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Guarding Gear at the Gig

Monday, August 18th, 2003

Usually the venue owner or the promoter is responsible for providing security for the PA gear while it’s on their land. You should make an agreement about where responsibility for the security of the PA is delineated – clearing up any “what if” circumstances.

Small valuable items of gear, particularly microphones, are easily stolen. Mics are not only relatively easy to pocket, but there are more potential buyers than for other parts of your PA – they’re attractive items in their own right and prize trophies to some artists’ fans.

If the stage is left unguarded before – or especially after – a performance, mics can disappear from stands very quickly, particularly if the stage is easily accessible. It’s not even unknown for them to be stolen while in use – especially if the audience surge onto the stage, or a mic-wielding singer jumps into the crowd.
To save the hassle and expense of lost mics, there are several lines of defense you could adopt:

– Make sure venue security personnel are aware of the risk to all portable items – they may not always realize, for instance, that mics need to be guarded at least as much as a guitar or a DJ’s records.

– Crew should remove all mics from the stage immediately after the set (or the encore) ends – giving priority to microphones near the front of the stage (usually the vocal mikes).

– Especially-prized microphones can be fitted with anti-theft devices – from simple “post-coding” or “zip-coding” with ultra-violet sensitive pens, to more elaborate radio trackers – or even a remote-controlled release of coloured liquid exploding from within the mike casing to mark and identify the thief… (Are we getting a bit extreme here? It’s a thought, anyway.)

This article is reprinted with permission from The Live Sound Manual, published by Backbeat Books, www.backbeatbooks.com. All information is copyrighted and cannot be reprinted without the permission of the publisher.

Misconceptions and Expectations of the Mastering Process by Marisa T. Déry

Monday, August 18th, 2003

Mixers Listen Up

A while ago, I was in the middle of a mix session when the engineer – looking at the clocking ticking away – said those dreaded words: “You can fix it in the Mastering process,” …ah, memories!

Just a few years ago, people were saying, “We’ll fix it in the mix.”

First of all, not everything can be fixed in the mastering process. Granted, a lot can be done, but isn’t it better to use your mastering time to make things sound great and not just good enough?

More than once I’ve had people hand me CD masters and an old normal bias cassette (distorted, of course) with the question: “Can you match these?”

Mastering engineers do have a lot of toys and (hopefully) creativity. We will go a long way, using every means possible to make you sound as good as possible, but one also has to be realistic with ones expectations. Clicks, crackles and pops can be removed, but if they are too long or are on top of key words, then you have problems.

I’ve had old reels given to me that speed up and/or slow down randomly at various speeds; this predicament can be fixed, but it does take time. People must be aware that although we have the tools and the skills to repair problems, we still need time to do it right. We live in an instant-gratification society where people mistakenly think that if we aim the mouse on the screen and click, everything fixes itself instantly. That is not so.

Regardless of the DAW or software that you have, you need time, training, expertise and instinct to do it right. A 10-minute track just might take an hour to clean up properly, so please be aware of that when setting up your budget.

What Can Mastering Engineers Do?

We can add bass, highs, mids; make it sound clearer and LOUDER; clean up the fade ins and the fade outs; balance the levels of the songs; put in the appropriate silence (if required) in between tracks (“if required” because I haven’t put a single second of silence in between 2 hip-hop songs in the last year); we can also add special effects (rain anyone?) and reverb; add post-production tracks, edit, loop, reverse, chop etc.

Most mastering engineers are creative. We love music. We love sound. We would rather use our focus and energy on “the song.” We don’t just want it to sound good; we want it to sound GREAT. We get our high when the artist’s eyes light up because we were able to interpret sonically what was in their head. A master must sound as good as possible when it is given to the mastering engineer; with the right mix, a mastering engineer can concentrate entirely on the music and not worry about being a (sound) doctor.

When everything is set up properly, we get that little piece of music we all know and love … those eyes are lighting up again!

Marisa T. Dery, a native of Ottawa, ON, is Chief Mastering Engineer at the Tape Complex in Boston, MA and owner of Tamar Mastering. Her clients have included the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Tugboat Annie and RUSHYA. For more info check out www.tamarmastering.com.

Analog Vs. Digital Consoles For Live Use: Who’s Winning? by Fred Michael

Wednesday, June 18th, 2003

In a way, of course, there is no argument here; digital consoles for live events are in use every day. What I want to discuss is the appropriate use of a given console type for specific applications.

Ever since the “lampies” started using digital lighting consoles around 15 years ago, sound reinforcement engineers have yearned for the day when they too could utilize snapshots and instant recall when mixing complicated stage setups. Today, we have sophisticated high-end digital consoles available from Yamaha, InnovaSON and Digico, to name the key brands that do all of that and more. In addition, there are a number of smaller digital desks – again from Yamaha, along with Allan & Heath, Mackie and Soundcraft – that have found favour, especially in live theatre. (Note: when I talk about digital consoles I am referring specifically to mixing consoles that have a fully digital signal path; there are many analog consoles that have varying degrees of digital control; I do not consider these digital consoles in the strictest sense.) Yet, when you walk into a concert venue be it a club or concert hall, you are most likely to see an analog desk from manufacturers such as Midas, Soundcraft or Yamaha running the show. So what gives? Is the dominance of the analog console diminishing, ever so slowly? What are the pros and cons of using these two breeds in live shows? Should a digital console be part of your mixing world?

As the “junkyard dogs” of pro audio, live sound mixers usually have one response to anything new: “Yeah, sounds great, but will it blow up and make me look like an idiot?” Our notorious conservatism – based, I’m sure, on raw survival instinct – has always shut the door on anything that smacked of gimmickry. This is the principal reason for the slow acceptance of digital consoles for live use; until just recently, there hasn’t been a console that was (A) fast and easy to use, and (B) reliable enough to instill confidence in seasoned pro engineers. But, now that the playing field is approaching level, we all need to decide where this is heading.

Here’s my thesis: If your programming repeats itself over and over, you’ll be going digital; if tonal colour and creative, “nuanced” mixing is your prime concern, analog is still king.

Here’s my proof: Digital audio consoles are essentially purpose-built computers and the reasons for using them are the same as for any computer: it keeps a record of everything you do; it saves your changes; it recalls whatever you want recalled; you can transfer the information to another computer, and so on. On the strictly audio side, these digital wonders have an incredible feature set: full processing on every channel and output; typically, a potential of 96 inputs in the space of 24; input/output fader swap everywhere, massive matrices and auxiliary outputs; digital snake capability with no ground loops on splits, state-of-the-art audio specs; plus lots more. Along with all this mixing power, however, comes one significant drawback: because there is usually only one “Master Strip” for individual channel access, you can only do one thing at a time.
While this sounds like a minor consideration, think of how often you have made auxiliary send or equalization adjustments with two hands; you’ve probably done it a lot more often than you might first think. (Note: the Digico console designers have attempted to diminish this limitation by having four active screens, thus, access to four channels simultaneously; however, you still have to select the channels of interest before beginning an operation.)

Digital consoles have memories and recall but ironically, the inherent plasticity or multi-functionality of these desks means your memory is tested a lot more during a show; for example, you have to remember what page you are on and whether or not the faders under your fingers are acting as inputs or outputs. This is fine if you are building cues for a theatre show but not so much fun when mixing live music. Sound mixers have come up with techniques for handling this, however, such as keeping all principal inputs on the top layer; in addition, console designers are improving the ergonomics with features like electronic title strips that follow the page changes. Generally speaking, the design goal is to keep all primary functions no more than “one click” away, but we’re not there yet.

With analog mixing consoles, their biggest limitation is also their greatest strength: almost all the functions are immutable, i.e., channel three is always that and never anything else, the same goes for outputs and auxiliary sends. Thus, the sound mixer, having set up his initial layout, is spared any more memory demands; when he reaches for the ‘solo violin’ fader, he does not have to remember that channel is on page two and, “Uh oh, I’ve got to switch pages and darn, the solo is already started.”

Those mixing live music for one-off shows have little to gain from using digital consoles; there is no point in saving settings or scenes when it will be a completely different setup the next day. Even sound mixers on long-running tours with fixed set lists use mostly analog consoles because they have already stored a fully re-callable and upgradeable version of the show – in their heads.

And then there is the question of sound quality; after all, at the end of the day, delivering the best possible sound is what it’s all about and many would argue that the premier analog desks still have the edge in that department, both operationally and acoustically.

Obviously, the digital option really shines when your mixing task involves a lot of repetition of settings, cues, and scenes. Live musical theatre and complex touring shows, with supporting symphony orchestras and the like, are two examples of situations where digital is a superior mixing medium. Analog takes over when you have a small number of inputs (under 16) or when the sound mixer’s involvement on a moment-by-moment basis with the mix is really critical to the performance, as is the case with a lot of touring bands. In this case, the operator is in the flow of a moment that will never be repeated in exactly the same way; what’s important is the ability to react instantly to what’s happening on the stage. Using a digital console doesn’t give the operator any advantage here, and can actually hinder him by demanding he pay too much attention to operational processes.

Ultimately, subjective personal preference plays a major role in any decision and, as a good ol’ Canadian boy – writing this while watching the first round of the Stanley Cup series – I cannot resist using Our Game to illuminate by analogy the thrust of this article: Some of us want to use a computer to play NHL 2003; others go to the closet to get out Dad’s table hockey game. It’s all the same, only different.

Go Canucks!

Special thanks to Rob Nevalainen and Fred Gilpin for their assistance and input with this article.

Fred Michael is President of Rocky Mountain Sound Production Services in Vancouver, BC. June 2003 marks the company’s 18th consecutive season as supplier to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Fred can be reached at fred@rmsound.com, or via the Rocky Mountain Sound Web page, www.rmsound.com.

Broadcasting Bookmarks

Friday, April 18th, 2003

Seeing as it is time once again for the annual National Association of Broadcaster (NAB)’s conference, Professional Sound has decided to scour the Internet for some Broadcasting resources. Compiled below are a handful of useful Web sites that we are sure will become some of your favourite bookmarks.

www.nab.org
Easily the first stop for anyone in the broadcasting industry, the National Association of Broadcaster’s Web site contains information on the organization, how to become a member, conference details and a plethora of links to organizations and Web sites related to Broadcasting. Additionally, the site features a job bank for those seeking employment and information on grants for those who have a bright idea but not the resources to pursue it.

www.wabe.ca
The Western Association of Broadcast Engineers (WABE) is a Canadian non-profit organization focused on spreading technical broadcasting knowledge to its membership. Their site includes details about the annual WABE Convention, a history of the organization and a copy of its constitution.

www.interlog.com/~jmckay/
The Canadian Broadcast Directory: This site contains a comprehensive listing of links to Canada’s radio and TV station’s Web sites, broadcast engineering companies and equipment suppliers.

www.cab.acr.ca
The Canadian Association of Broadcasters is the National voice of Canada’s private broadcasters. The association’s site includes information about the organization, industry news, social policy issues, events and links to various member and industry Web sites.

www.digitalradio.ca
The Digital Audio Broadcasting Web site is loaded with need-to-know info regarding the future of radio broadcasts. Digital audio broadcasting news, coverage areas, products and a helpful Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section are just some of the many things you’ll find on this site.

www.sbe.org
Home to the Society of Broadcast Engineers, this site contains details on membership with the organization, information on the SBE Certification Handbook for Radio Operators and dates for certification exam sessions.

www.oab.on.ca
The Ontario Association of Broadcasters (OAB) Web site contains information on the organization and membership requirements, as well as news, links, a career centre and free classified listings.

www.broadcast.net
Last, but certainly not least, in our list is the Broadcast Net Web site – an incredibly useful resource for anyone in the industry. A true broadcast community, visitors are able to enter the chat room and talk with likeminded individuals from around the world as well as peruse the classifieds and online store for gear. With a large selection of links to every facet of the industry, it is no wonder the site is referred to as “The Broadcast Industry’s Home Page.”

Summer Survivor: A Guide to Successful Festival Gigs by Fred Michael

Friday, April 18th, 2003

Some of you will be heading out this summer on the outdoor festival circuit, having gotten your sound mixing experience mostly indoors, on the bar circuit. If this is new territory for you, here’s a quick survival guide.

Advancing Your Shows
Phone all the sound companies involved well in advance; it’s best to talk with someone actually working on your stage, although this is not always possible. This first, real-time contact is important in establishing a personal connection; use e-mail for subsequent communications. All you want to do with this call is let them know who you are, find out who you should send your technical requirements to and get a quick rundown on the rig you’ll be using. If you have any special requirements, mention it at this point but remember to repeat this request in your correspondence so that the importance of having it is clearly indicated to the supplier. Of course, without a signed performance contract with your technical rider attached, there are no guarantees and, even with a contract, be prepared to work with whatever is there when you arrive; a calm attitude and an open mind will pay big benefits.

E-mail or FAX a stage plot and input list to all of the sound companies after you’ve made your calls; e-mail is best, because you can update your information as needed and the recipient can make clean paper copies. If you’ve never built an input list or plot before, consult with your more-experienced colleagues to get some ideas; be sure to include monitor channel assignments, and number of mixes; type and location of monitors will be shown on your plot. Note: unless you have a monitor engineer or stage tech traveling with you, it’s best to avoid the use of in-ear monitors on the festival stage; it could be a very negative experience for your musicians.

What To Take With You
Here’s a comprehensive list; see what’s relevant for you:

– Specialty microphones, effects or other electronics that are vital to your show.
– Basic tool kit, including multi-tool, flashlight, headphones, audio adapters, ear plugs.
– Phase checker, multi-meter, SPL meter, soldering iron, spare connectors.
– CDs of your favorite music tracks for system tuning (hey, you might get a chance!).
– Recording equipment.
– Laptop computer for e-mail and 1001 other things.

Again, pick what is relevant; if you get a couple of club dates in between outdoor shows, these “tools of the trade” will prove their worth.

At The Festival
Ideally, you will arrive at your stage a couple of hours before your set, any earlier and nobody wants to talk about your gig anyway! Visit the monitor mixer first, make your introductions, drop off copies of your plot/input list, and find out when they’ll be ready to discuss your setup. Then, go to the FOH and repeat the routine. This is your chance to hang out for a while without pressure and get a feel for the rig. Absorb as much as you can: Type of console, master fader settings, main EQ, order of inputs; check the effects, gates, and comps, and decide which of these you will be using. If you notice a console function, effect, or signal processor that you are not familiar with, you may want to avoid a steep learning curve at this point and just have the system engineer dial up what you need when the time comes; don’t worry about looking stupid, getting results is the important thing; you’ll also learn something for next time.

At this point, it’s a good idea simply to listen to the sound system for a few minutes. Is the rig comfortably within its operating range or is it verging on distortion? Are frequencies jumping out that might give you trouble on your set? Use this information to establish how you will proceed when it’s your turn at the console.

Now it’s time to focus on the stage. At the agreed time, review your entire setup with the person in charge (usually the stage manager or monitor engineer); yield as much relevant detail as possible. Stay at the stage as long as you can to ensure your instructions are being carried out, and your team members and musicians are comfortable.

Back at FOH, once the console is marked with your inputs, get out the cans and start listening to channels and setting the trims based on past experience, because you won’t be getting a line check (unless, of course, you’re the headliner!). Ask for the “FOH-to-stage” mic so you can immediately point out a miss-patch or missing input. While you are waiting for the inputs to be plugged, assign your effects, gates, and comps. If you are making a board recording, have the FOH tech look after this so you can focus on mixing. Decide now if you trust the FOH tech enough to share the mixing workload; you can get a good mix up a lot quicker, for example, if all the drum channels are being looked after by someone else for a few minutes while you dial-in featured vocals and instruments.

At last, your band is on stage. Go easy on yourself and back off supporting channels or subgroups by 3dB from their usual position until you get a feel for the level and tone that you want. Your job during the first song is to verify your trims are where you want them, the featured inputs are on top of the mix, and your effects are in the acoustic picture. Next, ensure any active gates and compressors are behaving as required. By this time, the song is probably over; in any case, now you can move on to fine-tuning your equalization on a channel-by-channel basis. If you find yourself repeatedly dealing with the same frequencies, consider doing a little overall system tuning; or you can ask the system tech what he thinks and suggest possible problem frequencies you’d like addressed. There is no established etiquette here; some techs don’t allow anybody to touch the house EQ; others don’t care what you do. It’s best to ask; if there’s a general reluctance, just move on and get what you can out of the console.

A final comment on mixing in these situations: If you’ve done most of your work in clubs, around 50′ from the PA, avoid trying to recreate that face-peeling sound outdoors, at 150′; you’ll risk driving the system into distortion, or, at the least, very heavy limiting. Working on these large, outdoor sound systems is a totally different game, where small changes in fader and EQ settings can make a big difference. Try for a big, comfortable sound with enough dynamic headroom remaining for a lead vocal or instrument to emerge from the mix when it’s needed. If you can get close to this, you know you’re in the sweet spot, and more volume only means less quality.

When it’s all over – no matter how it’s been for you on this particular day – don’t forget to thank the festival sound crew for their efforts; it’s a tough gig at the best of times. Swap contact info with the folks that particularly impressed you and, then, you are on to the next adventure.

Have a great summer!

Fred Michael is President of Rocky Mountain Sound Production Services in Vancouver, BC; June 2003 marks the company’s 18th consecutive season as supplier to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Fred can be reached at fred@rmsound.com, or via the Rocky Mountain Sound Web page, www.rmsound.com.

Practical Production Solutions

Tuesday, February 18th, 2003

Here are six helpful tips to get you out of some of the most common situations.

— Say the direct feed from the guitar amp is horribly buzzy and noisy – it sounds like an earthing problem, but there’s no time to trace and fix it. And the precious VIP guitarist won’t allow any backline cabs to be miked up … So what do you do? One answer is to use a spare backline amp, fed with the guitar signal, placed under or beside the stage, and mike this one. A noise gate, properly set up, can also quieten the guitar buzzes between notes.

— A safety official (with crinkly yellow jacket and clipboard) has condemned the tall stack of out-front PA cabs as unsafe. Solution: ask the venue management where the rigging points are in the ceiling. Rigging straps or suitably rated ropes are then used to secure the stack to the rigging points.

— To avoid the clutter and visual obstruction caused by bulky floor monitors, one (high-budget) solution – as used by Pink Floyd, among others – is to use under-stage monitoring, with the monitor cabs pointing up from beneath open grids fitted flush into the stage floor.

— When the PA is flown, it’s possible that the front rows of the audience might miss out on some of the signal – the sound can travel over their heads and they only hear the monitors and backline. This can be overcome by using ‘groundfills’ – full-range PA cabs placed under or beside the stage.

— Miking an orchestra that’s seated underneath a flown PA can be a problem – strings are fairly quiet, so the mike level needs to be high, increasing the risk of picking up spill from the PA, and even feedback. If it’s not feasible either to move the players or re-position the PA away from them, one solution is to alternate the polarity of neighbouring players’ mikes, to reduce (partly cancel out) the ambient soundfield. Alternatively you could use lapel (tie-clip) omni mikes taped to the rear of the string instruments’ bridges, which helps reduce spill on individual mikes.

— When using a revolving stage (not common, but used in some big-name productions) it is normal to reverse the stage’s direction after every two acts, to avoid twisting the multicore cable/snake. Multicore lines have been lost in this way before – effectively by strangulation.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Live Sound Manual, published by Backbeat Books, www.backbeatbooks.com. All information is copyrighted and cannot be reprinted without the permission of the publisher.

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