Our production of Aladdin Junior – tales from the mixing desk

Last week we finally put on our latest production at Christchurch Rudolf Steiner School – Aladdin Junior. We opted for the backing track over live musicians which simplified things and the tracks sounded fantastic on our new set up. The production came together so well despite time restrictions and a zero budget. We had three evening performances and they were all very well visited, and comments were resoundingly positive. A big thanks to the drama teacher Courtenay and to the teachers and students of our school 😊 I particularly liked the way the carpet worked. It was so atmospheric, and the effect was quite magical. I was glad we splashed out on dry ice for this production because it really sold the carpet scene.

The new set up

Up until now, we had a massive 32 channel analog desk which took a long time to set up. You also couldn’t trigger audio tracks from the desk, meaning that you needed a whole other operator to do this task. It sounded pretty nice and analog but it was just too complex and labour intensive.

This year, we got a new Midas m-32 digital mixing console (thank you to the Lion Foundation for a generous grant and significant investment by the school), a matching stage box and a new Mackie power amp. We are looking at a full line array of speakers in the next ten years but, after this performance, I question if we need it. The Hall sounded great, and the acoustic worked terrifically for musicals with vocal reinforcement.

 After a lot of manual reading and trawling of online forums, we were able to set up 17 wireless vocal microphones (We hired these from S&R Sound) with stereo sound as well as an onstage monitor mix for the singers which omitted their signals for feedback reasons. Indeed, feedback was our biggest issue in our hall. This is something we want to ameliorate next time using the onboard EQ to supress problem frequencies. There was just no time to do this work this time.

Triggering using MIDI

I looked around a bit for a way to trigger tracks directly from the show control on the M32 and found some dedicated software – Show Cue System looked the best as we are a PC school and QLab also looked excellent but is just for mac. In the end, I balked at learning new software for the show and just sent MIDI signals to Ableton Live which triggered the audio tracks and offered lots of mixing and audio editing possibilities. This went off without a hitch once I enabled MIDI on the desk and connected it to a computer with Ableton with a MIDI to USB adapter. I never got round to disabling quantising of triggering in Ableton so that there was no latency for triggering (geeky, I know). Next time.

Programming the desk

Programming a Midas M-32 turned out to be straight forward once I learnt the difference between snippets, cues, and scenes. It was still a sizable undertaking to program 50 or so cues with different snippets and MIDI sends. A snippet is a snapshot of selected parameters on the desk which can be triggered using “cues.” A cue is simply an event which can have snippets, scenes, and MIDI events assigned. We ended up with about 50 cues and snippets in the show, each with different faders, compressors, gates, and EQs assigned. In the sown, it was just a matter of pressing “next” to load each cue while following along with the script.

Show control, mixing, and conducting

I conducted the show from the desk at the back of the hall with a big light on me. I positioned myself so I could load cues with my left hand while conducting with my right. I found this difficult and will definitely get a student to operate this next time so I can just conduct. It was a real juggling act which ended up with me occasionally screwing up, triggering a sound effect in the wrong place or conducting badly. One big problem was that the display was too small and far away for me to easily read while standing. I would love show control to look less cluttered for live performance. By the performances, everything was OK but it was hard work.

I didn’t have to worry about riding the faders too much; we had an awesome Class 8 student who took care of the mix and she got better and better and was really reliable. She also looked after the radio mics, made sure the batteries were refreshed after each show and was generally awesome. Thanks McKenzie!

Thoughts

Next year, I am going to improve workflow by saving EQ pre-sets for each soloist and applying them to every cue on the right track. By doing that, we could recall a good sound for all singers in the right place. To do this, we would need a real technical walkthrough for the sound crew. That did not happen this time, partly because the mics only arrived 24 hours before the first show. We will also need to work on improving feedback in the Hall using a global EQ on the desk.

I also want to get more students involved in using the desk. I have been hesitant until now because I didn’t know how to use it myself. Now I know, I figure I can start to train up some operators who can use it for NCEA unit standards and generally make things more student-run.

All in all though, I was pleased with how it went – few technical issues at all other than an initial steep learning curve which I got through with a couple of near all-nighters with teaching in between. Woop!