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Running Sound Cues – The Second Time « Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories
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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

Running Sound Cues – The Second Time

Puppet_slam_tech
In my previous post, I shared my experience of running audio cues for a show for the very first time. I was pretty nervous. I also predicted that I would be much more relaxed the second time around.

Well, I’ve just done it the second time, and I indeed felt a lot more comfortable doing it!

To recap, the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry has been putting on Puppet Slams multiple times a year. What is a puppet slam, you asked? It’s just like a poetry slam, except instead of poetry, you have puppets. Basically, puppeteers sign up to each perform a short piece in the show. It’s really fun because you have no idea what each person is going to do, even though many of us know one another.

Since I’ve already run audio cues once (and did it well), I’m doing it again for the second time. Basically, my job is to compile all the music and sound effects from all the performers beforehand, and start and stop the playback on my computer at the right time during the show.

The Preparation

Last time, the sound designer, Noel, having realized that I was basically operating the audio cues out of a Spotify playlist, recommended using QLab instead. Apparently it is what professionals use and there’s a free version that has all the basic functionalities as well.

So I downloaded QLab and put together a list of sound cues. I clicked around and was glad to find that it handled many things for me that I had to do manually in the last show. For example:

  • In the last show, I had some sound files that were softer and some louder. I had to take notes during rehearsal on what the desired volume was, and adjust the master volume slider before playing each cue. With QLab, I can individually set the level of each cue during rehearsal. During the show, all I do is press the space bar.
  • In the last show, I had to insert silent tracks between the actual audio tracks in the playlist. This is so that when a track finishes playing, the user doesn’t hear the next track. With QLab, since it’s specifically designed for running audio cues, it doesn’t attempt to play the next track like a music player would do.
  • In the last show, I had to take notes in a text editor and refer back to it during the show. In QLab, there’s a box attached to every cue, so all I had to do is type my notes into whichever cue it’s attached to.
  • In the last show, if I had to only play part of an audio file, I had to import it into an audio editor, trim off the parts I didn’t need, export the edited version, and finally throw it back into the playlist. With QLab, I just say start at this timestamp and end at this timestamp. And that’s all there is to it.

What a pleasure to use a tool that’s specifically tailored to the task at hand!

I did run into a problem while trying it out, though. Every time I pressed the spacebar on my keyboard, the program just started playing the next cue, without stopping the previous sound. So when I pressed the spacebar five times, I heard five songs playing at the same time!

Obviously not what I wanted. So I went onto Youtube and watched several tutorials. Turned out that I need to think differently.

I needed to stop thinking about it like a music playlist. When you play music, you always play one song at a time. But in sound effects, I might start with some ambient sound of rain. Three seconds later, I might cue a thunder. After that, some sound effects for wind blowing through trees, all while still playing the background rain sound in a loop. This is why they overlap. So a cue is not a sound file, but some event that happens. A cue can be starting a sound. A cue can be stopping a sound that’s currently playing. A cue can be fading out a sound that’s currently playing. It works really well when you think about it differently.

Fortunately, as a software engineer, I’m very used to thinking about one problem in several different ways, and am above average at picking up a new piece of software.

Tech Rehearsal

As usual, we arrived a few hours before the show to get ready. We went over the transitions for each piece. This includes stuff like when a performer should enter the stage, when the lights should come up at which location, when the projection gets turned on, when the audio cues come in, which set pieces should be on stage, etc. TJ, the tech guy, was just so on top of everything, working out all the lighting and microphone needs with the performers. Kajal, the stage manager, figured out where each piece would move on and off stage. They were so awesome at this, that for the most part all I had to do was sit back and take notes about the audio cues.

In the picture at the top of this article, you would see Adrian with a clipboard jotting down notes about when and how things like the puppet stage, tables, and projection screens should move. You also see a puppet (though blurry) on the puppet stage. This is TJ and the performer Erik figuring out the lighting. You can also see my view from the back of the stage. On the left side of my computer screen is the lineup, my cheatsheet for which performer was next. On the right you see QLab, what I was using to run cues.

Show time!

Because I already ran the sound cues last time, and I was actually using a proper tool that I could offload most of my work to, it actually was somewhat uneventful (which was good!) for me during the show. For the most part, I just had to press the spacebar at the right moment, because I already programmed the cues during the rehearsal. Basically I just had to tell the program, “hey, do the thing that we figured out in rehearsal, now!”

When the lights came up for Tara’s piece, I pressed spacebar and proceeded to just enjoy the show. If I weren’t using QLab, I would have been adjusting the audio level, and watching the audio playback so it didn’t spill into the next cue.

With Kate’s piece, same thing. Lights came up. I pressed spacebar and just enjoyed the performance.

With Grayson’s piece, I waited for her to give me a nod. And then I… pressed spacebar and just enjoyed the performance. Are you bored about this spacebar thing yet? That’s how uneventful it can be if you had programmed the cues properly during rehearsal.

Christine’s piece was actually a more interesting one, tech-wise. The stage was dark. I was waiting for the lights to come up before I cued the music. But then it seemed to me that TJ did not have the intention of doing so. Right away it became clear to me: apparently he was expecting me to go first, while I was expecting him to go first. So I just went ahead and cued the audio. Right after that, TJ cued the lights and Christine walked her puppet onto stage.

This decision was made in a fraction of a second. The audience wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual there.

Originally, Christine told me to abruptly cut her music at around the two minute mark. Since I was using QLab, I just needed to set an end marker for the cue instead of actually editing it. During the rehearsal, I learned what her originally intention was. She wanted the music to end when she popped the balloon. She was going to time it so that the balloon pop at around the two minute mark. I told her she could just do that forever, because I would just manually cut the music whenever I saw the balloon pop. And that was what I ended up doing.

And then it was Adrian’s piece. She would get into a pose and have this funny facial expression. And that’s when I would know when to cue the music. Again, spacebar.

Afterwards, I asked to Christine whether she was expecting music or light to go first, just out of curiosity. She said they were supposed to come up around the same time, but the audio would be the one taking the lead. So I guess I was the one that was wrong (oops). She said she didn’t hear the music or see the lights come up, so she was just going to start walking the puppet onto stage anyway. And at that moment, the music and lights both went into action. So I guess there was a delay of a fraction of a second, due to me not writing detailed enough notes. However, the audience wouldn’t have noticed anything.

Conclusion

This is yet another fun show. And once again, everything went smoothly. It had been a much more relaxing experience for me. Because of the proper tool, for the most part I’m just pressing a key and enjoying the show as if I were a regular audience member.

Enough about tech for now. I will post some pictures from the show soon!

Comments

  1. May 12th, 2015 | 10:12 am

    Kelvin,

    I love reading about how you learn new things. You adapt quickly and figure things out. OMG if I had to do this, it would be a disaster. QLab sounds very interesting and I’m pleased it helped you with this show. Perhaps you teaching yourself into a new vocation:~)
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  2. May 13th, 2015 | 2:57 am

    It was kind of a disaster during rehearsal last time. Well, that’s exactly why we do rehearsals. 😀

    My mentality has always been, if I clone Kelvin 20 times, can they (as a group, doing different jobs) put on an awesome show? I enjoy learning about all these different aspects.
    Kelvin Kao recently posted..Running Sound Cues – The Second TimeMy Profile

  3. Naomi
    May 14th, 2015 | 2:34 am

    “I needed to stop thinking about it like a music playlist. When you play music, you always play one song at a time. But in sound effects, I might start with some ambient sound of rain. Three seconds later, I might cue a thunder. After that, some sound effects for wind blowing through trees, all while still playing the background rain sound in a loop. This is why they overlap. So a cue is not a sound file, but some event that happens. A cue can be starting a sound. A cue can be stopping a sound that’s currently playing. A cue can be fading out a sound that’s currently playing. It works really well when you think about it differently.”

    I smiled at this. A cue is nothing but a change to the current effects. Welcome to Tech 101! :)

    Qlab sounds good – what hardware were you running it on? Looks like something Apple? (Oh and now you know why I was complaining about the ‘lazy’ way of doing things!)

    Glad you had another opportunity to do tech and that it was just as smooth and fun as last time.

  4. May 14th, 2015 | 10:36 pm

    Yeah. And a part of this is that the program I was previously using sort of forced me to do some translation. Even though I know a cue is a certain way, I have to translate it into the terminologies and features of a music player, and then do it accordingly. Now that I have a tool designed for the purpose, I no longer need to do that kind of mental gymnastic.

    Yeah, it’s a Mac app. I just run it off my Macbook. I am not sure what you are referring to when you said the “lazy” way. There are PC programs doing similar things too, I’ve heard. Actually at one point I thought about making one, if one didn’t already exist, since I’m a software engineer.
    Kelvin Kao recently posted..Running Sound Cues – The Second TimeMy Profile

  5. Naomi
    May 15th, 2015 | 12:28 am

    Yeah it helps when you have one protocol or language and stick with it. I think that’s one of the reasons we did it manually at uni, so we could learn proper terminology and have a method to go with it. One thing we had most of doing tech was printed cue sheets, with all the notes, timings, etc handwritten out by us. We were usually reminded that if someone had to take over (as we often had to swap roles partway through a show) then the next person needed to be able to understand what we had written and what the cues meant.

    Ah, a Macbook. I thought so – it doesn’t help that I read the post while on my phone and the pic was too small to see much detail.

    “Lazy” just meant in reference to my comment on your previous post about how all you have to do during the show is press “go”. It goes back to me liking to do manual fades 😉 What you described with Qlab is pretty much how most of the lighting desks work, where you program in your various cues. On the lesser desks you then manually fade in/out each “scene” (ie. group of lights which have been pre-programmed together as one lighting state), whereas on more expensive desks you program not just the lights but the timing and fade out too, so you just press the space (or whatever button) and let the desk do the work. It doesn’t surprise me there’s software out there that does it for sound cues too.

    I keep seeing the ads for iphone apps, and every now and then they pop up with a lighting-design app… I keep thinking I should check them out. … I went for a wander over to an old friend’s blog thinking I could find something but their site isn’t easy to navigate. Nevertheless you may be interested in their software section: https://theatretechgeek.wordpress.com/category/software/

  6. May 15th, 2015 | 1:39 am

    Yeah, in fact, when I went to WWDC last year (that’s a conference for people developing apps on iPhone, iPad, and Mac), I was talking to a developer that made an iPad app that does some of the lighting desk stuff. So there are softwares out there for both. The only thing I wish the app has is a way to manually fade something out. Maybe they do have it. I just haven’t found it. I was able to manually fade, though, just by using the Mac’s own volume control. Not ideal, but it works.

    I would seriously doubt that the app doesn’t provide an option to manually fade, though. If I am to run cues for another show, I would find out how.

    I am subscribed to Stephen’s blog and I do read some of the posts. (I don’t read the ones about what lights to buy, but I do read the ones about theater etiquette, safety, etc.) He’s got some interesting behind-the-scenes stuff that people not involved with that aspect of the shows wouldn’t think about.
    Kelvin Kao recently posted..Blog AnniversaryMy Profile

  7. Naomi
    May 18th, 2015 | 11:50 pm

    I too find it unlikely that there wouldn’t be software to do automatic fades. This is what some of the lighting desks did a whole decade ago and given the complexity of some sound design programs I can’t imagine that someone wouldn’t have been able to build a cross-fade/fade function. Don’t know if it would exist in an app, but at the very least PC software.

    Stephen’s blog is good, and I did mostly read it for the behind-the-scenes stuff too. Haven’t read it for a while actually, it’s sort of been less on my mind the less actual theatre I do.

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