SMSurround was a combination of custom hardware and software designed to help
run audio cues in a live theatre situation. It supported mix/matrix
automation, MIDI automation, WAV playback automation, CD audio automation,
scripted cues, scalability, and surprisingly a fair amount of stability.
SMSurround was built from a combination of off-the-shelf hardware (PCs,
CD-ROMs, sound cards, outboard MIDI hardware, etc.), custom hardware
(automated mixer/matrix controller), and a lot of custom software. Based on
Linux, it was an enormously scalable architecture. This is largely because
it was based on small modules that were designed to communicate over a
TCP/IP network. Each service (CD automation, MIDI automation, mixer/matrix
automation) was spawned as a
daemon. A central program read in cue information from a file and provided
the audio operator a simple interface to run a show. Because of the
inherent client/server network model, it actually would have been possible
to run a show from the comfort of a dorm room, providing one could phone up
the stage manager to hear the cue calls. This was never done, but it was
often talked about, for the sheer hack value.
SMSurround was designed in the Spring of 1995 by Steve
Richardson and Mike Andrews, partly for class
credit and partly for the heck of it. It was designed, prototyped, coded,
debugged, used, and abused in approximately a month and a half, start to
finish. Unlike many other projects, this had a trial by fire - it was to be
used in that Spring's New Voices One-Three festival, put on by
WPI's Masque theatre organization. Minor
bugs were discovered during the technical rehearsals and, if memory serves,
opening night. However, once these bugs were removed, the SMSurround system
was quite stable and made running audio for the 23 plays of the festival
fairly easy. It also helped run two more productions before being retired
in late 1995. The utterly amazing part of the whole thing was that we
managed to get an incredibly complicated system of hardware and software
running and to a very useful state in a short period of time. It's a time
we look back on with sheer disbelief, especially with 5 years of additional
knowledge and experience behind us.
The system configuration for the NV13 production was the only one to use
two networked computers. Unfortunately, one of those two computers happened
to be sidehack.gweep.net. Because of the show needs,
sidehack was taken offline periodically for two weeks to run the show. It
was often online during the daytime, running from Alden Hall. However, at
the start of each run, the ethernet cable to the campus LAN was
disconnected, and the two machines ran in isolation.
For NV13, entertaining
show introductions were assembled and
played before each show. Each night, a special test/introduction .SHOW script was run
that played Information Society's 1,000,000 Watts of Love.
The hook was that this song was used to show off some of the SMSurround
features. The song opened with the sound of a jacob's ladder, which played
out of a pair of small speakers in the front of house. Suddenly,
from the front right speaker comes the lyric, "TURN UP THE POWER" .. Then,
from the right front speaker, "THIS IS THE HOUR" .. From both rear speakers,
"FROM EVERY TOWER" .. then, rapidly panning across a several different
speakers, "A MILLION WATTS OF LOVE" -- and suddenly, the whole hall
kicked with about 10,000 watts (literally) of techno bliss. Needless to
say, this usually grabbed people's attention and got people moving in their
We wrote one show script per play, with over
twenty total plays for the NV13 festival. Because each show was
independent they could be run in any order. This was handy because in the
festival each play was run twice with differing schedules.
In late summer 1995, it was used to run sound for the "encore" performance
of New Voices One-Three, which was called New Voices 27/5. During the early
summer months of 1995, the CD audio module of the SMSurround system was
upgraded to drive a 7-disc SCSI CD changer unit. This meant that the
SMSurround system could change CD's for the audio operator, rather than
requiring a manual swap. This feature was used to streamline the
smaller NV27/5 production.
In the late fall of 1995, SMSurround was again used to run a live theatre
show. This time it was Masque's
production of Shakespeare's King Henry V. The SMSurround
hardware was repackaged into an old Sun 3 workstation hard drive case.
This production pushed the SMSurround hardware to its limits - a 7-disc CD
changer, an outboard MIDI-triggered sampler, three outboard MIDI-automated
effects units, and 4-channel surround sound via a 4-track cassette deck,
mixed through SMsurround. The above image shows SMSurround amidst a vast
array of audio gear, as it was during the Henry V production.
A single show script for the performance was
created which allowed the complex cues to be run in a simple fashion.
After the production of King Henry V, the SMSurround unit was
retired to the traditional scrap heap/parts bin. Various pieces of hardware
remain intact, but the system as a whole does not. SMSurround spawned
the DACS project, which was Steve's
Major Qualifying Project. DACS took the best aspects of the SMSurround
system and took them further. Unfortunately, it did not have the same kind
of trial-by-fire that SMSurround had, and to this day has not been used to
run a theatre production. Perhaps, someday.
Mixer board: Five
ICS2101 mixer ICs, digital control bus, audio in/out buses.
Audio buffer board: 10 dual op amps to buffer audio in/out buses. Sounds
as good as it looks!
Audio I/O Panel: 1/4 inch jacks for unbalanced audio in/out.
ISA card: not used in final prototype. Meant to interface audio mixer and
control console to PC.
Parallel port interface: used in final prototype, but it didn't originally
have as many parts on-board. The smaller of the wide chip packages and the
connector with the aluminum foil were added when the board was usurped for
HappyCart project, almost 4 years after it was made.