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Sound Advice

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

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.

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