An industry that has been branded as “noise” by many has spent the last 30 plus years ensuring the system is as silent as possible. The pay off? Another department turns up, makes more noise and no one notices, completely invalidating the silent-ness of the sound department. You can now see why it upsets us.
There are very few guarantees in this world, which makes the clichéd relationship between the sound and lighting departments on fit ups so valuable. Not one day passes without the mention of the sound department's cappuccino lifestyle. This is reliably parried with the sound crew querying just how clever you need to be to hang a tin can with a light bulb.
A natural break will eventually occur in this forestage repartee when the two factions unite to openly mock the automation department trying to get a chair to track smoothly onto stage more than once. This scenario has been played out so many times that it has become a parody of itself. And I love it.
The sound department's complaint about the noise made by moving lights and scrollers has been made a thousand times before and the same parallels are always drawn. My favorite is that it would be wholly unacceptable if a loudspeaker sitting on the proscenium had to have a 20W light bulb permanently glow in order for it to work. So why is so it acceptable for a light to make a noise?
There is a problem though. When the rest of the departments leave the sound department with that coveted graveyard shift of 11pm-2am, we are usually also left with that all-familiar high-pitched wailing noise. The lighting department may be in the pub, but the rig is still whining. And even after asking the production manager to go through the invoices at home, you realize that the noise has still not gone away.
You try to convince yourself that this must be just the fan working at an ultra-high cooling speed as it's night time, or that perhaps it just sounds louder because the stage is empty (at one in the morning, after listening to an Oleta Adams track all night, you can convince yourself of anything, usually starting with the idea that you can jump down from the circle rail into the stalls rather than use the stairs). Then the reality kicks in the following morning after the normal unpleasantries and gossip have been exchanged at the pit rail; the noise is still there and is clearly audible above the angle grinding.
As I have never heard anyone else complain about it, there is the possibility that no one else hears this noise except for the sound fraternity. It's almost like the fan noise has super powers of deception, and the noise itself has convinced everyone else that its not actually there. Someone once said to me that the reason this noise is acceptable is because it's constant. This doesn't stand up. My constant inability to do my petty cash receipts has not made it any more acceptable by our accounts department.
The irony of the situation is lost on most people. We at Autograph (and many others) have spent millions during our industry's history researching and striving to create the most transparent, most accurate reproduction of sound possible and achieve the ultimate in audio fidelity. To provide systems that have the widest dynamic range at the highest sampling frequencies money can by. All this to ensure the system is click free, jitter free, hum and hiss free; all for the public's listening pleasure.
It is not just the industry that has accepted this fait accompli. It would appear that the public has also shown indifference to it. Not a week goes by without some broadsheet-reading theatregoer complaining that the voices were on tape and not live, that they couldn't quite hear all the breathing at the back of the upper circle, or that the show was unnecessarily amplified. Yet no one, not even in straight dramas when sat in the first few rows listening to the lighting-rig equivalent of an un-tuned short wave radio, seems to be bothered. To most people it registers about the same annoyance level of air conditioning. We want to remain cool in the three weeks of British summer and we therefore suffer the constant hiss and whirr.
It is not the actual noise itself that annoys me. It's the fact that noone else is bothered by it. Is it really because the payoff of having moving lights makes it acceptable? For me it shows that the sound of a show is as misunderstood as it ever has been. This is not a criticism of those outside our industry. I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the greatest lighting designers, lighting technicians, production managers, and producers, and to my knowledge there isn't a plan to slowly torture sound technicians to death with white noise (although some have tried other methods, such as sleep deprivation).
As lighting designers choose a product to do the required job, regardless of its audio side effects, then it's the manufacturers who need to go back to the drawing board. However, if they are never told that it's an issue, there will be a reluctance to do anything about it, or worse, no realization that there is even a problem.
Maybe it's because people's aural perception is not as developed as their visual perception. I have on occasion been asked to mask the noise of a smoke machine used for an entrance with a sound effect. The entrance doesn't necessarily need an effect as a sound design decision, so therefore it only exists to mask a problem; surely the solution is to find a quieter smoke effect? (the same argument is equally valid for noisy scenic trucks). You can be sure that if you rigged a loudspeaker on stage and just prior to a cue it let out 110dB of white noise for five seconds you would be asked to remove it from the theatre. So why is the noisy smoke machine/lighting rig/hydraulic lift acceptable?
Here at the poison chalice of theatre crafts it has become one of those things that we have to roll over and tolerate. Regardless of how much time and effort is spent making our systems silent and transparent, the rest of the industry is resolute to be as noisy as possible. Maybe this should be our answer to the critics who complain that actors have come to rely too heavily on radio mics: we simply only use them to get above the ambient stage level.
Still, I shall seek revenge in my own quiet way. I shall tactfully suggest to directors that, along with the rehearsal sound effects, that it might be useful for a rehearsal lighting rig to be installed to give them a sense of how the show will look, as well as sound. And perhaps that the lighting department could also rig something up in the director's car to complement their CD of sound cues on the drive to and from rehearsals. Not that I am bitter, you understand.