Time is a tricky thing. While we all recognize the method of measuring time, I am convinced that actual speed of time itself changes. When I was asked to write this piece with the deadline two weeks away, that seemed like more than enough time to write 1,200 words, yet here I am three days past the deadline wondering where the time went. Most strange.
Four short years ago, Andrew Bruce and I sat in a production meeting to talk about a musical with a flying car. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened at the London Palladium back in April 2002, though we started work on the production in early 2001, so recreating it for Broadway has been an enjoyable stroll down memory lane.
We sat down during a preview of Mary Poppins in London to look at the spec for Chitty. Doing Chitty in New York so close to finishing Poppins had one major advantage; we could base our list for Chitty NY on the findings of the Poppins system. So with a little help from the “Apple C” command, we started to put our Utopian list together.
Where were we four years ago? Well, we weren't putting a small case “i” next to anything remotely new and glossy white; we still bought music on shiny discs and used our mobile phones to make phone calls rather than take pictures. As I said, time is odd and technology moves quickly if you take your eye off it.
The first item was the desk. Chitty London has a large J-Type Cadac and it was implicit that we would be using the DiGiCo D5T this time around. We've enjoyed enormous success with it, not just on Poppins, and there was no going back now. After all, Bruce had spent the time between Chitty London and Poppins developing it. The software evolves daily and considering where we were at the beginning of last year, the leap to where we are today has been humongous.
It's not just technology that has leaped forward but also the general attitude to it. Four years ago, the thought of having a digital — and therefore computer-based — front of house mixing console was, for us theatre people, still the stuff of science fiction fantasy. We were still insisting that a digital console wouldn't allow us to work fast enough, that it was impractical in live theatre as we wanted to see all the faders and meters simultaneously and, lets be frank, wouldn't sound any good. The passage of time has changed all that, and going back to using an analog desk now seems as retro as an Eagles reunion concert. We now have a console that has a simple interface, a theatre-based cue structure, and it sounds very good. Yes, there are odd quirks and new bits of jargon, but that's just stuff that has to be learned in the same way you had to learn to use the “dock” in Mac OS X and not the Apple Menu as in OS9.
The show did have to be translated from one flavor of cue list to the other, but even this seemed relatively painless. Our HOD in London, Bique Haddelsey, put the main building blocks of the cue list together and our Broadway HOD, Scott Saunders, later refined this.
Another departure from the London original has been the loudspeaker systems. Four years ago, talk of ribbon speakers conjured up images of longhaired guys sitting around expensive hi-fi systems listening to Yes. Since 2002, Autograph Sound Recording has been trying out the LDS ribbon loudspeaker in various forms. We have used them successfully in conjunction with MSL2s on Mary Poppins and again, they would provide the ideal loudspeaker solution for Chitty.
For a while, I had been looking for a solution to the ever-present problem of which loudspeakers to use for surround. Sitting in my local, newly re-fitted, multiplex cinema, the answer was staring me in the face (I really should splash out on better seats). On the wall were these rather neat Martin Audio boxes. For surround, they sounded pretty good: full range, passive, and architecturally discreet. And, the price per unit is lower than other typical surround-style boxes, which means you can get away with more. It also allows you to start the surround line nearer the proscenium than usual, and I have found this to work very well.
Chitty has an immense amount of sound effects. The title is one for a start. There is only one minor change here from the original stage production; I substituted the Akai S6000s for the Akai Z8s. Even that seems rather retro in the land of SFX and the other WAV playout devices. The trouble here was that the show had been constructed in a highly component way and I still wanted that flexibility so held on to doing just one more show on my beloved samplers.
Using the Z8 doubled the RAM capacity of the old S6000, which meant I could ditch the DAR Theatre Play system we have in London. We did, however, use the Mackie 24/96 units for the voiceover work. There are eight distinct character voiceovers and once you start getting into first and second understudy covers, the matrix of combinations can become unmanageable, which is where the multiple take option on the Mackies serves us well. TiMax is still my matrix of choice for FX routing and I am yet to find anything that is as graphically friendly. The new XP version is far more stable than its previous incarnations.
The system EQ is still XTA-based but this has now moved to digital and it's surely only a matter of time (and improved latency figures) before we make the next step and move to digital amplifier inputs. The method of control is still a wireless tablet/laptop but we now have the term Wi-Fi that just goes to show how quickly what was once cutting edge technology becomes the norm.
Another big departure in four years is my method of constructing sound effects. When I first started on Chitty, all my sound effects were on CD, in easily breakable boxes and dog-eared inlay sleeves. Searching out sound effects was a rather holistic science. Since the arrival of USB/Firewire drives and massive hard disc storage, all my FX are neatly stored on my external drive, are fully searchable and immediately added to my ProTools session with just one click. This has accelerated the FX creation process to no end. In fact, it has removed a large part of it. I almost miss the old method, as you tend not to discover that the inside of a fridge cooling unit sounds exactly the same as a tropical fish pump at the London Aquarium until much later on.
Making the jump from analogue to digital has been a steep learning curve, but then, like leaving your child at the school gate for the first time, letting go is always tough and scary, especially when what you're moving on to is still very much evolving. Then again, leaving the mutes on the desk for the start of Act Two is just about on par with doing a band call with “live update” off, so maybe its not that big a leap at all.
Change is the only constant and time is still abstract. At least it is to me.
Simon Baker is a sound designer for Autograph Sound Recording in London, www.autograph.co.uk