Evil Dead : The Musical
By Richard Ingraham

So your theatre chooses to do a musical production of the movie Evil Dead?  OK, no problem, you say?  But did they mention that in addition to needing mics for 8 cast members and 3 band members that there would also be video projections, blood being sprayed right into the face of some of the actors (while they are signing a song none the less), headless bodies, your In House Mix Position must fit into the space of about one and a half seats at the end of an aisle, shotgun blasts, plenty of spooky sound effects, chainsaws, heavy usage of live vocal processing and large amounts of blood being sprayed into and dumped on audience members that choose to sit in the splatter zone?

This was the fun challenge that I faced in working on Evil Dead, The Musical at Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, OH this past May.  Having never seen any of the movies that created the cult following I wasn't really sure what to expect.  But just like the movies this play has a huge cult following and has turned into the longest running production in the history of The Beck Center, with several patrons coming back multiple times.  (The production has been extended two times from its original run of 6 weeks) 

The small Studio Theatre at Beck Center presents many challenges to the sound designer, especially when trying to do reinforcement for musical theatre.  While the space is only about 80 seats, the seating layout is an L shaped arrangement which is only 4 rows deep at the most but very wide.  Of course since its a studio theatre the seating is located very close to stage.  Getting enough gain before feedback on wireless hairline microphones can be a challenge in this space.  Put the speakers back far enough to cover the wide spread of the audience area and you will never get enough gain before feedback on the wireless microphones since the cast members will be mostly in front of the speakers.  So in order to reach acceptable volume levels a more distributed system of speakers is needed.  Using a larger number of smaller speakers gave us not only the gain before feedback needed, but also the ability to move spooky zombie sounds around the room.

The speakers are basically broken up into 2 systems.  Four 12 2-way speaker cabinets were used primarily for vocal reinforcement, while six smaller speakers were used primarily for sound effects playback and to pump the audio of the band into the room.  (The band is located backstage, in a separate room from the audience and actors.)  A subwoofer and a speaker for the band to hear the sound effects playback round out the 12 speaker sound system.

The audio playback consists of many shotgun blasts, several minutes of the iconic chainsaw, a fathers voice on a small cassette recorder and plenty of evil voice-overs and other spooky sounds.  SFX 6 was used for all of the audio playback in the show.  The full output matrix in version 6 made routing sounds to the 12 different speakers a breeze.  Although the four larger speakers in the system were largely used for vocal reinforcement, in order to achieve the volume levels needed, some of the sound effects were routed into them as well. 

SFX 6 Screen Shot  Main Cue List that the Stage Manager triggers

Video projection playback turned out to be fairly simple with only a handful of video cues.  Most were just still images that needed to fade in and fade out.  Only one of the clips was actual video.  (An animation of the Book of the Dead at the top of the show)  So for the playback of the video I just made use of Stage Research's Video 101 extension.  Video 101 was handled by a separate computer from the computer running SFX 6, however all the cues to run the Video 101 system were contained in the SFX 6 Cue List.  Since most of the projections were still images, I just used a video editor (Sonys' Vegas software) to covert the .jpg still image into short .avi files.  The top of the .avi file was the fade in and the end of the .avi file was a fade out.  So during the show, SFX sends a Play command to Video 101 to start the .avi clip.  It fades in over a period of time (most fade times were 1 second but some were longer), then SFX sends Video 101 a Stop command.  So the .avi file will stop playing but a still image is displayed via the projector.  When its time to fade a projection out, SFX will send a Play command to Video 101 again, and that will play the end of the .avi file which is a fade out.  At first I was going to use PowerPoint for our projections and trigger it using Stage Research's PowerPoint Manager, since most of them were still images, however the theatre doesn't have Office 2007, so I couldn't use PowerPoint 2007 which is required to use the PowerPoint Manger.  But after having used Video 101 in this manner, I think I actually like this much better, since I have a lot more control over fade times and by using Vegas for the video editing it gave me a lot more tools to tinker with and correct problems.

SFX 6  Screen Shot  Video 101 Cues, for simple still images

SFX 6 Screen Shot  Video 101 Cues, for the Book of the Dead opening animation. 
Timecode was used to start and stop the animation at key points so the animation would match the speed of the opening voice over.

Since space at the In House Mix Position was at a premium I elected to put the SFX computer, the Video 101 computer and all the amplifiers in our control booth, where our Stage Manager operates the SFX computer and the lighting console during the run of the show.  Which leads us to what was my biggest challenge during this show; this venue only has room for a very tiny In House Mix Position at the end of an aisle.  This proves quite a challenge when any sort of reinforcement is needed in this venue.  In the past I was able to fit in a Yamaha 01V digital mixer and the wireless rack was placed under the seating risers.  My first thought was to do something similar for this show, however I really wanted some fairly sophisticated live effects processing as well.  While I like the 01V in general and I find it has decent EQ and Dynamics and serviceable reverb effects, it simply didn't have enough depth and variety of effects processing for what I wanted on this production.  So my first thought was to put a computer at the In House Mix Position with my TC Electronics PowerCore card, and I would let that computer provide the more advanced pitch shifting and chorus effects I was looking for.  So I started a search to find some software that was simple and easy to use that could be a VST effects host for the PowerCore plug-ins but also allowed me to automate the plug-ins and control routing.   In my search I ended up being side tracked and found what ended up being a much more elegant solution to my space issues and will likely change the way I want to mix musicals from this point on.  Enter SAC.

The In House Mix Position: Studio Theatre:Beck Center for the Arts

The view from the board ops seat.

SAC is an acronym for Software Audio Console.  It is a virtual software mixing console from RML Labs.  My first reason for taking a look at SAC was because it could host VST plug-ins and since it was a full blown mixer in software, I figured it would give me plenty of control for routing one plug-in to another or mixing multiple plug-ins together.  However I quickly realized that it would be much more useful if I just mixed the entire show using SAC alone.  I spent some time working with the demo of the product to make sure it would be able to do what I needed it to do.  While there seemed to be plenty of happy customers in the forums on the RML web site, I didn't see any theatre sound designers in the forum.  After some experimenting with the demo, I purchased a copy of SAC and assembled a SAC system around an Echo Layla 24 I had in my stock.  SAC became the one missing link in my system for Evil Dead.  I was able to mix all the wireless and band mics with SAC.  SAC provided all the effects processing I needed for the show via a combination of a some free VST plug-ins I found and the delay plug-in that is included with SAC.

I've worked with many different digital consoles over the years, none of the really expensive models mind you, but most of the Yamaha line and a few others as well.  While they have always provided great bang for the buck and are far more compact than an equivalent sized analog mixing console, I have always felt like I had to wrestle with them or jump through a bunch of hoops in order to achieve the type of automation I really wanted for some productions.  With my use of SAC in this show, I didn't really feel that way.  SAC has some unique features that I did have to modify my working methods to.  But overall it was a very positive experience and for the first time in my work with digital mixing I was able to write cues for my board op that did exactly what I wanted to do, without having to tinker around with various recall safes or using an external application to do all the automation.  For example I was easily able to write a cue that fades up the aux sends on just 2 channels over 2 seconds.  Or another cue that fades them back down over 4 seconds.  Not only did I finally have the automation I always desired for a show, but SAC allows for remote clients to log into the system.  So you could place the SAC computer anywhere in the venue and just set up a laptop and a control surface at your In House Mix Position and run the show that way.  I didn't get that adventurous this time out; I put the SAC computer at the In House Mix Position along with the wireless receivers.  But I was able to run the SAC remote software on my laptop at my tech table during technical rehearsals and adjust any parameter I wanted on the fly.  I used an old Yamaha ProMix 01 as a control surface for my board op to run the show.  During technical rehearsals I used a CM Labs Motormix control surface with my laptop at the tech table.  So both my board op and I had separate control surfaces and were able to address any part of the mixing console simultaneously.

The SAC computer mixed all the live audio and that was sent to the control booth via a Hear Technologies ADAT Extender which converts ADAT Lightpipe to CAT5 cable and back.  In the control booth the Gina 24 sound card on the SFX computer mixed the live audio and the playback from SFX together and routed it to the various speakers.

This is the first production I've worked on where the only hardware used for the sound system (other than the computers) was the microphones, amplifiers and speakers.  Every other task was performed virtually in a computer via software.  It was an experiment to say the least and I did have a backup plan ready (at least in my head) in case it simply didn't work out.  But after having worked this way on this production, I have to say that I don't really want to go back.  I am going to continue down this virtual sound system path in the future and cannot wait to use this method again.

Richard B. Ingraham
RBI Computers and Audio

Stage Research Inc.

RML Labs