Abusing [çå∫®ˆ¬¬ø]’s Mainstage Theatre

If you’ve gathered that at some point I decided to back out of doing theatre, it was this particular production experience which became the anvil to break the horse’s back.  But instead I want to stay positive and write about how I utterly destroyed the intentions behind this theatre’s abysmal audio system to accomplish my own agenda – which  (of course) was to help tell the story most effectively.

The Loudspeaker Controller

Every institution I’ve dealt with has had some form of bureaucracy (read: bureau-crazy) to help it run smoothly.  *stifles chortle*  This organization didn’t have enough budget to keep their [constantly rotating] sound designer annoyed by a dedicated staff member, so they designed this dire feature into the god-forsaken sound system itself.

I don’t know which followers of Satan were responsible for optimizing the loudspeaker-protection system, but they must have been granted the highest certification to inflict everlasting torment.  This is the kind of person who doesn’t notice when their vegetables are cooked into a yellow-brown mound of steaming mush. This is the kind of person who finds great satisfaction with sorting their recyclable materials into alphabetical order. This is the kind of person who when they attempt to portray a genuine smile, six months later you have to plead with the judge that you blacked out and have no idea who punched-in their stupid ugly face.

It requires a special kind of “caretaker” to destroy the musicality that a sound system might have produced at the cost of protecting said equipment. But only an absolute moron could execute the implementation without actually protecting the equipment at all! You see, this particular dolt figured that a [limiter with medium attack speed] complimented by a [low threshold and ratio] would somehow be effective at doing… something. What does this mean to non-audiodweebs? That unexpected things will sometimes happen in sound reproduction – spikes, pops, feedback, musicians, and other unexpected problems. To protect expensive loudspeakers from harm, it’s not the worst idea to have an automatic limiter that helps to prevent the speakers from outputting volume over a “safe” level. This should hopefully eliminate (or at least reduce) the incidents of destructive sound signals reaching the speakers. This kind of destructive sound tends to be quick, so the safety-limiter needs to react even quicker. WELL, the scumbucket who implemented this limiter instead decided that a slow limiter would be a better idea, and then locked the processor and threw away the password. Furthermore, they set the limiter to start reacting at the wrong level, and more-furthermore to only a minor degree of effect.

What this means for our dear audience’s experience is that the impact, punch, kick, presence, and their whole connection to the the sound has altogether been completely destroyed – you’re gonna have to trust me on that.  I didn’t detect the limiting at first because of these strange and ineffectual settings, and thought that I was just going crazy because of how strangely the sound system responded. Funny enough, there was in fact a blown driver in one of their loudspeakers – something I’d never before experienced from a high quality loudspeaker. To aid my narrative, I have to suggest that the stupid limiter was partially responsible given that its ability to actually limit was naught.

WELL. When I finally did realize that my sound was being destructively manipulated, I did some exploring: I found Satan’s abacus the unseen multi-thousand dollar processor that worked not only as a system limiter but also the speaker crossover, inserted between my FOH mixing console(s), and the very-hidden-in-the-dark-back-of-the-creepy-room amplification system. Keeping true to the bureaucratic method, the processor’s interconnects were completely inaccessible to my assumed-to-be incapable hands, and the amplifier inputs were locked down inside the rack with non-user-friendly barrier strip inputs. These installation amplifiers wouldn’t accommodate any old amateur’s XLR cable inputs, oh no.

I wasn’t about to settle on getting paid ≈$2/hr, to have my name in the program represent the foolishness that this system “protector” was enforcing. Using the patchbay (see below) I re-routed the mixer outputs into a couple of auxiliary patches that popped out in the same hallway as the amplifiers, and ran two 75′ cables down the corridor to the amplifiers. I benevolently lent my original DBX DriveRack for the duration of the train wreck theatre production, so that I could deliver the necessary 3-way crossover, and actually do some 1/3rd octave filtering to at least partially accommodate the theatre’s acoustics. To tap into the amplifier’s unaccommodating barrier strip inputs, I soldered female XLR cables onto some new cable, leaving the bare wires on the other end (to be later finished into the short XLR cables I conveniently was in need of). Mission accomplished – the bureaucracy was bypassed and my ego was aflame.

The Patchbay

“Unreasonable” is a reasonable word to describe this company’s production manager. They somehow afforded 37 wireless lavaler-mic systems of the medium-level crap variety. I forget which frequency band they occupied, but I sincerely hope it was the 600 band recently reclaimed by the FCC so that they have to pay dearly to make future designers suffer the same misfortune as I. You can have one guess as to how many actors the manager wanted me to mic for the show… that’s right, 37 amplified meatbags; and thus, no backup mics available. Compliment this with the theatre’s 32 channel FOH mixer, and it’s a winning scenario! Had I not been desperate for money, I’d have bailed on my contract right there. Fortunately, they were prepared with an additional 24 channel mixer that didn’t fit anywhere on the desk. Oh, and they wanted the whole orchestra to be mic’ed as well. I’ve mentioned my little 1997 Yamaha 01v before, and it reappears in this story to handle the last half of the orchestra that didn’t fit on the 7-more-lavalier-mics sidecar mixer. (30 on the main mixer because reasons) Yup, three mixing consoles. If you’ve never noticed the main image adorning this website, check it out now – that’s the setup. And before you think to yourself that the setup doesn’t look halfway unreasonable, I’ll swoop right in to take the compliment and say “yes, in spite of having all odds stacked against me, I was in fact able to construct a reasonably usable workspace for the board operators”.

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Shoe hangers used for holding and bringing the mics to dressing rooms after being battery’d up.

 

Two

The script and keyboard were both affixed to the mixer for ease of use.

3

Since two productions were showing in repertory, but for only 1 week overlap of the 3 week run of each (which is quite stupid, quite), I had to divvy up resources and swap things over between shows.  With limited amplifiers, different aux sends had to be re-patched into the two available monitor amps between shows. VCA’s were split between shows.  And I used MIDI to trigger most of the mic on/off’s, so that the board ops wouldn’t have to go crazy with all the scene changes.

01

The left sidecar mixer, with the remainder of what eventually turned out to be 38 wirelessly mic’ed actors, and 3 backups – after I found some older and more beat-up mics.  So it actually ended up being 41 wireless mics running for each performance.

 

I abhor mess. I can’t think when things are messy, especially if it’s the workspace I’m supposed to be using. So instead of putting 37 ****ING RECEIVERS inside of the booth already overflowing with mixers, I somehow managed to raise the 16 space receiver rack 12 feet into the air to reside in its new home above our heads: the catwalk.  Then I ran an orderly little [massive] audio snake from the rack upstairs down to the rear of the main console.  Voila!
But what about the other mixer inputs – orchestra etc.???

Here’s where the patchbay fun comes in. Yes I hate mess, but I also didn’t know how I was realistically supposed to transport audio from the orchestra snakes into the side-car mixers. Fortunately, the very same genius who had designed the system limiter, also decided that each of 32 channels on the main mixer should have balanced insert points going to and from the patchbay… so that’s 64 TRS cables with snakes running into the patchbay that were probably never used given that there were only up to six usable processors in the effects rack. (4 compressors in a single rack unit, and a stereo parametric EQ) I did the math, and that’s only 18.75% of the insert cables that could ever be used at once.  Good design! So I repurposed the insert points to be mixer inputs on the sidecars, and ran the appropriate cables on the patchbay into those repurposed inserts. That was only one aspect of the patch-bay spaghetti I created. You’d really rather I not bother detailing the whole thing, but I hope these pictures are amusing.

Inserts.jpg

There’s the 4 compressors on top, and the stereo EQ on the bottom: 64 TRS cables running through the patchbay, and this all you can use it with.

One of my show mixers was privy to some of the conversations happening among those who were not-so-enamored with my apparently unconventional practices. He informed me that the production manager (who years ago was in fact the company’s sound designer) came back to stare at the patchbay for a few minutes, and then shake his head saying “I don’t know what the hell he’s doing back here”.  But hey man, if it works well…?

 

 

Above: Patch cables going into the two sidecar mixers, and coming from the multi-pin  ports on the ground.  That’s where the signal comes in from the patchbay.

The IT-Regulated iMac

SCREW YOUR IMAC
Back to the bureaucrazy…. they really don’t like people touching their stuff.  As soon as a barcode goes on it, you may as well have made a bad deal with the mafia.  The only computer available for audio was the iMac seen below.  God forbid that anyone install software (like my preferred audio cuing/playback software) or connect foreign hardware (like my MIDI interface)! Praise be to my passion for obeying the rules, for I brought an external hard drive with an untainted operating system and used their dear computer free of ridiculous bureaucratic [was that redundant?] obstructions.  I do love creating a void where the bureaucracy has no jurisdiction!  No, I wasn’t mining Bitcoin with school servers like the IT department would have suspected had they known of my transgressions.  I was just trying to do a good job.


In case you’re wondering, they did not invite me back for their next season  :p

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One thought on “Abusing [çå∫®ˆ¬¬ø]’s Mainstage Theatre

  1. This proves my theory. You are indeed a genius madman and I totally dig where you are coming from. Or was that “from whence you came”? Love your command of the English hieroglyphics not to mention your insane level of technical expertise. You are indeed my hero in all things audio. (and coffee). This world does not deserve a mind like yours. These idiots who “went to a radio shack sound workshop” and installed the dreaded abbaccus processors in multi- operator sound systems should be nay, not drawn, but erased and castrated not necessarily in that order. Thank you for being you. And for your tireless diligence to fight the multi-headed demons of amplified, knuckleheaded, and indigenous ignorance which somehow got to the holy lands of theater sound before us. Thank you. My hat is off to you, sir!!!

    Like

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