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Songs and Stories From Moby Dick

Songs and Stories from Moby Dick," the latest touring show by Laurie Anderson, is a one-and-a-half-hour theatrical presentation that makes extensive use

Songs and Stories from Moby Dick,” the latest touring show by Laurie Anderson, is a one-and-a-half-hour theatrical presentation that makes extensive use of computer-based technology. The almost continuous multiscreen video projection is streamed directly from hard disk, the FOH mix and onstage performers’ in-ear mixes are largely dependent on computer-based console automation, and a new instrument developed specifically for the show, the “talking stick,” requires its own Macintosh G3.

None of this will surprise those familiar with Anderson’s career. Described as “the 20th Century’s most famous performance artist and high priestess of multimedia performance technology,” Anderson has long been known for her innovative use of digital technology, both in concert and in the recording studio.

However, although press coverage of “Moby Dick” has been extensive, most of it has concentrated on the artistic challenges that Anderson faced in adapting Herman Melville’s multilayered novel for the stage. In the general press, the high-tech production has been rather vaguely described as “techno-magic,” “mind-blowing brain candy,” and a “90-minute visual and aural extravaganza.” For a more detailed discussion of the show’s technical underpinnings, Mix talked with sound designer Miles Green and FoH engineer Jody Elff in late october, after the first of five shows at the Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley, Calif.

SOUND DESIGNER/PERFORMERSound designer Green has been working with Anderson for more than a decade and has, at one time or another, functioned as Anderson’s studio engineer, MIDI tech, FoH mixer and playback operator. “I was on the ‘Empty Places, Strange Angels’ tour that was in 1989-90, and then I also did what was the beginning of the ‘Nerve Bible’ tour,” he recalls. At some point, Green also began mixing monitors. “That gave me enormous respect for people who [mix monitors] for a living,” he says. “It’s a crazy, almost black art. You learn to get your information from places other than what you hear.”

For “Moby Dick,” Green is not only the sound designer of record (Anderson and longtime collaborator and electronics designer Bob Bielecki also had significant input), but also appears onstage as a supporting character, Falling Man. “When we started the show I didn’t know what my role was going to be,” recalls Green, who anticipated he would be co-mixing FoH or taking care of playback chores. “When we first got the Crown [PM311 headset] mics, I put one on and tried it out onstage and sang one of the songs from the show. Laurie was so excited-she said, ‘Would you be in the show?'” Green had already decided to position himself onstage, close to the performers, and had equipped himself with “in-ears” for monitoring the performers’ cues. “So it was very easy for me to cross the line to become a performer,” he explains.

As Green’s sudden recruitment indicates, the production has gone through quite an evolutionary process. “This is the 34th show and is a different show from what we started with,” says Green, noting that major technical and artistic changes were made both in rehearsal and during the first series of road shows. “[Anderson] changes her mind in the process enough that it has to be flexible,” says Green of the resulting sound design, and it was only during a “pretty grueling” two weeks of technical rehearsal in April that all of the pieces came together full scale.

“I feel that [as a sound designer] I’m really just an advocate for the artist,” Green continues. “I try to work with what she wants. It actually hasn’t been difficult at all to define what is my responsibility and what is hers. As much as she knows about things, she doesn’t keep up with all the latest technology and doesn’t really want to. So I would do research for things that, between the two of us, we couldn’t come up with an immediate answer for.”

THE TALKING STICKone of the most strikingly original elements of “Moby Dick” is the “talking stick,” a MIDI control device designed as a 5-foot pole about the size and shape of a bladeless oar. Developed by Bielecki and tour sponsor Interval Research of Palo Alto, Calif., the talking stick is equipped with a long-throw potentiometer and a modified wireless microphone, which allows it to communicate with a Macintosh G3 computer at the side of the stage. A software patch, written in opcode’s Max object-oriented programming language by Dominic Robson for Interval Research, allows the operator to play audio samples direct from the computer hard drive.

“Drawing your hand smoothly from one end of the potentiometer throw to the other just plays back a sample from one end to the other, forwards or backwards,” explains FoH mixer Jody Elff. Holding one position anywhere on the stick causes a continuous loop of the sample at that point, allowing for a variety of stuttering effects or sustained tones. “It’s reminiscent of a project that Laurie did very early on, with a piece of magnetic tape on a violin bow,” Green notes. And, as with the magnetic tapes, different samples are loaded for different songs; at one point in “Moby Dick,” there are three talking sticks playing at once, each with its own offstage G3. “It’s a new instrument, so developing a way that it can be played in an ensemble is something of a challenge,” Green says.

PLAYBACK FROM CUSTOM CDWhen not appearing onstage, Green oversees several racks of gear at the playback position offstage right. Primary playback devices are two CD players and a 16-track Akai hard disk recorder. “We chose CD over MiniDisc because this show is so much about hi-fi,” Green notes. “I also wanted something off the shelf that had been around long enough that it would always work.” In addition to cueing playback from custom CDs, Green manages some multitrack cues that are played back and mixed live, chiefly electronic drum beats and other synchronized elements.

Routing all signals through a Yamaha 01V, which stores all the presets for the performers’ in-ear monitor cues, Green sends two stereo playback mixes to FOH, one intended for playback over the P.A. and the other a premix for the performers’ in-ear mixes, which are also mixed from FOH. “In one case there’s a vocal count for the performers onstage,” Green explains. “obviously, we don’t want that to go out to the house.”

In addition to racks holding Shure Micad wireless microphone receivers and Shure PSM600 in-ear wireless transmitters, Green’s station includes a second Yamaha 01V and a Tascam DA-88 for backup, plus the various receivers for Anderson’s violin, electric guitar and keyboard. A talking stick control rack contains three G3s, which are networked together with Ethernet so that newly edited sounds can be immediately dubbed onto the other two machines. using the BIAS Peak stereo digital editing application and a CD recorder, Green can edit sound files onsite and burn new CDs whenever the show sequence changes or new songs are introduced. “It’s been great having a full digital studio onsite,” he notes.

MONIToRS MIXED AT FOHFOH and in-ear monitor mixes are the responsibility of Elff. The master console is a Cadac M Type monitor board, a modular design which allows for a variety of configurations. “In the console setup software you define how the frame is filled, and then the computer knows what to look for when it is linked to the board,” Elff explains. “It’s a great-sounding console, so clean and quiet.”

Primary inputs are the five Crown PM311 vocal mics, Anderson’s violin, guitar and keyboard inputs, plus a stereo pair of inputs for Skuli Sverrisson’s 5- and 6-string basses, which he processes and mixes himself onstage. Elff inserts dbx 1066 and 1046 compressors on all the vocal channels, plus violin and guitar channels. Additional inputs from Green’s offstage playback center include the three talking stick outputs, a video playback line for two scenes in which the actors lip-sync to a video projection, and playback premixes for audience and in-ear monitor mixes (see audio wiring diagram on page 126).

on the selection of “the Garth Brooks mic,” Green notes that, for this show, at least, isolation was of prime importance. “We tried other headset mics, but there is so much vocal processing in the show and so much soft-spoken text that we needed the off-axis rejection from the Crowns,” Green says. “The Crown mics are amazing. You can go in front of the speaker stacks to some degree and they won’t take off.”

MIDI RECALLS EFFECTS SETTINGSAll sound effects processing is done in four Eventide H3000s and two Lexicon PCM70s, with effects sends and returns managed by Yamaha ProMix 01 and 01V small-format digital mixers. “The Cadac automation software is sending out a MIDI command stream that controls the recalls for the ProMix 01 and the 01V,” Elff explains. “Throughout the show I can load settings that always give me exactly the same Harmonizer settings scene to scene for each cue in the show. I’m also transmitting, by way of that same series of recalls, patch changes to all the effects processors. So for each cue in the show I can just hit a recall and all of the effects settings load up exactly the same way every night, and I get the same levels back.”

Accurate recalls of Harmonizer settings are particularly important, as effects are intrinsic to Anderson’s voice and violin performances. “I consider [Anderson] a virtuoso on the H3000s,” Green observes. “It’s an instrument that she plays very well. It’s used in almost every pre-production track, usually two units at once to get a composite sound. on the violin it’s almost always two effects, sometimes three.”

Elff admits that, prior to this tour, he was less than expert on the Harmonizer. “I know [the Harmonizer] pretty well just because they show up in racks from time to time,” Elff says. “[But] to the degree that they’re used in this show, I’ve never done before. But the user interface is very friendly. That rack of Harmonizers is [Anderson’s] and have come right out of the studio with her own settings already in them. That’s something that she’s really got down. She’s got it to a place that’s really uniquely hers. It’s more than just setting a particular switch on the Harmonizer, it’s all about the way she uses her voice with the effect.” Effects outputs are returned to the Cadac from the ProMix 01 as a stereo pair. “Because it’s all the heavily processed stuff, the fact that the signal passes through a couple of smaller consoles is not an issue,” Elff notes. “All the source material comes through the Cadac, which sounds great.”

Elff is actively involved in the FoH mix-“There are a number of cues that I do during the show as manual, real-time cues based on the actors’ pacing and speech,” he says-but all of the show’s many sound effects and sound treatments are programmed as 55 snapshots, which Elff simply recalls in sequence. For one section, in which the Ahab character taps his crutch on the floor, the tapping signal is Foleyed offstage with a “contact stick” by system technician Chad Scheer. “We had a stick with a contact mic in it for the original choreography, but, because of an accident earlier in the run of the show, crutches were introduced and became part of the choreography,” Elff explains. “We’re having Bob Bielecki work on a crutch with a contact mic built in.”

Though the Cadac is designed primarily as a monitor console, Elff does little actual monitor mixing. “The in-ear mixes are pretty static,” he says. “We’ll set up in each house, and if anybody needs a little more or a little less during the first evening’s soundcheck, we’ll make adjustments. But once we get settled in to each venue it seems to be pretty much stable.” Setting up the P.A. feeds is actually more challenging, Elff says. “Because it’s a monitor console, [the Cadac] gives me great flexibility with the ear mixes, but at the same time, it’s a little bit less practical for an FoH application.” Nevertheless, Elff has worked out a system for deriving additional P.A. feeds from a monitor bus and assigns extra P.A. outputs and record feeds via the console’s output matrix. “Given the nature of the show, the M-Type was the right choice,” he says.

EAW SPoNSoRS TouRApart from the P.A. system, all the sound equipment for the tour is rented from Firehouse Productions in Red Hook, N.Y. Tour sponsor EAW (Whitinsville, Mass.) supplied the house P.A. system, which includes KF755 and KF750 full-range cabinets. “The 755 is designed more as a downthrow box,” explains Elff, who arranged the stacks with the KF750s on top and the KF755s below. For low bass, the 750/755 system is augmented with EAW KF940 subwoofers, which also served as speaker risers at Zellerbach Auditorium; a pair of slightly modified Firehouse F12s served as front fills. (Elff also tied into the house system, which consists of flown Meyer Sound MSL-3s.) System amplifiers are all from Crown, EAW 8600 processors provide crossover and speaker management functions, and Elff uses a BSS Varicurve for overall system EQ.

For system setup and analysis, Elff is running Metric Halo’s SpectraFoo on his Macintosh laptop. “The EAW system doesn’t need a whole lot of tweaking; they’re nice-sounding cabinets, and they cover the house pretty well,” Elff says. “one of the challenges of this show is the placement of the P.A. because of video projection issues. We don’t necessarily have the option to put the P.A. in the most ideal place for coverage, because they would end up in the way of the projectors. Also, we don’t always have the option to fly the system. We’ve been carrying a lot of rigging hardware with us that’s only been used once because there aren’t physical rigging points.”

Commenting on the computer-heavy production, Elff says, “We’ve got at least ten G3 laptops on the tour. All the video playback is from hard disk, controlled by a G3 laptop. It’s a real joy to work this way because we can all cue up in a flash.” And, despite the technical complexity of the show, both Green and Elff seemed fairly relaxed. “All the audio gear on the show has performed really well,” Elff says. “We had a Harmonizer go out on us while we were in rehearsal, but Eventide fixed it and turned it around in a day for us. At this point there aren’t many ‘fixes’ going on, the show’s pretty much running and is comfortable, and is tremendously fun to do each night.”