Retaining Control With The New Tools of The Digital Age
In our industry, we miss no chances to tell tales from the staging wars. The stories about how we saved a show in the last few seconds (okay, it was minutes) by thinking fast and employing some unusual method–– maybe involving chewing gum or tin foil. Every company has them. We tell the tale to wide-eyed newbies, and bask in the glory of our own McGyverlike ingenuity... “There I was, hanging upside down from the catwalk, a leatherman held between my teeth...
Let me first throw cold water on this practice by quoting an old friend, Chris Thorne of Riverview Systems, who told me “Shows are won and lost in the warehouse long before they leave the dock. And if you have to save them, you either hadn’t planned properly or weren’t properly prepared.”
You always were a real killjoy, Chris grin.
Nevertheless, we went to the war prepared to save the show. We carried maglites, multi-tools, and tweakers in our belts, and toolkits full of electrical tape, soldering irons, c-wrenches and alignment slides. And onsite we employed everything from duvetine to gaffer tape to old pantyhose and pieces of wooden pallets to save the day. Then we stood outside on the loading dock during load-out, already preparing the tale in our minds as a lesson to the next generation.
Then, shows went digital. And the next generation has a whole different set of problems, and a whole new toolkit to fight them with.
Enter the Network-Centric show.
Once the show went digital, a number of things changed. First of all, there’s a lot less we can do to use tinfoil as a band-aid. Secondly, troubleshooting changes direction and method quite a bit. But lets first begin with what SHOULD be in that toolkit now.
First, in the old days we carried tools to save the show media itself. Today, we carry tools that help us move or save digital media and files:
* Memory—no, not the kind that helps us tell the tales, but the kind that will use USB or firewire to move files from one machine to another. It should be compact, but as large and fast as possible. The free USB sticks that manufacturers give you are worth what you paid for them. They’re too small and too slow. Get yourself one that’s USB2 and at least 8GB in size, and back it up with a high-speed USB2 or firewire drive that’s at least 100GB. Today’s video files are too large for the small memory sticks, and they’re much too slow to play from should it become necessary. In fact, stick to USB2, as firewire is on its way out now.
*File recovery software—Don’t leave home without it. Have copies of your favorite utilities for the software platform you work with for sure, and your client’s if at all possible. The show site is a land of power glitches and temporary network failures that can cause file corruption, and we should be prepared with this modern variant on chewing gum.
* A programmable router—Never trust the routers provided by the venue to allow you the level of control you need to save the show. And NEVER trust their wireless. At an old InfoComm, many moons ago, a friend asked me “If you could buy replacements for all your wireless microphones, what would you buy?” Without hesitation, I replied “XLR Cable”. Hotel wireless drops in and out based on other clients’ use, and is largely controlled by one of the big wireless suppliers from some remote location. This means they will deploy a new firewall or a new router “upgrade” the morning of your show. Carry your own, insist on a wired hookup with an exposed public IP, and know how to program it.
* Mi-Fi or a “jail broken” 3G or 4G phone—sometimes, there’s no substitute for your own network service, even if it is a bit slow and too expensive. The ability to move or retrieve files without depending on the venue can save your bacon. I love the new 4G Mi-Fi, which is a pocket wireless router that will serve several devices, creating a local wireless network connected to cellular data service. This coverage gets faster and better all the time, and it means I walk into the venue with a network already working.
So, as you can see, some of the tools have changed. We’ll talk about more of them, and about using them in troubleshooting, next issue. In the meantime, put the chewing gum back in your mouth. You wont’ be needing it to save the show, and you shouldn’t leave it anyplace the venue gets angry about.