For the Yale Summer Cabaret season of 2012 I had the pleasure of designing a show called Of Ogres Retold. In fact I've posted pieces and pictures of the show to my portfolio here. The piece was an interesting challenge it was a wordless dance and puppet piece based on Japanese folk tails. In rehearsal we were using some prerecorded tracks and some original music but all of it had tempo specific edits that were required a little more finesse then pressing go and executing the cue instantly. Instead the cues changes were much more musical, some even required a seamless tempo change.
QLab, my default choice for playback, cannot do this kind of cuing very well alone. Usually this kind of thing would require a musically orientated board op who can focus just on the sound. For this particular production the Stage Manager, the endlessly talented Alyssa Howard, was also the light, projections and sound operator, she already had enough to deal with. Therefore I chose Ableton Live as my playback engine with QLab as my user interface. This enabled a multitude of benefits for me as the designer. I could change tempo seamlessly, I could use AudioUnit/Ableton Effects (and adjust them live), I could cue musically, and Alyssa would have the familiar interface of a giant GO button! But my favorite benefit was allowing QLab and Ableton Live to share the same audio interface. I could play content back through either QLab or Ableton or both simultaneously! I ended up using QLab for preshow and Ableton for the show content.
Linking these programs together is incredibly easy. All I had to do was turn the IAC bus on in Audio/MIDI Setup. Then I told Ableton to look for MIDI Notes from the IAC bus. Told QLab to send Notes MIDI via the IAC bus and pow! Cross application messaging. It is really quite powerful and "just works." The next step was to assign the MIDI messages Ableton was seeing to useful things. I assigned the MIDI Notes to all kinds of things like clip play, all stop, effects on and off, and faders!
The faders were quite interesting actually. as soon as I started fading Ableton's channels I noticed how much smoother and more natural they sounded. Fades that would take me a lot of trail and error and finessing with QLab, sounded good either the first or second time I tried them in Ableton. If you get a chance to compare them I highly recommend it, because that reason alone is making me seriously consider using Ableton as my playback engine in all shows, whether they are straight playback or tempo based.
But my favorite discovery was MIDI controlling the Tempo Nudge buttons. There was one piece, called Funny Little Woman, where I wanted the sound cue to slow in tempo gradually as the puppet controlled by Ethan Heard, started running in slow motion. You can do this with trigging dummy clips but that was more complicated than I needed. Instead I figured out if you send a MIDI Note that triggers the tempo nudge Ableton will turn the Nudge on. Then the same MIDI Note sent a 2nd time will turn it off, which was perfect because the Funny Little Woman puppet jerks back to normal speed in the dance piece.
The only disadvantage for using QLab and Ableton together is the large amount of system resources Live and QLab need to run simultaneously. However as more and more machines have Solid State drives and multiple cores this disadvantage is quickly become moot. I ran Ogres, which was 108 tracks, many many effects like Altiverb and multiple instances of instruments like Absynth on a Mid 2012 Mac Mini with a solid state disk drive and never had a hiccup (touch wood). By the end of tech I was starting to run into RAM limitations. but that was only when I was making adjustments and cues were also running. If I had the down time in the space I would have optimized the resources a little better; like turning effects and instruments off when I was done with them and freezing tracks that no longer needed adjustment, but in runs I never felt I was pushing the computer to the danger zone.
Looking back on the process this production was a huge experiment for me. I've never really designed a dance show before, and without Ableton Live, I don't think I could have. The flexibility it provided and the ability to use live effects was exactly what I needed especially because this piece was constantly evolving in big ways up until the first and only preview. I would not have been able to iterate or execute the vision that was required of the production without it. Making QLab my control system was the glue that held the chaotic sound machine together. Ableton gave me great flexibility content wise but QLab gave me flexibility in trigging and executing cues. The cue stack modality of QLab allowed me to reorder cues as needed adjust fade times and fade curves quickly and efficiently instead of eyeballing it with automation in dummy clips, I could type a number in and thats how long the fade would take, its exact and quick. Combing these two programs removes a lot of the draw backs each has and increases the advantages of both. Overall I say it was a resounding success!
But don't take my word for it. Head over to my portfolio, check out some of the examples I posted from the show and judge for yourself!