Saturday, March 31, 2012

Working - Part 2

In a post a couple days ago I started in on getting started in the business.  The second part of this post is going to elaborate on a couple other topics that have come up before.  
First and foremost I think the thing that makes someone in this business valuable is the skill set they bring to the table.  The phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" is a good fit here.  Even in the areas where I claim expertise I still can't claim mastery, there's always room for improvement.  In addition to my mixing skills I also frequently wind up stage managing, lighting or doing any number of things for a show.  I've been a carpenter, painter, seamstress, stage hand, electrician, and the list goes on and on.  Even though I didn't deliberately sell myself as having those skills, when the opportunity to put them to work came up and I didn't hesitate to jump in and the folks that hired me didn't forget down the road.

To be a little more specific let's just look in the audio realm. I've written before about how studio work and live work are really two different pursuits but more and more the live engineer is going to be asked to take some tracks, whether it's a CD-R of the two-mix or a multi-track extravaganza for a live album.  It might even be taking some live gear and a recorder to a practice space and laying some tracks down for an album.  How you treat your gain stages when you're feeding amp racks is a little different than when you're feeding recorders, especially if they're digital.  This is where you need to be on top of your signal routing.  You may even need to come up with some pretty creative solutions so you get a balanced recording and don't overload.

Looking a little deeper, if you're a live engineer and you're setting out to record an album there's a good chance you haven't got everything you might need in your mic box.  It's not impossible to do a good job with a bunch of dynamic mics from a live rig, but knowing how to use condenser mics is a big plus.  If you're borrowing some, do your homework.  That's not just looking up the specs on a website, try and get into the forums and find out how people are using them and any tips and tricks they have, also what disasters they've created.  Beyond that, how you handle your dynamic processing and spatial effects is completely different in the studio.  In short, it's usually pretty easy to tell when a band had a live mixer do a record for them, so it's well worth studying up on the studio side of things before you dive in.  Concert audio floats off into the night and is gone, but a record is forever.  Make sure you're doing the best work you can if your name is going on one.  Studio technique can just as easily transfer into the live realm so it will be time well spent on more than one count.

Moving out of the audio realm, it's a good idea to be familiar with lighting equipment.  If you're any good at mixing you're probably pretty good at getting your head around the material that the band is playing, even if you've never heard it before.  It can be a real pain to have to run lights while you're mixing a rock show, but it can also be a real joy when you get to fill in for a lighting guy and really get into the visual elements of a show.

Beyond that, understanding how a show goes together, both in the setup and run can put you in a great place to lend a hand.  A lighting guy I work with parlayed his way onto a tour based mostly on the fact hat he knew his way around DMX and could coil cable nicely.  Something as simple as that caught the attention of people who were in a position to get him on the road.  He's pretty skilled in lighting, but it was just pitching in on gigs as a helper that got him his break.  That same lighting guy and I would often team up to stage manage small festival stages.  Helping a day's worth of entertainment go off without a hitch is a big added value to a promoter and we've gotten a ton of repeat business out of just a little effort.

I frequently get asked to mix charity events and when I quote them a price they say they were looking for the PA to be donated.  I'll hold my price down for a charity event, but I'm not in a position to work for free.  They'll usually ask if I can come down any if they provide help.  My response is usually that I'll need twice the money and two extra hours if I have help.  Helpers who can't coil cable and don't know the difference between a two-fer and a turn-around just aren't any use on a busy stage, even if I'm the only one working on it.  Bad helpers can easily screw up the next gig for you if they put things away improperly or in the wrong place.  Don't be that kind of help.  If you don't know what your doing just watch until you do, then you can contribute. Being able to pitch in without getting in the way is about the best talent you can bring to a gig.  I'm never going to claim that I'm a rigger, but I can join someone who is and help rather than hurt their progress. 

This post keeps getting longer and longer.  I was hoping to get to advertising and resumes but I think that will have to wait for the next one.  Until then my Brethren of the Knob and Fader, consider what you can bring to the table, maybe it's something you have never thought of as a marketable skill before.

Friday, March 30, 2012

It's The Little Things

You get a bonus post today.  When I got to the office this morning there were a couple of packages waiting for me.  I couldn't wrap my brain around it because they looked nothing like what I expected to show up based on what I had ordered last week. They were pretty light, I could almost juggle them.  Nothing for it but to break em open and see what shakes loose.

 Hmm, no wonder they were so light.  Looks like someone shipped me air, conveniently preserved in single serving pouches.

No such luck on the second box.  Just packing peanuts, and not even the cool kind that you can eat or turn into mush and wash down the drain with a little hot water.

Finally the big reveal...
Two pieces of gel I ordered for the Easter services.  One in each box. The mind reels at how something like this could possibly have happened.  The comments section is open people. Spin your yarns and maybe there will be a prize for the best story.

Guest Post: Karl Maciag - Life Story

Karl Maciag is in the system design line of work these days but used to push faders out in venues.  Now you reap the benefit of his years of experience. Karl also writes his own blog over at Karl's Empty Space. Click on the Contributors link above to see his other posts on this blog.
Devilicus Handsomicus

I think a few of the contributors for the blog are going to spend their next entry or so describing their professional journey in the audio biz. It’s fun to reminisce about the journey that you are on, I think it’s healthy to do. I think a few of us doing that will most importantly illustrate that there is certainly not one way to get a job, and stay working in this industry. I think that’s what makes our industry unique.

I decided my senior year of high school that I was not going to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, as I thought I wanted to do most of my high school career. I decided instead that doing sound at my church was something I really was intrigued by, had a natural talent for, and wanted to delve deeper into. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I decided against a 4 year school, and attended a trade school instead, that taught nothing but studio recording. 3-4 months later, and a few certificates (not degrees) later, I was back home, looking for work.

The first year was extremely slow. I was working at my church for free, doing sound, maintaining the system (the best I knew at that point), and doing some freelance stuff for a guy from my church that ran a home studio, and small live event company. It was good experience. Dealing with all sorts of different bands, different cultures, languages etc. primed me for being able to adapt quickly later down the road.

During this time, I was also an active guitar player, playing in the local clubs in Buffalo. I would call this my “networking” time. It was here that I became friends with the house sound guys, helping them mic up drum kits when my band was changing over sets, and just chatting them up asking them about the gear they had etc. It was also a networking time meeting the promoters that booked the band that I was playing in. After being in this environment for 6 months or so, I started asking the promoters if they’d hire me to do sound at their venues if they ever needed a guy. Soon after, I got a call to shadow a house guy that knew he was going to be taking time off, and I could cover for him when he was gone. They were local shows, and I did fine. The bands got a long with me, nothing broke, and it sounded pretty good. I started getting more calls from the promoter to cover for more guys.

After a couple months, the promoter told me he was opening a new venue, and wanted me to be the house guy at that venue. I said “yes” immediately. It was a super shady bar, with mirrors all over the place, and the night before my first show, they had a Jello wrestling night, which left this nasty sticky residue all over the floor, that they didn’t mop up until after I started setting up the system. For months, just handling the mic cables left my hands completely covered it sticky dirty muck. I started brining a bar of soap and towel just to wash my hands after setting up the stage and tearing it down at the end of the night! I learned early there is not much glamor in this business.

I’d still get calls to cover the other venues, which hosted a lot of national and touring acts. That was the big test for me, the promoter wanted to see how I dealt with the touring engineers, and bands with big egos. Being flexible, and having an attitude that my job was to make the visiting engineer succeed was key to me continuing to get work. Time went on and I got “promoted” to be a regular house guy at the bigger venue.

After a year of this, I got a call from a production company owner that I met in high school (who originally got me interested in sound in the first place), asking if I was looking for work, that he needed another guy to cover larger events. It was working for this company I learned about real production. Loading in and out logistics, packing cases, packing trucks, dealing with sub par power situations, how to tap power, how to do 3 events in one day that had you work 20 hours, only to get up the next day and do 3 more, remembering to wear sunblock, etc. Work ethic, and attention to detail was key. Pack the cable trunks so the next guy to use it doesn’t have to deal with spaghetti. Working as a team, to not screw the next guy down the line. Important stuff.

At this point, I was at Circuit City full time, and doing sound for shows on the weekends, or nights I didn’t have to work. During the summer, I was doing shows 5-7 nights a week, the money was pretty good, and having a full time job on top of it was great. During the winter, that slowed down to a hopeful 2 shows a week, as the production company didn’t have the outdoor schedule it did in the summer.

I continued making contacts, one of them very important, a 20+ year veteran of the industry that I got along with very well, that was willing to spend time with me, and show me more of the ropes. I had moved on to another house gig that was in the same building as his gig. I’d do my early show that got done around 11, and then I’d go over to his show that went until 3am. Those late hours took my developing skills, and made me think deeper about what I was doing. All of the bands loved him at the venue. He knew them all, knew their gear, their sound, their habits, and made them feel like they were in his living room, just hanging out. His reputation of being a superior “service provider” had served him well. Eventually I started covering this venue too, when he had to travel etc.

So after 3 years, I had grown as a freelance engineer that was a regular house tech at 3 venues, on the regular crew of a production company, and assisting another guy with his house rig when he couldn’t cover it. I decided to take the plunge, quit my day job, and do sound full time. I also had started contracting from time to time assisting on AV installs as well.

Eventually, I started becoming the engineer of choice for several local bands. It got to the point, where these bands would pay me to mix their local shows, instead of the house guy at the venue. The bands would pay me just for their set, and a lot of time, I would make more money than the house guy being paid by the promoter! Several of the bands would play the same shows together, which would leave me sometimes with $100-$200 for mixing two or three sets. The house guy was setting up gear, cleaning up, mixing bands he didn’t like and only making a flat $50, which the house gig paid. Being creative, and consistent was paying off.

I finally got the call I’d been waiting for in May of 2004. A national touring band, called a promoter friend of mine and asked if he knew any good tour worthy sound guys. He recommended me, and I was on my way. Baptism by fire. 3 months, across America and back. I talked before about my first time on a digital desk, it was this tour. It proved to be extremely educational, fun, and testing. I continued my relationship working with that band for about a year, until I decided that I was going to concentrate on AV integration full time, and stay home with my family.

I miss the camaraderie of touring. I miss having a new place and experience each day. I love to travel, even if I don’t travel well sometimes, and what better way to travel, than to get paid to travel. In the short time I was in that realm, I made life long friends, and have experience and memories that cannot be replaced by anything. The pay was good, and on longer tours, it was nice to come home and have good money waiting in the bank. But that money might has to tide you over until the next tour comes along….That uncertainty was a killer for my touring career.

Since 2005, I’ve concentrated on AV integration, and picking and choosing what shows I do. The late hours are for the birds if you have to wake up and do the 9-5 grind the next day, so I’ve cut the shows out to avoid an early grave.

That’s my story. I hope you picked out that it revolves around relationships more than you would think. The trust of your clients, and potential clients is the most important thing. As soon as you screw someone over, you’re done with them, and their network of friends. If you’re starting out, good luck, try hard, and make more friends than enemies, but know who your enemies are. After all…."The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves
and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Now On Twitter

I just got a Twitter account started for those of you who are into that sort of thing.  The Facebook posts will mirror there so it's a good way to be notified of new posts or to see what the chatter is with people who comment on FB instead of the comments section.

The link is permanently posted to the right, just under the email subscription box and Facebook link.

Working - Part 1

This post starts a series on getting into the industry, here's where you can find the other parts:
I've been reading and thinking a lot lately about the actual paycheck part of working in this industry.  The first thing I want to say is that it's very important to take a good hard look at where you think you want to be and then figure out if it's actually possible to get there.  If you want to work on feature films but you're not willing to leave your home in the Midwest or you want to tour but have a hard time leaving your wife and kids behind then you've got some serious thinking to do.
You may not need to sacrifice your priorities though. For me raising a family was higher on my list than working full time in audio and to do that in the town I wanted to live in meant working a day job and doing smaller gigs.  My friends who stayed in New York City to work, made a lot more money than me, but their parking spaces cost more than my mortgage.  Looking at a lot of indie bands I've known, lots have gotten signed, some even to big labels, but none are national stars.  They got to make records and tour, but they mostly broke even on it and still had to work day jobs and eventually got out of the game.  But if you ask them they wouldn't trade the ride they got out of it for anything.  That's what it's about folks, what kind of a ride can you get out of that sled before you run out of hill.

No matter where you wind up starting from though you're going to have to get yourself established as a business and that generally means doing business type things like getting a bank account and learning how to declare your income so that Uncle Sam doesn't come after you.  More importantly though you need to start thinking of yourself as a business in terms of "branding" which is the buzz word lately. (Is buzz word still a buzz word or am I dating myself?) That means you should probably at the very least make your Facebook private and start a page just for your biz.  A good logo is a worthwhile investment too.  There needs to be something to differentiate you from the rest of the guys out there with road boxes and cables and bad breath.  And keep in mind that everything you do on a project or gig could eventually come back to haunt you.  It's way better to be known as they guy who goes the extra mile than the guy who nickle and dimes his clients to death for each little add-on.

Which brings me around to getting the actual clients.  When you're young and hungry you've generally got nothing but time to invest, so it's OK to do a lot of work for cheap or even free just to get your name out there.  But you have to be extremely careful not to become known as "that guy who'll do your stuff for nothing".  If you're doing favors for someone on small projects who insists that you're going along with them when they make it big, don't count on that because it may be out of their hands. (In all my years of helping out young bands only one has ever given me a serious invitation to tour with them.)

A lot of blogs I've been reading are actually floating out the idea that it's actually better to work for free than for just cheap because it makes it easier for you to put your foot down about what the client is getting out of you.  Also keep in mind that clients looking for the low buck solution are often the least prepared and most demanding.  At any rate, make it clear from the outset what your price is, how it will be paid (preferably some up front) and when and how you will start charging them for extras.  
Myself, I'm perfectly willing to pull out some extra gear if I show up at a gig and an inexperienced promoter underestimated the size of the room.  I may not even charge for it because that small act of good will has turned into repeat business, not only in the form of doing the same event the next year and the next, but getting referred by that happy client.  But there have to be limits.  If it's something that I already have sitting on the truck, no problem.  If a gig suddenly turns out to need a dozen channels of wireless mics at the last second, I can secure them, but that's an extra that's coming out of the client's checkbook, not mine.  
You really have to take a good look at it though and what it will mean for your self promotion.  I know of a small studio that has purposefully sought out promising young acts to basically "sponsor" and help them get a record made. (The owner of said studio will hopefully be a future contributor to this blog. Hi Brian!)  Here you have a guy who's been burnt many a time sweating it out on demos that were never going to go anywhere by putting in many more hours than he got paid for.  But by making the choice to hook up with some good talent, even if he winds up basically giving away his time, that all comes back because now he's got a catalog of great material on his website, of many different genres and all are happy clients who are now getting some attention out in the world, and passing on the info about what a great studio they worked in.
In a business as tightly woven as ours it's possible for us to turn the tables as well.  It's not possible for a promoter to screw a sound guy without every other sound guy in the area hearing about it.  While other companies are "my competition" what helps them helps me and if I know there's someone shady out there I'll pass the word along, at least to be careful.  In the live sound area, it's not possible to hold on to a master recording until you get paid, so you have to take it on trust most of the time that a promoter will get you your balance at the end of the night.  There have been a couple absolute flops that I worked on and there just wasn't enough money coming in the door to pay me.  In those cases I was making good money during the day and could afford to take a hit.  A couple other times though I got royally and vindictively screwed and then it was time to go to the grapevine.  I know for a fact that there's one theatre producer who even five years after our run in is still having a hard time getting techs and gear for his shows.

Speaking of taking a hit, I'd like to go back to the whole working for cheap idea for a second.  Even after I was well established, I would cut first time deals with promoters.  When I say promoters what I actually mean is PTA moms who were putting together battles of the bands for fundraisers.  In those cases I could say, "Look, I know you know next to nothing about this and you have no way to look at my website and tell if I'm any good or not.  So I'll cut you a break on the price this time around and I'll stage manage your show and even help out with promoting it a little.  If you're happy we can talk about what next year's show will cost."  Now high school battles are about the most miserable thing you can mix, but they can be a real life line because then tend to happen when nothing else is going on, so I may as well go out and do them because it's more money than I would make sitting at home on a Saturday.  I did a few for very little money, but after a year or two the word spread about me and they were netting me thousands of dollars and I was pretty much guaranteed to get the call year after year.

I feel like I'm getting a little long winded, so stay tuned my Brethren of the Knob and Fader for Part two in a couple days, when we'll get into diversifying your resume and whether or not you even need a resume.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dear SNR: Vocals In The Mix

I've been starting to publicize the blog a little now that there's a bit of content up and lo and behold it's working.  I suspected a few redditors were reading and now here's the proof.  Here's our first true "Dear Soundguy" letter so let's get right to it.
Hi there,

I recently stumbled upon your blog from a reddit link (I think it was in, which makes sense). I wanted to get your advice on something which has been bothering me for a while, if you have a few minutes to spare out of your day to help a newbie!

My basic problem is thus: when i'm mixing vocals at higher volumes (funk bands, rock bands, rockier theatre shows, etc), a lot of the time, I end up with a melange of that ear-hurty icepick-in-the-ear-sounding interference which kinda sounds like it's somewhere between 2k and 5k. I try my hardest to be aware of this and notch it out either on the FOH graphic or on a vocal subgroup, but I was wondering if you have any tried-and-true methods to keep clarity and intelligibility in the source material (i.e, a couple of vocalists singing over a full band), whilst also actually dealing with the problem? I've heard it done by other engineers, but they're fairly secretive of their mix techniques when I ask, and I don't want to be as unsubtle as to try and get a look at their EQ pages or racks.

Do you have any thoughts on this? I fully understand if you also want to try and keep your mix techniques to yourself, just looking for a starting point, really.

I also weaseled a few additional facts out of him via email and the interference he's talking about isn't feedback, but just a sharp sound.  The mics he's using are generally Shure SM58s and occasionally Beta 58s which he doesn't seem to have as much trouble with although they usually show up when he has fewer vocalists on stage.

I'd like to start by addressing the bit about trying to get info off of other pros.  It's not unreasonable that they don't want to give away any details to a random person that walked up to them.  If you've got the time it's always a good idea to try and strike up some sort of relationship with another mixer.  If you can find a minute when they're not too busy you can try to start swapping stories, offer to buy them a drink or run an errand for them. And it never fails to warm the heart of a pro if someone offers to help strike at the end of the night, but most will turn you away if it's a verbal offer.  If you're still there when the club is empty and just ask, "What can I do for you?" it's not likely you'll be sent away.  But at any rate, I'm glad you came to me because now my readers get the benefit of the exchange and you get your answer in print.

Let's start where you started, with EQ.  You've already identified a range where you think the problem is and it sounds like you've tried hunting around for it a bit.  Let me say that I'm encouraged to hear that you're trying to notch it on the FOH graphs or on a group.  The group would be my choice for a vocal EQ because it leaves those frequencies untouched for other instruments that live in that zone.  2kHz to 5kHz is a pretty big range though, more than an octave, and right in that range are some frequencies that are the most important for vocal intelligibility.  If you loose too much 2.5k then the consonants start to disappear. So I would say that you're on exactly the right track, you just need to fine tune a little.

A real time analyzer is a good place to start.  Until you have your ear really trained, looking at an RTA, even one on your phone or iPod, can help you catch on to problem areas in a flash.  It's a crutch though, and I would advise to never use things like auto-EQ functions on boxes that have them.  I don't ever want a machine to do my thinking for me.  But I'll use one as a crutch at first, then a tool, then I'll fly on my own.  There are a few good frequency training tools out there, none of which I can remember the name of at the moment. 
If you don't have an analyzer for whatever reason, you can always use a swept EQ to hunt down the offending frequencies.  I usually take a full cut on a mid EQ and sweep it back and forth until it sounds the best, then ease up on how deep the cut is, and play with the width as well if that's an available control.  In a pinch, if I'm really stumped I'll do the opposite and crank the gain instead and when I find the spot where it sounds worst then I'll cut, but that's a pretty awful thing to do to any other people in the room.  It does work but it's like hitting yourself repeatedly in the thumb with a hammer... it feels so good when you stop.  You can do the same trick with a graph as well, cutting and boosting individual frequencies until you find the right spot.

Whatever your method, once you've got the culprit you need to decide how to deal with it.  If you've been sweeping parametrics EQs around, then you've solved your problem already.  But if you're squashing a wide band of frequencies and don't have a Q (width) control then you may want to look at a graph so you can be a bit more surgical about it.  On the other hand, if you're using a 31 band graph and you're mashing four or five sliders to fix your issue then that's not the right tool for the job and you do want a nice broad parametric filter in there.  The reason for that is if you make a curve on the face of a graph, what your actually getting is let's say five notches that are very narrow at the bottom but widen out toward the tops.   So instead of that nice smooth curve you have a weird comb shape.

Now let's move on to another idea.  Compression was never mentioned in your question.  So I'm going to suggest that if you're not using any, you get some right away!  What you might be hearing when you pile on a lot of vocals is each mic sounding nice and clear, but the additive effect of a few of them together gets to be ear piercing.  There's a few different ways you can tackle this.

You could always just insert a compressor on each vocal channel, but you might not have that many and it's also a good idea to keep compression out of the monitor mixes so the musicians aren't straining at the mic without getting any louder in their wedges or IEMs.  So save some comps and just insert one on your vocal group.  That may be enough right there.  A fairly low ratio, like 2:1 or just a touch more, but that kicks in sort of early (low threshold) will engage smoothly and really sort of automate your vocal mixing for you.  If there's one singer belting away they'll barely be touching it, and have control over their own dynamics but when the others join in, the mix will only get slightly louder but much fuller and it happens without any input from the engineer, once properly set up.

To take dynamic processing a little further let's look at a little used trick.  Let's say your vocalists are pretty well trained and have good dynamic control all on their own.  (Ok all you old pros, it doesn't happen all that often but it could.)  Go ahead and insert that comp on your vocal group, but then insert a graphic EQ on the side chain with another insert cable.  Once you've identified your culprit frequencies, push those sliders all the way up on the graph, and reduce all the others a little.  What this does is split the signal inside the comp and uses the signal running through the EQ to control the signal that you actually hear at the output.  It's typically used as a "de-esser". With the highs cranked the comp only goes to work when a big S comes down the line and the rest of the time the signal is free to do what it wants.  Just pick your frequencies and it can easily be a mid-tamer or a popped P killer.

There's just one more idea I'd like to cover.  You said that the problem occurs less when you have Beta 58s on stage.  I think that may be because the pattern is a little tighter and you get less bleed from them.  I'm not big on Betas but I like them for drummers for just that reason.  So if you're getting bleed from drums and guitars on four or five vocal mics, you're also getting bleed from any vocals in the monitors.  There's another hefty dose of mids there and your problem might be fixed just by attacking those same frequencies on the monitor side, just be careful you don't go so far as to hurt intelligibility and leave your singers stranded with a mushy mix.  Let me also say that microphone selection can be huge, but you often don't have any control over this.  The venue only has what it has, and you can only afford what you can afford.  Turn to other guys for their favorite vocal mic suggestions, mine's the tried and true SM58.  It hasn't been on stages for forty years for nothing.

That's how to fix it with more EQ, and here's how to fix it with dynamic processing.  I actually wrote a whole article on gates and expanders but it's not set to drop for a few more days so here's the skinny.  A gate does just what it says, it's either open or closed and sound can either pass or not depending on where you set the threshold.  An expander does the same thing but instead of closing it just reduces volume by a set amount.  Think of it like a compressor but it's working on the quiet end of the spectrum instead of the loudest.  On a digital desk you can have one on every channel, in the analog world it can be harder to implement but way worth it.  
If you've got a quad expander/gate you could take care of quite a few vocal channels on stage.  In this case you can use the inserts because you're only going to be affecting the audio when it's not there.  When the band is playing but a singer isn't singing, get it set to reduce their gain by about 6 dB.  That should be enough to help keep monitor bleed out of the house and still let it open up smoothly for a subtle backing vocal.  Your results may vary, and it can be a little tricky to get right, but it's a technique that's well worth mastering.  I've had it save the day more than once in a nasty situation like under a big top tent on a sticky summer night.

I hope that helps Craig.  It wasn't my intention to choke you with a novel, but at least if you've got it in writing you can work though it a bit at a time until you've got it.  As with any topic I'm not trying to write the definitive article here, just pass along some of what I've learned and hopefully encourage further research and experimentation on the part of the reader.  I'm also relying on my pro readers to jump in on the comments section and straighten me out on anything I'm missing or not getting right.  Feel free to throw in your own tips and tricks at any time.  
Till next time my Brethren of the Knob and fader...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Say It Differently

I got to talking in a previous post about how the sound guy in general has kind of a bad rep for being hard to deal with.  I built my business on being a nice guy and that has gotten me further than my skill at mixing has in a lot of cases. But just because I'm trying to get along and put everyone at ease doesn't mean I don't get into arguments from time to time.  And this is an area where you can take an extra step and hopefully diffuse a tense situation so that everyone involved can get on with making art.

Whether in the studio or in a venue you're going to butt heads with a musician at some point or another.  Once you get into an argument you almost always end up taking a misunderstanding and making it worse.  I've fallen into the habit of re-stating my original thought just in case it wasn't heard correctly the first time or didn't sink in.  But if that doesn't catch traction I know I have to find another way to say it to try and get my point across.

Take for example the classic situation of the too-loud guitar player.  Even in a venue I'm new to, I've been over the system and I know roughly what it's capable of.  In walks some young buck with a full stack and I can tell right away he's going to overpower the system and I'm going to have to fight to make an intelligible mix.  But as soon as I ask him to turn down I immediately fall into that category of people he's already cross with who also want him to turn down like his mom, neighbors, or adults in general for that matter.

So I'll start in with talking about building a mix and wanting to do the best job I can for the band.  If that doesn't work I'll even go so far as to pump up his ego a little and tell the guy his rig is just way too much for my system.  So what if he leaves with a story about how his stuff is more manly than mine... my wife thinks I'm manly and beyond that I don't really care what anybody else thinks.  I just want the show to sound good.  To take it a little further I'll see if I can get him to pay attention to the local openers and how their stage volumes tend to blend already and I just help them along to fill the room.  Or if needed I'll point out another player who refused to turn down and ask how he thinks that band sounds with the guitar way out in front and the rest disappearing.

Most of the time I can get my point across, and we reach some kind of compromise.  I doesn't hurt to have a few tricks up your sleeve to help smooth things over.  Have a guitarist put his amp in the wings facing the band.  Usually it takes less than about five seconds before his mates begin to make my argument for me and get the punk to turn down.  But this doesn't apply just to loud guitar players.  You'll run into conflicts with management, lighting guys, video crews, and on and on.  It always pays off to keep a cool head and think of a better way to get your point across.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Happy Accidents

I've written before about how good technology is getting and also how much of a problem that can be.  Whether in the studio or the venue, if you're working with a setup that's crystal clear it separates the men from the boys pretty quick because there is literally nowhere to hide.  But the nice thing about having gear that can be really pristine and transparent is now instead of fighting to make it clear you can decide to muddy thing up a bit as an artistic choice.

The perfect example is the level of recording gear available to the typical high school student.  When I recorded my first band, a second hand four track cassette machine was about three or four weeks pay flipping burgers.  Listening back to those demos it's a wonder you can hear the instruments from all the tape hiss added together from bounce after bounce.  Today you can plug into an iPod or a little digital recorder for the same money, or if you've already got a computer then for cheap or free you can get some pretty robust software and work in the digital environment with plugins and such.

But it's a two edged sword.  Those first garage recordings have so much more energy and vitality than the ones that followed where the band shelled out to go to the studio.  And that's where I'm trying to go with this post.  If you're recording something and you've finally got your home recording rig set up just like the big boys, with a separate live room and a window and big fancy condenser mics, don't forget that Mick Jagger and James Hetfield often tracked their vocals in the control room with a Shure 58. It can be hard for an artist, even a really good one to summon up a powerful performance when they have to sit perfectly still and address a really good mic.
There's a lot of little tricks you can employ that are sort of widely known and you can read all about them on the web, but most of them were happy accidents.  You can find thousands of examples of a scratch vocal or guitar track that was kept in the final mix because of the energy it had.  You can find whole albums that were specifically recorded and mixed to sound like you're in the room with the band because a producer liked the vibe of the boom box demo the band did.

Then there's the ideas you get when you're just trying to make something work.  I was recording a punk band in my garage years ago and they wanted an acoustic guitar intro for one song.  The guitar they brought had a broken pickup and didn't sound that good anyway.  So just to come up with a place holder I stuck a pencil mic on the f-hole of a semi-hollow body electric one of the guys had, and it came out with such a cool, haunting tone that we wound up compressing it and keeping it.  

Many a cool trick has been found in desperation like that and gone on to become part of an engineer's bag of tricks.  Some are kept secret, but a lot of them find their way out into the world and the more you know the better set up you are to make decisions about your sound.  For a long time if you had no budget you had to really strive to get a good hi-fi sound.  But when you have top recording artists with great gear at their disposal purposefully degrading their sound as an artistic choice, that's something really cool. Studio guys will quite often turn to tube or tape gear (or plugins to simulate them) to add a little subtle distortion and all the wonderful harmonics that can bring to the mix. Sometimes even broken gear will be pressed into use because of the unique way it shapes the sound.

So keep your eyes peeled.  A lot of times doing something stupid will just come out sounding stupid.  But you never know when you might stumble onto the next great trick.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Reconing a Kilomax

OK, this one's a little specific.  I realize this isn't going to get a lot of interest but I had to recone an Eminence Kilomax sub this week and it was kind of hard to find info about it on the net.  If you've never reconed a speaker you're missing out on a cool experience.  In the case of a larger cone you can easily save a hundred bucks by spending a couple hours at the bench.  There's a few things you need to know about like clearances and special glues but with so many specialty marketers on the web these days you can have a box shipped to your house with all the right stuff in it.

I didn't take any pictures because I wasn't planning on writing an article but I'll just go over the tricky bits for the next guy attempting this.

The first thing you run into on a Kilomax is that instead of a domed dust cover in the middle you've got this big embossed heat sink.  Flip the cone over and get the 4mm allen screw out of the center then flip it paper side up again.  Now here's the bit I had a hard time finding out.  Grab something sort of heavy and not too hard, leave the hammer and grab a chunk of 2 x 4.  Just whack the heat sink on the side four or five times until you see it start to budge.  Then you can just grab it and twist it out.

Then all the usual speaker change stuff happens where you cut the suspension and the spider, scrape off all the old glue and get ready to place the new cone.  There's one additional step on these because there's kind of a second spider mounted to a cardboard tube coming up through the center.  A good recone kit will have this part too so just break it out and scrape all the glue out of the hole.  Blast all the dust out of the gap with some air and you're ready to move on.

Putting it together is way easier if you get a kit that includes some shims.  There's nothing worse than spending all that time and effort to find that when your done and it's dry you've got the coil rubbing.  Set and shim the cone and glue it down, then add the gasket and glue that down too, flip it over and let the weight of the magnet hold it for a couple hours, then come back and glue in that central tube and second spider.  I was having trouble getting mine to stick so I grabbed the larger tube from the box, it's just shipping material, and weighted it down with just a handful of papers until the edges all stuck.

Putting it back together I took one extra step and got some thermal paste for the heat sink.  You can get it at Radio Shack and it's made for putting between computer chips and heat sinks to help the heat get out.  The sink only contacts the rest of the assembly at one point so a little extra help getting the heat out might mean a little less likelihood of another blowout. 

When I was all done I had a fully functioning sub for about $150 less than the cost of a new one.  My only issue was a little bit of crackle when I drove it hard.  I think I wasn't quite careful enough about the glue at one point along the edge of the cone and the suspension was moving a little too freely.  At the point I started to notice it I had the thing cranked though and unless the casual listener is going to have the grill off my cab and stick their head inside I'm not going to worry about it. Also I didn't carefully align the heat sink so the logo is slightly crooked but it's not where anyone can see it so I didn't bother to fix it.  If appearances matter in your installation check the alignment of the mounting holes in your cab and straighten it up.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Finding Your Place

A couple posts ago I wrote about sticking to what you're good at.  This is sort of a continuation of that.  I mentioned a type of person who just hammers away at something for years and years and never gets anywhere, all the while slaving away at some dead end job while they pursue their dream.  There's a very fine line between acting like a gambling junky, clinging to the one armed bandit, and doggedly chasing your destiny.

The Beatles, after all, were rejected something like fifty-six times before they got signed and things wound up working out pretty well for them.

My point this time is that as kids a lot of us get interested in fame in the music biz.  But the chances of making even a small hit are so vanishingly small that your odds of success are only slightly smaller if you don't even try.  But where would we be if Aerosmith or Metallica or Louis Armstrong had hung it up during their struggling days.

You have to look very carefully at your own skill at something.  Your friends and family aren't going to tell you that your thirty-seventh garage demo isn't any better than your first.  You have to go to people with a respected opinion in the trade and have them critique your work.  And more likely than not they're going to tell you that you suck and you should go do something else with your life.

So let's take this beyond the concept of, "I wanted to be Jon Bon Jovi when I grew up but there was just no shot so now I'm an insurance salesman."  For every superstar (and B and C and D lister) there are a host of people working in support roles.  The fact of the matter is that you can actually do a whole lot better for yourself in the entertainment industry as a tech or a manager or even a security guy than a lot of the artists.

And the glory of the moment when the band steps out on stage and the lights blaze, the crowd roars and the sound system starts to blast is out there for everyone on the show to share.  Some roles are more crucial than others, but the crew of a show is a tightly knit community that's utterly dependent on one another and reaching the goal of "curtain up" with a group like that is an amazing experience.

It's not an easy business to be in but the rewards are there.  It took me almost twenty years to wrangle my way into doing sound full time.  But on the other hand I've got friends who have been working on their music for even longer than that who have yet to sell their 1000th CD.  And while fame is fleeting for many artists and there's always somebody new waiting in the wings, the hot new act is going to need a crew.  Artists come and go and very few manage to make their daily bread from their art, but the crew gets paid like clockwork and the work goes on and on.

That doesn't mean that you have to go out and be a road dog to live the dream.  Touring is a very hard area of the industry to break into and it only gets more brutal as you work your way to the top.  If you think the idea of sweating it out in a stinky van with four other guys to play club dates sounds sucky, how about sweating it out on a bus with twelve other guys to tech shows for Brittney Spears (Hi Marty).  There are a million opportunities.  In live music there's clubs and mobile sound outfits, in recording you run the gamut from big studios to bedroom podcast operations, music stores, system designers and installers, gear developers, the list goes on and on.  Riggers, electricians, lighting designers, stage managers, and many many more are out there right now, living the dream.

So in conclusion, when I was thirteen and wishing I was Jon Bon Jovi, or at least working his shows (which I did eventually get to do one time and it wasn't as cool as I thought it would be) I never dreamed that I would work my way through the local bar and club scene to wind up as a salaried audio and lighting director at a church.  I can only shrug and wonder where I'll be in another twenty years.  The point is, I found ways to be involved with the music I loved (and quite a bit of music I didn't love as well, but you get what you get) and it's been a rewarding, if sometimes hungry pursuit.  I went down a lot of dead ends, but over all I sought out and got good advice about my talents and where I should use them.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Guest Post: Karl Maciag - Beyond The Mix

Karl Maciag is in the system design line of work these days but used to push faders out in venues.  Now you reap the benefit of his years of experience.  Karl also writes his own blog over at Karl's Empty Space. Click on the Contributors link above to see his other posts on this blog.
Devilicus Handsomicus
Previous posts from this series:
The Mix - Part 1
In a previous entry, we ended with audio going out of our console to processing an amps, and then speakers. I’m not going to contribute to the continued bludgeoning of the dead horse named “this DSP, amp, speaker system is best”. I think I’ll delve more into a philosophy and approach to how I use these tools, concentrating on DSP the most.

What is our goal of using DSP to manage a speaker system? It should be that the DSP is used to make the speakers sound natural enough, that you can’t tell that the original sound is being amplified. This is much easier said than done. There’s many things that the DSP can’t fix. Room modes are one. Stage volume is another. Changing temperatures and humidity during the course of the show. In our world, we are constantly in the pursuit of perfection, but only achieving the best possible result, given the conditions. I’ve never met a system tech that said “OK, this is perfect, there is nothing more I can do.” If he does say that, he’s a liar. Can he get close? Sure. I’ve heard some great engineers do amazing things with speaker systems. But none of them say it’s perfect. Do your best, but accept that you’ll have to stop tweaking at some point, and continue with the show.

We don’t always have access to the crossovers when we walk into a room. If you have your own rig, you have the ability to play, so go ahead and push buttons. With the crossovers, chances are your speaker manufacturer has some specs published somewhere on what frequencies the drivers of your speakers should be crossed over at. Use them. There is a ton of R&D done by a ton of guys that are way smarter than us, that test things much longer than we can to come up with these results. Give them a call, and get a recommendation on what to do based on the processor and amps that your have. They’ll be happy you called.

Where I like to start helps with the overall gain stage of the system. I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my good friend Joe for showing me this method many years ago. I do not like to compromise running the console at 0dB. If it’s too loud for the room to run the console at 0dB, I will adjust the gain in the DSP. I do not start with the input gain. I keep that at 0dB too. I do not adjust the amp levels either. Typically
amp volume knobs are input controls, not output controls. I don’t want to limit what I can put into the amp, I don’t want to limit that headroom. So, I mute all my bandpasses. Let’s assume we have a 3-way system that we are working with. I run program at 0dB through the console. Starting with the subs, I bring up the sub output of the crossover until I feel it’s loud enough. I mute the subs, and do the same with the mids. Then I mute the mids, and do the same with the highs. Then I turn them all on. It should sound somewhat musical right away, and not be ripping heads off. I might make little adjustments, but this is my starting point. Running the desk at 0dB should give me this volume.

Keep in mind, when I do this, I don’t have any parametric or graphic EQ active in the system, this is running flat. Also, my program material is material that I know the tone of very well. And it should be music that is clean sounding, and covers the frequency spectrum. I was on a tour and the headliner’s engineer used Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”. Every day. I heard that song every day at the same time. And the show sounded the same every night. That consistency came from tuning the systems with that track, regardless of what gear it was. I would recommend going with a pop record that you’re not embarrassed to listen to in public.

After I have my basic crossover levels set, I start to EQ the system. Typically I prefer to use parametric EQ, so I can adjust the bandwidth of the filter. Graphs are fast, but the Q is fixed, and adjusting a fader does effect the faders next to it. Pulling out 9dB of 315Hz is going to effect the gain of 250Hz and 400Hz as well. With a parametric, I can fight that to a degree. When I’m tuning at this point, I am not listening for what the system is lacking. I’m listening for what is too strong in the system. If I can’t identify the frequency right away, I’ll sweep the parametric until I find it. I’ll narrow the Q, raise the gain, and sweep. When you hit that frequency, you’ll know it, it will howl through your head more than the other frequencies. I then reduce the gain of the frequency until it sounds balanced with the other tones happening, widening the Q a bit as well. With a graph, I quickly move the faders up and down, looking for that same effect of the ugly frequency howling in the room. If it’s a wide range centered on one frequency, I might pull the center one down a bunch, and then the two adjacent faders a little bit too. Play around with it. My goal doing this is to get that source material sounding in the room the way it sounds to me on my headphones, or speakers I listen to all the time. If you have parametric in your DSP, and a graph in your rack. I would set the DSP with the parametric to get your system basically flat, and then make little adjustments with the graph as needed. This is helpful if you have visiting engineers on your system, they can adjust the graph however they want, and you can just bypass it to mix the openers if you don’t like their settings.

Remember, you are controlling gain with the EQ. If you’re scooping out massive amounts of mids with the EQ, you’re going to running a lot quieter than you wanted. I shouldn’t have to say it, but smiley faces aren’t acceptable on a graph. Go do lights if you want visuals! After I tweak the EQ, and the program material sounds the way it should, I’m ready to start hearing the band…

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Quote Of The Day

"If everything you mix comes out sounding like a Bosstones album... you should probably work on your compression chops." -Jon Dayton

Stick To What You're Good At

I'm not writing this one to discourage anyone from trying new things.  If anything I want people to push themselves into new areas and learn new skills.  But if you're wailing away at something and just not catching traction you need to learn when to say when and go do something else.

By way of example I've got a story from back when I was mixing a lot in small clubs.  There was a great little scene going on and kids were writing their own stuff and other kids were turning out in droves to pay to hear it.  Consequently a few other kids were making pretty good money promoting shows and I was making pretty good money teching them. Years previously I had promoted a small music festival that was pretty successful on a local level and thought my chops as a promoter were pretty good.  So I made a run at it with a friend.

We lost about $800 on two shows and decided to hang it up.  We got out before we got too far in the hole and moved on a little wiser.  I watched some others stick to it like sick gamblers at the slot machines, loosing money show after show.  Then there was this one promoter who just had the golden touch.  There was one night where she paid all the bands and techs in cash and left to get picked up by her mom while counting $1600 profit into her plastic Hello Kitty purse.  She was about 15 at the time.

So there you have the spectrum.  I'm laying those stories out as a warning as to what can happen if you beat your head against something for too long.  This is not to say that you should lay something aside if you don't get it right away.  Perfecting my skill at monitor mixes took years and is in fact still under way every time I mix.  On another note, I like playing with electronics but it's can be frustrating for me because I'm very haphazard about the way I study, think and do projects.  There's a big difference between struggling with a widget I'm trying to build and yet still deriving some satisfaction from it and a singer who's been trying to make it in the biz for 35 years while waiting tables the whole time.

In the end I guess I'm saying that it's actually important to waste your time on some things.  Sometimes you'll get it and take off flying, other times it will be a long process that my never actually end.  The key thing is to look at your progress and your level of enjoyment as you go along and decide how much of your precious time you're going to waste.  As a kid starting out, time was all I had and I invested heavily in trial and error to begin work on my craft.  Now that it's my vocation and I have mouths to feed, a lot more often I'm looking to other professionals who have already traveled the road I'm on so I can save some time and get back to business.

Something else I've been working on for years is recording.  Live sound and studio work are two distinctly different lines of work despite the fact that the equipment is somewhat similar.  But in today's industry the lines are blurring and the live engineer is having to track more and more.  Right now I'm still in the working-on-it phase.  I can turn out a decent product but when something heavy duty is on the line, I'm going to defer to someone who's better at it for the sake of the project.   "Stick to what your good at" is another one of those rules that you should always stick to... except when you don't.  Sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone can lead to a sticky situation, but pushing yourself that way can pay off big time if you survive.  So unless you're thrust into that type of situation, think very very carefully before you volunteer.

Above all, stay open to the input of others.  They may have a clearer picture of your situation from an outside vantage point.  They may also be able to contribute usefully to your body of knowledge and help you step over things that are blocking your path.  The best policy is to remain humble and open, even if you don't take someone's advice it's still good to listen to it.  It's pretty typical to run into a sound guy that gets all defensive when you bring up a problem he doesn't know how to fix.  Much better to admit you know nothing and instead state that you'll fire up the learning process and try to get to the bottom of it.

Till next time my fellow Brethren of the Knob and Fader.  Keep those requests for articles coming in, and stories to share are always welcome and will likely get their own regular section shortly.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Upside Down Gain Structure

When I first started mixing at my new job I was a per diem contractor who was just there for rehearsals and services.  I was walking into a situation that had been pretty well set up by a pro but had been handled exclusively by volunteer operators for quite some time.  There was a lot of stuff that needed touching up.  Church sound systems are kind of like stalagmite formations in caves after their initial setup.  Lots of things get done "just to get things going" and wind up staying like that.

The thing that really surprised me was that the main faders were set at about -20.  I went ahead and mixed with them like that for a while but the first chance I got I went in and zeroed the board to start fresh with them up at unity like they should be.  Right away there was an audible difference.  Here's why.

The problem would occur when the band got too loud.  Someone would complain and the guy mixing would respond by pulling the main faders down instead of re-mixing the band.  While it works, it doesn't really do you any favors because what's balanced with the mains in one spot might not be at another spot.  At any rate, the following week at rehearsal the gains would all get bumped up to where the op thought was a good sounding spot and the whole process would repeat.

Eventually you wind up with the mains at -20 but the gain has been made up on every input on the board (thirty or so out of a possible forty-eight in this case).  Many of you will be familiar with the practice of setting channel faders at unity and bringing up the gain until you've got what you want.  You do that so your gain structure is optimal and you can mix in the sweet spot of the fader where you have the finest control.  With thirty channels 20 dB hotter than they needed to be the system was hissy when it was quiescent and all the inputs were squashed from overdriving the mic pres when the band was rocking.

So it's pretty important to understand your gain structure and get it right, or at least as right as you can most of the time.  Remember, rules are rules and you should never break them... except when you decide to.  Even on a small mixer it makes good sense to set things up right because small, inexpensive mixers are usually not very quiet or tolerant of abuse to begin with.  If you're just starting out, spend some time with a small system or with just a couple channels on a bigger one if you have access (you have both if you go to my church, hit me up) and learn how the different gain stages behave.  You can also rely on the word of other pros like the descriptions Karl Maciag gave us a few posts ago about different brands of mixer and where they like to be set.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Miced Orchestra - On The Fly

We had an outside group renting out our space last week.  Now when I think high school orchestra concert I think of sixty or so kids on stage and maybe the junior high kids do a number or two.  Schools are a little bit bigger in the neighborhood where I work.  The last concert I did had six ensembles and this one had eight!

Having learned my lesson from the first one I planned on having lots of time in between pieces while the kids shuffled around and I also knew I needed to light the very extremes of my stage and well down into the pit.  The thing that really worried me was that because our room is so dead (it was built for rockin' contemporary worship) last year they couldn't hear the brass and wanted them miced this year.

Mic the brass? At a violin concert? (!) Yeah, day is night, black is white, just go with it.  My solution was to have four AKG 430s high up on boom stands toward the back of the stage.  The woodwinds and brass would be in the back two rows so I knew I could get decent isolation from the strings and I'd also be able to push pretty far before feedback from the house became a problem.

The one issue? No sound check.  There would be no chance to actually hear the group that included wind instruments before go time.  Apart from knowing that they were working and picking up sound there was no way to tune up before hand. I had to do what I could to stack the deck in advance.  I set my channel EQs to roll off a lot of low end so I didn't get toe tapping running up the stands into them, and accounted for a couple frequencies that I know to be trouble in the room.  As for setting levels I just had to guess which isn't usually such a big deal, but in my room things don't sound the same at the front of the balcony where I mix as down on the floor.  I know roughly what the difference is but it's nice to be able to check.  Under the balcony is a real problem though.  I have sort of an idea how things will translate under there, both from the main PA hang and the delay fills, but strange things happen.

So... I called in a ringer.  My boss was available to hang out and when the time came he sneaked in the back and shot me a few text messages until things were right under there.  It worked like a charm and my main mix didn't suffer for the changes.  We've been working together long enough that a few words from him were all I needed to tweak things out.

I wrote a little while ago (Post) about rehearsal being good prep for the sound guy as well as the musicians.  If you don't have the opportunity to prepare by way of rehearsal then you need to prepare even more so you're ready for anything.  And of course, be prepared to improvise.  I've got a post coming up in a few days about an incident with a keyboard that's a great example.

Monday, March 19, 2012


I was lounging at the console of a recent gig with my business partner and good friend Gordon Wood.  He runs Zeitgeist Audio in the Buffalo, NY area and while we sometimes get to team up and tackle a big event together, he mostly handles all the events that I can no longer do because I'm mixing weekend services at my day job.  At any rate VCAs aren't a part of his daily routine and since they are very much a part of mine he asked if I'd do a post on them.

A VCA is a voltage controlled amplifier.  Which sounds weird because to look at on a console you would think "fader" would be a more accurate description.  Generally they're a group of faders in the output section of a desk that you can set up to use as remote controls for other faders.  

"Why wouldn't you just do that on the groups?" you ask.

Well, you may want to have group control over a set of faders but not necessarily have that signal travel through additional pathways to do so.  Sending your drum channels to a group is a great way to remote control them and it's the only way if your console doesn't have VCAs.  But using a group means that those channels are routed through additional gain stages where you have the opportunity to insert outboard gear.  If you don't need to do that, why put your signal through all that? When you assign channels to a VCA their routing can stay the same and be as direct as you want it to be.

There are different things you can do with VCAs too.  My daily driver is a Midas Legend 3000 which is a dual purpose live console that has some special features to allow for easier monitor mixing from front of house.  So not only can I assign a group of choir mics to a VCA to run them up and down while keeping their balance the same, I can use a second VCA to control their level in all the monitor mixes.  Other consoles, especially digital ones have all sorts of options you can get into.  I think some of the bigger Midas ones will actually allow you to control the strength of your coffee with one.
Something else I do with mine is to simply remote control all my playback channels.  I like to stay right at the center of the mix so I can be close to all my most important channels.  If I need to touch the drum mix I have to take a step to the left and if the playback needs adjusting a step to the right.  But since I only ever have one machine playing back at a given time, all eight channels can stay at unity on the faders and I can mix whatever happens to be playing back with just one and it's right in the center where I am, no stretching.

On the digi desks, it can make a guy nervous to flip through pages of inputs and not have instant access to important channels.  When I was trying out a Soundcraft Si3 I assigned a VCA to the lead vocalist and another one to the pastor, as well as all the usual suspects like drum and key groups.  That way if I happened to decide to tweak some far flung channel during the sermon I could still grab the pastor's mic in a hurry, without having to remember which page his input was on.

So my Brethren of the Knob and Fader, fear not the VCA, it is your friend.  Anyone got useful tips or ideas about VCAs that I left out? Hit the comment section.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Back In The Day

There's a really fabulous article that I keep running across about the California Jam concert in 1974.  

My favorite part is where the interviewee states that a typical arena rig is 6000 watts.  That's about what I used to take out on bar gigs.  Even with multiple arena systems combined they were still only pushing a fraction of the quarter million watts that it's common to see in arenas now days.  Not to mention that the biggest outdoor fests can approach a million watts!

I also read some print articles years ago and can't remember where but they were a fantastic glimpse into the audio of the past.  I think they were written by the guy who used to mix FOH for Aerosmith in the early 70's.  He described a custom built 16 channel mixer that was the biggest on tour at the time. 

As I move my own mobile system from a van and trailer full of "racks and stacks" toward smaller self-powered boxes and compact digital mixers the scope of the transformation is truly amazing to me.  The fact that every time I go out to the local bar for some band I'm able to give them the kind of service that only the big boys could have years ago.  In fact a lot of the stuff I do they couldn't even dream about.

In just the last few years digital has finally taken off, and the level of technical expertise involved in teching even a modest sized show is truly staggering.  The question I have is this: how does it compare to where the industry was in decades past.  In an age where not just digital mixing but things like computational analysis are becoming more widely available, is the tech really that advanced.  Read that article I linked to and put yourself in the shoes of some small fry sound guy back then.  It must have seemed like rocket science.  How does that compare to today when everybody and their uncle can buy a digi and get Smaart on their iPad?

It just got me to wondering about the state of the industry and where it's going.  Karl Maciag wrote in a guest post a while ago about being worried about the availability of better and better gear to the masses making the true audio professional irrelevant.  Somehow I don't think there will ever be a lack of need for people who can blend the science of the gear with the art of the music.  Just because you can buy a digi and mix on your mini line array from your iPhone doesn't mean that you should.

Hit the comment section and out with the details from days of yore.  Got links to articles of historic importance? Post em!  We'd also love to hear how your own experiences have changed over the course of your career.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What's So Special?

I was mixing a battle of the bands the other night and saw something happen that I've observed so many times now that it got me to thinking.  A jam band lost out to a band playing pop tunes.  So how is it that a group of people who are clearly better musicians can loose out to some kids with cheap instruments who don't play all that well.

Here's the fact, playing good music is only half the show, in fact sometimes it's not even that much.  I remember back when I was mixing a lot in clubs there was this punk band called The Hoax that was just terrible.  They had cheap instruments that didn't sound good and their songs weren't all that special.  But that was kind of the idea.  Kids would turn out in droves to see these guys play and it was a blast.  They had great stage presence and they were clearly enjoying themselves and that was truly contagious.  (I should also add that jam rock has a narrower audience and so the number of people willing to vote for a band of that nature in a given room is smaller.)

Which brings me to another idea that's been rolling around in my head.  With all the progress made in both the digital and analog worlds of audio production why do people settle for listening to bad recordings?  I don't mean poorly made ones, I mean low bitrate MP3s and cell phone audio. The simple reason is this, if a performance is compelling you'll listen to it on just about anything.  So there's more to the enjoyment of music than a pristine listening experience.

In the audiophile world there's just a ton of money being spent.  People are after this outrageously expensive gear and pursue lossless files or pristine vinyl.  Take a look around and it's not hard to find single components in the six digit price range.  And all that is truly tremendous, both that someone made it and that people will buy it.  I've had the opportunity to listen on some great stuff and while it is nice, I think back to what I was listening to in high school.

Tape was the medium of choice.  Vinyl was out and CDs were just starting to creep in.  Hiss was a part of the listening experience even on good gear. When a hot song was out and we just had to get our hands on it the dual well decks were spinning overtime and you had copies of copies of copies of stuff that was taped off the radio floating around for gosh sakes!  We were so nuts to hear the Chilli Peppers' "Give It Away" that we stole an official's megaphone at a track meet and held it up to a kid's walkman headphones so we could all hear it.

It was compelling.  It had a life of its own that was outside of the medium.  Listening back years later on CD on a good system my joy is increased for being able to hear all the craftsmanship that went into that record, but it's never quite as exciting as when I was trying to amplify half inch speakers just so I could hear that guitar hook.  

I don't know what this will contribute to your technique but it's interesting to think about.  When you look at a music scene, whether it's pop, country, Scandinavian viking metal or what have you, the patterns you see developing are because somebody had a good idea and somebody else liked it.  There's a Christina Aguilara because there was a Janet Jackson because there was a... so on and so forth.  If an eighty year old came out with a hit, inside a week all the labels would be looking for other octogenarian song writers.  The first one would be a hit for doing something new and good, the rest possibly but not definitely.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Guest Post: Karl Maciag - Audio Evolution

Karl Maciag is in the system design line of work these days but used to push faders out in venues.  Now you reap the benefit of his years of experience.  Click on the "Contributors" Link above to see his other guest posts.  Karl also writes his own blog over at Karl's Empty Space. Click on the Contributors link above to see his other posts on this blog.
Devilicus Handsomicus
I was planning on talking about system tuning in my next installment, but when I started, it didn’t come out that way. I did come back to it, but this came out first, and I think it’s a good intro to using more advanced tools in audio systems…

First, I consider myself to be very fortunate to have started in this industry at a time that we were preparing to move from analog to digital. I went to audio school at the dawn of our new millennium, starting in January 2000. The school concentrated on studio recording, and I learned primarily how to record using 2” analog tape, mixing down to ½” tape. There were only 2 digital consoles in the school, Mackie D8B consoles, and those recorded to the original ADAT on SVHS tapes. I learned how to operate analog consoles, use patchbays, align tape machines, splice tape etc. Computers were used for 2 track editing, and mastering tracks mixed at different times to match levels and normalization. Get this: Learning ProTools was an elective!! We had an intro to ProTools, and then elected if we wanted to get more in depth with it. I said “that’s pretty cool, but it will never catch on, it doesn’t sound as good as tape…” My my, have times changed, in 12 short years.

In the live world, when I was starting out, digital devices were left pretty much to effects units, and some DSP. The first house gig I had, the crossover was an analog 2-way Rane unit. It was simple: gain, and crossover frequency. My next house gig had a Yorkville TX series system. This had a digital processor, but with a preset tuned by the factory for the boxes, and sensed the output of the amps to make limiting decisions. There was some gain control for each bandpass, that’s it. My first experience with a full DSP was a JBL processor that we had at a rental company I worked at. It stored presets, had a limited number of parametric filters, and could be set up to be a 2, 3, or 4 way system by reconfiguring the outputs. It was pretty modern, and even by today’s standards, a good device. The flexibility of the presets allowed us to use the same drive rack with this processor, with different amp or speaker combinations, and change quickly. That moved into the Ashly Protea systems, DBX Driverack, BSS, XTA, etc. The user interfaces were different, but they all did the same thing.

Consoles were pretty wild. It was all analog for a long time. I saw some digital consoles at larger events, Yamaha PM1D most notably. I’ll never forget my first show on a digital console. It was a Innovason console, whatever their original digi desk was. I was in Montreal, and it was the first show on a tour with a band that I never mixed for. New band, foreign desk, and French was the first language in the house. In his best English, the house tech said “remember to always hit le select button before you do anything…” It was a new world. I loved that everything was on one surface. I loved I had unlimited outboard of comps and gates. I loved that after soundcheck, my settings were saved, and recalled when my set was ready to go. That wet my appetite for finding out what is possible with digital.

At this point, there’s not much you can’t do with digital. With processing like Soundweb London, or Biamp Nexia, you have a huge pallete for signal routing, processing, logic functions, and multiple control surfaces to control all or some of it. That was the stuff of dreams when I was starting out, and it’s all here now…

I think the point I want to make is, all the DSP in the world cannot help you if you don’t know how to apply it. You should know how to make it sound just as good with an analog desk as you can with a digital one. There’s a need more than ever to be educated in everything related to our business. That Innovason desk in Montreal would have been useless to me if I didn’t know to ask where to find the compressors, and preamp controls. If I didn’t know what a parametric EQ was, I wouldn’t have been able to function. If you don’t know what you need to use, how can you ask where it is?

This year, manufacturers have rolled out mixers where the primary control surface is an iPad. That’s a scary thought…not because the world is going all digital, I’ve accepted and embraced that a long time ago, but rather because these sophisticated tools are going to be more widely available, and in more demand than ever before. I’m not afraid that people with an iPad and a couple cheap mics are going to under cut me out of a job. I’m afraid that the standard of what is acceptable for live audio will become so low, that all of us will be irrelevant. If the common occurrence becomes a bunch of guys with iPads trying to figure out how to use a parametric EQ, and turn the noise gate off on the vocal channel, it eventually will be accepted. It’s up to us to make sure there is a higher standard alternative.

Is that a realistic concern? I’m not sure. But I do know that the only way to stay at the top, and not being left behind is to be on top of your skills, and willing to adapt. Never stop learning. I hope this blog has helped you answer questions, or brought stuff up that’s made you dig deeper. Ask questions, and keep it loud. Thanks for reading…

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Anybody Out There?

I can tell there are some people reading this blog.  I've spoken to a number of them and the stats are looking pretty good.  I'm just wishing more people would leave comments.  I got to thinking about all the stuff I read on line and how little I post a comment, but all those publications are large scale entities.  This blog is just two guys at the moment and we could really use your input.

So even if it's just to say you think we're wrong on something, hit the comments and let us know what's on your mind.  Even more helpful is when you post questions.  Then we can write articles directly to our audience.  If you'd rather not post in the public eye then like us on Facebook (link at the upper right by the email subscriptions) and send us a private message.

The Writers (Both of us)

Subs In Your Living Room

I used to blog about family type stuff and was part of a neat little community that swapped stories and ideas.  A long lost bloggy friend followed me over here and posted a question on an early post about subs.  He's looking to invest for his living room and wanted to know if I had a brand preference.  I don't.  I have a sub in my home setup but it came with a dirt cheap surround system that I got so I could hear the Winter Olympics in all their 5.1 channel glory.  

What I did though was write him a short novel as a reply comment that I thought would make a good post.  Home theater guys are always posting on pro audio boards and generally get laughed at and sent away.  But it's all the same, your living room is just a smaller venue with its own set of challenges and gear designed to suit different situations.  So I told him what to look for and how to apply some techniques once he's got a little thumper in his possession.  Here's the conversation.

  1. Followed you over from your The Mister blog - and glad I did. I know you generally deal with professional grade equipment - but do you use a subwoofer(s) at home? And, if so, do you have a brand or model preference?

  2. I tend to deal with subs that can handle hundreds if not thousands of watts but a lot of the same information applies to home stuff. The first thing is to use an amp that's bigger than the speaker you want to drive. Excess wattage doesn't blow woofers, DC current in the coil from clipping distortion does. So get a setup that gets loud enough before the pedal is on the floor. Self powered subs are great because the amps are usually well matched.

    I like to stay away from band pass boxes. All subs are ported but band pass boxes are sort of all port. They make a lot of bass but they seem to make the same note no matter what you play through them. Good butt shakers for game systems but not to listen to anything with rich bass tones.

    Position is important as well. A sub placed up against a wall reflects half of the energy back into the room and you get a 6 dB boost for free. Every surface counts so you can make a little sub do a lot of work on the floor in a corner. If you've got a huge living room and it's going to take two boxes to get the level you need, put them in the same location, stacked or side by side. Not only will they couple together and give you more apparent volume than if they're separated but you also won't get areas of addition and cancellation that cause uneven bass throughout the listening area.

    The last thing is EQ. If your stereo has a really good EQ section you can tone down the signal at the resonant frequency of the room so that one bass note isn't a lot louder than the rest. That really bugs me when a bass line runs down the scale and two notes make my teeth rattle while the rest are smooth and creamy.

 This is the last week I'll be putting new posts up on my own Facebook page so like the SNR page if you'd like to get new posts in your news feed.  The link is at the upper right by the RSS and email subscription links.