Percussion In The Dark: Nothing A Couple Of LEDs Can’t Fix

Bringing together technology to help foster a new and creative concert experience

By Courtney Roebuck March 14, 2012

Ever wonder how to cue an ensemble in the dark? Just grab a few 220-ohm resistors and some light-emitting diodes and you’re halfway there.

Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA made a mark on innovation and ways to experience music as an audience member with a recent percussion ensemble performance of “Pika-Don” by American composer James Tenney.

The piece is a musical representation of a percussion ensemble paired with prerecorded voiceover tracks of writings taken from the scientists at the first atomic bomb test, and from the survivors of the Hiroshima bombings.

Professor Earl Yowell, the director of the ensemble, came to adjunct professor Mike Sokol with the desire to perform this piece, but lacked the technical knowledge to accomplish the task.

“When I discovered Pika-Don (“Flash-Boom”) by James Tenney, two thoughts came to my mind,” Yowell explains. “First, I have to do this piece with the SU Percussion Ensemble, and second, I have no idea how to make the technological demands work. When the piece was written the technology was very different than now. Instead of, for example, a [Apple] Logic editing program running on a computer, there was a 4-track analog tape. 

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“The composer suggested that the performers use four synchronized stop watches,” he continues. “The process of coordinating the quadraphonic tape, stopwatches and the performers seemed clumsy at best. Deciding to use an audible click track was the first option, but the players also needed to be able to hear the pre-recorded voices.

“So, Mike Sokol came up with the idea of an (LED) light click track. Instead of an audible click, the performers would be cued visibly with a flashing LED. The timing for the flashing would be provided by a fifth audio track that contained some kind of sound that would be used to trigger the LEDs. 

“I chose a gong for that sound because its sharp attack would light the LEDs with a definite on-beat every five seconds and the gong sustain would fade out the LEDs gradually over a second. Mike and his class did a wonderful job building, soldering and bringing together all of the technology that made for a flawless performance and gave the audience a new and creative concert experience.”

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Sokol took his light click track idea to the live sound practicum students in the Music Production and Recording Technology program at Shenandoah University, and they were able to build a system to not only cue the four percussionists in the dark auditorium of Shenandoah’s concert hall, but also have the pre-recorded tracks running from a Logic session on a MacBook Pro computer at the same time from four different loudspeaker locations surrounding the audience in the auditorium.

The setup was borderline Frankenstein’s monster, but it went over without a hitch. The power source for this monster was two Crown Audio Power Base power amplifiers wired to four Community CPL monitor wedges. The wedges were faced toward the auditorium walls so that the voiceover tracks were diffused before they reached the audience, which lent itself to the overall effect of how the bombing survivors felt during their experiences.

The Logic session was run on a MacBook Pro via Firewire feeding a MOTU 828 I/O box whose outputs 1-4 were routed with TRS/DB-25 connections through a Whirlwind 5.1 PA Precision Attenuator. The signal was then routed down to the power amplifiers in front of the stage and finally out to four cables sending signal to the monitor wedges. The Whirlwind 5.1 gave the ensemble director—who was sitting in the middle of the audience—the overall gain and volume control of the voiceover tracks so that they were balanced throughout the hall, but did not affect the LED cueing mechanism in any manner.

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