Sunday, December 3, 2017

Chess - In Concert

Chess was an incredibly invaluable learning experience in designing for a musical, especially so for this special concert-staged version. 

As a creative team, we had decided to center all design aspects to a “concert” staging of the show. We worked on the idea of having a goal-post truss since this would allow lighting to reach many downstage positions and also allow me to to have arrays downstage of the actors. It also allowed me to extend array positions into the proscenium opening instead of being limited to being to the side of the proscenium.

We decided to place the 25-piece orchestra onstage centre to direct the focus of the performance to be on the music. Minimal set pieces framed around this staging to help give us context to the music and set the storyline. There was also a large ensemble of 35 on risers on both sides of the orchestra; they were miked with a pair of small diaphragm condensers for each section. A total of 7 leads and 10 featured ensemble were on wireless handheld microphones to capture forward sounding vocals yet give them the freedom to move around the stage. The featured ensemble had individual lines as well as group vocals that were sometimes supported by the large ensemble. 

Under the mentorship of Mike, we spent a substantial amount of time brainstorming various configurations of system design, but finally decided that Chess would be the one show that I can implement a stereo concert-style system without the typical musical theater vocal center, due to the pop-sounding instrumentation. I also intended to not have under-balcony fills if I could design a line array system that can deliver enough to the back of the house under the balcony. We realized this was very achievable in the Irvine Barclay Theatre - each array was broken into three components - the top 2 cabinets for the balcony, the middle 3 for the far end of the stalls (including mix position) and the last 3 cabinets for the stall seats nearer to the stage. The curvature of the arrays helped focus energy to the balcony and under-balcony but a wide splay covered the stalls nearer to the stage. We made sure to have even SPL to all three sections of the seating without losing any level in the stall far/mix position. This was the final design.

This was the implementation of it after we loaded in!

Not unexpectedly, there were some slight discrepancies with the truss height and audience seats, so we opted to add 4 Meyer MM4s for frontfills. This helped to cover the slight drop in the first two rows of the audience.

I had originally decided to automate orchestra faders every time there was a musical change. This proved to be too time consuming during tech and dress to make sure I updated all the correct scenes. Now on hindsight, perhaps I should limit myself to one snapshot per song as a start and add more snapshots only if it was needed. 🧡

The whole production process was a huge lesson for me in terms of managing a team of this scale. This was the first time I was lead designer in a musical this big. I learnt the importance of effective and clear communication with the director, musical director and my team. It was also a good reminder to always think a step ahead of the work schedule and design process. Designing my first big musical here at UCI has definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone to learn to interact with a team I have never worked with before. There’s still much for me to learn, but I’m grateful for this wonderfully challenging experience. 

Photo credit: Paul Kennedy

Photo credit: Paul Kennedy

Kudos to Hunter for being such a patient assistant designer and for always keeping me on track when things got crazy! And kudos to Jack for being such an amazing mixer and team player!


Friday, November 3, 2017

Wave Field Synthesis

In our Trends in Modern Sound Design class, we often begin the quarter by gathering a list of topics we are interested in learning and proceed to study them over the course of the term. One of our topics delved into how Dolby Atmos and realistic sound imaging function and thus we were tasked with the project of conceptualizing and building a system that could test the capabilities of Wave Field Synthesis. Wave Field Synthesis deals with the production of artificial wave fronts synthesized by a large number of loudspeakers. The process of creating these artificial wavefronts is to create a virtual starting point for these sources, recreating the source in the space (whether in or outside of the space itself) and being able to localize to that point regardless of the listener’s position within the room.

Andrew, Hunter, and Ning prepping the system

In determining how to properly navigate this project, we began by designing a robust surround system that could allow us to accurately create a wave field. As a team we ended up with a 20-channel surround system, designed in our classroom/lab space comprising of a mix of Meyer cabinets: UP-J, UP-Junior, MM4, and UP-4s. One of the most important factors we had to consider with a variety of cabinets was not only placing the speakers in the correct position on the rigging supports, but to ensure that each speaker was in line at the driver level.

We decided to use the Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56 for our routing needs. Once we ensured that every speaker had proper power and signal, we took SPL measurements via Smaart of each cabinet and recorded that data within a spreadsheet. Taking into account the different models of speakers, we needed to standardize the SPL from each cabinet to prevent sourcing to any one particular cabinet once signal is sent to every one.

From this point forward, there were two tasks that needed to happen in order to proceed: Generate data points corresponding to both attenuation levels and delay times for each speaker based off of an imaginary sound source, and an interface that could interpolate these data points and send sound to each speaker.

We decided to use Max/MSP to create a patch that could allow us to route audio and control all of these data points. This particular approach to the programming involved creating a 1x20 (in/out) monophonic mixer that could allow for setting initial Gain/Trim levels for each speaker and then have points to add our attenuation and delay times in. Visually, the patch began to take the shape reminiscent of a standard mixing console or related interface control software with movable faders and mutes for each individual channel.

Attenuation and Delay calculations - 4 locations 
In our first run, we began with a single file, Suzanne Vega’s vocal-only recording of “Tom’s Diner” and listened to how it behaved in our system. It was a very interesting experience, being able to hear and localize the sound but be unable to point to any one specific speaker as its source. Walking around the room, our placed sound retains its spot as if Suzanne Vega were singing in the room… floating above our heads (I’ll talk more about that in a few paragraphs).

Our next step tasked us with adding in multiple other sources to place within the room. New calculations were taken and stored in the data sheet, and a new version of the patch was programmed. In both learning how to navigate this particular system and understanding more of Max’s programming, I would continue to find oversights and weaknesses in the programming that would be fixed with updated versions. Though the patch worked completely fine, developing methods for increasing time efficiency and finding a way to create recallable presets became a priority.

In the next round of testing, we upgraded the programming to take four channels of audio and apply the calculations of four distinct points within the room. In Max, despite the seemingly chaotic visuals on screen, it was a simple duplication of the original 1x20 mixer, each taking a different channel of the audio and then being routed back out to the ~dac object. Playing the four channels, the imaging was once again very successful. Sounds were placed in the room, and the sense of distance and location was achieved very successfully.

WFS - Max Patch (4 source mixer)

Getting back to Suzanne Vega singing above our heads… in doing this process, we uncovered some of the holes in our initial methodologies for attaining calculations. The rig in our lab is built to be about 10’ above the ground, and thus any speakers hung would be anywhere from 8-10’ above our heads. Our calculations were taken via a 2D ground plan drawing, giving us the information for the X and Y axes. But because our speakers are in the air above our heads, we would also have needed to factor in Z axis information to properly achieve the exact measurement. As it stood, our measurements were taken in the same plane of the speakers, hence the floating Suzanne Vega. With that being said though, by standing on a ladder and becoming more level with the speaker plane, the imaging becomes even more realistic and stronger.

Things we took away from this project: Wave Field Synthesis is pretty amazing and very powerful. Creating the sense that someone could be singing or playing music from the room next door, and giving that same experience to anyone within that Wave Field is enthralling. The greatest challenge of this is resources. If we wanted to get an even better sense of realism, we would need an even larger amount of speakers in multiple planes: ideally one at head height, in the air, and overheads. Doing something like that is just not practical. If we had more time to play with the system, we would take recalculate and use a 3D model of the space to achieve the most accurate information  (and this is what would be needed for multiple planes of speakers too).

This project also brings up interesting ideas into how this can be incorporated into theatre or other productions of live performance. We would need to find a way to build the patch that allows for easy creations, saving, and recalling of multiple presets. In a theatrical environment, the biggest challenge is the programming is to be able to make quick changes immediately in the rehearsal room and more importantly the tech process. Developing an interface that can function like QLab could allow realistic spatialization to become easier.

Overall, while not perfect and with having no experience of the project prior to this, our experiments became an incredibly successful endeavor that yielded a lot of valuable knowledge that we hope to apply once again in the future, in both theatrical mediums as well as any other immersive sound system. 

- J

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A furious end to our year.

UCI runs on the quarter system (as opposed to the semester system), which means that we're just now, in mid-June, ending our week of final exams.  Most of the rest of the country has been out of classes for almost a month.  Not us.

Last weekend, we ended our school year with a very busy weekend full of activities.  On Friday night, we held the thesis critique for graduating student Andrea Allmond. For thesis productions, Mike and I always invite an outside sound designer to watch the production and provide feedback. For Andrea's work on Avenue Q, we were delighted to host Broadway Sound Designer (and legend) Tony Meola. Tony flew in on Friday afternoon, had dinner with Andrea, Mike, and I, saw the show, and then joined the rest of the program for a critique in the Meyer Sound Design Studio.  The critique was robust and valuable, and I did manage to snap a very serious-looking photograph of the goings-on.

On Saturday morning, before we shuttled Tony back to LAX for his flight home, the program gathered at my place for a breakfast.  It was cloudy and slightly misty at first, but soon the sun came out and we all enjoyed our food and visit.

On Sunday, everyone gathered back at my place for a much sadder occasion.  Mike and I hosted a memorial celebration for our old friend and colleague, BC Keller.  BC passed in May from a relatively short battle with cancer, and we knew that his friends and colleagues needed an opportunity to grieve and remember him.  We opened the doors to everyone who knew him: family, friends, UCI co-workers, LA co-workers, students, and alumni.  The Claire Trevor School of the Arts Dean's office also helped out by providing some refreshments.  

Here's a photo of BC's mom Patty checking out a quilt that one of her friends made with some of BC's tshirts.

And now, with that flurry of activity behind us, it's time to say good-bye to this school year.  Congratulations to Andrea Allmond and Ben Scheff, our graduating MFA students, and to Jacques Zwielich, our Honors in Design BA! You'll go off and do great things.  But first, take a short break, if you can. You've earned it.

Friday, May 5, 2017

BC Keller, our friend forever

Mike and I are heartbroken to share that BC Keller, UCI’s longtime Sound Supervisor, passed away on the morning of 4 May due to complications from cancer. He was a hell of a guy, a prince among men, and his death has left a big hole in all of our hearts.

I first met BC in 2006. I was living in NYC at the time but contemplating a move to LA. I flew out for a week of meetings and temperature-taking, and during my visit to South Coast Repertory, he gave me a tour of the facilities. Shortly after I started at UCI in 2007, BC left SCR to take the Sound Supervisor position at Dallas Theatre Center.  A few years later, when we had an opening at UCI, Mike and I were able to tempt him back to southern California.  He was with us at UCI for the rest of his life.

BC was super-smart. He knew how to tackle complex concepts and gear. He was our resident expert on some of the equipment that Mike and I occasionally struggled with.  He taught our LCS & D-Mitri modules, and the students knew that he was the go-to person with questions when they were furstrated with programming. 

BC was kind and generous.  He came in early and stayed late. He responded to text messages and phone calls from his students even on his (rare) days off, and he maintained just as active a relationship with our alumni as Mike and I do. We often thought of him as our third faculty member in the sound design program. He didn’t formally teach, but he understood that in his work with the sound department, he was mentoring and teaching students. He took that responsibility seriously.

BC had a love for life that was inspiring. Even when he was at his most exhausted and frustrated, he was full of corny jokes and a mischievous sense of humor.  When I sent an email to the current and former students announcing his death, I asked them to share some of his sense of humor with me.  In response, I’ve gotten lots of screengrabs of text message exchanges.  Everyone had a special relationship with BC. I know I did.

Mike and I are devastated by his death, for reasons both personal and professional.  Not only was BC a colleague at work, but he was a friend. We hung out with him, ate with him, drank with him. We visited him in the hospital and at home during his last months, as he rested, enjoyed catching up with family and friends, watching movies, listening to music. We watched his mother Patty as she cared for him, and we wished, as always, that we could do more, could ease his burden, just as he eased ours.

On behalf of our MFA family: Cory, Joe, Palmer, Tim, Todd, Noelle, Stephen, Patricia, Beth, Jeff, Mark, Matt, Josh, Brian, Kelsi, Matt, Ben, Andrea, Jordan, Ning, and Andrew, and our undergrad family: Sinan, Karli, Elliot, Kate, Cinthia, Ryan, and Jacques, we want to thank BC for spending so much of his short time on Earth with us.

We’ll never forget you.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Welcome to our MFA, class of 2020!

UCI Drama is excited to present our two incoming students for next year: Hunter Moody and Jack Bueermann!  

Hunter is native Arkansan, and he first discovered the fascinating world of sound design in his undergraduate years. After graduation, he set out for eastern Kentucky to join the 2013 summer season of Jenny Wiley Theatre as the A2. With the advent of potential full-time work in 2015, he was promoted to resident sound and graphic media designer. He has since designed the sound for and engineered over thirty productions between JWT and the budding University of Pikeville Theatre program. Hunter has developed extensive experience in educational theatre, working with the Jenny Wiley Footlights Theatre, a pre-professional TFYA program, and guest lecturing at the University of Pikeville. Outside of theatre, he has designed sound for dance, voice-over, and competition, with experience in audio engineering for concert venues, church events, and live comedy. His research interests include the historical contexts of music, the psychoanalytic effects of sound upon memory and mood, and innovations in audio production technology. In his free time, Hunter is an avid video gamer and loves (trying) to bake. He has a BFA in Theatrical Design/Technology from Arkansas State University.

Jack recently graduated from the University of Redlands, where he designed multiple major productions. Since graduating, he has worked professionally as an assistant sound designer in the Los Angeles area. More recently, he has been working as the A1 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre where he mixed the world premier of Hershey Felder's Our Great Tchaikovsky. Jack is passionate about theater and story-telling through sound, and is excited to collaborate with the talented faculty and students at UCI.

We had a number of excellent applicants this year, and Mike and I are both thrilled and Jack and Hunter will be joining us in the fall.  Be on the lookout for great things from them both!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Field Recording

Last fall, the last time my Trends in Modern Sound Design class met was to go on a field recording field trip to 1000 Steps Beach in Orange County.  The beach is about 15 minutes from campus down a steep stairway (about 232 steps - not that I was counting) from the Pacific Coast Highway.  Once you're on the beach, the road is inaudible, and at 9am, there's little human activity on the beach.  So, on the Monday of Finals Week, we hauled a bunch of gear down to the beach to make some field recordings.

Earlier in the quarter, we spent some time talking about how to strategize the recording session for optimal content collection and editing speed.  We first talked about what kinds of recordings we'd like to make. We settled on these formats:

* close-miked sound effects (water, animals, etc.)
* binaural ambience
* spaced-omni pair ambience
* coincident pair (XY) ambience
* omni ambience
* 5.1 ambience
* M/S ambience
* spaced-cardioid pair ambience

When we looked at the list of formats, it became apparent that we needed three teams of students. So, I divided the class into three teams.

  • Ben, Ning, and Mingna would together handle a system that included a SoundField ST-350 microphone and a pair of spaced AKG 414 microphones. The ST-350 sends four channels (ambisonic WXYZ), but can be decoded to omni, coincident pair, 5.1, and M/S. The AKG 414 microphones have an adjustable polar pattern, so the team could choose a spaced-pair omni or cardioid. Those six channels (WXYZ & two 414) fed into a Zoom F8 recorder.  They would set up on the beach and record ambience.  

  • Andrea and Andrew would together handle the shotgun mic for close-miked sounds.  They mounted a Sennheiser MKH 416 on a boom pole, recording onto a Zoom H6. Andrea handled the boom.  Andrew handled the recorder and monitored on headphones.  They were tethered by cable.

  • Jordan handled the binaural recording by himself.  He wore a custom-made binaural ball-cap, with the omni elements sewn into the headband at the ear positions.  Those mics fed a Zoom H4.  

We met on campus at 8:30 and caravanned to the beach.  Once we were on the beach, we found a rocky plateau sufficiently far up the beach (the tide was slowly coming in) to make an impromptu camp.  Each team was responsible for collecting all of the gear (including stands, cables, batteries, etc.) they'd need, so once we got to the beach, the teams started setting up.  Teams shotgun and binaural were first out of the gate, heading south to a rocky water cave with lots of great water-against-rock sounds.  Team multi-channel took longer to set up.

The recording session itself was lots of fun.  Team shotgun enjoyed scrambling over rocks to get some great sounds of water lapping against the rocks, but their attempts at wildlife was less than successful.

Team multichannel spent some time adjusting their microphone spacing and distance from the surf, but got some excellent recordings of surf.

Team binaural (Jordan) took had a much-needed opportunity to have some quiet communion with nature after a particularly busy quarter (and an emotionally-taxing production).

As the session wound to a close, the teams started packing up, and Ning found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time with respect to the tide.  

Ultimately, we collected some great recordings!  After the session, the students went back into the studio to edit and render the recordings.  Teams binaural and shotgun only had to create two and one-track recordings to render, but team multi-channel needed to use some specialized software in the Meyer Sound Design Studio to render their recordings into all of the requisite formats.  I created a Google Doc that automatically turned the recording information that the teams entered into the appropriate data formats for uploading, both to our private sound effects server and to, where we've put our recordings for public access.  We're still working on mastering and uploading all the audio, but once it's done, I'll post a link on this blog!