There’s a growing interest regarding the use of pre-recorded backtracks, ‘click’ tracks, in-ear-monitoring (IEM) and automated control of lights, video playback, FX units, guitar processors etc . . etc. . . in live productions, but how can it be achieved in a cost effective way?
Hi . . . I’m Martin Norris and I’d like to share with you the journey I’ve taken, and final solution I’ve found, in solving the above question. I didn’t expect it to be easy but on the other hand I didn’t expect it to be quite so long and arduous. The good news is that now that I’ve done it, it needn’t be at all hard for you because I’m going to share the fruits of my investigations with you . . . . bear with me if you have the stamina.
For several years now I’ve been involved in a number of ‘tribute’ shows both as a performer and as the producer of the pre-recorded backtracks. At the outset the decision was made to use ‘audio’ backtracks for our live performances, as opposed to ‘MIDI’ files, in order to simulate, as near as possible, the original artists’ recordings. Because of varying budgets associated with this type of show some feature live musicians complemented by no, or partial, backtracks and others (solo or 2-piece) require full backtracks. This necessitated the need for different mixes of each song.
In order to cater for this we initially used 8-track Mini-Disc players for playback purposes but found that they were too unreliable, and I suspect that support for them has now dwindled. Reluctantly, until a better format could be sourced, we changed to 2-track Mini-Disc players which meant that the backtracks themselves could only be played back in mono from one channel whilst the other channel was used as a ‘Click‘ track. Therefore, in our case, many different mixes had to be layed-up to accommodate the varying combinations of musicians within any production.
It was obvious that we really needed multi-track audio. This would not only allow us to use different combinations of tracks to accommodate the changing complement of performers on stage from show to show, but also that those tracks could be rebalanced and processed, if necessary, by the FOH engineer.
Audiences and entertainers alike are being exposed to extravagant stage productions featuring a mass of technological production facets . . . . . lighting, lasers, video etc., and as time went by we also realised that a) we were becoming more demanding with all the existing features of our shows and b) we wanted to add other features.
In the search for a solution it became clear that cost was a major factor . . . . putting more production into a show doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll instantly get a bigger pay packet. Large theatre or stadium events can not only afford a huge array of technical equipment but can also support a large amount of personnel.
Mmmm? . . so how could we ‘grow’ our productions without selling the family home?
As just mentioned, the two main aspects affecting cost would be equipment and personnel. Extra personnel was out of the question as this means more pay cheques, accommodation costs, air fares, mouths to feed etc. It was accepted that some extra equipment may be required but even more importantly we realised that slicker, and more complex, operation of both our FOH production equipment and on-stage musical equipment would initially benefit our productions enormously. This last statement is by no means a slur on our wonderful FOH people but often they only have four hands and two brains between them to handle everything that is going on.
So, apart from having multi-track audio playback, what other existing features would we like to see enhanced?
Because most of our productions are ‘tribute shows’ we strive to copy not only the songs as accurately as possible but also the overall sound. Now this consists of many components including vocal and instrument timbres. On the vocal side we already have specific reverbs and delays programmed for each song, and on stage the musicians have many presets programmed to change the ‘patches’ on their guitar processors, keyboards and electronic drums. What if these operations could be automated?
Lighting plays a major role in any production and can get quite complex from time to time . . . especially difficult when one hand and half a brain is concentrating on the sound mix whilst the remaining hand and half a brain is left to be creative with lighting duties. What if this operation could be automated?
Automating the above would not only free up the operator/s but would also mean that more, and hopefully creative, changes could be made.
But then, of course, our stimulated imagination went on further than just our existing features and we desired the additional attraction of video playback too, preferably in sync with our music tracks.
Okay, so bearing in mind budget, how can we achieve this? As indicated earlier, a lot more equipment and extra personnel were out of the question and by now the mention of computers and software was becoming more prevalent . . . . wouldn’t it be great if there was a piece of software that could do all this from one laptop!. Well, yes it would, and so my search began. It wasn’t difficult to find software to perform each of these tasks but to find one piece of software that would do them all, not cost an arm and a leg, and in a ‘playlist’ type of format, proved to be quite difficult.
So to summarise, I was basically looking for a program that could play:
a) multi-track audio,
b) MIDI files (for lighting, reverb, and musical instrument ‘patch’ changes etc), and
c) video clips and still images.
The Search Was On
At first I approached a well-known sequencing software company with a view to including an additional program to their already excellent product. Although the initial response was positive I gave up pursuing the matter after many months of my emails being ignored.
Not to be defeated I waxed up my cyber Malibu (gives away my age) and surfed off into the world wide blue yonder web. Yeah, there were some big waves out there but none that would take me all the way. So, leaving the watery pun riddled www, I approached some software writers with the idea of putting a program together myself. Apart from the fact that I have no skills whatsoever in software development it was obvious that this was going to become too time consuming, not to mention expensive.
Sound, Vision and Light At The End Of The Tunnel
It was at this stage that a colleague of mine stumbled across a program called Show Cue System (SCS) and wondered if it could be of any use. SCS was developed by a very clever fellow called Mike Daniell and was primarily designed to provide an automated approach to running sound cues in theatrical productions. There are many testimonials as to how well it achieves that.
I downloaded a demo version of SCS and immediately realised that it had the potential to undertake the additional tasks that I required. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out that Mike not only lived in Australia but was only about an hour away from my place. After contacting him we very quickly got together and I was thrilled to discover that he not only welcomed my suggestions but was already addressing some of the ideas that I wanted to pursue.
Within a few weeks we were using this program and have continued to expand our productions to include all the features we had longed for. This was a few years ago and the program has also continued to grow . . . largely due to user feedback, requests and suggestions.