Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lion King Sound Tour

Last weekend, UCI Sound once again took a trip up to Hollywood to visit and tour the sound system of the Lion King national tour. I was really excited to help set this up with Andrew Gorell, a friend of mine from Cleveland (he was an MFA actor when I was in undergrad).

Andrew, who plays Zazu, was able to introduce us to Kevin, the head of sound for the Lion King touring productions.  The evening was a great learning experience for all of us! We heard Kevin's process for tuning his system in just five hours in each city (entirely by ear!), he talked us through how he repurposed the old A/B center cluster and how he utilizes the large number of subwoofers throughout the show, and he talked about some of the more unusual moments in the show that are under his thumb as the sound head - MIDI triggered CO2 cannons, and a 4-1/2 octave marimba with pickups on every bar!  Kevin has been touring with the Lion King for almost a decade, so it was pretty incredible hearing about his experiences!

Thanks to Kevin, Andrew, Vinnie, and the staffs at the Pantages and Lion King for helping put this experience together!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Track & Field

This year, as part of the Trends in Modern Sound Design class, we worked on a project called Track & Field.  Last year, Stephen Swift (MFA '13) oversaw the first version, and this year, we refined it a bit.  Track & Field is based on Layer Tennis, a fun exercise in inspiration and workflow.

In Track & Field, each week, the player is given a 30-second clip of sound (bounced and stems). The player has 60 minutes to transform that piece into something else. They can record, remix, process, loop, crush, reconceive, redevelop, and/or do anything they want. The only hard and fast rules are that the player not take more than 60 minutes to work on the piece and that the piece lasts only 30 seconds. The player then creates a bounce and stems of their work and delivers it to the next player.  Play repeats.

Track & Field is a great exercise for a number of reasons. First, it's great practice for non-linear conceptualization. Also, it encourages the development of efficient workflows. Doing it in the Fall Term gives the students a chance to reconnect after a summer apart, and it gives everyone an opportunity to listen to and learn from each other.

We have six grad students, so we had six different threads.  I developed a rotation scheme so that every student got to work on every thread at least once.  Every week during the term, we listened to the current versions of each thread, and on the last days of class, we listened to each thread straight through, from version 1 to version 9.  It's fascinating to listen to how sonic elements transform through the piece, and how one idea transforms dramatically into another idea.

Here, for your listening enjoyment, are all six threads. Some are crazy rides, and some are confusing. Don't worry about it. Just enjoy the oddball cocktails that the MFA designers made!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

CanOpener for iOS

Most of us nowadays use an iPhone, iPod, or iPad to listen to music through headphones.  I recently found an app designed to enhance the sonic experience and offer some valuable listening information at the same time.  The app is “CanOpener” from Good Hertz LLC (I am in no way associated with the app or developers; I just think it’s a great app) and brings some unique features to the listener.

The first thing you see when you open the app is a list of headphones to choose from.  The list right now (Version 1.1) includes:
Apple EarPods
Apple Earbuds
Audio-Technica ATH-M50
Beats Pro
Beats Solo HD
Bose AE2
Bose QC15
Bowers & Wilkins P5
Etymotic hf5
Etymotic mc3
Etymotic mc5
Generic Earbuds
Generic Headphones
Generic In-Ears
Klipsch Image ONE
Sennheiser HD 280 PRO
Sennheiser HD 580
Sennheiser HD 598
Sennheiser HD 600
Sennheiser HD 650
Sennheiser HD 800
Shure SE215
Shure SE315
Shure SE425
Shure SE535
Shure SRH440
Shure SRH840
Shure SRH940
Sony MDR-7506

Choosing your headphones (or the closest match) allows the app to monitor what’s happening in your ears more accurately.  The app will play anything you have in your iOS Music app (if you have iTunes Match, it won’t stream from iCloud but will play anything that’s been downloaded to your device) and can also play FLAC files if they are transferred via iTunes.  Music sorting matches what you have in your Music app, including Playlists.  The only very minor bummer I’ve found is that playing files through CanOpener does not register in the iTunes “Play Count” metadata field, but I might be one of the only people in the world that keeps track of that kind of thing.

In my opinion, the app design is beautiful. Here’s what it looks like from launch to music selection:

The crazy spinny circle thing in the middle of the pixelated album artwork is time advance/rewind.  Unfortunately it won’t let you scratch your music like DJ Jazzy Jeff.  Can’t win ‘em all.

Once you have your song selected, you have a couple of options to modify your listening experience.  The first is “Crossfeed” and seems to be the biggest marketing draw to the app. Here’s how the developers explain it:
“CanOpener’s crossfeed algorithm allows your headphones to behave a bit more like speakers. The design, a result of extensive research and listening tests, incorporates several broad characteristics of an ideal loudspeaker setup, creating a more spacious, natural soundstage over headphones.”

I personally never much minded “headphone” sound, but I find myself really enjoying the crossfeed feature.  On a basic level, the app takes some Left and puts it in Right and vice versa, but does so while intelligently managing things like phase cancellation.  It noticeably changes how your music is presented via headphones.  The adjustable parameters are Amount (values from 0 to 150% in 25% increments) Angle (from 0 to 75 degrees in 15 degree increments) and L/R balance (a pan adjustment from 100% L to 100% R in 10 % increments).  Also available are toggle buttons for Mono, L/R Flip, and Polarity Reverse (making the app handy for system troubleshooting too!)

There’s a great visual presentation of what’s going on with crossfeed too.  I’ll run through the crossfeed presets so you can hear what’s going on in your ears. (I recommend headphones):

Normally, the question mark in the center of the screen is a neat silhouette of your chosen headphones to represent your place in the aural world.

The other way to modify your listening experience in the app is the Equalizer.  It is a very basic EQ, offering only Bass and Treble adjustment.  Bass frequencies range from 31.5Hz to 250Hz and can be gained up or down by 6dB in .5dB increments.  Treble offers the same gain adjustment from 2kHz to 16kHz.  I personally leave the EQ flat but enjoy the Spectrogram because it’s pretty.  I guess it also provides some information on the power levels of frequencies or something, but mainly it’s pretty.  And you can change the colors to match your outfit!

Here’s what it looks like:

My favorite feature in the app is the Dosimeter.  We all know that people listen to their music WAY too loudly, but there hasn’t really been a good way to know how too loudly.  As a sound designer, my ears are definitely within my top 5 favorite and valuable body parts and I want to keep them healthy and safe.  CanOpener has a great Dosimeter which they claim to be pretty accurate.  It’s one of the main reasons the app asks you to choose your listening device when you launch it.  It’s also realtime and cumulative to give you a current and lifetime dB SPL reading.  Unfortunately, the app is smarter than I am and knows I’m streaming and therefore won’t show me crap on the dosimeter so, to show you, I have to take a crappy screen video of it working.  Also, I just installed the app on my iPad so I could take said crappy video with my phone, which is why the lifetime counter is basically nothing.

Here's what it looks like in action, with awful audio:

I really love having a gauge to know what I’m doing to my ears while I selfishly block out the rest of the world with my headphones.  Disclaimer: the dosimeter is accurate, but only for the headphones on the list.  Here’s what the developer says: “For supported headphone models, CanOpener can measure precisely how loud you are listening, helping you monitor your listening habits and protect your hearing.”  Luckily, I have Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones (looooooooove them) and therefore can get a good number.

I have been using the app much more than I anticipated when I purchased it.  I really enjoy the crossfeed and dosimeter… enough to write this.  At the very least, it’s a great audio app to have on your device for three bucks.

The app is available only for iOS and costs $2.99.  Developer website:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Adventure in Warner Brothers Studios!!

Last Friday at the break of dawn, team UCI sound carpooled up the treacherous 405 freeway to Burbank, California to tour the Warner Brothers Foley studio!  Mary Jo Lang is a former UCI alum and  a world-class Foley mixer who has been in the industry for 30 years and has developed a hugely impressive resume.  Even in the midst of the busy season, she kindly invited us to tour the Warner Brothers Foley stage - a place at which she works frequently.  She and her team, who included veteran Foley artists Alyson Moore and John Roesch, walked us through their process, talked about their careers, and  showed us the beautiful facility which housed everything from sea shells to tide pools.  Armed with shotgun microphones and Pro Tools, there didn't seem to be anything this team couldn't create.  We talked about the acting and performance aspect of Foley.  Did you know that there are only about 400 people in the world that do this work?  The team estimated that about 45 of them are always active.

The fun didn't end here.  We were in for quite the afternoon.  Bob Beresh, Post Production manager at Warner Brothers, surprised us with an expanded tour that started in a Warner Brothers dub stage, where Matthew Iadarola and his team were over over-dubbing Japanese dialogue stems for a major motion picture currently in theaters.  We attended for about a 15-minute session where translators were verifying the dialogue integration while Matt and his team were critically listening for mix accuracy.  What a treat it was to be a part of this process.

We moved to another dub stage and a completely different kind of Japanese film, where the mixer was gracious enough to share with us bits of his mixing process his career.

We were then able to sneak a quiet peek at a scoring stage where the Bond Quartet was recording some music with legendary composer Michael Giacchino.  Although we didn't meet the artists, just being in the room marveling at the acoustics and the equipment was enough to get us all excited.

We ended our day back at the Foley stage where Mary Jo Lang and the Foley team showed us about 5 minutes of sound that they had just created for a DreamWorks short, using everything from a wok to a wet chamois.

We left Warner Brothers feeling awestruck, energized, and inspired.  It's great to be a part of a program that creates these kinds of opportunities for its students.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Field Trip: L'Acoustics

Today, the grad students and I took a trip up to the L'Acoustics in Oxnard, northwest of LA. L'Acoustics is  one of the premiere loudspeaker manufacturers in the world, but most of us had not gotten a chance to take a good hard listen to their products. Scott Sugden was our contact, and he spent half a day with us, talking about science, theory, and lots of listening.

Our day started with a lecture/discussion about sound and physics. Scott talked about coaxial v. non-coaxial cabinets and how L'Acoustics applies those ideas into their smaller cabinets. From there, he shifted seamlessly into line array theory, including a clear illustration of how line arrays function differently than point-source boxes. Along the way, we listened to most of the product line, including a scrimmage shoot-out between a Kiva array and a Kara array (which both sound pretty damn amazing).

Line Array shootout. Be aware of bleeding ears.

I won't get too wonky here except to say that after taking Bob McCarthy's SIM class last month and Jamie Anderson's SMAART school last year, it was fascinating to hear yet another take on sound systems, measuring, design, and theory. The physics don't change, but focus of attention does.

Thanks to Scott and everyone at L'Acoustics who took care of us and made today happen!  We hope to see you again soon!

Josh, Mark, Kelsi, Matt, Scott, Matt, and Brian.  Thanks, Kelsi, for the branding!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

SIM Seminar with Bob McCarthy

UCI Sound recently hosted Bob McCarthy on campus for a seminar about SIM, Meyer Sound's advanced loudspeaker and sound system measurement tool. The seminar lasted four days, during which McCarthy filled out heads with information, demolished untruths, and taught us how to think more logically and clearly about sound systems.  Of the three faculty/staff in the sound program, I'm the only one who hadn't yet taken this seminar, so I was excited to finally be able to fix that. Bob's presentation was detailed and specific, and while there's no way that I could have retained everything he said (there were people in the class who had taken it three or more times already), I definitely have a stronger understanding about how large systems behave.  

Each of the MFA students at UCI wrote a bit about their own experience in the class. Thanks, Bob & Meyer!

-Vinnie Olivieri 

Matt Glenn:

Two years ago when I entered the MFA program at UCI, I was a stereo or 5.1 kid. I knew nothing of system design—I was a what-comes-before-the-speakers kind of guy. Through the Meyer seminars we've hosted, I've not only grasped the core concepts of speaker system design but system design has become a strong interest of mine. Bob's seminar was an incredibly engaging perspective for me—truly, it alters the way I think about sound.

Bob's seminar presented a large amount of information (and we only covered a small percentage of his book), but what stuck with me was his constant reference to his core concept of linearity in the physics of sound. In a teach-a-man-to-fish kind of way, Bob instilled these concepts so that we could derive the answer to any system design situation. One day, maybe I'll even be quick at it like Bob... but baby steps. On top of the lecture, Bob was also gracious enough to invite us to join him at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (at Segerstrom Hall) as he demonstrated his tuning methods on the [very strange-looking] hall's sound system (see the picture above). It was pretty awesome to watch Bob work, not only to see his quick problem-solving but also to learn from his inter-personal skills when completing a difficult task.

Thank you Bob, thank you Meyer, and thank you Mike, Vinnie and BC for this awesome seminar. I know at least 6dB-intellect more than I knew before.

Josh Fehrmann:

It seems that every year around a week or two before school starts, we have some sort of training seminar.  I have found these siminars to be a wonderful way to shake off the dust from the summer. SIM class was a wonderful experience and shook the hell out of any brain dust that had accumulated. In my two years at UCI, I have had the opportunity to learn a number of tips and tricks of system design and optimization from some of the best in the business.  I am so thankful for the wonderful opportunity and life long lessons I have learned from these Meyer seminars. With SIM class, I finally felt like the puzzle pieces fit together. I am so thankful to Meyer and for Bob for sharing so much wisdom and knowledge. My art can only be made better from these opportunities.

Our four days with Bob were absolutely amazing. I loved that Bob took the time to thoroughly explain his concepts for system design and optimization. It was a great learning environment. In particular, I loved his approach to combining systems. ALWAYS REMEMBER A+B= AB  and AB = “new” A . Our class also had the brilliant opportunity to watch Bob tune a large system at the nearby Segerstrom Hall. This tuning solidified the ideas we were exploring in class. Segerstrom is quite the unique space in that it is completely asymmetrical. The physical make up of the space created some unique “real world” challenges and Bob seized the opportunity to teach us ways to deal with them. I was also reminded of how important interpersonal skills are within our business. Bob is a master at collaboration and it was great to watch him interact with everyone involved. SIM class was a wonderful experience and thanks again to Meyer, Bob, and the people of Segerstrom Hall for allowing us to have had such an amazing opportunity.

Mark Caspary:

Four days with the incredibly knowledgeable Bob McCarthy was yet another spectacular once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made possible by the collaboration of Meyer sound and UCI sound design program. Bob has the ability to take the “vudu” out of sound. Bob explained all of the strange phenomena of sound with data, numbers, ratio and math. He gave us insight into far more then what was on the analyzer screen, by explaining what the sound itself was doing.  Bob's passion and upbeat antics made the drier parts of the seminars interesting and seeing and working with the SIM software and hardware has converted me to the power and specialization that that Meyer’s SIM brings to the “system tuning a optimization” playing field.  

Brian Svoboda:

We were so thankful to have spent this time with Bob courtesy of Meyer Sound.  It's not every day that you have an opportunity to hone your skills alongside one of the top sound system tuners in the world.  Bob effectively condensed several decades of experience into a 4-day seminar that covered everything from fundamentals of system design to system optimization in completely non-ideal environments.  The latter concept was fleshed out by working with Bob in Segerstrom Hall, an architecturally challenging venue with a previously non-optimized Meyer loudspeaker installation.  Observing Bob's professional and interpersonal process surrounding this optimization was fascinating and inspiring.

I was most impressed with his ability to maneuver a sound system "blind":  The data itself tells us so much about what is happening during a tuning.  Knowing how to interpret this data will give you an edge that even sophisticated speaker modeling software cannot provide.  I was equally impressed with his line array tuning process - specifically, the maximization of equal SPL coverage relying much more on positioning and relying less on level shading.

Matt Eckstein:

To say that Bob McCarty wrote the book on sound system design and optimization would be a vast understatement (although he quite literally did write the book).  Having the opportunity to soak in even a fraction of his almost-three-decades-worth of experience was the opportunity of a lifetime, an amazing start to the 2013-2014 academic year, and a perfect way to jump right into graduate school!  We all learned a lot about tuning a sound system from Bob in the classroom, but just as valuable was the experience at Segerstrom Hall, a puzzle of a hall with some very challenging tuning obstacles.

Watching Bob sculpt an optimized system (at times from scratch) using the ratios and concepts we learned in the classroom was thrilling.  Bob relied on the data from the SIM analyzer, and what he knew the sound system should be doing, to tune the hall.  On top of the practical lessons while we were tuning the Claire Trevor Theatre and the Segerstrom Hall systems, watching Bob work with our class at UCI and the union crew at Segerstrom was also a great reminder for me about the importance of communication, teamwork, and humility.  Thanks so much to Bob, Meyer Sound, and UCI for a really inspiring start to graduate studies here at UCI!!

Kelsi Halverson:

As my first activity at UCI, Bob McCarthy's SIM Training class might have been the most intimidating I could have been a part of. My initial reaction: “WHERE AM I? WHAT AM I DOING HERE? CAN I QUIT?”

Let’s be honest: Bob is a certifiable genius. His knowledge regarding all things audio is astounding and inspiring. He answered questions in ways that would make Alex Trebek weep with happiness. His description of proper line array arrangements was one of the most memorable discussions. 

In reality, minds like Mr. McCarthy’s are rare. Coming into graduate school, I know I have a ton to learn amongst people just as smart as Bob. This class helped affirm that I made the right decision coming to UCI. I am so incredibly excited to begin my three-year adventure with this incredible group of artists, friends and support system.  

BC Keller:

This is the 3rd time I've taken the SIM class with Bob McCarthy. Each time I take it, I learn more and more. It's decades of life lessons, condensed into 4 days. It's a lot to absorb. I've been asked, "why keep taking it?"
 Two reasons. 
1) Because I'm still learning new tricks from him. 
2) I want to hear what the students are being taught, so when we run into a situation, I can say, "remember when Bob was talking about...". Reinforcing the class with real world magnifies the learning experience for our students.

This year, we had the added bonus, of a field trip to Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa! It's one thing to see Bob tune a couple of UPJ's in the seminar. It's quite another to see how he puts system after system together in a large, complex venue! At first glance, it seems immense! But watching Bob follow his basic math equation of "A+B=AB, which is now the new A. New A + B = AB, which is the newer A..." Repeat as needed. A big thank you to the folks at Segerstrom Hall for letting us in to observe!

My favorite part of the seminar this year actually happened the week after. Matt G came to me with his slightly re-vamped design for BBAJ. Clearly the lessons hit home. As we learn in the seminar, first part of tuning the system, is picking the right speakers, and putting them in the right places. That way, you aren't wasting time in the space when you actually get to tuning the room. After the SIM Seminar, Matt had a much better understanding of how speakers interact with each other. And I hope, the front fill system will be the better for it!

Thanks again to everyone at Meyer Sound Labs! For the SIM Seminar, for the R&D that went into the development of SIM, for helping to make us better Sound Professionals. Special kudos to Gavin Canaan and Tom Cavnar for all their help. Obviously, to Bob McCarthy, for sharing his knowledge with us. And to John & Helen Meyer, for having an educational branch. And thanks to our UCI folks, who help make it happen as well: Keith Bangs, Ron Cargile, Toby Weiner. And of course, our fabulous Sound Professors, Mike Hooker & Vinnie Olivieri! 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Field Trip to QSC Amplifier headquarters

Every fall, I teach a class in the graduate program called 'Trends in Modern Sound Design.' The class is primarily a rotating technical topics class, and one of the things that I try to do every year is take at least one field trip.  Today, we took a short drive into Costa Mesa to visit the QSC headquarters and factory.

Siobhan Lamb, Project Manager for Strategic Programs, met us and gave us a tour of the factory floor. This particular location builds amplifiers and loudspeakers, and Siobhan talked us through the process, precision, quality assurance, inspection, and fabrication details of the amps. We were impressed with the attention to detail that QSC puts into their amplifier lines.  After leaving the amplifier floor, we walked to the next building to visit the loudspeaker manufacturing floor, where the cabinets are built, electronics are installed, and units are tested all in two large rooms.

Siobhan then passed us off to Dale Sandberg, a Senior Project Manager, who gave us a little presentation on the functional design of amplifiers. He talked to us about the different classes of amplifiers (new information for some of us, a review for others) and the advantages/disadvantages of each of them.  Then, in a brief q-and-a session, we got him to open up about QSC's approach to audio-over-ethernet (which is quite different than what some of our other contact have been saying).  

It was a very rewarding day - big thanks go to Siobhan and Dale for putting the visit together, and for everyone at QSC who made time for us!

Josh, Mark, Kelsi, Matt G, Brian, Dale, and Matt E. at the QSC headquarters.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Melodies for The Liquid Plain

The most recent piece in my series of profiles of Sound Designers is published in this month's Stage Directions Magazine.  Check out my profile of Victoria 'Toy' DeIorio and her work on the new play The Liquid Plain at Oregon Shakespeare Festival!  (It's on page 20).

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On women in male-dominated fields...

Last fall, I wrote a post for this blog about women in sound design. I talked a bit about the numbers gap between men and women, some of the root causes of the problem, and some of the ways that we try to address it at UCI.  That post got a lot of page views (over 1000, which is a huge amount for this blog), and it's led to many conversations and projects that I've been engaged in over the last year.

On a related note, the New York Times had a feature piece today about women and the Harvard Business School. HBS administrators had noticed that women entered the program with comparable test scores to their male counterparts, but once at school, fell behind academically. Also, the number of tenure and tenure-track women lagged significantly behind the men. HBS faculty decided to study and experiment to see if they could address and solve some of these issues.  They implemented a series of seminars, study methods, in-depth evaluations, quantitate studies, and other activities to measure and encourage stronger performance by women.

It's a fascinating article, full of nuance, disagreement, and marvelous stories. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Can Sound Design be taught online only?

The Designing Sound Blog posted a piece today about Edinburgh Napier University's new all-online Sound Design program. This is apparently the very first all-online Sound Design program, and it got me thinking about how successful one of these all-online programs could be.  Certainly, there are things that could be done quite easily in an all-online fashion - final projects for film & game courses, programming, technology research.

On the other hand, there are plenty of things that you can't get in an all-online program. The two biggest things for me are face-to-face relationships with your students/faculty (which, for me, is a vital part of how I teach), and the fertile environment of a design studio (where many students work in the same physical space). Neither of these things could be done in an all-online format, and I think they'd be a huge loss.

ENU, to its credit, is really aiming their new program at a very specific group of students: working professional engineers who want to move into design. The course of study involves turning those professional relationships into educational opportunities as well, and the program of study is classified as part-time.  So, if you've already got a professional career that you want to keep, this program might be of great use to you!

But, for me, I prefer teaching and working in meatspace, not cyberspace.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Shop Improvement

It's summer time, here at UCI. Now that the New Swan Theater is up and running, and our various summer rental groups are mostly done, we have a chance to make a couple improvements.  We are still waiting on the Robert Cohen Theater, to get it's finishing touches, before moving the equipment back in. In the mean time, I've made a slight improvement to the sound shop.

In the S.W.I.F.T. (Sound Workshop for Integrated Fine-arts Technology), we had a corner of the room with little drawers.

They looked like dorm room rejects. Handy, sure. But, ugly, not safe (one is leaning, others were stacked on top of each other, and would almost fall on you when opening the drawer), and not an efficient use of the space.  Using some leftover funds, and a great sale price, we have upgrade to this:

Thirty six bins, of different sizes. Far more efficient use of the space. Bins are more specific. Instead of "Firewire", we now have one bin for "Firewire 400-400", another for "Firewire 400-800", and another for "Firewire 800-800". Makes it much easier to find what you need. And, with the expansion, we also have some EMPTY bins!! Room for growth, as Apple comes up with some new connector to get into their computers, or Meyer has a widget for their speakers, or..or.. Who knows!!??!! Always nice to have room to grow.

While the shop is never perfect, we are always making improvements, in hopes of getting there. When time and budget allows, we make things better.

OK, time for me to get back to work. Need to make proper labels for all those bins.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Falling Into Design

I'm in the middle of a small series (two pieces, maybe more) of articles for Stage Directions Magazine. Each one is a profile of a different designer, and the first one is published in the July '13 edition.  You can check it out here.

And, an excerpt, to wet your whistle:

Jane Shaw has a problem. Two problems. Well, challenges, really. Shaw, a sound designer based out of New York City, is designing a new production of N. C. Hunter’s 1951 play A Picture of Autumn for The Mint Theater.  Like most productions, this one has a couple of looming question marks for both the sound designer and the production as a whole.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

I bought a what...?

I just backed myself into a corner where I had to purchase a device unfathomable in modern audio and which supports a long-dead media format. Hooker bought a cassette recorder!  Yes, it's true.

Let me explain why I sunk to such noisy, fluttery depths of desperation:

I have been on a 6-year-long kick to back up my entire digital life.  I have converted and archived every file all the way back to my first Commodore-64 computer from 1982 (admittedly, the C64 files went from 5-1/2" floppy to 3.5" Mac floppy back in 1986).  Now, I have no way of opening or using those older files but they are part of my digital existence and history.  As I get older I feel the need to preserve digital "me". My entire digital existence fits on a 4TB drive...  including every massive ProTools session, mega-huge Photoshop file and pilfered internet video that has ever loaded into one of my computers.  I also transferred every one of my DAT tapes (42 of them) digitally into ProTools and those sessions are part of this mess.

This process of digital archiving made me think about preserving my analog past.  2 years ago I dusted off my open reel deck (a very well-maintained Otari MX5050-B3) as part of the UCI Critical Listening class.  I have sound designs from about 25 theatre shows on 2-track 1/4" tape.  Every one of those was also transferred into ProTools (96K, 24-bit); that involved a lot of baking tapes in a modified convection oven to reset the binder from a sticky, sheddy mess into something playable.  (I am a victim of the tape chemical crisis of the late 80's where every batch of open reel tape was shit... thank you Ampex and Agfa for not announcing your formula change).  But the baking endeavor was successful. I have digressed, sorry!

I then decided to tackle my cassette library...

I have over 200 cassette tapes, not of mix tapes and album dubs, but of music projects from teenager up to my mid 20's.  I also have recordings of 6-year old me playing the piano (and I was better at it back then) and even high school jazz band concerts. As a professional recording engineer in the late 80's and early 90's, I would take rough mixes of projects out of the studio and into my car - via cassette.  My cars were my comparison monitors and a big part of checking my mixes. If the mix sounded good in my car it was probably stellar on anything else. I am a pack-rat and kept every tape.

I learned how to do multitrack recording in high school when my parents bought me a Yamaha MT44 4-track cassette recorder for my 16th birthday (that was 1982!).  In its day, the MT44 was a killer little machine and I kept it all these years.  25 of those cassette tapes are 4-track sessions from my bedroom studio in the house where I grew up.  So... I dusted off the Yamaha, connected it into ProTools, stuck in a tape... and it played! I transferred every 4-track session into ProTools.

The Yamaha wasn't the only cassette machine in my possession.  I saved a Sony cassette machine circa 1990.  The headstack got stuck with a tape in it and I had to break it apart to get the tape out. It went into the trash last week. But the Yamaha also plays regular cassettes and I started to use it to transfer the remaining 175 tapes. About 5 tapes in, it slowly started suffer from awful flutter and was getting progressively worse.  I cleaned the heads, pinch roller and guides but nothing changed.  This meant the problem was either lubrication or bad belts.  The thought of restoring this thing made me think of the dozens of other summer projects that would have to be set aside.  I gave it a little hug and lovingly put it back in the garage.

And so began my search for a new cassette deck!

Only one company is still making decent cassette decks -- that would be the venerable Tascam/Teac corporation. Cassette decks are ridiculously expensive now and not stocked in any LA stores.  That led me to the stalwart   I loathe Amazon but they have cassette decks.  I chose the Teac AD-800. It looks like a 90's vintage deck but with a CD player taking up half the front panel.  This thing was designed to dub CDs to tape.  But it has something odd on the front -- a USB port!  There is an A-D converter built into this thing. Mind f*ck is the only phrase that can describe my feelings at this point.

Nothing has changed in cassette tape technology -- or sound quality.  Same old mechanical transports, Dolby-B noise reduction that doesn't track properly, slow rewinds, and that saturated, inter-modulated, hissy, unstable and warbly analog sound. I have to admit (with some shame) that I LOVE it!  I'm about 40 tapes into my noisy past and reliving the glory of cassettes one tape at a time - and in real-time.  And I have some sticky and shedding cassette tapes that won't play - I'm thinking the Betty Crocker treatment in my convection oven might just fix them, just like those old reels.

Now I'm pondering the day when ProTools dies a long-deserved and painful death, and all those archived sessions become unplayable... or when 64-bit audio becomes the standard. What will people think when they hear I was a 24-bit junkie? Or the ghastly fact that I used ProTools.

Another odd side note: with the analog additions, my entire media life now requires more than 4TB.  Not sure if that's brag-worthy or not... but I'll let you know how big when it's all done.

-Mike Hooker

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Broadway Sound Master Class 2013

Earlier this month, I attended the Broadway Sound Master Class (BSMC) thanks to a sponsorship from D&B Audio.  The speakers this year were fantastic.  There were so many big names in sound presenting; it was great to hear what they are passionate about. If you’re curious, you can read about the schedule and presenters here.

Each class also attends a Broadway show.  This year, BSMC saw Pippin directed by Diane Paulus, sound design by Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm.  After the show, Jonathan Deans answered questions about the sound design.  Mix Engineer Steve Henshaw and Music Director Charlie Alterman also answered questions about mixing the show, the music, and the pit orchestra.  One of the topics Jonathan spoke earlier in the day was about keeping true to the performers choices throughout the sound design.  He loves that every performance will be different, and wants to embrace those differences instead of containing them.  For example, he avoids turning compression on for the actors and musicians, and instead asks the Mix Engineer to make “compression” choices live on the faders.  Knowing that, I was blown away listening to the show and realizing how much intricate work Steve Henshaw was handling at any given moment.

Tony Meola had a similar view; his goal is too put as little as possible between the performer and audience.  He had talked at length about this philosophy when he was teaching a masterclass here at UC Irvine, at it makes a lot of sense to me.  Every bit of processing in the audio chain has its own soundprint or character.  I think this contributes to our ability to tell the difference between direct and reinforced sound.  The more we can make the system disappear, the more we can enhance a direct emotional connection between the performer and audience.

John Taylor has been researching binaural recordings.  He added that sound systems deprive the audience important binaural information.  Think about listening to a live orchestra; it’s possible to locate sections or soloists on the stage just by listening.  Now think about hearing that orchestra on a recording through the proscenium main speakers; it’s much harder even if you’re lucky enough to be sitting in the center.  Instead of having 50 or more sound sources, all that information has to be squished into two channels of audio.  John has been experimenting with using a binaural recording setup as a way to archive an audience’s experience.  He played us demos of a mono recording, a binaural recording, and a binaural recording synced to video.  I found the binaural video to be extremely realistic.  Binaural playback only works with headphones, and there are some calibration choices to consider, but it would be an excellent way to share the show with someone who wasn’t there.

Throughout the conference, there was scheduled downtime to either wander the vendor floor or meet other people in the room.  It was a really smart setup, and I had a wonderful time meeting people from all over.  Many people were from NY or universities, but there was also a sizable European contingency as well; I met sound designers and engineers who worked in their respective National Theaters in Norway, Sweden, and Germany.  It was fascinating to have a conversation about European vs. American theater.

Overall, I had an amazing time. There was so much to take in over two days, and it was great to be around so many other people who also love theater and sound. It’s a terrific conference, and I hope I can make it back again soon.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Constellation in After Troy

A musical number where I mixed the level of early reflections in this scene with the intensity of the music and vocals to make the scene feel like a musical.
My thesis show was After Troy, a large-scale play with musical numbers staged in UC-Irvine’s Claire Trevor Theatre.  The theatre is a 285- seat proscenium space with an unoccupied reverberation time of about 1 second.  This show presented me with many sound design challenges; primarily, a play performed in this space is very difficult to understand without vocal amplification and secondly, the show has several songs that portray madness or have a religious, sacred feeling that I wanted to heighten and enhance. Last year I used Constellation in my design for Waiting for Godot, primarily for reverberation effects, and fell in love with the flexibility of the system and the ability to have total control over the quality of the sound. For After Troy, I decided to use Constellation primarily for voice lift for the play’s dialogue but also to heighten certain moments with highly exaggerated reverberation effects.
To implement both needs, I used microphones over the stage and house and a system of speakers in the house. Steve Ellison helped me with this design and met with me to go over optimum microphone and speaker placement. He also came down to UCI to calibrate the system and help me get started. It was an invaluable learning experience to begin making Constellation cues with this system in place and the high level of understanding Steve left me with. During tech, I was able to further EQ the system to fit the show’s needs and adjust both early reflection cues and long reverberation cues to the emotional content of scenes, creating some truly beautiful moments. Overall, I created about 30 cues in CueStation that were triggered by sending MIDI commands to Matrix3 via QLab.
After Troy relied heavily on sound, with underscoring or ambience under almost the entire show and musical numbers sung by the entire cast. The director made the choice to amplify these songs using handheld microphones; he wanted this to be an obvious visual and aural convention that when you see an actor holding a microphone to their mouth that this was a musical number and that the actor’s voice was amplified. Therefore, I found myself using Constellation for three modes of operation: voice lift for dialogue, enhancing the background singers during songs using microphones, and special reverberation effects.

I think that using Constellation not only helped enhance the experience of the show for the audience but also helped the actors. In one instance, I created a cue that simulated the acoustics of a church for a poem sung in a religious style; this added a magical, holy atmosphere to the song that not only assisted the performance of the actress vocally but also emotionally as a character in the moment. I felt this was also true for songs of madness where the actors walked from the house to the stage; here I created cues with multiple reflections that made the music and vocals swim in dense reverberation throughout the space. Engulfing both the actor and the audience in this thick sound set the atmosphere for their insanity.
I found the use of Constellation to contribute greatly to the success of After Troy. The flexibility it allowed me was perfect for this show’s process where we were still adjusting staging and developing new cueing ideas during tech; I was able to provide a myriad of options in the moment that I otherwise could not have.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to have used Constellation in another show, for the support Meyer showed me, and the generous amount of time Steve spent helping me. I enjoyed the process of helping to design the system as much as I enjoyed creating the VRAS cues.


Groundplan of the Claire Trevor Theatre
The preshow scene of the show during the audience’s entrance which used early reflections for subtle vocal reinforcement.

The male warriors disguised as women at the top of the show – a scene using early reflections for subtle vocal reinforcement.

One of the first songs where the warriors abuse and taunt the women of Troy – a scene where I mixed the level of early reflections to balance with the reinforced vocals of the song.

The one to be sacrificed to the gods is chosen – a scene using early reflections for subtle vocal reinforcement.
Hecuba performs a burial ritual for her children – a scene with a long reverberation effect to match the spiritual music and atmosphere.