Heist: "This is something you simply can't do with CD players."

Peter Landers, Classic Theatre, Cobalt Ontario
July-August 2007

Cobalt, Ontario, has been designated Ontario's most historic town. The Classic Theatre is a volunteer-run, 260-seat theatre, restored and reopened in 1994 after a long history dating back to the 1920s. Each summer, we run a tourist-oriented summer theatre program, presenting a locally-written and -produced play based on events in local history. This year's production was 'Heist,' based on the true story of a silver mine robbery in 1909.

I discovered QLab early this year. Although I'd previously used it as a glorified CD player for a couple of local dance school performances, it took until the production of 'Heist' for an opportunity to really take advantage of the program.

[Heist Nook]

Thursday: Script

Every part of this production was done on an accelerated schedule; three weeks before preview, the cast still hadn't been filled out, and I didn't receive the music, pre-recorded narration, or the historical photos to accompany said narration, or a copy of the script for that matter, until the evening of Thursday July 12. With the tech rehearsal planned for the following Sunday afternoon, I didn't have a lot of time to prepare the SFX and build the narrated slideshows that were to open the two acts. Considering that I was also handling lighting and thus had to fit in a hang at some point during that period, I was on a tight schedule indeed!

On top of this, I was determined that this would be my first all-Mac show, though I'm a huge fan of Sound Forge and Vegas—pretty much the only things I go back to Windows for these days!

Friday: Narration, Music, and Photos

I prepared the slideshow narrations Friday evening, combining them with music beds via GarageBand. I didn't use GarageBand's automatic Ducking feature, as I found it to be far too touchy to get a nice effect, so I used the Track Volume envelope instead, controlling the ducking more precisely. In no time, I had the narrations ready to go as AIFF files.

Friday evening was also when I ripped the music tracks and catalogued the numerous photos. Before bed I ran through the script, marking cues and making note of SFX that would be required. Getting the SFX together would be Saturday's project.

Saturday: SFX and Lights

On Saturday morning, I quickly discovered that my growing SFX library did not contain anything I needed for this particular show. So, off to Sound Dogs to search for stuff! I found everything I needed in an hour or so, and downloaded the files as 48 kHz, 16-bit AIFF files.

After I had the SFX, it was off to the theatre to hang lights. This was done much quicker than I had expected, since (entirely by luck) Paul the set designer had arranged things in such a way that we only had to tweak a couple of fixtures—my standard hang had just about everything exactly where it needed to be.

I then went back home and used Wave Editor from Audiofile Engineering to manipulate a few of the SFX. I had to seamlessly extend a few of them to create background ambience for a few key scenes. By now I was feeling comfortable enough with how things were going that I took Saturday evening off.

Sunday: QLab

Sunday morning, I finally got to QLab. I built the entire show's SFX cue list in about two hours, temporarily using the audio tracks for the not-yet-completed slideshow videos and skipping the not-yet-received preshow music. In building the cue list, I found AudioFinder (from Iced Audio) to be invaluable for browsing and auditioning the various sound files before dragging them into QLab; its instant previewing saved me tons of time.

QLab gave me lots of options I haven't had before, and chief among them was the ability to build seamless transitions between sequences of indeterminate length. As an example, Act II Scene 1 ended with dramatic music (masking a scene change), which cross-faded smoothly into the ambient background for the lead-up to the big robbery scene, with the robbery itself adding some "breaking in" SFX to the still-running outdoor ambience, and then transitioning directly into some exciting music for the loading of the silver bricks. This music continues, with a brief dip for a short stretch of dialogue, and only ends as the axle of the robbers' cart breaks. This whole sequence runs six to eight minutes, and each part of it can fluctuate in length due to missed or added lines, performance speed, and many other variables. In all cases, the same QLab sequence handles it. There are several other of these sequences, though none as elaborate as the play's centrepiece.

It should be noted that I opted to use QLab to mix combined SFX in realtime, rather than premixing them in some other software. This gave me great flexibility, in the sense that if the director felt we needed more pickaxe sounds in the mine, or a bit more banging in the break-in sequence, I could tweak it in seconds using a simple combination of extra sound cues and judicious use of the pre-wait timers. The break-in itself ended up using ten separate sound cues, some of them one-offs and others looping, all firing automatically in proper sequence; they were all combined into a couple of Group cues so I could take them out easily with Fade cues as the sequence progressed. This is something you simply can't do with a couple of CD players, even if you have an extra arm or two!

The tech rehearsal focused primarily on nailing down the lighting. At the end of the rehearsal, I grabbed one of the actors and the set designer (for a cameo appearance) to record some "radio headline" voiceovers in very gimmicky stereo (one voice per speaker). This recording was given a nice tinny radio effect in Wave Editor with iZotope's Ozone 3 plugin, and combined with some stereotypical morse-code "telegraph" sounds as a real-time mix in QLab. This became another semi-elaborate seamless sequence, a whole short scene done entirely with SFX. My "star moment!"

The next day, I finished the two slideshows in iMovie, with heavy use of the Ken Burns effect—of course—and added them into the cue list, via QLab's Video Cue. I also got the preshow music that evening at rehearsal, so I could add it into the list too.

In the lead-up to the preview performance on July 21, I tightened up the cue list, eliminating several fade out/in pairs and replacing them with crossfades, in pursuit of my new dream of a truly seamless production. All of this resulted in a show with no obvious gaps; even the scene changes were well masked—and all with sound.

My QLab rig consisted of a last-generation iBook G4 and a bus-powered MOTU UltraLite. The UltraLite's main outs fed via balanced 1/4" cables into our Mackie SR 32-4 mixer driving a pair of Yorkville Elite loudspeakers. The iBook also fed into a Proxima video projector on the catwalk. I used Screen Spanning Doctor to enable dual display on the iBook. Lighting was controlled via our Strand GSX console. Which I now see does in fact support MIDI Show Control, so I might've been able to cue lights from within QLab as well. Oh well, guess I'll save that for next time.

So, after six "real" performances (plus one preview), 'Heist' is finished. QLab was a real trooper, never so much as hiccuping. It's clear that QLab has been designed by and for theatre folks. It's so much more robust and flexible than anything else I've tried, on Windows or Mac. And the Mac has proven much more trustworthy in a performance environment than any of my Windows PCs. I'm hoping to add a LanBox to my arsenal so that in the future I'll be able to remove our old brute of a lighting console from the mix and trigger lighting cues via QLab as well.

I don't like to brag, but at the tech rehearsal the writer/producer joked that the posters should be revised to say 'Heist: Starring Sets by Paul McLaren and Sound by Peter Landers'! Though that didn't happen, I'm quite pleased to note that in ten years of involvement with the Classic Theatre, this is the first play that has ever gotten so many audience comments on the quality of the sound. QLab definitely deserves no small part of the credit!