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Termination: Cue Tape? Sacre Bleu!

Cue Tape? Sacre Bleu!

By

10 November 2011

Text:/ Graeme Hague

It’s not easy, when you’re in this business, to sit back and enjoy a show. If you’re an audio engineer you listen to the mix (I can do better than that), lighting guys check out the LX rig (I would have done that differently) and haven’t we all thought ‘geez, they call that in focus? Are these blokes blind?’. Similarly, when things go wrong, while the rest of audience are confused and perplexed, we can wear a cruel smirk and smugly imagine the 10 kinds of chaos that must be reigning in the control rooms. It wouldn’t have happened to us, right? We’re good.

I saw something like this recently – on the telly, of course. Along with a millions of other viewers. It was the start of the AFL final between Carlton and West Coast and the fans were asked to stand for the Australian national anthem, and everyone dutifully complied. A pregnant pause followed as nothing happened… and nothing… and nothing. A few folks gave up and sat down again, but the ground announcer tried again and everybody hauled themselves onto their hind quarters once more. Then they were blasted by the (albeit brief, but unmistakable) opening bars of the Carlton Football club’s victory song. Hardly Julie Anthony.

While most people found it funny, I couldn’t help thinking of the scene in the control rooms. Please remove all sharp objects from the audio operator’s reach. But how hard must it have been? Come on, just select one correct track and hit ‘Play’. It ain’t rocket science.

Saying that: there but for the grace of God go I. So to be fair I’ve recalled how I once stuffed up something even easier.

CUE THE MUSIC

The occasion was as an in-house audio operator for a touring French company called the Philippe Genty Company. Philippe Genty excelled (and still do) in ‘black box’ puppetry, masterful illusion and dance, and did visually gob-smacking, amazing stuff long before any of us had heard of 3D projection, Photoshop or even Cirque Du Soleil. Back then, their show tapes were played on two Revox reel-to-reel machines, one muted and backing up the other (Revox being an undoubted industry standard at the time) and usually audio cues were separated by an auto-stop function. Transparent pieces of splice tape in the reel caused the Revox to stop at the end of a cue and the operator needed only to manually crank the tape a few centimetres and start again (never forgetting to mute the first channels too, so the screech of the tape scrubbing across the heads didn’t scare an audience half to death).

However, all the above information is irrelevant, because Philippe Genty were a very slick operation and didn’t like the enormous Clunk! sound of the reel-to-reels restarting all the time. Instead, each half was a continuous playback. All I had to do was hit Play at the beginning of the two acts on both machines roughly at the same time, sit back and enjoy the show. That’s one cue per act. Tricky stuff.

The technical rehearsal went perfectly – from my department anyway. I rewound the tapes and set up for the evening performance. Things don’t get any easier really.

However, during that night’s show things started to go horribly wrong.

FROM 15IPS TO OOPS

It wasn’t long before, inexplicably, both the Revox machines were playing back the soundtrack too slowly. This was should have been next to impossible. Sure, maybe one of the Revox’s had some kind of internal, garlic-induced Gallic electronic problem that decided to manifest itself by playing back at less the 15ips – but that’s the moment when you smoothly switch over to the backup machine and the show goes on… except the second Revox was doing the same. Merde. Lots of rude language was coming over the comms – fortunately in French, but I’m pretty sure I heard my name and guillotine mentioned in the same sentence. Someone suggested I literally stick my finger in the reels and try to manually turn them at the correct speed, but that’s the kind of thinking that saw the Bastille rather fatally stormed – but I tried, and the music went from alarming to truly awful. 

Eventually, the first act came to a tortuous end and we had to frantically figure out what was going on.

It was easy and a lazy mistake on my part. At the end of rehearsal I’d rewound the tapes without threading them through the guides and auto-tensioners, so the tape was taken up way too tight on the reels and the Revox motors were struggling to pull it off properly. We managed to quickly fast-forward through the entire show, rewind them correctly, and get back to the start of Act 2 in time. Fortunately, the show itself was so bizarre for the Queensland boondocks audience they just assumed the crazy music was normal and no one complained. In a strange kind of way, it explains Bob Katter, too.

The moral of the story is that the simplest of gigs are the ones most likely to go drastically wrong. The next time you witness the wheels fall off a live production don’t laugh, because it’s not a case of it might be you. It will be sometime. Just try to keep the live audience under 40,000 and the TV viewers below five million or so.

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