It's Crunch Time, or Now Things Get Interesting

Posted by Paul Braun, sound designer

There comes a day in the life of every play where all of the elements of the production start to come together. Or, as the kids say, "Stuff's about to get REAL, Yo!" (Actually, the kids use a different "S" word, but this is a family blog...)

Yesterday was that day. I'm actually juggling a number of things in addition to two actual real-world jobs - I'm creating the world of sound for "Brother" and designing and installing a new PA system at CST. All of that has to be completed by opening night....

First, a bit about the PA system. Since coming back from hiatus, I've run into several limitations with the existing system at CST and have been trying to figure out how to make an upgrade happen. My show designs, especially this one, tend to be more complex. I've always been a big fan of using auxiliary speakers around the set so that specific effects can come from the proper location, like a door crash or a car starting. Jonni and Traci know what's possible, and they're definitely ones to push me to reach farther. Jonni found the funding to build the system I needed to do this show (and to remove any obstacles to future show designs.) One of my real-world jobs is live sound engineer, so I got together with my team and laid out the design, got equipment ordered, worked on donations, and coordinated the installation. Yesterday afternoon was my first chance to pass audio through everything and I just stood there, grinning, enjoying the fruits of two weeks of stress. Yeah, it's worth it.

Heck, pretty much every one of Jim's plays have pushed the technology envelope. "The Angels of Lemnos" required a complicated audio montage at the opening, and this was back before everyone could do audio editing on their iPhones... So, I had to enlist the help of my friend Eric Schranz who had built a small Mac-based project studio. He and I spent hours editing just the show open. And we had to use synthesizers to create a number of the effects for the show. One of the main cues was just background - big-city ambient sounds - that ran through most of the show. Since looping a 2-minute sound clip was going to be annoying, Eric and I took a field recorder to downtown Chicago, grabbed lunch at Portillo's, and then planted ourselves for a half-hour on the sidewalk by the Rock'n'Roll McDonald's and recorded Chicago.

"The Seventh Monarch" was even more of a challenge. I built a computer specifically for video editing. Jim and I had a vision of an opening sequence composed of clips of various NASA footage. Once that was spliced together, I dropped in Joe Walsh's "The Confessor" as the music bed along with actual space-related voices.

Now, how to present that? Yeah, well.... we scrounged together about a dozen televisions, built them into the back wall, and wired them all together through a video distrubtion amplifier, and ran the main feed back to the Treehouse (what we call the tech booth). My friend, the late John Musall, lent me a video switcher and a pattern generator so that when I switched off of the video, the tv's wouldn't just display snow, we had cool test patterns on a black background.

"Backwards In High Heels" required auxiliary speakers as well. Since the show traveled back and forth in time a lot, the music was chosen very carefully by co-creator Mike Hite and myself to clue the audience into the time frame of the scene.

"Brother Of All" is no different. There are several music cues inside the show, but there are even more environmental sound effects, which, to be most effective, need to come from different places on the set. I now have the capability to make that happen. There are also a number of effects that need to be timed very closely with the action on stage, two of which are built up layers of voices. Last night I recorded the raw voices (using my iPad... I love living in the future) and this afternoon will build the cues.

Last night was the first full tech run-through with lights and sound. This is where the directors and I listen to the cues with the actors running the scene. We make additions, decide that something that sounded good in our heads really doesn't work with the action and needs to be different or, occasionally, just deleted. By the end of the night, I had a clear plan for what needed to be reworked for tonight's rehearsal. Yeah, it's a lot of work yet. But we'll get there. I just need to give up sleep for the next week.

This show will be the first one I've done that will run completely off of a computer. I've built a system with a multi-channel audio interface that is running show cue software similar to the professional theatre companies run. All of the cues are programmed in, with levels, output channels, durations, fades, start/stop behaviors and they're all in order. There's a big green "GO" button on the screen, and the tech follows along in the script and clicks "GO" when it's time. This allows a lot of control over the show, and also makes for easier changes on the fly.

When the lights come up Friday, it will all be worth it.