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The “Gibbs Rules” of Being a Stagehand

When I was in high school, my family’s go-to TV show was NCIS. We’d put it on in the background over dinner, or watch reruns on the USA channel when nothing else good was on TV. By the time I left to go to college, I must have subconsciously taken in hundreds of episodes!

For those who aren’t familiar, the show is about a team with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who work to solve murders of Navy or Navy-affiliated persons. The team is lead by Special Agent Gibbs, a former marine with a big heart and a sometimes short temper. He’s far from a perfect person, but he has a strong moral compass that he uses to inspire his team to do their best work to solve these mysteries. One of the ways we learn about Gibbs’ particular brand of moral code is through a philosophy known as Gibbs’ Rules. The NCIS Fan Wiki defines them thus:

“Gibbs’s Rules are an extensive series of guidelines that NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs lives by and teaches to the people he works closely with.” (Source: https://ncis.fandom.com/wiki/Gibbs%27s_Rules). Some of the rules are things you might expect to hear on a crime TV show, such as “Never let suspects stay together” or “Always wear gloves at a crime scene.” Others, however, are more universal and can be taken as good lessons for life in general. Some of my favorites of these include “When the job is done, walk away” and “Don’t believe what you’re told. Double-check.”

As I started getting more involved in theatre throughout high school and college, I started trying to figure out how to compile everything I was learning into a sort of guide for myself. Classmates, teachers, and mentors were giving me all sorts of great tidbits of advice, and I was scribbling them all down in an unorganized jumble to be able to refer back to later. I began thinking about how I could organize it into some sort of guide that I could add to and share as my career continued, and naturally, Gibbs’ Rules came to mind!

I called the document I wound up creating “Gibbs’ Rules of Stage Management,” because initially, I was training to be a stage manager. But as I got into mixing and sound design, it seemed like a lot of the rules didn’t have to just be for stage managers. And the more people I shared them within different fields of entertainment, the more I realized that a lot of them can be applied pretty universally across our industry. So here, for your perusal and enjoyment, are some annotated selections from the 2021 Gibbs’ Rules of Being a Stagehand. If you would like to see the entire collection, it will be posted on my website, beccastollsound.com, in the next few days!

2021 Gibbs’ Rules of Being a Stagehand

Rule #1: ALL HUMANS ARE STUPID (AND EVERYONE’S HUMAN).

This is one of my favorites. It speaks to the fact that people make mistakes, and it’s important to cut people slack and not hold it against them.

Rule #6: GIVE LOTS OF THANKS, EXPECT NONE IN RETURN.

Unfortunately, those of us who work behind the scenes are often not adequately recognized for our contributions, especially compared to the onstage talent. Try your best not to let it get you down or give you a bad attitude.

Rule #7: EVERYTHING IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

In stage management and production management, it is common to put “subject to change” in the footer of most paperwork. We’re making organic art after all, and we’re making it in the moment, so there’s no way to predict everything that will happen!

Rule #11: EVERYTHING IS SUBJECT TO UN-CHANGE

A corollary to Rule #7. Especially applicable on new musicals, where a scene or song that got cut yesterday could go back into the show today. Keep good archives, and don’t throw anything out until closing!

Rule #13: IT’S PROBABLY GOOD IF AT LEAST ONE PERSON KNOWS WHERE YOU ARE.

This one was inspired by the actual Gibbs’ Rule #3, which is “never be unreachable.” But in this age of smartphones, push notifications,  and constantly feeling the need to be “on-call” for work, I think it’s important to reclaim the ability to take time for yourself and not have to immediately answer to everyone. On the other hand, if you simply stop picking up your phone, people might worry that something has happened to you because that’s the kind of world we live in now. So strike a healthy balance between the two.

Rule #19: IT’S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL.

In NYC theatre this is commonly known as the “5 block rule.” Meaning that if you are talking smack about someone or something within 5 blocks of the theatre, it’s going to become back to bite you. Everyone knows everyone, and no one will ever forget you. People’s friends/assistants/partners will refer or recommend you and it counts. Read the room and don’t burn bridges.

Rule #24: IF YOU CAN’T SAY YES, DON’T SAY NO.

People are going to ask you for impossible things. People are going to ask you for hints that aren’t your job to do. Saying “no” just shuts the conversation down rather than fostering collaboration. Even if something is 100% impossible, the best answer to start with is “I’ll look into it” or “let me get back to you.”

Rule #25: THE SHOW MUST GO ON (EXCEPT WHEN IT CAN’T).

This rule is credited to my stage management professor, Tina Shackleford. And wow, does it read differently post-pandemic!

Rule #26: WHEN IN DOUBT, DRESS TO IMPRESS.

My mom came up with this one ☺ If appearance or apparel is something that helps you to feel motivated or prepared, by all means, use that to your advantage! Dress in a way that makes you feel awesome on the inside but also shows you are prepared for the occasion, whether it’s a corporate interview or an arena load-in. And always wear close-toed shoes.

Rule #33: NOTHING CAN BE TESTED TOO MANY TIMES.

This rule is from Shannon Slaton, author of the excellent book Mixing a Musical.

Rule #34: KNOWING WHAT YOU’RE DOING IS ONLY 1/3 OF THE JOB.

Credit for this one goes to NYC-based sound designer Dan Miele. As I’ve outlined in many a blog post, so much of this job is people skills, improvising, and just making things work in a very short amount of time! Yes, the hard skills matter, but the soft skills (plus a good attitude and a willingness to collaborate) matter almost as much if not more!

Rule #35: ALWAYS READ YOUR CONTRACT.

Always Always Always! Read the whole thing. Top to bottom. Read all the fine print. Ask questions about anything in it that is unclear. Run it by mentors and friends.The last thing you want is to be blindsided by something you signed before you fully understood what you were signing. Just read it!

Rule #40: DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND STAY IN YOUR LANE.

It’s noble to want to help people. In theatre we all pitch in to make it work, right? The problem is that it can be easy to over-exert yourself trying to help others, and suddenly your own job begins to suffer as a result. We’ve all been there. Over the years I have come to see having my one specific job to do as an absolute blessing in disguise. It allows me to focus on the things that are mine to control, and not worry about the things that aren’t. So if it’s not your job, don’t do it. If it’s not your problem, don’t make it your problem. Not trying to be everything to everyone is not only an act of self-preservation, but it is better for the overall show if everyone is able to take on their own workload and not burn out doing the jobs of other people as well. So as often as possible, make best efforts to stay in your box.  Do your own job well and trust that others will do theirs.

As always, comments and questions welcome! What are some of your personal “Gibbs’ Rules?”

Depression, Anxiety, and Hope from a Roadie In The Age of Covid

Dear Everyone, you are not alone.

 

**TRIGGER WARNING: This blog contains personal content surrounding issues of mental health including depression and anxiety, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Reader discretion is advised.**

The alarm on my phone went off at 6:30 a.m.

I rolled out of my bunk, carefully trying to make as little noise as possible as I gathered my backpack, clothes, and tool bag before exiting the bus.

The morning air felt cool against my face as I looked around me trying to orient myself in the direction of the loading dock to the arena. Were we in New York? Ohio? Pennsylvania? In the morning before coffee, those details were difficult to remember.

Passed the elephant door, the arena sprawled out before me, empty and suspensefully silent. I looked up with a mixed sense of awe and critical analysis as I noted the three tiers of the arena, the red seats forming distinct geometrical shapes between each section. As I made my way out to the middle of the deceivingly large room, I looked toward the ground in hopes of finding that tell-tale button marking the middle of the room, if I was lucky.

As I set up my tripod, I heard the footsteps of the rigging team as they began stretching out their yellow measuring tapes across the cement floor. The clapping of their feet echoed in the room and soon the sound of their voices calling out distances joined the chorus in the reverb tails.

I turned on my laser and pulled out my notepad, the pen tucked in my hair as I aimed for the first measurement.

Then I woke up.

Up above me, all I could see was the white air-tile of the basement ceiling while the mini-fridge hummed in the corner of the room.

For a few seconds, or maybe it was a full minute, I had absolutely no idea where I was.

I wanted to scream.

I lay in bed for what could have been 15 minutes or an hour, telling myself I had to get out of bed. I couldn’t just lay here. I had to do something. Get up. Get UP.

Eventually, I made my way upstairs and put on a pot of water for coffee. When I opened my phone and opened Facebook, I saw a status update from a friend about a friend of a friend who had passed away. My heart sank. I remembered doing a load-in with that person. Years ago, at a corporate event in another city, in another lifetime. They didn’t post details on what had happened to them. Frankly, it wasn’t anyone’s business, but the family and those closest to them. Yet my heart felt heavy.

Six months ago, or maybe more, time had ceased to have any tangible meaning at this point, I had been sitting in a restaurant in Northern California when the artists told the whole tour that we were all going home. Tomorrow. Like a series of ill-fated dominoes, events were canceling one-by-one across the country and across the world. Before I knew it, I was back in my storage unit at my best friend’s house, trying to shove aside the boxes I had packed up 4 or 5 months earlier to make room for an inflatable mattress so I had somewhere to sleep. I hadn’t really expected to be “home” yet so I hadn’t really come up with a plan as to what I was going to do.

Maybe I’ll go camping for the next month or so. Try to get some time to think. I loved nature and being out in the trees always made me feel better about everything, so maybe that was the thing to do. Every day I looked at the local newspaper’s report of the number of Covid-19 cases in California. It started out in the double digits. The next day it was in the triple digits. Then it grew again. And again. Every day the numbers grew bigger and notices of business closing and areas being restricted filled the pages and notifications across the Internet.

Fast-forward and the next thing I knew, I was packing all my possessions into a U-Haul trailer and driving across the country to be with my sister in Illinois. She had my baby niece a little over a year ago, so I figured the best use of my time would be to spend time with my family while I could.

I was somewhere driving across Kansas when the reality of what was happening hit me. As someone who loved making lists and planning out everything from their packing lists to their hopes and dreams in life, I—for once—literally had no idea what I was doing. This seemed like the best idea I could think of at the time.

Fast-forward and I was sitting on the phone in the basement of my sister’s house in the room she had graciously fabricated for me out of sectioned-off tapestries. I looked at the timestamp on my phone for how long I had been on hold with the Unemployment Office. Two hours and thirty minutes. It took twenty calls in a row to try and get through to someone at the California Employment Development Department. At the three-hour mark, the line disconnected. I just looked down at my phone.

I remember one Christmas when I was with my dad’s side of the family at dinner, I tried to explain what I do to them.

“So you are a DJ, then?” my aunt asked enthusiastically, believing that she had finally gotten it right.

“No,” I said.

“Do you play with the band?” my uncle asked.

“No, I’m the person who tries to make sure everyone in the audience can hear the band,” I tried to laugh.

Everyone laughed that sort of half-laugh when you try to pretend you get the joke, but you don’t actually get it.

Across my social media feeds, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and everyone in between, were all sharing updates of how they had to get “real jobs”, how they couldn’t get through to unemployment or their state had completely failed to get them any unemployment at all, how they were angry, desperate, and how they needed to feed their families. Leaders in the industry grew from the motivation of trying to speak out on behalf of the live events industry to the government, pleading for financial relief for businesses, venues, individuals, and more, and my feeds flooded with initiatives and campaigns for awareness of the plight of the live events industry.

Yet when I talked to people who were not in the industry, they seemed to have no idea that the live events sector had been affected at all. Worse yet, I realized more and more that so few people had any idea of what people in the live events industry actually do. Organizations struggled to get news channels to do exposés on the subject, and perhaps it was because there were so many people across every sector of every industry that were struggling. In one conversation with a friend, I had explained that there were nearly 100 people on a tour that I had worked on between the production, tech crew, artist’s tech crew, everyone. They couldn’t believe so many people were working behind the scenes at one concert.

Yet the more I talked about my job and the more time that passed, the more I felt like I was talking about a dream. This fear grew inside me that there was no end in sight to all this and the stories started to repeat themselves and it started to feel like these were stories of what had been, not what was. It was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate when talking to people about “regular” things in our daily lives because it was not work. Talking about the weather was not talking about rigging plots or truckloads, so my brain just refused to focus on it. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the industry: watching webinars, learning new things because I just wanted so desperately to go back to my career that I fabricated schedules and deadlines around other obligations to feel like work was still there.

Then the thought that underpinned all this rose up like a monster from the sea:

Who am I without my job?

I read an article Dave Grohl wrote [1] about performing and playing music on-stage for people, how there was nothing like that feeling in the whole world. I think he hit on something that, in effect, is really indescribable to anyone who has not worked in the live events world. There was a feeling unlike any other of standing in a room with tens of thousands of people screaming at deafening levels. There was a feeling unlike any other of standing alone in a room listening to a PA and crafting it to sound the way you wanted it to. There was a feeling unlike any other of hearing motors running in the morning while pulling a snake across an arena floor. There was a feeling unlike any other of complete, utter exhaustion riding a bus in the morning to the next load-in after doing 4, 5, 6, however many gigs in a row. I tried to explain these feelings to my friends and family who listened with compassion, but I couldn’t help but feel that sometimes they were just pretending to get the joke.

Days, weeks, months floated by and the more time passed, the more I felt like I was floating in a dream. This was a bad dream that I would wake up from. It had to be. Then when I came to reality and realized that this was not a dream, that this was where I was in my life now, it felt like my brain and the entire fabric of my being was splitting in two. It was not unbeknownst to me how fortunate I was with my sister taking me in. Every morning I tried to say 5 things I was grateful for to keep my spirits up and my sister was always one of them.

The painful irony was that I had stopped going to therapy in January 2020 because I felt I had gotten to an OK point in my life where I was good for now. I had gotten where I needed to for the time being and I could shelve all the other stuff for now until I had time to address them. Then suddenly I had all the time in the world and while shut down in quarantine, all those things in my brain I told myself I would deal with later…Well, now I had no other choice than to deal with them, and really this all intersected with the question at hand of who was I without my job.

And I don’t think I was alone

The thing people don’t tell you about working in the industry is the social toll it takes on your life and soul. The things you give up and the parts of yourself you give up to make it a full-time gig. Yet there is this mentality of toughing it through because there are 3,000 other people waiting in line to take your spot and if you falter for even just one step, you could be gone and replaced just as easily. Organizations focusing on mental health in the industry started to arise from the pandemic because, in fact, it wasn’t just me. There are many people who struggle to find that balance of life and work let alone when there is a global health crisis at hand. All this should make one feel less alone, and to some extent it does. The truth is that the journey towards finding yourself is, as you would imagine, something each person has to do for themself. And my reality was that despite all the sacrifices needed for this job, all I wanted to do was run back to it as fast as I could.

Without my work, it felt like a huge hole was missing from my entire being. That sense of being in a dream pervaded my every waking moment and even in my dreams, I dreamt of work to the point where I had to take sleeping aids just so I would stop thinking about it in my dreams too. I found myself at this strange place in my life where I reunited myself with hobbies that I previously cast aside for touring life and trying to appreciate what happiness they could offer. More webinars and industry discussions popped up about “pivoting” into new industries or fields and in some of these, you could physically see the pain in the interviewees’ faces as they tried to discuss how they had made their way in another field.

One day I was playing with my baby niece and I told her we had to stop playing to go do something, but we would come back to playing later. She just looked at me in utter bewilderment and said, “No! No! No!” Then I remembered that small children have no concept of “now” versus “later”. Everything literally is in the “now” for them. It struck me as something very profound that my niece lived completely in the moment. Everything was a move from one activity to the next, always moving forward. So with much effort and pushback against every fiber of my future-thinking self, I just stopped trying to think of anything further than the next day ahead of me. Just move one foot in front of the other and be grateful every day that I am here in what’s happening at this moment.

Now with the vaccination programs here in the United States and the rumblings of movement trickling across the grapevine, it feels like for the first time in more than a year that there is hope on the horizon. There is a part of me that is so desperate for it to be true and part of me that is suspiciously wary of it being true. Like seeing the carrot on the ground, but being very aware of the fact there is a string attached to it that can easily pull the carrot away from you once more.

There is a hard road ahead and a trepidatious one, at that. Yet after months and months of complete uncertainty, there is something to be said about having hope that things will return to a new type of “normal”. Because “normal” would imply that we would return to how things were before 2020. I believe that there is good change and reflection that came in the pause of the pandemic that we should not revert back from: a collective reflection on who we are, whether we wanted to address it to ourselves or not.

What will happen from this point moving forward is anyone’s gamble, but I always like to think that growth doesn’t come from being comfortable. So with one foot in front of the other, we move forward into this next phase of time. And like another phrase that seems to come up over and over again, “Well, we will cross that bridge when we come to it.”

References:

[1]https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/05/dave-grohl-irreplaceable-thrill-rock-show/611113/

Ready for the Road?

 

I’ve been on the road for the better part of a decade, so I’ll easily admit that I’m biased in favor of tour life, but it’s fascinating to hear what other people think my work is like. Mostly they see the glamour of a life that some only dream of being paid to travel across the country or even the world. They’re less enamored when they hear what my work schedule actually entails and that I’m not some carefree nomad having adventures and playing pretend every night. Still, I bet most would give it a go if they ever got the chance.

So what does the reality of touring look like? Well, let’s start with the least appealing side of it and get that out of the way

Time and Stress

Since tours only make money when they’re actively on the road, the ideal is to be booked constantly. Most shows have a few weeks scattered throughout the schedule that aren’t booked and the actors, musicians, and crew are laid off. To a 9-5 worker, “layoff” is a horrible word, but on tour, it’s synonymous with a scheduled, short, unpaid vacation, and you’re still working 45-50 weeks out of the year. However, that means there’s limited time off to see friends and family back home or just to recharge, and it can be difficult to get time off for events like weddings, graduations, or even family emergencies.

Then you have your day-to-day work schedule. On a whim, I calculated how many days I’ve had off in an average year on tour. That qualifies as a day not in the theatre, not traveling to the next venue, nothing work-related. My average was 70-75 days off per year over seven years on the road. To put it in 9-5 terms, if you just count weekends that’s two days off a week, multiplied by 52 weeks, most people get 104 days off in a year, not even looking at holidays or vacation time.

(Touring data based on my 2019 year on tour with Miss Saigon, then Mean Girls.)

Plus, 40-hour work is the norm, but on the road, you’re looking at anywhere from a 60 – 80 hour workweek depending on how often you have to load in and out.

Moving on to stress

Somedays tour feels like holding 10 pounds of crazy and staring at a 5-pound bag, trying to formulate a plan that gets everything in. Each show and every venue have quirks and your job is to figure out how to work with or around them. Sometimes it’s easy: in Cleveland, there’s only space for the actual show deck onstage, so the local crew knows that amp racks typically go in an alcove in the house. Other times it takes some finagling: in DC, the Les Mis speaker towers weighed about 3000 lbs all together, but the structure the motor was attached to could only support 2000 lbs, so I calculated a way to build most of the tower, then slide the rest into place so we didn’t exceed the weight limit and still kept most of the build on the motor instead of overtaxing our manpower.

But, if you think that sounds stressful, those are the times when things went pretty well and we were able to come up with a solution that still accomplished the design. There are times you simply can’t do what you’ve planned: in Hartford, we had to get a mid-load in delivery of truss when the measurements we’d had for the rigging points were wrong. We found out partway into the day that the points were simply too far apart to safely fly the smaller truss we carried. Or something malfunctions right before the show is ready to start and you have a stage manager watching you, giving play-by-play commentary to the SM at the call desk as you attempt to suss out the problem, knowing the curtain is waiting on your troubleshooting skills.

These stressors can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being, which affects your physical health. Fast and unhealthy food is much easier to access on the road, and the post-show default is to head to the nearest bar with your crew to unwind from the day and socialize. As an introvert, I had to learn to pay better attention to what I needed socially: some days it was respecting my need to relax, other times it was noticing that I’d lacked social interaction and, despite the habitual ease of just heading back to the hotel, I’d actually prefer to be out with the crew.

Mostly what it comes down to is fatigue. It takes a concerted effort to take care of yourself on the road: finding or choosing healthy foods, making time to exercise, checking in with yourself. Sometimes you don’t have the energy to deal with that after a long day of work, and your well-being falls to the wayside.

All that being said, touring sounds really appealing right? Well, let’s take a look at what’s kept me on the road for so long.

Experience

One huge benefit is experience. That same stress that fell into the Con column has equal footing in the Pro side by virtue of the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Every load in and out, you’re handed new challenges to solve and, by the sheer repetition of it, you learn how to analyze situations faster and build a log of potential fixes you’ve tried before.

Plus, it’s all hands-on practice. You can talk about the theory as much as you want, but it will never be as beneficial as putting a contingency plan into action.

Along with problem-solving, you also (hopefully) gain people skills: just like analyzing situations, you also learn how to read people. Part of your job is learning if you can hand a project off to the house head and let them direct the crew, or if you’ll have to check in constantly to make sure it gets done. It’s noticing someone who’s willing to work, but is new and needs detailed directions, yet is too nervous to say they don’t understand. There are times you have to light a (figurative) fire to get a languorous crew moving, but others where you can joke and enjoy chatting and they’ll still get the job done.

The Pay

A large appeal of touring is the money. On the road, the company will provide you with accommodations or per diem for food and housing, so the majority of your survival expenses are taken care of. With that covered, it frees up the majority of your salary to pay down credit card debt, mortgages, or student loans, while simultaneously having some money to save or use for a guilt-free splurge. Personally, having the opportunity to up my savings percentage paved the way for me to discover the financial independence community, which is worth exploring no matter where you are in your financial journey. (Check out this list of FI blogs, or two of my favorites: JL Collins or Afford Anything)

The People

Last, but absolutely not least, are the people. Your crew and coworkers become family. Often boisterous and sometimes dysfunctional, you’ll find some of your best life-long friends on the road. When you’re together day in and day out, you help each other solve problems, pull off incredible under-the-wire show saves, or make it through a crappy day that you can laugh about afterward. Stagehands are the best kind of people I know to take lemons and turn it into an epic comedy of errors, and there are always new stories whenever you end up in the same city again to catch up.

Touring is life where the amp is always turned to 11

The lows are confidence-shattering and lonely, but the highs are soul-affirming and leave you with the feeling that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.

I’m the first to tell anyone that they should absolutely tour if they have any desire to do it, but I’m also the first to say that it isn’t for everyone. I’ve learned that I’m built to tour. Even when I wasn’t sure if I was any good at sound, I still knew I loved touring: stressful situations are puzzles to solve and most days I thrive on the challenge, plus my family has always been understanding that I have very tight constraints on my schedule. The pros of touring outweigh the cons by a mile for me, however, even I (and my knees) know that the day I look towards getting off the road isn’t all that far down the line. For others, life on the road just isn’t appealing from the get-go: I know people who are amazing at their job but hate the lifestyle, the stress, and the mental and physical toll it takes.

It’s always important to take stock of how you honestly feel and refrain from talking yourself into signing up for another tour if the cons outweigh the pros. It’s not worth making yourself (and everyone you work with) miserable if you hate your life day in and day out.

But if you do like it, pack those suitcases and get ready for an adventure. I know I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything!

 

10 things you need to be successful (and they’re all free!)

We have made it to June! 6 months into 2021, halfway through the post-pandemic year. Things are looking a little brighter, shows are starting to get booked, calls are coming in for work. You might be thinking about getting back on track with finding yourself a job on tour. In my book, I write about the 10 qualities or attributes you need to be successful. Let’s take a look at them.

Being on time

This is huge. You need to respect everyone’s time on the tour. If 10 other people have sacrificed sleep, a coffee, a workout, or whatever else to make sure they’re on time for lobby call, then you’d better make sure you’re on time too! Oh and on time is late, make sure you’re there 15 mins before you’re meant to be. The bus WILL leave without you!

Work ethic

If someone doesn’t want to be on a tour or doesn’t want to be part of a team, they won’t last long. If you have a strong work ethic and make yourself indispensable, you’ll have a long career.

Effort

Make sure you are putting some effort in, try a little harder, it’ll get noticed. Also see point 9.

Body Language

Whether we like it or not, we all judge and are all judged on how we look or stand. Quick first impressions or even people you’ve worked with a long time. This is something totally within your control to change the attitude of the room and the people around you, which in turn will make a more pleasant experience for you too.

Energy

It can be very tiring on tour, and as the above point, it is easy to slip into a negative mindset here and there. If you aim to bring the highest energy every day, you can pick someone else up which is a win all around.

Attitude

It may be a cliche but a positive mental attitude will get you very far in life. It’s difficult out there, don’t get me wrong.. but we can try to improve our mental state with things such as meditation or working out or just making sure we get enough sleep. We can then tackle each day with the best attitude.

Passion

It’s the reason why we’re here. We love what we do. If you stop loving it, maybe try a different path, a different job on tour, but always be passionate about what you do. As the saying goes “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”.

Being coachable

Even having a lifetime of experience doesn’t mean you know everything. Be open to learning from others.

Doing extra/going the extra mile

This will always get noticed and come back to you down the road. Remember why you’re doing your job, remember the sacrifices that got you to where you are now. Keep working harder and pushing harder and you will reap the rewards.

Being prepared

As they say, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. Know what you are doing, where you’re supposed to be, what’s happening tomorrow, the week ahead. Be on top of things. Carry a notepad, make notes, set reminders, whatever you need to do.

You see, you don’t need to be an expert at your job to start with, you just need the right attitude and to arm yourself with these attributes and you’ll do just fine.

To read more about breaking into the world of touring, check out my book on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Girl-Road-Touring-Female-Perspective/dp/B084QGRKVW

Life in the Less-Than-5%

 

As hate against those who look like me has skyrocketed in the past year, and been largely ignored by the music industry, I’ve started to rethink my assumptions about how I can move through the audio world. If women make up 5% of sound engineers, then the percentage of women of color like me is even smaller. In my nine years in live sound, I have never crossed paths with another Asian-American sound tech, although I know we exist. The times that someone onstage has looked like me have been far and few between. I always thought I would have to be extra careful about my safety because of my gender, not because of my ethnicity. Clearly, that was naïve.

As strange as it feels to say, I am one of the “lucky” ones: nothing I’ve gone through has been bad enough to force me out of the industry. A friend of mine, who is also Chinese-American, had such a bad experience interning at Big Name Music Hall with a boss and coworkers that constantly asked him incredibly invasive, weird, and racist questions that he decided to stop pursuing a career in live sound altogether. I’ve experienced nothing so constant and pervasive. The worst environment I’ve been in was as at my first and only training at a production company whose manager went on a bizarre, semi-incoherent rant for several minutes about how racism doesn’t exist, and “the only racism” is green (money), which was triggered by a comment made about the Papa John’s Pizza we were eating. 

Most of the racism I’ve experienced come in the form of the harassment most women face anyway, just with an extra racial component. The stereotype of Asian women as sex-hungry “dragon ladies” who exist only to serve white male pleasure is alive and well (just look at the coverage of the Atlanta shootings). So the assholes who aggressively hit on me and wouldn’t take no for an answer might throw in a reference to anime, hentai, massages, and happy endings, Japanese schoolgirls, or anything else that would make what they are saying that much more degrading. Another non-white friend and I found ourselves and our credentials excessively scrutinized at the few AES meetings we have gone to, compared to the other new faces at the meetings. The gatekeeping worked – I haven’t gone back. Moving from clubs and bars, where often there is no one able (or willing) to back you up, into the more structured world of larger music venues, where the touring crew probably know my coworkers and I am suddenly a friend-of-a-friend instead of a complete stranger, has helped cut a lot of this.

What never goes away are the offhand comments and assumptions. The negative ones are self-explanatory: assuming I don’t speak English or learned English as a second language, pressing me about “Where [I’m] really from” or asking “What are you”, arguing with me about whether or not I am a different Asian sound engineer who you worked within a city I’ve never lived in, being asked to confirm my citizenship by someone literally holding my U.S. Passport when filling out paperwork. Being called ‘China doll’, having someone proudly explain to me how they can tell the different types of us Asians apart as if that deserves my congratulations and gratitude. The supposedly complimentary ones, often based in stereotypes like the model minority myth, are equally as gross: saying that they’re glad I’m Asian because I’ll work harder, or assuming I can do a quick calculation on the spot because I’m Asian, and therefore good at math. And of course, there is the classic ‘Oh I love your culture!’, which is quickly followed by a bunch of half-baked romanticized stereotypes that probably aren’t even from the right country. 

Overall, the biggest issue I’ve run into in my career is tokenism: being paraded or held up for being a person of color as proof of diversity. It was particularly bad at my first job, whereas the only non-white sound engineer I was constantly pressured to participate in the marketing campaigns, fundraising events, tabling, and basically become the face of the audio program. There was a hard push to show how diverse we were as an organization when we really were not. A single person cannot be diverse! I declined until I was eventually left alone, but it was extremely uncomfortable to go through, especially as a high schooler.

Recently it’s resurfaced again, in a slightly different form. I have become the token woman/minority audio engineer success story to a white coworker of mine, who I barely even know. This person has tagged me in social media posts about how inspirational it is to see a non-white woman in audio, and has privately sent me several long messages of solidarity and apology over inconsequential things the venue has done. Did I have to ask my venue to put STOP AAPI HATE up on the marquee? Yes. Was it painful or traumatizing that they didn’t put it up automatically and I had to make that request? No. It was moderately annoying at best, and it’s insulting to decide that it was something deeply distressing on my behalf. To continue doing so after I have explained that to you that this not the case at all is ridiculous. Removing my agency from the situation and operating under the assumption that it is the duty of white people to swoop in and save me, is not ‘being an ally’. It is an unhelpful and infantilizing statement that paints me so delicate that something as simple as requesting my venue speak out is a shattering ordeal. 

Flattening me into a single dimension, whatever the intention, is not okay. It takes the complex, whole person that I am and reduces me down to be defined solely by my race. It doesn’t matter how much solidarity you claim to have if you can’t see past the surface of my skin. Especially at work, the body that I am in should come second to what really matters: the fact that I am a great sound engineer. 

 

This Show Must Go Off – Episode 3

 

Backstage On Broadway at The Bowery Ballroom

The event I want to talk you through today is another private rental. This was the venue’s first video live stream since the pandemic began. Generally, events like these are pretty rare for us. All systems are set up to enjoy a great experience in the moment. Looking ahead to the future of events, live streaming is going to be a great tool to reach a large and diverse audience, and promote accessibility to more patrons. We look forward to the future of these events and are excited to share all that we have learned from this broadcast.

To achieve the video broadcast our client was after, hi-speed Internet service is required. In our case, a separate and dedicated Internet hardline was put in by a service provider, which could be used exclusively for live streaming. The goal of this event was to broadcast approximately 60 minutes of a well-rehearsed “backstage on Broadway” experience involving show tunes sung by loveable Broadway stars. The streaming host was Chase Private Client, and this was a way for the company to give back to their customers, in lieu of the Broadway and live events shutdown.

Chase hired a team of producers to achieve their vision. The producers then work within a set budget and hire in the talent, subcontract the video, audio, and lighting, and scout the location (which is where we came in). The job of the venue was to provide a covid-safe location to film, assist with security, and supplement production needs. After the completion of the initial advance, it was determined that the house would provide power, use of our lighting rig (with a supervising LD), use of atmospherics (including our in house haze machine), use of our monitoring systems (including an engineer) and use of our front of house desk for a broadcast mix. House was also in charge of fabricating a staircase for the stage. It was clear from the start that I would be stretched thin on this event, so I put a network of systems in place to ensure all departments, including myself, could have necessary support if things were not running on time, or if any issues arose. 

The producers of the event were fairly new to the world of Broadway and concert production. The more advances you go through, and the more time you spend on the job, the more you can catch the nuance, and know what questions to ask, to give you a clue as to what to expect. It was much easier for me to deal with each department and their needs separately, rather than having the producers act as a middleman. Each event is different in this way, and can also apply to tours and Tour/Production management. You do not need to know every detail of every aspect of the production/tour, but know what you need to make your job easy. PMs- have your designers/department heads type up riders, plots, and inputs/instrument lists that speak the language directly to those that need it. TMs- same thing, have all of your riders and show needs together before you hit the road. If questions come up, do not hesitate to ask the person the question is intended for. It is less important for you to know all the answers, than it is for you to know who to get the answers from. 

The Covid Compliance team on-site was incredible. The testing process, a little less so. This client had our team schedule virtual testing, with testing kits that were mailed to us, and needed to be mailed back. For me, this was an easy process, but I recognized it is also problematic and prohibitive. First, all those being tested needed to have access to a personal electronic device capable of handling video conferencing, they needed to be fluent in English, have a permanent home address where they can receive mail, and needed to be able to access a UPS mailing point. I would not recommend this system unless you have pre-screened all employees and they feel comfortable to test in this way. In-person testing at a fixed location near the venue or area of work is preferred, with language assistance available. Our venue is currently working closely with Spotlight Medical to ensure fair, effective, and accessible testing for all of our staff, once we begin our own events.

The audio team was a broadcast engineer, (incredibly talented, extremely intelligent, and long lover of analog who I greatly enjoyed working with) and an RF provider with tech for all 3 days, who doubled as an A2. He was another great talent, who gave me a laugh as I watched 16 Shure RF mics go into foil containers typically used for leftovers. All in the name of Covid Compliance. House supplemented staff with a monitor engineer. In hindsight, a backline tech/stagehand would have been extremely helpful. 

The lighting team was fantastic and old pals. They consisted of a designer/programmer, grip, and lighting vendor with tech for all 3 days. House supplemented with our LD, doubling as an electrical supervisor.  One fixture would be hung, and the rest were ground supported on pipe and base in the balcony wings. The designer chose to use intelligent fixtures for all of his design, and stay away from our incandescent/conventional lighting. This allowed the designer to color and flicker or pulse width modulation correctly using the console.  

Day One

The event slated two days of load-in, setup, and rehearsal, and 1 day for last touchups and broadcast. My biggest concern was the analog desk and outboard. I feared after 12 months of lying dormant, things would not work. At this point, my brain has forgotten about the funny little nuance of the desk. The channel with the scratchy fader I needed to replace, the auxiliary buss that behaves funny, the gate that does not gate, etc. There is such a joy of analog, of touching buttons and faders and mixing with your hands, but they require a dedicated and consistent level of maintenance and care, which you can imagine becomes difficult when you are a sweaty, smoky, packed rock club that sees a different show every night, and your responsibilities encompass more than audio. On our first day with the broadcast engineer, I was immediately put at ease. He saw the joy that I see in the desk and had the immense level of experience and knowledge to not only make it sound great but even open up and clean some faders. Prior to load in, I had managed to clean all 1800 of the knobs on the desk but ran out of time for the faders. I welcomed the assist. 

Lighting and video loaded in first, audio and backline followed after that. The first day ended with setting the backline, pinning the stage, and getting the bulk of the lighting programming complete. The video team was able to get set up and a majority of their cabling was completed.

Day Two

Consisted of even more programming and our first run-through of the performance. We were given start and stop rehearsal, and a direct cue to cue which was about 75% of show ready.

Day Three

Started off with a bit of a hiccup from our end. I do my best to make sure our venue staff has all that they need to succeed at their job- resources, time, support, etc. Even still, I can forget that we have been out of practice for a year, and we are navigating new waters from the usual rock show. Our Monitor engineer, unused to theatre cue to cue style mixing and speaking on coms, found himself in the weeds. Unprepared for how to quickly and effectively use snapshots, he lost his work from the day before. The A2 and I quickly rallied in support of the monitor engineer to go through the program ahead of talent, and make sure the wedges were all dialed in, cue to cue. I am sure by the end of it our engineer became a pro at snapshots.  Unfortunately, it only reinforced his lack of interest in theatrical mixing. 

This was another note to myself to hire effectively and hire people who are excited by the event itself, not just the mixing aspect, or the need for a paycheck. We spoke at length about his experience afterward, and throughout it all, he handled the situation calmly and with a great attitude. The last rehearsal before the broadcast was rock solid.

Come the broadcast, I was huddled with the A1 watching a display monitor, hoping there were no streaming hiccups or issues on our end. Sure enough, the show looked beautiful and I only wish I could have heard the mix! It has been 14+ months since I listened to a mix from an engineer I love, on the Midas desk. Nonetheless, it was extremely nice to work together and talk shop, as well as share our love of motorcycles. 

Loadout happened in record time, unfortunate for our dinner break which we worked right past but grateful for a sigh of relief that everyone made it out of the building safe and sound, after a great few days of work. We started on stage-  breaking down backline, audio, and lighting, before moving to the balcony and front of house. This schedule gave the video and communications team a chance to organize and break down and left space for us to finish our loadout without interruption or breaking compliance. 

As of now, we are still taking it easy at Bowery, and remaining cautious to reopen. It is not yet beneficial to us, or to the health of our patrons to open just yet. We are going to continue to focus on some important upgrades, study the data, and figure out a way to make artists, staff and patrons safe and excited to come back to music again.  I cannot wait to share all of our new projects with you, so keep tuning in, and stay safe! 

More Resources

My Take on Line-By-Line Mixing for Theatre


 

 

Alesia Hendley – From Live Sound to AV & IT

Make Audio Work for You – Don’t Work for Audio.

Alesia Hendley’s introduction to audio started with a traditional path. She learned about sound at her dad’s church in Connecticut and decided to study audio at a trade school in Texas after her family moved there. Even though the program was focused on music production, her career focus at the time was still live sound. 

Alesia recognized she needed to get her hands on live soundboards. “When I was in school, I got to work with SSL consoles and it was amazing, but I knew those boards weren’t at venues. I couldn’t walk into these places saying, ‘I’m an audio engineer, but I have no experience with the consoles you have.’” She kept note of boards she saw at local venues, searched the Guitar Center stores in the area to see what consoles they had, and got some hands-on time at the store. “One of my classmates actually had a job at a Guitar Center. I’d go in and get some work in. We were bouncing ideas off of each other and improving together.”

While in school, Alesia created a music label and a publishing company, but it was a major challenge to make a business out of it.“Everybody’s doing their own thing. I was an audio engineer with nobody to record,” She said. I’m not making any money here. So what the hell am I gonna do?”

She tried a few avenues for freelance gigs, saying yes to everything (including sound for hotel events and church services). She applied and got an interview for a part-time job opening at a multipurpose facility, even though she needed full-time work. “The technical manager should have never gave me his card because I kept calling him and was like, ‘I’ll take anything. I’ll take four hours a week. I’ll do whatever.’ That’s how I started. They brought me on part-time, and I just kept building up the hours. They saw what I can do. Six months later, I was full-time.”

The facility was a stadium, arena, and conference center for the school’s district’s major events (such as plays, football games, proms, and graduations). She started seeing audio outside the “traditional” box she had learned it in. She explains, “When I started exploring the other components of AV, I found all of these spaces and verticals need audio. Even though it’s not just me running front of house, I can still be a part of creating this overall experience, which is what I love about audio anyway. When you’re behind that board at front of house and you’re doing a gig whether it’s a band or a play, it’s just a rush. So I wanted to fill that rush, no matter what part of the experience I was in.”

Alesia recognized a major need related to audio: people who also understood IT and networks. “All these digital consoles – it’s all connected to a network. The network goes down, and nobody on our AV team knows how to fix it. We had to call the IT team of the school district, which was a language barrier because traditional IT doesn’t really like to play with our AV stuff. They don’t want the AV stuff on their network. So, the IT team had a learning curve as well.” She realized, “If I don’t learn networking, I’m going to be out of a job in this AV thing sooner or later.” Alesia took a risk, and applied to Access Network, a company she had been interested in for some time. “It’s basically an IT company, but everybody that works for this company is an AV person. They’ve been an integrator in some form or fashion.”

She landed a job. “What we do is we design networks for AV solutions. Everything lives on the network. About 85 to 90% of what we do is in the home because our clients are people who have home studios or have smart homes. The other 10% of what we do is on the commercial side, where you’re in those corporate environments, where there are Dante, Shure ceiling microphones. So it’s been very, very exciting to constantly pivot but let audio lead me through all of these different roles.”

She finds her company is welcoming to diversity. “Don’t get me wrong – I’m still surrounded by men because we’re in technology, but there’s more discussion of being diverse. They’re more open and more welcome, instead of you running into the knucklehead behind the console that doesn’t want to move aside because he’s front of house – he’s the sound guy.”

Alesia still has “traditional” audio in her life, including a podcast about a personal interest, digital signage. “I’m still creating. I host it, I create all the content for it, I do all the recording. Me and my team, we do the editing. We created the intros and outros. I still have a home studio, because now I can afford to invest in a home studio.”

On Pivoting out of Live Sound

It was a bunch of soul searching. It did take some time. I stayed in my facility job for an additional two and a half years. It takes time to really do that kind of soul searching and figuring out what is the next step to help you pivot.

Of course, I miss running front of house, but my pivot was for education. I needed to learn about a network. I didn’t want to just go join a random IT company, and they weren’t going to hire me because I have no IT background. I needed to get with a company that understands that IT needs to talk to the gear that I love. 

I started off with Dante. That was my first touchpoint with audio or AV on a network. When I transitioned to this company, the education continued to roll in with this company. They paid for a lot of training. The education came within that package.

Bringing AV, IT and Audio Together

I’m a SoundGirl at heart. I love audio. I love everything about it. But what I realized is I had to look at the bigger scope of this experience that I loved creating. That led me up to the point where I’m at now, doing the IT side of this AV/audio lifestyle.

I have people ask me all the time, ‘Do you miss running front of house? You do nothing with audio now.’ You can look at it that way, or you can look at it: I’m the person who’s orchestrating the sound that people experience. They need the network that I’ve designed. Without it, it’s not going to work. So, it’s about perception. Change the perception of it and try to look at it in a different sense that’s more positive versus ‘I’m losing something.’

At the end of the day, you’re not pressing the physical console buttons, but you’re pressing the overall button. Without you, it doesn’t exist. That’s a huge button, like, the biggest button on the console. You’re still creating this experience. 

Honestly, so many people don’t even know this exists. I had to randomly find it. This is years and years of time being put in to do something that is different.

On how AV work is creative

My work is still creative because of the things that create the experience. It needs us. It doesn’t exist without us. Yes, I would love to be mixing for whoever my favorite artists at the time or running Front of House. That is more creative, and that is more goosebumpy. But my focus was, where’s the industry going? If we don’t learn how to pivot, then we’re stuck in these positions. I was an audio engineer with a studio background, but there was no money in that vertical for me. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you love, but you have to have a balance of creativity and money flow.

Advice

Make audio work for you – don’t work for audio.

We all have the odds against us. Don’t let it dumb down your greatness. Just realize that the odds are there, work three times harder, get gritty and find ways to freakin make it work. Keep knocking down the door as much as you can, like, keep kicking it open until something happens.

Don’t just latch on to the microphone or the soundboard. Explore what these things lead to, or what they create. There’s just so much opportunity. At one point, I felt like I didn’t fit into SoundGirls anymore. I’m not mixing music. I’m not doing this stuff, so maybe I’m not a sound girl. Then I was like, wait a second – You’re pulling the strings here. You’re doing sound, just in a different perspective, in a different way, and it works.

Figure out your little milestones. You can have a goal, but what are your realistic goals in between? And if you focus on that, you’ll find your career path and you’ll grow a lot faster – instead of stumbling into it like many of us have done.

None of this happens overnight. I hated loads and load-outs, but I don’t regret one bit of it. I got a little muscle on my arm. I learned how to hold my own. I learned from people who had been in the business for 20 years. That groundwork is what matters the most, so don’t run from it. Don’t be like, ‘I hate load-ins and load-outs. Stick with it for a while and see what happens. 

More on Alesia

Alesia’s website: https://www.thesmoothfactor.com

Alesia’s Blog for SoundGirls 

Sound & Communications Articles

Alesia’s Podcast Interviews


 

Find More Profiles on The Five Percent

Profiles of Women in Audio

What Is a FIR Filter?

The use of FIR filters (or finite impulse response filters) has grown in popularity in the live sound world as digital signal processing (DSP) for loudspeakers becomes more and more sophisticated. While not a new technology in itself, these filters provide a powerful tool in system optimization due to their linear phase properties. But what exactly do we mean by “finite impulse response” and how do these filters work? In order to understand digital signal processing better we are going to need to take a step back into our understanding of mathematics and levels of abstraction.

A (Very) Brief Intro To DSP

One of the reasons I find mathematics so awesome is because we are able to take values in the real or imaginary world and represent them either symbolically or as a variable in order to analyze them. We can use the number “2” to represent two physical oranges or apples. Similarly, we can take it up another level of abstraction by saying we have “x” amount of oranges or apples to represent a variable amount of said item. Let’s say we wanted to describe an increasing amount of apples where for every new index of apples, we add the sum of the previous number of apples. We can write this as an arithmetic series for all positive integer number “n” of apples as:

Where for each index of apples starting at 1, 2, 3, 4…etc onto infinity we have the current index value n plus the sum of all the values before it. Ok, you might be asking yourself why we are talking about apples when we are supposed to be talking about FIR filters. Well, the reason is that digital signal processing can be represented using this series notation and it makes it a lot easier than writing out the value for every single input into a filter. If we were to sample a sine wave like the one below, we could express the total number of samples over the period from t1 to t2 as the sum of all the samples over that given period.

In fact, as Lyons points out in Understanding Digital Signal Processing (2011) we can express the discrete-time sequence for a given sine-wave at frequency f (in Hertz) at a given time t (in seconds) with the function f(n) = This equation allows us to translate each value of the sine wave, for example, voltage in an electric signal, for a discrete moment in time into an integer value that can be plotted in digital form.

What our brain wants to do is draw lines in between these values to create a continuous waveform so it looks like the original continuous sine wave that we sampled. In fact, this is not possible because each of these integers are discrete values and thus must be seen separately as compared to an analog, continuous signal. Now, what if the waveform that we sampled wasn’t a perfect sine wave, but instead had peaks and transient values? The nature of FIR filters has the ability to “smooth out” these stray values with linear phase properties.

How It Works

The finite impulse response filter gets its name because the same number, or finite, input values you get going into the filter, you get coming out the output. In Understanding Digital Signal Processing, Lyons uses a great analogy of how FIR filters average out summations like averaging the number of cars crossing over a bridge [2]. If you counted the number of cars going over a bridge every minute and then took an average over the last five minutes of the total number of cars, this averaging has the effect of smoothing out the outlying higher or lower number of vehicles to create a more steady average over time. FIR filters function similarly by taking each input sample and multiplying it by the filter’s coefficients and then summing them at the filter’s output. Lyons points out how this can be described as a series which illustrates the convolution equation for a general “M-tap FIR filter” [3]:

While this may look scary at first, remember from the discussion at the beginning of this blog that mathematical symbols package concepts into something more succinct for us to analyze. What this series is saying is that for every sample value x whose index value is n-k, k being some integer greater than zero, we multiply its value times the coefficient h(k) and sum the values for the number of taps in the filter (M-1). So here’s where things start to get interesting: the filter coefficients h(k) are the FIR filter’s impulse response. Without going too far down the rabbit hole in discussing convolution and different types of FIR windows for filter design, let’s jump into the phase properties of these filters then focus on their applications.

The major advantage of the FIR filter compared to other filters such as the IIR (or infinite impulse response) filter lies in the symmetrical nature of the delay introduced into the signal that doesn’t introduce phase shift into the output of the system. As Lyons points out this relates to the group delay of the system:

When the group delay is constant, as it is over the passband of all FIR filters having symmetrical coefficients, all frequency components of the filter input signal are delayed by an equal amount of time […] before they reach the filter’s output. This means that no phase distortion is induced in the filter’s desired output signal […] [4]

It is well known that phase shift, especially at different frequency ranges, can cause detrimental constructive and/or destructive effects between two signals. Having a filter at your disposal that allows gain and attenuation without introducing phase shift has significant advantages especially when used as a way of optimizing frequency response between zones of loudspeaker cabinets in line arrays. So now that we have talked about what a FIR filter is and its benefits, let’s discuss a case for the application of FIR filters.

Applications of FIR filters

Before sophisticated DSP and processors were so readily available, a common tactic of handling multiway sound systems, particularly line arrays, with problematic high-frequencies was to go up to the amplifier of the offending zone of boxes and physically turn down the amplifier running the HF drivers. I’m not going to argue against doing what you have to do to save people’s ears in dire situations, but the problem with this method is that when you change the gain of the amplifier for the HF in a multiway loudspeaker, you effectively change the crossover point as well. One of our goals in optimizing a sound system is to maintain the isophasic response of the array throughout all the elements and zones of the system. By using FIR filters to adjust the frequency response of a system, we can make adjustments and “smooth out” the summation effects of the interelement angles between loudspeaker cabinets without introducing phase shift in-between zones of our line array.

Remember the example Lyons gave comparing the averaging effects of FIR filters to averaging the number of cars crossing a bridge? Now instead of cars, imagine we are trying to “average” out the outlier values for a given frequency band in the high-frequency range of different zones in our line array. These variances are due to the summation effects dependent on the interelement angles between cabinets. Figure A depicts a 16 box large-format line array with only optimized interelement angles between boxes using L-Acoustics’ loudspeaker prediction software Soundvision.

Figure A

Each blue line represents a measurement of the frequency response along the coverage area of the array. Notice the high amount of variance in frequency response particularly above 8kHz between the boxes across the target audience area for each loudspeaker. Now when we use FIR filtering available in the amplifier controllers and implemented via Network Manager to smooth out these variances like in the car analogy, we get a smoother response closer to the target curve above 8kHz as seen in Figure B.

Figure B

In this example, FIR filtering allows us to essentially apply EQ to individual zones of boxes within the array without introducing a relative phase shift that would break the isophasic response of the entire array.

Unfortunately, there is still no such thing as a free lunch. What you win in phase coherence, you pay for in propagation time. That is why, sadly, FIR filters aren’t very practical for lower frequency ranges in live sound because the amount of introduced delay at those frequency ranges would not be practical in real-time applications.

Conclusion

By taking discrete samples of a signal in time and representing it with a series expressions, we are able to define filters in digital signal processing as manipulations of a function. Finite impulse response filters with symmetric coefficients are able to smooth out variances in the input signal due to the averaging nature of the filter’s summation. The added advantage here is that this happens without introducing phase distortion, which makes the FIR filter a handy tool for optimizing zones of loudspeaker cabinets within a line array. Today, most professional loudspeaker manufacturers employ FIR filters to some degree in processing their point source, constant curvature, and variable curvature arrays. Whether the use of these filters creates a smoother sounding frequency response is up to the user to decide.

Endnotes:

[1] (pg. 2) Lyons, R.G. (2011). Understanding Digital Signal Processing. 3rd ed. Prentice-Hall: Pearson Education.

[2] (pg. 170) Lyons, R.G. (2011). Understanding Digital Signal Processing. 3rd ed. Prentice-Hall: Pearson Education.

[3] (pg. 176) Lyons, R.G. (2011). Understanding Digital Signal Processing. 3rd ed. Prentice-Hall: Pearson Education.

[4] (pg. 211) Lyons, R.G. (2011). Understanding Digital Signal Processing. 3rd ed. Prentice-Hall: Pearson Education.

Resources:

John. M. (n.d.) Audio FIR Filtering: A Guide to Fundamental FIR Filter Concepts & Applications in Loudspeakers. Eclipse Audio. https://eclipseaudio.com/fir-filter-guide/

Lyons, R.G. (2011). Understanding Digital Signal Processing. 3rd ed. Prentice-Hall: Pearson Education.

Explaining Effects: Reverb

“Can I get some (more) reverb on my vocals, please?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that, I’d have… a lot of money. Reverb is one of the most-used audio effects, and with good reason, since natural reverb defines our perception of everyday sound. In fact, we are so used to hearing it that completely dry sounds can seem strange and jarring. It’s no wonder that everyone wants a bit of reverb on their vocals.

What we perceive as reverb is a combination of two things, called early reflections and late reflections. Early reflections are the first reflections of the source sound that make it back to our ear; they are the reflections that travel out, reflect off of something once, and head back. Late reflections are the reflections that spend time bouncing off of multiple surfaces before returning to our ear. Because we experience such a large number of reflections arriving at our ears so closely together, we do not hear them as an individual, echoed copies – instead, we get the smooth sound of reverberation.

Analog Reverb

There are two main types of mechanical reverb systems: plate and spring. Plate reverb was one of the first to come along. It revolves around the suspension of a large, suspended steel plate, roughly 4×8 feet, in a frame with a speaker driver at one end and a microphone at the other. When the speaker driver vibrates the plate, the vibrations travel through the plate to the microphone, mimicking the way soundwaves travel through air. The tightness of the plate controls the amount of delay – the tighter the plate, the longer the decay, as the energy of the vibrations takes longer to be absorbed. Additionally, dampers may be used to press against the plate and fine-tune the amount of delay. Of course, the unwieldy size and design of plate reverb present some pretty significant logistical challenges. Aside from the amount of space needed, its microphone-based design means that any external noise is easily picked up, so keeping the units away and isolated from any noise is also essential. For these reasons, its use was relegated almost exclusively in studios. A famous example of plate reverb is the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon – plate reverb (specifically the EMT-140) is the only reverb used on that album.

Spring reverb, developed a little later, is much smaller, more portable, and what you will find built into most amplifiers today. Unlike plate reverb, it relies on electrical signals and does not need any speakers or microphones to function. Like plate reverb, it relies on creating vibrations but does this by sandwiching a spring between a transducer and pickup. The transducer is used to create a vibration within the spring, which the pickup then converts into signal. Spring gained popularity as the defining sound of surf music, where you will find it used in copious amounts – any Dick Dale record, for example, is a good way to get familiar with how it sounds.

Digital Reverb

Like analog reverb, digital reverb can also be divided into two main categories: algorithmic and convolution. Most digital reverbs are algorithmic reverbs. Algorithmic reverbs require less processing power than their convolution-based reverb counterparts, and most of the pre-stocked reverb plugins you’ll find in your DAW will fall into this category. Algorithmic reverbs work by using delays and feedback loops on the samples of your audio file to mimic the early and late reflections that make up analog reverb, creating and defining the sound of a hypothetical room based on the parameters that you set. The early reflection component is created by sending the dry signal through several delay lines, which result in closely spaced copies of the original signal. Late reflections are then created by taking the already-generated early reflections and feeding them back through the algorithm repeatedly, re-applying the hypothetical room’s tonal qualities and resulting in additional delays.

Convolution is the more complex method of creating digital reverb. It involves capturing the characteristics of physical space, defining a mathematical function called an impulse response that can apply that space’s characteristic response to any input signal and doing an operation called convolution to get the (wet) output. Essentially, you are using a mathematical model to define the reflective properties of a physical room and imprinting that room’s unique signature onto your digital sample. The entire process is based on the measurement of a room’s response to what is called an impulse, an acoustic trigger meant to engage the acoustics of the room. These are usually atonal sounds, such as a white noise blast or sine sweep. Microphones are used to register both the trigger sound and the resulting acoustic response. This audio is then fed into a convolution processor, which separates out the triggering sound and defines the room’s impulse response. With the impulse response obtained, the convolution processor can now use convolution to apply that room’s response to any input signal it receives, essentially multiplying the frequency spectra of the input signal and impulse response together and coloring the output sound with the harmonics and timbre of the impulse response. The end result is a signal that is a convincing model of the input sound being played in the space the impulse response defines.

The versatility of digital reverb means that the sound of just about every space you could want, real or imagined, is at your disposal. If used well, it can add completely new dimensions to your mixes or create wild effects. Just be careful not to wash yourself away in the process.