Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 17, 2010

Behind the Scenes: Audio

As we prepare to stage the company’s big annual events, I hope you will find it interesting to know some of what goes into making a show happen. This is the third in the series. Scroll down to see previous entries on the Load-In and Lighting.

Take a room: a big room, say, a hundred feet by 150 feet. Fill it with a thousand people. Now stand on the stage and address them. If you want to be heard, you’re going to need help, unless you’re a trained stage actor. At the very least, to put on an event of any reasonable size, you’re going to need some “audio reinforcement” or “public address,” or some other nomenclature for microphones, speakers, amplifiers and such. For the event we’re staging, though, we want to do much more than just allow some speakers to make themselves heard, though that remains the core principle. We are going to project video onto large high-definition screens, and we want a full, vibrant sound track to match. We also want to punctuate entrances and exits and special awards with music. We need Big Audio. And we have it.

Hanging speaker cabinet

Large speaker cabinets assemblies hang from the truss we saw in the earlier posts. In the photo above, you can see the crew positioning one cabinet prior to lifting it to the truss with its own motor. That’s the motor at the top of the cabinet (there are dozens of these motors in our rig). There are several of these cabinets in the room, as well as speakers behind the set at various points. There also are monitors on the stage, so that the speakers can hear themselves.

Audio Console

Audio Console

Everything is controlled from the audio console located in the back of the hall, from where the audio engineer can hear the sound mix in the room. Although the board is impressive-looking, it’s just a piece of hardware. What’s more important is the skill of the audio engineer. Producing world-class audio requires more than just pressing buttons and sliding knobs around. There are big challenges to making certain that the sound is evenly distributed through the room and that it’s processed to provide consistent quality and tone and synchronization. With a ballroom as large as the one we’re occupying, he even has to account for the delay created as sound travels through the room. Speakers over the back of the hall send out the sound at an electronically controlled different time than the ones in the back of the hall. If you want to work in the audio business, plan to go to school. It’s a serious discipline.

By the way, when we get to the band’s performance in a few days, operating those stage monitors becomes a specialized world of its own. Each player in the band needs to be able to hear themselves sing or play, as well as hearing the other players around them.

Monitor mixing board

Monitor mixing board

A specialist in stage monitor mixing uses an auxiliary board like the one above to control the many stage monitors a performing band requires. This is a completely separate system from the main one that sends audio into the hall, with its own amplification and patches and processing. This is one of the toughest gigs in showbiz for one reason: performer egos. EVERYONE wants to hear themselves in precisely the way they prefer, and, of course, that means if there are 12 people onstage, there are, potentially, 12 individual mixes. If you are mixing for the Chili Peppers or Bon Jovi night after night, you have a finite number of mixes and the show is played over and over again. For a one-time gig like our Global Jam, it requires some diplomacy and some compromise.

During the show itself, the engineer is responsible for executing a constant stream of audio cues with precise timing. Cues include turning on (“opening”) the appropriate microphone, sending audio signals from video and computer graphics, playing back pre-recorded voice-overs and playing music to punctuate the entrances and exits of speakers (“play-ons” and “play-offs”). Every audio expert has a big bag of music tricks for these play-ons, that range from magisterial and impressive to energetic or even wacky. Some speakers want their own music track, like batters in professional baseball, and it’s always important to strike the appropriate stylistic tone. Doing all of this skillfully and seamlessly requires a high degree of organization, and it’s common that when changes are made to the order of the show, the biggest burden of rewriting cues and resequencing actions falls on the audio department. There’s nothing more noticeable that can go wrong during a show than a missed audio cue or one played out of sequence, because often speakers are waiting for those cues to make their entrances. Running the audio requires a cool sang-froid. No wonder, then, that the audio pro who’s done our shows for many years is known by the nickname, “Ice.”

Next – at last – we put pictures on the screen.

© 2012 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. Those consoles look like they belong on an Apollo rocket to the moon. I wonder where one begins on a career path that leads to becoming a Monitor Mixer or an Audio Console controller. (Still a bit foggy on how that Monitor Mixer works; but then I know nothing about the magic of a pc, either. I turn it on, I get a screen, and I start typing. Voila!)

    Like

    • Probably some of those consoles have more computer processing power than Apollo, which by today’s standards had about the equivalent of an iPhone. You can study audio engineering as part of regular university degrees, and there are also programs at specialist schools in the the trade. Note: some travel required!

      Like

      • Only the capacity of an iPhone?! This makes it even more amazing that we successfully landed and returned men on the moon several times!

        Like


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