Broadway Show Review – Dear Evan Hansen

Broadway Show Review – Dear Evan Hansen

A few weeks ago we held had our annual trip to see several Broadway shows.  This is a review of the lighting, sound, and tech for “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Music Box theatre.  I’m not going to review the overall show – there are many reviews of the story and show.  This is a review of tech aspects, with just a few comments about the show.

Loved the music and story was interesting.  Outstanding acting, especially the “ticks” that Evan Hansen was exhibiting.  But this review is about the tech so lets move on….

Sound:
The story is closely connected with social media, so the entire pre-show consisted of bleeps, beeps, and other cell phone notification sounds.  Very creative, but it did get tiresome after about 10min.  If you arrive early to the show, the 25 or so minutes of notification sounds was almost annoying.

The pit was on stage, setup on a deck above the main stage floor.  Pit volume was appropriate for the show.

Based on where our seats were (orchestra right, a few rows from the stage) and a lack of front fill speakers, the vocals were too quiet compared to the pit.  I don’t blame pit volume – it seemed right.  But we were only getting live vocals (no sound reinforcement) from the actors, so some dialog was challenging to hear.  Not sure why there were no front fill speakers.  It’s my only real criticism of the sound.   There were two late mic cues, which I find refreshing to know that there are humans behind the console.

Lights:
Outstanding lighting by Japhy Weideman.  Maybe better than Next to Normal which is my high water benchmark.  There was excellent, smoothly crafted layering, and cue flow was perfect.  Most cues were were well motivated, appropriately subtle when needed, and big/bold when it added to the music or story telling.   I keep coming back to how Next to Normal handled the very smooth cue flow, again except when big/bold strokes were needed.    There were two follow spots on box  torms which created good layering and helped avoid issues with the scrims that often had video projections on them.

Color choices were excellent.  The right balance of warmth with accents from the side, and typically cool backlight.  But it wasn’t always the same, shifting tone as mood and drama required.  And there were the big and bold cues with dramatic color shifts, all well motivated and driven by the story. Smooth and unobtrusive, yet still dramatic when needed

There was one interesting issue between lights and one actress’ makeup.  This actress was an understudy playing Heidi.  The makeup looked cold and pasty, not the warm natural facial tones of all the other actors.  The actress was clearly talented, so I’m not sure why the difference was so noticeable, other than since she was an understudy, the makeup choice was just an accident.  And I typically don’t notice makeup.

A nice small touch was use of LEDs in laptops to simulate the screen shine on the actor’s faces.  They provided an ideal, easily seen cold light.  Slightly overstated from normal, but this would be easily seen from all seats in the house.  A smart decision, not too unlike how most of us use a dark blue for night on stage, so we can still see the actors bodies.  This was well done, and totally supported the use of computers as part of the social media character.

Projections/Staging:
The show depends heavily on scrims and screens to convey social media, which served as it’s own character.  Four projectors mounted on the balcony rail were providing imagry of texts and similar on several tall scrims.   The scrims were at and upstage of the curtain line, a little wide of center.  The crafting of back light and front light was exceptional, providing a perfect interplay between projections, screens, and lighting.

 

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Broadway Show Review – Great Comet of 1812

Broadway Show Review – Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812

A few weeks ago we held had our annual trip to see several Broadway shows.  This is a review of the lighting, sound, and tech for “Great Comet of 1812” at the Imperial theatre.  I’m not going to review the overall show -there are many reviews of the story and show.  This is a review of tech aspects, with just a few comments about the show.

For starters, let me get this out quickly before diving into the tech:  I didn’t like the music nor story.  And the show was vastly too long.  As my wife put it, it was a long soap opera.  But I want to focus on the tech!

Sound Design
The Sound Design was outstanding.  Some of the best I have ever heard.  It was exceptionally difficult to do, given that the positioning of lead vocals were not only panned left and right, but upstage and downstage too.  Since the audience is not just in front of the stage, but in, on, and around the stage, the speakers were hanging everywhere too.  Wow, that made the job even more difficult.  Many, many opportunities for feedback, but the audio was pristine.  Wonderful!

One of the ways the audio design team managed this difficult sound was by controlling the pit volumes to a very low level.  And when I say “pit”, that’s really a misnomer – the musicians were running, dancing, and walking throughout the house and the set.  Yet the instrument volumes were always below the singers and actors.  No straining to hear dialog or vocals.  And of course with the aforementioned challenges with speakers and actors everywhere, low pit volumes were a must.

Speaking of musicians and singers everywhere, the wireless audio demands seemed extreme.  The lead actors and musicians had one wireless for in-ear monitor, one for vocal mic, and the musicians had a third wireless for their instrument (violin, guitar, accordion, clarinet, etc.).  With such a large cast and pit, that’s one heck of a lot of wireless channels.  Certainly rivaling any huge show in Vegas, and I’ve never seen this much on Broadway.  Another technical challenge well handled.

There were occasional missed cues – refreshing because I know personally how easy it is to miss a cue.  This it the top of the professional game, so knowing the sound tech(s) are human sometimes makes me smile.

Set
Fantastic set – the audience is woven throughout the set.  Not just on side stage, but throughout the set.  There were even two working bars on the set (only operating during preshow and intermission, but still…).

Lighting
The lighting design was driven by the set complexity.  Overall, it was NOT fantastic lighting.  I would say “Excellent lighting and functional lighting, but not exceptional or fantastic”.   They won a Tony(R) Award for outstanding lighting design, yet I felt it was not on par with “Dear Evan Hansen” or my high water benchmark of “Next to Normal”.

Sure, the lighting was functional, but it had to be with everyone all over the set.  But little in the way of carefully chosen colors or blends and tender fades.  Cold light and/or warm light, pounding on and off.  Oh yes, some reds from above on stage front too.  But not much else from the huge pallet that’s available to drive mood – except for the final “comet” bulb at the closing; that was nice.  And what’s with the 6 or 8 “in your face” back lights that were on a low angle from the back of the stage?  Nothing subtle about those.   And of course they had LED sneakers and a rock concert number of 3000W strobes for the crazy party scene.  And bare bulbs and Sputnik type chandeliers that were motorized up and down.  Pretty sometimes, artful sometimes, but that’s not award winning lighting art in my book.  I was underwhelmed.

And my final beef with the lighting:  During one song, they were pulsing house lights up and down to the music – really?  I expect that in a middle school musical that is starved for lighting gear, but on Broadway – really?  And then there was the house light row-chase.  Yep!!!  Kudos to two of my high school lighting students Jeremy and Adam who used that on many shows here in Rochester about 10 years back.  In fact, it’s still programmed into the Olympia HS lighting console.  I hope you both get an award someday soon.

 

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Labeling Wireless Microphone “Shoe Bags”

shoe bag

Often in theatre, shoe bags are used to deploy body pack style wireless microphones, as well as small props.  One issue I’ve had is labeling the shoe bag pockets with the actor/character name.  Since I use cloth shoe bags, gaff and other tape doesn’t stick well.  So the challenge is how to label in a way that doesn’t snag the microphone wire.  I’m offering two solutions:

Pin-on name tags (like used for reunions or business gatherings):

pin on name tagsUsing binder clips (found this on the internet):

Mic Shoe Bag Labels

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Shop Tools and Tips – Foil & Plastic Wrap

plastic-wrap-in-the-shop-sm

If you have a home based workshop, stop going to the kitchen to steal plastic wrap or foil to cover your paintbrush between coats.  Often overlooked, having rolls of plastic wrap, foil, and wax paper in the shop avoids tracking sawdust into the main part of the house.  Why wax paper?  To put under stuff you are gluing.  Note how we’ve clearly labeled each, as the boxes all tend to look the same, and the actual product is typically labeled in fine print.

Oh yea, we’ve stopped using newspapers on the benches to avoid paint spatter.  Corrugated cardboard lays flatter and can be used many times.

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Roland Aerophone AE-10 Wind Synthesizer

roland-wind-controller

Roland just announced their new entrant into the wind controller (wind synthesizer) market.  This has on-board sounds, usb port, audio output port, and sax fingerings.  No point in re-typing what Roland has on their website:

https://www.roland.com/global/products/aerophone_ae-10/

Here is a short promo video:


A nice technical summary, including a glimpse into the menu system:

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Broadway Show Review – Matilda

Matilda Playbill

A few weeks ago we held had our annual trip to see several Broadway shows.  This is a review of the lighting and sound for “Matilda” at the Shubert theatre.  I’m not going to review the overall show -there are many reviews of the story and show.  This is a review of tech aspects.

Sound:  The sound, especially at the start of the show with the youth actors, was challenging.  Intelligibility was seriously lacking.  The actors were using thick British accents, so intelligibility at the top of the show is important, if for nothing more than getting my brain set for the duration of the show.  The sound was mushy (muddy) and seemed to need more mid-range frequencies.  Additionally, the vocals were not on top of the orchestra.  Sometimes in these cases the orchestra is too loud.  But for “Matilda”, this wasn’t the case.  The actors were just not loud enough at the top of the show.  I did find that the principal adult actors were well balanced and had excellent intelligibility.  I’ve heard from others who saw the show in previous years that had similar criticism.

Lights:  Overall, the lighting was excellent, designed by Hugh Vanstone.  Very colorful, which suited the show quite well.  Plenty of light on stage, especially the high key library scenes.  Darker scenes like the classroom were totally appropriate, and with sufficient front spotlight to pick up the actors faces.  I’ve seen several other shows that seem to love under lighting principle actors only to loose all facial expressions.  Billy Elliot comes to mind where I’ve been pretty vocal about insufficient lighting in several spots where actors are delivering lines with almost no light, including lack of side light and back light – just plain too dark.  One thought about the opening scene with the birthday cake – the candles were LED which is great.  But instead of a single LED in a molded flame, the show was using birthday cake candles where each flame had what looked like 5-6 individual tiny LEDs.  This created an nice effect more similar to a sparkler than a typical birthday candle.  It’s a design decision, and fit nicely with the somewhat cartoon nature of the show.

Tech:  At the top of the show, they halted the show twice just after the curtain opened.  I feel for the cast and crew.  Some idiots in the house actually booed on the second halt.  No manners.  On the second try, it was obvious the scrim was stopping about 2m (6 feet) as it lifted off the floor.  On the third try, they had already struck the scrim and just moved into the show.  Great recovery.  There were several illusions in the show, and there’s even a cast credit for Illusion (Paul Kieve).  Kieve and Vanstone both worked on “Ghost”.  The most impressive illusion in “Matilda” is a chalkboard that writes with no visible means.  While there were two large digital projectors mounted on the balcony rail, video is the obvious effect.  But the chalkboard moves downstage while it is magically writing, and there was absolutely NO visible tracking mismatch.  So it’s either incredibly accurate tracking, or something else.  If something else, perhaps the chalk writing was rear projected and physically traveling with the screen.  A much simpler solution (thanks Kevin!), but I really don’t know!

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Lycian Spotlight Repair – Brass Paper Fastener shorting the light

Lycean Spotlight

A few weeks ago we were asked to repair a Lycian HP Midget follow spot (model 1209).  The spot stopped igniting (starting the arc) more than a year ago, although one person did say it worked once after being sidelined.

Lycean Spotlight brass fastners on boomerang

After we unloaded the spot and brought it into the shop, it worked perfectly.  But we heard loose parts inside.  After investigating, we found 3 brass paper fasteners used to hold gels in the boomerang loose inside the main electronics compartment.  One was stuck under the main circuit board (probably the one shorting out the starting circuit prior to transport), one got stuck under a transformer body, and one as loose in the bottom compartment sliding as you tip the spot up and down.  There was a dead bee too.  Oh yea, we found a 4th brass paper fastener in the back of the Vibe we used to pick up the follow spot.

While we can’t say definitively that the metal paper fasteners were the true root cause, but since there was one stuck under the circuit board, that’s the only logical conclusion.  We have now run the spotlight for 3-4 hours, with about 20 start cycles and no issues.

Lycean Spotlight boomerang out

Looking at the spot construction, there is a blower fan right under the gel boomerang to keep the gels cool.  It’s not a large opening (see photo below), but with 3 of the paper fasteners in the lower electronic housing, the blower opening is probably the only way they got there (that we could see).  There’s no screen of any type over the blower opening.

Lycean Spotlight fan opening

While the removal of the brass paper fasteners is seemingly simple, removal of the lower electronics enclosure was not easy.  It took two of us to do it, and the lamp wires needed to remain connected.  Perhaps we missed something, but it did seem harder than it should be.

Lycean Spotlight back

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Programming a Synth for Wind Control (part 2 of 2)

jv1010

Part 2: It’s an ill wind that blows no good

Part 1 offered simplified theory of why most stock synthesizer patches don’t work well with a wind controller, and summarized a few guidelines for making a patch wind-friendly. Part 2 discusses the specifics of creating a wind-friendly patch on the Roland JV-1010, but could be applied to many other Roland synths, and probably other makes and models as well.

In the architecture of Roland’s JD/JV/XV series, a patch consists of four tones, each of which can be assigned a different waveform and tweaked independently. Each tone is further divided into sections for waveform, pitch, amplifier, MIDI key follow, filter, and LFO. You can apply CC02 to parameters in some of these sections, and set the degree to which CC02 affects each parameter. This is done in a control matrix, which has been a part of Roland’s design for several generations of synths. It seems each generation allows more tonal and effect parameters to be linked to more continuous controllers, which provides for increasingly complex patch behavior. In addition, there are patch-wide settings, such as patch volume, portamento, bend range, and tuning, which apply globally to all tones in the patch.

Basic steps – creating a WC-friendly patch

The following steps describe how to create a basic wind-friendly patch on the Roland JV-1010. The patch will be created from scratch, which is actually easier than modifying an existing patch. You can start with a known quantity, and avoid having to second-guess and undo settings.

Patch editing on the JV-1010 requires installing and setting up the editor software (SoundDiver, originally supplied with the module) on a Windows PC. This is necessary because the JV-1010’s 2-digit display and front panel offer very little programming capability. If you have a module with full display and control panel, you might be able to go directly to the programming steps.

A MIDI interface and its driver are also needed to get the computer and module communicating. A MIDI interface that has dual channels — two MIDI INs and two MIDI OUTs – will allow the WC and computer inputs to both drive one output to the module. You can then audition sounds as you tweak. My preference is the Roland UM-2G (http://www.roland.com/products/um-2g/). An alternative is a single-channel MIDI interface, with a MIDI merge box for the WC.

If all this prep sounds overwhelming, you might decide to stop now. If you’re ready, here’s how to continue:

  1. Connect the computer, MIDI interface, WC, and module, turn everything on.
  2. Run the editor software and set up the editor as needed to establish communication with the module.
  3. Using the editor, load all the patches from the user area of the module. Find an unused or unneeded patch and open it.
  4. Initialize the patch. This will load a waveform into the tone and reset most settings. You now have a basic keyboard
  5. Click the patch’s Patch Common section and assign Breath as system controllers 2 and 3.
  6. In the Patch Common section, set the “Key Assign” parameter to monophonic (MONO). If the patch is polyphonic, it may “pile on” new notes without turning off the old – definitely
  7. Turn off all but tone #1.
  8. In the tone’s Wave section, assign the desired waveform. This should be a “sustaining” waveform, i.e., a brass, wind, or bowed string instrument, or a continuous electronic wave (sine, square, triangle, etc.). Percussion waveforms (piano, drums, etc.) don’t work quite as well for wind control.
  9. As a starting point, set the tone’s “Gain” to “6dB.” When you complete a pass at creating the patch, you can raise or lower the level.
  10. Set the “Level” in the tone’s Amplifier section to zero.
    Note: A patch can contain multiple level settings with various labels. Some of these affect the complete tone or the whole patch. The “Level” setting you want is located in the Amplifier
  11. In the Amplifier section, set the sustain portion of the tone’s envelope to maximum. This will provide “breathing room” so that CC02 can raise the tone’s volume level.
  12. To eliminate dependence on attack velocity, check and set the sensitivity of all velocity controls in the Pitch, Filter, and Amplifier sections to zero.
  13. In the tone’s Controller section, assign CC02 to the tone’s “TVA Level” parameter, and set CC02’s control level to maximum. This allows CC02 to control volume.
  14. Save the patch. Play and re-tweak as needed.

But wait…there’s more

Developing a WC-friendly patch is usually an iterative process. You can expect to repeat the process as you play the patch and think of ways to improve it. You may also want to enhance the patch as a result of learning more about your synthesizer and the instrument you are trying to emulate. Here are a few additional programming tricks you can explore:

  • Activate the other tones in the patch, copy and paste the original tone into them, and create layers that use the same or different waveforms. A common trick is to assign a white or pink noise waveform to one tone, and dial in a small amount to serve as breath noise.
  • Set up tones to increase in volume at different rates, or for one tone’s volume to decrease as another tone’s volume increases (cross-fading).
  • Simulate attack transients. For example, if your module contains a string attack waveform, you can use assign it to a tone, and make the tone sensitive to attack velocity. When you tongue the note more strongly, the waveform sounds to simulate the chop of the bow.
  • Configure the tone’s filter (TVF) as a low-pass filter, and adjust filter cutoff to initially make the patch slightly “dull.” Then, tie CC02 to cutoff and adjust the degree of control. Breath pressure will increase brightness, simulating how some acoustic instruments brighten as they are played louder. You can also create “wah” effects, or tie breath to filter resonance.
  • Modify LFO rate, depth, or delay to vary with breath pressure. This provides vibrato that is more realistic than what occurs when a patch is assigned a static LFO rate and depth.
  • Vary effects parameters (e.g., reverb time) with breath pressure.
  • Use the new patch as a template to create new patches just by swapping waveforms.
  • Experiment, experiment, experiment.

If you are trying to emulate an acoustic instrument, you can study the instrument to determine how it responds when played, and how CC02 and pitch bend can help you realize the desired result. For example, brass and reed players might want to apply lip vibrato in place of relying on the patch’s LFO setting. The WX7’s reed isn’t quite as supple as a cane reed for applying vibrato, but it can be used for that purpose by setting the tone’s LFOs to have no effect, and then setting patch bend range to respond as desired to your lip action. A good book for studying instruments is “A Synthesist’s Guide to Acoustic Instruments” (http://www.amazon.com/A-Synthesists-Guide-Acoustic-Instruments/dp/0825610893). It’s relatively inexpensive, and while intended for programming keyboard patches, it is worth having for its analysis of the physics of different instrument families.

If you want to create more “synthy” sounds, the process is both easier and more difficult. Some synthesizers contain generic waveform building blocks (saw, square, triangle, etc.) that you can use like acoustic instrument waveforms, and the same programming steps still apply. However, you might not have a target sound to work toward, so you are more on our own to determine when you are finished.

In the end, synthesizer programming and playing are all about creativity, expression, and meeting requirements. It is also a subjective process. When you get the patch to respond and sound to your liking, you can treat it as one more arrow in your synthetic quiver, just as a guitarist reaches for one guitar or another depending on the song. You start out learning to “play the patch,” but eventually, the patch becomes secondary to your interpretation of the music.

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Programming a Synth for Wind Control (part 1 of 2)

wx11

Part 1: It’s an ill wind that blows no good

So…, you just returned from a musician’s yard sale where you scored a MIDI gadget that looks like Darth Vader’s clarinet. You plug it into your keyboard synth, select your favorite patch, and then risk a toot. In exchange, you get the musical equivalent of a bucking bronco, or maybe nothing at all.

No, you probably were not taken by the purveyor of yardly treasures. You’ve simply discovered that the stock patches in most keyboard and modular synthesizers are not particularly well-suited to wind controllers. In this article, we’ll look at why, as well as a bit of theory for bringing harmony to your wind controller and sound generator.

A little bitta MIDI

A MIDI stream can contain many types of data. We’ll be concerned with two: “one-shot” messages, such as those occurring when a key or patch change button is pressed, and “continuous controller” messages, which comprise a stream of values corresponding to the position of a sensor or control (e.g., a pitch bend or modulation wheel).

In a typical keyboard synthesizer or module, patches are optimized to respond to the dynamics of a keyboard. A key press sends a MIDI note number and attack velocity value to the synth circuitry. If the keyboard responds to aftertouch, pressing the key past bottom sends a burst of aftertouch messages that can be used to modify the sound. Likewise, working a control wheel sends additional MIDI messages.  Releasing the key sends a note off signal and release velocity.

In addition, patches often contain tone modifiers such as LFO, filter, or key-follow curves that determine how the sound plays out during key-down. These modifications occur programmatically over time, but some can also be tied to a continuous controller. The MIDI stream may include “active sense” messages, which simply confirm that the connection is intact between a separate keyboard controller and external synth module. For the purposes of patch control, you can ignore active sense.

A MIDI blabbermouth

A typical wind controller (“WC” here out) is a different animal. When you blow into the mouthpiece, the WC sends a constant stream of continuous controller data for as long as you maintain breath pressure. The continuous controller is usually “Breath” (CC02), but it can be aftertouch and/or volume (CC07); it depends on the wind controller. This relative glut of MIDI data is the chief reason it is difficult to sequence a WC; many sequencers can’t process that much data in real time.
For the sake of discussion, let’s assume the WC is a Yamaha WX7, and it is set up to send breath data (“CC02” for the rest of this article). When you blow into the mouthpiece, the WX7 sends a note-on message that turns on the fingered note with an attack velocity dependant on initial breath pressure, and it pumps out a continuous stream of CC02 data that tracks the intensity of breath pressure. The WX7 also sends pitch bend values, which correspond to how hard you squeeze the mouthpiece “reed.” This plastic tab is there to act as a miniature pitch bend wheel — it does not vibrate. There is also a pitch bend rocker located near the spot where the right thumb rests.

A MIDI Swiss army knife – one blade, many uses

Arguably, the wind controller’s greatest asset is the ability to control patch volume smoothly and subtly to produce sounds that, compared to a keyboard, are more expressive and organic. While you have just one continuous controller and pitch bend to work with, you can apply them simultaneously to volume and several other patch parameters, such as filter cut-off, resonance, LFO pitch and depth, effects, and more. It all depends on the synth architecture and where the breath-related CC and pitch bend can be assigned.

Right now is a good time for the standard “YMMV” disclaimer. The following information is derived from working with several generations of Roland sample players and a Yamaha wind controller set up to send CC02 in response to breath pressure. Roland’s patch architecture is organized as four “tones,” each of which can be assigned a different waveform and programmed independently of the others. The following guidelines relate to working with a single tone. Given the many possible combinations of wind controllers with hardware or software-based sound generators, a certain degree of interpretation might be needed for your equipment’s terminology and architecture.

  1. Disable the tone’s sensitivity to velocity. The note-on message’s attack velocity component can affect initial volume, or any other parameter the synth’s architecture associates with velocity. It is near impossible to consistently attack successive notes with the same velocity using a wind controller, effectively making velocity-related effects unpredictable. The fix is to remove velocity dependence. Later, you can reapply velocity sensing to selectively control patch behaviors.
  2. Initially, set pitch, filter, and amplifier envelopes to zero. These time-variant elements determine how the tone “mutates” while it sounds. They are extremely useful for patches intended for the keyboard, but can have limited value for a wind controller. Like velocity sensitivity, you might later decide to apply an envelope to a tone to shape the tone at the same time it is being controlled by CC02.
  3. Assign CC02 to the tone’s level and set CC02’s effect to maximum.
  4. Set the sustain level of the tone’s amplifier envelope to maximum. This enables CC02 to produce the maximum possible volume as determined by other patch and/or wind controller settings.

These are the basics for creating a wind-friendly patch. In Part 2, we’ll look at applying these guidelines more specifically to the Roland JV-1010 synthesizer module. The JV-1010 is a member of the JV 1010/1080/2080 series of modules circa early 1990’s, which remain popular. Although out of production, they are usually available used on eBay. The JV-1010’s half-rack footprint is a convenient addition to the wind synthesist’s arsenal. It is small, convenient to transport and use, its instrument waveforms are reasonably convincing, and its architecture is well suited to creating breath-responsive patches.

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Martin M-Play : Fader Wing for M-PC and other M products

Martin just announced a fader wing (control surface) for their M products, including M-PC. This is a companion to the M-Touch that we use with M-PC software. For now, here at WindWorks Design, we are sticking with our M-Touch as we continue the learning curve to move from Martin Light Jockey over to M-PC with the M-Touch control surface.

More info at: http://www.martin.com/en-us/product-details/m-play.

m-play control surface

 

Here’s the original M-Touch:

M-touch control surface

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