Theater For The Future

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Chicken of the VNC: The already-obsolete design gizmo that you’ve never heard of

May 11, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

Update for all of you running OS X 10.5 – Yes, it’s true, Chicken of the VNC is indeed obsolete now – every feature described in this post can now be done with the integrated Screen Sharing feature. Check out the comments for details, but you may want to read on to pick up a few tips on creating a remote control system for sound design.

Chicken of the VNCIt’s hard to determine sometimes if technology is making our creative work better and more efficient or just more complicated in new and different ways. Part of the problem is that for most of this decade software and hardware engineers were moving in the direction of modular solutions.

Instead of building great dishwashers, they theorized that it would be better to perfect the ultimate cost-efficient fork washer, leaving you to buy an equally astoundingly cheap cup polisher on a separate basis. This gave consumers (and designers) CHOICE – now you could save a TON of money buying the exact modules they needed separately and find new ways of getting the modules and devices to work together – or you could opt for a simple all-in-one solution that kinda sorta did what you needed, and you’d pay for the convenience. This is one of the reasons that your local designer on a budget looks like some kind of Max Max-era hacker with wild eyes darting from side to side looking for bargains and a magical toolkit of gizmos that will, you know, suture a pants rip in 10 seconds or diagnose whether a light isn’t working because of a broken lamp or because the dimmer load is about to make the circuit box explode.

In this chaos, it’s always refreshing to find a multi-use tool that makes not one but ten things easier to do. It means by using it you’ll be dumping a bunch of extra junk out your toolkit in a giddy and impromptu spring cleaning.

Here’s what it does
Chicken of the VNC is such a tool. It allows designers to do one thing and one thing alone: remotely access and control another computer over a network. Like a wireless network.

But here’s what it really means
Sound designers can be more active participants in the production process. I can sit in the house, experiencing the play like an audience member would, and be editing my qLab show file at the same time. If the sound is too loud, I don’t tell the SM to hold the run and high-tail it to the booth to twiddle a bunch of knobs or wires. This kind of behavior, let’s face it, undermines my credibility as a designer, because I’m stopping the show at every cue.

Instead, I nod at the director, and as they react to the loud sound, I turn it down, from wherever I am in the house. The stage, the balcony, the grid, whatever. With a little practice, I’m fixing the sound and resetting levels before they become a problem.

And voila, I’ve become a designer who has the tools to perform as if I was onstage, reacting to impulses and adapting the dynamics of the sound to better match what I’m seeing and hearing from the performers on the stage. I can design each and every moment of the play – silence through transition – rather than spending the time that I have on 30% of the play. I can react and shape rather than dictate in preproduction what the sonic world feels like.

Here’s how it works
I’ve set up in the booth a sound playback computer, which runs the increasingly excellent and free-as-dirt program qLab to route all my layers of sound files to the various speakers in the room. Normally, I’d have to do my programming from the booth or run some kind of umbilical cable to a remote keyboard and monitor. That’s a lot of crap to lug around from tech to tech compared to a single laptop.

First, I set up a computer-to-computer wireless network from the playback computer – simple as pie from the Airport menu of most macs.

Then, I connect to that network from my laptop, again through the Airport menu.

Boom! I launch Chicken of the VNC. After some initial configuration, the playback computer shows up as a VNC server on my laptop. Bookmark that, and then the remote screen is always just a few clicks away.

On my current show, A Red Orchid’s Not a Game for Boys (opening tomorrow!), there’s this ongoing ping pong tournament that is seen by the performers “behind” a plexi screen that is theoretically along the fourth wall. Getting the sound of ping pong and sneakers through glass to come from behind the audience required a large number of replacement files to get the reverb and equalization just right. But it didn’t mean frequent trips into the stamp-sized booth that can’t comfortably fit more than one person without getting in each other’s business and grinding rehearsal to a halt.

Instead, I connected to the playback harddrive using the computer-to-computer wireless network…

Then after copying the replacement files over the ether, I used my CotVNC connection to replace the files…

All while the SM ran a run without stopping.

Not exactly razoring reel-to-reel tape anymore, is it?

The half-life of technology is getting shorter and shorter, and so it’s not surprising that Chicken of the VNC is already obsolete. Apple’s latest operating system Leopard has included a built-in VNC client accessible through System Preferences. I gotta say – I love Apple for the way that they integrate incredibly versatile applications (VNC, Samba, Ruby on Rails) into their core operating system. Like many technophiles, I trust that if something out there is worth running, it’ll probably show up in my laptop next time I upgrade the OS.

I only use CotVNC as an example because, like the excellent and free FTP application Cyberduck which can be used to manage your theater’s website, it’s a brilliant program that does just one thing that will help you in a billion ways. Technology doesn’t replace human performance, however… doing the work well still requires practicing and rehearsing with the tools you keep at your disposal.

I love applications named after poultry.

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9 Comments to “Chicken of the VNC: The already-obsolete design gizmo that you’ve never heard of”

  1. danielle wilson says:

    We’ve run qLab with an extra laptop in the house for the past two shows and it works beautifully–if wireless isn’t an option, this works over ethernet cable too (a 100′ cat5 cable is only $35). This is definitely the way to go if you have to do multiple shows in rep. No changing settings on the console or the computer between shows, just one master computer running qLab, each designer with their own show in their own laptop making changes on the fly.

  2. Say you are a total novice at this sort of stuff…any place to go and get a primer on this sort of technology and how to use it in the low budget storefront venue?

  3. Very good point about repertory spaces, Danielle. I actually developed my sound process to use a kind of rep plot – I’ll load in basically the same eight speaker configuration when I can afford that many channels – to be able to spend a minimum of time on the engineering side of things and a maximum on the design side. So it stands to reason that a system like this would provide a lot of flexibility for spaces that see a lot of shows in a season – with a minimum of setup. I’m so glad to hear you’ve made the investment, and I’m working on most of the storefront venues here to get with the program. And some of them are going for it!

    The bare minimum you can get away with, DV, is a mac computer running OSX 10.4 or above (I use an affordable and powerful intel mac mini, but I’m sure you can beg borrow and steal either a mac mini or a laptop for a run) and a 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter cable that you can get at Radio Shack, plugged into the built-in output of the computer and your mixing board. Because that output is low-quality, however, you should expect a certain amount of unwanted noise from the sound of the hard drive spinning right next to the output. For Clay Continent, you might actually be able to USE this sound, so I think it might suit your purposes.

    For better output and more speakers, you’ll want to get an audio interface like the MOTU Ultralite, which will set you back about $550, but it provides 8 – 10 outputs that qLab can serve as brain for. Then plug that in using a short snake cable to each amplifier, or route it through your mixer first.

    That’s the hardware. The software’s the easy part: Download the standard version of qLab and check out their excellent online manual.

    What would be nice for you is that once you’ve programmed a show, remounting it is incredibly easy. Just find another computer and your archive of your show files, and reset mixer levels until every cue sounds just right. I use this method for school performances of my hour long audio show Lexicon – if I had to retech that each time, my head would explode.

    After you use it for a few shows and get addicted, I highly recommend the Enhanced Audio plugin for $50. It not only supports the program – which is created by Chris Ashworth, a periodic commenter on this blog and someone who has most certainly earned the support – but it enables 16 outputs and some prelisten functionality to fade cues that I find indispensable when programming shows.

    Oh, did I mention that it can run Video, too?

    As far as primers go, I’d say find a sound designer and watch them work. Same goes with any design element – short of going back to school, we all learn through osmosis in this industry, and there’s a lot out there to absorb. And while I use Logic and qLab to put shows together, I have a very different process to say Misha Fiksel or Miles Polaski, who often create their shows using another live-action program, Ableton Live. The different process results in a different style of design. I’d be happy to have you come in and check out the setup next time I’m in tech.

  4. Um, in Leopard it seems that it is VNC _Server_ that is built in to System Preferences! I still need to use a VNC client such as Chicken of the VNC. I found your page, because I realized that my VNC client ( program is eight years old and I couldn’t see how to take advantage of some of the options built-in to the settings I could make on the Tiger machine I wanted to access.
    However – through Mac Help (on the Leopard machine) I’ve just found an alternative way of using the Mac built-in VNC via FINDER!
    See: “Sharing the screen of another computer”.
    Please note: any old VNC client can use the password you set on the controlled machine to take control of the machine.

  5. Oh, and there we go! I needed Chicken of the VNC to find the “View Only” option, so it’s not really obsolete. The Mac built-in “Screen Sharing” in Finder will be sufficient for many support uses, but even the options Apple give us in the server component cannot be fully utilized without a more fully feature VNC Client such as COTVNC.

  6. Hey – just discovered this blog – I’ve been using this exact technique to plot shows for over two years – and I suspect I’m on the other side of the world (Melbourne Australia). Also discovered screen sharing but everyone’s gotta be on 10.5 –


  7. nick keenan says:

    Thanks for discovering, Peter!

    You’re absolutely right… If all your computers are running OS X 10.5 you can achieve all of this with the built in screen sharing function, setting your file sharing preferences and Samba-mounting the remote drive (connect to the remote server using smb://…)

    You’re not so far away.. I have a couple pals helping out with this world theater day project on March 27 from Brisbane! Theaters becoming an even smaller world…

  8. where are the data files stored I have a ton of entries in COTVNC and have move to a new mac and need to bring the connection list over to new computer can some one help


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