SFX Power User Tips and Tricks (Part 2)
By Richard B. Ingraham

Freelance Sound Designer/Engineer/Technician

This is the second installment of SFX Power User Trip and Tricks.  You can read the Part 1 here.

Tip #2:
Editor Mode

I get a fair amount of questions about SFX's Editor Mode. So I figured it might be worth discussing it in this issue of Tips and Tricks.

First I should make sure we are clear about what is being discussed. I am not talking about the Edit Mode and Play Mode of the SFX Workspace. Editor Mode, is a special off-line edit mode for SFX, that can be used for many different tasks. You can run SFX in Editor Mode without having a hardware key present on your computer. While in Editor Mode, SFX will not playback any audio or actually output any data, it will "fake" playing back any audio files. There is more info about the limits of Editor Mode in the current SFX user manual, Chapter 15 "Startup Parameters".
I use Editor Mode on a regular basis to pre-build SFX Cue Lists or Effects Lists so as to save time during the technical rehearsal process and to make changes to SFX cues files or effects files while away from the theatre. I sometimes use it while I am trying to help a board operator or sound technician solve a problem or make a change during the run of a production, over the phone. In these types of situations I find it much easier to follow along on my Laptop in Editor Mode, so I can describe very precisely and accurately which buttons to click on, or what they should be looking for on the screen.

There are many uses for Editor Mode. The only hard thing about using Editor Mode, is actually getting to it. In order to start SFX in Editor Mode, you have to add a switch or parameter to the Target line of the SFX Desktop Shortcut. While to those that may not be very familiar with the Windows Operating System this might sound difficult, it's really not. I would refer to it as more of nicely hidden secret inside the SFX User Manual. So let's go through the step by step process. I'm going to assume you have already installed SFX, and have the SFX shortcut on your desktop.

1. Go to the SFX Shortcut on your desktop, Right click on it and then select properties:

2. You should then see a standard Windows dialog box like this one:

3. Notice that I have the "Target" for the shortcut highlighted above.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Windows OS, the entry under "Target" is basically what the Windows OS will try to run, when you double click on the icon. You can make a shortcut to just about anything you like.

So the next step in the process, is to add a "-e" to the end of the Shortcut's Target. Note that you must put a space in between the quotation marks for the target and this switch. It should look exactly as it does in the screenshot below, with the exception that you might have installed SFX in a different directory than the one listed below. Although the one listed below is the default location (folder) that SFX will install itself into. So unless you have changed it, this is most likely where your copy of SFX is installed on your computer.

4. Once you have added the switch onto the end of the target, simply click on the "OK" button, and you are done. The next time you double click on the SFX icon on your desktop, you should start up SFX in Editor Mode. The only disadvantage to doing this, is that in order to start up SFX, normally again, you'll have to repeat the above steps, and take the switch out of the Target box. Changing this back and forth can be a real pain, so what I usually do, is rather than changing the icon that SFX creates during the installation process, I'll make a copy of it on my desktop first. (You can do this, by clicking on the icon and hitting Ctrl+C, and then Ctrl+V.) Then I'll modify the copy of the icon. This way I'll have two SFX icons on my desktop. One for starting SFX normally, and the other for starting SFX in Editor Mode. When I'm done I'll have something similar to the screenshot below on my Windows desktop.

This way, choosing which mode I want to open SFX in is as simple as clicking on the proper icon.

See Chapter 15 "Startup Parameters" of the SFX User manual for more info on this subject, and for many other options that you can put into the Target for you SFX desktop icon.

Trick #2:
Improving Fade Ins and Outs 

As anyone that is a member of the SFX Users Email list can tell you, the most common complaints and comments about SFX on the list are about the quality of the fades in SFX's audio engine.

What is that? You say you're not a member of the SFX Users Email list? Well why not?
Stop what your doing and go to: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SFX_Users/ and sign up now.
(sorry about that plug)

Anyway, here is a trick that I've been using for some time now, to improve the quality of a fade in or fade out within SFX.

As most of you are probably aware, the settings within SFX's mixer allow you to adjust the volume for each output from a maximum level of -0dB (essentially unity gain) to a minimum level of -100dB (essentially off or mute). Logic would tell us that this allows for 100dB of volume control from each .wav file playback to each output. However in reality, this is rarely the case. The simple fact is that most theatre playback systems would not allow for such a large dynamic range in volume settings. The combination of the theatre's noise floor (simple audience noise, air handler noise, etc.) and the limitations of the dynamic range of our sound systems typically allow for a smaller dynamic range from the audience's perspective than 100 dB. Add to this the fact that it's not uncommon that many of our sound system's speakers are often placed on or behind the set. This can sometimes add several layers of heavy weight fabrics and/or other set materials between our speakers and the audience. All of these factors combine to give a much smaller dynamic range out of a typical theatre sound system, than 100dB, from the audience's perspective.

So what does all this mean from the standpoint of the playback levels within SFX?

Essentially what it means is that if you play a cue (using the preview function) and grab a pair of the faders within SFX's mixer, then slowly run the faders up from -100dB, in many cases (depending on where that particular output is being routed) you won't hear any audio until you hit at least -75 to -60 dB. In some cases for speakers that are on stage, behind several layers of scenery I've had to take the faders up as high as -40dB or even to -25Bb (in some rare cases), before I could hear any perceptible audio from within the audience seating. Now if I walked back stage I could hear the audio coming from the on stage speakers at a much lower level, of course. But in most cases we are not designing the sound for the pleasure of the backstage crew, we are designing the show for the audience.

So why does this matter?

The reason this matters is because if you are telling SFX to either do a fade in from -100dB, or a fade out to -100dB, then it's highly likely that the first 25 to 30 dB of the fade in (or the last 25 to 30 dB in the case of the fade out) is a complete waste of SFX's resources. Your having SFX spend a lot of fade time, on something that no one in your audience is going to hear.

As an example, let's say that I'm fading a music cue out. The level for the cue prior to the fade out is -20dB. I go into SFX's mixer and by adjusting the outputs I realize that I can not hear any perceptible audio until the mixer's faders reach -60 dB. This means that if I were to create a fade cue that took the levels all the way down to -100dB, the last 40dB of that fade would be a complete loss. That means that upwards of 50% of that fade is wasted.

To combat this issue, Stage Research has added several different fade curves to SFX over the years. This would be all the different varieties of logarithmic fades, compared to a straight linear fade. Although these added features have improved the fade quality within SFX over time, I still feel that I can get a better sounding fade by doing some of the work by hand.

So what I do, is rather than fade the levels all the way down to -100, I'll only fade the levels down to -65 or -70dB, and then stop the cue. (I like to find the point where I can not perceive any sound, and then go 5 to 10 db lower...just in case.) Using this method I find that the quality of the standard linear fade improves greatly, in most cases. Depending on the source material, speaker position, the gain structure of the sound system, etc, sometimes even the logarithmic fades can improve using this method.

What I will typically do to help speed the process up during technical rehearsals is, at the start of tech I'll play a fairly loud piece of audio that is fairly consistent in volume (i.e. little dynamic range). I'll start by playing it with all the outputs at -100dB. I'll then open the mixer window, and slowly with my mouse bring up the outputs until I can just barely perceive any audio being played back. I'll do this one output at a time, and for each output I will find the low point of audibility on SFX's mixer. I then typically jot these numbers down on a piece of paper, and use that as a reference (or starting point) during the level setting process, and the rest of the technical rehearsal process.

For those of you, who work on the same machine in the same venue a great deal, it might even be worth your time to find what I call the "low point of audibility" for the SFX outputs you use on a regular basis (the ones that do not typically change from one production to the next), and then put those levels into SFX's Default Volume settings within the Options Dialog Box. This way all new cues would start out with the volume levels at the "low point of audibility".

At first it might just seem odd, to stop a fade out before it reaches maximum attenuation, or to start a fade in with the fader not at it's lowest volume setting. However with some experimentation, and once you get used to setting levels this way, I think you'll find yourself pleasantly surprised by the improvement of SFX's fade quality.

Hopefully, you found this article useful. Click here to go to Part 3 of the Tip and Tricks.