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King Henry V Audio Engineering: King Henry V: Audio Engineering
 
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King Henry V: Audio Engineering

Audio has the potential to bring forth emotion in a person in both obvious and subtle ways. A quiet thunderstorm perceived in the distance can evoke a pensive mood, while loud explosions and helicopters can bring rage, confusion and even fear to a person. When carefully applied to a theatre production, audio can provide a convincing context for the action taking place on stage, thus further immersing the audience member in the experience. When good acting combines with effective audio and lighting, the audience member may quite willingly suspend his or her disbelief and become emotionally involved with the play. This possibility fuels my interest in working with audio in the theatre. Two of my main interests are audio and theatre, so I naturally found it a fantastic opportunity to combine the two when I first learned of the need for an audio engineer for the production of King Henry V. The original position involved implementing an audio design presented in the King Henry V design IQP1, but my duties quickly expanded to include reworking most of the audio design for the show. My experience as audio designer for New Voices One-Three, combined with experience working with audio in general, gave me sufficient background for working on the production. With this background and an open mind, I approached and solved the myriad of problems involved with making the audible world of King Henry V a believable one.

The recent WPI Masque production of Shakespeare's King Henry V suggests timelessness of the world of King Henry. This is a philosophy that I carried into the design and implementation of the sound effects for the production. Battle scenes, built up from the traditional sounds of horses galloping, people yelling and sword play, also contained more modern sounds of automatic weapon fire, explosions and helicopters. In creating these sound effects, I chose and stuck to a simple method for producing effects, one which I call the ``cake analogy.''

With this analogy, each audio scene contained an audio base - the ``cake,'' if you will. In general, I made the audio base consist of material of the time period of the original work. For example, the Agincourt battle scenes had a base of traditional warfare, made up of people, sword and horse sounds. Layered on top of this ``cake'' was the ``icing,'' or more contemporary sounds. In the Agincourt example, machine guns, tanks and explosions made up the ``icing.'' This analogy, while a bit contrived, does serve to explain in simple terms the approach I used when creating the sound effects for the production.

Practically all of the play had some sort of audio underneath it, whether provided by the orchestra or the sound system. This presented a unique challenge when it came to developing sound effects of appreciable length, generally a minute or more. Computer-hosted digital audio, while a reasonably inexpensive and fairly effective scheme for sound effects cueing, rapidly becomes inefficient and cumbersome for long sound effects. Stereo sound recorded at a decent level of quality consumes large amounts of hard disk space on a computer, making it an impractical choice for long sound effects. Knowing from the outset that some effects were going to be as long as 20 minutes, I thought it best to seek alternate means for effects storage.

With technology available today, one-time recordable Compact Discs (CD's) may be created or ``burned,'' as the lingo goes. Initially, I hoped to burn a CD with all of the sound effects for the show, both for easy cueing and unparalleled reliability. Unfortunately, the CD burner I had access to was not capable of burning audio CD's, so I abandoned that idea early on. I did not want to resort to using standard cassette tapes due to the lack of fidelity, so I ended up settling on a multi-track tape. This format afforded a much higher fidelity and the ability to overdub (to make layered recordings). Additionally, the multi-track tape deck used offered four independent channels of output (versus two, as with CD or standard cassette). This medium worked reasonably well, but the standard problems of using tapes still surfaced. Tape is a medium subject to wear and tear, as there is physical contact between the tape and the tape deck heads. This means that there is potential for a tape to break, wear out or jam. This problem can be, for the most part, avoided by making backups of the tapes. However, one problem not initially considered was that of deck failure. True to Murphy's Law, the multi-track deck ceased to function ten minutes before curtain on opening night. Fortunately, the borrowing of a replacement deck capable of playing the same format tapes allowed the show to go on with audio. Even with tape being available and simple to use, I would sincerely recommend avoiding its future use for theatrical purposes. Being almost entirely mechanical, the tapes and decks undergo much wear and tear during a show, and thus have a high potential for failure at the least opportune moment. With the rapidly falling prices of CD burners and the availability of consumer-recordable Mini-Discs, digital media should be an extremely viable option for theatre work for anyone who can afford it.

Even with all of the aforementioned problems, recording on multi-track tape was still a very convenient way to carry out the ``cake'' methodology of constructing the sound effects. The deck I used allowed up to eight separate overdubs to be made, so sound effects could be built up in a manner true to the analogy. The base sound effects generally used four tracks of the tape. Overdubs of other effects such as weapons, a boat creaking, etc. made up the additional four tracks. A variety of techniques from the standard to the slightly bizarre allowed the creation of convincing sound effects. The means used to create boat creak and water drip sounds fall under the category of creative, if not bizarre. After many hours of playing with microphone placement and signal processing equipment, water dripping from a faucet into a cup became water dripping in a castle. A computer monitor, when leaned on in just the wrong way, produced a convincing ship creak sound. In addition to creating sounds from scratch, CD's of sound effects were reviewed to determine their usefulness. Often times signal processing gear and pitch changing helped to make a sound effect from CD more convincing. Additionally, short, raw effects had a lengthening trick applied to them. The technique involves overlapping several copies of an effect end to end on tape with different start and end points. These methods can yield a lot of usable material from inexpensive sound effects CD's sold in stores.

Multi-track recordings were not the only form of sound effects present in the show. For convenience sake, some sound effects played directly off CD. The thunder, ocean and helicopter sounds were the main effects produced with this method. Additionally, an external digital audio sampler played short sound effects cues such as cannon fires. Refer to Appendix 4 for complete list of effects with descriptions of their source.

A simple ambient surround system2 added depth and, in the end, vocal reinforcement for the actors onstage. The signals from two onstage microphones, run through the appropriate signal processing equipment and the rear-of-house speakers, produced convincing effects of room acoustics. With no signal processing, the system served as a rudimentary vocal reinforcement setup. The added depth that the ambient surround setup can give to a scene combined with the fact that some vocal reinforcement could be done made the inclusion of the setup worthwhile. However, due to severe time problems, the on-stage microphones used were less than ideal. Since it was not known ahead of time that vocal reinforcement would be necessary, the appropriate types of microphones could not be rented in time to use them. Additionally, since the focus of the setup shifted from being simply an ambient pickup to an actor pickup system in such a short time period, drastic (read: ugly) measures had to be taken, mainly with the use of boom stands to hold the microphones. However, even with all of the problems and frustrations encountered with the setup, the result definitely enhanced the production.

The design and implementation of a sufficiently powerful and accurate sound system made up a significant part of the design phase. Basic goals of the sound system were to provide adequate power to play the effects back at a realistic volume level while at the same time reproducing them accurately. A tertiary goal was to keep the system as unobtrusive as possible as long as sacrifices were not made to the aforementioned goals. To meet these goals, I took a radical departure from recent audio work in WPI theatre. Three sets of Bose speakers, borrowed from a friend, took the place of the speakers traditionally used, which the Lens and Lights club owns. The majority of the speakers that Lens and Lights owns are made for high volume levels and their designs sacrifice accuracy to achieve the high volume levels. Additionally, they are extremely large and obtrusive speakers. The Bose speakers used for the production are perfect for application to theatre audio, as they are small, fairly powerful and reasonably accurate. By using a pair of half-shoebox sized speakers flown on the lighting truss, a relatively small pair of speakers placed just inside the proscenium arch on stage and a small pair of speakers set atop the admittedly large Lens and Lights bass reinforcement speakers in the rear of house, all of the goals were well met for convincing, unobtrusive sound. Consult Appendix 1 for a diagram of the speaker layout.

Three Carver stereo amplifiers powered the Bose speakers, while one AB Systems stereo amplifier ran the bass reinforcement speakers. This amount of amplification was more than adequate for the room and speakers used. In fact, the Carver amplifiers were capable of producing enough power to cause permanent damage to the speakers attached to them and thus were run at half-power. It is worth noting this, as it seems to be a tendency of audio designers that run shows in Alden Hall to go overboard with amplification and speakers.

The front end of the audio system, made up of the speakers and amplifiers, consisted of seven independent channels. For both house left and house right, there existed a front, overhead and rear channel. The seventh channel, a bass reinforcement channel, had no specific sound-space placement, as bass frequencies are not directional. Each of these channels had its own independent graphic equalizer for fine-tuning of the frequency response of the channel. With the necessity to independently send to any of these channels, a sound board with eight independent send signals fit the bill nicely. This allowed any input to be manually mapped to any of the outputs. In theory, one could achieve effects such as panning and rotating across speakers with this setup, but manually operating the board to achieve them is impractical, as further explained below. Thus an automated mixer, part of the SMsurround3system, supplemented the standard sound board. This computer-controlled mixer has the capability to automatically patch any input channel to any output channel and perform volume fades, cross fades, pans, etc. The SMsurround mixer software allows an unlimited number of these fades and pans to happen simultaneously, thus allowing complex effects to be programmed. The complexity is often to the extreme that a single person running a manual sound board would not be physically able to move quickly and accurately enough to reproduce them. Appendix 2 contains a detailed view of the audio system, including channel mappings and block diagrams of the system.

Traditionally, control of the aforementioned equipment when running a show would would be very difficult, if not impossible in some cases. Fortunately, the SMsurround software and hardware made running an extremely complex show fairly simple. As with modern lighting boards, the bulk of the work falls before a show and this time is generally spent programming and tweaking the sounds and cue stack. SMsurround allows fully automated control over mixing, CD cueing, digital effect playback and signal processor control. It provides the capability of running a show consistently, as the operator need not manually set faders and controls for every cue. Additionally, it allows an operator to do much more at the press of a single button than ever before possible. The actual cue stack program used for the production is included in Appendix 5.

With all of the advances made in technology over the past few years, it has become possible to do some impressive things with audio and lighting in theatre. In both realms, computers replace a lot of older, manual equipment. In fact, over ten computers of varying size and power played some part in the production of King Henry V. Almost every piece of modern signal processing gear, every new lighting board, tape decks, etc., have embedded microprocessors. While this gives the equipment capabilities that it never had before, it also raises the complexity of the entire system enormously. It is imperative that the individuals designing and running the technical aspects of a show have an in-depth knowledge of the equipment they use, for numerous reasons. First, an in-depth understanding of the equipment yields the ability to intelligently design a system that will likely work the first time. Secondly, in the likely event that something needs to change after the design has been made, the knowledge of the equipment can aid in getting the problem solved in an expedient fashion. Lastly, and at times most importantly, having knowledge of the equipment is an operator's best defense in case something goes wrong during a show. The presence of many computers and other sensitive electronics also brings up one of the most important audio and lighting system implementation issues: power line protection. All sensitive equipment should have at the very least a high quality surge suppressor on the line. An uninterruptable power supply (UPS) provides clean, uninterrupted power - even if the utility power goes out or someone trips over the power cord. With these thoughts kept in mind, up to 90 percent of technical headaches can be eliminated.

The remaining ten percent of a theatre engineer's headaches, probably matched by the headaches of members of the non-technical production staff, also can be reduced. Often much friction arises between the two historically separate sides, simply because a lack of communication or misunderstandings. After going through the process of translating artistic visions into reality many times, the best advice I have to offer is also the simplest: communicate. Spend as much time as necessary for everyone to have as firm an understanding of the project as possible. The audio or lighting engineer should, from the outset, let the capabilities of the system be known. Designers and directors should let their artistic visions be known to all. Everyone should discuss ideas and perceptions of ideas. Without this free flow of ideas, enormous frustrations can mount on both sides.

One of the things that struck me the hardest about the production of King Henry V was that it seemed very disorganized at points. I was unclear as to a lot of the artistic visions and other details for longer than I felt comfortable. The design of the show was done as an Interactive Qualifying Project, and thus I assumed that the IQP was being used as a fairly concrete guide for the production. However, this was not entirely the case, as large portions of the design evoloved, and due to some miscommunications, problems arose. These problems were certainly not the fault of any one person, but rather a combination of several problems. The root of the issue still stands, though: communication. Even with this said, I do not want to imply that changes should not happen; last minute changes and ideas often have positive effects on the show. I simply mean to express that if changes are in fact made, everyone who is affected should be notified as soon as possible. A good balance of responsibility between directors and stage managers and the technical crew is for the former to follow the above guidelines and the latter to actively seek information whenever possible. Without both sides attempting to inform and become informed, much potential for frustration and confusion exists.

Many of the problems encountered during the production seemed almost insurmountable, but the artistic and engineering genius from all involved prevailed. I feel that we all made the world of King Henry V come alive, and many an audience member would certainly agree. From the behind-the-scenes perspective, the show was as much a success as it was a learning experience. Having the opportunity to test out new ideas and help bring the production into existence made it well worth it. Working with the talented production staff made the experience even more worthwhile, as I have gained new insight and appreciation for other aspects of theatre. With the last pieces of equipment being removed from the hall during strike, I couldn't help but feel a sense of accomplishment, having been part of the production. I came away from this production carrying not only new-found technical knowledge, but also a much broader understanding of working with a variety of people of different backgrounds and areas of expertise. The latter really made this production different that others I have been involved with, and it is this difference that made this the most fulfilling theatre experience I have had thus far. I hope that I can bring some of what I have learned to future productions here at WPI and beyond.


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Steve Richardson 2000-07-09
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