As an artform that relies heavily on recorded music to perform, burlesque (and cabaret and dance) is prone to problems outside our control… We’ve compiled some ‘sound advice’ to help you deal with audio emergencies…
Firstly, if you are looking for advice on how to choose your track, go here for inspiration on themes, editing and performing to the track. We’ve also got advice on whose track is it, anyway – and why you should buy your music and not steal it here and some things to consider when you are using CDs here
Now we can talk about what to do when your audio goes awry live, ways to avoid it happening and how to cope when your backing track backfires…
The Basics: Naming Your Track
Let’s go back to the very basics here. We know it’s obvious, but it’s surprisingly over-looked… Name your track. Whether you are writing on a CD in marker, or actually changing a file name on a digital file (in this case DO NOT put a full stop anywhere in the title as it’ll change the file type and remember to keep the .mp3 or .wav or whatever the dotfiletype is at the end), remember the producer or whoever is receiving your music will need to identify it so basically write your performer name and the title of your act (not the song!) so it matches the running order and the act information that the producer/sound tech or whoever might be working from.
Sending Your Track Over Email or Download
Now you’ve named your track in your files, it’s probably easier for you to find on your laptop! So how do you get your music to producers and theatres? When you are booked, always check with the producer how they would like to receive your music. In some cases it’ll be you bringing your music to the venue yourself on CD or a USB stick. The producer may ask for your track up front in a certain file format – it’s usually going to be Mp3 or Wav.
Just so you know: some technical stuff on file types. An mp3 file is probably the most used audio file. An MP3 is an audio coding file that compresses an original track into a smaller file and typically isn’t going to be any larger than 10mb. It does this by shaving off the top and the bottom registering frequencies and is typically one-twelfth of the original file size. MP3s are ready made on download sites like iTunes, Amazon, etc. WAV files are much bigger as they are the best quality – they include all the original frequencies and can range in size – typically around 40mb+. The difference to a sound engineer is that they might have to push the sound harder on an MP3 than they would a WAV (depending on their equipment). A WAV file will sound fuller and bigger to the trained ear, but the difference to the untrained, average person’s ear is hardly noticeable. However, WAV files take a lot of room up on any storage device as opposed to MP3s and can slow down devices, etc if sound is being run directly from a laptop
If the producer has asked for MP3s only (which may be due to the above file size or storage issue) and you only have WAVs or other formats, don’t panic! There are a lot of online file converters that you simply upload your track onto and download the new file. A golden rule to successful file transfer is making sure the producer (or receiver of the track) listens to it at the other end to ensure it has transferred successfully. And let them know how long, to the second, the track should be. And take back ups to the actual show.
To transfer, if it’s an MP3 file, you can attach to an email, or you can upload your tracks to an online storage site and create a link for the producer to download the track from, which is better for bigger files as it means the producer’s emails aren’t blocked by sizeable incoming mail.
Why Bringing Music On Your Phone Is Not Good
There are many reasons why bringing music on a phone and trying to run your act from a phone is not good. Firstly, a phone interferes with all sound equipment with an electrical ping, blip blip blip buzz and other noises which can be heard, in full, over the PA
Just so you know: that blip blip buzz sound that you hear through speakers – and headphones, if your phone is near audio equipment, is your phone talking to nearby masts and picking up radio transmission waves, the very things it needs to pick up to be a phone, transfer texts, calls and notifications. Wow. We’re feeling really geeky with all these tech tips today.
A lot of us access our music via phones these days. The best practice is to transfer them to a different device, where you can convert them to files you can actually use live.
Another good reason not to use your phone in a live situation (aside from the sound engineer might have it at his desk and there could be some ‘interesting and mysterious photos’ discovered apres-show, plus you won’t be able to take any backstage selfies) is imagine this: the phone rings… It’s your mum! How lovely! Except you won’t be able to answer your phone as you will be mid act.
Back Up Your Music On Online Storage
We’ve mentioned this above, and uploading all your tracks to an online storage site (such as dropbox, google drive, soundcloud) really is a good idea. Not only are you able to send anyone who wants your music a downloadable link, but in the event of your music failing at the show, or your CD snaps or skips, or the wrong music has been delivered, you can just access this at the show and transfer the file to the sound tech with no problem at all. Carrying a USB stick with all your tracks on as a back up is also a great idea. If you rely on a recorded backing track to do any show, it’s in your best interests to have as many back up facilities as possible!
Have A Tech Run!
A tech run is there mostly for the technicians or whoever is running your sound to check your cues, to check the sound and basically to have a rehearsal themselves. So many performers say, ‘We won’t need a tech run’, but remember, the tech run is not for you, the performer, it’s for the show staff. They need to see the levels which your music will be played
Just so you know: Unless all show music was recorded in exactly the same studio, mixed and mastered (at the time of recording process) by exactly the same engineer and plant, transferred onto exactly the same format (CD, vinyl, MP3, WAV, any other format) and then sent by the same means, then each track used for a show will be played at a different level. it’s a bit like playing an album and having to turn the volume up and down depending on the song, to make sure the album plays all at the same level. This is the sound engineer’s job – one performer’s track might be really loud and another track really quiet so they basically equalise the show.
It is also your opportunity to run through your act on stage and finalise any further cues, check your music plays okay right to the end and test out the performing surface of the stage. Basically a tech run is a win-win (wynn wynn if you are welsh like us) all round.
What If The Sound Person Gets My Cue Wrong
Don’t panic! Mistakes happen. If it is a case of the music being played before you enter the stage, and your cue was to start on stage, then you have three options. Firstly, if you know your act inside out and can pick up the act at any point (the ideal, well rehearsed act situation) then carry on regardless! Get on stage as quick as possible and get on with the routine! Yes, it’s not the ideal situation, but if you are confident this is the best option, then go for it. The second option is not to do anything. To just stay in the wings. Pretty soon the sound engineer will cotton on that something is wrong, re-check their cues list, cut the track and allow you to walk on before starting the track again. If this fails and you are near the compere, you can get the compere to re-intro you once the track has been cut (not the ideal) or, in rare shows where there is a stage manager in direct communication (via backstage coms) with the sound engineer, they can step in and tell the sound tech to cut the track and wait until you are on stage.
If you are on stage doing a spoken word and ask for your tracks, this is pretty straight forward – if you are confident, you can make a joke if the track is wrong or is played at the wrong part. If you have a mic, you have the power!
On very rare occasions, a track is played where the start is missing or the tech turns up the volume partway through a starting section. This can be really confusing to you, the performer. You can either not enter the stage (as above) until the track is started again or, if you are really confident, stride on stage, hold a pose or a character pose and wait until you know where you are in the track and pick up your routine then..
What If The Sound Fails During The Act
This is a case for thinking on your feet. It might take at least a second before you realise anything is wrong, but if your track starts skipping / cutting out or actually stops, there’s a few things you can do…
- If it’s the start of your act – or any point until you’ve taken any costume off, then you can start again. The compere is definitely your friend, and can come on, make a light-hearted comment about it being some kind of trailer to your act or collective audience deva vu, and the track can be started again.
- If you are good at free-styling, and the track is skipping, then you might feel confident styling it out until the skipping has stopped. A good tip is to always have a back-up move in the bag that you can comfortably perform (a shimmy, a figure 8, etc) until the music settles. You might ask, visually, for the music to be cut. If you have had a tech run, then the technician will be more aware that this is not part of your act and there is a problem.
- If you music has cut (or you’ve decided to ask for it to be cut as the audio really is that bad!) then the golden rule here is to get the crowd behind you. Getting them to clap out a beat at the same tempo as your track and performing the act to their clapping is one way. If the track is an obvious one where many might know the words, get them to do a sing along – even if it is repeating the chorus a few times to get to the end. Your compere is definitely your friend and should be on hand to help you with this. Basically, the audience know there’s a problem and trying to cover it up at this stage would be a wrong move.
- If your music somehow starts again from the beginning… improvise! Or run through the routine again in mime (after all, we do this all the time when we rehearse or do the tech run) but this time you have two options – really make your moves into over-the-top moves or make a visual joke that you are doing this again (if you can improvise, great – throw in clown moves like looking at your pretend watch, pretending that you are really confused that you are taking off an invisible glove, look for your skirt in an over the top clowning way…)
- Also, if the track is near the start and if you have a back up CD/usb available, the tech might need a few moments to swap the faulty track over – you can either hop off the stage and let the compere cover this, of use the time to have a chat to the audience, play with the audience, stroke a few heads, etc…
What Not To Do:
No, you cannot take an axe to the sound equipment or any member of staff! In general, the ideal situation is that the audience don’t know there’s been a problem, the sound issue has been minor and it’s all been good. If the sound issue has been major, you can’t fool the audience and it’s best to go with the ‘yes, we all know there’s been an issue’ route’ and how you deal with it depends on you (and any other ideas in addition to the above are ore than welcome!). In all situations, if your music fails, do not slag off the sound tech at the show ever! Most are very professional but if you get their back up, then they could possibly take revenge! Also, however tempting, do not run off the stage in floods of tears. Yes, these unfortunate things can happen and our routines all mean the world to us, we all want to do our very best for an audience so it can be disappointing when we can’t do our best because of circumstances beyond our control. The best advice: get the audience behind you. Stick it out and see that it is possible to turn a rare (!) difficult situation to your advantage
All images by Miss Moth Photography from Bluestocking Lounge at Swansea Grand Theatre