CDs Be Gone: A New Appproach to Burlesque Stage Management

It’s one of every burlesque performer’s biggest nightmares: the emcee bellows forth your name, the crowd quiets its roar, and just as your Swarovski-studded heel is just about to strike forth on the stage…a paralyzing silence takes over the venue. Nothing. Nada. Crickets. The audience looks confused, the stage manager looks flustered, the emcee starts to babble to kill time, and the DJ throws up his hands.

You’ve just experienced an Epic. Music. Fail.

Over the years, producers and performers have created various strategies to avoid this mishap: 2 identical copies, emailing music ahead of time, etc… but they all have drawbacks or lack flexibility. Burning a single CD of everyone’s music means you’d better hope no one shows up late, gets sick, or needs to swap acts at the last minute. And who among us hasn’t forgotten our music at home at least once? Even the most seasoned of performers can experience the occasional brain fart, especially when rushing out the door or juggling multiple gigs in one night.

But those days may be behind us all — remember back when I wrote about Five Technological Innovations That Shaped Neo-Burlesque? This might just be #6!

John Adams, chief sound engineer for Hubba Hubba Revue, has poured a lot of blood, sweat and coding tears into creating a system that will rule out all of the above. It’s fast, updates immediately, is super user-friendly and easy to use – and quite frankly, it kicks ass.

John was kind enough to share a little more about this awesome new high-tech creation of his that really changes the game in terms of agile stage management:

Sparkly Devil: Tell us a little about yourself.

John Adams: I’m also known as DJ Netik, or when working at Hubba, Kingfish likes to call me Johnny Electro. I was one of the first thirteen employees at Twitter. I was originally hired to fix Twitter’s scaling problems and to defeat the Fail Whale — we had many problems early on building a system that could scale with the incredible amounts of growth that we faced, and my work, along with those of a very dedicated team of engineers, made the site into what it is today. These days, I lead a fifteen person security team protecting users and our systems from attack.

When not doing that, I’m a DJ, bad musician, and sound engineer. It’s said that that best engineers are failed musicians, so I guess I’m proud to be part of that group. I ran a sound company, Retina Sound, for about 6 years, mixing FOH (Front-of-House) for everyone from big bands like Parliament to one-hit-wonders like Crystal Waters.

SD: How did you come to be chief sound engineer at Hubba Hubba Revue?

JA: When I first moved to San Francisco, I was immediately taken by all of the amazing performers and art surrounding me.  One of the first shows I went to was Spectacular Spectacular, a predecessor of Hubba Hubba containing less burlesque and more variety. Back then, I had no idea that burlesque and vaudeville scenes were still alive and so strong. Kingfish (Jim Sweeney) and I met at a tiny yet classy club called Dark Sparkle, and it was there that I asked him about the show. He needed someone to make music and sound effects and I’d just moved my entire music studio from the east coast.

Much like Fred Norris of the Howard Stern Show, I own a massive sound effects collection. It’s just something I’d always buy at record stores. No matter what Kingfish can think up, I have a sound for it. I’ve combined various sources to make everything from mad scientist lab atmospheres, to the rolling thunder and rain of a terrible storm. Also, wolves. There seems to be a never ending stream of requests for wolves.

Combining this love of sound effects with my DJ and mixing abilities was a perfect match for becoming the show’s chief engineer. I love working with so many talented people on this show.

SD: What inspired you to create this tool?

JA: It’s in my nature as an engineer to find problems and make them disappear. At Twitter, we have this process where we discover how something has failed, extensively research why we failed, and take steps to make sure the problem never happens again. It’s an iterative approach that works extremely well and something that I live by.

Hubba has had its share of problems over the years; the majority of our performers bring their music to us on CDs, and while this would seem at first to be a reliable delivery mechanism for audio, it’s not. Our failures range from losing someone’s CD, to video not playing, to a CD burn just failing part way through. Some of this is human, and some of this is technical.

The process of creating a CD burn is also highly variable. Different CD burners aren’t compatible with all CD players and all it takes is one failure to kill what would otherwise have been a fantastic act. Also, if the song doesn’t finish, no one will see any pasties, and well, we don’t want that, do we?

If all of our performers use the software to upload their music, I should be able to download one big file containing that night’s show, and all of these CD problems will go away. Of course, as I know all too well, new technology may just introduce a new set of problems for us to deal with!

SD: OK, for the tech geeks: how many hours of coding did it take? What was your approach?

JA: I’ve actually started and stopped this project multiple times over the last year and a half. I finally had time to work on it, and when the time came up, I started over again from scratch. The difference was that when I started the project this time all of the ideas had been fully fleshed out in my head.  I’d originally decided to write a simple upload system but what the end result was after many iterations, was a full show management system that both the stage managers and tech crew could use.

The system is written in Ruby on Rails, Mongo DB, and relies heavily on jQuery and Twitter Bootstrap for its user interface. What the average performer sees while using the system is just the tip of the iceberg. They sign in, upload a file, create an act, and log out. In the stage manager part of the system, which you can’t see unless your account is granted access, is a full schedule, attendance, and file manager for the backstage staff to use in building the show.

It took me around 300 hours of coding time to write this, most of which was spent writing the show editor code.

 

SD: One a scale of 1 to whiskey, how much of a pain in the ass was it to create?

JA: I’m primarily a back-end and security engineer. That means that I don’t spend most of my time designing user interfaces. The pain in the ass was all of the Javascript and jQuery code, which was something I’d never really worked in that much before. Getting the system up and running was easy but the front end code was difficult for me to write.

One of the features in the software is the ability for any stage manager to use an iPad backstage to make changes to the show and for those changes to automatically appear on the iPads or laptops carried by the rest of the crew. That was a pain to write because I had to get the timing right so the users would see the right items and the updates at the right time.

So, yeah, Whiskey.

 

Any time I revisit one of these acts for another Hubba show, all I need to do is select it from my list of saved acts – HOW COOL IS THAT?

 

SD: This is open source. Meaning, anyone can use this platform. Why’s that?

JA: Open source is something like what you’ve described with a couple of key differences. When a project is open sourced, it’s source code and underlying implementation details are available to anyone who wants it. Not only can anyone use it, but anyone can see how it works and fix problems that they find. Contributing to a software project and working together means that all users of the software package benefit when code is upgraded, repaired, or has features added to it.

I’ve always been a strong proponent of open source software. The underlying code for the Show Manager is already open source and publicly available, so adding to it seemed to be a logical thing to do.

If you’d like to get a copy of the software, it’s stored at http://github.com/netik along with many other software packages that I have open-sourced. Please contribute!

 

SD: And one final question: when does Skynet become self aware?

JA: I’m a huge Terminator fan, you know. First we were all supposed to die in 1997, and then 2011, but now, who knows.  Maybe this software will become so self-aware that I can kick back, drink bourbon, and watch the show.

 

Thank you, Johnny Electro!