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Engineering Projects: SMSurround (1995)

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 @ Henry V #1]

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 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 seats.

[ICS2101 image]

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.

Hardware Photos

[top of mixer board] [bottom of mixer board] Mixer board: Five ICS2101 mixer ICs, digital control bus, audio in/out buses.
[top of buffer board] [bottom of buffer board] Audio buffer board: 10 dual op amps to buffer audio in/out buses. Sounds as good as it looks!
[audio i/o panel] Audio I/O Panel: 1/4 inch jacks for unbalanced audio in/out.
[top of ISA board] [bottom of ISA board] 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 the HappyCart project, almost 4 years after it was made.
Quick Links
SMSurround Summary - Short whitepaper.
Mike Andrews - Co-creator of SMSurround
WPI - The college where it all happened
WPI Masque - The theatre group
NV13 Show Scripts - Audio cues from the NV13 show
Henry V Show Scripts - Audio cues from the King Henry V show
Test Scripts - Test audio scripts
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