Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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.


  1. And there you basically outlined why I bought a small digital console, which I carry with me when in doubt. And it's like a rule: the one time I thought I could leave it at home had me doing the show from behind a six-input powered mixer.

    My favorite "EQ, nah, what for?"-story happened at this one venue which was basically a big wet sewer pipe. Lots of interesting reverb going on (I guess you could say it added to the atmosphere, somehow) but workable. However the frequency response of the "room" was a more nightmarish than a ghoul family reunion. I asked the system tech if he would let me access the FLAT 1000€+ british 30 band EQs. He said: "They're not even patched in, the system sounds so good we don't need them here." The next time my band played the same venue, I brought my own mixer. Even if its built in graphic eqs are probably nowhere in the same league as the ones they still had sitting in the siderack collecting dust (or batfeathers), it was way better than having none at all. Repatching took no more than 5 minutes, and apart from some remarks by another musician ("Why's he need his own console? The other one is big enough, aint it?") everything went really smoothly. :)

  2. Uggghhh. I worked a "three strikes" gig a while back to fill in for a buddy of mine... No graph EQ for mains or monitors in a highly reverberant room, and I wasn't allowed a sound check. It was pretty fun.


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