Our “Secret” Weapon
Our Head of Production, Donovan Deschner, shows and tells all about the software that is (without exaggeration) behind every one of our events. RocketHouse couldn’t do most of what we do without it. Now you too can leverage this awesome power for your own productions (that is if you haven’t already).
I found this very important piece of behind the scenes software while I was in front of the scenes, acting in a play. This discovery was born of frustration during a rehearsal and I couldn’t be happier that it happened.
You may have heard the cliché saying that the secret to comedy is timing. While this phrase has been overly used there’s certainly truth in it. Many jokes hinge on a fraction of a second. Nobody can teach this important skill for a performer but work and experience can nudge you towards better instincts. It was this ephemeral sense that was telling me that, comedically, now was the right time to enter the stage for maximum laughs. I began my entrance but was stopped by a voice from the tech booth: “Hold on… you’ll have to give us a few extra seconds so we can adjust the sound.”
“A few extra seconds?!” That’s an eternity in comedy. In this case, I was convinced, it was the difference between a laugh and no laugh. And if you’ve ever experienced “no laugh” versus “a laugh” you’ll push to get the “a laugh” every time.
This needed delay dumbfounded me. The light cues can happen back to back – with the simple push of a button labelled “GO.” You can stack them together, run them simultaneously, do whatever your imagination desires. Surely sound cues could work the same. As as I stood quietly fuming about my “no laugh” moment, I lamented to myself: “There’s got to be a better way!”
As is almost always the case when that lament is uttered, there most certainly was.
"As as I stood quietly fuming about my 'no laugh' moment, I lamented to myself: 'There's got to be a better way!'"
(And it's free!)
That very night I took to the internet and within a few minutes had found what would become the most indispensable piece of software I would ever download. It would have fixed every problem that the tech booth was having and so much more. This was all too good to be true. It must cost a fortu-NOPE! Free to download and basic functionality (which is still plenty for many productions) is also free.
Calling this software our “secret” weapon is more than a bit of an overstatement. (Really, it’s just a catchy title for the article.) QLab is, in fact, an industry standard and an industry leader. It’s software that’s used by theatre companies (large and small), churches, sporting events, and many more. Despite its popularity, I am still shocked at who doesn’t know it exists. Many in the industry still rely on playback from music listening software that’s built-in to their computers. Others still, and this really gets us nervous sweating, cue off of MP3 players.
FUN FACT: All makes, models, and brands of MP3 players including those on mobile phones are forbidden in RocketHouse productions. They are simply not reliable or consistent enough for when it really matters that the show goes well.
The only caveat here is that QLab only works on Apple computers. If you’re not using that platform I do know that there are similar options on PCs but I don’t have enough experience with any of them to make a specific recommendation.
While the free version of the software is quite powerful, we at RocketHouse are more often than not using the paid version for even more functionality (some of which I refer to below without referencing specifically). Once you’ve mastered the free features, you can buy or rent (very affordably) a license to take your productions to the next level.
"This was all too good to be true."
(And why other audio playback software isn't show-ready.)
This section of the article is meant to be a very high-level overview of what QLab is and why it’s such an excellent piece of software. If you’re ready to dive in and start making your own shows, it is highly recommended that you consult Figure 53’s QLab Documentation and Manual by clicking here.
The basic functions of QLab (the ones that are included for free) are an excellent illustration of why other audio playback software (at least the ones that come included with your computer) are terrible for running sound cues or, for that matter, anything during a show. Saying nothing of the fact that they simply are not built for that type of use, the features that programs for listening to music while you work or throw a party are working against you in a show. Let’s start with how a cue is “triggered” (that’s fancy talk for how a cue is started)…
Spacebar = GO!
When you’re timing an entrance in a comedy play or playing an award recipient video when the cue needs to start it needs to start now. There’s no time to see where your mouse pointer is on the screen and move it, there’s no time to unlock an MP3 player that’s put itself to sleep, and there’s certainly no time to look up a track title in a list of cues. You only have time to press a button, and QLab, by default, gives you the biggest button on a keyboard to press – the spacebar.
As soon as you tap the spacebar, a nearly infinite numbers of things can happen in QLab: a song can play, a song can fade out, a song can stop, a video can pause, a music cue can fade slightly while another cue plays over top, and I could go and on and on. Suffice to say, once your show is built in this software, executing that show is as easy as pressing one single button again and again.
With preparation, this simplicity means nearly anyone can run a complicated show with very little training. If you make use of the Notes section of the screen, you can quickly train a seasoned professional or a new amateur on how to execute your production. Preferably, you’d use the seasoned professional, of course, but that’s not always an option.
Nine times out of ten, with the proper pre-production work, the only button pressed during a performance is the spacebar. When mistakes do happen, they can often be solved by skipping over a cue or backing up to another cue with the arrow keys. For those very rare moments when larger errors happen more extreme measures need to be taken and the computer’s mouse will have to be used. In fact, if you ever see me using a mouse during a production, that’s a good bet that something has gone really wrong. Thankfully, I can count on one hand the number of times that this has happened. It’s a high enough success rate that I head into every event confidently whether or not I’m running the cues personally.
QLab Only Does What It Is Asked
Another reason that QLab stands head and shoulders (and probably most of a torso) above standard built-in playback software is that it only does what it is explicitly asked to do. When you’re playing music on consumer software one song plays automatically into another. That’s great when you’re throwing a party or driving in your car, but not great when the songs aren’t related to one another in a show and have very different starting times in the overall production.
When you tell QLab to start playing a cue, it just plays that cue. If the song ends, playback stops (unless you’ve told QLab otherwise, of course). Same goes for every other possible cue – only what you ask it to do.
Two important terms you’ll need to understand are “Auto-follow” and “Auto-continue.” The best way to think about these terms is another way to trigger a cue (other than the spacebar). If you set a cue to Auto-follow, as soon as its playback/execution has completed it will trigger the next cue. If you set a cue to Auto-continue, when that cue begins with your spacebar press the next cue will begin at the exact same time. These functions can be stacked, one on top of the other, to create many different sequences.
Giving you this control instead of having it set by default is very important. Every production is different and there are few cases where “out of the box” options work.
How many times have you been using a computer and it does something close to what you want, but just a little off? Maybe you wanted a left-click and slipped and right-clicked. Maybe you were supposed to single-click and double-clicked instead. In everyday computer use, these mistakes aren’t a big deal. During a production, however, they can make huge and embarrassing differences. Thankfully, to prevent mistakes, QLab has a built-in setting to prevent accidental triggers.
By going into your settings (click on the gear in the lower right corner) you can set the minimum time required between each GO cue (or, in other words, the press of the spacebar). In most cases, a setting of one second is more than enough to prevent an excited or distracted operator from accidentally starting two cues when only one is supposed to be needed.
This is all just the very tip of the iceberg of functionality that QLab gives. If you start using it in your productions, and even if you already are, there are lots of powerful options to explore.
"... if you ever see me using a mouse during a production, that's a good bet that something has gone really wrong."
One More Download
Whenever I open QLab to run a show, before I do anything else, I also open a program called InsomniaX. This excellent piece of software serves a couple of important functions that ensure every show is a success.
As its name implies, this software gives your computer insomnia. That is to say, more plainly, that it prevents your computer from going to sleep. Primarily this ensures that if, after remaining idle for some time, the screen doesn’t black out and require a password upon waking. You can imagine how unsettling it is after briefly walking away from a show computer returning to see a black screen or having to type your password quickly because a cue is about to come up.
While this precaution can be simulated by modifying your computer settings (removing your password and adjusting your power settings) without adding additional software, InsomniaX adds one extra feature that’s indispensable. In addition to preventing your computer from sleeping due to a preset idle time, it can also prevent laptops from sleeping when their screens are closed. This can happen by accident, of course, but sometimes even on purpose. Once I quickly closed the laptop to avoid a spill making it’s way to the keyboard. No matter the reason, this setting ensures even mistakes can’t stop a show from going on.
"... even mistakes can't stop a show from going on."
Preparing Your Computer
Turn your everyday computer into a legitimate production system!
In a perfect world, computers which run shows would do only that. They wouldn’t receive email or even be connected to the internet at all. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why this isn’t always possible. Most often it’s a budget restraint (two computers is just out of the question many times), sometimes it’s a logistics problem (I’m often only able to fly with one computer due to weight restrictions). No matter what the reason may be, there are some steps that you can take to ensure that your everyday computer runs like a show system.
The danger here, and the fear, is that your computer operating normally can cause some serious problems or interruptions during a show. Just imagine your lead performer going into their final pose for a huge applause cue only to be interrupted by your email chime alerting you and 700 audience members that there’s a sale at your local grocery store. Here are some things that you can do to ensure that just you know about the special on frozen pizzas…
Mute Alert Sounds
This may not be practical for the infrequent show producer but I can’t recommend highly enough that you mute all your computer’s sounds. Mine have been shut off for years and I certainly don’t miss them. You only have to do this step once if you’re comfortable with your computer remaining quiet all the time. Otherwise, you’d be turning them on and off before and after every event and that’s the sort of thing that can be easily forgotten.
Muting all alerts is very easy. Head to your “System Preferences,” click “Sound,” and in the panel that appears the “Sound Effects” tab should be selected (if not, select it). In this area, set the “Alert volume” to the far left or zero. Then, make sure that “Play user interface sound effects” is unchecked.
Now, even if you forget many of the steps below, you’re still somewhat protected against interruptions that can ruin your production.
Computer Settings and Configuration
To further prevent problems during production, make sure to complete the following steps:
- If using a laptop, plug in the computer. This saves lots of stress during long shows and when you’re not sure the last time you were able to fully charge your laptop battery. (Plus your computer will use a bit more power since, as mentioned above, InsomniaX is preventing the screen from sleeping).
- Turn off your WiFi and unplug any ethernet cables. You want to prevent your computer to be able to access the internet.
- There are some more advanced features in QLab that require network access but if this is your first experience with the software you almost certainly won’t need them.
- Turn off your Bluetooth sending/receiving functions. Treat your computer like setting your phone to its “Airplane Mode” while flying.
- Turn off all other programs – even helper applications that run in your top menu bar all the time. (This includes programs that help sync your cloud storage, update your apps, etc.) Ideally, the only applications open should be QLab and InsomniaX.
- Make sure you have access to a computer mouse for potential problems/fixes as mentioned above. The trackpad on a laptop works great or a hardwired USB mouse (because you’ve already turned your Bluetooth off and you don’t want batteries failing midway through the show).
- Turn off notifications. Yes, you’ve muted your sounds and turned off your internet but as a (near final) precaution I’d also suggest turning off your notifications. Or, at least, muting them for the longest possible duration. These are the alerts that pop up in the corner of your screen. With the sound off, they likely won’t impact an audio-only show but if you’re playing video on multiple screens it’s a possibility, however slim, that they could interrupt your show.
- Do not plug anything into your computer once the show starts. I’ve sat in audiences where someone clearly needed to charge their phone, plugged it into the production computer, and triggered an on-screen message visible to the whole theatre, that “Sandylicious’s Phone” was plugged in.
If you’re using your computer for shows often or you have a big production coming up, I also recommend holding off on new operating system software updates (no matter how much they bug you to install them). Early release glitches in the OS can cause severe problems and have almost derailed several productions I’ve been affiliated with. Wait until the second or even third release of the software if at all possible.
By now all of these steps and precautions likely feel like overkill. But, I promise, the effort pales in comparison to the possibility of a mistake in front of a paying audience with high expectations.
"... I promise, the effort pales in comparison to the possibility of a mistake ..."
There was no exaggeration when I said how integral QLab is to our events.Whether we’re showing employees how much they are valued or helping speakers share their stories, it always has our backs. It makes sure that we can walk into every one of live Creations with confidence.
Your next cue is simple. I hope the above has inspired you to trigger it. Your cue is to download the software and begin learning to use it the best way that I know how – play with it, make mistakes, explore every button and menu. With just a little bit of effort, I know that it can make your events better and better.
That’s your cue. Allow me to call it for you… “GO!”
This article written by...
Head of Production
For more than 20 years, Donovan Deschner has been entertaining audiences both in front of and behind the curtain. When he’s not bringing RocketHouse Creations to life, he’s touring the nation as a stand-up comedian or lending his skills as a producer to a wide variety of shows including The Debaters LIVE On Tour. Past credits include Host for the SuperDogs, his own full-length comedy special, No Backup Plan, and the creation of Red Carpet Comedy. His philosophy when Curating is simple: leave nothing to chance and build in measures to solve problems before they occur.