can't have enough cues, you have to sustain these looks through bridges where they don't look so well. So you have people entering a scene in the dark because you simply can not spare a second cue before the down stage center spot hits them.

Well, mostly. The old stand-by is to rough-time the scene and build in cross-fades and auto-follows. Which I have plenty of in my current design!

But even outside of these: the lack of tech time to properly cue, having to use an existing plot, etc. I just am not that happy with my design. Oh, well. There's always next show.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Six Simple Rules for Dating My Theater

6) Leave time to clean up. And not "just enough time to shove the tools under a platform along with all the wet paint brushes and a bunch of sawdust." Enough time to dummy check the set and make sure you remembered to fasten the platforms and stair units back down again, enough time to find the loose hardware that will otherwise find itself in an actor's flesh. And enough time so the tool or part you quickly shoved into a box then crammed into a crawlspace so you could get the stage ready doesn't end up staying there, lost, for the next two years.

5) Do not work over heads. So someone didn't leave enough time to get the gels into the front lights? That's someone else's problem. It doesn't justify dropping things from the grid on to the heads of your innocent cast.

4) NO FOREARM COILS. Either learn how to coil cable properly, or get someone else to do it. One hasty coil puts kinks in a cable that takes a dozen good coils to get back out. And every badly-coiled cable costs time, usually time right where it is needed the most (aka at five minutes before sound check).

3) Don't cut the grounding pins off electrical equipment. The moment you cut that pin off, you should be asking yourself; "If it is important for this piece of equipment to be grounded, why am I trying to put it into a piece of lamp cord, a cheap Wallmart's extension cord, or an unrated household outlet?"

When I see the grounding pin cut off, I take out my knife and cut the entire plug off. That extension cord will not be used until someone re-wires it. Correctly.

2) 45-Degree Rule: I'm too much of a realist to believe it is possible to ban all food and drinks from the light and sound booths. But I will demand that when you pick up a cup of coffee, it NEVER passes over the board. My personal rule is that it never gets above an imaginary 45-degree angle drawn from the control surfaces.

Potato chips and candy? Don't. Eat those snacks OUTSIDE the booth, and WASH YOUR HANDS before you re-enter. I'm still in the process of trying to clean off some bump buttons on our Expression console where some chocolate-fingered numbnuts got them all glued to each other.

1) NO DUCT TAPE! If I see a roll inside a theater, it will go into the trash. Use gaffer's tape for those places where you must.

And for pity's sake...out of all the horrors of duct tape, the most excrescent are those committed by callously incompetent nincompoops who use it TO MARK SOUND BOARDS.

Oh, and because it is so important it deserves a place all of its own....

If you say to me you are intending on flying an actor in the next production, one of the next six words out of your mouth had better be "Foy." Or the equivalent professional organization.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Bay Area Maker Faire 2014

This is nothing but some personal impressions; I went one day, didn't do any research or interviews or collect any numbers.

Maker Faire is changing. The Maker movement itself is changing. Some of that is the inevitable mechanisms of capitalization. The unique idea realized by an individual is built on to become the shared knowledge of a small number of dedicated people, then in turn becomes aided, accessorized, and finally thoroughly commercialized -- and domesticated -- by the big players of established industry.

Even when something has too little market, or is too hard to domesticate, for it to become a mass-market product from Mattel or Apple, even when the idea stays within the core group that first came up with it, the trend is for the tinkerer to become entrepreneur. At the 2012 Maker Faire they might have been there with a hand-built prototype. At the 2013 they might have a advanced-tinkerers-only grade kit. At 2014 they've had the thing assembled in Taiwan with an injection-mold housing and a shrink-wrapped sales package.

The thing is, over the years I've been going, the proportions seem to be shifting more. And the outliers -- the knitters, the bee keepers, the art cars; all those that don't quite turn into electronics devices that can be packaged and sold at a big-box store -- are less and less in evidence.

There is also not so much an increase in the number of children, but a change in the focus. It has become almost the theme park version of itself. More and more, the kind of exhibit set up at Maker Faire is not something with deep science, serious hacking, and a lot of geekery, but something that you can take the five-year old to gawk at when Six Flags is closed.

And this hooks in to the merchandizing, too, in that most of the Maker Shed (aka dealer's room) wasn't tools for hackers and tinkerers, but was kits the parents could buy in large quantities (the vast majority of which I am guessing never get successfully assembled).

I am all for education, I am all for being open to all ages. I've blogged about working on electronics with my own young one. And I am definite that there is a need to especially reach out to younger people to give them the freedom to look inside the box and tinker with the insides; whether that "box" is a piece of consumer electronics, or the policies of the NSA. We need to confront the blank face of consumer culture; the "Sony knows what's good for you" attitude, and the "Apple has done all the creating for you so sit back" attitude, and realize that we all have the freedom to imagine better, demand better, and perhaps build better ourselves.

But I'm not sure this is being accomplished by turning most of Maker Faire over into eye candy and go-kart races to keep jaded children entertained, and brightly-wrapped but ultimately meaningless "kits" that parents can buy in large numbers as cheap pacifiers.

If there is any place left for geeky collaboration and the sharing of the joy of building and the arcane of technical and scientific knowledge, it may be in that Maker Faire is a convenient place to swap business cards, and apply those few seconds of face time that take what might be an otherwise only online collaboration out of that solipsistic existence. And like any mart, it has that unique advantage of being able to surprise you with something you didn't know to look for. Just wander the (shrinking) exhibits and see what catches your eye.

I can't say it was a wasted time. Even at a "eat hot dogs on the grass and watch the flaming octopus dance" level it is a fine weekend outing. And there are enough people still -- even in the less mainstream and wired-up crafts like carding or casting or confectionary -- that you can look, admire, talk, and maybe get a few hints here and there for your own projects.

Perhaps next year, though, work will allow me to come Saturday instead, and I can come at a time where we can gab and share ideas without quite the crush of crowds, the exhaustion that comes from the last day of the fair, and the ticking clock that is the pile of unsold inventory everyone is hoping they won't have to pack back into their vans at the end of the day.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

History in Gear

I was always a tinkerer with music. Took a couple composition classes in college but I'm basically a self-taught piano-player who can't even sight-read. Like a lot of people of my generation and general interests I was attracted towards movie soundtracks, and the tonal colors and multitude of instrumental lines that is practically impossible for a solo performer to emulate. But I had neither the focus, the patience, nor the aptitude to study music seriously, or for that matter, to get into a band.

Got hired by a theater as Master Electrician and decided I needed to learn more about sound engineering. Mixing, in particular. And for no good reason, I started composing things again just so I'd have some multi-track material to learn mixing on.

It didn't actually help with the mixing. I learned that elsewhere. But it got me started on including original music in my theater sound designs.

More below the fold because bandwidth.

Monday, May 12, 2014


I'm in a bad place on a design now. I have too much information, and much of it is contradictory. So I need to find a couple of days to sit down with more material than I can display simultaneously -- or even print out -- and try to generate a consensus version that won't entirely suck.

I have the notes from a two-hour meeting with the director. I have notes in a script from an actual rehearsal, plus recordings of same (in which the actors are, of course, not doing quite what the notes in the script say they should be doing.) I have the original script, I have the conductor's score, I have an orchestration for some of the numbers, and I have the Disney recording (which also does not match the written cues -- quelle surprise!)

Overarching all of that, I have three at the moment incompatible concepts; the desire of the director to add a bunch of material, the desire of the music director not to monkey with the written score, and trailing way behind all of this, my original design impulse.

I'm feeling a little harried. Following that last rehearsal I took an early dinner then slept for almost twelve hours.

Although a large part of the original application has been superseded, I'm not unhappy with my new sound library purchases. If all I end up with on this design is a couple of percussion hits, they still complement each other nicely; the Garritan library adds some range, but surprisingly leaves out some of the most characteristic sounds of the Beijing Opera style percussion. And the Peking Opera library has in addition some potentially useful riffs and loops -- which if nothing else, are extremely informative as to performance styles.

I haven't had a chance to look into those parts of the Garritan library that won't be useful on this particular show. At first glance, it has the usual conundrum of most "world" libraries; too many instruments, leading to a lot of variety but shallow coverage to each particular. One forgets that each of the cultures represented has musical traditions as long and varied as the more familiar Western ones, and you largely miss the point by saying that, say, the dizi is a flute with a slight buzzing sound. The tradition and the kinds of lines played are intimately connected with the physics of the instrument.

The Garritan libraries have always been far on the side of the curve where the "Live Steam" enthusiasts live; emphasis on nuancing performance with a multitude of controllers, and as a result losing in instant playability. The souna -- the instrument I largely got the library for -- being a case in point. It didn't initially impress. I was looking for that blatting, tweeting, lively sound of the folk instrument, and the raw Garritan patch was giving me a dry performance with nothing of the real instrument but the characteristic timbre.

Except of course Garritan means for you to perform the thing. The bent notes are to be triggered from keyswitches or done manually with riding the bend knob, the buzzing blatting sound is of course flutter tongue, which is both keyswitch and added to taste via controller.

And truly be idiomatic, the suona family has several distinct members, which can be largely classed into the large and small; one has a softer, more lyrical tone, the other is more martial and is used for wedding processions and funerals as well. And one "Suona" patch does injustice to the tonal variety of the instrument.

Which is why some later libraries specialize in smaller and smaller families; instead of trying to cover "World," or even a region, they cover a single instrument, or perhaps just the instruments of carnatic music...or just the percussion commonly found in the Beijing Opera.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ask Not for Whom the Gong...

I junked the first attempt at a jacket mold.

The last can of Rebound 25 in town was at Blick, in one of those over-priced starter packs. So after laying up three coats of brushable silicone, I used the included "Plasti-Paste" to make a jacket.

I like the Plasti-Paste. Easy to work with, sets up quick. The Rebound, less so. It didn't capture the details that well, and without thinning was extremely hard to "brush on." Certainly with my fragile master it was. I might do better with Oomoo and thixatropic additive.

I came very close to dropping some chunks of recycled mold into the thing as registration keys, until I realized that one was tin-cure, the other silicone. Oops!

I made a sandwich of jacket mold, mother mold, and a backing board, and did three pours -- one cup at a time -- of Smooth-Cast 300. Unfortunately more seemed to slop up on the backing board than actually went on to the rim, but otherwise it was a successful open-mold slush cast.

Sort of. The Rebound layer was thin, and the registration keys small, and it seems to have peeled away from the mother mold during the first pour. So the final cast is a little warped. Which works okay for what it is simulating, but is annoying. All in all, this turns out not to be a great shape for a jacket mold. I would have saved time and money by just box-molding it with Oomoo in the first place.

But then, half the reason for the exercise was to learn jacket molds, and I got to try out latex while I was at it.

Little of the surface detail made it on to the final cast so to make it look more like a hammered metal gong I got out my Dremel and carved some divots. That was a mistake; now it looks like a really poor attempt at a golf ball. So I'm filling in the divots with putty, and hoping a lot that when I do the final paint job it will look half-way acceptable. I have given up hope on achieving a really nice-looking gong -- at least, not one I can have finished and in the actor's hands by Sunday.

The divots are mostly filled now, and the effect isn't bad at all; they sort of extend the depth and scale of the hammered finish. Meanwhile I prepped the mold for a possible second pull, and discovered you may be able to glue down a mother mold to a too-thin silicone jacket, but not with Superglue; it caused the silicone to shrink in the places where I applied it.

It might be vaguely possible to slip a thin print coat of Oomoo between the damaged mold and the original master, but I wouldn't count on that working.

End of an Epic Era

I just bought another virtual instrument collection. Which it turns out I maybe don't need for the work next week but that's another story.

No, not this one. (Although I wouldn't mind having this one). Instead I got Garritan's world instrument collection, which is one of the few cheap options that includes a suona.

But faceplates like the above make me wonder if we are finally coming to the close of an era.

Using electronics to generate musical notes was not a new idea. Theramin saw his invention as a possible replacement for the violin. Classical composers were incorporating the Ondes Martenot (and the experimenters like Stockhausen were experimenting with non-traditional sound sources like untuned radios and vacuum cleaners). And something as venerable and established as the Hammond B3 is of course an electronic version of a traditional pipe organ.

By the late 60's electronica had made it out to the pop world, although pioneers like Wendy Carlos were still working laboriously, often note-by-note, with hand-soldered circuits (Delia Derbyshire created the first version of the Doctor Who theme by recording on to audio tape and physically cutting the tape to make the individual notes).

Then came disco and the various flavors of electronic pop; Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and a great many bands with sound driven by a keyboard wizard like Keith Emerson. Electronic sounds were out there, and just like the fate that befell the Theramin, these sounds were celebrated for their novelty, even as their inventors continued to work tirelessly to achieve half-way realistic simulations of "real" instruments.

(Take as example the Mellotron. Which, technically, could reproduce a realistic orchestral flute sound. But as employed by George Martin, the technical limitations of the tape-drive mechanism was exploited to cut an unusual and fresh flute-like track into the album. Much as the artificialities of a device originally intended to clean up the pitch of an inexperienced singer -- auto-tune -- has become a performance tool and a style all of its own.)

Realistic synthesis has always been there as some Shangri-La of the tireless engineers and experimenters, even as the music-makers have been out there using the tone provided in whatever way they see fit.

I started playing with electronic keyboards at the height of FM synthesis, that Yamaha creation that was at the heart of their DX line, and allowed the first generation of General MIDI chips that gave the term "MIDI Music" such a bad name. When I started, samplers were cumbersome, expensive, and limited. But when I went out and purchased my first sound module, LAS had hit the scene.

LAS was really an elaborated way to stretch the limited number of samples forced by the size of memories those days into enough octaves to be playable. In the Roland sample-based synthesizers, several different looping samples and one or two initial transients were layered together to provide a tone that more-or-less disguised the looping nature and more-or-less changed timbre as you moved up and down the instrument range. With good programming, you could even simulate to some degree the changes in timbre around the chalumeau register.

But of course Moore's Law marches on. And each manufacturer -- and soon, a whole new industry selling sample libraries -- touted the sheer size of their library as compared to their competitors, or to last year's model.

Soon enough the personal computer outstripped the pace of improvement in rack-mount samplers, and the sheer size of sample libraries had forced them out of ROM cards and floppies and on to dedicated hard drives. Rack-mount samplers moved out, and virtual instrument libraries moved in.

Meanwhile the tireless elves were experimenting with physical synthesis, trying to achieve those same characteristic instrument colors by modeling the physics of the instrument itself. With some interesting results, but rarely ones that were both affordable and playable.

I of course spent most of this era one step behind. Barely able to afford used sound modules, then hanging on to them when the world had moved on. Barely able to afford a computer that would run the latest libraries, and generally unable to afford things like Kontakt (nee...well, lots of name changes over its history); the software that is like an operating system for the vast majority of modern libraries. As in you are assumed to have bought it if you are doing anything in computer-based music, and that way the libraries don't have to bundle a sampler with their sound collections.

For the usual reasons -- among them, getting tired of having all their work tied to someone else's ever-changing standard -- the big library makers did eventually start distributing their own playback engines, free with their libraries.

Which only highlights the growing insanity of copy protection. During the boom, these big libraries, and the flagship software like Kontakt, were priced in the thousands of dollars. And inevitably onerous copy-protection schemes -- including dongles that hogged your USB ports, challenge-response that required an active internet connection, MAC checkers that shut down your software if you dared repair or replace any of the hardware on your computer, and even root kits were all employed.

To protect, in many cases, an engine that was given away anyhow, and file libraries based around samples (the majority of the work) that were in plain unencrypted format.

Hand in hand with this, seemingly; the efforts to protect their work, and the desire not to be dependent on another manufacturer's playback engine, the tendency of libraries moved swiftly away from being editable sounds, to being presets. All the limitations of the old rack-mount was still there, except the patches took a lot longer to load and had a habit of turning off mysteriously in the middle of a recording session (because some line of deep-buried code had just decided your registration had expired).

And the nature of the libraries began to change.

Always, there has been a small subset of users that, like the academics mentioned previously, were only interested in simulating existing acoustic instruments. These are the people who write orchestral material one part at a time, as if they were writing for a real orchestra (no-one named "String Ensemble" sits in a real orchestra. Instead you have first violins, second violins, violas, etc., etc.)

These users have always to the rest of the users of virtual instrument libraries a bit like Live Steam enthusiasts are to the Model Railroad community; admired for their technical perseverance, but rarely emulated. The vast majority of patches then and today are more likely to be labeled "Fanfare Brass" than "Eb Flugelhorn with straight mute," more likely to be properly characterized as "Psycho Strings" than "4 vlns spicc. con sordino."

There was a time during the golden age of sample libraries where a computer-mocked up orchestral score might be used in a television show, or a Hollywood movie. But that is changing. There are fewer symphony orchestras, more musicians looking for work, and the total price of properties (like big name games) has gone up to the point where it makes more sense to hire a real orchestra instead of paying someone to spend months tweaking synth patches.

As far as I can tell, the major commercial use of these things now is in mocking up score that will later be performed by actual musicians, or in overdubbing and padding out scores that are largely realized with real musicians. Which has implications as to how they are being used.

You can get half-assed "realistic" results with fairly basic work. You can add a few more percentile by going into hand-editing of expression curves and attacks and portamento rates and adding slurs and doits and grace notes...but it isn't worth it to the working users.

So the majority users aren't doing this kind of extensive editing. There is no call for it. And if there is no real call in most modern applications for extensively hand-editing a flute line, there is no real call for writing out each chair of a string section independently. Not unless you are testing a mock-up that you mean to have a string section perform, or unless you are working in a style that really requires all that internal movement.

And for the casual users, it is an even stronger impetus away from the most realistic simulation of individual instruments possible, and towards sections, pre-made swells and crescendos, and even entire canned phrases.

Back in the day one of the options was Band in a Box. Think of it a bit like a MIDI version of loops. The flexibility lay in the way the material was created, and that you were in the MIDI domain; you could assign the parts to the patches of your choice, as well as alter the root and tempo however you needed.

What is lost of course is the realism a player imparts on a performance. I tinkered a bit with an idea that I was going to include in a story I was writing; something I called "Intellisynth." The idea was a virtual instrument with software intelligence and a library of abstracted performance capture. Say you had an Intellisynth violin. You'd play the part from the keyboard. The Intellisynth would determine where to use up-bow or down-bow, which string made the most sense for each note in a sequence (obviously this is not done in real time, as it requires look-ahead), and attempts to detect phrases and lines to give each phrase an overall contour.

This is being done a bit; I have a freeware VSTi called "Spicy Guitar" that auto-detects when a chord is played and executes a strum. I believe it also detects the intervals being played and choses to throw in some fret noise as appropriate, but I could be mistaken!

The direction the real world went, though, is in canned loops. In entire sampled performances (or MIDI-sampled; akin to the old player piano performance capture rolls). Which are presented to the modern player as complete material -- which includes as is the nature of the beast those elements of tonic and harmonic development and even motive that the classically-trained composer would want to have under their control.

But the nature of the beast has changed. There are still music schools, there are still people composing and still sometimes even sponsored to write a concerto or two. But the vast majority of the people making music are now coming back much closer to a 19th century performance model; creating for their small circle of friends (that is, to whatever segment of the intertwined social media outlets they are presenting music within).

For these, loops are nothing; even remixes are completely acceptable. And that, I think, is one of the factors leading to what seems like an increasing desperation on the part of the big sample-based library producers.

We saw prices already falling before the crash. They have not recovered, although the price of libraries seems to have finally stabilized. The engines have also gone into Ballmer mode where they keep bringing out new and different versions in hopes of recapturing some sales. Of course the driver is also a move away from the laptop and MIDI keyboard controller, and into iOs. Because when most of your market is plugging loops together, or performing sections or pads, they don't need an 88-key semi-weighted controller and a DSP box capable of playing back all the parts of a symphony orchestra in real time.

And the picture above would make a nice poster boy for that kind of flailing. Except that the library in question is actually quite decent. It is marketed like some "cash in quick" collection of random synth pads and Lord of the Rings-sounding sections, but it is actually an honest and very playable library of medieval and renaissance instruments.

And that's another thing. The heyday of the giant sample libraries was also a nadir in playability. I am of the opinion that the stretching and smoothing of LAS -- that was forced by the relative sparsity of RAM in those days -- traded realism and character for playability. An 8-gig sampled library can give you a fairly realistic flute, but the sound is thinner and it is more awkward to make a lilting line with it. As soon as you realize that realistic simulation is not the only goal, you realize you could make a piece of listenable music faster with the older libraries.

This, at least, seems to be finally changing. Stretch synthesis, better legato smoothing, and sample libraries that depart from realism to make up for some of the deficiencies in the real instrument (do you want a lute sound, or do you really want a lute that is as likely to slip out of tune, and has the same limited range, as the original?)

And this essay is way too long.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Full Moldy Jacket

After all that data mining, he created a cave-in.

I read up a lot on mold-making. Followed several blogs and watched videos. Bought a book and read it several times. So of course when I go out to make my first jacket mold, I accidentally get latex instead of silicone.

It took three days to lay down enough coats of Casting Craft "Mold Builder" latex to be comfortable moving on to the mother mold. Then the resin I used with the fiberglas matting didn't set up properly. After a long struggle I got the master de-molded, but the mother isn't supporting the latex properly, the latex didn't capture sufficient detail, and the fiberglas is still sticky and really annoying to be around.

So three days and fifty bucks of material wasted, and a nasty clean-up job with acetone to boot. The only thing that prevents it from being a complete failure is that the master survived with only a few dings.

So it will be back again with Rebound 25, and if I mother mold, I'll lay up plaster bandages or even paper-mache. I have no interest in having more resin to mess with.

But time is getting to be a real problem. I just got yanked into yet another show to help set lights (I can't say "design" because it was literally last-minute -- not even enough time to read the script, much less get familiar with the show).

And there's a new director on one of the upcoming shows I have.

And I've finally got a lead on what to do at the venue I'm trying to improve, thanks to one of my commenters here, but I haven't got approval yet and time is getting very, very short before the big end-of-season musical there.

The next two sound designs are going to need a lot. New libraries, new effects. I need to build stuff into sampler in order to properly construct some of these effects. Which means I need to get my software organized. Figure out which samplers, which libraries actually work, and which are dead wood.

Because not only is there the ongoing problem of system upgrades breaking all the installed software, sound libraries are rampant with horrible copy-protection schemes. If you look at them sideways they de-authorize. And then you are left with a bunch of broken stuff cluttering up the menus of your DAW and sequencers. (And of course de-installing is also a vast pain for most of these libraries).

Yeesh. Something as simple as two libraries from the same damned company. One only opens in a proprietary VST host from the same company, the other only opens in Kontakt. Which keeps changing their authorization and support so one can never tell which version of Kontakt one is actually able to use at any moment.

It makes me really, really miss the rack-mount synths. When I never had to deal with passwords and having to be online just to play a flute patch. And where I could work up the patch libraries and have one single method of access across all the hosted sounds that was searchable and organized.

Sure, it is fun having another dozen random synth pads with every library you purchase. But you can't remember all of them, and you can't search them, and even when the libraries/engines still work (instead of being broken or deciding you need to renew a password at a site that requires a membership) you have to go through loading each new engine one at a time and squinting at their tiny displays in order to try to navigate through their poorly-labeled selection of patches.

I just went through a couple of hours of this just trying to track down a brushed cymbal sound. Eventually gave up and purchased a sample from SoundDogs.

But somehow, I need to sort out the stuff that actually works and is useful, and get my pallet organized to where I can roll out the effects I need for the next couple of shows.

And maybe then I can find a spare minute or two to write some music again.

To add a couple more percentile points on to "almost complete failure" I threw the dregs of my previous bottle of Smooth-Cast into the latex mold. And it reacted with some impurity and boiled up in an unpleasant way. But now at least I have some sense how those materials behave and what kind of mold I can get out of them if I ever need to use it again.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Hero Props

It doesn't literally mean "property of the hero." Although it often works out that way. A "hero" prop, in motion picture parlance, is a high-detail, nice-finish version suitable for holding close to the camera.

These are costly, often fragile items, and get swapped out for cast replicas when in the hands of background characters, or when the actor is rolling around in the dirt and would rather have foam rubber whacking them in the face instead of machined aluminium.

(A similar constraint exists with cosplayers and re-creationists such as the 501st; they may own a beautifully detailed real-steel DL-44, but they "troop" with something a lot lighter.  Having foam rubber instead of metal also makes you more friends at the admissions gate to a convention.)

In theater, there are no close-ups. There is also rarely a budget to speak of. So all props are background props. The range in theater is not between stunt props and hero props; it is between well-made props and cheap props. It still doesn't have to look good in close-up, but a good prop is safe and strong and will survive multiple productions. A cheap one squeaks through until closing night because the running crew is pouring fresh hot glue on it every night.

I am deeply respectful of the skill set that allows creation of every bizarre thing requested by a director with no time, no money, and practically nothing in the way of tools, either. But it isn't something that personally interests me. Although it fits badly into the schema of theater, what I like to build are things that look nice from close up.

So the Lewis Gun magazines are done. And they took longer than they needed (they are basically a background prop). And although I'm getting better at getting a decent surface and finish, I'm falling down in getting a finished prop that is sturdy.

The gong I'm working on now will hopefully improve on that.

For the purposes of the show, a picnic plate spray-painted brass would be good enough. No-one is going to be caring if the props are realistic. But I want to do this for myself. I want to see if I can fabricate something that is light and strong and looks good at stage distance, but also satisfies me for close-up appeal.

Another of those lovely trade-offs is shop access. A good set of tools and supplies and a nice work space means you can dash off the "good enough" style of prop much, much faster. And since the shop itself is a significant sunk cost, the actual props you build are cheaper.

On the flip side, when you are growing your shop and your own skills, each prop is a significant investment in new tools and new methods.

This was always going to be such. I was originally going to resin the finished master for strength. But for weight, looks, and additional strength, I'm going to go back to slush-casting. With, however, an as-yet untried technique to add to my collection; RTV and a mother mold instead of a box mold and Oomoo.

I had some recycled expanded foam lying around so I cut the master out of that. Cutting the rough (on my also-recovered-from-the-trash scroll saw) was quick, but smoothing the surface has taken me the better part of two days. Of course a lot of that time was spent waiting on primer to dry.

I am about to spray the hammered finish (because I want that hammered look for the final gong, and it makes sense for it to be in the finished casting, not painted on to the surface). Which is always scary, because I don't think I can strip it if it goes wrong. But not that scary, because I'm not really happy with the shape I have. The center circle is too large, the bevel isn't tall enough, and the whole thing is maybe a bit small.

And, okay, this is why we say we work iteratively. I should have stopped earlier, before doing the final smoothing. But I went back, added an MDF disk to the center and Bondo'd out from it to increase the relief and make the proportions a little closer. And now I'm back to sanding and priming, hoping to get to the point where I can start casting this weekend.