Friday, July 1, 2011

Make Believe

I spend a lot of time with music editing.  It’s a strange hobby that has fascinated me for decades.  In my last post, I talked a little bit about some of the kinds of things I’ve done.  Since my purpose in this blog is partly to share ideas that others might find useful, let me dig into some of the techie aspects of theater and performance that I find so interesting, and which I realize may cause someone else’s eyes to glaze over.  Sorry.

I've been interested in sound reinforcement and editing ever since college, when I took a course in “theater sound” as part of a short lived dream to be a recording engineer.  I remember sitting in a lab with a reel to reel (ask your grandparents) trying to splice something in just the right place.  Now I do it with such ease at the computer.  I can’t count the number of people who I’ve worked with on recording projects who have been amazed with how easily sound can be manipulated.  It’s why we have popular singers who can’t actually sing, but that’s another story.

Fast forward several years, to when I took a community college class on recording techniques.  When a friend of a friend, who happened to be a professional sound engineer, came to class with me one day, I got the gold star for best show and tell.  Since he had worked on the Salt Lake City Olympics, they wanted to know how they managed to get teeny tiny microphones on the ice skates in the opening sequence to pick up the sound of the blades gliding across the ice.  The teacher of the class was quite disappointed to learn that the sounds had been prerecorded.  Yes, even live TV uses theatrical tricks.

When I directed Jane Eyre a few years ago, several of the chorus members were used as narrators.  With limited resources (not enough body mics) and a large theater to fill, I wondered if they could be heard while speaking over a musical underscoring.  I prerecorded all their dialogue and put it on the track.  Then they spoke along with their own voice during the performance.  I don’t think anyone suspected it, and the narration could be clearly heard.

Another time I was running sound for a very casual musical review.  This was a lighthearted church production, with an enthusiastic, if not terribly well trained cast.  When they repeatedly struggled with knowing where to start singing after an extended narration (a twist on the song “Tradition” from Fiddler), we cheated.  I recorded them singing the first few words and blended it in with the track.  Since it was their voices already, no one was the wiser, they had more confidence, and it sounded like they knew what they were doing.  Yes, sometimes theater is all about the illusion!

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