To Timecode, or Not To Timecode?

by Chris Lose
in Focus on Fundamentals

Whether “Tis Nobler” Is Not the Question. Here’s a Roundtable Discussion of When It’s the Answer.

For some, timecode is the auto tune of lighting designers — a lazy choice. Others insist that timecode is doing the job of the operator, freeing him or her up from being chained to just punching the “go” button for each and every cue. But the truth is that when properly implemented, it can be used for a show’s greater good.

I recently had the pleasure of working on two major rock tours that were large and required precision cueing. The major difference between the two was timecode. I manually executed 600 cues each night on a Fleetwood Mac tour. Later, I filled in for LD Matt Mills for a week on Mötley Crüe; where 97 percent of the cues were fired by timecode. This allowed me to focus on tending to four buttons, two faders, and call spots (plus make sure that Tommy Lee and his drums were bathed in a smoky haze thick enough to make Shanghai call the air pollution hotline).

I assembled a virtual roundtable of some of the best designers in the business — Mark Butts (Shania Twain), Baz Halpin (Katy Perry), Nick Whitehouse (Justin Timberlake) and Rob Sinclair (Queen with Adam Lambert) to discuss the pros and cons of timecoding.

PLSN: When does a band/production determine whether or not to use timecode?

Baz Halpin: It depends on the complexity of the programming/control or how fixed the band is in terms of their musical playback. If a band is very live or loose, it will usually be difficult to time code a lot of the elements. However, in the case of a lot of pop or EDM acts where the tracks are coming off of various playback devices in conjunction with live instrumentation, it becomes a lot easier. A larger tour like Taylor Swift 1989 is almost entirely time-coded.

Nick Whitehouse: For me, a number of factors influence my decision whether to recommend a show being on code. For example, is video content that needs to be precisely synced to the audio being used? Does the set have multiple tracks in addition to the live instruments? Is the show heavily choreographed and include precise automation? Do you want the show to be repeated exactly every time, even with different operators? If the answer to the majority of these is yes, then a time code is the way to go.

Rob Sinclair: It depends on a few things, including how precisely the music is played and how precisely things need to follow that. I work for a few bands that have no playback and no click; that means no timecode.

PLSN: What is the first step towards initiating the timecode process?

Mark Butts: This usually starts with the artist deciding what they want from it, and how locked into the performance they want to be. Some people will only use it for a click track, letting things change musically from night to night. Some shows, typically large scale pop shows, will be locked into a performance and won’t change much.

Nick Whitehouse: The first step is determining the tracks to be played, and coming up with a rough set list. Then you have to get tracks together with a stripe of SMTPE laid together so that all departments can then start to program based on this.

Baz Halpin: The programmer has to work hand-in-hand with the ProTools or playback engineer to get the track striped with code. Making sure that all the numbers line up before you start programming is step one.

Rob Sinclair: Here’s where I maybe have an unconventional opinion. I like to lock the show in before coding it. I don’t want to be a slave to timecode and have the option to change my mind about pretty much everything before timecoding. I also find timecode to be really time consuming. I’d sooner spend my pre-production time doing actual lighting of people and things rather than looking at a clock or listening to someone scrutinize about frames. This often means that we don’t timecode the show at all, because it’s programmed and rehearsed manually, so there isn’t much point. Often, we just code little bits of it.

PLSN: What are the benefits of using timecode?

Mark Butts: The ability to guarantee a show will be played back with 100 percent accuracy each time is the primary benefit.

Nick Whitehouse: When I design, program and timecode a show, I tend to leave that show or tour with an operator. With a timecoded show, the client is virtually getting me running the show night after night without me having to be there. The next biggest benefit is precision. Once the show is timecoded and the hits tweaked to being exactly on beat, you are able to do some very cool cues, which would not be possible otherwise without some serious workarounds. Many of my clients demand exact precision every night.

The final benefit would be that when you have a problem during the show, your focus could be on that problem. If you are also calling the spots on a very cue heavy show, having complicated timed cues taken for you whilst looking for problems and calling spots is a massive bonus.

Rob Sinclair: Precision, repeatability and complexity. When we have coded shows, we have ended up adding levels of detail that a human could never achieve.

PLSN: What are the pros of not using timecode?

Rob Sinclair: Greater operator engagement. It’s easy to lose focus when your show is being run by a clock. I like running the board, and I think other people do, too. What’s not to love about pushing buttons and strobes going off?

Mark Butts: There are situations … some artists want to do whatever they feel like once they’re onstage, and in that situation, in the hands of a skilled operator, the director can be part of building and changing a show based on the dynamics of a particular night.

Nick Whitehouse: Some clients don’t stick to the same arrangements, timing, or choreography. In this case, a good live operator is always a better option, as they become part of the band and can anticipate subtle changes and go with the flow. It also feels a little more live when you have an operator running some cues as they can feel the room and adjust accordingly. Almost all of my shows are a hybrid of timecode and manual parts, which for me brings out the best of both worlds to the show.

PLSN: Is there a specific incident where timecode ruined a show?

Baz Halpin: There have been instances where the ProTools engineer fired the wrong track and the console jumped to the timecode value, and therefore prematurely fired the cues. But that has only happened once or twice in my experience. I would say there have been a lot more operator errors than timecode errors.

Nick Whitehouse: I’ve always had great experiences with timecoded shows, but you have to make sure its setup correctly. I have fixed nightmares, where the show is setup in a way that the timecode really doesn’t make sense and the quality of the show has suffered. It’s very important to keep it as simple as possible when designing the system. The more complicated you make it; the more things can go wrong. Ideally the timecode always has another audio track on the playback system. That way, if the timecode fails, so does the audio; if the audio is edited, so is the timecode, and it still lines up.

Mark Butts: Timecode saves shows — certain shows, at least. Certain styles of shows would be almost impossible to run manually. I’m thinking about product reveals, highly choreographed pop shows, etc. There is simply too much happening to throw human error into the mix.

PLSN: Do you use timecode more often than not?

Baz Halpin: Yes, I try to use timecode whenever possible.

Mark Butts: For me, I use timecode 25 percent of the time. Many of my tour clients are county artists that don’t want to be tied to a specific song structure, or arrangement. They want to be in the moment and perform what they feel.

Nick Whitehouse: I would say it’s pretty much always some kind of mix, I would say only about 20 percent of my shows right now are completely live. But that’s due to the nature of my clients; again, I always pick what is right for the show, and that might not be that its all timecode or all not and will nearly always result in a mixture of both.

PLSN: Final Question: Do you consider timecode to be cheating?

Mark Butts: It is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used properly or not. If an operator who either can’t or is too lazy to operate the show properly and uses it as a crutch, it’s absolutely cheating. If it’s used to create a complex show, one that could not be operated manually, or it allows a complicated to show to run perfectly the same way every time, then no, its not cheating.

Nick Whitehouse: I agree its just another tool in the lighting designer’s kit, and as long as it’s used correctly, it is a very powerful one. All of my timecode shows are shows I can physically run and do run at some point, as that’s how I record them to the code.

Chris Lose is a lighting director, content designer, and programmer with Las Vegas-based Q3 Las Vegas. Reach him at www.q3lv.com.