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Sound Advice

In-Ear Monitoring – refining your mix by Fred Michael

December 18th, 2003

Today, I want to enlarge on the topic of IEMs, with a focus on ways to enhance the experience for the performer while protecting their ears as much as possible.

It’s important to remember that IEMs are not only an excellent way to hear onstage; they also provide ear protection when used properly. However, the opposite is true as well: exposure to poorly set-up IEMs can accelerate hearing loss. An example of this is when you see vocalists performing with one of their IEMs pulled out. A closer look at this phenomenon is a good starting point for our discussion.

This situation is really the “worst of both worlds” and should be avoided. The musician has, for reasons I’ll explain, removed himself from the protective in-ear environment and is trying to get comfortable with a blend of the in-ear mix and the sound on stage. The problems are three-fold: the in-ear mix is now essentially useless, the onstage sound has probably not been set up for their vocal mix, and there is an increased risk of hearing damage.

Usually, the performer removes one of their monitors because the mix they are getting is completely out of whack, taking them out of the music rather than engaging them. Like a swimmer coming up for air, the performer does the one thing he knows will help. If you see this happening with your group, you need to take a look at your mixing techniques. First of all, allow time at sound check to set up a proper instrumental blend in their mix. The vocalist needs enough support from the instruments and other voices to get a tuning reference, but not so much that their voice gets lost.

Ask the performer which instruments they usually gravitate towards for a tuning reference and start your sound check with an emphasis on those. Remember, this is all about getting them comfortable in the IEM environment; that doesn’t necessarily mean you are building a CD-quality mix; rather, you are starting with the essential elements for the performer to feel comfortable and stay in tune. For some, this means a bare bones sound with dominant vocals, others want everything; experience will tell you what is needed.

Another factor that tempts performers to remove their monitors is the subjective feeling that the mix inside their head is very artificial sounding, removed from the “real” sound onstage. Again, the performer feels isolated and pulled out of the music. Most IEM engineers use ambience microphones to help their musicians stay connected to the stage sound. Usually, this is a matched pair of microphones, placed at stage left and right, and aimed in such a way to get a representative room sound. This is then blended into the mix, making it much more natural sounding. While you may not have the resources to purchase dedicated ambience microphones, any decent-quality stereo recording microphone will approximate the effect. Play with different locations until you have a couple of options to choose from.

Finally, avoid mixing to a level that irritates the performer; this is an alarm saying, “Turn it down!” Properly fitted IEMs, whether custom or generic moulds, can reduce the ambient volume by 15-20dB; this gives you all the latitude you need to build a comfortable, satisfying mix while minimizing risk of hearing damage. Never let your performer use standard ear buds as replacements for IEMs; they do not provide the isolation required for safe use of this technology in the live concert environment.

Fred Michael is President of Rocky Mountain Sound Production Services in Vancouver, BC. Fred can be reached at fred@rmsound.com, or via the Rocky Mountain Sound Web page, www.rmsound.com.

Graphics and Noise: Hiss & Hum

October 18th, 2003

Hiss (the steady ‘tssss’ noise – like escaping steam – made by the graphic itself) is not much of a problem on the more professional units. It’s most likely to be an audible problem on bad or low-budget designs, and older or damaged units. With a decent unit you shouldn’t hear any hiss at the FOH mix position at all, over the FOH PA, when the bypass switch is flicked in and out, and while the sliders are all at 0dB.

Of course the prevailing hiss level will be made more audible if you have to boost frequencies above 5 kHz, or if you’re in a small venue where some of the audience are unavoidably seated close to the FOH PA cabs. Hopefully, they won’t notice it over the music.

Lower-frequency noise (buzz and hum) may be induced if graphic EQs are placed (for any reason) near to ‘leaky’ AC transformers – meaning their magnetic fields leak outside their casing and affect other equipment.

Graphics are more likely to pick up hum than other units in the drive rack, so before finalizing a drive rack set-up, it’s a good idea to spend a little time experimenting with the relative locations and spacing of the units in the rack, with the graphic placed furthest (if feasible) from any other units that induce hum.

To make good and bad positions easier to locate, you can temporarily exaggerate the problem by fully boosting the sliders at 50, 150, 250 and 350 Hz (or in the US and wherever the local AC power frequency is 60 Hz, use the sliders nearest to 60 Hz and its multiples). For this test, nothing is plugged into the graphic – though any gear around it must be powered-up and switched on – and it’s simply plugged straight into a PA amp and a bass bin, or any bass speaker made to reproduce frequencies between 50 and 400 Hz.

Note: Although you can use the graphic to exacerbate hums in this way to help positioning, never use a graphic to eliminate hums. You’ll reduce the hum, but also cut an unnecessarily wide range of bass frequencies. For a suitably selective cutting you must use a parametric EQ (PEQ).

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.

Recording Tips For Engineers: Getting Work – by Tim Crich

October 18th, 2003

The music business is tough.Work is elusive, and will not come to you – you have to hunt it down. But there is work out there, you have to go and get it.
Check out all the studios possible. Leave a card. Try to get a rapport with certain studios, and try to always use it for your projects. If you bring in a few bands, you may get a break on the cost of the studio. As well, if they know you, and if they are familiar with your work, they may call you when they need an engineer.

Check your hearing. Before you seriously become an active, working recording engineer, get your head, er… hearing examined. If your hearing is questionable, it ain’t getting any better. It may be disconcerting if the client sees you adjusting your hearing aid in the session.

Have ears will travel. Place an ad in the local music paper that you are available to record bands at a very reasonable rate. Go to clubs and talk to bands about recording. Print up a demo disc of some of your best work – even if you must book studio time to do it – and mail it out or hand it out to whoever may be interested.
Include a business card with a contact number. Don’t scribble “This whole disc was recorded in half an hour in Dave’s Basement, with no overdubs, and lots of beer.” Use professional graphics.

I love the mall, I love them all. Get to know as many people in the local scene as possible by hanging around the music and recording gear stores, going to shows and supporting local artists. Other engineers, small time managers and local musicians become big name producers, studio owners and rock stars.

He shoots, he scores. Do you play hockey, baseball, bowling, curling, tongue wrestling? Many cities have music industry sports teams. This is how to network in the recording industry. There is nothing like getting sympathy work, so maybe a puck in the head now and again will help your career.

Intensities in ten cities. Attend the major audio shows and conventions such as the AES or NAMM. These shows are great to see what is on the horizon, but also to hang out with the audio industry and be seen.

Get outta town. You may want to move to a locale that has lots of studios, like LA, NY or Nashville. There are many secondary markets other than these three, but of course these ones are the main places. Note that even though there are more studios, there is more competition, and big cities aren’t for everyone.

And on this team. Many engineers today are teaming up with someone such as a producer or mixer, and starting their own production company. With the low cost of equipment, this may be a viable option for some people. Just working as a recording engineer today might not be enough. It is always good to have something to fall back on. I still have my hat from Burger King, just in case.

Use your computer to its fullest capacity. Use the Internet to access data on recording studios, new equipment and newest techniques. There are many Web sites available to research available recording studios in your area, as well as any new techniques that different engineers, equipment manufacturers or organizations post on the web.
Keep a file on all the studios including a list of the attributes and detriments of the studio. List how you laid out the instruments.
Create a Web site with your photograph, name, your credits, your availability etc. Upload your demo, perhaps parts of songs you have engineered. Check the legalities of this, and do not upload anything you don’t own that has not been released yet.

Tim Crich has over 20 years of experience in the recording studio and has worked on records by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, KISS, Billy Joel, U2, David Bowie, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Cher, Bryan Adams and many more. He has engineered for some of the biggest producers in the world. This article is excerpted with permission from his book Recording Tips For Engineers.

Guarding Gear at the Gig

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

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

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.

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