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In this episode of Sound Design Live I’m joined by the vice president of audio at PRG, David Strang. We discuss sound system design for Broadway and the challenges in the post-Covid audio industry.
- PRG Crew Services
- DiGiCo T software
- X32 Theatre Control
- PointSource theatrical microphones
- Books: Stage Sound, The Sound of Theater, How Music Works
- Podcasts: Le Show, On The Media, RadioLab
- The best thing you can do is try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
This transcript was automatically generated. Please let me know if you discover any errors.
I’m Nathan Lively, and today I’m joined by the VP of Audio at PRG, david Strang. Now, during his 25 year tenure at PRG, david has held many positions, including General manager of the New York based Audio Group. His current focus is leading the team that develops strategies and solutions for theatrical audio clients on Broadway, off Broadway and beyond. David. Welcome to Sound design live.
Thank you so much. Great to be here.
So, David, I definitely want to talk to you about your work. Sound system design for Broadway. And people who wrote in had various questions about what you think about the post COVID audio industry and the state of things. But before I do that, I’m just curious about your musical taste. When you are first setting up a sound system, what’s some piece of music you like to put into it to get familiar with it?
Well, this is a great question and one I recognize you’ve asked many of your participants over the years and I love that. And look, I’m old enough that I’ve been around that. I remember the time when every time anybody was aligning a science, setting up a sound system and ready to listen to it, it was Steely Dan and it was Asia. So I guess there’s probably some truth to that. I certainly did that at some point. But realistically, it really from my standpoint, it always depended on what specifically was going to be the content that I was concerned about that day. For instance, in some cases, if it was popular music of some sort, one of my favorites was a song by Little Feet called Hanging On to the Good Times.
Hey old friend it’s been such a long time since I saw your smiling.
Face just against my window and that’s something that George Massenberg produced. Great piece. But in other instances I would use something like I have a favorite string quartet recording. Happens to be a Hayden String Quartet was recorded live and it really helped me. Sometimes you need some air between the content to really be able to understand what your sound system is doing, how well tuned it is, whether the time alignment is good beyond all the instruments that we use.
Yeah, it makes me think about when there’s voice in the track, like we zero in on that. Like you can’t not focus on that. Just biologically, it feels. To take that out then gives you perspective on everything else.
That is exactly right. Yes. I even went so far at one point, as I used to use occasionally a piece by Arvo part or part I think is the correct pronunciation there, but miserary, I think is how it’s pronounced. And it’s a piece that’s very percussive, doesn’t have any voice in it and has a lot of air in it, but you can really get a sense of the tonality of your sound system as well as what the frequency response is at all different levels.
David, before we dive into some technical topics, I’d love to just learn a little bit about how your career has progressed and also how you figured out how to make money and support yourself. Just starting from the beginning. How did you get your first paying job in audio?
I think that came shortly after a couple of years after I got out of college. My background, I was always growing up. I was always a bit of a nut with involved with music. Took classical piano lessons for many years. My dad was an electronics engineer. We learned a lot about recording. He was big into recording, sight recording of chorale music primarily. And so that was something that lit something up in the back of my mind, and years later, it blossomed. When I realized in high school that theater was something that really spoke to me, I was also involved in a lot of other things. I was very involved in science and that sort of stuff. But theater of all of the arts really spoke to me in a certain way. And I got involved in it originally in high school and was fortunate enough to land a position at Carnegie Mellon University, which is where I learned all about professional theater. Right. I had done lots of theater in high school and that sort of thing, but that’s where I really learned quite a bit. Now, the problem was, at that period of time, there was no sound design program at Carnegie Mellon.
In fact, at that point, we’re talking about very early 80s, not any university that I was aware of had a real professional sound design program. So anyway, that led to there was vacancy. There was folks, myself and a few others who were very interested in sound design. So amongst all the other coursework that we did and learning about all the other facets of theater design, we developed on our own and learned on our own about theatrical sound design.
I knew by the time I left college that of all of what I had learned and all of what I’ve pursued, that sound design is really the thing I wanted to go after. It took a couple of years of, as it often does, no matter what kind of a program you come out of it, it takes a couple of years of being willing to go wherever you need to go to sustain yourself, to get involved in theater, to meet new people. Before I finally landed my first design job, which was the resident sound design job at Actors Theater of Louisville.
Oh, wow. And so can I assume that maybe some people in your community or some of your teachers or connections you had at Carnegie Mellon guided you in the process of making those connections that got you that job?
Yeah, a little bit. I think that it wasn’t so much a direct connection from college so much back then. Carnegie Mellon was very much what I would call a conservatory approach of a program. I’ll be honest with you, I actually got into some trouble while I was a student there, because when I say conservatory, they were so focused and making sure that every production and design student got all of the training. I took courses and practical work in costume design, in scenery design, in scenery construction, obviously in all different areas. But what they weren’t so keen on is people working at that time outside of the university while they were still in the program. Right. And that was partly because on top of normal coursework throughout an entire day, then there’d also be production work every evening, usually lasting until about 11:00 at night. And then, of course, you needed to find some time to be able to do your coursework, build set models, all that kind of good stuff. The design program was very intense, but by the time I got to my junior year, I was really interested in doing some more work in the theater, more practical work than I could actually get done inside the university.
And so I took my first lighting design, professional lighting design jobs at a little theater in Pittsburgh called the Pittsburgh Laboratory Theater. It’s long gone now, but it was the beginning of a great understanding on my part and something that was framed and certainly taught at Carnegie Mellon, which is ultimately, theater is a collaborative art, and you need to focus on the personalities that you’re working with, developing those relationships and extending those relationships. And that is ultimately how I was able to land the job at Actors Theater was more a network of people outside of the university. People who knew people happened to see my resume, and somebody took a chance on me, and it was really a great time.
Wow. And I often like to ask people if they can distill some sort of a choice that they made to get more of the work that they really love. But it sounds like you already have answered that a little bit by saying developing relationships. So would you say that’s the answer to that question, or is it something else? Then I moved to New York City. And that was the best choice I made. Or I never took a monitor mixing or whatever. Is there something else you want to say about that?
It’s maybe a little bit different now, but I think a lot of times people early in their career, certainly back then, they come out of a school or they come out from whatever kind of training and they’re fairly set on. I’m going to do X. I certainly was. Yeah. Usually that’s not how life works. And in my case, what I can say is that both during college and after college, I took any job that I could that I thought would make sense, that would help me develop myself as a professional. Right. Immediately out of university, I moved to Boston. Believe it or not, when people ask me, what’s one fact that almost nobody knows about you? One of those is for a brief period of time, I performed on stage with the Opera Company of Boston in a traveling a touring production wherein I was also a technician that helped put the show together. So a supernumerary in an opera that was traveling like, I’d take anything that I thought would lead to another opportunity. Right. And so after a couple of years of that and being persistent, I got to the place where I thought I was ready for right out of college, but it took a couple of years.
I wonder if you have any advice for people who want to find more work or a better fit for themselves.
Beyond the persistence and the willingness to go wherever you need to go. My only advice, my best advice is don’t close any doors. In all aspects of my life that’s been very helpful to me. Right. Which is I’m always eager to learn. I’m always eager to take on another aspect or facet or learn something new and go where one needs to go to get that experience, to get that next gig, to get that next opportunity.
I wonder if that might be for some people, do you think that might be a relocation to a place where they think there might be more opportunity?
Sure, if that’s what your dream is, you move to New York City and you can probably find if you’re passionate about what you do, you can probably find work at all levels, be prepared to start wherever you need to start. And maybe it’ll feel initially that maybe it’s below where you’d like to be or where you were hoping to be, but with persistence and building that network was really key and certainly a lot easier now than it was when I was coming up. Prior to the Internet, prior to being able to connect the way we connect nowadays, it was a whole lot more difficult to find the connections that you needed to. And in many cases I’m not necessarily recommending this, but in many cases, a couple of times in my life, again, shortly after college, I’d just go somewhere I’d never been before. I remember at one point, after being in Boston for a while, a gig came up that I was interested in Kansas City, Missouri. So I packed my bags and I got myself to Kansas City. And turns out I only stayed there for about six months. But I learned a great deal.
I spent six months or so, maybe longer than that, as an electrician at a theater, a regional theater at that time in the area made a great deal of connections there, including meeting a gentleman, Tom Mardykes, who was at that time and later became even more prominent as one of the leading sound design instructors in university and made a great deal of connections with his staff through his staff in Sound. Got me yet another step closer towards where I was headed.
Yeah, that’s great. I like thinking about that as taking one more step.
We don’t want to think about this one move that I might make, like calling this person as this is the be all, end all of everything that’s going to happen, so it’s going to give me everything or it’s going to completely break me. It might just be the next step and that person connects you to somebody else.
Exactly right. Exactly right.
Okay, let’s talk about some technical things. So we should keep in mind that David’s day to day work is really supporting people. So, David, I want you to feel free to answer these questions, like from your own personal perspective with firsthand experience and then also just the things that you see people doing out in the field that is working or not working, or just feel free to talk about the experiences of others or the people that you’re supporting. And I’ll start by asking you just what do you think are some of the biggest mistakes you see people making who are new to sound system solutions or sound system design for Broadway?
That’s interesting. And I don’t want to get myself in trouble here, but I will tell.
You, this is what we want, controversy.
But from my perspective, again, this may be a wider design principle, but something that I see quite frequently, which is people are just trying to do too much. You know, I what mean, we got to think about theater as one of those things that no matter what technical element you’re talking about, ultimately it’s there in support of telling a story or a musical presentation. And so oftentimes what we see with some of the younger folks that we see coming out of schools or getting involved in our profession from whichever angle, whether they be let’s first stop and say there’s multiple types of sound designers in the theater right there’s the folks that kind of do it all. But most people are either really good at sound system design and that sort of thing, and then there are sound designers that are primarily composers and sound effect specialists. I came up at a time when I enjoyed doing all of that stuff and some don’t. Nothing wrong with any approach there, but oftentimes with younger folks, what we see is just trying to do too much all at once. And going back again to one of my early experiences at Actors Theater of Louisville.
I remember being very frustrated in the first play. It was a play by Marsha Norman that I was designing the sound for with the artistic director of the theater at the time, being very frustrated because I had all these great ideas, oh, we should do this, we should do that, we should add this in. Let’s not just follow what’s in the script. So I was ambitious. And one of the lessons that the artistic director, John Jury, taught me then, is that if any technical element takes you out of the experience, the human experience, between an actor or between actors on stage or between the actors in the audience, if it takes you out of that experience, if it distracts you from that experience, it’s not a good fit. And it took me a while to work, working with John specifically on that play before we found some ways to really enhance what the actors were doing. And that taught me something that I think I had known or had learned in college, but I had to learn again, which is it’s got to be connected to organically. It’s got to feel organically connected to what is happening on stage, what the actor is doing on stage.
Otherwise, it’s just tech and it’s a distraction.
Yeah, that’s great. There’s so many kind of layers there. There’s don’t overload yourself with too many responsibilities. And I’m trying to be the composer and the technician and this and that and the foley artist and I don’t know what else. And then also, it sounded like maybe you wanted to just get your IEMs in there or prove that, hey, look, I have all these great ideas. That’s right. Everything should be in service of the story, the production. So that’s really interesting because I guess also on a technical level, there’s the foundation of making sure everyone can hear and then all of the fun stuff after that, whatever effects or multichannel things or surround sorry, I’m just repeating what you said. I’m seeing all the layers of don’t do too much, which is the simple answer.
No, I love that. And the other thing is that we realize that sometimes complexity, really smart people can be really smart about the stuff they deal with. Complexity can sometimes be your enemy, however, when it comes to both sound system design, but also when it comes to sound score design, right. Don’t immediately lean towards the complex, right? Lean towards the best solutions. The best. I think designs that I’ve seen visually as well as orally really are the most direct and in many ways simple. And sometimes it’s harder. It takes a long time to get to that simpler solution. Right? And when it comes to sound system design, we often see with musicals, that sort of thing is the complexity, while to a certain degree necessary in some more sophisticated systems, can also be your enemy just in terms of how robust is the system. Are there problems? Are you spending your tech process focused on trying to make the system work properly or on supporting what you’re seeing going on stage?
Right. Keeping with this theme of mistakes, would you be willing to share with us maybe one of the biggest or most painful mistakes that you’ve made on the job?
I’ll be honest with you. This one was the hardest thing I’ve been thinking about.
Because there are so many or because it happened so long ago?
No, I’m not real sure I can’t come up with a big one. You know what I mean? I will say this in my day to day life, and I will say this in my day to day life, I often have to remind myself, right when it comes to maybe this is not necessarily biggest or most painful, but it’s maybe a recurring thing, I often have to remind myself that people are not coming at a problem. Whoever you’re dealing with, whoever you’re discussing a problem with, or whoever you’re collaborating with, they’re not coming at the problem from the same place you are. They don’t have the same goals that you have. So the key thing that I would say is the best thing you can do is to try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, right? Find a way to be like before you pick up the phone to make a call to a designer, before you begin to discuss how we can, say, PRG as a company can best support somebody on a project. Oftentimes we immediately start getting into discussions about this gear versus that gear, what’s available, what’s practical, what fits the budget.
All of that’s important. But the first thing you need to do is be able to put yourself as best as you can in their position, in their shoes, to be like, how is this going to come off to them? What are their needs and desires and their priorities before you start to push in one direction or another? And it’s been the times when I’ve not done that or not taken the time to be understanding and really sensitive enough to see the other party’s point of view where things have gone awry. And I think that’s also true in my design career, right, where I tried to go down a path that might have made sense to me and even started from a discussion with the director or somebody else in the creative process. But you have to be willing to abandon those things, right, if they’re not something that works for the other parties.
I want to talk a little bit about programming consoles. This came to mind for me because it’s been in front of my face recently. And again, I know you’re not programming shows on a day to day basis, but you are supporting people who are. And so I wanted to share with you that I’ve seen things change over the years. When I was programming show, the show that I did for The Ringling Brothers Circus, I was on an SD Five and I was doing things that at this point seemed rudimentary, like creating scenes for every song. And then I’m just going through and programming in all the Mutes, and that means setting the Mutes, storing a snapshot, maybe going back and editing things, and then it builds, and it builds as I need things. So do I need to add people to different channels to VCAs and different sorry, DCAS at different places, maybe some fader moves, maybe some EQ changes as necessary. And then recently I got to use an SD Ten with the helical features in it. And this is kind of a revolution for me. I’d never seen this before, and all of a sudden I’m just going through and clicking on a grid all of the Mutes that I need and people added to DCAS in a scene, and it was so much faster and seen so much more powerful.
So that’s what I wanted to ask you about. What do you see? Can you give us kind of an overview of how modern plays and musicals are programmed?
Yeah, I want to focus in on that first in terms of a response on that is it is fascinating, isn’t it? The first time that you have an opportunity to use that T software on the Digco, you realize, how have I been able to do this without this all this time? Not to be again telling stories from ancient times, but before there were consoles. I remember a time before there were really consoles, even with VCAs, right? So the first jump was like, oh my gosh, look at this. We can assign things to VCAs and we can do most of our mixing there on a queue to queue basis, occasionally back to other faders or whatever. And then, of course, there was the whole leap to digital consoles, and now here we are. But early on in the development of the DiGiCo platform, with the original, I think it was the D Five, andrew Bruce and some folks at Autograph Sound developed this T software, right? And what they recognized is that their way, the theater’s way of which had grown out of using analog Cadac consoles, their way of programming, of utilizing the power of the digital platform was very different.
And it involved, as you said, different ways of making assignments onto the DCAS. It involved aliases, which are very helpful for actors that may change costumes, wear a hat, don’t wear a hat, all that kind of great stuff. It really is amazing. And they’ve extended even further with the SD series. And it’s fascinating that you had been doing all of that work basically with an S T Five, when now you probably recognize that IEM never going to do a show like that without T software anymore. So I get it. And a little additional let me just expand out a little bit more on that, because seeing the success of that, some other companies along the way had also gotten interested in doing something similar. So here’s just a little. There was a period of time where there was interest among some designers on Broadway, some engineers, on using the Stuter Vista platform as a console in theater. This goes back a few years, but what happened this was before Stuter was part of Harmon, and now they’re no longer part of Harmon either. But anyway, there was a gentleman by the name of Jamie Dunn that worked for Stuter at the time, and he decided he was going to make it his mission with his software engineers to develop theater specific software for their Vista platform.
He goes ahead and does that. After learning from all of the designers on Broadway and on the West End, what’s the right way to do this? What features do you need? All that kind of good stuff. And then they put out this software package. And being the company that they were at the time, it wasn’t just like a separate piece of software the way it is with DigiGo. It was an update to everybody’s console. Now, Stuter was pretty entrenched in broadcast, in trucks, and all sorts of impermanent installations in theaters as well. But what quickly happened was that these engineers that don’t work in the theater saw some of these features and they’re like, oh, my God, how is it that we’ve not had this? And some of it was like, cues that happen over a very specific period of time. Some of these things, like supporting multiple roles inside of a single input, all of which became and many of them decided, I can’t not have that feature anymore. So it’s interesting how that overlap happened. And as you may be aware, another development with theater specific programming has been with Yamaha, where Scott Lehrer, a well known Broadway sound designer, also has a recording studio here in New York City.
He worked very closely with the engineers in Japan to develop theater specific features on the Ravage console.
And each of these things operates a little bit differently, but they all support, generally, the needs that are unique to the theater market, to large projects with many different scenes. I don’t really know what the next step is going to be. I do think that DiGiCo has taken over the theater market largely as a result of the T software. And the fact that their version of it is very robust, very well known by engineers. People are very comfortable with it.
Yeah. And I haven’t had the creator of X 32 Theater Control on the podcast yet. I’ve chatted with them a little bit over email, but I wonder if some of the things that other consoles have done, like DiGiCo, have just influenced that. So I only have an X 32, but I would like to have some of those features. I’d like to be able to program all of my mutes ahead of time before I can get my hands on the console. And now we have this piece of software where even if you are at the smallest community theater, you can have a lot of powerful features that used to maybe you could only have on some of these bigger consoles.
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And it is pretty fascinating that we’ve gone so quickly from something that was, like you said, really just available features that were really just available at the very top end of the market in terms of price point and everything else to all the way across the spectrum because people have seen how important those features are, in some cases, not just to theater designers.
I wanted to talk a little bit about microphone maintenance. I don’t know if you’ll have anything to say about this, but the story is that on this play I was working on last year, an adaptation of Little Women, they had a handful of mics, about 24 different mics, all from Countrymen H six and B six. And I have just had, I don’t know why, I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with microphones. And so now I have a little bit of a phobia that I’m going to work on a show where there’s just lots of pops and clicks and we’ll never get it solved because I’ve worked on shows like that and then I’ve never quite figured it out. I’ve worked on shows where that seems to have these cheap mics and they don’t have these problems. And I’ve worked on cheaper mics and then I’ve worked on shows that have some of these mics and there’s problems all day long. One thing I have seen is that when I’ve worked at some nicer theaters that have the higher end mics, your DPAs 40 88, I’m thinking, is what I’ve had experience with in the past, never any problems.
Yeah. The Brand Point Source Audio makes a headworn and a lav microphone that is a lower price point. But one of the things that they learned early on in the process is they were selling a microphone similar to the countrymen that has a removable connect on the back of the head.
That’s where the problem happens.
And just going back to my whole thing earlier about simplicity, it’s the same thing with something worn on an actor as it would be in a sound system. Less connections are better and that’s a bad place to have a connector, that’s for sure. And so what Point Source did is originally that’s what their product did. It was partly so that you could put different types of connectors easily on a headworn for different types of body transmitters, right? Body pack transmitters. It was their way of dealing with the connector issue. Right. But as flexible as it was, it proved to be a barrier to use in the professional theater. So they make now a separate model specifically for theater use that has a hardwired connector of whatever sort you want on it. Limo connector, ta, four F, whatever as. A way to get rid of that problem. But they’re also very high quality microphones that are fairly inexpensive and yeah, I think they’ve taken away market share from some of the folks like DPA and whatever. I think partly because they make a great product, but also they have ability to be pretty far away from the actor’s mouth without having a problem.
And that’s really what you want usually when you’re having lots of plosive problems. In my experience, you’re a little too close, you know what I mean? Or you’re getting a little too much signal.
And I should have been more clear that the pops that I was thinking of are really coming from those connections.
Oh, they are.
It’s an electrical pop. But as you’re talking to, I’m also realizing that I have some assumptions about what needs to happen here because I’m so concerned oftentimes about getting enough game before feedback because of all the extreme conditions I’m required to work in that I just always want a mic, like right next to the mouth as much as possible. And so I’m not even thinking about what this person’s voice sounds like, whether or not it might be better to have a position on top of the head or maybe even over here. So I’m not even trying those things or listening to the person’s voice. I just know that this is where sound comes out and I need it to be as loud as possible. And so that makes me want to just be more open to trying things with different people and not obsessing about game before feedback.
Yeah, no, I think that’s a great point and something that will definitely help you out in that situation. Look, I think that a lot of us I can certainly remember I did a lot of this where I’m like, okay, I’m going to mic a harp and I have a way that I mic a harp or I’m going to mic a piano, you know what I mean? And then you just stick with that and then you’re at your console and you’re manipulating the sound. You’re trying to improve upon the sound more. Usually it took me a while to learn this, but usually more time needs to be spent on variations, on mic placement, on different types of microphones and affording yourself it’s hard to do oftentimes with events, but certainly I think to your point with actors, try different placements, right? You’ve got to be open to try different placements. One of the mistakes that I see people make quite frequently worried about certain environments, maybe highly reflective spaces and whatever it happens to be actors out in front of portions of the PA for portions of the show. So their immediate thing is I need to have a cardioid microphone maybe, but try it, try it.
But maybe that’s not the right answer because there’s some drawbacks to using a cardioid lav or headworn as well. And it can be surprising how much of a difference there really is there in terms of that sound, I think, for some folks. So try some different placements. It’s not necessarily closer to the mouth. It’s going to be the best, better sound or even the best game before feedback, I think, which is what you’re saying.
Okay, David, I have some questions that people send in from Facebook and a lot of them want to see if you can predict the future and say that everything’s going to be okay, I think is what people want you to say. I also get the sense that I’ve invested a lot of time in my life into this career of pro audio. And then to realize that so much of it is based on having a strong economy and not having global pandemics that it does make me nervous and just hope that I’ll continue to be working on things that I enjoy into the future. So I think that’s where a lot of these questions are coming from. Gabriel says, how has the industry changed in the post COVID world?
The thing that I could not have predicted, and I think none of us could have, has been the impact on the supply chain, right? And from where we sit as a technology PRG, as a technology provider, equipment provider, services provider, we very accustomed prior to the pandemic, of being able to get from our partners and vendors pretty much anything we needed within a four to six week window, no problem. And now we’re in a situation where that’s just not possible in many cases. I’ll give you an example. Coming out of the pandemic, there was chip shortage and it impacted the audio industry in a very unique way because in many cases, at least the way the experts explain it to me, audio equipment manufacturers rely on chips that are a couple of steps back from the cutting edge, right? Not the most current technology in terms of chips. And when there were some problems with chips manufacturing and then supply chain started to get all weird, the thing that suffered a lot was audio because that stuff that was a couple of generations back in terms of wafer technology was just no longer available or was getting sucked up by other industries.
So that forced a lot of audio equipment manufacturers to redesign their equipment and in many cases multiple times unheard of. Yamaha at one point suggested that they weren’t going to be able to deliver and it was a wide range of their products for over 14 months. And they’re just slowly now working their way out of that same thing. With some of the wireless in ear and wireless microphone technology coming out of shore, they just could not deliver in the kind of quantities that the marketplace needed. And part of that was just a changing of what people were buying. But a lot of it was supply chain problems and we’re still dealing with them today. We’ve gone from a business where, like I said, four to six weeks was a reasonable amount of time to get pretty much anything that you needed to, in many cases, six to nine months. El Acoustics, as an example, announced I think I’m okay saying this, announced at their December certified provider meeting that 95% of their capacity for 2023 had already been spoken for.
So if you have something you need, wait till 2024.
We work very closely with all of our vendors, seriously, and in some cases, we can shake things up a little bit or jump the line, in some cases for a specific project or that sort of thing. But really, to answer the question, the biggest change coming out of the Pandemic for me, for the audio industry, has been the supply chain challenges. And what that means for us as a company is we now need to be much more strategic about where we’re going in terms of technology, what we’re going to purchase, what we’re going to support, and what we’re not.
Okay, so Gabriel has a question about what you’re supporting in terms of technology. So he says, what is the current trend and what clients are asking for? Maybe more PA, wireless broadcast solutions, staffing, et cetera. And how are you shifting to meet that demand?
That brings up another part of what’s changed coming out of the Pandemic, which is shortly before the Pandemic, PRG merged with a company called Ver, and it turned out to be extraordinarily beneficial in ways that we didn’t necessarily plan or realize at the time, because what happened during the Pandemic, everything went behind a camera, right? And we were all doing all of this live streaming. We were all doing these events virtually, and in many cases, that meant remote production, remote cameras, studios that we put together in some of our facilities specifically to be able to meet this demand, whether it be a corporate show or whatever it is that couldn’t be done live, we were able to produce those shows remotely. So I would say that’s the biggest thing that really has changed in terms of style of presentation, right. Many of those virtual events remain and continue, but we’re also seeing now that it’s now going to become, I think, a lot more standard, even in, say, theater, live theater, which used to be very unwilling, I guess, is the right word, to do things like live stream or even record. Right? Now, it’s being incorporated regularly in all levels of theater, right?
Not just Broadway theater, but off Broadway theater, regional theater. It’s not one or the other. Now they realize they need to do both. So the equipment and services to support that is one big change. Right. And I think it’s a positive one and has provided a lot of opportunities for individuals with their expertise, whether it be in video, audio, lighting, or otherwise, but also for company like PRG who we’ve expanded our digital services to be able to do that production element from soup to nuts, right? All the way from the camera lens, all the way through the back, the networking, the mixing remotely, all of that stuff. So that’s been, I think, the biggest part of the change as far as equipment is concerned. It continues to be what I call iterative, progress in things like consoles and digital wireless. Digital wireless, obviously, is the changeover that we’re all still in the middle of, but essential as we move forward. So that’s certainly one of the things, I think the hybrid productions in theater, in corporate, and events in touring, that’s really the biggest change.
And I’m curious, do you see this in the arts as well? Like, I mostly work in corporate events at this point, some theater. And so a lot of it is hybrid now. But do you see that? Are there plays that are requesting also a broadcast solution?
Absolutely, yes. And again, everybody learned how to do this during the pandemic because a lot of these smaller arts organizations, they were not going to survive if they didn’t have some sort of revenue coming in, if they needed a way to support their artists, to support their missions. And they figured out a way to do this. And now almost every one of them that I can think of are one of the companies that we support regularly. Second stage here in New York. At first they was like, oh yeah, I think we should try this on this show. And now, repeatedly, every show that they do towards the end of the run, they do a bunch of live streams as well.
Okay. Interesting, Scott Vogel says, since Lockdown has been lifted, has he had more or less or about the same amount of problems keeping people and hiring new staff?
I will say this. Originally after the shutdown on Broadway, obviously, Broadway was closed for quite some time, and all events across the country were shut down immediately following that, it was very difficult for a while to get things back up and running and to meet the increased demand that happened after the shutdown was over. Right. Everybody wanted to get out there in all markets and start to do live shows again. And because there had been some people, I think, who left the industry, because there had been people who just decided to go do something else for whatever reason, it was really difficult for a while getting things staffed up, not just in shops, but also on job site, also in production. But I think we’re past that for the most part now. And I think one of the things that people didn’t realize, that I recognized fairly early in the restart is that it wasn’t just that a lot of people went away. It wasn’t that a lot of people moved to other places or decided to change careers, or this, that the other thing. There was certainly a good deal of that. But also the pipeline stopped, right?
So all of the young people coming into the business, coming into New York or coming into wherever to be a party and a part of this industry, that pipeline was just shut down for a while and so there was really a problem with that. And now I think we’re mostly past that. I’m hoping that we’re mostly past that. Look, it’s always a challenge. People are what make this business work, right? We provide an awful lot of equipment in all sorts of markets, but ultimately it’s our people that make the difference both inside the company and on job site, right? And finding those right people, training those people, that’s always going to be a challenge, right? It’s always going to be the key towards success. But I think we’re past the worst of it now.
I wonder if you have any thoughts about this key of finding the right people? Because when I talk to colleagues of mine, one of the most common things I hear is difficulty finding the right people. And a lot of that is a lot of just the fundamental technicians that we need to build the shows and so many of those just having enough of the fundamental skills of how shows are built. And I wonder what do you think the solution for that is? And in my mind this still feels like a new problem to a lot of people that I’m talking to because they’re not doing anything about it as far as I can tell. And I think it’s mostly reactionary because you’re used to showing up to work on a show and you have a group of people that you work with for temporarily for that day, that week, whatever, that show and you’re just used to them being at a certain skill level. And so now I feel like I’m hearing stories about people being surprised like oh, that skill level is not there anymore and I’m not sure what to do about it.
So I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.
I think that first off, I’ll say that we’ve certainly encountered some of that as well. And I think that without wanting to be in any way negative or cynical about this, I’ll say this, I’ll say the positive part of the positive part of this is that those people are out there. But there was an interruption and it wasn’t a minor interruption, it was a major interruption, right, in both people, professionals that were in the business, but also in the pipeline of people coming to us to be trained and to become the next generation of professionals on job site, et cetera. So we’ve got to work that much harder to find the people with the spark, with the work ethic, with the attitude and then train them to be that group. We’ve got a little bit of a problem here for sure, there was a period of time there when we couldn’t even find enough people to staff our shop. And so we’re past that and it took a lot of effort, it took a lot of work. And it’s also that thing of recognizing that in our industry, just like any other industry, whether it’s in shops, whether it’s in production venues, whether it’s on a freelance basis, we need to be constantly and literally every week.
If not every day, searching for people, interviewing people, determining who’s going to be the next generation, the next folks that are going to be the movers and shakers. That’s a constant effort. And I think that prior to the pandemic a lot of us were a little complacent about that, right? The people will come. We’ll always have plenty of people to be able, qualified people to fill any job site, to fill any project. And then we realized, oh surprise, it’s actually something you need to work on every week.
I don’t want to beat this to death but I do have a strong feeling that I want to see. And now I’m thinking maybe I’m wrong because I’ve moved so many times and had to start at the bottom so many times. I have often felt like one thing that’s held me back is the fact that Pro Audio is based on personal referral. And I came to understand later that once I just knew that and could figure out how to leverage it and develop relationships, it was okay. Like I could just use it. But for a long time I really hated that and I wanted to see if during the pandemic maybe the industry would shift away from personal referral and from just everyone having their own personal Rolodex that they call. But from what I’ve seen so far, people just kept doing the same thing. When I see people making calls for more contacts they’re just asking people to fill out their own personal databases. Can you sign up for our thing over here? There’s really no other way that I’ve seen people go about it. So I wonder if you do you think that is a positive or thing that supports the industry or do you think like me, that’s a negative thing?
That’s the only way I feel like that we find talent.
I agree with you but I think it’s become a little bit harder. Right. Maybe it will help if I frame the conversation. This part of this way used to be the way we worked it in our industry from the shop side of things, right, is you had folks who had a project, they’re working with a client, they’re the guys. Or somebody on their staff account executive or somebody has a rolodex of people that they work with, they have their favorites, whatever. And they would always be in other words, it was very close to the person actually doing or responsible for the job. That’s how that got done. Right. Because PRG became so much bigger of a company after our acquisition of Ver, and because we’re so busy in so many different markets, we decided to find a way to separate that whole job of figuring out who’s the right person for the job. Freelancers. How do we staff hundreds and hundreds of positions across the country on literally a daily basis rather than that all being individual project managers? Right. In individual cities, in individual places. We now have a group called Crew Services that handles that for the entire company across all of North America.
We have a slightly different way that we do this in Europe, but it’s similar to this. The database has obviously gotten bigger. The referrals have obviously gotten bigger. Now, that doesn’t preclude a project manager still has input on exactly who they want to have on a job.
That’s not 100% responsibility anymore.
Exactly. It’s not 100% their responsibility. They’re not burdened with all of the regulations and requirements that are different in California as opposed to Minnesota, as opposed to Massachusetts. They can just focus on, I’ve got a client. I know I need these key people on this job. I also need 30 other people, and here’s what the schedule is. Let’s go. So I think that is what you’re talking about a little bit, right? Is that it’s led to a little bit less of the, hey, I ran into somebody, I worked with them over the weekend. Now I got this other gig. You want to come with me on that gig? You know, I what mean, and I do think that’s where it’s going, right. Is that it’s going to be a little bit more I don’t say less personal, but less ad hoc, if that makes any sense.
Sure. Yeah. Okay. That’s good to hear. At least it’s not for me to get more work. I need to know 20 account executives at PRG. I just need to know. Cruise services.
That’s right. Get your name to me or whomever, and we’ll get it to Cruise Services with all of your particulars and away we go.
What is one book that has really been helpful for you?
Yeah, so there was a book when I was studying that was very influential to me in terms of theater Sound, and it was I think it’s now out of print, but it’s by David Collison. He’s British. The book was called Stage Sound. Right. But there’s a follow up book that’s out there that I think is pretty popular, called The Sound of Theater and very helpful to me in many different ways. Not just about what was going on back then in terms of technology, but also about one of the things I think oftentimes we don’t do when it comes to theater, when it comes to presenting any kind of it. Doesn’t have to be theater, but in a space is we don’t necessarily recognize that the space has a great deal of influence on what the sound is going to be. There. Right? And that was one of the things that I learned way back when I was a youngster. There was a book called Theater Design and Modern Architecture by a gentleman by the name of George Eisenhower. And he goes all the way back to Greek theater and all the way through the ages looking at different architecture and how that impacted the mode of presentation, the modes of theater, et cetera, music, all that kind of great stuff.
And oddly enough, fast forward all the way to this day. There’s a little bit of that same thing in a book that I’m just one of the books I’m reading right now, which is How Music Works by David Byrne, where he also has a whole bit in his book about how architecture impacts presentation and musical performance. It’s certainly no different in the theater, and I think sometimes we use sound to try to overcome issues with the architecture rather than working with it, and I think that’s a key thing.
Okay. David, do you listen to podcasts every week?
I will probably catch Harry Shearer’s La show because I’m a big fan of his comedy, but mostly I’m very nerdy about this stuff. I listen to things like the on the Media podcast that comes out of WNYC. I love that. Certainly. Radio lab frequently. But yeah, no, I spent a good deal of time commuting, so podcasts are definitely my friend.
David, where is the best place for people to keep up with what you’re doing and follow your work?
Probably the best place to keep up with what I’m doing these days is on PRG’s, social media channels, facebook, Instagram, Twitter probably we’re also doing something on TikTok by now, but, yeah, no, we try to keep up with what’s going on there as much as possible. And yeah, that’s probably the best place for people to track me down if they don’t want to call me up.
David String, thank you so much for joining me on Sound Design Live.
Nathan, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.