Saturday, June 30, 2012

Advancing The Show

I just had a really nice experience advancing a show the other day. The band's agent that I spoke to painted a very clear picture of the band's style and needs. In a few minutes I was able to fill him in on what I had to offer at my venue and we parted ways after a ten minute conversation ready to meet up and do the show in a few weeks. An hour later I had a rider and a stage plot in my inbox and now I don't need to think about it any more until we get close.

So why is it that this experience is so unique. Why do bands show up and find a house tech that knows nothing of their needs when it's so easy to have the information ready and to distribute it well in advance. (Hence the term "advance".) Here's a quick outline about what both sides of the advance should look like. 

As a band you should have your tech rider written out clearly and as briefly as possible. It needs to detail you needs as far as schedule, stage space, green room, merch sales, and most importantly your members and instrumentation. Often this document is just a wish list with extravagant requirements for a sound system to be provided but it's not hard to make one that's easier to comply with. Included should be an input list and a stage plot. The input list should be complete but also have some notes about things you could get along without in a pinch. 
The stage plot should be a clear layout of how you set up on stage. Pictures can get overly complex but it's not hard to come up with a clean one. I've even done it with just blocks of text at the appropriate locations on a page. Information you should include is instrument played, name of player, details about the instrument (guitar, Marshall stack or Drums, five piece). Also include how many and what type of monitor is preferred and if power is required.

On the venue side you should have a tech pack you can send back in the other direction so the band engineer (BE) can have an idea of what they'll be walking in to. A simple one would include a diagram of the room with locations for the mix, lighting controls, power, and the house monitor setup. Then list off the signal flow from stage to speaker. 24x8 snake, A&H GL2400 24ch, DBX DriveRack PA, QSC PLX, EAW mains, Yorkville monitors. Then list off the wattage available at FOH and for the wedges. Then list off what's in your outboard racks and mic box. If your venue has lights list off the house rig and you're done. To sweeten things a little you could include info about green room, merch space, nearby shopping like Guitar Centers and Wal-Marts, and maybe a hotel or two. The whole thing should be three pages or less and have all the relevant location and contact info clearly listed at the top of the first page.

It's important for both sides to be realistic. Bands with six inputs should really just shut up about what an acceptable console is. Sure it's a ploy to make sure you're not showing up to find a thirty year old Peavey powered mixer, but to spec PM5D or Midas Pro6 for a 500 cap club tour is just nonsense and no venue that size is going to rent a single piece of gear for you. On the other side venues should stop the silent treatment and just give out the relevant information as quickly and clearly as possible. The house sound guy crowing about how he once worked with Motorhead (fetched Lemmy a Jack & Coke) isn't helping anyone.

That was a lot of babble to simply say: bands should say what they need, venues should say what they have, and the attitudes and whining should be left at home. It's so easy for a band to state their needs, a venue to state their capabilities, and have everyone work together and have a great night. So Brethren of the Knob and Fader, the challenge is out there. Get after it!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Foley anyone?

I don't remember how the conversation started, but i had a talk with a co worker about Foley Sound, and how it makes up movies. Growing up, I didn't know anything about Foley, and most people don't when they watch movies that all use these methods.

For those that might not know, Foley recording is a method used to record sound to supplement the audio of movies. Typically when filming a movie the main goal of the recording is to capture the dialog, and often the environmental noises are left out...foot steps, children playing in the background, gun shots, punches, closing doors. You get the picture. If we only had the dialog, and not the sound of the surroundings, the scene would not be believable. 

When i was at audio school, one of my final projects was to record Foley sounds for a 5 minute action fight scene. We had 2'x2' boxes filled with different materials: concrete, stone, asphalt, tile, wood. based on where the characters were, we would jump from box to box, and try to match out feet making sound with the movements on the screen.  We also had different materials to hit and strike to make the noise of impact of the characters fighting. I can tell you it was hard work, and hysterical. It took several hours to just nail the 5 minutes we needed to get. We recorded onto a 24 track ADAT, didn't do any splice type editing, or lining up the audio. All we got to do is mix levels, and adjust panning.  It was a lot of fun, and it was a great experience. It was even more fun to overdub comical dialogue and sound effects that didn't match.  A slide whistle to me is still funny no matter what!

Searching on Wikipedia about Foley is pretty interesting. I suggest you take a look to find out about it's history, and some of the more interesting materials they use to get sounds. 

Next time your'e watching a movie, pay attention to the sound effects that set the aural scene around the  main dialoge and action. Imagine the work that went into it.  If you're feeling adventurous, record a short clip with camera on your iPhone, import it to iMove, and try recording Foley type sounds in Garageband.  I guarantee you'll have a lot of fun making it all work. I'd love to see and hear your results. Have fun everyone.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Knockoff Mics

Yesterday I wrote about not buying cheap gear and how unhappy you'll be if you skimp when you really should shell out. "Buy your second one first" is the motto. Today I'm going to tell you just the opposite. When it comes to Chinese knockoffs of expensive mics I have a place for them in my box. (Yesterday's Post)

Before you get your patch bay in an uproar let me explain why. I needed a better mic around the shop at work for the intern to record voice overs with, and I also needed a mic to take out on location for ambients on video shoots.  Would a Shoeps or a Sanken be a wonderful choice? A Neumann perhaps? Well, would you give a $5000 mic to the intern or take it out on location? Probably not.

So in doing my research I heard that a particular brand of cheap mic actually did a pretty good job at making a product that you could actually use. I don't know what all the secrecy is for, we're not sponsored here so you may as well know it's MXL. Sure everyone's got horror stories of cheap mics that promised to be as good as the big boys, but I'm not expecting it to be that good. I just need a large diaphragm, multi-pattern mic that I'm not scared to hand to a seventeen year old or take out in the wind. That said, while there might be some quality issues with the MXLs, in general they're worth at least what you pay for them and in some instances a good deal more. (I hear tell that their M63 is nearly as good as a Neumann U87 and it's three grand cheaper!) 

Well, the day of reckoning arrived and I sat at my desk with a shiny new MXL 4000 in front of me. To the uninitiated it looks pretty impressive and I'll admit that even I thought it was pretty good looking. No physical defects, clean lines, nice grille. I plugged it in to my USB interface which I know to be pretty clean with just a little noise creeping in at high gain levels. I plugged in the mic, turned on the phantom and was greeted with a warm, rich vocal in my cans. I cranked the gain, it hissed slightly. I switched it to omni, I heard the A/C fans and my office mates typing. I recorded a voice over test and some acoustic guitar. The results were not earth shattering but for a $200 mic it easily outclassed anything else we currently have laying around. 
Later on in the day my boss grabbed it to do some spoken word on an album he's working on. It sounded so good compared to the Beta 87 he usually uses that I didn't even realize it was him for a minute! Then I set it up on stage as an omni and then cardioid to see how it would work for a vocal quartet we have coming in. Gorgeous in both cases and only slightly prone to feedback in omni mode. 
Would I be happier with a pricier large diaphragm mic? Probably. Would I have anything left in my mic budget for Audix drum mics, AKG overheads, replacement lavalier elements? Not a dime. Am I happy with my purchase. You bet.
So Brethren of the Knob and Fader. Taken together yesterday's post and today's would seem to be in stark opposition. But it just goes to show you that in the audio world, rules are rules and you should always stick to them... until you don't. Happy shopping!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Is It Worth The Money?

I came across a post in a forum last night where the poster wanted to know if a wireless in-ear setup that cost $600 less than a name brand option would be OK to buy. The answers came pouring back and they were all negative. Not mean, but saying that it would not be a good choice. Quite simply, you get what you pay for.

The poster came back with the thought that it would just be for use with his band that only played small venues. The responses were all to the effect that if RF issues, audio distortion and build quality issues were OK for small venues then he should go right ahead and save himself six hundred bucks.

There are some instances where you are just paying for a name and you can get good performance out of something that costs less. IEMs are not one of those areas. Even if you never encounter RF issues there is so much more to the setup than finding clear radio waves. Cheap construction and inferior circuitry can really ruin your day.
Something I've noticed about the cheaper sets from all manufacturers is that just about the time you get things loud enough for the performer, the limiter kicks in. That's when checking out a single channel. So when you're checking out each channel before the set, it's all making it, but just barely. Once the whole band kicks in, the monitor mix is utterly smashed by the limiter and all the performer can hear is mud. Some of the problem might come from cheap buds, but even very good buds aren't going to make up for an audio chain that can't handle the levels that a professional mixing console is going to throw at it. I've heard of bands turning off the limiters and having a better time of it. Those limiters are there for a reason though. High levels of sound pumped directly into a person's ear canal can have serious consequences.

Then there's the issue of build quality. If six months after you buy it, even with light use, and you find the case coming apart and the left ear dropping out unless you hold the cord just so and tape it down, are you really going to be glad you saved all that cash? Even with warranty replacement, it's still a hassle you don't need. So what do you do?
The best option would be to just save up until you can buy something decent. You should probably disregard the propaganda on manufacturer websites and just ask around and find out from people who own them what will work best. If you don't need bells and whistles, don't pay for them. A lot of makers put the same circuitry in all their models and just enable features on the pricier ones. If that's just not an option, take a look on the used market. Well built audio equipment can be found for significantly less and will often have 80% or more of its service life still ahead of it. If that makes you queasy then going with B stock or open box merch can knock at least ten or twenty percent off.

Don't fall into the trap of getting a starter level piece when it's not what you really need. The philosophy I've always gone with is, "Buy your second one first". If you're going to wind up paying $800 for good IEMs, why add the purchase price and maintenance of a cheap one to the bill? Be a little bit of a gear snob and don't let me catch you saying, "Well... it works." Passing signal and passing good signal are two vastly different concepts Brethren of the Knob and Fader.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Dear SNR: Powered Speakers

The other day I was helping a DJ friend tune up his new self powered speakers and ran into a real issue trying to explain how everything goes together. As someone who deals with complex multi-part audio systems on a daily basis and has a good understanding of gain structure, there was a bit of a disconnect when talking to someone who plugs in a powered mixer and goes. 

The first issue was understanding the difference between the speaker outs and line level outs on his powered mixer. It didn't help that the one time he had encountered powered speakers in the wild was at a church where they were feeding their boxes from the speaker outs! (No wonder you could barely crack the master open before horrific distortion started.) It was late and I was having a hard time trying to explain the differences and come up with examples. So instead I switched tactics and just showed him a fool proof way to plug his system in.

A powered speaker is a complete sound system in a box. There's usually a rudimentary mixer on the back panel allowing you to plug in one or two things, some even have a mic pre. Then there's a master volume which is the key here. If you know what setting on that knob is unity gain you can just set it there and your system should operate smoothly. Someone used to a powered mixer can just use the master knob like they always did to set the level in the room and as long as they keep the red lights off the amps in the powered speakers won't distort.

Finding unity can be kind of a trick though. It's a fairly safe bet that powered speakers on the market today are operating at +4 and not -10 so they should be able to handle the higher levels coming at them from pro audio gear. (I'm sure someone can contradict me on that and give an example of one that's -10, that's what the comment section is for, hit me up.) But only a few makers actually mark unity gain with a "0". I've seen them that mark the maximum setting with a +6 but have no indication as to where unity falls below that. I've also seen the dreaded 1 to 10 scale. In that instance unity could fall anywhere between about 7 and 10. You either have to look it up (which we weren't able to do at the time) or take a wild guess and watch for clip lights.

Whatever you think of them, powered speakers are becoming a major factor in audio systems today. With their increasing capabilities and falling prices they're going to turn up more and more. Like any piece of gear, there will be people out there using them that don't understand them and therefore aren't getting the best out of them. Here's hoping a little knowledge will trickle in and help people bring better audio along with their new, highly portable, micro sound systems.

Got questions? Hit us up! The comments section is always open or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, June 25, 2012

SNR 101 - Compression Part 2

In Part One we covered how compressors work. Now we'll cover how and where you use them.

The most straight forward way to use any piece of gear is the simple in and out. You could use a compressor on your main mix by coming out of the board, into the comp, and then out to your amps. This method is used for more than just compression though. It's the way you'll see a loudspeaker management box plugged in this way. In the old days there was a longer chain of individual pieces of gear like EQs and such that made up your "drive rack", hence the name of the piece of gear by DBX that does all of that in one box.

But what about using a comp on just one channel? That's what the inserts are for. Inserts could easily be a post on their own, so let's just say that they're a way to make a path like an effects loop on an individual channel. They let you plug in a comp and have it work just on the signal from that channel. This is pretty useful if you've got an input with a lot of dynamic range. But there is a catch. Most consoles don't let you select if the processing affects just the signal to the main mix or all the aux mixes too. So now you've got compression on the signal to the monitors. That could be a help to a singer but it also raises the noise floor and can make it easier for feedback to occur, so use wisely.  The other problem is that if you've got a high channel count it takes a lot of compressors to deal with all those inputs.

So the next way to use them is on the inserts on the sub groups.  This lets you do things like route all your vocals to a single compressor. It takes a little finesse but it can be a great way to work fast and might be all you can do if your resources are limited. You have to set it up so that when just one person is singing they're barely making it work. Then as back up singers come in, it starts to compress, so instead of getting drastically louder it only gets somewhat louder but a lot fuller. With a four bus console and four channels of comps, you can take care of bar or small festival stage easily and hardly think about the comps.

To make things a little more hectic, a lot of compressors have a side chain on them which is another insert on the compressor itself! What? Here's what it's for. If you split an input and put it up on two channels, you insert the comp on one channel, then plug a signal from the other channel into the side chain. Now the compressor is processing the first signal based on what the second channel sounds like. But they're the same right? So you make the second channel different. If you crank the highs, the comp will act when a hot S comes through. You just built yourself a de-esser. Or, you could insert the comp on a channel with your background music on it, and feed the side chain signal from an announcer's mic. Work the settings a little and you can make it lower the music volume when someone is talking. This is called "ducking".

As usual Brethren of the Knob and Fader, we've just scratched the surface here. If you're perplexed, good. Go out and seek knowledge. Stock up on it because knowing how to make the most out of a little dynamic processing is what separates the sheep from the goats in this business.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

SNR 101 - Compression Part 1

Well it just didn't work out to do a podcast this week. Things piled up on everyone's schedule and before we knew it, there were only two of us and just half an hour to work with. So we bagged it. We knew starting out that doing a show every week was a pretty ambitious schedule so nobody feels too bad. The gigs come first. The plan had been to talk about compressors some more and specifically compression. We didn't cover any of the actual mechanics of dynamic processing for any newbie listeners so I thought I'd cover that in this post.

Think of a compressor as a little assistant in a box. You say to this assistant, “Watch this input and when it hits this level start to turn it down a little.” You set what level it starts to act by adjusting the threshold and it acts whenever the audio coming in exceeds that threshold. The next important control is the ratio. That tells the compressor how much to reduce the volume. A ratio of 1:1 will do nothing and a ratio of :1 is a brick wall limiter, the output never gets louder than what you set the threshold at. In practice, anything greater than about 8:1 can be considered a limiter as it will be acting pretty strongly on the signal. Ratios of 1.3:1 to about 4:1 are common so if you're just starting out with your first compressor try 2:1 and work from there.

What do all the ratios mean? If the ratio is set at 2:1, then it takes an increase of 2dB above threshold to get an increase at the output of 1dB. If the ratio is 8:1 then it must rise 8dB to see a 1dB increase. At ∞:1, there is no amount of input above threshold that will produce an increase in volume. Some compressors have a separate limiter stage that lets you just set the limit and forget it. This leaves the adjustable stage of the device free to do some more subtle processing and still have some protection in place against random pops or a dropped mic.

Most explanations of compression include graphs that show how the different ratios look. My thoughts are, I don't care how it looks, I care how it sounds. When I'm setting up a channel I put my hand on the controls and make adjustments without looking until I hear what I want to hear. Then if I look over and see settings or readings that are outrageous I just shrug and say, “Eh... if that's what it takes then so be it.”

The one last thing we'll cover about ratios is the knee. Some compressors will have an option for a hard or soft knee. A hard knee means that it will start to react right away once the threshold is exceeded. This is best for signals that are transient like drums. A soft knee will engage the reduction in gain a little more slowly and less perceptibly, ideal for vocals.

Next there are a couple controls in the middle called Attack and Release. These let you decide how quickly you want the comp to react and how long it takes to go back to normal when the level goes back below threshold again. If you're new, stop, don't panic. Many comps have a button to let you select “Auto” or “RMS” for these settings and that's great news for you. That means that the comp will look at the average level of the signal and how often it exceeds threshold and adjust the attack and release accordingly. Works great for vocals and even for drums sometimes.

When setting the attack, you need to decide if you want the comp to start right away, just a few milliseconds after the threshold is exceeded, or wait a bit to let a tasty transient through and then go to work. Drums are a great example of this. Engage too quickly and things get dull sounding. But let a little snap of the stick hit through and then compress the resonation of the shell and you've got a nice sounding drum. With the release, you just need to listen and see if you can hear the comp squeezing things too much. If it sounds like things are pumping then mess around with the release until things start to sound more natural.

The last thing to consider is the make up gain. When you compress a signal it gets fatter but it also gets a little or a lot quieter. To make it sit right in the mix you need to turn it up an appropriate amount. If you turn it up on the fader you'll just make it compress more, and depending on where it's patched in, you may or may not have somewhere on the console to turn it up after the compressor. Mindful of this, compressors big and small have a make up gain knob. You can look at the meters and see how much gain you're reducing and crank it back up that much, but again it's best to use your ears.

There's a whole lot more to the subject so check back shortly for Part Two on the subject where we'll talk about all the different ways you can patch in a compressor, and even the dark art of side chaining. Wooooooooo. Stay tuned, it's about to get interesting.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

SNR 101 - EQ

I've been wanting to do a series of posts on some of the basics of sound. As more are added you can find them on the Topics page under Sound 101

EQ. It stands for equalization but it's really anything but. Originally designed to even out frequency response of early recordings it's now used in highly specialized ways in every step of the mixing process. At it's most basic it's as simple as a tone knob on an instrument, amp, or old radio. Turn one way and you get more bass, the other way is the treble. Slightly more advanced are the bass and treble knobs on modern radios that allow you to boost or cut. It's really that simple, right on up to thirty-one band graphic EQs and parametrics. But we'll get to those later.

An EQ is just a filter. The most basic design is a fixed one that uses a resistor and capacitor. Depending on their values and what arrangement you hook them up in, you can create a filter that cuts out either the lows or the highs. Like a lot of things in audio they are labeled the opposite of how you might think. A filter that cuts out the lows is called a "high pass" (it blocks lows and allows highs to pass) and one that cuts the highs is called a "low pass". If you design one of each carefully it becomes a crossover. That's a device you use to send lower frequencies to a woofer and the higher ones to a tweeter. Things get complicated pretty fast so we'll leave it at that for now.

If you go a step further and make one of the elements of a filter adjustable you start to get something more like the tone controls and EQs that we're used to seeing. In fact, it's actually quite a bit more complicated. Passive devices like capacitors and resistors can only cut, it takes an active circuit to provide boost. We'll save that for another lesson too. But the point to get here is that no matter how big and complicated an EQ is, it's just an adjustable filter.

Before we go much farther I want to touch on phase issues. Some engineers bag on one model or another and say that it's a "phase nightmare" or will warn against using too much EQ on something because it creates "phase issues".  EQs do create phase issues, that's how they work, but they don't create phase issues at the speaker unless they are otherwise poorly designed.  The signal going into an EQ is split up into sections or bands of frequencies and each one is acted on by one or multiple controls. Those controls set up a phase difference in each frequency range that when combined with unaltered signal at the output cause that frequency to be partially canceled out. The signal leaving the box doesn't have any phase issues though and if there are any in the listening area it's much more likely that they come from cable or speaker issues, or aren't phase issues at all but something else that's hurting the sound.

So that's a basic look at how EQs work, here's a list of some different types of EQ and some of their uses:
  • Graphic - This is the type you see in racks by a mixer or maybe in an amp rack. Each band of frequencies is fixed and the level is run up and down by a little fader. When you're all done adjusting you get a "graphic" representation (sometimes called a "curve") that shows you approximately what you've done to the sound. I say approximate because the filters are usually notch shaped and may vary in width. A traditional graphic EQ with 31 bands would be called a 1/3 octave unit because each fader represents that much sound. But the only position that the filter is actually that wide is when it's all the way down, the curve is much wider when a shallower setting is used. Constant Q units maintain the notch shape and are better suited to cutting out frequencies that are feeding back in a system. They are more common these days but you may see a traditional design in a front of house rack for more gentle shaping of the sound.
  • Parametric - This type is named so because it gives you control over more parameters of the filter. These are what you see on the channel strips of a console although they also exist in rack mount units. The controls include a level knob to control cut or boost, a frequency knob (sometimes called a sweep because you can sweep through the frequencies), and a Q or width knob that controls how wide the filter is. Some mixers have just the level and frequency controls and these are not fully parametric so they are often called "sweep" EQs. You have very precise control with a parametric and a lot of consoles will actually overlap the frequencies that adjacent sections have. Parametric plugins and digital consoles will often show you the curve as you are working on it. Sitting with an EQ plugin is a great way to learn.
  • Notch - Just like it sounds, this term applies to any EQ with a narrow filter width. Think of this as a surgical tool to cut out frequencies that are feeding back and leave the rest intact. 
  • Shelf - Often the very low and very high frequencies on a parametric EQ are this type. Instead of having a width, they extend from the frequency you set them at, all the way up or down (depending) right out of hearing range. For example, a low shelf might be set at 80 Hz or have a sweep control that lets you set it where you want, but it affects the sound from that frequency right on down to zero. Some consoles and many plugins let you switch your low and high shelves to the peaking type so they will act the same as the mid bands on a parametric EQ.
  • Low Cut - A common feature on many consoles, this will often be a fixed filter but may be sweepable. When active it cuts out all low frequencies. It's useful to take stage rumble and popped Ps out of a vocal channel. It's a good idea to activate it on any channel that really doesn't need the lows coming through. Often the kick drum and bass will be the only channels of a mix with the low cut not active.
  • High Cut - Not as common but acts just the same as the low cut but at the upper end of the range.
  • Band Pass - This is a lot like a crossover, but instead of separating one signal into two ranges, it engages a high and low cut together to let just the mids through. Usually fully adjustable it allows to you zero in on a particular range of frequencies. It's useful for inserting dynamic processing or effects on just one range of frequencies on a channel. It can also be used to clean up something like an old tape recording, removing the hiss and the rumble.
EQ is a big topic and I'm not out to write the book on it here, just give sort of an introduction and hopefully get you interested enough to go off and do some more reading. So get to it Brethren of the Knob and Fader. Feel free to add on to the topic in the comments section.

Friday, June 22, 2012

growing safety in stages

You can read that title any way you like. This I think will be the most difficult post I've written on this forum,  and I'm intentionally going to be working on it every day this week until it posts on Friday. I think a few days of thought and digestion of the topic are crucial to have a conversation that's worthwhile. I also hope that this can be a podcast topic in the next week or two, as it's an important issue that shouldn't be ignored.

Yesterday (Saturday, 6 days ago when this posts) in Toronto, the stage collapsed that was set to host Radiohead for an outdoor show.  Their drum tech was killed in the accident, and I've seen conflicting reports on how many injured...3-5 is what I've been reading, none of them in grave danger. While this tragedy didn't have the "number of casualties" devastation of the Indiana State Fair collapse last year, it does indicate that things are wrong in live events at this point in the industry, and it needs to be addressed. This is something that happens more than we hear, especially over seas. 

I think the industry needs to address some issues that come with producing shows on temporary structures. I think I should clarify that I am in no way speaking as an "expert" in temporary structures, structural engineering, or even basic rigging.  I've been a mix engineer my whole career, and my experience flying anything is very limited. I'm not writing this claiming to have any answers,  and really I'm writing this more out of concern and frustration,  and looking for the people reading this who do have the experience in these matters to speak up,  and hopefully answer these questions that I humbly submit to our industry. 

The art of live shows, production, and artistic expression in music has changed drastically with the emergence of LED video elements in a live venue. I love live events for the music, but there is no way to deny the absolute genius that you can experience with the video and lighting elements that make the musical experience so much better. The impact it brings to a live show is profound. I'll never forget my first time seeing Radiohead, at the Blossom Music Center in Ohio, when they were touring on the Amnesiac album. The music was flawless, and even from the lawn seats, the lighting and video made such a lasting impression on me. The same holds true for U2, and Nine Inch Nails, who I revere as innovators in using video and lighting in new ways to hold an audience captive along with the music. 

The rigs are getting bigger and bigger. It doesn't take many page turns in an industry rag to see the magnitude of these systems. The audio systems are fractions of the weight of the lighting and video systems now. It looks beautiful. It makes an experience that inspires people like you and me.  When is it too much? I'm not talking artistically, but literally, too much.  Is there a common sense point where we need to start saying, "This will not work on a temporary structure."?

I realize that the artists rely on this technology and these elements to set them apart for the other acts that are out there. These elements help them express their vision more fully. Does the industry need to start stepping in, and having common sense be king over artistic expression?  

I realize that adding more red tape to doing temporary structures will make the cost for these events even more prohibitive,  and will cause many of them not to happen....or corruption will begin to set in (maybe more than it already is?) and people will start buying their way through the red tape to be able to put on their show.  Something needs to be done. There needs to be guidelines. I think structure height is a huge issue. These video, lighting points, and even line array lengths necessitate the structures being taller. I realize that a longer line array throws farther. At what point do we say the length of the array is too long, we need to keep the structure height lower, so go put out delay towers. I know there's extra labor, trucking, and all sorts of expense tied up into it. Don't we think it's worth it?  

At what point do the artists, or their management say, "You know what, we are going to plan to trim down our rigs for temporary structures.  We will still put on a great show, but we will do it in a way that is safe no matter what."? I know it's additional logistics. I know it's more programming for  everyone involved on the tour.  Isn't it worth it?  The extra week of prep and rehearsals, the extra few thousand dollars to make it happen is worth lives.

I know it's not as simple as I'm describing. I know an engineer signed off on this stage design. I know the company that put it up was reputable, and had guys working on it that were qualified, and professional...(maybe not, there's speculation about the company putting it up simply being a temp agency, and the 1st SE did not sign off, so the promoter found one that would...again only speculation). The problem is, the bigger we make these things, the slimmer the margin of error is in building them. We all make mistakes. I'm not talking about negligence, just honest mistakes. The human factor in all of this can't be ignored. I can accept that accidents happen, equipment fails, materials don't live up to expectations, or degrade faster than they were designed.  I don't think that we will eliminate accidents like this from happening. I do think that getting back to some common sense about how we approach these things will save lives. 

I honestly don't understand why promoters at this level insist on bringing these arena shows to the temporary situations. At some point, the promoter needs to look at what the act has, and make a good decision on where to put them. Attendance for the Radiohead show was expected to be around 40,000. There's not an ampitheatre in town that can hold that? something with a permanent structure?  I know a profit needs to be made, but where does common sense come in? 

The reality is, these shows happen all the time, without incident. These collapses, I have a hunch (without real facts) make up less than one percent of the temporary structure shows that happen in the US each year. However, I'd like to see some statistics on shows that meet certain criteria:  How many of the largest 10% of temporary stages have some sort of incident? I think that might shed some light on things.  It might even prove my hunch wrong...

I think my bottom line is this: Until we, the guys that are working on these shows get better educated on what is wrong and right, and are not afraid to speak up when things are done incorrectly, we won't see a change. I'm not necessarily a union advocate, but this is a major plus of the IATSE.  The unions are great at providing the training and education needed to make it's members the most qualified and aware of what is right and wrong, safe and not safe in our field. If you're in doubt of a structure you're working on, speak up. If you're a visiting engineer, band tech etc, get your TM involved to be sure you're in a safe environment. Ask what the plan is if the weather goes south, and you need to get a roof lowered in a hurry. Be aware of where you are.

Please, discuss, not for my ego's sake, but for the good of the community that reads this. Hopefully you can share expertise that I don't have. Let's learn, and make these tragedies that have been happening all too soon disappear. Have fun, be safe everyone.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tour Time

The post is a little later than usual. I'm feelin it pretty hard this morning and here's why. I got a call last week from a friend of a cousin that desperately needed a sound engineer in Philly (I live near Buffalo).  It was last minute enough to make me a viable option and paid well enough to make me consider it. I'll just give you some of the finer points and then let you mull over and decide for yourself if it's crazy or cool.

5:30am - Wake up, make coffee, throw bags in van
6:00am - Under way, reset trip odometer. Temperature 70°F
10:00am - 220 miles behind us, Temp 85°F, A/C does not work
12:30pm - Arrive at venue early, 350 miles behind us, find a close pub for lunch, Temp 93°F
1:30pm - Meet client and venue, commence load in, Temp 95°F
2:30pm - Venue tells us we can't mix from the house. Move mix to side stage and pull out radios
                   Inside Temp 65°F (ahhhhhhhh)
4:00pm - System tuned, actors happy, promoter happy, client happy. Head to hotel. Temp 100°F
6:30pm - Call time, showered and fed we're back at the venue
7:00pm - Actors do 10 minute teaser to little or no reaction from the crowd.
7:10pm - Wander around with hands in pockets. Outside Temp 99°F, Inside Temp 68°F
8:00pm - Actors do 15 minute main performance with wittily written custom lyrics including humor specific to the client's company and line of work. Audience is an oil painting. 
8:16pm - Bewildered actors arrive at aforementioned pub to find audio techs firmly planted.
                Outside Temp 98°F, Iced Tea Temp 33°F :D
9:00pm - Strike
9:40pm - Sprint for hotel. Outside Temp 97°F. Hotel Lobby Temp 68°F
10:00pm - Make arrangements for direct deposit of buckets of cash.
12:00am - Finally part company with new friends and get on the road. Temp 85°F
4:00am - Can't keep eyes open, turn wheel over to A2, Outside Temp 70°F
5:00am - Finally get off lousy PA mountain roads and pick up fresh coffee. Let A2 go back to sleep.
7:00am - Pull in to home base, 700 miles behind us, flop on couch. 
                 A2 jumps in Jeep to drive straight to work.
9:30am - Wake up from coma, get fresh coffee, kiss children, jump in truck to head back to work.

People in the performing arts aren't in it for the money. Most never make it big, many can barely make rent. We do it for the love.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tour Prep

I'm getting ready to head out for a one nighter in Philly and it got me to thinking I should write a post on tour prep. There's a ton of stuff that needs to be thought about but this post is about what goes in your bag. Since everything else on a tour is optimized for utility, easy transport, and is either vitally important or it's left behind, you should do some thinking as you choose and pack your bags.

On my first tour I had just my bunk and half the space under it for my personal gear. I was out for three months with just a twenty-two inch suitcase, a back pack, and an empty duffel bag for dirty laundry. Here's a brief rundown of the contents and some of the thinking behind it.
  • Enough t-shirts to hold me for two weeks
  • Two pair of cargo shorts
  • Two pair of jeans (that could become shorts if the heat got too much
  • Lots and lots and lots of socks (clean, dry socks are like prison currency on tour)
  • One set of dress clothes that I never wore
  • Two hoodies (double em up if it gets very cold)
  • One pair of sneakers and one pair of boots
And then there were a bunch of tiny items that I picked just to make life a little better. Sewing kit, travel alarm clock, Palm Pilot (the iPhone wasn't even a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye at that point), small tool kit, toiletries, reading light, earplugs, tiny fan, and some notebooks.  Every trip since then has either been scaled up or scaled down from that package as space and duration allowed. For shorter runs I'll try and make do with just a good sized backpack. Two changes of clothes, the usual bunch of socks and a few odds and ends.

There's a tendency to want to bring along just a ton of stuff, just in case. It's a good idea to really think about every item you pack and decide if it's something you absolutely couldn't live without, or something you could just as easily pick up at a stop if you wound up needing it.

Just one more word about one of the items listed above. The earplugs. You probably have a phone or iPod that can supply you with all the music (read: isolation) you could need. Throwing in the buds is a great way to "go to your room" when you're crammed in a small space with a bunch of other people. There's a lot to be said for the sound of silence though. A pair of noise cancelling headphones or just a decent pair of ear plugs can get your brain some much needed quiet time as opposed to blasting it with more noise. Pair them up with a sleep mask (you could make it look tough with some skulls and studs if you need to) and you're all set up with a quiet, dark place you can catch a few z's in.

Let us know what's in your tour kit Brethren of the Knob and Fader. Hit the comments section below.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Make Your Reverb Better

I was sitting at the mix at work last week and thinking about how I could make my reverbs sound better. I'm a little strapped for I/O right now due to feeding a lot of monitors so I'm actually using a group to send to my vocal reverb. If it was on an aux out, my Midas has some EQ built in, but as it is I'm stuck right back where I would be on most any other console. 

I kind of gave away the idea there. Reverbs can only do so much, even really good ones. So it's natural to look at one and start to EQ the sound coming out of it. But what about the sound going into it? If you find that a verb is boomy or nasally, or maybe a little too sibilant, it's only natural to grab the channel EQ when it comes back into the board and start to tweak. I find that you can generally make some improvement, especially if you're in a hurry, but there is a better way.

With the advent of affordable multi-effect processors like the M-Ones I have at work, you can just add an EQ in the signal chain before the reverb. Many have a high and low pass built right in to the verb section itself while others will let you add a graph or parametric. Then there's always the tried and true method of patching in an actual EQ. I've got an old Ashly seven band parametric kicking around the bone yard that I've been pondering for the purpose if I can't get what I want out of the built in EQ.
All this applies to mixing in the box as well of course. If you're new to the idea you may want to try it out in a DAW before you invest in more equipment for a live rig. Being able to see the curve on the screen can be a big help when learning what sounds best. There are some general rules you can follow, that is of course until you decide to break them as it suits you. 
For beginners, treat a vocal reverb EQ like you would a vocal channel, trimming up the lows and touching the mids a little, and take some off the top if it's too "ess-y". For instruments just play with a band pass or pair up a low and high pass to make your own. Tune to taste. Myself, I like to tighten things way up for drums, but not always. Use your ears.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Favorite Compressors

OK, if you listened to Podcast #10 this might be a little boring for you because I'm going to basically transcribe the list of compressors we talked about. Actually we covered quite a few mic pres as well and what the heck, it might just prove useful to have all this stuff written down. Feel free to jump in on the comments and let us know what you think about these models or add some that we didn't mention.

We didn't have a full panel, just Jon Dayton, Anthony Kosobucki, and Gordon Wood. When some of the other regulars are on hand we'll bring it up again and see what we can add to the list. Also it should be noted that at this point we are in no way sponsored by any of these manufacturers, and even if we were our opinions would remain the same.

Alessis 3630 - Dual comp/gate. This is what Jon started out with in his portable rig. They're similarly priced to some of the Behringer stuff out there and better looking. The knobs aren't detented which makes it at leas feel like you can make subtle adjustments and the meters are clear and easy to read. For a $100 comp it's hard to beat.

ART TCS - The TCS (Twin Compressor System) is a discontinued unit but one of the greats. Gordon has hunted down a rack of them for his A rig and with good reason. They're selectable for either opto or VCA type compression.
ART Pro VLA II - This is not a mic pre but a super compressor that's known for it's affordable price and super smooth action. It's like having an angel watch over your lead singer.

ART MPA Gold - This is a mic pre and not a comp. Although with the tubes in there if you push it it starts to get that nice tube compression. They're not overly expensive as mic pres go but eyebrows went up all around the room when we found out he had a couple of these in the rack.

Behringer MultiCom - This is Behringer's quad comp/gate/limiter that's sort of the moped of the group. That is, if you own one you wouldn't want your biker friends to see you riding it. It is what it is, entry level gear that serves it's purpose. It's not going to win awards but it's better than nothing when you're starting out, and when you get a little bigger you keep it around to protect your monitor amps or just to have four more channels on hand.

DBX Family (160A, 266, 1046, 1066) - We'll cover these as a group. The 266 is a beloved old friend but not the most up to date comp and many would pass it over for something else, but to find one cheap on eBay or at a gear sale is a beautiful thing. The 160A is a formidable beast even though it's only got three knobs on the front. Again, not the priciest or nicest in the land, but anyone would be glad to have one or two around. The 1046 is a quad comp/limiter that is worth making the jump if you're tired of your Behringer. And last but not least is the 1066 with a terrific gate/expander on it (Mick Huges loves his) and that great DBX comp/limiter times four. You can get a lot done in a little space when you start to stack those in a rack.
Drawmer - Picture Homer Simpson saying, "Mmmmmmm... Drawwwwwwwwmer" here. The two we have all worked with and loved are the DS404 quad gate (awesome for drums) with tuneable internal side chain, and the DL441 quad comp/limiter. They're a little spendy, but when it's time to go from $50 a channel compression to something a little classier, you could do way worse than saving up for a Drawmer.
Focusrite - We won't get too far into this but Focusrite makes mic pres to beat the band. For a couple hundred bucks you can get a USB interface for your computer with world class pres in it and the product line goes right on up to 56 input monsters. If you record a lot or a little, it's a worthwhile investment.

JoeMeek Twin Q - Look up Joe Meek on Wikipedia some time. There, now you have a link. It's an interesting read. The green boxes that come from Joe are pretty special. They're strange, they can be hard to handle, but on certain things they're the juice box. The Twin Q has a transformer or differential input mic pre, optical compressor and parametric EQ times two.  Works great on kick and snare.
Presonus ACP88 - Remembering back to when these came out it seemed great to have all that dynamic processing in just two little rack spaces. Using one, you find out that you'd better know exactly what you're doing and what you want out of it because it'll be ignoring you or squashing your signal if you don't. The gates are terrible. That is all.

RNC - This one didn't come up in the discussion but it's worth mentioning. These little half-space comps didn't claim to be anything other than what the initials stand for... really, nice, compressors. Not the best, just really nice. People even made "skins' for them in the form of swappable face plates that gave interesting names to all the knobs. Check em out.

And that's all the comps we have time for this week. As I said above we'd love to hear what you use, what you love, what you want, and what you hate. Hit us up!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

SNR Podcast #10 - Music, Compressors, Festivals

This week we had Gordon Wood and Anthony Kosobucki on hand. We talked about what we've been working on and listening to and then got into compressors. We talked about what's in our racks, what we love, what we hate, and what we drool over. As usual you can stream the podcast right here, or grab the mp3 link below to stream or download that way. Enjoy!

  • SNR Podcast #10 - 6/16/12 Gordon Wood & Anthony Kosobucki join Jon Dayton to talk about projects, recreational listening, and compressors.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Interview: Luciar

Lucy Kalantari is an old friend from my days at SUNY Purchase. Like every one else in our department she was forever busy in the studios and venues around campus, studying and making music day and night. At the time she stood out as a star of the program and as the years went by I often wondered what she was up to. Finally, I looked her up and bugged her to do an interview. She wouldn't bite but agreed to an email interview. Here's what she had to say.

SNR: Hi Lucy, it's been a while since we both walked the halls on the third floor of the Music Building at SUNY Purchase, but I remember you being a respected musician and engineer back in those days. I expect not much has changed from looking at your website and hearing your stuff on Sound Cloud. I hope all our readers will check out your stuff but just in case they don't, would you give us the short version of what you've been up to musically in the last ten years or so?

L: Sometimes I really miss being on the 3rd floor. I miss being surrounded by constant music practicing and noise-making. Al Improta vibrating the door to his practice room when playing his bass. Many of us hiding from security to get more studio time after 2 am. Good times.

I worked in post-production for a few years, which exposed me to voice-over recording, jingles, composition and random singing spots. I was still chipping away at being a singer-songwriter, composing and performing intermittently as Luciar, and did the NACA (National Association of Campus Activities) circuit for a while. I had completely stopped engineering altogether, for no reason in particular. It wasn’t until I recorded Skin in 2005 that I picked it up again. Mostly because I ran out of money to record vocals, and I decided to mix it myself. I had never mixed an entire album before, but I just dove in and fell in love with the process all over again. I tried something completely different in 2009, and released an album under the moniker Elwood Emission, a 6-track EP titled Ode to the Ego, where sound and emotion took front center. It was clearly influenced by my many years of Nine Inch Nails adulation. It was incredibly fun and satisfying to do. I didn’t let my inability to play electric guitar get in the way. I mic’d my ukulele and put it through a distortion filter. I dubbed it, “my wailing uke.” That project pushed me to a better place sonically, and am hoping to continue down this road with my next Luciar release, Feeling A Little Emo. It’s more mellow than Ode, with a cabaret, jazz and classical baroque feel.

SNR: In a recent podcast everyone at the table had at least some musical experience, some quite a lot, and we talked about how our musicality affected our mixing. I'd like to reverse the question now and ask you in what ways, if any, your knowledge of equipment and studio technique have affected your song writing and playing?

L: Sometimes, I hear songs exactly as they should be as I’m writing them. Other times, I just roll with it and see what happens. I feel my studio background affects my arrangement process, specifically. Instead of just hearing parts, I’ve become hyper-aware of the span of frequencies in a song and their spatial relations. So when I hear spots that sound empty, I ask myself questions like: Is that a void that SHOULD be filled? Is the space good? Do I want my ears to be tickled with sound at THAT moment with those tones? Suddenly it becomes less about the song or composition, and more about aural satisfaction.

SNR: I love what you said about the way an arrangement comes together and the way you hear frequencies. It reminds me of the way a mastering engineer listens. Process wise there's the traditional 1)track 2)mix 3)master work flow. But many have gone the route of simply working until it's done, tracking and mixing simultaneously and maybe even doing some mastering processes. Which way do you work?

L: I track and lightly mix as I go along, but fundamentally, I still go the traditional route, as it helps me focus on the project one part at a time. I think it’s the virgo in me trying to keep things organized and compartmentalized.

SNR: I also liked what you said about deciding to fill voids or not. Does that thought process extend to your engineering as well? For example my favorite thing to tell young mixers is that it's not what you boost but what you cut that makes a mix.

L: Oh, definitely! I think that’s great advice to give. I remember Jim McElwaine, at Purchase, used to tell us aspiring songwriters that the most important tool for any writer is their eraser. I feel this applies to all creativity–knowing when to take away and when to put things in. Electronic music reminds us of this in clubs, when they drop the bass and the pulse keeps going, and everyone keeps dancing about. But when they bring the bass back in, you get this surge of energy that’s palpable in the crowd: everyone starts jumping a little higher, dancing a little harder and shaking a little more.

SNR: What stories can you tell us about unplanned things that happened during the process that wound up affecting the final products? Were there any happy accidents?

L: My favorite happy accident happened while going through different sound patches on my trinity, looking to fill one of those “voids” in a song. I usually play a little note sequence with one hand while cycling through sounds with the other. I ran into a “guitar chucking” patch, when played in the range and in the pattern I was using, made what I thought was a really fun and unusual loop. It became the main rhythmic element for, “Other” in Ode to the Ego.

SNR: Do you have a favorite piece of gear (or plugin)? Something you wouldn't want to live without?

L: My Korg Trinity keyboard. It’s old, I know. I remember anticipating its release and hanging a poster of it in my practice room at purchase. It wasn’t until about two years after graduation that I finally got one with a trade and some cash down. To this day I love the patches it comes with, and the domino effect of inspiration it still triggers in me. Before I had a reliable DAW, I used to do all my music in the Trinity sequencer. I would do a mini mix, with panning and effects, then transfer the two-track mix to my computer and add vocals using ProTools LE and an SM58 microphone. My PowerMac tower had RCA stereo inputs. Many RadioShack audio adapters were used.

Check out “No Pain, No Gain”:
[Yes, do that... go ahead, we'll wait.]

SNR: Is there something you wish you had, real or imagined that you would love to have for your work? It doesn't need to be specific, like a DAW that does x, or a box that does y?

L: That’s a tough one. My brain seems to be wired with “do what you can with what you have” as you can tell from my previous story. There was a time when I was walking around with a cell phone, a palm pilot and an iPod thinking, “if only these can become one.” Then *poof* the iPhone came out.

Ok, the truth: I still have a Mackie mixing board. I’m aware of your Mackie, tattoo, Jon, so I’m here to bring it back up. I’ve never needed to upgrade (until recently), so I haven’t gotten a replacement. It’s gotten a bit noisy, and right now it’s just serving as a go-between my external sound modules to my audio interface. Even the little rubber feet are so old and gooey they leave marks everywhere. It’s so unreliable that I don’t event use it as a mix output to my speakers. I was eying the Onyx and the Zed series for a while, but there’s nothing I’ve run into yet that made me feel like, I NEED THAT RIGHT NOW! I’ve been doing everything in the box these days. I like to use things until I feel like I’ve outgrown them.

Ultimately, right now, I want a mixer with reliably good quality built-in audio interface, built in pre-amp and throw in a midi interface too in there while we're at it. I like minimizing my outboard gear as much as possible. There are a few options out there, but I remember the reviews being mostly mediocre so I gave up. Perhaps I should check again. Maybe I will get my cell phone-palm pilot-ipod wish once more.

SNR:What made you want to get into production? Was there a magic song or moment that triggered it?

L: At Purchase, I was taking a basic Studio Production class in my freshman year. My part of the project was going so poorly, I wanted to start all over but they wouldn’t allow that in the class due to the time constraints. So instead, I started “sneaking” into the studio to do it over on my own. As a freshman, the rules didn’t allow us to go in the 24-tk studio unattended. With the help and encouragement of a Junior-year engineer, Eric Helmuth, I went in and did it. I was so determined to get this done; in the end I couldn’t believe what all that effort produced. The process and the results were very satisfying. One time I got caught by the Chief Engineer at the time, he didn’t like me very much for whatever reason, and was furious. I didn’t let that get me down, though. I kept going, learning and doing. 
That's all for now, go check out Lucy's stuff and then come back and read this again, there's some real gold in there. Hit the comments section and add your thoughts to the mix. Maybe with a warm welcome we can get Lucy to come back another time. Till next time Brethren of the Knob and Fader, soak it all in and get back to work!

Friday, June 15, 2012

The first song...

Last night I went to an outdoor festival type show. A pretty typical setup, EAW line array, Yamaha digital desk, a mix of wedges and IEM monitors.  It was nice listening to music live and not be working, but I couldn't help but pay attention to how the headliner FOH engineer pulled his mix together.  It made me think back to the feverish first song process that we all encounter.

I'm assuming that he got a full soundcheck earlier in the day, and just recalled what he had. The band was a cool setup, with a solid drummer and bass player, keyboard player, horn player, and male and female vocalists, the male leading 95% of the time. 

The band started playing, and everything was tight. bass and drums were perfectly in sync, and mixed to prove it, the keys and horn player held down the melodies, and didn't fight each other. The lead vocalist started singing, and sat right on top. Things got a bit hairy when the girl jumped in, she really took over the mix. It was pretty obvious to me that she sandbagged in soundcheck, and now that it was show time, she was going all out, and was probably 9dB louder than soundcheck. 

Kudos to the FOH guy for not jumping on her channel and frantically pulling her back into balance, but smoothly brought her down while brining the lead up. It was a cool non panic move.  As the song progressed, i heard him dial in his verbs, and tweak them, and maybe some EQ changes on inputs, but really never straying from the bass/drum balance he had. That was his foundation, and he built nicely on it. 

As the show progressed, I could tell he was in his zone and was paying more attention to effects, vocal delays when needed, all while not taking his attention away from the vocal balance. He nailed it all night. That first song was key to get things situated, and ensure a solid show. 

Take time to go and be a punter at the local shows. In our area, there's free concerts with national acts happening Thurs-Sat, so when i have time, I go and check out not only some great bands, but some great engineers as well. Hopefully you can end up at a few in your area. Use your ears to learn their methods. After the show, offer congratulations on a job well done, and strike up a short conversation. Typically our little FOH guy club is pretty welcoming, and would love to shoot the breeze for a couple minutes before we have to go back to work and get the show back on the road. 

Have fun, good luck, and don't forget the sunscreen.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


I know we've been going down a pretty philosophical road here lately, and this being a pro audio blog I promise we'll get to some actual tech shortly. I just had one more idea for the moment and then I promise we'll get back to talking about compressors and stuff.

The idea is about how people work when there are limitations on them. Early multi-track recordings wound up with every bit of imaginable space filled up. Oddly enough, now that dozens or even hundres of tracks are available to anyone with a few bucks, it's odd that people will still cram them all full. It's human nature I guess.  But what if even though you've got a ton of space available, whether it's tracks in a studio or channels for a live mix, you were limited?

I've found that it's one of the greatest catalysts for creativity that there is. Sure it can lead to doing some pretty stupid things, like plugging a mic into a DI and sending it in through a short return. Not the greatest way to get that last input into the desk, but by giving the artists that last little thing they needed, the show went great.  I'm a big fan of happy accidents and you find less of them when you're not stretching. One quick example is what cool drum sounds you can get when you don't have a dozen inputs and a big box of mics available. See what you can do with three mics, with two... with one. I'm not sayin' that pinning a lav mic on a drummer and turning him loose is better than drugs, but remember where ya got that kid, the first one's free.

Coming into the business from a live mixing perspective I'm a little overwhelmed by the plugins that are out there. To this day if I want to throw another EQ or comp on something I have to go out and buy one (till I break down and buy a digital mixer anyway). I worked a lot of years with just eight channels of compression for a twenty-four channel mix, and half the time I only used five. To scale things up, I've got twenty channels where I work, but I still have to choose wisely because they're all I've got for forty-eight inputs and eight groups. Suddenly it doesn't seem like such a lot. Now step back and look at some great albums that were made with no plugins, heck, with no stinkin' outboard gear! The first Boston record barely had and EQ on it! The right sounds were found by taking the time and finding the right mic and the right place to put it.

It doesn't always have to be about cutting back either. Although that's what I would recommend if you're going to limit yourself on purpose. But to put it in the opposite light, what if you're recording a four piece band and decide to put five instruments on every song. Now you're in a room full of guys that are suddenly working outside of their norms. Sure, you could wind up with a dud of an album with too much tambourine. But on the other hand that one simple mental exercise could open up a whole new world of creativity. Musicians pursuing new instruments and arrangements, the engineer and producer figuring out how to make it all work. It gets me excited just thinking about it.

So that's it for philosophy for a bit. Don't forget to hit the comment section if you have something to add, we won't bite, we promise. And check out the podcasts. There's a new one every week and if you supply the topics, we'll supply the witty chatter. Till tomorrow Brethren of the Knob and Fader... make the box a little smaller, then think outside of it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Are You A Hacker?

The term hacker was first used to denote nefarious software engineers, bent on breaking into sensitive computer systems and stealing. As time has passed though the DIY movement has picked up the term and used it in a positive light to apply to anyone who likes to get at the innards of things and "hack" them into something better. The term is used along side of friendlier terms like "maker" and "DIY-er".

I was recently given an old iPhone that had a few issues. I started searching the net for solutions and realized after a few wrong turns how disgusted I was by all the posts that just said, "You should take it in to the Apple store and let a Genius fix it for you." A few minutes later I was happily peeling away stickers that said "Do Not Remove" and getting my problem fixed. I then went on to jailbreak it, hack it to work with my pre-paid service, and start adding functionality to taste.

It got me to thinking about what a bunch of hackers people in our line of work are. How often have you had a problem with a piece of gear and not had a second thought as you whip out your Leatherman to take the cover off and see if you can pot the trouble? No? You're missing out then. The more you work on your own stuff, the more you learn about how it works and the better you're able to use it. I've been playing around with electronics my whole life, and the things I've learned have come in handy time and time again.

Bad jack? Replace it. Bad power cable? Replace it. Even better? Replace it with a locking IEC connector. Bad DI? Fix it, add a pad and a summing switch. The possibilities are endless. Guitar players have a whole world to explore, modding amplifiers and pedals, or building them from scratch. And when things get a little too scary? You could wimp out and call tech support... or you could get a hold of someone who knows more than you and learn what you need to know.  

You might be a little nervous tearing in to some highly complex piece of gear. But with a little know-how, even if they problem is beyond you, you can still identify a board that needs to be replaced or at least take some notes to pass on to the repair shop. Guest poster Evan Stoddard has learned his lessons the hard way as you can see from This Post has no fear of getting his hands dirty and whether a project or a fix works out or not, he's always learning and always hungry to tear into the next one.

The point is Brethren of the Knob and Fader, don't be afraid of what's inside your gear. Audio equipment is all the same, it's just gain stages, filters, and signal routing. These concepts started out simple a hundred years ago, though they have gotten more complex, they're still just that simple at the heart. Learn your tech.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sound Effects

Now that things are rolling on Project Movie I'm starting to get the wheels turning on what I'm going to do for sound design. Which brings me back to some territory that I haven't visited for a while. When I work in theatre these days, it's usually for a school or community theatre group. These can be tiny productions on kitchen table sized stages, on up to productions with budgets of $50,000 or more in 1200 seat auditoriums. In either case, there's typically not a lot of sound effect work for me. Usually just what's called for in the script and if I'm lucky there will be time to add a pinch or two of SFX magic.

When I was in college I had a lot more time on every student run production. We usually started production meetings about twelve weeks out. The directors there weren't just pointing out SFX that were called for in the script. In fact, if I was going to go ahead and do those, they usually wanted to hear why I thought we should use them, justify them as being able to enhance the experience. There was also a lot of room to do things like add atmospherics. We were most often working in a black box theatre that was set up in the round. 
I would get to do things like fly in flamenco guitar tracks or night sounds. Surround sound speaker setups were a possibility. On one show I recreated the start of a WWII bombing using eleven positions and subs under the seats (11.1 enthusiasts eat your heart out, that was in 1998!) In that same show I had a piano on stage that had to be played by a real musician and also "played" by an actor who couldn't carry a tune in a road case. Other sound designers were using things like the hiss of ovens in a kitchen that grew to a disproportionate roar as the show got more intense. 

The point is, sound design can and should be more than just the "practicals".  Those are the sounds that you would expect to hear in the normal course of life. In a movie that's things like foley, footsteps, door slams, car bys, and so on. In the theater it can be even more heavy handed than that. In Beauty and the Beast a character hawks into a spittoon in the middle of a song. It was funny when I flew in a "ding" with my sampler, but even funnier when a musician in the pit hit a note on the bells. There was a definite design decision involved there. I never use effects when I'm in the theatre, but there was one instance in Jesus Christ, Superstar when Judas shouts and I threw a triple tap, long delay on his last syllables. "I... don't... KNOW HIM!.... KNOW HIM!... Know Him!... know him..." It was powerful.  Going back to Beauty and the Beast I did a trick with the actors' mics where just the beast was routed to the subs as well as the tops. He had this extra presence, especially when he growled. So now that I've given away all my best tricks let's move on.

When you set out to create a set of effects for a show, or movie, or commercial or whatever... there's a real temptation to just grab one of those bundles of CDs with "1000 Awesome Sound Effects!". I'll cop to owning a half dozen of these myself, but I almost never use them unless it's a last minute scenario, and even then I'll heavily edit them. What's better by far is to go out and make your own. Something like an elephant might be tricky, but if there's a zoo nearby, you spend the day near the elephants waiting for a good bellow. With the advent of better quality hand held memory recorders it's getting easier all the time to go and get the stuff you need. 
(BTW there can also be copyright issues with CD sound effects. There is free stuff on the net but it's junk. There are also professionally produced libraries that you can license clips from for different prices depending on what you're producing. The point is, DON'T STEAL!)

The real trick is to find the effects you need in the stuff you have around you. I needed a sound for a huge steam driven contraption driving on stage once. The prop itself was a rubber wheeled cart with a cardboard superstructure. No sound coming from it at all, not even a squeaky wheel bearing. I needed the effect in a hurry so I grabbed my laptop and started walking. Half an hour later I was cutting together the sounds of a bicycle air pump, an old film projector, some pots and pans being hit with a crowbar and a few random bumps and bangs. In five more minutes I had a clanking, squeaking, hissing steam buggy sound. There's a great documentary piece that has a few minutes in the middle about the SFX from Star Wars. There's hardly a time when I do sound effects when I don't think about Ben Bova tapping a telephone pole guy wire with a wrench and that becoming the sound of the blasters.

This is getting to be pretty long so I think I'll lay it to rest for a while. But stay tuned Brethren of the Knob and Fader. As Project Movie and the summer theatre season progress there are sure to be lots more ideas to float around. While you're waiting, why don't you share some of your own experiences.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Be A Stand Up Guy

If you read the tech blogs, lately you've been seeing a lot about stand up desks. It seems the office dwellers are finally catching on. It's something we audio nerds have known forever. Working standing up is a great idea. I hardly ever take a seat when I'm mixing, even on long gigs. Standing keeps you more alert and keeps your metabolism from slumping.

There are a few things you should do as far as ergonomics go. Making sure you set up your mix at a good height, so you're not slouching to reach the faders is the key thing. You want to be able to stand up nice and straight and have the console within easy reach. It's good if you have a mat to stand on too. The ones you see in machine shops and commercial kitchens are great. Those are the ones with the big round perforations and they're like walking on a cloud.  Failing that, you should have something handy to put one foot up on. It can be as low as a chunk of 2x4 or as big as a tool box. The point is to alternate putting one foot up. It keeps your spine happier and gives your knees a break.

In the office things can be a little trickier. There are companies out there making automated desks that jump up to the height you want when you want to work standing. That's a bit much. For my desk at work I just got a nice looking portable file box. Most of the day I leave it on the desk with my laptop on it. When I come in to look something up or so a quick email check, if I don't sit down I'm less likely to get stuck in front of the screen and go back to what I was doing.  It's a little more difficult if you've got a desktop computer but if you search around there are plenty of low cost or even DIY solutions to move your monitor, keyboard and mouse as needed.

For the studio cats, this isn't such an easy trick. Spending twelve or more hours at the helm can really do a number on your back and other joints, as well as slow down your metabolism. That makes it harder to maintain a good level of concentration and can even make it harder to keep extra weight off. Everything I've read recommends taking a five minute break about every hour. You don't have to do much, take a spin up and down the hall, run to your car, or just stay in the control room and do some stretches. Breaks are suggested even more frequently for your eyes. Taking a minute or two every half hour and staring at something far away can do wonders for preventing eye strain. 

Ergonomics aren't something that people in our business think about very often. But when you look around at the old timers, you can see just what kind of aches and pains you'll be in for if you don't watch it when you're younger. I can speak from experience. You don't give your back a moment of thought until something bad happens, then it's all you ever think about. Save yourself some grief and think about it a little before you have a bulging disc or a pinched nerve.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

SNR Podcast #9 - The Concept

This week I had my good friend and former room mate Matt Dacey back via Skype (which let us down this time) to talk about a technique for developing ideas we learned while studying theatre tech at SUNY Purchase. The Concept (proper noun) was a three paragraph document that helped you figure out where you're going with a design. We've both taken it out into areas other than theatre and found it incredibly useful.

If you haven't got time to listen there's a brief post on the same topic from last week: The Concept

When the Skype connection quit, I got frequent contributor Karl Maciag to come down and finish up by talking about how we implement this technique both consciously and unconsciously in our work as sound engineers. As always, below the YouTube stream is a link to an MP3 if you prefer listening that way.

If you'd like to suggest a topic or join us for a podcast, in person or via Skype, just drop us a line.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Lessons? from the road...

First off, let me apologize for my recent ghost like behavior with the blog and podcasts. I assure you all that you'll be able to hear my nonsense, and not just read it very soon.  Thankfully Jon is always prepared for when things don't always pan out the way we planned....

Jon asked me if I was going to write about last weekend, and the adventures I was on with Brothers McClurg. I didn't think I would, but I guess I am. It was pretty eventful, and I learned stuff along the way.

Our Friday night event was cancelled due to weather, so we headed down the road to our Saturday event, which was nice, because it meant an early arrival, we would rehearse at a local church, have a relaxed dinner, and watch some TV, and actually be in bed before midnight. It was turning out to be a very nice turn of events....then...BANG! along with the worst type of shaking you can experience in a vehicle without tipping over.  We lost the rear end and drive shaft of our shuttle bus. Then it started to rain. Thankfully our friends in New Holland, PA were able to send a couple of cars and a truck to pull our trailer, to get us to our hotel. The bus was towed, and we've left it for dead/scrap. So much for rehearsing, and a nice fun dinner.  These things happen. move on. After a late dinner, and feeling like a drowned rat for several hours, I got a hot shower, and off to bed.

Saturday was a great day, had a great event, no problems, great crowd, absolutely perfect. Paul, our FOH guy had a great show was well and even got the attention of someone from Tait Towers who really liked the way he mixed. I'm so happy that I can rely on him to take care of getting sound up and running, which leaves me to tinkering with my guitar. The local guys at the event, Chuck, and John, as always were prepared and ready for whatever we threw at them. Lesson #1, make yourself invaluable to whoever you are working for. It's a load off my mind with other TM responsibilities to know I have that guy out there making everything pretty.  Which leads to lesson #2:  Knowing when to let go, and let the person run with it. Have I ever doubted my FOH guys abilities? No. But I definitely made sure to check on things, and talk with him during and after soundcheck to be sure things are in good shape.  Now our conversations revolve more around very specific details of the mix...what does the guitar sound like? Does that new vocal mic help with the harsh "sh" sounds we had before? How are the keys and acoustic guitar interacting to fill the space they need to?  Is he using delay effects on this song, and what does it sound like?  If you're running a venue, own a system, or managing a band and have people working for you, make sure you let them run with things and take ownership of it. Micro-managing your crew will only burn ALL of you out. Being a team is trusting the other guys to do their part.

Thankfully we all had a team attitude this weekend, which very quickly could have turned sour, given the state of things. Instead, it took all of 5 minutes to be laughing about the situation, and moving forward with a plan to get going again. Hopefully you all have smooth sailing, but when it gets rough, I hope you surround yourself with people who are going to get you on track quickly. Have fun, stay safe everyone!

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Concept

Hat tip to Matt Dacey who got me rolling on this, thanks for bringing back the memories.
The first five minutes of my college education got me started down a road that would forever shape the way I thought creatively. Design Fundamentals was boot camp for visual arts. Not so much in the way of teaching us to draw and paint although it did that as well, but more in how we perceived what we saw and communicated visually. I was able to translate the lessons learned there when I went into audio work and they have never failed me.

The cornerstone was "the concept". This was an actual piece of paper on which you formally stated your design intentions. It was to be brief, a second page was not even an option. Just three paragraphs, as short as they could be and still be effective. Here's how it went.

Concept - This was the most basic, boiled down, simplified essence of the play.  I say play because that was the medium we theatre kids were working on. You try to capture the mood, the feel, the plot, message, psychology and whatever else there is and describe it in a paragraph.

Image - You then come up with a visual that captures that essence. The one you got right out of the gate was "a rose blooming through ice". You'll see how it works in a minute. The idea is to bridge the gap between the intellectual first paragraph and the physical third paragraph.

Implementation - Now you convert the image into what you will actually do on stage. Maybe everyone on the show is using the same basic concept and the block of ice is a hard angular set, augmented with cool blue lighting and costumes that follow suit. Then as things heat up the lighting changes color, layers of costume come away revealing warmer colors underneath, and the rose... blooms.

That's just one way of going about it. In other countries (I'm told) there are seven and even ten step processes that are gone through before anyone ever puts pen to paper to start designing. But sticking with this one, here's how I've gone on to use it in my work in sound.

Back when I was recording garage bands I would try to get them to come up with a concept. Something simple, a phrase or an image that we could hold on to while we tried to make a bunch of songs into an album. The first time I tried it I got, "Dude, we just wanna sound like Godsmack." for a reply. At least it was something. You can see though how it can really help ground you when you're trying to get a lot of different elements together under one roof.

Working in community theatre I don't often have the luxury of weeks of planning. I get a day to load in, a day of tech, two dress rehearsals and we're live. I do what I can to prep but each cast is so unique that I like to wait and see what each one brings me. Then I zoom in on each character. I can do things to beef them up or whittle them down, make them warm and attractive or cold and unlovable, just by changing what I do with EQ.

Whether it's mixing a metal band or a worship service, I always try to take just a few seconds and go through that three step process in my mind. I don't always come up with a specific image and the concept isn't always very deep, but it's something to go on. I come up with the implementation on the fly, but it can be informed by the concept I came up with early on. As I'm deciding how to EQ guitars I'm helping them be "angry" or "buttery" depending on my thoughts about the band.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm hoping to do a whole podcast on the subject, and in fact got started on one but didn't finish because we couldn't keep a Skype connection up. For now though Brethren of the Knob and Fader, I encourage you to adopt the practice. The more you think about your work and the better and quicker you get at it, the better the results will be.