Quality Control

Nearly ten years ago, I worked in live theater. I worked at a small regional theater in upstate New Jersey for five long years. When I left the theater, I had worked my way up from board technician to Assistant Technical Director to Technical Director. That title basically made me in charge of almost everything besides the acting. As a carpenter, I helped build the sets. As an electrician, I hung and focused the lights and did all of the wiring. As sound board operator, I played music and sound effects in time with the show. I was also a professional designer. I did the lighting design which meant that I picked colors and helped shape the look of the show. However, my all-time favorite job was as a sound designer. That meant that I spent long hours listening to music and sound effects, trying to figure out what would add to the soundscape of the show without taking away from it.


This is here because my teacher was a roadie for Steely Dan (among other bands)

To get to that position, I actually majored in theater. I majored in Stage Management at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. For those who can do the math, that means I spent nearly a decade living in New Jersey away from my beloved Maryland. When I got out of school, I decided I did not really want to be a stage manager. It had been all I wanted when I entered college but, as with most people, going off to university had changed me. It all came from taking Sound Design 101 early in my time there. I started to hang around the designers more and especially with the sound crew. I sat under the learning tree with the sound teacher, an old ex-roadie who was not technically a professor because he never got the appropriate degrees. When I got out, I wanted to create. I wanted to use my hands.

That teacher taught me a lot about music in ways that I never thought about it before. We sat and listened to records which is something I had rarely done before. With that crew, I did it almost every day. More than listening to music, we talked a lot about music and how we listen to it. This is when I truly learned how subjective music is. My teacher, my sensei, my mentor, he hated ABBA with a passion. I am not a huge fan but I like some of their upbeat tunes. He had a cleansing ceremony that had to be done to speakers that had played Abba. We listened to cheesy, goofy music and laughed our butts off. Our favorites were a recording of a kazoo orchestra and the legendary album Golden Throats. I actually later used Golden Throats as pre-show music to torture the audience. I got a compliment on it. I shuddered. Music truly is subjective.

But on to the story that I actually originally wanted to write about since everything above is a prelude to. When you do sound design, the most boring thing you have to do is quality control. It is tedious because it takes time and you really want to get the fun parts of adjusting levels and mixing sound and music. Now I understand that quality control is the most zen part of the job. To explain, quality control means listening to every sound effect and music track all the way through in order to make sure there is nothing in there that will be embarrassing later. My teacher called it “Checking for Sheep”. The story he told us to express the importance of this activity was interesting. He had once done a show with a long scene in the rain and so he had found the perfect ambient track of rain noises. Except he did not check the whole thing. So late in that scene, there was suddenly the plaintive cries of a herd of sheep standing in the rain. He was embarrassed.

So, remember to take your time. Remember to check your work because you do not want to blow it down the line. It may be tedious and it may be boring but it can save you. Also, in those zen moments of just sitting and taking things in, inspiration might strike. You may come up with brand new ideas to add to what you are doing. Patience is key.

(Written on 4/15/19)

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