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Questioning a Design Aesthetic, 2000 – 2005

April 29, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Teachable Moments

So @travisbedardand @hethfenasked me the other day about blog posts related to sound design for the theater and, after slogging through my archives, I realized I had only a shameful 2 (two!) posts related to aesthetic choices in sound design. Apparently, on this site I’m a hobbyist theater marketer and cheerleader and nothing more.

The conversation has been an interesting one from there (spawing this amazing Tao Te Sound post from Steve Ptacek, among others), and to help move it along, I’m doing a series of posts on the specific aesthetic questions that have shaped me over the productions as a sound designer. One of the underlying reasons I’ve shied away from writing about sound on this blog is that there is so little sound design in theater theory out there. When I was in college only a decade ago, the only textbook I could find was only available self-published in velo-binding from the author. (It was also as dry and academic as six saltine crackers without milk). In that theory vaccuum, I’ve been worried as a teacher about dogmatizing my current aesthetic explorations as beliefs in my students and collaborators. That’s a big trap. It is also silly of me. And it’s also no excuse to not break open the specific aesthetic challenges that sound in theater presents, because frankly the conversation can’t necessarily be only led by playwrights, directors, critics and audiences.

So, to crack this huge subject open, these are the specific central questions (and my half-baked answers from the time) that I’ve asked myself both personally and collaboratively over each of my productions in my formative years as a designer – 2000 – 2005. Each one is a post in themselves, but for now, let’s look at the whole picture.

Dr. Faustus – University of Massachusetts. How do you use a ton of pop music in a play without conjuring up all of the audience’s personal emotional associations? My answer: Embrace and then Mash all those associations into an emotionally confusing and challenging pulp that becomes something new. Mix yer Philip Glass, Shawshank, and the Friday the 13th theme together in a melange of crazy.

Reckless – New Leaf. How do you unify an all-over-the-map-story into a unified aesthetic? Answer: intuit the emotional tone and arc of the story and start from there. In this case, lonely “diner” music that has been well-absorbed into collective pop sensibility: Mamas & Papas, 70’s soul, old 45s. Anchor the emotional tone of each song with the journey of the central character, and you’re off.

Accidental Rapture – Visions & Voices. If sound can so easily overpower human-sized action onstage (by losing them underneath huge, epic sonic landscapes), how do you know when to pull back for the good of the story? Answer: When there is an apocalypse sequence offstage in your play, not then (thanks, Eric Pfeffinger). Also, death mare snorts can be made out of the sound of Walruses.

Man Who Had All the Luck – Raven. How does one achieve a naturalistic realism in sound on stage? Answer: Think through all the physical parts and sequences of that engine that gets started onstage. Yes, that’s right: Naturalism is a lot of work with very little payoff. But: You have to know how to recreate the world before you can really mash it up into fine art.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue – New Leaf. How the heck do you compose without musical training? Answer: Focus on texture. Let acting and directorial choices be your guide. Memorize and review whole sequences of stage action, and intuit a sonic layer that works with those choices. Oh, and hire a cellist who can improv – a little help from your friends. Trust that if it sounds good to you, it will sound good to an audience.

Brilliant Traces – New Leaf. Does bad technology get in the way of your designs? Answer: After hearing the ugly compression on the 45 minute wind storm sound cue, I never use minidisc players again. You could use that effect, certainly… but not in naturalism.

A Streetcar Named Desire – Raven. How much should a designer pay attention to the sonic instructions from the playwright? Answer: Investigate all the big P’s choices and seek to understand the impulses that drive them. Ultimately, though, you’re communicating to a modern audience, not the audience that the playwright understood, and that means adapting. That said, no matter how much you cringe when hearing Lawrence Welk’s version, you can’t get rid of the Varsouviana in that play since it’s so tied up in Blanche’s crazy. Also, it’s in 3/4 time, which is the meter of crazy. Be respectful, young squire.

The Cherub Program. Educational theater, 10 fully-produced plays in 1 month. How the hell do you get this all done AND make the designs clear enough for student operators and stage managers who have never done this in their life? Answer: refine your paperwork, refine your process. For the past four years: teach ’em qLab. Know yourself, and get intimate with your limitations. Know the flame and the heat that gets generation from when you’re about to snap. And live there at least one month out of every year.

The Odd Couple – Metropolis. You’ve been designing for a young hipster and American realism-loving audiences. What do they like to see in the ‘burbs? Answer: Get over yourself, Arty McFarty. Get conventional, and get fun. 60’s bachelor pad music is a rich tapestry of goofy awesome, and if you’re not having fun, they’re not having fun.

Hello Again – Apple Tree. Uh oh. Wireless mics and no budget. What now? Answer: Turn them down. Get transparent. Listen, EQ, Listen, EQ. Refine, Refine, Refine. Care. Sit in all the seats, and take notes through all the previews. Do. The. Work. Even when all odds are against you, and you’ll end up with *something*. Sometimes learning is survival.

Lexicon – New Leaf Theatre. What happens when sound is… all of the show? Is it still theater? Answer: I need some practice with playwriting, but a solo project is a great way to quickly galvanize your process. And what a great way to learn how to design in surround sound. And even better: easy remount for educational purposes!

Improvisation with the Vampire – The Free Associates. How do you design a show that is meant to be improvised? Do you just stay out of everyone’s way, or do you try to support their choices with a framework of underscore that focuses those choices? Answer: Work, Train, and Play with your Stage Manager. Make everything easy easy easy for them. Empower them to make split-second artistic choices within a framework that you establish. Watch them work, coach them, and adjust your design until they can play your (ugh) minidisc player like an instrument. That’s a particular kind of joy for a design team.

War of the Worlds – Metropolis – What about foley and actor-driven sound? How do you practically train and translate the language of foley sci-fi effects into flashy onstage magical trickery? Answer: Do a mix of experimenting and stacking the deck. Assemble an entire orchestra of options, filling the frequency bands (Low, middle and high) as you go. In a story like WOTW, there is a fascinating point where the narrative perspective shifts – when the invented world becomes more “real” than the “real” world – and the sound can follow that transition. Find the point when you shift the diegetic world of the foley-powered CBS radio studio into a more out-of control and non-diegetic world of the story itself with piped-in sound effects.

Crave – The Side Project – How do you do the work of a sound designer when you can’t afford to devote enough time to properly tech a show? Answer: Still figuring that one out, but short answer: be very very clear in your communication and be very very attentive and efficient in your listening. Make a bold textural choice, and then back the hell away from choices that require precise timings and levels.

Stay Tuned for part 2!

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QLab 2.0 is Unleashed

January 31, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Infrastructure, Sound, Tools

Ahhh… That’s pretty.

I’m absolutely swooning with joy today at the release of version 2.0 of my favorite sound playback software, qLab. Chris Ashworth, ever the holistic programmer, released the software today only after updating his exhaustive and easy-to-read documentation site. So I won’t bore you with all the minutae, but I do want to quickly go over my favorite new features – that I have discovered so far.

1) 48 outputs per cue. Yes, now each cue can be assigned in a combined matrix to up to 48 discreet outputs. The previous 16 discreet channel limit with version 1.0 was the single biggest roadblock to getting larger theaters that regularly use 24 – 48 channels to adopt qLab. While it has already been seen on Broadway (though not as much on Chicago’s largest stages), this feature brings qLab closer to becoming a sound playback solution extensible enough that it can be affordable to the tiniest storefront and powerful enough to run playback for some of largest sound systems in the world. That means designers can develop their careers with much, much greater ease.

2) Volume Envelopes
Look at that. Just look at that. Beautiful. We’ve had this feature for a while with Meyer’s LCS now – which is great when you have $50k lying around for a sound system. Volume envelopes allow you to really quickly adjust the volume of the audio over time – say, having a large initial burst of music that then fades down to an underscore. This is going to save me hours, and give me more in-the-moment control over the audio, which as I mentioned in my last post on qLab, is the key to design that works with a performance rather than on top of a performance.

3) Integrated Windows
This may not seem like a big deal, but the new one-window format of qlab is hugely easier and more reliable than using the three or four main windows of qLab 1.0. There was a minor workflow bug in 1.0 where the inspector window (where you make things like level and output settings) would not always update after selecting a new cue in the cue list. This created many situations with students and folks new to qLab where they would end up making changes to the wrong cue and getting, well, really confused. Clarity wins the day.

4) Ruby, Applescript, and Python Script Hooks
From the documentation:

QLab 2 offers comprehensive scripting hooks to control the application programmatically. You can use AppleScript, or through the OS X scripting bridge, languages like Python and Ruby.

Yes, that’s right, qLab can now integrate with RUBY applications and scripts run locally on a computer. I might just jump for joy. Whenever you open up hooks to third party scripting, you encourage a culture of open source developers to solve problems that you don’t have time to do. And since I already know me some ruby, and I just happen to have a project in mind already.

5) Integrated Quartz Composer
qLab is the only sound and video system that I know of to be built directly on reliable and native operating system architecture – SFX is built on the sometimes rickety and tenuous ActiveX / Windows relationship and Cricket is based on the Max language, which, while reliable, often leads to upgrading headaches while developers wait on Max to upgrade for the latest OS architecture. qLab uses the native OSX technologies CoreAudio and now, Quartz Composer for enhanced video effects (the video above, now well-known as the iTunes 8 visualizer, is one example of what is possible with tools like Quartz Composer.) Now qLab is capable of harnessing the native Apple graphics engine for use in projections design.

There is so much more that is saliva-inducing in this update (Easy music vamping!, Live Camera Cues!) but hopefully I’ve convinced you to try it out.

Performance
It should be noted that I haven’t had a chance to really put pedal to the metal with version 2.0 yet, though I hope to soon (and test qLabs eye-opening claims of:

guaranteed sample-accurate sync across all Audio Cues assigned to the same output device.

and no latency overhead buildup:

“If you build a thousand one second waits and chain them all together, the last cue will finish almost exactly one thousand seconds later. (Within a millisecond.)”

My hunch is here is that, for those planning on buying a state of the art sound and video playback system, the inexpensive MacMini is no longer the greatest value for the long-term. Flexibility and scale of this kind (especially the use of Quartz Composer) demand lots of memory, processing power, and multiple video outputs, all of which are better served by the more expensive Mac Pro line of computers.

Cost
The most important part of this update, arguably, is the new pricing structure and pricing options available. While the basic version is still free, the a la carte Pro Audio, Pro Video, and Pro MIDI packages have all taken a price jump up to $250 each, $200 for educational purposes (though you can apply the entire cost of your version 1.0 licenses to the cost of the upgrade). New in v 2.0, which I think will be music to the storefront community’s ears, is the option of multi-computer rental licenses – each Pro package (which, while convenient, is only strictly necessary for 10% of shows that a storefront is likely to put on) is available to rent for unlimited computers for $3/day.

Oh yeah… And there’s some delicious swag available as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some software to buy.

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Holy Crap, Hal is in my Computer

January 25, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

After disconnecting my speakers from my macbook, I noticed that my built-in speakers were suddenly not working. On further inspection, I was very surprised to see a red light coming out of my headphone jack.

While it is technically a hardware failure, I was kind of amazed to see it. Apparently, the headphone jack can alternate as an optical sound output using an adapter like this one. I feel like a rube for not knowing about this beforehand. The best part? The digital signal this spits out is Surround-Sound Ready and it looks fairly pro-grade. I’m trying to find how many digital outputs this is capable of spitting out … I’ve seen some reports that it can handle 6.1 Surround, which is 7 discrete channels of audio. Not too shabby for not having an audio interface.

If you work for Apple or Applecare, this is all your fault. Now stop reading. Okay, everyone else: this red light issue might happen to you by accident if you’re as rough with your headphone jack as I am. If your macbook volume is suddenly not working, check for the red light. Never fear if the light does show up, just insert a mini cable or gently insert a toothpick into the port and wiggle around a bit, you should be able to relatch the output into place so that the digital output shuts off and the standard analog headphone jack (and your built in speakers) starts functioning again.

Just don’t be *too* rough. 1/4″ and 1/8″ headphone jacks, while ubiquitous, are also a very flawed design. It’s very easy to bend an internal connection in these ports, rendering the jack useless. If you want to use the jack… yup, it’s pretty much new logic board time. Having done that a couple times during tech weeks, trust me: Avoid at all costs. So be gentle to your lappy. Maybe someday they’ll start making mini-XLR or Neutrik jacks for headphones, and we won’t have to worry so much. But they probably won’t be awesome enough to have an optional digital output.

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Multi-track Mixing with QLab and Audacity

January 22, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Tools

I was telling someone the other day that the goal of modern DIY design in theater is to get to the point where you can use design as agilely as an instrument. The flexibility, immediacy, and coordination one can throw at your work multiplies when you can reshape and work with your materials live in the space, reacting to other designers and performers who are playing with their instruments – whether it’s their voice, their bodies, their sets, their lighting, or their literal instruments.

So when a technique comes around that increases my own responsiveness as a designer, I get pretty stoked.

It’s buried in the wiki, but this explanation of creating multi-track WAVEX files in Audacity 1.3 [which is free] unlocks an amazing feature of the sound playback program qLab [which is free, and poised to release a hotly-anticipated version 2.0]. Bookmark it, and then let’s play, shall we?

Let’s take a real world example, like my recent collaboration with composer Stephanie Sherline on Rivendell’s production of These Shining Lives. We composed and arranged a number of themes for the show, including this one, which we called Music Box:

 

So, a couple of instrumental ideas here, all built using Logic Pro:

A clock metronome
A plucked harp
A rolling harp baseline
A clock counterpoint
A low bass drum heartbeat
A ratchet crank
A reverbed string section

Now Logic can easily bounce all these ideas as a simple stereo file and I could play that music through the main speakers just fine. But I’m gonna do something a little more magical.

I bounced each instrument separately as mono files, and imported them into a single Audacity file:

From there, we set Audacity to export with the multi-track WAVEX format. You can choose, when exporting, to mix certain tracks together or keep them distinct:

This creates a multi-track interleaved audio file, so as the computer plays back the file, all instruments will stay in time with each other. In many audio playback systems, multi-track mixing is achieved by playing several stereo files over each other, but this method can result in a certain amount of tempo drift as one file plays faster than another over a period of several minutes. Annoyance: avoided.

Now we drag this multi-track file into our qLab project, and edit the cue’s volume settings. We see a grid of crosspoints (also known as an audio matrix). Each row is one of our multi-track instruments, and each column is a speaker in the space.

Can you see what’s going on here? Each individual instrument can now be routed to its own speaker or combination of speakers to create a different audio shape, or image. So while our metronome clock tick can come quietly from the radio, our reverbed string section can waft lightly through the window. Or our main harp melodies can play against each other right to left through the main speaker system. It’s like the orchestra playing this music is hidden in different spots in the space, but they are still playing the music together.

In addition, I have added an eighth track, which is a reverbed version of the counterpoint clock tick. By adding in a variable amount of reverbed or “wet” signal to the “dry,” unaffected sound, you can make the overall tone of the music feel more distant or more present, more dreamy or more real.

All this can be done on the fly, as the director restages a scene or you see how the music times out with stage action.

With qLab’s fades, I can have individual instruments fade in or rest over time, or even appear to move around the space. A large, momentous reverbed clock tick coming through the mains can fade to become an ambient naturalistic clock tick coming through the radio. Or, I can adjust the masters for each row to use just one or two instruments in combination, varying the motif a bit. Here’s a version with just the Harp and the Ratchet:

 
or a pensive, waiting underscore:

 

That’s a lot of in-the moment flexibility, all with the same file.

These Shining Lives is now running at the Raven Theatre in Chicago through January 31st. More information at rivendelltheatre.net.

This post was sponsored by my good pal Andrew Wilder of LuxiousLabs, who bought me a medium Dunkin Donuts hazelnut with cream only. My favorite. You should check out his iPhone app, HelloCards, which allow you to send personalized greeting cards – yes, with pictures – from your iPhone. Many of the designs for HelloCards were created by my wife, Marni. (who is to Andrew as awesome is to also awesome.)

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The Uberplaylist: Come Back to Rock You

January 14, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Tools

As a sound designer, I like to really geek out when it comes to the fully integrating iTunes and the iPod. A couple years ago, I got really miffed at the limited number of ways that one can sort music during say, a commute. It’s pretty much creating an awkward on-the-go playlist – which doesn’t play nice with my preferred shuffling through tunes when I’m exploring unfamiliar music, or giving a song of one to five stars. As any theater critic will tell you, an appreciator of art needs a star rating system like a fish needs a bicycle.

You’re humming U2 now too, aren’t you?

But the star rating system on each iPod is the most accessible sorting mechanism on the fly, and you know what I have about five of? Moods. So I’ve assiged each star a mood, and created smart playlists that match the star rating and, like my own personal Pandora, I can now accrue songs with similar tones and energy levels into big honking Uberplaylists that I can return to when I need some familiar energy.

What are these moods?

One star: theatrical songs that will eventually be the sonic clay to my audio pottery.

Two stars: Pep. Great for all nighters and parties.

Three stars: Nostalgia. When I want a road trip to immediately feel like it’s being filmed for a movie like Garden state because I’m just that melancholy, voilà.

Four stars: Velocity. It’s crunch time, and I need to bang out some kick ass on a deadline? Would you believe that it’s time for some Jesus Jones b-sides?

And for days like this morning, Five stars: Come Back to Rock You. I’m telling you, devilvet: ’95 was a great year for music.

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And, now, a word from my inner Yoda

October 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

Always remember that the key to skillful execution of any project is to keep the scope human-sized.

Humans are capable of amazing things, and they have limits. If you are hitting your limits, find more humans who care about what you’re doing. If you can’t find more humans, bite off a smaller chunk of project and save the rest for later. Be honest with your limits… so honest you laugh, so honest it hurts a bit.

I say this now because of a general feeling I’ve been picking up from my friends and my wife and the blogosphere as we enter a time of great change and great uncertainty. People in the theater walk of life are leaving jobs or eyeing new ones and seeking to maintain some level of security and happiness in the face of very alarming changes.

All social problems are human-sized at the root. No bigger. This is what we can learn from theater.

I watched this movie today (so late, such a crime). I really do think that Our Town might be the perfect social issues play, and this movie might just prove it. See it. It will kick your theater-loving ass.

We must all remember to do something human-sized that matters every day.

I would love to know: What theatrical skills or tools or techniques have you used to solve a problem (big or small) or make someone’s life easier or better – outside of theater?

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A Better Way to Paper the House

June 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments, Tools

It’s no secret that early word of mouth is the key to a successful run. That’s why it’s a common business practice to fill the house with all your friends and industry folks that first cobwebby week of a run, so that the engine of buzz can get primed. Except there’s a pretty major caveat to papering – the practice often floods the tank, filling the books with reservations that never show up. It’s hard to shake the assumption that theater that you can see for free isn’t theater worth seeing, and so papered seats aren’t really taken as seriously as they should be.

That, surprisingly, all changes with $1 comps. I gotta hand it here to Ken Davenport – that unsettlingly bottom-line-oriented Off-Broadway producer from the iPhone commercials (I’m personally unsure about the idea of a producer using remote technology to conveniently monitor lurker comments and feedback on fan sites and twitter those comments back to his director– but to each his own process). However you feel about his perspective, Ken certainly knows how to work an audience, and that’s worth reading his thoughts.

$1 Comps is a freaking great idea – and it’s withstood the rigors of Ken’s real-world test. It subverts the psychological damage of perception that “free theater” has to overcome – 96% of the comps in his experiment were redeemed. Yeah, that’s right – he tested the idea, collected data on it, and executed it. Remember we were talking about that? He’s also identified ways of making the $1 comp practice better next time around – by reducing the workload on the box office, for instance. Worth a look!

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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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