Delay! lay! ay! y! !

September 11, 2018

 Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's Courtyard theatre used to be a parking garage.

You can kind of see it when you go backstage, or in the catwalks, or even when you walk through the front door. The theatre itself has three levels, all the perfect height to park your '92 Mazda Miata while you take a lakefront architectural tour.  When CST took over the space the architects dropped in acoustic bricks and beautiful wood trim surrounding a three quarter thrust that mimic'd the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon-Avon. Suddenly the parking garage became an acoustically perfect space for an actor to deliver Jacobean text without the aid of a microphone. It was never meant for musicals.

Then came the Aught-Teens, and CST realized they could do a great job putting on musicals and an even greater job at getting people to go see them. The theatre's head of sound, Jim Savage, teamed up with Meyer to design a three sided line array that shielded the thrust while still sourcing from centerstage. Now CST has produced dozens of musicals with this feat of engineering driving localization magically two feet above the actors' heads while the cross far downstage on a thrust that was never meant for microphones. It's such a tricky space because every seat has a different acoustic experience.


So naturally the first show CST let's me design on my own is basically a musical that by dramaturgical necessity can only be area mic'd. Oh and they don't want the audience to know it's mic'd. It's one of those deals where the better I do my job the less you'll know that there was a job to be done. Lucky for me it's curveballs like these that keep the job fun.
 

The theatre's grid is I think 30 or 40 feet above the stage, which meant no choir mics. Theres dancing and stomping and anyway this thing is a huge thrust so no floor mics. The set is as wide open as a gold coast loft apartment so there's no hiding mics on set pieces. There is, however, a lighting rail that is just over head height above the orchestra seats surrounding the thrust, and CST has exactly seven pro quality shotgun mics in it's inventory. Now I knew that I was going to be dealing with shotgun mics but I didn't know where to point them. Or where to send them, if not the cluster.

 

I started by getting the measurements of the cast from costumes. To each cast member I added 1.5 inches because apparently everyone in the Restoration era wore heels. Then I averaged those heights together and removed 1/6th of that average to account for head height. When I got my quiet time in the space, I had the crew erect the monstrosity you see to the right, which represents the median-actor I could move around the stage and shoot a laser at to figure out distances to my mics and speakers. Keep in mind this is all in the interest of people having no idea that the speakers and microphones are doing so much work, or that humans were working so hard to make those microphones and speakers work. It's a weird headspace.

 

 Here's a potato quality photo of one of those humans, Joe Disbrow, who is the sound crew chief at CST and, now that Palmer Jankens has moved to Kansas City, the interim head of sound at CST. I made Joe put a laser measuring device on the face of every speaker hitting the double headed William Shakespeare traffic cone in the bottom right eye, which was mean to both Joe and to the traffic cone monster.

 

Then, because the system EQ and Delay Timing between the heroic cluster and all the under balcony delay speakers has been perfected by so many designers that came before me, I calculated delay times to apply to the shotgun mics as opposed to adding them to all the underbalcs. There are, however, three floors of underbalcs, with anywhere from 2 to 7 speakers per mix send, and only 7 microphones to send to them. Now we're at the payoff of all the sleepless nights I spent in preproduction worrying about how I was going to pull this off. One of those sleepless nights, probably the last one, I remembered an interesting quirk of the Yamaha CL series mixers I was working with for this show. Namely, that you can send the same input to multiple channels on the mixer.

 

If you are still reading this I applaud you because it must be monstrously boring, but I can't resist the urge to go on and not yadda yadda how we got this beast up and running. Basically we cloned the 7 shotgun mics twice, once for each floor. Then we added input delay to each clone based on it's position relative to the underbalc it was going to provide signal to. The result? No matter where you sit, no matter how close you are to an underbalc, the sound sources to the actor onstage. I can't believe it worked. At first we had no eq on the mics and their clones because whenever possible I like to let the mic do all the work on its own, but then we started cranking the volume and it was still sourcing to the stage so I thought well shoot let's just notch every ringy EQ point out of this thing to see how much gain we get before feedback. It works so well that we only use 1 rf mic for the lead, and that's the only thing really going through the cluster besides the opening housekeeping speech.

 

When I worked at CST as an engineer we had to solve problems like these all the time and it feels extra special to come back as a sound designer and put all that experience to good use.

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