Rossum's Universal Robots

Ralph Cornforth
October 2009

When theatre teacher Billy Houck chose R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) as the first play of the year for the theatre ensemble of Arroyo Grande High School, student technical director Mike Cornforth had no idea what he was in for. Billy decided to perform the science fiction play by Karel Čapek in the round so that the audience would be immersed in the action.

As Mike started the sound design, it became clear the sound would play a very important part in the play. The sound would have to integrate very smoothly with the action in the round to create the desired immersion experience. To do this, the sound effects would have to come from all around the audience. The sound effects would also have to be very realistic. Mike's design required the sound of high-speed typewriters, telephones, an electric fence killing a man, sounds of battle, three types of machine guns, wind and explosions.

Mike realized he did not have all the resources he needed to do justice to the sound design the play would need. The action could happen anywhere in the room, including in the aisles, with actors leaving the central performance area in any direction at any time. The sound effects had to come from the direction set by the actor's location or departure. Some research showed he could borrow enough speakers and amplifiers from the main theater in the same building, but he needed a playback system that would allow at least four channels of playback and possibly as many as eight.

Mike had lots of experience with a simple two-channel cue management and playback software system, but he realized he needed something a lot more serious. Some bizarre configurations were posited in an attempt to use what they already had, including linking several computers, all running the existing cue management software, each generating two of the needed channels. Fortunately, sanity prevailed.

Mike had already encountered QLab and knew it to be the standard in the industry, with major Broadway shows depending on QLab for their sound playback. He expected the learning curve to be steep and long, but an hour spent with the manual and the great video tutorials led to some experimental cue lists. QLab turned out to be much more intuitive than expected, once the underlying philosophy was understood.

Mike gathered the sound effect files and developed a production cue list. He took advantage of fade, stop and group cues. The resulting cue list was a pleasure to use, giving Mike great control and confidence during the show. The ability to drive 8 channels of audio meant that it was possible to place the sound effects anywhere in the performing space. QLab's features allowed Mike to control the volume envelopes and durations with precision.

QLab turned what was a challenging technical problem into powerful sound design solution.