Spotlight on the Control Room: Behind the Scenes with AVU

By Joyce Lee (19S06O) and Alyssa Marie Loo (19A13A)

Most of those attending Raffles Jazz’s Birdland concert would have had their eyes trained on the stage, mesmerised by the bright lights and talented performers. Unbeknownst to most, a totally different performance was taking place right behind them, in the shadows of the PAC control room. Four AVU members sat in tense silence, three of them manned the sound board, and one controlled the lights. Midway through a song, one of the AV members said urgently: “The bass, can’t hear the solo enough”. With a flurry of directions, fingers flipping and sliding switches across the soundboard, the lovely baritone of the bass solo began to glide over the sound system.

One might think AVU is simply present to ensure rudimentary technical functioning: making sure sound is working, lights are on, and the projector behaves when videos are played. Yet, as with so many other things, there is much more than meets the eye. Raffles Press had the opportunity to witness everything else that occurs in the control room, shining a spotlight on what really goes on behind-the-scenes, and how AVU plays a far more crucial, albeit almost invisible, role at every performance in RI.

Pre-Concert: Rehearsals, Tech Runs, More Rehearsals

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Raffles Jazz members rehearsing for Birdland.

Two days before the concert, Raffles Press shadowed AV members at Birdland’s rehearsals. Jazz members were already practising on stage as we walked into the PAC; it was easy to miss the AV members stationed below the stage, poised to adjust the microphone stands at any time. Fareen Bte Rassemi (18A01D), the AVU chairperson, brought us into the mysterious control room. While the tables displayed an intimidatingly complex and lifeless array of switchboards, they were also littered with much more familiar, and human, items like stuffed toys, pens, rolls of Scotch tape and canned drinks from Chill.

Another striking feature was how crowded and busy it was. Two AV members manned the sound control system, one controlled the lights, and several seniors sat behind, giving directions from time to time. Right outside the control room, another member balanced precariously on seat armrests to poke his head through the control room window, supervising the mixer (sound control system). The AVU members were all so engrossed in their work that they scarcely noticed us as we shuffled in.

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AV tech head giving instructions to two Year 5 members manning the mixer during rehearsal

The work itself is highly technical, encompassing several different aspects of audio and visual engineering. “We have to reduce the sounds the performers make that isn’t part of the singing, like breathing, by adjusting the sound filters. Additionally, we need to make sure no instrument overlaps another so that all the instruments can be heard clearly,” Fareen explained. “For the lights, we follow cues given to us. For example, during a song, we would have spotlights on the performers and have different light effects for each part of the song. The lights are all programmed before the actual performance.”

Throughout the rehearsal, there was constant communication between AVU and Jazz members on stage, facilitated by the microphone in the control room. However, as there was only one, the calm atmosphere was occasionally interrupted by shouts hurled across the PAC:  “Adjust the volume of the guitar!” or “Shift the mic in front!” Runners also helped to facilitate communication: it was impossible to miss the steady stream of AVU members scurrying up and down the PAC. Meanwhile, Jazz members were frequently stopped mid-song for AVU members to scuttle on stage and fix equipment. Despite the endless disruptions, the AVU members soldiered on unfazed. Said Fareen: “Rehearsals are not meant to be perfect. We just need to know how to troubleshoot.”

Afterwards, Fareen and exco members Selina Yoon (18S03K) and Ng Xin Joo (18S06J) gave us a backstage tour of the PAC. The area was almost completely dark, illuminated only by strips of green fluorescent tape lining the walls. Before performances, AV members would sometimes have to run from one side of the backstage area to the other to get equipment stored there. The tape prevents them from tripping over. To lighten the mood, the AV members decided to show us a little ‘magic trick’. By rubbing the tape with a phone flashlight, they were able to ‘charge’ it and make parts of it glow brighter.

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Glow-in-the-dark tape backstage

On one side of the stage was the PAC’s main control box. The numerous buttons and switches appeared entirely foreign to us, but completely familiar to the AVU members. “These switches are for adjusting the lights. The one at the bottom of the box is the main switch, if you turn it off, the PAC will have no power,” Xin Joo explained.

This thorough preparation is why, by the time Birdland rolled around, AVU members were ready—armed with minute-by-minute cue sheets, labelled stage diagrams of stage equipment setup, and an armada of lighting presets on the computer already adjusted from rehearsals. Even then, there is never space to let one’s guard down when on AV duty. “There is a lot of troubleshooting, and even if you’ve done something many times before, it might not work suddenly on the concert day,“ lamented Michael Lee (19S06D) in the control room on the night of the concert, yet he concluded fondly: “I think AV is very satisfying when you make a concert pull through.”

Challenges of Being an AVU Member

Considering the the apparent ease with which they handled the equipment in the PAC, it came as a surprise when Selina revealed that most of the AV members were not from any AV club in secondary school. For them, joining AVU in JC meant learning how to operate all the sound and lighting controls from scratch.

“When Xin Joo first joined AVU last year he brought this thick operating manual home to study and even made notes,” Selina commented. Xin Joo denied this claim, stating that he “only read half of it”, but admitted that he did in fact make notes to help him learn the ropes, and plans to pass them to his juniors when he leaves the CCA.

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Operating manual of the lights and sound equipment in the PAC

Even those who had some prior experience had a lot to learn. According to Selina, a former member of her secondary school’s Infocomm club, she seldom had to handle sound and lighting equipment back then. During events, most of the work in the control room was done by the school’s estate staff. Picking up the necessary skills when she entered AVU was a challenge, but her passion for AV work drove her to persevere.

Besides, there is always room for improvement: every event presents new obstacles for AVU to overcome. During an interview, Fareen shared that “some performers might have unrealistic expectations—like they want things to be quick, but it’s not as simple as that. We need time for things like setting up equipment and sound checks.” Thus, they have to communicate with these groups and explain their limitations so as to reduce conflict between them and their clients.

“Sometimes, they don’t allocate enough time for us to finish everything. They think that what AV does is that we push buttons and sound comes out, but it doesn’t work that way, because along the way there could be multiple failures of equipment that we have to settle right there on the spot.”

— Selina Yoon (18S03K)

Despite all this, joining AVU is not a decision they regret.

“For some AV members, they might like the technical part of it—doing something that others can’t, trying out new equipment or they just want to be of service to others. For me, though, it’s about the community, as we go through the preparation for an event together, we get to forge bonds along the way.”

— Fareen Rassemi (18A01D), AVU chairperson

In many ways, the work of the AVU is more difficult than it may seem at first: not merely because of its technicalities, but also in how they must cooperate internally and externally with many other CCAs they serve in order to successfully pull off an event. It is perhaps a thankless job as well: paradoxically, if everything is done right, one won’t notice AVU is present at all. Still, let us remember the invisible heroes of the control room and show them some appreciation, even if the spotlight is rarely on them.

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