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How to Design the Sound

October 13, 2014 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

I had a pal in a bind the other day ask me how I designed sound at the storefront / independent / low budget theatre level.  As time was of the essence, and the subject was something I probably should write a book about someday, I briefly jotted down what I felt at the time were the most important tricks of the trade (that is, the cooperative trades of sound system designer, foley artist, sound engineer, and composer.)   

Keep in mind that this guide is provided only as a general guide for further inquiry to help you survive, perform your duties, and embarrass yourself as little as possible when you’re already in over your head on a project – it won’t actually help you make it sound good, which I’ve heard is important.  This will only teach you enough to be more dangerous than you already think you are.  Caveat, caveat, you hold me harmless, etc.

If you’re really short on time, here’s the essential mantras of this Tao de Sound.

1) BE NICE.
1a) BE PREPARED.
1b) DON’T HURT ANYONE.
2) USE YOUR EARS TO MAKE IT SOUND GOOD.

(These mantras are surprisingly effective for all kinds of professional work.  Also, my general mantras for theatre like “Don’t be Stupid” and “Don’t Freak Out” also apply.  h/t The Cherub Program)

Here’s a few ways to apply these mantras to specific practical situations:

BE NICE.

  • Make sure you let the team (at least the Production Manager, TD and the Lighting Designer) what you intend to do. If you place speakers in front of where lights are going, that’s a poor way to win friends and influence people.  If you bump a light, tell the ME or the LD so that it doesn’t.  More communication is always better.
  • At the Storefront level, most people don’t license music used in the show correctly.  Legal Hat:  This is not nice, nor is it legal.  That said, it happens a lot.  Even in the largest venues and the most popular productions.  No, fair use doesn’t apply.  Artist Hat:  DJs sample music all the time, sure.  But sampling isn’t the same as “playing.”   That means if you decide to skirt the law and be a real artist, you have an artistic responsibility to make this music your own, into something new, unique, beautiful, and perfect for your production.   Treating the show like your favorite iTunes playlist demonstrates neither legal nor artistic integrity.
  • One way to try to be nice:  If you’re not a composer and can connect with some local musicians who let you use their music (or better yet work with you to create new music), support them and at least make an effort to get permission and/or offer to promote their work and give them as much of your show budget as you can.  Ask them if you can sell their CD in the lobby.  Tell audience members how great the artists you use are, and encourage them to buy the albums.
  • Tie line is preferable to E-tape for securing cable, though my preference is for Friction Tape (the tape hockey players use around their gloves).  It ONLY sticks to itself, and is very reusable – a couple wraps around a bundle of cables every few feet both supports the cables and makes it easy to move or strike later.  Skip the e-tape, and you’ll thank yourself at strike, not least of which because the ME won’t try to throw his wrench at your head.
  • Tie line for wrapping cable should be long enough to start in your hand, wrap all the way around your elbow, then come back up into your hand. It’s easier to wrap the timeline completely around your trunk of cable once (which takes weight on the cable) then do a quick, tight shoelace knot over the pipe which is easy to undo and redo as needed.
  • The goal with securing your cable is to not wrap around or over lighting cable, because that is not nice – under is better.  It helps to load your stuff in before light hang!  Then you’re sure to be out of the way.  You will still likely need to secure your cable in a bundle with lighting cable, and in those situations you want to redo the ties as you left them.

BE PREPARED.

  • Use QLab.  You can learn the basics in 15 minutes.
  • Load your files in and program a QLab cue list so that someone is operating the entire show off a go button instead of a hare-brained iPod library and volume control which invite confusion and error into the mix.
  • Plug your computer into a mixing board.  Plug the mixing board into your amps.  Plug your amps into your speakers.   If you have them, use goodies like audio interfaces, patch bays, and powered speakers.
    Think through the entire sound system from inputs to outputs, and make sure you have the equipment you need.  Do you have enough of the right types of cable to put your speakers and the booth where you need them to be?
  • Make sure your equipment is in the air, cabled, tested, and that you are ready to cue the show at least 12 hours before start of tech (advanced designers can live with less buffer, but this will help you plan for contingencies).  I try to be pre-programmed to a large extent before I start, but I’m always at least 5 cues or 5 minutes of show ahead of where we’re at in tech so that there’s a minimum of “holding for sound”.
    Give a clear cue list to the stage manager.  I give them cue lines and/or visual cues, cue numbers, and a description of what the cue does.  Walk them through any paper, dry, or wet techs to make sure they know exactly how things should be called.  If they need to wait a beat before taking a piece of music, tell them what you’re going for.  Preparing the stage manager to call the design is a huge part of making that design work, and it’s the core thing that beginning designers gloss over.
  • Ensure that the show computer is hooked up to the sound system, that it works, and that whoever is running the show knows how to turn it on, shut it off, and fix it if it explodes.
  • Make sure you are always ready to take quick notes that make sense to you later.
  • Be where you need to be, ready to do the job, when you need to be there.  #lifelessons

DON’T HURT ANYONE.

  • “Anyone” includes but is not limited to you, your fellow designers, your assistants, the performers, the crew, the administrators who promote your work and sign your checks, and the audience.
  • If you are responsible for hanging, moving, or aiming your speakers and you haven’t done so before, consider that you’re about to dance on a ladder while holding 100 lbs above your head, and that perhaps doing this on your own is not the best way to learn how to do this safely and effectively.  Ask for trained help.  That said, if you must forge ahead and you know the task to be safe, here’s some pro tips (tips for pros.)
  • In venues with ceilings from 0 – 20 feet high, I still use a rope.  The rope I use is rated for 3-4 times the weight of the heaviest speakers I can lift, and is tied with a proper bowline knot to a rated quick link which I attach to the speaker.  I lift speakers with a team of two, one on the ground, one on a ladder.  I’ll run the rope over a supported grid pipe, hook the quick link to the speaker, have someone on the ground take weight on the speaker while standing away from the drop, move the speaker, secure the speaker in its new home, let in weight on the speaker, then aim the speaker with a guy line.
  • If you’re loading in speakers to a grid more than twice your height and you’ve never done it before, see also “Don’t Kill Anyone” Item 1.
  • Get a roll of tie line which will be useful for speaker aiming.   Typically speakers are secured to the grid with one or two rated pieces of chain and rated quick links and ideally a safety cable for good measure.  They can then be tilted with a long piece of timeline used as a guy line.  TIE LINE SHOULD NEVER BE USED TO TAKE WEIGHT ON THE SPEAKER.   Secure the guy line to a secure point on the bottom of the speaker, then attach that tie line to a different grid pipe, creating a triangle and aiming the speaker more directly towards the audience sections.  With practice, you can use the Rolling Hitch to quickly aim the speaker with a perfectly aimed, taut guy line that is easy to strike or refocus.

USE YOUR EARS TO MAKE IT SOUND GOOD.

  • If you don’t know how to place speakers and/or read a groundplan, elevation, and light plot, you’ll want to get into the space and try to visualize where you want sound to come from.
  • Music that doesn’t come from the world of the play (non-diagetic music) tends to want a proscenium-y “wall of sound” feel – so hanging 2  left and right speakers off the grid or to the sides of the stage is a great start – if the space is proscenium.  If you’re in a thrust configuration, you may need to go to four speakers and play from the voms.  There’s a bajillion caveats to all that, but that will get you close enough to be nice and dangerous.
  • Visualize the shape of the sound to know where to put speakers.  Sound propagates from a speaker in an expanding cone  (you can kind of picture this by drawing a line from the edges of the speaker cone out – on average a 45º spread coming from the speaker.  Each speaker has different specs that you can look up online if you really want to know.  You don’t want those spreads to cross over each other in most cases, so usually you’ll tilt speakers slightly away from each other so that you have a minimum of overlap but still completely cover the entire audience – ideally with a stereo image.  If you raise the speaker up, you can angle the speaker so that more of the audience experiences the same volume rather than blasting people in the front.  So if you have a thrust configuration, you’d alternate Left and right signal to the four speakers so that every section of audience gets both left and right sound information.
  • Feedback should only happen if you have mics pointed at speakers that playback signal from those mics which pick up signal from those speakers which playback signal from those mics (see what I’m doing there?).  If you do have mics, try to design with only handheld SM58s, which are really hard to feedback, and most performers know how to use reasonably well if it’s that kind of show.  If you have wireless, you’ll probably need more help and budget, an apprenticeship, and you’ll also want to read Kai Harada’s excellent Kai’s Sound Handbook which will neatly cover the things you need to know for the next stage of your career.
  • Music that comes from the world of the play (diagetic music) probably doesn’t come from the proscenium, maybe, right?
  • Try each cue a good deal louder, then try it much quieter.  Repeat until perfect.
  • Sometimes music doesn’t always want to be the same level for the length of the cue. We call this kind of adjustment a “fade.” #youknowthelingo

Have further words of wisdom for designers in trouble?  I’d love to hear it.

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