Day 4 – Automation vs People

Today I really felt obsolete.

Not just because my iPhone won’t run the newest apps because it’s actually a bar of soap, carved to look like an iPhone, that I pretend to talk into, nor the fact that I have a case of 144 razor blades at home because somebody might need my 1/4″ tape splicing skills someday…

Or the fact that that last reference will only be understood by a handful of technicians, none who were born after 1970.

No, today I found out, from a young performer that automation replaces the need for people.

In the last few years, a lot of our Venues have been equipped with a really fantastic audio program called Q-Lab, which is an automation program specifically designed to run sound cues. Previously, groups would bring a Compact Disk with their shows that would have all of their cues in order. Track one would be their Preshow music, track two would be machine gun fire, track three would be the theme song from Rambo II: First Blood, track four would be a llama call, etc.

Now, even if the group does bring a CD, we load it into Q-Lab which sequences all the cues and lets us program levels, fade times, loops, and a bunch of other useful things like delay and equalisation.

This upgrade has allowed performers to pre-program their show before they arrive for their techs, which can save a lot of time, and ensures that their vision for their show is realised.

The newest version also has a really good video component for those shows with (shudder) projection.

It’s not the program that made me feel obsolete however, in fact we’ve been using Qlab in Venue 2 for five years now and we were one of the first venues at the Winnipeg Fringe to utilise it for all of our shows.

But times have changed so drastically in the past few years, that audio operation for playback has become little more than a glorified button pusher…

Back in the eighties and early nineties, when I was starting out in this business, I would be surrounded by reel to reel decks, an analogue audio board, and reams of paper called cue sheets. On the cue sheets, I would have references about where the faders should be, what speakers should be assigned to that fader, how quickly or slowly I should move that fader, which reel to reel deck the next cue was on, and which marked leader should be cued up just before the playback head on that reel to reel.
When operating shows, I would be very busy with my head buried in those cue sheets making sure that everything was just right. A stage manager would say “Standby sound cue 3” and I knew that I needed to be ready, with my finger hovering over the play button on the reel to real deck that had the llama cry on it.

When the Stage Manager said “Go”, I’d press play, and watch the deck for the next leader so I could stop it. Then I’d look at the next cue sheet and do all of the adjustments for the next cue.

There were complex playback shows that I ran back then, sometimes for a month or two worth of performances, that I never saw at all because I was too busy concentrating on all of the adjustments needed to make that llama sound great.

Those days are long gone, and although there is a specific skill set needed to program automated audio programs, Qlab does all of the things that I used to do, with the press of a spacebar on a laptop.

So when a performer today said “I don’t need a stage manager… I have Qlab”, I was taken aback, especially when I found out that there were over 100 audio cues and over 100 video cues programmed into his laptop.

I have to give props to my venue partner, he did a hell of a job figuring out where all of those cues went, from a script and a show that he had never seen before, but it was not an easy job. A stage manager would have made it a lot easier because they would know the show and know where all of the cues go.

Later, after the tech rehearsal, I ran into that young performer, and he asked me:

“How can I make the technical rehearsal go smoother the next time?”

Me: “Well adding a stage manager who knows your show would make everything go smoother.”

Young performer: “I don’t understand, why do I need a stage manager?”

Me: “Well, your show is pretty large and complex, and the technician doesn’t know your script and show and doesn’t know the nuances of your performance and where the cues go exactly. A stage manager who has seen the performance would understand it better and would know exactly where the cues go.”

Young performer: “What does the stage manager do?”

Me: “When the part of the play happens where the sound cue goes, the stage manager says ‘Go’ and then the technician presses the button.”

Young performer: “Ahhhh, so  I should still have a stage manager for a show of this size because they would know my show.”

Me: “Yes.”

Young performer: “Then I was wrong, I need a stage manager even though I have Qlab.”

Me: “Exactly!”

Young performer: “I don’t need the venue technician because I have Qlab…”

Qlab has made me obsolete in the eyes of the young…


About JBJ

John lives in an abandoned toolshed behind a fake rubber vomit warehouse in Winnipeg Manitoba Canada with a squirrel named Peanut Hoarder, where he steals an internet signal from the Kung Fu school next door. He is a little "off". View all posts by JBJ

2 responses to “Day 4 – Automation vs People

  • Jess

    I was JUST talking to a young whipper snapper, the other day, about how satisfying it was when you got that splice juuuuuust right. Nowadays it’s less satisfying, although still somewhat satisfying, to get that pre-wait timed just so. Skill is still required. Especially if something goes wrong with the program!

    Darn young whipper snappers.

  • fishsanwitt

    Thank you for explaining, so succinctly, why one needs a stage manager!

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