A Novice Idea
by Michael Boso

Venue, Theatre Company Team Up with SFX - and it proves to be quite a combo.
(Part 1 of 2)

New Technical Director, Sound Designer Work Together to Bring 'Discovered' System to Life

When an historic retail space in downtown Lexington, KY reopened in 2002 as the community's new Downtown Arts Center, one of the building's primary new tenants, Actors Guild of Lexington, couldn't wait to take the stage. The first floor, 250-seat contemporary "Black Box" style theater with flexible seating, two dressing rooms, a green room, a backstage area, and loading dock was a major improvement from the converted and limiting upstairs warehouse space they had gladly abandoned.

As so often occurs, however, the new Performance Theatre's sound installation had taken a back seat to other priorities and needed some help. During his brief tenure Thomas Taylor, the facility's first Technical Director, sought and received approval for purchase of SFX ProAudio/ Show Control.

It was ordered, delivered, and installed in the theatre's tech booth.

And there it sat, a computer in the corner, forgotten and unused by AGL or anybody else.

Taylor soon thereafter left Lexington for a new job in Florida and the only system anyone remaining knew anything about was the marginal-quality small-format digital mixer (also located of course in the booth- behind thick glass windows) and the usual ubiquitous hodge-podge pile o' "pro-sumer" grade CD, mini-disc, and cassette players.

Enter Michael Sanders, new DAC TD in his first job out of college, and Michael Boso, rookie Sound Designer for Actors Guild.

Scene from the Actors Guild of Lexington production of a.m Sunday

Scene from the Actors Guild of Lexington production of a.m Sunday
Boso had heard in passing on his first show (at the end of the 2003-2004 season) with AGL about the SFX installation and scoured Stage Research's dynamic and informative website.

Boso remembers, "I said to myself, 'Next time I design, it'll be on that application.' All I had to do was convince the theatre company's Artistic Director, Richard St. Peter, and its Managing Director, Steven Koehler, what I believed: that with SFX, which I had never used before, I could advance the art of sound design for their productions, and that it was a solid and reliable platform. Oh, and I had to learn how to, you know, do that."

"I basically banked all my new credibility from my first show on it. With Mike Sanders at the helm at the venue, it was easy."

Boso and Sanders met and agreed to tackle the project together. Sanders contacted Carlton at Stage Research Tech Support, who immediately found the DAC's complete sales record, updated Sanders' contact information, and supplied the most recent upgrades to SFX and the Echo Layla sound card.

Boso made a call of his own. "I called Brad at the Sales Desk. I purchased my own Evaluation Key and installed it on my home project studio PC. Honestly, I think I opened it once. The instructions were so simple; I thought I was missing something. Good file management is the secret. Loading files and building cues was just intuitive. And once Mike got the Layla patched into the theatre's speakers, I just needed a little tech support with some settings, and I had a show."

Sanders adds, "Michael and I took the computer out of mothballs and configured the Layla outputs to the speaker inputs on the patch panel in the booth rack, bypassing the mixer entirely. He wanted three zones of left-right for each audience seating area, plus two specials for specific effects underneath the audience risers. I wanted to learn the system too, so I just jumped in as his Engineer. It was fun!"

Scene from the Actors Guild of Lexington production of a.m Sunday

It's Showtime.

The first production of the season was Jerome Hairston's a.m. Sunday, a stark new drama about a destructive but craftily unrevealed family secret. As Boso recalls, "The director, Benny Sato Ambush, didn't want any music during preshow, so that was easy enough. However, a series of lighting cues in the show became a series of sound cues two weeks before opening." Originally conceived as gobo lighting effects projected onto the stage floor, various date and time stamps ("Tuesday, 4:30 p.m." etc.) needed to be communicated to the audience to convey the passage of time.
Ambush ultimately felt that seeing lights all over the floor spelling out words like a screen caption on TV would be too intrusive to the tense physical space captured by the scenic design. So he asked the Sound Designer if they could be voiceovers.

"I sent Benny and the talent to my mentor, Kevin Johnson, at Beacon Street Studios," explains Boso. "Sometimes the simplest projects can be the most demanding. Like in music: it's harder to play something slow and soft than loud and fast. These voiceovers were dangerously simple. I wanted to be sure the recordings would be exactly what the director wanted since they would be so exposed and in the audience's ears; it had to be pristine; it had to be perfect. A home project studio job wouldn't do here."

Scene from the Actors Guild of Lexington production of a.m Sunday
"Kevin handed me a disc with the voiceover cues stored as .wav files and I just dumped them into the computer, named them as effects files in SFX, and wrote the new cues right there. Done. I forgot to change the bit-sampling rate, though. Dumb. They were recorded in 32-bit. When SFX recognized that, it automatically adjusted from the standard 16-bit rate, as it was supposed to. But when the next cue, following a Wait command, fired on top of that, it couldn't adjust back in time. It was my fault, but once I figured it out with some tech support help, it was an easy fix."

To establish the voiceovers, Ambush and Boso introduced the "aural timestamps" to the audience during the otherwise silent preshow. An intermittently ringing telephone effect also interrupted the silence of preshow, as it would throughout the play. The audience was left to interpret the meaning on their own.

SFX truly carried the day in tech week. Ambush told Boso to be ready to present an "aural montage" of all the play's sound effects (the phone, a dog barking, a train in the distance, thunder) as one top-of-show cue. To build such a cue using multiple playback devices, a mixer, and a mix-down recorder, and to make changes to the cue on the fly at the director's discretion, simply would not have been possible. The time, and the equipment, didn't exist. With SFX, it was simply a matter of a series of Autofollows and Waits.

"I think I was the only one who recognized what a moment that was for AGL. To the director, it was as it should be: he asked for something, and he got it," Boso says. "He and I collaborated artistically- in the space, in rehearsal- to create the perfect sequence of sounds. The gear didn't dictate what we could do; instead, SFX allowed us to create what we wanted. It was right."

A Season Evolves
Next month , we'll reveal how SFX became the standard Sound Design platform for main stage productions throughout the rest of the season at Actors Guild, including "Stop Kiss" by Diana Son, David Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries", and the World Premiere production of "Checking In" by Brian Hampton.

Continue to Part 2...