Nick Ross

video. audio. design. live production.

Sound Design: The Wizard of Oz

Among the many jobs I do, sound design is probably my favorite. Having been on both sides of the stage, (tech-ing and acting) I can say for certain that running live sound for a theatrical production is at least 10x harder and more stressful than being on stage. The amount of focus and planning and preparation necessary for such a job is really astounding. Perhaps the stress and constant pressure is why I enjoy it so much.

For the past 2 years, I have served as the sound designer for the North Hills Junior High (now NH Middle) School’s winter musical. This year’s show was The Wizard of Oz and I took a slightly different approach to how I planned and prepared for the show this year. All in all, the preparations I did this year made for a much smoother show than I’ve ever experienced.

Planning Will Set You Free

Last year’s production was the first year that I had the opportunity to mix the show on the Allen & Heath iLive system. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t care for the iLive, but I personally found it to be very flexible and usable once I got the hang of it. As part of its software suite, Allen & Heath provides the iLive Editor which allows you to create offline show files without being connected to the console at all. This allowed me to sit at home with the software loaded and setup my patching and busing structure and, more importantly, my scene recall. The obvious reason for going with a digital console like the iLive in theater is the ability to recall scenes depending on which mics need to be on and so forth. By going through my script and marking entrances and exits, I was able to setup every mute recall and mic change necessary. All of this without ever having seen the show. Then, when I was ready to watch a rehearsal, I virtually recalled all of the scenes on my laptop during their run through to be sure everything matched up. Why was all this work on the front end so awesome? It meant that despite all of the issues we had with weather during the run of the show, I was one step ahead already.

Having Great Partners

Last year was also the first year we partnered with Electrisound to utilize their full rental services. We again this year had them provide our iLive console and Audio-Technica wireless rental which worked amazingly. At Electrisound, they focus on drop down integration into existing systems making it incredibly easy for us to drop in fully prepared flight kits of mics and patch them directly into the iLive and then into the system all in a matter of hours. Plus, they took the time to do all of the frequency coordination for me so that I had a pre-designed list of clear frequencies to use saving me the hassle of having to scan and figure it out myself. They also were able to quickly recall the room tuning they used last year making our system sound a whole lot better than we’re used to. They even built us a custom snake to run from the first electric down to the Mix Rack off stage making loading in for the show each year that much easier. Chris and Liam always make sure we’re taken care of at North Hills which honestly makes all the difference when, especially for the Junior High, the tech aspects of the show go together in about a week.

Keeping Organized

If you saw my last post about organization, you’ll know how much easier this made my life during the run of the show. By going into the run having everything organized, when I quickly needed to set something up it was all right there. In addition to physical organization, I also got organized digitally. For every show, project, concert, or whatever I do, I always make patch charts. They’re super useful for both setup and tear down as well as spotting potential problems before you even arrive. In the past, I would created them in Numbers on my Mac, print them out, use them, make changes during the day on paper, and then put the changes into Numbers later that night. Then, I’d print a fresh copy for the next day. Needless to say, this caused a lot of hassle. This year, thanks to iCloud and Numbers on the iPad, I was able to always have the most up to date patch charts digitally on my iPad and was able to cut down on all the wasted paper. Plus, if I needed to, I could quickly send someone a PDF copy of the patch chart with a few taps.

Geeking Out

In addition to the practical improvements I made, there were also some downright nerdy things I did to make things easier and, of course, more fun for myself. A unique part of the Junior High’s shows is that they use a performance CD of backing tracks and not a live orchestra like most theatrical productions. Last year, I began using QLab to run my tracks since it’s designed for live performance. This year I found out a clever way to fire my QLab cues from the iLive surface. After reading about Mike Sessler’s obsession with MIDI-fying everything over at ChurchTechArts, I decided to see what the iLive could do. Allen & Heath makes a TCP MIDI driver which basically allows you to send MIDI commands over the network. I installed this driver on my Mac running QLab and on the iLive surface I setup one of the custom soft keys to be a custom MIDI string. The string sent the GO command to QLab which fired the track. This allowed me not to have to worry about touching the computer at all during the show and being able to just focus on the iLive surface. It’s pretty nerdy but it worked really well. The only drawback was the lack of an ability to either send the MIDI command or fire the soft key from the scene recall so that I could just keep hitting GO on the scene recall portion of the iLive. Hopefully, Allen & Heath will add more advanced scene recall in future versions of their firmware.

So, did all of this nonsense described above actually help the show? Yes, it did. This is the third show I’ve done sound design for at the Junior High and by far the best. As with any live production, there were of course mic glitches and the like, but nothing as major as in past years. Below I’ve included some nice shots of all the gear in place for your enjoyment. A link to photos of the show itself can be found HERE. Perhaps in future posts I might dive a little deeper into how I actually set things up for the show, but that gets a little dull even for me. Let me know what you’d like to see in comments.

Copyright 2017 by Nick Ross