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Sound Advice

Let Natural Acoustics Do Their Job by David Norman

October 18th, 2002

My all-time favorite venues to mix in is Radio City Music Hall in New York City. I did a show last year for the Muhammad Ali movie premiere there and I want to share some tips with you.

The acts that performed were; B.B. King, The Fugees, Zelma Davis (formerly with C&C Music Factory), Brian McKnight, Diana King, Fred Wesley Harding (formerly with James Brown), the Andy Marvel Band (which was the house band for several acts and included members of Whitney Houston’s band), Batoto Yetu, members of A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, The Uptown Horns, the guest speaker was Danny Glover.

I was responsible for the house sound and mixed all of the groups while sound was provided by See Factor which supplied the new V-DOSC PA, and let me tell you this is by far the best sounding PA I’ve ever mixed on. I used a Yamaha PM-4000 with 48-channels and a Crest Century 32-channel for a maximum of 80 channels total. I ended up using 73 channels for this show and decided to place the two consoles in a “V” configuration and sit between the consoles to make it easier for me to get to everything since there were no actual set changes between all of the acts.

With no changeovers between acts, the monitor engineer and myself charted our consoles so we were well covered and all we had to do was sub-group muting when a particular act wasn’t on stage. All drum kits were miked individually and all acts shared the same bass rig. All three guitarists were miked individually. The only channels that we used consistently from act-to-act, were the hand-held wireless vocal mics.

My first consideration was making sure that the vocals and drums and bass were prominent in the mix as all of the acts were in the R&B/Rap genre. I also had to make sure that I didn’t un-mute the wrong sub-group for that particular act!

If you’ve never been to Radio City, it’s an incredibly beautiful old building and it sounds incredible. I’ve seen many engineers mix there and the shows that I’ve found that sounded best are the ones where the engineer doesn’t try to blow the audience out of their seats with volume.

One of the strange quirks of mixing at Radio City is that they usually position the FOH mix stage left and you must sit while mixing the show (I hate mixing while sitting). For me, this is a major pain because I would prefer to hear the full right and left stereo mix. I love miking guitars and keys in stereo and to hear that full stereo imaging is incredible at times.

I also made sure to keep the overall volume at a comfortable level as many in the audience were in the upper age range and besides, the room sounds so beautiful that you can let the natural acoustics do their job.

When mixing here, make sure to walk the entire room to make sure you don’t have any dead spots. A word to the wise, hang a center cluster and add your vocals here to get even more clarity to those seats in the balcony.

Having great musicians on stage, a great PA, a great crew and advance planning, mixing at Radio City Music Hall will be a breath of fresh air for any engineer.

David Norman has Tour/Production Managed and/or Mixed for such acts as Aaron Neville & The Neville Brothers, They Might Be Giants, Michael Hedges, Peabo Bryson, Arrested Development, Patti Austin, Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles), Lisa Germano and many others.

The Most Important Thing To Remember (When Mixing a Band) by Hugh Richards

October 18th, 2002

Don’t forget the words. Words are the most important thing. If you can’t hear the words there’s no point to what you do. [When mixing vocals with a band] it’s just natural balance. You can use delays and some effects you can pull like a doubler. It really comes down to the stage levels and how you balance the sound around that vocal.

Hugh Richards is Front of House engineer for Oasis who are currently wrapping up their Be Here Now tour.

Upgrade Your Nearfields For Free by Bruce Bartlett

October 18th, 2002

Are you getting all the performance out of your Nearfield monitors that you can? There are some simple ways to flatten their response so they sound more accurate. And you won’t need to buy a graphic equalizer.

In a nutshell, experiment with placement. Where you place your monitors, relative to nearby walls and the console, has a big effect on their sound. For example, you can control the monitor’s bass response easily. Any loudspeaker gets more bassy when placed near a surface.

Here’s why. The tweeter radiates high frequencies mostly out front. But lows radiate in all directions. When you put a loudspeaker near a wall, the lows radiate behind the speaker, bounce off the wall, and reinforce the lows radiating out front.

The highs don’t radiate back toward the wall, so they are not reinforced. The audible result is more bass.

So, if your monitors sound thin when playing a kick drum or bass guitar, try placing them closer to the wall behind them. My monitors were placed on a desk just behind my mixing console, 1.5 feet from the wall behind them. In this position, they sounded too warm or mid-bassy. When I raised them up by putting them on some one-gallon paint cans, they lost their tubby character. An upgrade for free! I wrapped the cans in grey foam rubber.

Another upgrade is almost free. Get a 4-foot-square piece of acoustical foam, with wedges or convolutions. Such foam is made by Sonex and others. Tape or nail it to the wall behind and between your monitors. The foam absorbs sound, so you hear less wall reflections and more direct sound from the monitors. The benefits are many: sharper stereo imaging, flatter response, tighter transients, and better time resolution. It really does work.

Put monitors on stands just behind the console, not on the meter bridge. This reduces comb-filtering from console reflections. Align the monitors vertically to prevent lobing in the horizontal plane.

Another way to control your monitors’ sound is to experiment with angling them toward you, or straight ahead. The off-axis response of a speaker tends to roll off in the highs compared to the on-axis response. So if you toe-in the monitors to aim at you, they will sound their brightest. If you aim them straight ahead, the treble will soften a little. It’s free EQ.

Take some time to experiment with monitor placement, and you’ll be rewarded with a more-accurate sound.

Bruce Bartlett is a microphone engineer, audio journalist and a recording engineer.

EQ And Mixing Made Easy – by Gary Stokes

October 18th, 2002

EQing individual channels: “Try to keep in mind, that all sounds have all frequencies and any EQ you do is always a trade-off, or compromise, so it’s important to pay attention to what you’re losing that’s desirable, when you start mercilessly notching out something that offends you. I think a good example is electric guitar because sometimes it’s better to boost either side of what tone is offensive and thereby preserve more of the overall tone rather than notching out something that bothers you.”

Mixing: “Everyone’s first impulse when listening to a band playing, and you’ve got complete control over the mix, is to turn up whatever element of the mix that is too quiet. I think the first thing you should ask yourself is what elements are too loud and are masking what you want to hear. What is bothering you if you can’t hear the guitar for example. Find what’s covering the guitar. See if you can get away with turning something down first before you move something up. Usually in the end, you’ll be less likely to paint yourself into a corner of always trying to turn everything up louder than everything else and consequently running out of headroom and making the overall mix too loud for the audience and everything else goes along with that. Before you turn something up think of what you can turn down to make it sound better.”

Gary Stokes is Sarah McLachlan’s sound engineer and is featured in this issue of Professional Sound.

Upgrading the Dolby 363 SR by Barry Lubotta

October 18th, 2002

As a firm believer in the superior sonic qualities of ½” analog versus DAT as a two-track mixdown format, I was excited several months ago to purchase a used Dolby 363 SR two channel noise reduction unit to complement our ½” machine. Since we already had Dolby SR on our 24-track recorder, I expected the same kind of performance when I wired in the Dolby 363. To my surprise, I found the sound quality of my tapes through the 363 somewhat disappointing. The problem was that the high end seemed to lose its sparkle and the soundstage shrunk. These less than flattering results made me question whether I was better off with or without noise reduction on our two-track machine. And then it struck me as to why I have seen so many used 363s offered for sale over the past few years – probably unhappy owners.

Now my short-term memory isn’t quite as good as it used to be, but there is nothing wrong with my long-term recall. And sure enough, driving home that night I remembered reading an article that appeared in REP magazine several years ago which dealt with modifications to the Dolby 363 SR. Later that evening I was knee deep in old magazines and had just about given up hope of ever finding the piece in question. Down to my last REP I scanned the index and there it was on page 62 of the May 1991 issue – “Upgrading the Dolby 363 SR” by Jim Williams. Seems like I was not the only one who found that the original unit was somewhat lacking. This excellent article described the less than exceptional parts used by Dolby in manufacturing the 363, and went on to give detailed instructions on how to modify the unit so that it would regain it’s clarity, transient response, and sparkle.

I contacted David Miller at Digital Ears in Toronto and asked him to perform the upgrade for me since I knew it was beyond my modest capabilities. When I dive into a piece of equipment, my philosophy has always been that I will either make an improvement or destroy the thing entirely, and in this case the odds seemed to favour the latter result. Dave and I discussed the mod and agreed that we could take the improvements one step further by replacing some capacitors and other ICs in the signal path. Since the Dolby 363s are no longer under warranty, there was no risk of alienating Dolby the company.

A week later David delivered the upgraded 363 and I plugged it in for a few days so the new components could break in. When I got around to recording music through the system, the improvement in sound quality was immediate and easy to hear. The detail and sparkle from my source came through unchanged, as it should have in the first place. I’d have to say the unit now sounds better than our 24 channel Dolby SR.

If you already own a Dolby 363 SR unit, you owe it to yourself to experience a significant improvement for a modest price. The cost of the mod was just under $400. Now the 363 can do the job it was designed for.

I find it surprising and disturbing that Dolby utilized such low quality audio parts in a device that was never cheap to begin with. By investing in this modest upgrade, you can play your part in keeping analog sound quality alive and kicking into the next century.

Barry Lubotta is the owner of Pizazzudio Recording Studio in Toronto, ON.

Listen To The Artists by Gary Stokes

October 18th, 2002

“You need to be intimately aware of what is stage sound and what is coming from the PA you’re controlling. I think all sound engineers like to have total control of the sound.

“There’s sort of a natural desire to do the best job possible but you have to be aware of what sound you’re actually controlling with the knobs under your fingers, what sound is coming off the stage, or just inherently in the venue. A good exercise is to mute the main PA and just listen to the sound of the band on the stage from the audience. It’s also very important to go and listen to the sound onstage as well. This gives you a better awareness of what you’re trying to achieve, as well as what you can and can’t achieve. Sometimes it’s good to know if you’re sitting out in the audience, if all the drums are balanced from that perspective without you turning the PA on, or if the snare drum or guitar is too loud.

“You have to have a constant awareness of these things when you’re mixing. It’s good to work with the musicians onstage, and the monitor engineer if there is one to control the stage levels, but don’t be so self-centered that you’re only doing it so you have absolute control. It’s important to help them do the control levels not only to protect their hearing onstage but to get a good mix in the house. It’s also important not to be so autocratic and announce their onstage levels that they actually try to make it sound better by turning it down so much that they can’t actually perform well.

“It’s important to not be so harsh that you actually change the stage sound to such a degree that musicians who have been playing for years, and have their act together, start playing worse. I think a lot of people go that far because they’re trying to be in control over the sound in front, and they don’t pay attention to what the musicians need onstage to play the best music possible. The key is knowing what is stage sound and what is not. It’s better to sound good at a lower volume and only have partial control and supplement the stage sound, than it is to get complete control by turning it up two or three times as loud so that you have control over everything. That’s not always a better solution. In fact often it’s worse. You can find a way by listening to the sound onstage without the PA on. You may decide that something sounds pretty good that way. Some things don’t necessarily need a lot of help from the PA. Don’t just assume that everything has to be completely under your control at all times.”

Gary Stokes is a live sound engineer from Toronto, ON who has recently done sound for Sarah McLachlan on her Lilith Fair tour.

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