Thursday, May 31, 2012

Quote of the Day: Pulling Wire

I was running some speaker wire to get a back stage monitor into a new office today and I had that typical experience. That one where you're up in a suspended ceiling and you need to throw the end of the wire three feet. So you wind up and heave it with all your might and it goes two feet and ties a perfect clove hitch around a piece of strut. Indiana Jones would be green with envy because his little bull whip antics, swinging to safety in the Temple of Doom got nothin' on my skills!

Learning By Doing

Duzit allicus
This week we've got another contribution from my favorite audio volunteer at work. He's not afraid to dig in to things and learn by doing. That's pretty important in the audio business. I'll leave the rest to Evan.

So Jon had asked me to write some blog posts when he first started this blog and I wrote one and said, "Hey, I'll hit you up when I get another idea". Well as time went on I could never really think of something good to write about and I realized how much knowledge a lot of the other writers had that was in more advanced areas than of my own knowledge. Anyway, I started thinking of all the times my small little ideas that seemed sometimes unimportant turned out to be valuable life/time savers.

Actually, I'm going to butt in here. That's a pretty astute observation. You should read that last sentence again.

This past Christmas season Jon asked me to do the recording and tracking of the live portions of our Christmas event. I, like any good young Jedi/sound engineer, showed up extra early. I saw a pair of decent studio headphones and put them on. It seemed that they were cutting in and out and I told Jon, "Hey I'm gonna fix these for you". I proceeded down to the work bench and flicked on the soldering iron. I cut and striped the wires several times taking of at least two feet of wire. Then to prove my amazing soldering skills I balled up the soldier, covered the headphones with four rolls of electrical tape and gave them back to Jon.

Here's another area that you can only get so far by reading. To be good at soldering you just have to do it a bunch. He actually did a pretty decent job. I still use those cans any time I need to listen to something without being more than six inches away from the headphone jack!

Now unfortunately this story was true and I received a fair amount of discipline, punishment, and payback due to this. Now the moral of this story is to never trust anyone's work except for yours. A lot of times I will go to a small venue and end up rewiring it all over again. Even if it's wired the same as what I would do. This not only assures the fact that it's set up properly but if something were to go wrong I know how it's set up so I can quickly locate the problem and fix it in a "timely manner".

I don't know if I'd call it abuse and punishment. I thought beating him with the garden hose so it didn't leave any marks was just the sort of gentle correction he was in need of! And I don't know if I'd go so far as to rewire a venue, but looking over it in a fairly detailed manner is a pretty good standard operating procedure. Gold star for Evan!

Another thing if learned over the years is sometimes you need to get dirty and just figure stuff out yourself. There may be a small problem that me screwing around with stuff to try to fix it won't damage anything. Unless your working with high loads, large volumes and lots of amp power its actually helpful to just try different things and and fix the solution. I've learned several great techniques and gained helpful problem solving skills this way.

Wise beyond your years you are, young Jedi...

Finally, I've learned to use resources that are readily available. Now this has several meanings. Knowledge wise I have this blog, Jon, people on this blog, random people on the streets in the US and Canada, and Google. Now I do not kid when I say Google. In many aspects Google has been my life saver several times.

Flattery will get you everywhere kiddo.

Another way I mean use your resources is to sometimes just build random stuff that can help you. In the past two days I have made at least ten joule thieves to help me do a bunch of stuff ranging from boosting volume on a small speaker to being green by using all the power in batteries. I've even boosted the power of a remote control. So use your resources because they may save your life.

And there you have it folks. He can be taught! It just goes to show you Brethren of the Knob and Fader, you're never too young (or too old) to learn some new tricks.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Getting To Know Your Boxes

EQ is a very deep subject. When you're making adjustments to the graphs on the main outs of a system there are a myriad of factors involved. Reflections, reverberation, absorption, diffusion, temperature, humidity, and the list goes on and on. Something that can help out is to know exactly what you're dealing with right from the speakers and take that into account when you're EQing the room.

There are a million little tricks to learn. The little quirks that each box has. Like that high mid thing with JBL Vertec boxes, or the way Yamaha horns always seem crispy. While it's good to hear all that and file it away, you never know how true something like that is. An engineer talking about a particular box may have only heard it inside, or even just in one particular venue. The best way is trial and error and start your own file.

Most people don't have access to an anechoic chamber so you have to figure out how to hear the box in question without hearing all that a room will impart to the sound. Going outside is a great way. On a still day there won't be a lot of effect from the wind, and setting up over grass and away from buildings will help minimize reflections. Even if you can't do that, just get in the near field of the speaker, where you're just getting the blast of air directly from the drivers and not anything else. Be reasonable about this. If you're checking small studio monitors you can get your head right in there. If it's big try-amped boxes, protect your ears, listen at sane volumes for the distance you're at.

To start off get things so the system is as flat as possible. Then throw on some music that you know really well and take a listen. Don't try to figure out anything just yet. Take a listen all the way through a couple of tracks and make a few mental notes about stuff you hear, don't hear, or don't sound quite right.  Then you can get into the graphs a little and start to see what you can do. Things to look for are a "hump" or build up in a particular frequency range. Stuff that sounds great for DJ work will often sound like garbage for vocal work. Listen to the highs and see if they're bright or murky, if there's anything missing or over accentuated.

After a little touch up, start the tunes over again and start to move around. How far off to the sides can you get before things start to fall off? Are there any spots where there are weird interactions between cones and horns? Run the volume way up and way down. What differences do you hear? Keep touching the EQ until you're about as happy as you can get it. When that's all done try some different program material. If you've been checking rock, try pop, jazz, country, or classical. Plug in a mic and do some talking.

When that's all done you can do one more thing just to double check. If you have access to a pink noise generator and an RTA (real time analyzer) you can check to see how flat (or not) the speaker is now that you've adjusted it to taste. A lot of phones can do this for you these days so it shouldn't be tough. Notice too how we're doing this pretty late in the game, instead of starting out with it. Technology is a terrific aid but you want to trust the processor between your ears first and use the tech to back it up and improve it.

Keep in mind that when you're looking at the curve on an RTA you really don't want to see a flat line. Good sounding systems will usually have a really big hump down in the lows and then from the high miss up to where only dogs can hear things should gently taper off, how much is a matter of debate so just go for what sounds good to you. What you're looking to knock out is any big peaks or dips. A spike at 300 Hz will make vocals sound boxy and a dip at 2.5 kHz will make final consonants hard to hear and speech less intelligible.

Lastly, if you're going to be using more than one box in a stack it's a good idea to see how the boxes interact with each other. Trapezoidal cabinets have angled sides to allow you to stack them tightly and wind up with a splay that makes the drivers overlap nicely in the listening area. It's not always right though and there are a few designs that I've found work better with the spacing changed. Some work better stacked vertically, sometimes with the top boxes inverted to get the horns closer together. There's a lot that goes on in the way boxes interact with each other so be as thorough as you can. Keep in mind at this point the EQ will be less effective and the greatest changes will be made by moving things around physically.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Powered Speakers

A little while ago my business partner and I invested in some small powered speakers. For me it was part of a departure from big clunky gear. I suffered a serious back injury at the hands of a big Soundcraft console and resolved while I was recovering from surgery to look into smaller stuff. On his end he was looking for a couple small pieces to add for that occasional small pole speaker gig or to add a wedge in a pinch. I wound up with QSC K-10s and he got some EVs based on a 15" un-powered model. I'll do another post at some point with all the specs and our thoughts on both boxes. Another friend who's into DJ and karaoke work is looking at either Behringer or Seismic Audio powered boxes so I may just wait for him to get his and then do a three way look at what we've got on hand. At present we've rolled them out for a few things like small bar bands and community theatre, but not enough to really give a full review.

Part of the reason I wanted some little powered boxes was for the small scale jobs I took on fairly regularly. When a little charity event or a solo performer needed a little help, I was stuck bringing out a rack and some cabs, a desk and a rack of outboard just to make it happen. And while it was sometimes nice to make an extra hundred bucks on a Saturday afternoon, a lot of times it was pro bono work so I wanted to make it as easy as I could on myself.

At first I settled on an eight channel powered mixer and I would use my drum fills for mains and a couple wedges if I needed them. But I still found that I wanted processing and sometimes bass. That meant bringing out an abridged FOH setup and some powered subs. Not quite convenient but it got me by for a couple years. Then QSC came out with the K and KW series boxes. Now there were affordable two and three way cabs on the market that could sit on poles, work as wedges, had 1000 watts in them and sounded like angels made em.

While the Lortabs were hard at work on my spine I got to day dreaming about ditching the van and trailer for a system that would fit in a mini van and still pack 8000 watts FOH power plus a few kilowatts on the wedges. Once I started getting my hands on stuff though I started to revise my plan. The K-10s were the original basis and I thought I would just get a dozen or so and use them all around. After trying a few out I found that they would work all right as mains in a tiny bar, but for anything larger it was going to be a stretch. Same for wedges. I'm planning now on using single K-10s for wedges and on larger stages setting them up in pairs at each position, but not stereo. One for instruments and one for vocals. With a little digital mixer like the Presonus Studio Live 24 or the new Behringer X32, you've got a multitude of outputs and copious amounts of processing so it's totally doable.

For the fronts I had planned on four of the KW subs which are a single ported 18" at 1000 watts. But now I'm starting to look into other brands because with the stuff I tend to do, absolutely pristine lows aren't as critical. They just need to be there more often than not. For the tops I've still got my eye on QSCs but now it's the KW-122s which are a wood box (not plastic like the K series) and they're a little more present in the mids and low mids. Those over some powered subs should get me pretty far. And once it gets to be more than I can handle, my partner always has a pair of trailers full of the big gun traditional "racks and stacks" systems.

I didn't intend for this post to turn into a diary entry about my personal system development but there you go. Hopefully it gives you a little bit of insight on what's possible with what's out there. As I said at the top I'll be coming back with some review type posts with some more specific info about a handful of different boxes. Till then my Brethren of the Knob and Fader.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Wireless and Antennas

Building off of Karl Maciag's last post about Frequency Coordination I'd like to take it a step further and get into some things you can do physically with a rig to make it perform better. Most of it is based of one simple part of antenna theory. If you have a piece of metal near an antenna it affects it's performance. There's a lot more to it, like if the piece of metal is resonant at the frequency you're dealing with, how many wavelengths away from the antenna is it, and so on, but that's the basics.

Some antenna designs use this to their advantage. If you look up at an old fashioned TV antenna on some body's roof you'll see all these horizontal spines. They're all cut to specific lengths and are set specific distances apart to take advantage of the effect and amplify the signal coming in one direction and reject it in another.  Paddle antennas are a similar design, the elements are just flatter and laminated in a sheet of plastic. Hold it in the right light and you'll see what I mean.

A lot of the issues with wireless gear in sound systems come from the interactions between antennas and other pieces of metal. Table legs, the edge of a rack, eleven other antennas in the same rack and so on. If you're not getting good reception it's likely because you've created some sort of ad hoc antenna system that's rejecting signal in a direction that you don't want it to. Repositioning a rack of wireless receivers can do wonders. Sometimes just moving each antenna a fraction of an inch is enough. If they're all touching when you open up a rack, move em all around so they're free from each other and at all different angles.

This brings me to the second concept that's a little less important now that almost everything is UHF (ultra high frequency) and not VHF (very high frequency). The wavelengths are shorter and to put it simply those little antennas have an easier time finding them, even if they're being reflected in off a wall or something. In a lot of cases it won't really matter that much. A good receiver can make do with less than fifty pico volts of signal, but the orientation of an antenna can still make a difference if a signal is marginal.

If the transmitting antenna is vertical, the receiving antenna will work the best when it's vertical too. If the antenna is on an actor that's tumbling around on stage your best bet might be to set one antenna straight up and angle the other one (in a true diversity system with two antennas that is). If you're using an antenna combiner and paddles it's less of an issue because you've got a lot of gain in the system but with the little rubber duck antennas on single pieces of gear, a little tweaking can fix you right up.

Beyond that, bigger and more expensive systems are using circular polarization. That's where the antennas are actually spiral and the only thing that really matters is the direction of the spiral. In a well designed system you can have two devices almost on the same frequency and if they're polarized opposite from each other everything works out.

This is by no means an attempt at writing the book on antennas. My years as a ham radio operator have lead me through hundreds if not thousands of pages of reading on the subject and I'm just trying to tweeze out a few little details that might help. For further reading I'd suggest a simple internet search and start digging into all that same stuff I read. I'm sure you'll find that just like pro audio, there's a lot of voodoo mumbo jumbo out there along with all the hard science.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

SNR Podcast #7 - Musicality And Mixing

This week the panel got back together and mostly discussed musicality as it relates to mixing. There's a lot of tips and tricks in there as well as a few good stories. We also started in on the new Behringer digital mixing console but left off until Gordon Wood could rejoin us. We capped it off by talking about what band we would love to mix for and wrapped it up for another week.

  • SNR Podcast #7 - 5/26/12 -  Jon Dayton, Karl Maciag, Brandon Golwitzer and Anthony Kosobucki talk musicality and mixing.
Keep in mind we'd love to hear your comments and opinions. Hit us up in the comments section or look us up on Facebook or Twitter (convenient links at upper right). If you'd like to join us on the podcast just drop us a line, you don't even need to be in the Buffalo, NY area, we can Skype you in!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Next Guy

Back in my construction days I learned a lot about the right and wrong way to do a job. Having to go in to a hack job and make it right lead my crew to try to always do things right and leave it nice for the next guy.  As my career progressed and I got into commercial (specifically hospital) electrical work I found myself in some safety training classes. In between being shown pictures of guys that blew themselves up one of the instructors said something truly profound.

"Every time you open a panel, you get to meet every other electrician that ever worked on it."

Whoa. I had already sort of developed that philosophy on my own, from digging into other guys work. It made me lay my work out in a way that wouldn't just get the job done but also would make sense to the next guy that had to dig into it. If things were complicated I'd leave documentation, sometimes just some marker on the door of the panel but something at least.

Getting back into the audio realm. Audio installs are subject to a lot less regulation than electrical ones. There's a also a tendency to do something "temporary" that winds up sticking around for years or even decades. Small, incremental changes build up over time and you wind up with a huge, undocumented mess when you try to go in and fix a problem.

I'll spare you the details of the theatrical/architectural lighting system that I'm wrangling today. All in all it's a pretty good system. Well designed and implemented. I have a feeling though that I'm meeting one of the guys that worked on it in the interim. Where's that splice or add on that's not in the paperwork that's screwing me up?

The same philosophy applies to setting up a studio, installing a system in a venue and any number of things. It's always been a part of my live stage setup. There's nothing worse than having something fail at go time and have to hand-over-hand a bunch of cables because you don't know what anything is. Simple things like color coding different lengths of cables can cut down the list of suspects when you're looking at a snarl of cable on stage. Better yet, avoid the snarl in the first place. Taking a few minutes to lay out a stage cleanly and neatly doesn't just improve looks and safety, it can save your butt and keep the show running on time.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Wireless Coordination...A quick guide

Wireless microphones. They've changed the way performers perform. They might be one of the biggest game changers in modern music performances.  They also might be the biggest source of grief for audio engineers and technicians in the field.  There's lots of white papers about RF mics, interference, and in the last couple years, the white space issues, and the sale of the 700 MHz spectrum.

I'm not going to write about all of that, but I do want to give some practical knowledge and tips that can save you grief in the future when using wireless mics.

First, let's keep in mind that with most things, you get what you pay for. A cheaper RF mic is going to be more prone to issues in the field than a nicer pro level model. The big difference in price with RF mics is going to be the ability to have more active mics at one time without interference, and also the ability of the receiver to be selective to a narrower bandwidth of frequencies, to prevent interference troubles.  Think about future needs and what environments you will be using the mic in.

Second, if you have mics that operate in the 700MHz range, get rid of them.  Put them on Ebay with a disclaimer that you can't use them in the US, and sell them internationally. You can't be in that spectrum anymore, and you will start getting interference from all sorts of devices. 

Ok, now to the big issue that goes unrecognized when using multiple mics at the same time. Using one mic or two doesn't usually present much problems.  As soon as you introduce a 3rd mic to the system, you are prone to experience intermodulation interference.  What is that you ask? In a nutshell, here it is:

When you have two transmitters and receivers within close proximity to each other (basically the same stage, venue, etc), they will interact and produce RF harmonics in the airspace. Several harmonics are introduced, but the odd harmonics (3rd, 5th, 7th order) can create interference strong enough to be picked up by wireless receivers. The 3rd order harmonic is the one to watch out for the most. Sometimes the 5th can cause issues, but not typically.  So, how do you know what the harmonics are?  The math for that is actually pretty simple.  Take the frequency of Mic A, subtract that number from Mic B (assuming it's a higher freq), and then subract that difference from A, and add it to B, and you know the 3rd order intermod harmonics.  Here's an example:

Mic A = 605MHz
Mic B = 615MHz
The difference is 10 MHz,  so the intermod frequencies will be 595MHz, and 625MHz.

If you only have two mics, not a big deal, but remember, if there's a TV signal present in the space, at a strong enough amplitude, you will get intermod artifacts from it.  If you add a 3rd mic to the system, you have to be careful not to put it on one of those frequencies. You also have to find out the intermod freqs of all the combinations of mics (A/B, A/C, B/C). That math just got a little more complicated. The more mics you add, the more intermod freqs you will have.

So many times I see people set up their mics on fequencies right in a row...501, 502, 503, 504...WHOA! big issues with that setup.  Lots of issues will arise.

What's the solution?

Most brands now come with mics programmed with "banks" of frequencies that are pre-programmed to not interfere with mics running on the same bank.  So bank "A" might have twelve channels on it, where you can use twelve mics of this brand, all on the same bank, on these pre-coordinated channels.  This feature works pretty well for the most part, but you can't take into account TV interference, or other wireless systems.  There is something more you can do:

Software. Let your computer do the math for you.  The major RF mic manufacturers have free software available to download and it will do the math. You tell it what zip code you are in for TV station reference, you tell it what model mics you have and what frequency ranges they are, and it will give you groups of frequencies to choose from to set up your mics. 

I'm partial to the Sennheiser 300 series mics and IEM systems.  The big reason is at their moderate price point, they offer network ports on the receivers and transmitters.  Plug them all into a network switch, plug in your laptop, and you have some powerful tools at your fingertips.  The software will let you do a frequency scan, so you can see the interference that is in the frequency ranges you are using.  Using that information, the software can automatically allocate what frequencies the microphones should operate on.  You press OK on the assign button, and presto - all your receivers are automatically set to the right frequency. All you have to do is sync up your transmitters and IEM receivers. Very easy.

What if you have different brands?  Well this gets a little more complicated. Most of the software has a place where you can tell it where known RF mics are being used.  So I would coordinate Brand A using their software,  and then tell Brand B software what frequencies you're using for Brand A.  It's not going to be bullet proof, but it's a start. The other solution is a great piece of software from Professional Wireless, called the IAS software, which can take into account different brands of RF equipment, and take into account local TV issues in the area.  It does cost a few hundred bucks, but think about how it can pay for itself if you're getting repeat business because your RF chops are solid.

Since I've learned of intermod, and the problems it creates, I've taken more time to plan RF mics on installs, and setting up RF mics and IEM's when I'm out with the band.

You can dig deeper into the science of RF mics and intermod, a Google search will yield many results.

I'd suggest getting the software that works with your mics, and playing around with it before your next event.  Wireless mics will become less of an enigma,  and will give you clean, quick results that will give you more time to tackle the other challenges in you day.  Have fun, and good luck!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Making The Best Of It

My boss ran into another pastor recently who needed some help with his sound system. We swapped information and arranged for me to spend a morning at his church sorting things out. He was able to tell me a few things via email but like most times, he didn't know a lot and wasn't able to tell me that much. So on the morning in question I arrived knowing very little and hoping we could piece something together that would serve them well.

I used to do quite a bit of business straightening out church and school sound systems. Whether they were well designed and implemented at first is almost immaterial. Eventually a multitude of minor changes pile up and you get something that's an unworkable mess.  In this case, there was next to nothing in the room so we kind of had a clean slate.

The original system consisted of a 200 watt mixer amp and a pair of pole speakers. The minister had a lav mic and there were one or two other dynamic mics on stage. That was it. The goal was to incorporate an eight channel powered mixer with some more power, get a few more things into the system and also add a couple wedges on stage if possible.

I was there for about four hours and the majority of the time was spent just untangling things and sorting through boxes of stuff.  During that time we talked about how the room was used and the usual order of things during a service. I found out who participated on stage and how they generally approached a mic.  After a lot of digging it turned out that there was enough stuff on hand to accomplish the mission save for a goodly length of speaker cable which was easily procured at a local hardware store.

Once installed I patched all the mics and started tweaking. The mixer had a three band EQ on each channel but the mid was fixed at 2.5k, a frequency I usually don't touch too much unless I need to boost it a tad for better vocal intelligibility. Much more useful would have been a mid fixed at 1 kHz or even lower. It also wasn't particularly effective EQ. When I was done all the lows were as far down as they could go and the mids pretty far as well.  There was a single seven band graph that was selectable for either FOH or monitor. (Pure genius... oy!) I wound up using it on FOH oddly enough because most of the users tend to stay well away from a mic so they needed lots of gain.  On stage they just needed some piano and a touch of vocal in the wedges so we were able to keep feedback down just by regulating the levels.

I also got an FM transmitter going that they had lying around and that let them get sound into their nursery, quickly and cheaply, without adding another amp or speaker. They plan on also getting a hold of some inexpensive FM receivers to provide assisted listening for the hearing impaired.

All in all it was really just making the best of a pretty grim situation. But it was still an improvement over what they had in place before. The pastor said he had a handful of volunteers in training so I'll be sending him some web resources to put them on to. The last email I got from him said they tried things out at a rehearsal and everything worked great. 

The most important thing I'd like to say about all this is that it would have been pretty easy to go on and on about how much better other churches have it and what he really ought to have. The truth is, even the little bit he spent on the mixer and the cable was probably a stretch. So by making the best of it and keeping a positive attitude it wound up being a positive experience for both of us. As I drove away we were both feeling pretty optimistic.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Floating Point Digital

A little while ago I decided to finally get my brain wrapped fully around the whole 24/96 concept. And with a lot of searching and reading, and a little help from my friend Fred I was able to sum it up fairly briefly in a post. (24 bits, 96 kHz - What Does It All Mean?) Floating point is another term that gets bandied about a lot lately so I set my sights on that and here's what I came up with. I have to retrace my steps a little bit to get there, but not to the extent that I did in the other article so go read it if this doesn't make any sense.

The digital concept is pretty straight forward. If you have a one bit system digitizing an analog signal, everything louder than 50% gets a 1 and everything lower gets a 0. Two bits gets you four divisions, three bits gets you eight and so on until you get to a sixteen bit system which is 65,000 or so gradations. The problem is that human hearing is pretty sensitive. So to get the best out of a sixteen bit system you have to try and max out your levels when recording to get as much resolution as you can.

Enter twenty-four bit recording. Now you can start at peak level and pull back a whopping 48 dB and you've still got as much resolution as a whole sixteen bit recording just for the quiet stuff! That's the headroom that people are talking about. You can stay well away from peak levels and still get clean, smooth audio. You can bump up the levels later with no penalty because the noise floor is just so far down now.

Here's where stuff really starts to get cool. All the processing that we've been looking at so far uses what's called integer math. That's whole numbers. 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. There are no possible steps between zero and one. But with floating point you add a bunch of wonderful new possibilities by adding a decimal. For what reason though? Does it really matter whether that guitar squeelie was a few decimal points louder or softer? Well, no not really. The loud stuff isn't where you hear the difference.

Looking way down at the other end of the spectrum you can now have full twenty-four bit resolution between zero and one! That's an extreme example but if you record subtle things for a living, like bees buzzing or wind chimes in the distance for a movie soundtrack, you have 16.7 million gradations now in any segment of the scale! I don't often use exclamation marks, do you get how big this is? It gets even more ridiculous when you move up to thirty-two bit recording.

The really cool thing is that it gets the "digital-ness" out of the way and the only real boundaries are in the transducers (mics) that you use to pick up your sounds. Our gear is finally able to start to capture the audible world around us with the same finesse as our ears. Human hearing is logarithmic. Without getting to deep into it, that's the reason you can hear a bee buzzing ten feet away and still stand to hear a rock concert. The recording gear is no longer a choking point.

To put it a different way, back in the days of cassette (shudder) you had this awful, hissy medium with terrible dynamic range. Music had to be squashed to fit on it and to make matters worse, manufacturers would actually lower the level so that the consumer would raise the volume and therefore blame some of the hiss on their own actions! I remember having a favorite song on tape that was mixed with a fade out at the end. The singer was kind of ad libbing but you could never quite pick out the words, even with headphones. The same album on CD let you hear all the way down into those quiet sounds. That was just a stepping stone.

And the real glory of it all is that now that recording technology has reached a new and heretofore undreamed of pinnacle... everyone listens to crap from iTunes on cheap buds so whatever man. Have a nice day Brethren of the Knob and Fader! [end of exclamation mark abuse]

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Project Movie: Part 3 - The Prep Work

I've been pretty sure that I wanted to mix this year's movie in 5.1 surround, but needed to do a lot of research first. It turns out that the DAW I use, Reaper, supports multichannel mixes and has a pretty good panning plugin. I'm also starting out pretty small. I'll just be using the surrounds for atmospherics and backgrounds. If something comes up that needs to fly around the room then I'll look at doing that as well but the goal is just to increase immersion. I'm also looking forward to having a center channel just for dialogue.

Last year we simply mixed down to stereo. We also sat down with the goal of keeping the viewer's remote where it belonged, on the arm of the couch. Even with level management engaged I find myself running the volume up and down when watching a commercially produced DVD and I just hate it. I'm not normally one to argue for less dynamic range but it's just ridiculous to have to crank it to hear dialogue over the cat purring in my lap, only to get my hat blown off the next minute when a car chase starts.

I'm not worried about the implementation. I'll be picking up an eight by eight USB interface for the MacBook so I'll be able to get plenty of production audio, not just a pair of lav mics like last year. We've got a shotgun that I'll be making a boom for, and hopefully finding lots of volunteer operators. Then I'll be looking to different techniques for getting the ambient sounds. I'll likely use a couple omni condensers during the scenes, but I'll also be trying some M/S and other techniques to just get clean atmospherics and room tones.

The mix down shouldn't be such a problem this year either. Last year we did it all in Adobe Premiere at the video guy's desk on a pair of tiny M-Audio monitors, in a corner no less!  This year I'll be taking over the upstage bay in our big room, behind the curtain. I'll be setting up three matched powered speakers on poles (Yes, I'll be mixing a movie on QSC K10s, don't bother with the hate mail), a pair of powered studio monitors for surrounds, and a powered sub as yet to be determined for the LFE channel (the .1 in 5.1 surround).

The thing that worries me though is not getting 5.1 on to the DVD. Even without getting the expensive "help" from the good folks at Dolby, a DTS mix sounds like it should work just fine. What I'm worried about is how things will behave when the DVD player or computer or whatever is taking that mix down to just a pair of speakers. It's a complex world and I've already spent an entire day and read literally hundreds of forum posts on the subject. I'm a little on the fence about actually doing a separate stereo mix and including it as alternate audio so people at least have the option to select something that was intentionally done, rather than just downmixed by an algorithm in a set top box.

If you've got any experience or pointers I'd love to hear them. Hit the comments section below or look us up on Facebook or Twitter. I'll throw you in the credits as an audio mixdown consultant!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Monitors: Wedges vs IEMs

I'm going to assume that if you're reading this you know the difference between wedge monitors and in ear monitors (IEMs). If you don't, get busy with Google and come back when you get it so we can jump right to the chase. (Wait, but don't you wedge the monitors in your ears and then?...)

IEMs are great, they remove a ton of volume from the stage and leave a lot more space for an engineer to mix in. But there are also a few drawbacks. The first and most important being that standing at the console, your fingers are directly connected to someone's ear canal. While feedback isn't an issue, you can unmute a channel and really blast your players. There is usually some limiting involved so hearing damage might not be an issue, but getting a jolt directly to the cranium isn't the way most people want to start out a gig. Unless they have nerves of steel they're going to get a big adrenaline rush which can lead to the jitters and even physical shaking.

That said, you need to be extra careful when you're mixing for IEMs. My goal when mixing wedges was always to have the feedback eliminated before my musicians took the stage. With IEMs it's to make it through sound check without anyone ripping their buds out and scowling at me. So the pace is a little slower, I check my gain stages a little more carefully, and I gently sneak the levels up until I get the signal from the stage that they're hearing enough.

One thing that can really help, whether you're mixing monitors from the side of the stage or FOH, is to have a pair of buds for yourself. Monitor engineers have utilized a mix wedge for ages, so they can hear more exactly what the performers are hearing on stage. Either way, you connect it to the solo bus of your console so you can listen in on each individual mix. It's easier if all the players are using the same make and model, you can just get the same one. But that may not be practical if you're not always with the same act, or if some members have different pieces. Still though, the best way to do it right is to hear what they're hearing.  Even with musicians who are good at helping me put a mix together for them, I sometimes get comments like, "It's just not right, I feel disconnected". That's when I get my cans on and start tweaking as a mixer, not just someone looking for a hand signal for "enough". 

Another down side of IEMs is the feeling of disconnectedness that can happen. Some players love this. I have three different piano players that I work with at church and they mostly want piano, high hat and lead vocal, period.  But players who want a more balanced mix so they can see how their own playing fits into it can still feel cut off even though they're hearing every input. This is where an ambiance mic or mics come in.  The thing that's missing is the sound of the room and the reaction of the crowd.  They can be hard to see in stage lighting so it can be hard to tell visually if they're engaged. I won't get in to all the particulars, it's just too wide an area to cover and probably deserves a post of its own.

That's the ups and downs of IEMs, now what about the good ol' wedge? Speaker technology has been progressing steadily over the years and what used to be just a sawed off PA cabinet can now be a custom purposed audio wonder. Features run the gamut and even include subs and array-able pieces. But why use them when IEM technology is so accessible? Besides the issues of RF compatibility in congested air waves, some players just don't like them. Either they've never had a good mix in them, or they can't get past the isolation, or they had a bug crawl in their ear when they were four and get queasy. It doesn't matter what the hangup is, it's time to put a wedge back out on stage and get on with things.

With all the improvements in design you can pick out something that should suit your player well.  A bass player needs a box that can deliver the low end. A piano player might need a highly developed bi or tri-amped system. One trick I like to use is put a pair of wedges out that would be too small to do the job by themselves and make them work together.  That doesn't mean they double up on signal though, that can lead to comb filtering and cancellation, dead spots that a player can maneuver into. The technique puts instruments in one wedge and voice in the other, or some other breakdown as needed. That way it's a pair of different, clean signals that can both get pretty loud and don't create dead spots or weird phasing effects.

All that really just scratches the surface. Many articles have been written on all aspects of the subject and it's not hard to delve deeper if you want to know more. As always, the purpose of this blog isn't to write white papers or in-depth how to manuals. We're just trying to get ideas flowing and point people in the right direction to get the information they need. So get out there Brethren of the Knob and Fader, look some stuff up, try some new techniques, and if all else fails, hit me up and I'll write some more articles. We're on Facebook and Twitter (links above right) so we're not hard to find.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

SNR Podcast #6 - Studio Stuff with Kevin Bruschert

Regus viking
This week I got into it about studio stuff again with my good friend Kevin Bruschert who runs Viking Productions in Nashville. I followed a similar line of questions to the last studio guy interview but it went to completely different places. Kevin has a great outlook on his craft and the industry in general. I hope you enjoy listening to this as much as I enjoyed making it. Also, be looking for more from Kevin as I hope to have him contributing some posts shortly.

Check out Kevin's studio at

Audio Note: We used Skype for this interview and there's just a hint of echo. Not sure if it was the call or my setup on the Mac. This week it was Soundflower to get the Skype audio into Reaper and a USB interface for my mic which also handled monitoring.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Fixing It On The Fly

I have a hypothetical situation in my head. Picture a festival stage, lots of bands and crews coming through. A band is on stage with their own FOH guy mixing out front but they're working with the festival monitor guy. One song in, the lead singer's wedge drops out... oh boy.

Ideally the guy would finish the line he's singing, gallantly cross the stage to another mic while shouting to the monitor guy what the problem is. With a little quick thinking that mic will be hot and have similar settings to the one the singer just walked away from and the audience is none the wiser. Even better they might get the impression that he's working the stage to get closer to the crowd. In a couple minutes the problem with the center mix is worked out, the monitor engineer or stage tech gives the singer a nod and the show goes on without any appearance of there having ever been a glitch.

That's in an ideal world. Lots of times things are so hectic that information gets missed and that same monitor guy could look up from getting shouted at by the next band's manager to see a very cross singer standing at a muted mic. Beyond the simple mechanics of conveying information in a loud and chaotic environment, there's a lot of room for ego to take over and that's what we want to avoid.

I've been through quite a few foul ups where the artist winds up cursing out the sound crew on the mic or the sound guy does the same about the artist in front of a bunch of fans. But I've been through a lot more where even when the show ground to a complete halt, the artists just struck up some banter with the crowd, or pressed on despite the difficulties.

That's the kind of attitude that makes for great shows. I've had artists come off stage and say with a smile on their face that they didn't have a stitch of monitors. But they just grinned and played and the crowd had a wonderful time. That's gold. In fact, it can really be a way to pull the crowd in to the experience. Not every artist is trying to have a show be like hanging out in their living room. But even for an act with a more, I don't know, show-type-show, a few seconds where they solve a problem in front of the crowd can really make everyone in the building feel like they're part of the show.

I'm going to cut off before I start to ramble. Just keep in mind that attention to detail is everything and doing your prep work to get in sync with the artists you'll be working with can keep a mole hill from turning into a mountain.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Corporate Audio....Live from the trenches

So this one is coming live from the scene of the crime...A dark art that few attempt, and even fewer succeed at without serious injury. Yes, I'm talking about the fabled corporate audio gig.

I won't divulge many details, but I will say this.  I am in a room full of about 100 learned doctors. I can confirm that none of them, no matter how many events they do, are aware of the basic functions of microphones.  After many years of doing these events, I developed behaviors that for the most part have kept me from being burned again and again by presenters acting like wild animals at the sight of pro audio equipment.

I'm very familiar with this room in particular. I installed the presentation system when it was first built. Equipment here is much different than a typical pro audio gig. There's a large projector mounted from the ceiling, and 2 42" LCD displays in the back, so people can see the presentations in the cheap seats. There are several surface mount speakers made by EV along the wall, and they are time aligned for seamless speech coverage. I have 6 wireless handheld mics, and a wireless lavalier at my disposal, along with a gooseneck microphone installed in the podium, which is filled with all sorts of presentation gear, like computers, DVD players, and even a document camera.

I don't have a traditional mixer in this room. There's a rack mount audio processor that mixes the microphone and program material. I can hook up to it using a laptop, and I have gain control, parametric EQ, automatic gain control, and matrix mixing.  There's other features that let me take the audio from the room, and send it into a phone call, or to a video conferencing engine. It's some pretty sophisticated stuff, but a world different from what we're typically used to.

My control surface is not a console. I'm not even hooked up to the processor with my laptop right now.  There are control touch screens that allow me to control aspects of the system by simple button pushes. I can turn the video system on, select the active input, and I can adjust the audio volume of my video sources, and the individual microphones. I have no EQ control right now, just volume.

There are a couple things to bank on when heading into these events.  First, the first presenter to speak, will be the last one to arrive before the event starts, and ask to load their Powerpoint presentation. Don't panic, but be sure that you get all of the others ones from the other presenters earlier, and test them all. Open them, play them, check every slide of their presentation. It doesn't matter if you have nothing to do with the fact their file format doesn't mesh with the version of Office on the local machine. You will look the fool, if it's showtime and it doesn't work. 

Hold on, this guy is wrapping up.....talking head change...

The next big issue is microphone technique. Like I said, there is a lectern microphone on this podium. It's a good mic, it's long enough to be somewhat close to most presenters mouths. It sounds great. I think doctors play slot machines alot, because the majority of them that step up to this podium grab the mic and yank on it like it's a one arm bandit. There is nothing you can do about this. Accept it. What you can do is be sure that your connections on this mic are rock solid. One time the mic was yanked so hard, it actually broke a solder joint in the XLR connector. That was not a fun day. Make sure it's solid, and be sure there is strain relief.  Right now I kind of wish I had this presenter on a lavalier. She keeps turning away from the microphone to look at the projection screen while talking....even though there is a monitor right in front of her face that is showing the presentation. Thankfully I have enough gain before feedback that she's still audible in the back. Handhelds are almost out of the question for these events. These people will not hold microphones. They will start with them at their mouths, and within 2 minutes, they will be holding the mic at their waist, or right at their side...pointing right at the floor.  Be creative to be sure you have a way to make these people heard. They will not make it easy.

Back to the yanking on the mic. Almost all of these people will yank, hit, tap, blow into the microphone. The same microphone that was working for the person before them. The same microphone that endured the physical testing of the 7 doctors that spoke before them. I swear these guys have a betting group going that gives big winnings: cars, yachts, real estate in Dubai, six figure cash rewards to the M.D. that finally brings the audio system to it's knees. Not today Doogie Houser, you're not winning crap. My mic will win.  Don't even think about it, House, you will not get that mic to feed back. I have the control. I will make you heard, or not heard...

Preparation is key. Being invisible is key. These people want an audio ninja. When the event starts, you better be scarce. Hover in the back. Put your phone on vibrate, or silent. Fit in with your wardrobe. Tour T-shirts are not acceptable. Khakis and polos are good. Business casual is great. If you're loading in a system for this gig, bring a change of clothes. Look professional, like you belong.

Act professional. Before the event, be sure all event coordinators are aware of where you are, and where you can be found. They have a lot on their plates, and AV is one of the most critical, but one of the last thought of. Put their mind at ease, do a good job, and you will be the first and only call they make in the future. Be sure everything is working, and have a backup plan ready. If this lectern mic fails, I have two wireless mics ready to go in no time. 

Wow, this one finished early....talking head change again...

Awesome. This guy will not get closer than 4 feet to the left of the mic.  Might be time to go to the lav after the upcoming break...

Anyway. Be ready for whatever. You'll be asked to do things that might not make sense, but you'll have to make it work somehow. Enjoy the catered lunch, and enjoy the pay. It might be a long day of boring speeches about medical stuff you don't understand, but will pay better than the bar gig that will keep you out until 4am or later. 

I'm gonna go deal with this style.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Dear SNR: Turn Up The Bass

I got a call the other day from one of my fellow Brethren of the Knob and Fader wanting to know the best way to beat an old bass amp into shape for pulling dual duty on a Fender P-Bass and an upright with a piezo pickup.  Control was pretty minimal with just Bass and Treble knobs and a somewhat dubious "Deep" button by one of the inputs.

While adjusting the level of low end is critical on any bass instrument, where the rubber really meets the road is in the low mids. Some instruments develop a throaty sound and being able to regulate that around 500 Hz or so can really make or break a sound.  But, without any control at that point, the mission is to set the bass knob so that the bottom end doesn't obscure the mids and highs of each instrument. 

During the performance things needed to be pretty much plug and play, so my suggestion was to spend some time in the room before hand, hopefully with a friend to help out.  My man Evan has a pretty good ear so with a buddy playing each instrument in turn, I had him venture out into the house and instruct the player on different settings to try. With some good information about whether or not to use the Deep button, and where the best spot for the bass and treble knobs was for each instrument the changeovers on stage should be pretty easy. Plug in, twist knobs according to notes taken earlier, pluck a note or two just to make sure and the player should be ready to go when the conductor raises his baton.

Evan Stoddard is my primary audio henchman at the church where I'm the Audio & Lighting Director. I frequently call on him to assist with system maintenance and he handles three children's services a week as well as mixing for the odd wedding or funeral with the utmost care, style, and sensitivity. He occasionally needs to be doused with cold water.  -Jon D.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wrangling a Big Mix

Editor's Note: This marks the 100th post since this blog was started about three months ago. That's a post a day the whole time. Thanks to all who have read and all who have contributed. Interested in writing for us? Get in touch!
I've been thinking a lot lately about mixing my next big project in the box and how I can make that more like mixing on an analog console. When I get right down to it, on the forty-eight channel Midas I mix on every week, I really don't touch every fader every week once things get rolling. Through careful planning and use of VCAs I can stay right at the master section and have everything I need right within reach.
My first article about VCAs can be found here LINK

The planning that went into how I patched my show really just follows what's sort of an industry standard. Drums start on channel one and you work your way up through the inputs until you wind up with lead instruments and vocals right near the master section.  There are slight variations depending on the situation and the engineer, but for the most part you should be able to walk up to any mix in the world and find the bass channels near the drums and then rhythm instruments followed by lead instruments and so on.

I used to not see the utility in this back when I would mix a whole rock band on ten channels. What does it matter where I put anything if I can touch the whole mix with my two hands? Maybe not much, but if someone is going to take over for me, even on a small mix like that one, and has to look to channel one for the lead vocal when they're expecting it at the extreme right it slows them down. Maybe not much on a little Mackie, but on a big Midas it could be disastrous.

So back to my layout. I start out with drums way down at the left. I don't touch them much during a service so having them all on a VCA at the center of the console is usually enough. I can drive the drum mix more into compression or open it up by moving that VCA fader. If something needs to change in the drum mix it's just one big step to my left, but that's a step that I don't want to take too often. I keep piling on inputs and remote controlling them with VCAs until I get up to the ones that I'm going to want to keep a hand on at all times. Keys and electric guitars need a lot of attention, so even though they have their own VCAs in the center, they're right there within easy reach if I want to change the balance within those groups of instruments. My left hand seldom leaves the guitar channels.

Skipping over the center section where I now have remote control over all my instrument groups I've got all the vocals immediately to the right. For festival work I lay the channels out as the mics appear on stage from left to right, but in church I put my two lead vocal channels first, closest to hand, then my backup singers, then speaking mics and lastly the choir (on a VCA of course).  I also keep a couple channels open right next to the center section for guest musicians. I want a player I'm not familiar with to be right there so I can continue to tweak as things turn up. Also, they may just be sitting in with the rhythm section, but there's a good chance they'll be taking a solo and I don't want to miss that because they were way down on channel thirty-nine.
Way, way, way off in the distance are eight channels of playback, all set to unity and their monitor settings all dialed in. Once again those are something that I don't want to take a big hop to my right to mess with. I seldom have more than one playback rolling at a time so it's super easy to have one VCA for all the canned audio. I dial the individual channels up to account for any differences in level, so when that remote control fader is set at a certain point, I know about how loud things will be.

Now getting down to mix time. When the band starts up for the first time I do a couple sweeps of the whole console and tweak a few things. Then I settle in with my left hand on the guitars and my right hand on my lead vocals. Once things settle in I move my right hand to the bank of VCAs. I've got the whole mix under easy control, usually without looking. I can keep my eyes on the performers, which is important because I'm also responsible for ten monitor mixes from up at FOH. When the dynamics of a song change, I'm only moving my hands a few inches, maybe swapping my left hand to the VCAs and working on the vocal balance for a minute, then switching back. Every now and then I'll wander off to drum land but usually not more than once or twice in a service. I do like to change the balance between the two kick mics and the two snare mics if there's a big shift in the tone of the songs.
I mention all this because the same philosophy transfers very easily to mixing in the box. If you've got a big project that you'll be mixing with a mouse, setting up your channels in an orderly fashion is a big help. If you'll be handing it off to someone else then organization is a must. By setting up group master faders or VCAs or whatever method your platform has to offer, you can pre-mix a lot by working on groups individually. Then when your drums and guitars and keys and vocals are all pretty close, you can get down to business without having to touch a multitude of channels. 

If you have some sort of physical control surface you can try to get all your groups represented there and save a couple for important channels like lead vocal or dialogue.  Then you can enable the automation recording and start to make passes. Once in a while you'll want to stop and go in and tweak something with the mouse, but you can do a really organic, human sounding mix this way. But you have to do your homework. Good editing and preparation are key. You don't want to be trying to fix a blip in the keys mix with a fast fader move at mixdown.

These are just some of my thoughts on the mixing procedure. I'd love to hear from our readers on what your doing with your own mixes. Hit the comment link below or look us up on Facebook or Twitter and join the Brethren of the Knob and Fader.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Project Movie: Part 2 - Planning This Year

In the last Project Movie post I described the process we went through when my church made a movie as part of their Christmas production. It also incorporated live action and live music on stage which was then made into a DVD (you can see it on Vimeo as well, link in Part 1). As the series goes on I'll be documenting our progress (with no spoilers!). I expect there to be a lot of posts in this series, so rather than try to link to all of them, just click on TOPICS in the menu bar and look for Project Movie to see all of them.

Last year we took all production audio into a Panasonic SD DV camera. It had a pair of XLR inputs with gain controls and good clock so things wouldn't drift. For all the scenes there were just two characters so we used a pair of wireless lav mics that the cinematographer had. The elements were similar to a Shure WL93, a very small omni pickup that hides well on clothing.  That left all ambient sounds to be found and flown in later. We did quite a bit of fiddling with reverb to get a church scene right and got it OK but were never quite happy with it.

As a result I'm looking at better ways to take audio this year, and I may not be able to count on every scene being a two-up so that means multi-channel. The device of choice this year will be my 13" MacBook Pro (1.3 GHz, 8 GB/500GB) on which I'll be running Reaper. Reaper is a terrific open source DAW that is totally worth checking out. It was written to be robust like Pro Tools but not be tied to expensive hardware and the learning curve is less steep. They're well into version 4 at this point and it's only ever getting better, more features, and more stable. VST and other plugins are possible and it comes with a pretty good suite already installed.

I'm planning on purchasing an interface to go with it as soon as the new budget goes into effect in June. The one I have my eye on is the MOTU 896mk3, the reviews have been good but please get in touch if you have a better suggestion.  I'm not sure if we'll be mixing in surround, but I'll have eight outs just in case and eight mic pres to capture lavs, booms, ambients and full surround if needed. It also can do double duty as a stand alone mixer which could come in handy for day to day use at small events around church.

When it comes to time to sync up to video I'm not sure if we'll be working in Premiere again or Final Cut or what but the procedure should be the same. I'll have the editors cut to camera audio and then provide me with a working copy to take into Reaper. With good notes I should be able to sync up the right takes and then go on to pick and choose ambients, fly in effects and music, and then render stems to send back to the video bay. That way I won't have to wait for it to be free to work on stuff. I can set up my own mixing stage in another space and keep the work flow going.

That's it for now. Hopefully the next post will be in just a couple weeks after the first production meeting. If any of my fellow Brethren of the Knob and Fader have any advice to give, now would be the time. Please chime in on the comments section, or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter (links above right) Thanks for stopping in and I'll see you next time.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Impedance Matching

There's a lot of mumbo jumbo going around in our industry. There are little tricks that people developed to deal with peculiarities of certain pieces of gear and then those tricks kept being used as the gear evolved. Take for example the idea of matching the output impedance of a piece of gear to the input impedance of the next piece of gear down the line. It seems to make sense when you think about wanting to minimize loss in the signal chain. But the thing is, we're not mixing on tube gear anymore (most of us anyway). We're transferring voltage, not power from device to device and solid state ins and outs are set up to transfer voltage with very little loss and very little thought required on the part of the operator. It makes matching the level our only concern and most gear is built with enough control and headroom that it's a simple matter of twisting a knob, not sitting down and doing dB equations.

The article on ProSoundWeb by Dennis Bohn does a great job of explaining this. Even if you don't get all the technical stuff there's a few tidbits in there that are sure to help you out. For example, if you actually set out to build some impedance matching to go between devices, you can accomplish it but when done correctly you actually loose 6 dB because of simple electrical principles!  But don't take my word for it, click the link and check it out. Or bookmark it and get into it when you've got some time and your brain is in good shape.

by Dennis A. Bohn
Originally posted at

Is Your Wife A Tour Widow?

I thought this might be an appropriate day for this post. The day after I worked an overnight which also happened to be Mothers Day and my wife's birthday...
Most people have heard the term "sports widow" before. You know the guy who completely ignores his family when the game is on. The term gets adapted to all kinds of other situations. What I wanted to talk about today was how your gigs affect your family and others around you. Is your work so involving that you're basically as good as dead to those who are close to you?

For my part, I've been busy enough over the last decade or so that my wife has definitely felt like a "tour widow" at times.  I would work all week at a construction job and then be gone most weekend nights mixing. As the situation changed I became a self employed contractor and started getting bigger gigs that kept me away for days at a time. Fortunately for me I really loved my work (both jobs) and didn't need to also have a hobby that would keep me away.  Lots of guys need to unwind from work at the bar, or go to the big game on Sunday, or fish in bass tournaments and whatnot. I always made it a point to keep extracurricular activities to a minimum.

In a way it was kind of strange because even my closest friends knew that if they wanted to see me, they either needed to book me to mix their band, or hire me to re-do their kitchen. Even after a gig, late at night, I would usually skip going out for a meal or a drink so I could get home and get to sleep and be able to be up for my family the next day.

Now there are plenty of other occupations that pull someone away from their family. I've reminded my wife on occasion that truck drivers are gone for days or weeks at a time and still manage to raise families. But as you've seen from my own personal example above, you don't have to leave home for six months on a world tour to have your gigs affect your personal life.

For a lot of us it can be not much of a problem at all.  I find that I have very few friends that aren't involved in one or both of the two industries that ruled my life.  Guys that tour constantly find their family on the road and may not have much to come home to anyway.  But you hear the story over and over again about guys that came off the road to find something else to do, closer to home, so they could be with their families.

Whether your touring internationally full time, or just our mixing in clubs every weekend, where it becomes tricky is when you've got people in your life that aren't part of that scene.  I watch relationships fall apart all the time because the non-industry person can't deal with the schedule their significant other keeps. In this case it might be a good idea to ignore the "don't date people from work" rule. It might not be a good idea to date the lighting tech from the club where you're the house guy, but one from another club would be in a better place to understand your schedule and work ethic than a legal aid who gets home from work every day by 6 pm.

With all that said, if your presence is often missed by the ones you love it's important to make it count when you are home with them.  For me, major holidays and even birthdays and anniversaries have taken a back seat to my job or a gig.  But all that means is that the emphasis has been placed on finding the magic in being home with the wife and kids on a Tuesday morning. We don't plan big family moments at my house. Christmas morning isn't some huge production with video cameras rolling and music playing. More often than not a big holiday has to be celebrated on another day entirely. The point is that when it does happen, we just relax and enjoy each others company and make memories, not recordings.

One up side of this is that my kids are learning to place the emphasis where it matters. How many families do you know where Christmas just isn't right until the last plastic icicle is properly hung and the last carol sang? People drive themselves nuts over this stuff. My kids spend the season getting ready for the day that we'll all be together. That's the special day for them even if it's not the 25th.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

SNR Podcast #5 - Speakers, DJ work and more

This week instead of meeting as a round table I conducted separate interviews and pasted them together for the show. We're also trying out a new host and more recording methods. We hope you're enjoying the process as much as we are. For the time being it seems to be easy to send stuff to YouTube and it's also easy to subscribe there so you get notifications when new podcasts are up. Also, to make it easier on people who want to save it for later listening, there will still be a link below to an mp3 file. Enjoy!

We start out with Gordon and I going over our recent purchases of some small powered speakers, my QSC K10s and his EV115s. Good things come in small packages. Then we move on to talking about DJ work with my long time friend (and original business partner) Brett Orr. He's a DJ of pretty high standards and is out there making it hard on the rest of em weekend after weekend. Then we wrap up with a quick discussion about last week's theatre production with my right hand man, John Baiocco, known to all in the local scene as "Chachi".

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mixing Theatre: Take 3 - John Baiocoo

John Baiocco (aka Chachi) has been my right hand man for mixing theatre for about the last five years. He's been doing high school shows on his own and sharing mixing duties with me on larger shows. Last week he got his wings when he flew largely solo on a community theatre production of "Footloose" which you can hear more about on the podcast that will be out on May 13th. Here are some of his thoughts on the experience.
Theatricus mixixus
Jon has been asking me to contribute to his blog for a while. I have turned him down up until now.......Recently I worked sound for a musical called Footloose at Batavia Middle School. This school did not have any in house gear. Not a big deal. I ended up mixing the show on 2 Powered QSC K10s. I came into this show thinking it would be a piece of cake. I quickly learned my lesson.

Tech Sunday came around, I was feeling good about it. The first two scenes go by, no major issues. This only made my mindset about the show worse. During one of the major scenes I started having microphones dropping out left and right. My first thought was frequency coordination and receiver position. I changed the channels on the receivers and moved them onto the table in hopes that all the popping and static would just disappear.

The next few days were the same. Constantly having microphones dropping out stuff like that.
After the director freaking out about microphones on MONDAY of tech week, I got busy and went to work testing different frequencies and microphone elements. The problem was slowly getting better but I wasn’t happy yet.

Editor’s Note: This is a common occurrence, especially in high school and community theatre. We joke that five minutes into the first rehearsal with mics the director is turning around and shouting that it’s not perfect! This is where you need to build trust in the production team so that a director is willing to put up with your process and all the glitches and mistakes you’ll make in the normal course of business as you work toward opening night.

Dress rehearsal snuck up on me. "I have half of my notes done and the show opens tomorrow!" I was so busy with getting things to work I didn’t really get any solid notes down. I kept asking myself “Where did all the time go” and “Why isn’t it working”. By this time in the show I was getting nervous. With this being the first show I was doing for BNB without Jon, I was a mess.

Editor’s Note: In his defense, there were some issues with the pit band that were causing even some really strong singers to be tentative. The levels he had to work with were all over the place depending on confidence levels at a given moment.

By showtime things started to work and the noise coming out of the speakers wasn’t just noise anymore. It was all coming together whether i wanted to believe it was sounding good or not. I wasn’t sure what happened but 90% of my problems just vanished.

There was a few tricks that i used to get through this show.

There is one trick that i use every show. I call it “ piggy backing” Where you can bring up a certain fader on an actor and not only pick up the mic’d actor but also the actors speaking around him, giving the illusion that everyone is mic’d. Footloose has a lot of scenes where actors with small roles speak, so I was able to mix it where almost 95% of those small speaking lines were being heard and now just mumbled under actors with microphones.

There were so many things I did that I wanted to write about but I didn’t take notes about them and now my mind is going blank. The major point though is that being out totally on my own I didn’t have the usual safety net of a pro being over my shoulder and I had to relearn a lot of the stuff I already knew. But now I’ve got confidence in my technique and so does the producer which should lead to a lot more shows in the future.

Friday, May 11, 2012

GTRPLYR seeking SNDGY...

All my posts so far have been from the perspective of being behind a console.  I've spent most of the past 12 years behind a desk of some sort, but I also have a lot of time logged on stage as a guitar player, and over the past 2 years, I've been playing guitar more than mixing.  I thought I'd talk about what I look for in an engineer when I'm on stage...

First, when I arrive, I look to see if the house is aware of our stage plot, and if there are going to be any suprises on deck. Typically we play in churches, and that usually means we are in for some sort of adventure. Let's assume that this is an event where a local sound company was hired to provide sound, and we have a normal (rectangle) stage to work on.  Is there a short mic stand with a 609 on it on my side of the stage? Oh, good, I'll go put my amp there.  

Typically I have a FOH guy with me, but usually not a monitor guy. I try to seek out this person and say hello and introduce myself.  I do like it better when that guy comes out to the band though for introductions.  It sets a tone that the house guy is prepared, and wanting to know how we are when we arrive, and ready to address any issues or abnormal situations that none of us planned for. 

After setting up, getting mics up, getting sounds out of the amps, we are going to line check and sound check.  Ok monitor guy,  this is where we all need you.  We use IEM's, but even if we are using wedges, I want to hear your voice.  I'm going to be talking to you a lot over the next 30 mins, and I don't want to take my ears out to hear you.  Neither does the rest of the band.  Please have your talkback mic ready.  

When we are checking, I want to know that you're being attentive to the entire band. I understand if you're dialing in a sound, and your head is down looking at the console...but not for 5 minutes. When you're turning up channels in our ears,  have a hand on the aux send, and your eyes on the person you are dialing in, so you can see when we have enough. 

When you get to my channel, I'm going to be concerned about my tone. I know all guitar players are ultra obsessed with their tone, but this sound coming out of the amp is my voice. If it sounds weird to me in my ears, I'm going to ask questions.  Please don't shrug me off. I really want to know if it sounds too bright, dull, shrill etc. I'm probably going to move the microphone without asking. If it really ruins the sound, let me know.  I trust my FOH guy to let me know if it's not good in the house,  but I'm going to ask you about fixing it in my ears.

I'll probably have weird, "I want all of the toms in my head as much as the snare is, and overheads as well."  I'm finding more and more as I play with IEM's is that I personally feel really lost if I don't hear the entire drum kit. Singers complain of feeling isolated when they don't hear the crowd,  I feel isolated when I don't hear the entire kit.  I can't explain it, I think it has to do with playing small stages with no IEM and being right next to the kit all the time. So please humor me, and turn 'em up! I'm going to be picky about EQ. I'll be able to tell you what frequencies I don't like, but typically you will be interpreting obscure adjectives to make the artist happy.  

After we play a couple tunes,  we will all have adjustments to be made.  If you're on a digi desk, please save your scene when we are done!!! At show time, we probably won't have many changes or requests of you, but please don't walk away or snooze on us. Sometimes I ask for changes at the end of soundcheck that seem like a good idea at the time, but I soon realize that it's not working for me once our set begins.  Hopefully we get things ironed out in the first song or two.

If you're a lone engineer at a venue and you are handling FOH and monitors,  please give monitors as much attention as you can during soundcheck.  Engineers that pay extra attention to the band get extra swag at the end of the night. The stats prove it.

Trust me, I and the rest of the guys really appreciate you, house guy. When we all have success, you are sure to get compliments from us to your boss, the promoter that booked you, and the rest of the bands that we see when we are on our way, which will get you more work.  Have fun, good luck.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Distortion, if you're a guitar player it can be the be-all and end-all of your existence. As an audio engineer your main goal in life may be to eradicate it. Unless, that is, you decide to use it as a tool. Whatever your goal or purpose for distortion is, it will help to understand how it works.

In the audio realm a signal is said to be distorted if it is reproduced in a nonlinear way. That means that the signal coming in is different when it goes out. This doesn't apply to volume level, a compressed signal can still be very linear, it's the waveform we're concerned with here.  But how does it change?

The most common form of distortion happens when a waveform is clipped. How this happens is that the device the signal is flowing through runs out of headroom.  In an amplifier, let's say it's a tiny one on a chip in a cell phone, you have a small voltage that regulates a big voltage and the big voltage comes out with the same signal that went in, just a lot louder.  If there are three volts available to the amplifier and then the input signal, multiplied by the gain, results in an output signal that would be greater than three volts, the amp runs out of gas and just stops at it's max output. So the tops of all the waveforms become flat.  The same thing happens on a tape when the medium is maxed out on magnetic flux. 
Digital clipping is heard when you run out of bits. You get a loud tick. Most of the time, every precaution is taken to keep digital distortion out of the finished product, although occasionally it's done on purpose to create a jarring effect.  Higher bit rate devices allow recording at lower levels while maintaining good fidelity and make it easier to stay away from a digital clip.

What I just recently learned about distortion is that there are two distinct ways it can affect the sound. A device that clips the waveform equally on the positive and negative peaks produces odd numbered harmonics. A device that only clips one side of the waveform, a poorly implemented push-pull output stage for example, produces both odd and even harmonics. Odd harmonics are generally pleasant to listen to, picture a chord with the root, third, fifth and octave. Even numbered harmonics aren't necessarily unpleasant to listen to on their own or in certain arrangements, but now play a chord with the root, second, fourth and fifth. Very different sounding. Not that it's bad, but it's not a happy sound and not one you would use unless you decided to create something appropriate with it.
There are other types of distortion like intermodulation. This type of distortion can happen if you have two wireless instruments on the same frequency.  The audio present gets summed and you get new tones appearing. With two sine waves it can be interesting because the new frequencies aren't musically related to the original tones, but with tonally complex signals, like a pair of guitars, every fundamental and overtone get's the treatment and you get an awful mess.

In the digital realm you can get a type of distortion called aliasing. A digital sampling system is only capable of capturing signals at a frequency that is half of the sampling rate. This is called the Nyquist frequency. Any information above this will be reproduced at lower frequencies as a distinct kind of noise. Sometimes it's used for artistic effect, like the low rate vocal sample in Rob Zombie's "Living Dead Girl". Generally though it's an unwanted artifact and filters are put in place to keep it from happening.

Total Harmonic Distortion is a way of quantifying how much distortion is present in a signal. THD is generally higher in speakers than in electronic gear. A good number is less than 1%. Lower than that and it becomes more difficult for the human ear to detect, although audiophiles will argue that point. The ear is less sensitive to distortion at lower frequencies so numbers as high as 10% are considered acceptable for subwoofers. Recently though, live engineers have become aware that distortion in the subs is throwing off lots of harmonics that cause muddiness in the mix. Newer designs have shown that low distortion subs can do a lot for a performance.