As We Like It
Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As You Like It, staged with a Sixties vibe and mixed on the AURUS, is STAGETEC’s theatre premiere in the United States
Located in the vibrant north of the United States the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota is a venue with a truly diverse program. It supports a tremendously wide range of cultural events, from traditional classical repertoire to the experimental avant garde. The demands made on the theatre’s technical facilities are equally diverse. The old audio system was no longer adequate for the really big events and simply couldn’t cope with what was being asked of it. For a while, situations like these were managed by using rented consoles. But this soon turned out to be a costly and, in the long term, unsatisfactory solution. The rented console would have been required once again for the musical She Loves Me, with its first night on the 7th May. To get around this the two new AURUS consoles, including the NEXUS audio network, needed to be operational just in time for the start of She Loves Me rehearsals. Or better still, even sooner for rehearsals of a production with a less elaborate sound design. This would offer the opportunity to gain experience with the new system and to familiarize the crew with the consoles. Therefore, an ambitious schedule was devised for the installation of the first two AURUS desks in an American theatre – in fact the very first AURUS system in the United States.
A Brave Revamp
The Shakespeare comedy, As You Like It was chosen as the crucial test of the new system. This decision meant that there would be just three days between delivery of the new equipment and the start of the rehearsals requiring audio support. The theatre engineers even waited until the customs authorities gave the go-ahead before cutting the old analogue cabling. The fully booked house would not have allowed for even one more day without an audio system.
One factor that made it possible to fulfill the extremely tight schedule was the system’s fibre-optic networking. The cables interconnecting the two consoles, the STAR router, and the ten NEXUS Base Devices had already been prepared and simply needed to be plugged into the FOC ports. The two AURUS consoles were set up in no time. Just unpack from the transportation crate, connect the optical cable to the STAR, hook up the power lines, and the AURUS is up and running. The Guthrie Theater was founded in 1963. In those days, it played an extremely important role in the US theatre scene. Founder Tyrone Guthrie deliberately sought to counterbalance the commercial imperatives of Broadway production by establishing the idea of repertory theatre with a resident acting company in the United States. Forty years later the theatre is still the most important of its kind. However, with the steady growth of the company and an expanded production programme, the original 1963 building has become too small. A new theatre building, Guthrie on the River with three stages, will supercede the old building in summer 2006. To simplify the changeover, the new audio system was to be tested, the crew familiarized and the required custom features implemented, long before the move to the new location. Also, the Guthrie Theater management had little experience with the manufacturer STAGETEC and wanted to make sure that the consoles would be running smoothly before the relocation commenced. Therefore, the system was commissioned in the old house in 2005.
A STAR and Two Consoles
The system has been designed for installation in the larger new house. A central machine room will accommodate all the core IT components and audio systems including the NEXUS STAR. In an AURUS system, the STAR is not only the heart of the NEXUS Base Device network but also hosts the AURUS boards. The single STAR unit in the Guthrie Theater houses the boards for both AURUS consoles, which is a highly efficient solution. However, in this installation, the consoles are not configured as primary and secondary systems as is often the case with theatre consoles; rather, these are two completely separate systems with independent CPU and DSP pools. For the larger system with a 48-strip surface, five DSP boards are installed in the STAR, providing the computing power for 150 full channels. The smaller, 32-strip console uses a further three DSP boards for approximately 80 full channels.
Scott W. Edwards on the new console:
»We were really impressed by the speed of installation and how fast we could put the two AURUS consoles into operation. From the first moment, we really felt right at home with the console. It has been exemplary in operation and just as intuitive as an analogue board. But, the AURUS gives us huge flexibility, many more audio channels, and – of course – a brilliant sound. It really does combine the best of both worlds.«
The AURUS system always includes a data server containing all project information. This computer is not incorporated in the console, unlike for example, with the CANTUS, but is installed into the hardware rack near the STAR. The Guthrie Theater plans to take advantage of this fact by connecting the server to the local Linux network through its additional network port. The idea behind this is that AURUS projects could be added to the scope of an automatic backup or archiving routine. This makes sense, particularly, in repertory theatres because a great deal of time is spent optimizing automation settings that will subsequently be used for many performances over a long period.
Automation in Theatres
In the theatre environment, dynamic automation is not very useful since the timing of a performance cannot be scheduled with a fixed timecode as a reference. Instead snapshot and scene automation is normally employed.
The AURUS snapshot automation, which is also the basis of the scene automation, captures all restorable parameters of the system at a given moment in time and keeps this data as a representation of the overall state of the console. This includes the parameters of all audio paths in all layers and the overall configuration of the NEXUS STAR router. Loading such a global snapshot, affecting the entire mixing console and router, is a very convenient method of completely reconfiguring the system for a new task, including routing signals to and from sources and destinations.
In addition, AURUS also offers snapshots that cover only a limited part of the console while leaving everything else unaffected. Specific functions in all channels, all functions of specific channels, or even individual parameter settings can be stored to a partial snapshot. These partial snapshots are defined by simply selecting the touchsensitive controls. In theatre applications, snapshots are often set up in such a way that the show starts with a basic global snapshot. Subsequent partial snapshots, containing only the required changes, are recalled during the performance. This method of working removes the necessity of readjusting individual settings, for example, an updated gain setting, every time a preset is loaded.
The scene automation, which is especially important in theatres, combines multiple console snapshots in a sequence list. During the show, the individual items in the list can be loaded manually, automatically, or by trigger control, and can also be crossfaded. Besides global or partial snapshots, many other events can be added to this list – for example, General Purpose Interface triggers controlling external players, or MIDI messages changing the programs of external reverb units.
Europeans use the automation in this manner. In the US, the way of working is completely different. In the Guthrie Theater at least, the sound equipment is normally controlled by a special kind of sequencer, a show control software application. This software is used for controlling all peripherals, the players, and the console snapshots via MIDI. This method of working had already been implemented long before installing an AURUS. Therefore, MIDI control of the AURUS scene automation was a key factor. As a consequence, this feature will be added to AURUS so that the individual scene settings can be triggered by MIDI during the performance – which is exactly the opposite way round to European practice.
Another requirement imposed on the new Guthrie console was an option for removing individual parameters from the snapshot automation. With the isolate function, this has long been a standard feature in AURUS. This functionality is particularly important when working with cast changes. If the show is to be performed with a different cast, for example because of illness, gain and filter settings of the understudy actor will need to be adjusted. Here, the isolate function offers a simple way of continuing to use the existing automation data.
The problem of understudy actors requiring different channel settings to those stored in the automation can be solved even more elegantly by creating two snapshot types: the automated event-orientated scene snapshots and artist-specific static snapshots with the individual microphone level and filter settings for each actor. Before the show commences, these partial snapshots are loaded corresponding to the actual cast for the performance. This allows the automation to be used even if an altered cast plays the show.
Only time will tell which method will eventually gain acceptance in the Guthrie Theater. Approaching the task is almost a question of personal taste. Anyway, the many possible ways of working with AURUS, not only the automation, but also the other numerous functions and features, allow the Guthrie Theater audio engineers to relax while they await their next first night.