Sound designers and their engineers are a fickle lot. If they're not pining for a padded wrist-rest for the venerable Cadac J-Type mixing desk (a wish of Broadway engineer Jordan Pankin), then they're lusting after surgically implanted lavalier microphones for performers.
Barring these luxuries, designers have a few more realistic— but no less vital— items on their wish lists. After consulting with some of the best and brightest, both on Broadway and across the pond, we have come up with a list of dream equipment.
Over the past two decades, theatrical sound designers and their engineers have been inundated with technology that has revolutionized the theatrical production. As sound technology in other fields—recording, rock-and-sound, and motion pictures— has progressed, the theatre audience has come to expect more aural stimulation. Shows are louder, system designs are much more technologically complex, and more creative input is expected from the sound designer. Mixing desks require more inputs, directors require more sound effects, and systems require more loudspeakers. Manufacturers have, for the most part, kept up with the needs of designers and operators, but there are still some tools that sound designers feel they are missing.
Topping the list was a universal concern with the state of radio-frequency microphones. As more digital television stations come online every day, and as shows rely more and more on RF microphone technology— not to mention wireless intercom systems and in-ear monitors—available bandwidth is becoming scarce. UK-based production engineer Thomas Ashbee opts for a digital system, utilizing a bandwidth-sharing scheme similar to that of digital mobile telephone networks. Others, such as veteran Broadway designer Tony Meola, worry about the limitations of headroom, dynamic range, and frequency response in the digital broadcast realm— not to mention cost. "Digital RF technology won't become a reality until it can be achieved for less than $4,000 per channel," says Broadway operator Patrick Pummill. "I would also hope that a digitally-based wireless microphone would be smaller, more resilient, and less likely to lose its ability to transmit when handled roughly. We do put them on people, after all."
A digital system, or an advanced analog system, would provide localization data to track performers' movements around the stage and determine in what direction the performer is facing. "This would be used so that we can automatically, and in real time, change the performer's time delay and equalization relative to where they are standing," says Broadway sound designer Jonathan Deans. "Currently this is a manual job or a bunch of recalled presets."
But is it too early to delve into digital RF microphone systems when manufacturers still haven't produced a sonically superior analog RF system with a smaller transmitter pack? Meola has been hounding manufacturers for years, requesting smaller transmitters and smaller lavalier elements. "Transmitters are too large. Microphones are too large. Manufacturers have been very slow to rectify these issues," he says.
Designer Brian Ronan agrees. "RF pack size has got to come down. I'd also like to see truly reliable rechargeable batteries for RFs and all wireless needs. It would be cheaper for the company and better for our planet."
"I would really like to see a computer-based system that can combine pictures and a kind of frequency map of an individual's head so that we might be able to point to an ideal location for the mic," adds Pummill. "Granted, when dealing with mic placement, there are an infinite number of variables, but when a variable becomes measurable and quantifiable, it becomes predictable and the possibility of manipulation arises."
In other microphone technology, Deans looks forward to a laser microphone that can pick up the performer's vocals only— without any other ambience or bleed from stage monitors, all but eliminating concerns of feedback. Designer Jim van Bergen would like smarter microphone preamplifiers. "I want both a mic preamplifier and a wireless preamplifier that is intelligent—and scalable," he says. "That means an actor can do a soft book scene with the preamp set to maximize dynamic range and useable gain structure, yet go on to an 11–hour number and sing his heart out with a similar relationship of dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio."
At the other end of the transducer spectrum, designers see manufacturers finding new alternatives to the age-old paper cone loudspeaker design. John Kilgore, a designer and head of the Masque Sound recording division in New York, states, "I believe we are on the verge of tremendous advances in transducer design. Transducers haven't seen any change in the basics since microphones and voice coils were invented. There has been a lot of activity in this area, mostly on the output end. Some of the more interesting work involves the use of ultrasound as a carrier, which demodulates when it strikes boundary. Also there is interesting work going on in Finland involving speakers made from sheets of plastic film with bubbles trapped inside."
Developments in this area could provide Meola with new design tools, such as "flexible loudspeakers that could be sewn into costumes to improve directionality." This same sort of loudspeaker technology could also provide van Bergen with cheap, compact, RF-based loudspeakers mounted in audience seats.
Kurt Fischer, a Broadway designer and operator, feels that manufacturers have not fully developed ribbon-tweeter technology. Ribbon tweeters provide a better sonic image and lower distortion, though they cannot currently handle high sound pressure levels and are very sensitive to temperature and humidity changes.
Designer Scott Stauffer would like to see an updated version of L-Acoustics' V-DOSC line-array loudspeaker system developed especially for theatre, with V-DOSC frequency response and dispersion characteristics, but in an enclosure better suited to theatrical reinforcement.
Designers and operators are predicting advances into digital technology that will greatly change the way in which equipment is operated, integrated, and controlled. "It doesn't take much to see that in the next five years we will see the digital signal chain between sound source and the audience's ear become much more implemented," states Pummill. "It has been like that in the world of recording for some time and if you consider that the live world is roughly a decade behind the recording world in its use of technology, a fully digital signal path is not too far away."
Many designers agree that the current implementation of digital technology has not been fully evolved, and many designers still shy away from computer-controlled processing equipment because of the dependency on a inherently crash-prone computer. But Deans adds, "We are in a digital age and we are hardly using any digital connections— and therefore devices— for live theatre, but this is beginning to change as redundancy and reliability is becoming possible in real time."
Integrated digital processing devices, such as BSS' OmniDrive and XTA's AudioCore, permit CPU-based control over equalization and delay, and are viewed as a step in the right direction. Palmtop audio, in which processing components can be remotely controlled via an infrared or RF handheld computer, is still in its infancy, and there is limited interoperability between manufacturers. Many designers agree that more standards need to be solidified in order to fully integrate the sound system under computer control. "Interfaces between all-digital equipment should have the ease of use that analog equipment has," declares Fischer.
Stauffer feels that the signal processing technology needs to be developed to the point at which one piece of equipment could equalize, delay, crossover, and actively process the audio signal. "One unit should equalize and delay the signal, and I should be able to stick in a memory card with, say, Apogee AE-5 parameters, and that unit would process the signal accordingly, straight from the mixing desk to the amplifiers," he says.
Van Bergen takes the idea of seamless integration even further, looking forward to DSP and communications circuitry within a powered loudspeaker which would provide user-controllable adjustments to the normal drive system: five-way parametric equalization with high- and low-pass filters, digital delay up to 250ms. The engineer would communicate with the system via a wireless local area network within the theatre.
Digital technology applied to mixing desks is readily available, but the console designs are limited by their ergonomic functionality (or lack thereof) and high cost. "One row of faders and one row of dials and a touch-screen does not a live console make," states Pummill. To address these and other concerns, Cadac Sound, manufacturers of the J-Type mixing desk, is in consultation with designers and operators around the world to try and design a digital control surface while taking into account that, all in all, people want physical contact with the mixing desk.
For effects playback and other special effects, van Bergen would like the ease of the old Cadac quad-panner module, but taken to the extreme. "I would like about a software-scaling joystick that uses volume, Haas effect, and propagation delay timings to allow one to pan within one's own speaker system."
Kilgore envisions manufacturers continuing to develop digital systems for theatrical sound playback but has gripes with the current user interface options. "You need visual confirmation that everything is operating as programmed and a way to see instantly what is wrong if it isn't. For the most part, that isn't there yet." He adds, "Certain ways of looking at and dealing with audio have become relatively commonplace, yet these more or less standardized interface tools have not made it to theatre sound gear yet. It is still generally a challenge to actually use the hardware, since the user interface is still in its infancy. Unfortunately, it's not exactly a big-bucks market, so the innovation has to come from incremental, back-and-forth collaboration between manufacturers and end users, rather than from deep-pockets R&D. Fortunately, we're a tight little world, so there's a lot of feedback, and the manufacturers are mostly eager to listen."
For other designers, though, the role of the manufacturer is more troublesome. Meola is still searching for a smaller RF microphone transmitter and better, smaller microphone elements. Ronan complains about large manufacturers, such as Akai or Lexicon, who do not pay enough attention to their live-sound clientele. "I wish manufacturers would be more careful with upgrades and new products. It is very easy to get lost in system versions, and many manufacturers are not forthcoming with information. It's a rare event when I have the right manual for the device I'm using."
Production engineer Ashbee, responsible for the load-in and proper function of the theatrical sound system, rants about the simple but frustrating areas that manufacturers tend to neglect. "I want to see better output stages on signal processing gear, capable of efficiently driving the audio signal along long lengths of cable. I want to see a standard for electronic balancing— I plug in something that has a transformer-balanced output into an electronically-balanced input and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't." He continues, "It's the attention to detail— or lack thereof—that bothers me. I think the BSS TCS-804 delay unit is a fantastic-sounding piece of equipment, but it gets too hot and you can't physically rack them one on top of the other. The Furman rack light is another example— it's a fabulous idea, but if you push in the lamps far enough, they short out the actual AC bus!"
In other areas of the sound system, many engineers clamor for improved intercom systems. "I want something like a mobile telephone clipped to my belt, connected to a headset, with which I can communicate with anyone else in the theatre, just like a normal wireless intercom system, but with better quality and range," says Stauffer. Ashbee adds that an inexpensive system for multiplexing video signals through standard audio cable would be a godsend.
One other thought for manufacturers: "Make it lighter. The gear is too damn heavy."
When asked what kinds of technology would most significantly change the theatre sound industry in five years, Meola and Deans agreed that the advent of suitable digital mixing desks for theatre was one of the biggest foreseeable changes. Fischer notes that with the introduction of viable digital mixing desks, a new type of engineer will be necessary— a programmer, similar to a moving-lights programmer on the lighting team.
Most designers see the introduction of smaller and electronically superior RF technology as changing the face of theatrical sound design, no longer limited to only a small amount of semi-frequency-agile products, and no longer required to hide microphones and transmitters in such varied locations on a performer.
Designers also anticipate better playback systems. "I see all playback devices merging to hard disk. We all have our favorites: compact disk, mini-disks, etc., but we'll soon be able to [finally] rely on the computer as a dependable storage and playback system," predicts Ronan.
As digital signal processing technology becomes more advanced, van Bergen predicts a system in which a user can define the signal path through a DSP chip, freed from the constraints of current processing equipment.
Many foresee the explosive growth of the Internet as part of the future. Ronan anticipates server-based sound effects libraries. "The age of calling up [John] Kilgore in a panic from Cleveland because the director wants new sound effects are fading and will soon be gone as Internet access becomes more reliable and high-bandwidth transmission gets better," he says.
Even software to track sound design paperwork for shows may soon be server-based, allowing colleagues in different parts of the world to instantly access key data, such as equipment lists or component patching, via their computers or mobile telephones. The day may finally arrive when all departments in a production may be part of a local area network (LAN): script changes would be delivered online to a computer-based script reader, and correspondence between departments will be delivered via email. Ronan goes one step further: "The advent of computers will merge departments as show control becomes more and more a singular event. I think shows will link their lighting control, sound operation, and scenic automation under a single department."
Technology is ever changing, and hopefully manufacturers will be able to keep step with the needs of the end users in the theatrical sound design industry. When designers were asked where they thought technology would be in 25 years, most said simply that they hoped to be retired by then.