It's opening night. Radio City Music Hall. The biggest, brightest musical to hit NYC in decades: Operation Liberty, a star-studded patriotic cavalcade of stars. Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John, and Billy Joel. Money was no object. Full federal funding. Dubya and Rumsfeld are in the front row. And you are the sound designer.
You look out over the vast expanse of your FOH: Four gold-plated 72-input diamond-encrusted Cadac consoles, the processing power of Big Blue, all bolted to the hoods of a fleet of vintage Rolls-Royce Phantoms. A shiny copper espresso machine gurgles its approval as your footmen attend to your train, specially sewn for you from virgin yak wool and Sennheiser Platinum mic cables. With a mighty sweep of your hand, you reach for the blinking red button that will set the evening ablaze with your aural glory. And then…
Your nodding head smacks the tattered armrest of the PM3000 you're actually mixing on. It's a good thing, too. The impact jars the oxidized contacts enough that the auxes sputter to life and funnel a feeble mix to the exasperated musical director. Not that it matters. The six year-olds kick shuffling across the stage don't exactly have a Fossean sense of rhythm. And the kids in the audience could care less what the show sounds like, since they've got their hands full of sugar fixes and marketing tie-ins. Ah, yes. The play's the thing.
We're not all born to glory. Most of us just work and enjoy the little glories, and that's just fine. The problem is the vast gulf between ambition and necessity. Many of us in this technologically accelerated world are gearheads. We simply must have the latest, greatest, and coolest toys. We think these things not only enable our creativity, they imbue us with some kind of vaunted status. But is the cost actually reflective of worth? Here's a case in point.
I took over a show from a previous designer, a nice enough fellow, obviously interested in the latest and greatest. For a short tour, he spec'd one of the most complex and expensive digital consoles available. The producers of the show, one step up from a mom-and-pop organization, were saddled with a weekly rental bill that approached levels akin to the budget of the First National Tour of a Broadway spectacle. But that was just for the console and a few extras. Nothing else. That meant that the tour was forced to use whatever PA was provided by the venue or local promoters. Kinda like buying a Lamborghini in LA and then going 0 - .00001 mph in 60 seconds on the freeway. What's the point? Do you look cool or simply foolish? Forget that this designer also didn't know the console itself. Forget that this borderline Beta version crashed every few days. The net result was that no one was happy. Cue my entrance. For half the price of the previous tour, I threw in the whole shebang: design, console, PA, com, gack. I suffered the slings and arrows of outraged promoters from the year before who were expecting an equally dismal performance this time around. I overcame the suspicions and mistrust of the musicians and performers. And still charged more for it all than I might have without the financial bar being placed so high before. How?
I did my job. Anyone who knows me is aware of a maxim I live by: Results matter. How you get there is almost superfluous. I do what is necessary. You must realistically consider the multiple aspects of sound design, indeed design in general, and how these aspects affect the project as a whole, artistically and financially. You cannot design in a vacuum.
Most of the projects I work on require me to function in areas that, though under the umbrella of general audio, are usually separate and often conflicting. The first is design. What are the imperatives for a designer? The right choice of equipment, sound effects, and the placement and use of such in a manner that achieves the artistic goals of the production. Seamless integration, whenever and wherever possible. This design must also fall reasonably within the financial scale of the production and be commensurate with its artistic scale. Unreasonable examples: Using a PM4000 for five inputs. Or on the other hand, trying to mix the “A” tour of Les Miserables on a Mackie 1604VLZ, amplified by a bullhorn from an old Hollywood soundstage.
Secondly, you have the rental house that provides the gear. Usually handed a bill of goods by the designer, the shop pulls or purchases the equipment asked for and bills the producer at a rate that it deems profitable enough to maintain its financial health. The producer balks at the price and tries to negotiate a discount, but the designer won't budge. Something's got to give. Since I usually provide the gear for shows I design, what gives? On the one hand, as a designer I know what I really need (forget want) to produce the results that make the show, and hopefully some sense of career for myself. As the rental house, I know what equipment can reasonably be expected to perform admirably on the job and where the minimum standards lie. I know what can be scrimped on and what cannot be compromised. As a vendor, it is in my interest to purchase and rent equipment that has a lifespan somewhat longer than a fruit bat and that doesn't break the bank. I haven't been handed many blank checks in my life — save those my bank sends me when I reorder — and I don't expect any. This is a business, and fundamentally you want to spend the least to make the most. Caught between a rogue designer and poor-mouthed producer, being forced to throw out the latest and greatest is not a very cost effective position to be in. As a designer, wouldn't it be more impressive to do more with less? Is it really necessary to have this or that particular console so that the engineer can use one hand to press one button and maintain the death grip on his jelly doughnut with the other?
Who Really Runs The Show
Ah, the engineer. Third and, as always, last. Most designers defend the latest and greatest by affirming that all engineers must be tweaked monkeys on work release from the research facility. Since they can't be depended on to faithfully reproduce the grand master plan, a designer has to dumb down the engineer's responsibilities in a form of pre-emptive damage control. I can almost see the day when a designer in his SoHo digs can read a real-time graph analyzing his engineer's performance and administer punitive shocks via Ethernet and hand mounted electrodes. Like a virtual nun whacking your knuckles with a ruler.
Well, sorry folks. It doesn't work like that. There are, and must be, too many variables in live performance to fully and effectively automate a show. Engineers must be craftsmen, artists in their own right, and not just technicians. Every note and associated sound wave is filtered through the engineer. He (or she) has to react to the different spaces he encounters on a weekly or daily basis; he has to play the show's dynamics through a system that is, in essence, his instrument. Believe me, every musician and every actor knows when someone is there with them in the moment of every moment, and lord knows they have a lot of moments. If, as a designer, you're not willing to engineer your own design, then it is imperative that you find someone who can, and I mean really can. Not a button pusher. And believe me, you get what you pay for. If there is a dearth in the industry of engineers with both technical and artistic expertise, it's our fault for not finding and nurturing them to this end. If you dumb it down, you make it worse, because then all you have is button pushers.
The most valuable engineers out there — and they are out there — actually often mitigate design or equipment problems. They have to. They exist in the real world of having to do whatever it takes to make the show happen, whenever and wherever. Their degree comes from NYUK, the school of hard knocks, and they know what it takes from practical experience. They need to be respected and listened to. They are the buck-stoppers. And honestly, how many of you designers took a class on stuffing an elephant in a thimble? Or covered dealing with a Teamster in a truck with a gun and a really bad attitude? These unforeseen complications are the only true constant of life on the road, and to some degree, of all live performance. And they do affect the design. Quite often, road dogs become de facto designers in a pinch, once again, because they have to. It's their job and they'll get fired if they don't. And then you can hire a button pushing spider monkey.
Putting it All Asunder
How do these all work, or not work, together? If the design concept is flawed, the best rental gear in the universe won't matter, though a good engineer might, if he is allowed to fix things in one of those cute, low-profile, political kinda ways. A great design with crappy equipment and a crack engineer is precarious at best, noisy at worst. A top-notch design and pricey, state-of-the-art equipment might as well be a cudgel in the hands of an incompetent engineer, pulverizing the muses into submission. Of course, if all the stars are aligned between this trine, exorbitant costs might just help bankrupt the producer. And that doesn't help any of us. As a designer, vendor, and engineer, I certainly don't begrudge a profit to the producer; it's why they do it in the first place. Besides, they're the ones who keep all of us monkeys in bananas.
Bruce Landon Yauger, itinerant composer/designer, and principal of Falconmusik, can be reached at Falconmusik@aol.com.
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