Saturday, October 20, 2012

How Do You Listen?

I just heard a great quote from Bruce Swedien, something he heard from one of his mentors long ago. "Don't listen to your equipment, listen through your equipment." Just let that wash over you for a couple seconds before you go on.

That statement immediately hit home with me because that's exactly how I've been doing things for as long as I can remember. When I put up a channel and start listening to the sound, be it live or in the studio, I'm sort of picturing my ear out near the source and comparing what the mic is hearing to what I know the source sounds like. The practice assumes that you've had a chance to hear the source yourself but after a while you can kind of fake it, especially if you know your gear.

The key to getting great sound isn't truckloads of expensive gear. It's the ears of the person using it, and what's in between those ears processing the experience. I'm able to make eyebrows go up with some of the stuff I do because people expect high buck gear to be the cause. More often than not it's some hundred dollar mic that I know like an old friend. 

It also has to do with a lot more than just the mic and it's placement. Everything between that mic and the final product has an effect on the sound. The cable, channel trim, EQ, fader position, dynamic processing. I remember one time in a studio in college one of the studio guys (I was the one "live" guy in the program, faking my way through) was looking at the meters on my kick and snare channels from a live recording I had done. He couldn't believe the isolation I had gotten and was pressing me for my tricks. My answer was simple, I know my gear and I know where to put the gain to it.

Taking that thought process a little deeper there's so much depth to analog gear but it can also be somewhat of a trap. Many engineers have favorite channels on old analog desks. There were definite practices about what you put on each track of a tape, depending on how close to the edge it was. Room temperature could effect things. Manufacturing processes of mics weren't as tight. One might sound amazing while the vast majority of the same model were only so-so. 
You might think that in the age of the plug in a lot of that magic is going away, but I can tell you that the reliability and repeatability that the digital age brings is a huge benefit. Every time you pull up a plug it's going to sound how you know it should sound and that you don't have to worry about tolerances in components, the unit overheating, corrosion on contacts. The magic can happen every time. There's also the ability to push plug ins to places that physical gear could never go, limitations that you never have to worry about.

With that said though you still have to know the stuff inside and out and you can read all you want but the only way to do that is to spend the time with it. You also have to make the decisions about how you use your resources. If you only have one Pultec you've got to think carefully about how you're going to use it. If you can plunk one down on every channel with a plug in, that's great but you still need to decide every time you do it like it's the only one you have. Is it worth it? Will it help? Should I just leave it alone?

It's a lot to think about. To the Brethren of the Knob and fader though it's what's running through our minds day and night. At least for me I know it is.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Smart 2 Noise Playlist #3: Wake Up!

Until a couple years ago, I refused to listen to any kind of hip-hop at all. I haven't really moved on from that too much. However, there is one group in particular that I just can't seem to stop listening to. The Roots. I knew who they we're but really didn't know anything about them. I just knew they we're a hip hop group. Then I saw them on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and discovered that they weren't your typical hip hop schmucks. They actually played instruments. There is some sampled stuff in there, but really, almost every rock album has something sampled in it now, as well. It's a fair trade I think.

I chose to start off with this album, because it's a really neat collaboration with John Legend, and the groove from front to back on this album is bad ass. I don't really know how to describe it, other than that. Unless you're born without some kind of soul and groove, you can't help but moving a little when the first track on this album hits. I understand that most white people have a problem with groove. It's a phenomenon I don't quite understand, but man, can black people groove. My wife asks me fairly regularly if I know that I'm a white guy born in the 80's, not a black guy born in the 60's or 70's. A lot of times I wish it were the latter. Coincidentally, the only white guy in The Roots (at the time the album was recorded, since 2011, Owen Biddle has left to pursue his solo career) played bass. He sure doesn't sound like a tall skinny white guy when he plays.

Back to the album.

This came out back in 2010. The whole premise of the album was to cover a whole bunch of old Vietnam era protest songs. They also wanted to stay away from the more mainstream songs, so that they felt a little more free to change arrangements, and not be criticized for it. Honestly, I had no idea that they we're all covers (except Shine, which was in the movie 'Waiting for Superman' which is actually a really good movie about the educational system) and I didn't find out until I had listened to the album everyday for about 5 months. I really wasn't that upset about it either. There have been a lot of songs that are covered, that I just can't stand. It seems that most of the covers are the covering artist trying to prove that they can record or play the original song better than the original artist. 

I've read some pretty mixed reviews of the album, saying that it was either a great rearranging of these songs, or that, it was awful and that they must not have had anything better to do other than destroy some old songs. I personally think the album is great, and without it, I never would've started getting into Bill Withers. The Roots bring an amazing neo R&B feel to this, and I think John Legend, did a pretty good job with the vocals. They made the songs different enough to make them their own. There's no way I could listen to this and say that JL and The Roots didn't record this. An excerpt from AllMusic states "The source material will be unfamiliar to the average fan of the artists." That pretty much sums it up. 

The album was recorded digitally, but has a really great organic feel to it. It almost feels live, especially the Bill Withers track 'I Can't Write Left Handed'. It sounds like the group in a nice live room, all just playing. That tends to be a lot of what I appreciate in recordings. I like to hear mistakes from time to time, and it to all flow together. 

The one track I really want to dig into is titled "Compared to What" originally written by Eugene McDaniels. 

The song starts out with a tight little groove, some Rhodes, organ and some guitar, bass and horns drop in before the vocals kick in. The verses are all pretty laid back, just carrying a groove, to give the vocals a chance to open up, and the lyrics to be discernible,  even though he sings a little quieter, and dirtier. As soon at the chorus kicks in, ?uestlove kicks in a nice little jazz groove on drums, and Owen Biddle rips into a seriously nasty grooving bass line. As soon as I heard it I went over to grab my bass and learn it. It took me a little while, because translating what he did on a six string bass, onto a four string wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. Mostly because of him, I am in the process of designing my own 6 string bass out of some gorgeous 80 year old clear peruvian wood, that my mother in law has sitting around. 

I still love listening to this song, even though it doesn't have as much of a punch as some of the other tracks on the album, JL's voice really pumps the energy into the chorus. Also, the sax solo is great. It's a little basic to start out with, but it gives that instrumental just what it needs. 

Below is a live version of this song, which is even funkier than the album version. I highly recommend watching it in HD if you can. The SubKick really comes through, along with the horn section, that way. 

Hope you guys have a chance to check this album out.

Also, if you're bored and have nothing better to do follow me on Twitter @AnthKosobucki
I promise some sort of interesting and amusing audio nerd speak

Basic Equipment

Anyone who's been mixing live sound for a while has run into a venue that's lacking some critical gear. The church with just a mixer amp and some pole speakers, the school with an aging console, an amp and a couple Shure Vocalmaster boxes from the Sixties. They're out there. And they suck.

The problem is that the people responsible for the systems, that is, the money going into the systems think they have  a complete setup and don't see the need to spend on anything else. So you wind up with these places that probably don't have stellar talent on stage (reads: difficult to mix) and don't have all the pieces they need to make it easier. That's three strikes and it means a lot of people have to sit through a lot of events that could sound a lot better.

So what's needed beyond the basic equipment required to pass signal from a mic or playback through a pair of speakers pointed at the audience? 

It's a deal breaker. While you do hear a pro talk about a great gig where "the graphs were flat" or they "could have left the EQ at home", those are far and away the exception and not even the least bit close to being the rule. EQ comes in two forms, the kind used to shape sound to be more esthetically pleasing, and the kind used to correct for room acoustics. The kind you find on a console is the former, unless the desk has graphic EQ built into the master section and even then they're usually far from adequate.
So when the person holding the purse strings gets a complaint or a request, if they know anything at all about sound they probably think, "Well, the board has EQ built into it, why should we buy more?" Well, with a channel of graphic EQ for each output of the console (mains, fills, monitors, etc) you can remove frequencies that are likely to feed back and make other adjustments like possibly adding some lows for warmth in a cold sounding room. That leaves the EQs on the channels free to be used to tailor each  specific input so it can sound its best.

The bottom line: for less than $150 you can pick up a used two channel, thirty-one band equalizer and patch it into your mains. People could argue that cheap gear will degrade your sound and cause phase issues. Those same people will probably wail just as loudly in the absence of any system EQ. Spend the money.

Dynamic processing (compressors, gates, expanders, etc) are a little bit more tricky. Something simple like a limiter to prevent amplifier overload will likely be built in to more modern equipment but on older systems where it's even more necessary you'll have to bring your own. With a little investment and a little math you can set things up so no matter how hard you flog the outputs, your amps won't clip and blow your speakers. (It's a little more complicated than that but that's the basics).
For everything else though, "set it and forget it" isn't really possible. The most basic setup for adding dynamic processing would be to have a couple channels around for problem inputs like a podium mic or the lavs used on the leads in the school play. Slightly more complex is the use of a channel of compression on each sub group so you can have specialized settings for vocals, instruments, wireless, etc. But for the second scenario you need operators who understand routing and for both the ops need to know how to run a compressor.

The lessons can be short and one could even print out an instruction card and what do do and what to look and listen for. Again the investment isn't a big one. For around that same $150 you can add four channels of compression and gating to a rig. But with multi-use rooms like churches and schools and no guarantee that the op will ever even look at the comps it can be pretty hard to convince the money men (or women) to pony up the dough.

What can help your argument?
Doing a demo will likely be the only way to convince people that you know what you're talking about.  The simple act of patching in some sub comps and showing an op how to route through them and use the threshold and ratio knobs can take a Sunday service or school production from a jagged, ear fatigue causing experience, to one where the sound is much more transparent and easy to listen to. 

Finding a way to take care of the educational aspect is another big step. Providing written instructions, links to websites and offering (or even requiring) training is the way to go about it. The people learning don't need a golden ear, just the ability to read lights on a meter and turn a couple knobs to attain a result. It's not the most ideal situation, but I'd much rather listen to a show produced in that manner than one with no processing at all.

The last thing you can do is go with the "Well everybody else is doin it" argument. Every piece of media that crosses our paths these days has compression on it. YouTube videos, streaming audio, DVDs, CDs, and especially TV and radio are all heavily processed for one reason or another. Jumping on the band wagon produces a sound that's more consistent with what people are used to hearing. 

So Brethren of the Knob and Fader, there's a few steps you can take to make some inroads on those Three Strike venues out there.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sometimes, you need some help

I know this is a little off topic from what our blog usually is. But, I feel that this is something that I should at least say, so that it's out there. 

A couple of days ago I found out that someone I used to work with in music, and day job setting had overdosed, and died. He was a great guy, always gave good advice, was always there if you needed him to be. I had lost touch with him over the last couple years. I moved, jobs changed, just general life type stuff happened. 

He had battled with hard drugs for awhile. As long as I've known him actually, he was almost always into something. He went to N.A. and completed the program, and was doing well, from what I had heard. 

Then a few things got the best of him, and he got back into what had gotten him in trouble before. That's really all I know. I haven't been able to get into contact with anyone who was too close to him, to find out any specifics. Just what I found on Facebook. 

What I want to put out there is that, no matter how much you think you're in control, and can take care of yourself, sometimes you just can't. Bad situations can arise, and you're left essentially helpless.

I've had my own struggles with this as well. I was addicted to cocaine, opiates, prescription pills, and was a boarder line alcoholic, by the time I was 18, and lived that life for awhile. I'm truly surprised that I was never committed anywhere. 

But, there is help out there. A.A. and N.A. and other support groups are around, and have been around for a long time for a reason. Sometimes you just need someone to talk to, to straighten you out, or to make sure you're staying clean. In this line of work, it seems that there's just a constant over flow of booze, drugs, and anything else you can imagine. It's hard to keep yourself clean sometimes, trust me. After parties were the worst offender for me in particular. When it comes down to it, it's just not worth losing your life over. It may not seem like it, at the time, but there's always a way out. And, there can always be a brighter road ahead, if you're willing to look for it. I got my act together, got a real job, got married, and have a nice place to live in now. I couldn't of done that by myself, no matter how strong I thought I was. Jon and my wife are the two main reasons I'm still alive today. They helped me out, called me out when they needed to, and I've been clean for over 4 years now. 

I apologize if this strikes anyone the wrong way, I'm certainly not trying to talk down to, or condemn anyone, because I know that never makes any situation better, it only makes it worse. But please, at least try and give yourself a fighting chance. I promise now, that, we'll get back to some audio nerd speak, and I'll try and stay a little more on topic from now on.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Lighting Mishap

So I just got some new LED fixtures in at work and set out to get them incorporated in the rig. At T-minus two hours to show time I was having no luck getting them to receive DMX and while poking around in the console I managed to shift into some mode that when I shifted back redistributed all the dimmer patches. Evenly. Across all the channels.

There wasn't time to panic so I went to the disc and found that the last time I had saved a show was over a year ago. A lot had changed since then but at least the house lights would be in there and that would save locating two dozen patches. From there on out my scant paperwork was all I had to go on. I was able to get about two thirds of what was left from three different scraps of paper I found in the pile on my desk. The rest I just had to go through in dimmer check mode and fill in.

With that out of the way there was time for a quick pause to go outside and scream. Then it was right back to the console to get some cues in place before people started to arrive. I built half a dozen basic looks and saved them as low number cues, then pulled them up and changed them to fit the needs of the upcoming service.

Then I saved the show. Twice. Fortunately I have a box of old school 1.44 MB discs squirreled away in case of just such an emergency. So. If you're in the same boat as me, a sound guy also pulling duty as a lighting guy. Save your stuff frequently and keep some sort of paperwork around in case that doesn't work out. In this instance I had enough time and enough to go on to put my show back together before anyone got there (it even looked better after I was done), but you can't always count on catastrophe having respect for your schedule.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

SNR Podcast #24 - 10/14/2012 - Effects

Sorry for dropping off the face of the Earth again, production schedules wait for no man and sometimes the blog has to go on the back burner. We're back though with another podcast and we spent most of the hour talking about various effects, their origins, and their uses in live and studio sound. Topics abound for future posts and podcasts so stay tuned, although next week we may not be able to meet to record so we may try to work some contacts to do a Skype interview. As always you can check it out on YouTube or use the MP3 link below to stream or save for later.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

SNR Playlist #2 - Appetite For Destruction

Anthony Kosobucki
OK kids, I got a lot of sentimental crap out of the way last week. Here is where it gets more musical and less touchy feely, I hope. 

This weeks selection is Appetite For Destruction. You all know it, whether you love or hate it, I don’t really care. There is really no other guitar player for me, to top Slash. The rest of the musicians are marginal at best, but they put out an enormous project back in ’87. It topped charts, and to date has sold roughly 18 million albums in the states, and close to 30 million through the entire world. (As a side note, John Cougar Mellencamp was going by just John Cougar in ’87) 

Anyways, music had a pretty good spread that year, Joshua Tree came out, Prince’s Sign O the Times came out, but so did Cher’s self titled album, and Michael Bolton probably put some garbage out too.

Anyways, the 80’s had a much less static economy, and people would be more willing to lay it all on the line for music. So you have a group of kids about my age (24) who had played in bands for awhile, but nothing ever really stuck. Then, finally, they just kind of struck gold. Yeah they worked and played their asses off to get noticed, but I know I’ll get too consumed going through that whole story. 

So you’ve got some guys, who want to play some rock n roll. They can write some good songs, and some good music. Axl’s voice is questionable at best, but it almost gives the music a nastier, grittier side than someone like Whitney Houston would. It was a good collaboration all around. Then you throw in some sex, drugs and booze and really make it authentic *SNR does not condone illegal activity* and you have an immortal album. Clearly that stuff doesn’t always work, but it seemed to be a good starting point back then.

Tech Stuff:
Back when AfD came out, stuff was analog. No plugins, auto tune, or beat detective. Real, live music. They recorded it at some fantastic places, which unfortunately don’t have websites for me to link to, so everyone can drool at them. They were all around Los Angeles; Can-Am, Rumbo, and Take One. Then shipped to New York City for edits and mixing, then it went toSterling Sound for mastering. I feel like that’s an important name for everyone to be familiar with.

Anyways, tape. Tape and a razor blade.  Knock it off emo kids, razors used to be for work, not to make sure everyone knows you’re depressed. Long days, long nights. the album took about 4 months of work. I can’t vouch to say it was full time every day, but, if you’ve ever been in a real studio, it’s like being in a casino. You never know what time it is, and you don’t really care. Especially if you’re not the one footing the bill. 

They spent the time, and made some magic. I’m sure Mike Clink had his work cut out for him when he was in the studio. 

As much as I would like to wander off on some etherial gear rant, the truth is that I don’t know a whole ton of the tech end of this album. Other than good engineering, and mix and master. But, that all kind of comes back to what we’re trying to do, doesn’t it? We all want our stuff to come out great, and if you’ve got good stuff coming in, you’re going to have good stuff coming out.

Music Side/Album Voodoo:
-So, a lot of people know that Slash didn’t actually play a real Gibson Les Paul on this record. What I didn’t know a lot about was the guy who built it. His name was Kris Derrig, a pretty hippie looking guy, who played, built guitars and was a hair stylist. Not too bad for a hippie. He made some great guitars, and unfortunately died of cancer at the age of 32.

-When vinyl albums were pressed they had an A, and a B side. What was different with Appetite, was that there was a G and an R side. The G(uns) side was the side with songs about problems with police, rock and roll, drugs and drinking. The R(oses) side was all the “softer” stuff about girls and sex. I feel like a lot of the songs could really go either way. 

-Nightrain was written about cheap wine. Somthing like $2.00 for a jug, which when they were broke, they drank a lot of.  It’s also my favorite song on the album. I really dig the dual lead/rhythm approach to song writing. Especially in a ballsy song like that. And I don’t care what anyone says, the use of cowbell in this song is way better than Don’t Fear the Reaper. And I love Christopher Walken. When you listen to the song, especially the solo section, you can hear the diva side of Slash come out. I don’t know if he had any part in the mixing of it, but, Izzy’s solo is panned hard left, but as soon as Slash comes in, he’s almost dead center. For almost everything else on the album, it’s pretty much the same. Izzy left, Slash right. Until he starts soloing.

Next, I think Paradise City gets looked at in a few different ways, and here is my version of it. They were hair metal/glam rock, or whatever you want to call it. They loved girls and drugs, and drinking. This was a killer era for metal, and I think the last couple minutes of the song is essentially Slash saying, "Oh yeah? Think I can't play fast enough for you?" and then shredding the end of the song out. No he's not Dave Mustaine or Kirk Hammet, but at least you can distinguish all the notes that he's playing. And it still sounds like a coherent thought, instead of just seeing how many notes you can fit into a phrase. I also think it's pretty impressive that at almost seven minutes long, the song doesn't really get boring, Hell, after 3 minutes of a song on the top 40, I usually just turn the damn thing off. I actually disconnected the antenna in my car for almost 3 years. It was great.

I dig the fact that there's really only one slow song on the album. Sweet Child O Mine. It's not all that slow either, just their one obligatory ballad per album. I find it funny that the one oddball song on the album is what made them the most money. I'm almost positive that if you asked someone the first thing that comes to mind when you say "Guns N Roses" it will be Sweet Child O Mine.

This album is clearly more mainstream than the last album I wrote about. Thats not necessarily a bad thing. There is usually a reason that music becomes pop music. Then there's an added staying factor, which this album has. I know this type of music isn't everyones cup of tea, and it certainly isn't a record I would use to tune a room. But, if you're ever looking for something to give you some inspiration for recording and playing rock music, I think this could be a pretty good thing to have around.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

SNR Podcast #23 - 10/7/2012 - Dear SNR

This week Hosts Jon Dayton and Anthony Kosobucki are joined by panel member Gordon Wood to go over some of the questions brought in recently by readers and listeners. We covered some of the same ground that was covered in the articles we posted but there was plenty to keep us busy for an hour. As always you can take in the YouTube stream right here or use the MP3 link below to stream or save it for later. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Project Movie: Part 5 - First Shoots

I've been detailing the progress on a movie project that the church where I work has been doing. The previous posts can be found with this link. We finally got under way with shooting in the middle of September but this is the first chance I've gotten to sit down and write about the experience.

All though the summer we went through script revisions, location scouting, casting and some rehearsals. The first production weekend we scheduled for four days with about twelve hours on site each day.  The first day unfortunately got scheduled right on top of an out of town gig that I had scheduled months before. That complicated things a little but with some fast figuring I managed to come up with enough gear to cover it all.

I had to get a friend to come and mix church for me because the intern who would have covered was out doing location sound in my place. It was a little nerve wracking to turn a nineteen year old kid loose with Reaper and the new MOTU interface for the first time but it all went great and he brought home some good audio. The only glitch from the first day was that a lot of set up footage was shot without audio so I spent a couple days in the editing bay recreating the sounds of the environment, down to footsteps and fabric swishes. The other big challenge that day was getting the whole shoot crammed inside a bus and not have any loose ends sticking into the frame. But they did it.

The location for Day Two was at the house of a church member. It was about the best setup I could have hoped for having been on the road half the night and also having caught a cold. The only spot for me that was off camera was in the corner of a sectional sofa. So I sat there all day, nursing a DayQuil cocktail and getting the takes. There was a little trouble with the radio mics that we had pinned on the actors. Changing frequencies helped but didn't completely eliminate the occasional buzz. Fortunately we got all the takes we needed in the clear. The only other thing bothering us that day was that the room and boom mics that we were using were good enough to pick up the refrigerator. The host family graciously located the breaker and shut it down for us.

Day three was an outdoor shoot. The first scenes we shot were in a parking lot so I was able to power up my whole rig from an inverter in my van. Midway through the morning though we moved to a more remote spot and it was battery only. I switched from the MOTU 896mk3 to a little ART USB interface that was bus powered. With that I was able to phantom power a pair of condenser mics. While I was able to capture everything, environmental noise, especially from the wind that picked up make most of the audio useless and is going to require additional dialogue recording (ADR) at a later date back in the editing bay.

On Day Four we took over a co-worker's house. Not only did they have the place showroom ready, but they also bravely turned over their infant son to be in the film. Lucky for us he seemed quite willing to cry and settle down almost on cue so he got through his scenes without too much stress. The biggest issues on that day were hard surfaces giving us too much room sound on all the mics. Likely some ADR will be needed on that footage too. A few other things didn't cooperate, like a couple of stairs that would creak nicely and a couple that seemed to go off like gun fire. A little more careful editing should take care of those though.

All that happened nearly three weeks ago. In the time since there have been three more weekends of shooting along with all the usual day job stuff that we have to get through every week. That's why it's taken so long to get anything posted about the project. Stay tuned for more though. I've been spending hours in the wood shed, editing dialogue and pasting together sound effects.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Brush With Greatness

Every now and again sound guys will get to swapping tales about big acts they've worked for. Sometimes it's a pissing contest but more often it's just another interesting discussion about audio and the quirks of performances. I stumbled across a video of Mutemath playing "Typical" the other day and it reminded me of seeing them years ago.

In 2004 I had gone to a christian music festival in Vermont with a local record label to provide the PA for a stage they were sponsoring. In one of the few (very few) breaks that I got from mixing I took a walk with one of the label partners over to the second stage where we were hoping to catch Pillar but a rain delay had put the stage behind. Instead we got there just as Mutemath was taking the stage. The guy I was with remarked that he would love to sign them and we should definitely stick around to check out their set.

I only caught the first tune but it was "Typical" and it blew the roof off the place. There were about 800 kids at the stage when they started and probably close to 2500 by the end of the song. I just stood there with my jaw on the asphalt and the glory of the band washing over me through 60 kilowatts of EAW goodness. 

When it was over I turned to him and before I could say, "What the hell would you do with these guys if you signed them!?" he was already shrugging and rolling his eyes. They signed with Warner later that year and were touring with Mae and Circa Survive.

Not so much a story of working with or for someone, just getting to see them before they were famous.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Choir - Easy on the Clapping

I don't have a choir at the church where I mix all the time. But when I do there's a few things that I always bring up as a reminder the first couple rehearsals that they're in for. There's the usual stuff. Get in a nice group on the risers, don't bunch up or spread out too much, make it look intentional. If the monitors don't sound right, speak up or I won't know to change them for you. And one last thing.

Take it easy with the clapping. I use some pretty sensitive mics and tune them up and process them to the max to get the most out of the choir vocals. They're competing against a seven piece rock band and a handful of other vocalists with their own mics. Those puppies are hot! (The mics, not the singers, we have really good HVAC in our room.) So when they start clapping enthusiastically it pretty much sounds like gunfire out in the house.

So we always do a quick lesson on stage clapping. You don't have to do a total soft clap, some noise is alright and fits right in the mix. You can clap one palm on the other wrist or clap both wrists together. That way the choir still looks enthusiastic and the audience can see that and hopefully be moved and inspired. 

It usually works great. Only once in a great while does somebody forget and just wail away with abandon. And that's just a quick lesson that there are some things that just can't be fixed in the mix and your engineering becomes social engineering. Just keep in mind that when you need to get musicians to do something it needs to appear that you're on their side and not just trying to manipulate them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dear SNR: Liam Smith - Speaker Placement

Liam Smith has left a new comment on your post "SNR Podcast #14":

This episode touches on phase between microphones micing a single source. Can you do an entire episode... or two entire episodes on phase and deploying speakers? I am working on learning this properly... but I am still bad at math (i am working on that). Also, no smaart. 

 Well Liam we're always glad to try to answer questions from listeners. Heck, we're just glad to hear there are listeners at all! I've been mulling this over quite a bit lately and now that I sit down to write a response I'm thinking that it has less to do with what's between your ears (the math) than your ears themselves.  The truth is that relying on the math, the simulations and the SMAART readings can sometimes get you in more trouble than it's worth.

Programs like SMAART are great. If you're under pressure to get a touring rig to sound great night after night in tough rooms then you'd be sunk without them. They're also great for setting up installed systems. But for the vast majority of traveling sound guys (and girls, we don't discriminate here) you'd be better off spending your time and money differently. On most gigs you have very little choice about where you put your cabs. Sight lines and safety concerns may not leave you with many options. Letting the lighting guy beat you to the venue may leave you with even less. At least that's been my experience for the last twenty years.

I'm going to go in a little bit different direction than you might have expected with this. There's a lot you should know about dealing with reflections and interactions between adjacent boxes, but for the new guy starting out you're better off learning by experience and having some conversations with other people in the business. But there's a lot you can do right from the console to make sure your cabs are playing nice together.

The first and most important is to not run your system in mono. In nature there isn't one single instance of the same sound coming from two places at once. That's why to our highly developed sense of hearing, phase interactions between speakers making the same sound come across as odd. You brain has spent a lifetime quietly interpreting the sounds it hears and deriving spatial information from them. The easiest way to avoid confusing the audiences brain is to take full advantage of a stereo mix.

Hard panning every input is one way to make dead sure you don't have the same sound coming from both sides of the room. I don't need to tell you that it will be an awkward night if you do that though. So how do you go about it? Let's break down some of the more common inputs you'll see mixing rock shows and see where it goes.

Drums are mostly transient sounds, they happen quick and before your brain can get a bearing on them they're gone. Your brain is good enough to pick up on location cues from panning the toms, but unless they ring out really long there shouldn't be a lot of phase issues with drums.

Bass guitar has a ton of information down low where sound is more or less omnidirectional. If you look at the polar response curve of most subwoofers you'll see that they're only slightly more effective on the side facing the crowd.  That said you can do a ton of research and planning to come up with a complex system to delay your various sub boxes to minimize throw onto the stage and smooth out the power alley... and then have your plans fizzle when you can't place the boxes where you need to or you get surprised by a room mode. Go ahead and put the bass right up the middle and worry about the power alley when you get into bigger gigs.

Keyboards have the advantage of almost always having stereo outputs. Just buy another direct box and hard pan your keys. It won't work flawlessly for every patch but it will add more interest to your mixes and has the added benefit of making keyboard players feel more important.

Guitars. Here's where the money is. It means investing in more mics, and you might need a bigger mixer than you have now, but it's worth doing. Guitar players will thank you. It's common practice to pan guitars a little toward the side of the stage where they're standing. If you go too far though you can cheat people on each side of the room out of half the performance (assuming two guitar players). What you can do though is mic each cab twice and hard pan those. The possibilities are endless. Use two of the same mic or two different, EQ them the same or different. Push the levels back and forth. You can really have some fun with it and the guitars will explode in the mix.

Vocals are a bit of a tough customer but if you've done all your panning carefully up to this point you've left a nice spot right up the middle for the lead vocal. If you feel like applying the same principle as the guitars, rather than using two mics just use a Y splitter at the mix. Then you can process each channel a little differently and pan them out. Backup singers are a little easier, especially if there's more than one, push them to the sides a little and you get a great, wide sounding vocal mix.

I know that wasn't what you were fishing for when you wrote in Liam but I hope you'll give it some serious thought. When you don't have many options for speaker placement you can do a world of good for the show from the comfort of the mix position. I hope that was useful and I hope the rest of the Brethren of the Knob and Fader will give it some thought too. There are too many bad sounding gigs going on out there and all for the lack of a little critical thinking and a couple hundred bucks worth of stuff from Guitar Center.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Dear SNR: Eike Hillenkötter - Live Mix Smorgasbord II

Tonmeister deluxe
Yesterday I got a start on a list of questions from our good friend Eike in Germany. I had been letting it lie in my inbox for far to long to just shoot off a couple quick tidbits so it turned into a second post. 
- Some of you are sometimes using a Presonus. Have you ever tried using a laptop connected to it via firewire as a VST effects device? What are your experiences? Any tips? Things that work well, things that don't work?
I've mixed on them and recorded performances with them but honestly the effects engines in them aren't anything to write home about. They're good at what they do, but they don't really do anything beyond basic spatial effects. There was one time when mixing on a Presonus that I considered hooking up a netbook to be able to use auto tune on a lead actor who was having a little trouble with the high notes. There was too much latency though. Ideas like this are becoming ever more possible for us small fries to do. 

For instance the MOTU interface I bought for work isn't just for recording. I also plan to use it as a small digital mixer for events in the church that aren't in one of the venues and as a system processor for events we do with our portable systems in other venues. I've already seen kids on club stages doing some heavy vocoding with their laptops. Things are definitely moving in that direction.

- I have a couple of cheapo K-Micro omnis [ ] lying around. While I love them as specialty/novelty mics, it has annoyed me at times that they're not directional. I was thinking about converting some of them to cardioids. I THINK all i have to do is drill a hole behind the membrane.. any ideas? Should I go for it or just forget about that?
 That's pretty close to the mark. Part of what gives a mic its pattern is how much sound can get to the back side of the diaphragm. The side you sing in hears your voice plus noise, the other side hears the noise but in the opposite polarity and a lot of it is canceled out. That's your basic cardioid and that's the reason why dynamic mics sound like garbage when the singer cups the grill. At $99 for a pack of seven you could drill a different number of holes in each mic and come back with a detailed pattern analysis for the benefit of all!

Let this be an encouragement to all you Brethren of the Knob and Fader out there. There are actual human beings behind the in boxes and the Facebook page. We're always happy to hear from our readers and listeners so don't be shy about writing in. We do our best to get back right away. And we do try to respond to every single one and turn as many of them into posts as we can. There may also be the occasional embarrassing situation where we need to learn more math before we can answer properly (still working on it Liam!).

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dear SNR: Eike Hillenkötter - Live Mix Smorgasbord

Tonmeister deluxe
Nothing has surprised me more than finding out that this blog and podcast had found a following in Germany. A couple of our most vocal contributors reside there and not too long ago our friend Eike dropped me a line with a wealth of suggestions.  If my responses run on too long look for a part two tomorrow!
Since you mentioned several times that you all are running out of ideas (sort of) I thought I'd write in with a couple of questions and ideas, some of them might be worth discussing on the show. If not, you're of course welcome to write me back, anyhow.

Here we go:

- When you mix live, how much of a "real time producer" are you? Do you just make sure everything gets heard, or do you sometimes  think you can make the band sound better by sort of messing with their arrangement a little? (pulling back annoying parts, highlighting great parts which maybe weren't meant to be featured). How about effects? Do you apply them at will, or do you err on the cautious side? (maybe only using vocal effects when the band specifically asks you to)
As soon as I'm done sorting out all the physical technical details that's about all I do. To do it well though you need to try and understand the band, as much as that's possible twenty minutes after meeting them that is. It gets easier the more you work with an artist. My philosophy is to make a band sound just like they sound, but better. Sometimes it's as simple as just turning up the guitar solos in the right places. But with more delicate types of music it requires careful listening and balancing the sound to suit the song. I'll be constantly listening for what instrument should be on top and when to make changes.

As for effects I tend to be pretty conservative. Unless it's an act that I work with all the time and we're really going after something that they did on a recording I've got a basic setup that has served me well for years. I like to have one reverb for drums and another for vocals and other instruments like acoustic guitar. If there's only one available I'll pick one or the other based on the type of music and the room. How I make that choice is basically just gut instinct based on past experience. I try not to over think it and I can always change my mind. 

The other thing I keep on hand is just a simple tap delay. I might do a short delay with no feedback to add a touch of "space" to a vocal in a room where adding reverb would just muddy stuff up. The next step would be a "Buddy Holly" type slapback which works great on country, oldies, and certain other stuff. Then there's the longer delays with more feedback, making more "repeats". That can be used for anything from doing literal repeats of the last word of a line like in Billy Idol songs, to lengthening screams in heavy metal. My favorite thing is to be subtle about it and match the beat to create an effect that just adds power to a vocal without being an obvious effect. Like the singer is so good that his voice is shooting out of the club and ringing off the mountains.

As for asking permission I never do. Only rarely has an artist specifically asked me to not do effects before a gig. More often I get asked what I've got and usually the paragraphs you just read are conveyed in shortened format and we quickly hit on something that appeals to them. Only a couple times has an artist asked me to turn something off mid-set and that was a long time ago when I was a much greener engineer. Usually if I hear anything about it at all it's an enthusiastic thank you for making the vocals sound great. But mostly it's not talked about, at least on the gigs that I work.

- While working as a bands live engineer, so I often work with systems I have no say of setting up. How do you advance a show? do you have to? whats on your "tech rider"?
I wrote an article about tech riders a while back (so did Karl). The long and short of it is that usually you send over an over inflated list of dream gear that you want and the venue sends back a pack of lies about what they have and how much of it works. I'll usually bring a mic box and a few problem solvers. If I'm really worried I'll bring a small rack with some effects, dynamics and a couple channels of EQ in it.

It really all goes back to my philosophy that you can day dream about wonderful gear all you want, but if you can't make it happen on a half dead Mackie and no working horns on the left side then you're in the wrong business. So much of what we do is compromise that you're better off getting good at making decisions about what's most important to you so you can adapt in a hurry.

A perfect example of how much things can suck is when you finally get to that point in your career when you're starting to mix artists that get to play decent sized festival stages. You salivate for weeks with the expectation of mixing on a big Midas through a sweet line array. Then when you get there you find out that the headliner has the first twenty-four channels locked out, eight are reserved for effects returns and you can't touch them either, and of the sixteen that are left, two don't work at all and one has an annoying buzz on it. Out the window goes your twenty channel input list and you better be able to do it in a hurry and still make things sound great.

Well, that turned into a pretty lengthy post and I'm only half way through the material he sent me. Tune in tomorrow Brethren of the Knob and Fader, and see what other audio goodness Brother Kike has for us!