Tips and Tricks: Pace Yourself

Welcome back to our Tips and Tricks holiday series. Last week we talked about fixing as many known issues going into the busy season as you possibly can. I usually set a date that the craziness starts and get as much done as I can before that time. I also talked about clearing out hard drives, getting new gear installed, etc. If you missed it you can find it at this link. This week I wanted to take a bit of time to talk about pacing yourself. Specifically your exposure times as you try to get a lot of mixing done in a small amount of time. 

I know a fair amount of mixers that don’t think about this as they mix even on a regular basis throughout the year. Let me put some context on what we are talking about. To give an example, my weekly schedule puts my main rehearsal with my band each week on a Thursday night starting at 7 PM and going sometimes up to 9:30 or 10 PM. Now, I come to work that day around 9 AM. This makes for a really long day. When I first started on this schedule I was really experiencing some ear fatigue by the time the day was done. I quickly realized that I needed to really protect my hearing throughout the day in order to be fresh for my rehearsal. That meant if I wanted to try out some new plugins or do some mixing I needed to do it before lunch on Thursday and really restrict my volume exposure all afternoon or simply take care of that stuff on the previous day. You see our ears are a muscle. When they work, they get tired and that affects what we hear or how we perceive what’s around us. However, over exposure can lead to hearing loss. I’m sure you all know this. But have you thought about what you listen to and how loud it is in your car? Have you thought about driving with your windows down (wind buffeting or blowing past us is the same as loud music)? What about when you mow or use your snowblower…are you using hearing protection? Anything we can hear exposes our ear drums to sound and makes them work. 

So how can we last? Well the first and most obvious is to just give your ears a break every now and again. If you have a long rehearsal coming up, just turn the music down or better yet off. If you have a lot of music to mix, when you aren’t finalizing the track, don’t have your speakers at full volume. Use a variety of listening devices as well. From in-ears to headphones all the way up to studio speakers, each expose us differently. Do whatever you can do to not have things at full volume. If you need to do some EQ, instead of turning up your studio speakers to hear the intricacies, put on some headphones you trust and turn it down. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to check your work later on the big boy speakers. If you’re doing all kinds of playback for a big Christmas show, do your best to just do a few songs at a time and then take a break. Better yet, set an allotment amount of time you’ll mix everyday and stick to it so your ears can fully rest between sessions. If you’re doing a lot of IEM mixing over the holidays, be sure to create an extra mix buss for yourself and set it to a lower volume (or simply turn your output volume down) so that when you don’t need to be mixing you are giving your ears a rest. To my knowledge there is no way to magically extend this “perfect” hearing time so guard it carefully. 

Practically you can do that using the above methods. Schedule your full volume and restrict it as much as possible. When you don’t need to be listening to something loud (like while you’re driving, etc) turn it down. But how does knowing this affect your mix? Well it means that you should be listening to folks telling you to EQ your stuff first. When we first start mixing our ears are at their best so use that time to dial in EQ not dynamics. Push the levels a bit and see where you can start to hear EQ. Do all the things that you really need to focus to be able to do. Think in the minutia. I always throw a really rough and tumble mix together right out of the gate and then start listening for what I need to change in my toms, or does the bass guitar tone seem right, or even is the verb that I have dialed in still working for me. All of those things will be hard to hear the longer I go. I start in the micro and move towards the macro. It can be hard to overlook a weird attack sound on a kick drum but I’ve found that if I can focus on tone first, the dynamics come easier because my foundation is solid. 

So this week, as you mix, think about your exposure times. I know this next weekend I’ll be mixing 7 services spanning 3 days along with the two nights before that weekend full up with rehearsals. I know I’ll probably be really keeping an eye on how things feel and really leaning on my instruments (meters, Smaart, etc) as my checks to make sure things are operating well. That combined with lots of playback spread out as much as possible will ensure that I’m as fresh as possible for this weekend. I hope you can find a balance between work and rest over the coming weeks. Please reach out to me at daniel@studiostagelive.com with any questions or if you’d like some advice in this area. Just doing this simple stuff has resulted in nearly 18 years of mixing concerts, plays, etc and no measurable hearing loss (I get checked every year, age will soon be a factor but not yet thankfully). It is possible folks. Tune in next week to hear about the tools I use to mix effectively and efficiently. Be sure to subscribe at this link to be notified when that post goes live. Happy mixing!

Tips and Tricks: Check Your Stuff

Welcome to a new tips and tricks series. This one is less about a specific thing to do and a general philosophy to help you through the craziness that is the holidays. I’ll be sharing a few things that I do to speed up mixing in week 3 but this week it’s all about cleaning up, clearing out, and preparing yourself for 4-5 weeks of crazy mixing and lots of work. As we get into the holiday season, I often feel the pressure. Around where I work after Thanksgiving it’s a two week sprint for me until my Christmas vacation. I have little time to catch up. While I know this series maybe is a few weeks late, the idea here is that this week, you can do a few things, next week you do a few more, and so on, until your through it. 

This week is about getting you and your gear ready. Over the next few weeks, if you’re touring, if you’re in the studio, if you’re at FOH (and maybe if you’re at monitors), there is a lot to prepare for. I love to sit down for a little bit before I get started and think through every event for the whole season and see what I will need to have ready for it all to work well. How many stage inputs will I need? How many wireless channels will I need? How many tracks will I need in my DAW? How many monitor mixes or self-mixer will I need to have setup so our bands can hear themselves? Are there any extra mics that I need to rent/buy in order to take care of everything? What changes do I need to make in my consoles to accomodate all of those things? 

For me it all starts with that last one. Leading into the season, the first thing I did was clear out and fix any issues to my template that need to be addressed as well as making sure that my template will cover whatever I’ll need for the season. When that’s done it’s time for some rf coordination. This usually takes a bit because we usually run our typical frequency set as robust so wireless workbench (which is free by the way) will space all the channels out so they are basically unable to interfere with each other. But, around the holidays I am usually adding some extra wireless IEMs and several wireless mics. This year, I’ll have about 47 wireless channels in play when you include backup frequencies, and all the mics we’ll be using for various parts of the show. It took me quite a bit of arranging and adjustment to get it all to fit but when you’re not in a hurry you can prepare for it early. I always try to get the frequencies adjusted early so I’ll have a few weeks to test operation of my core channels (Axient Digital) before we turn them all on. 

From there it’s time to go to all the recording machines that I operate or support and clear out hard drives and handle any maintenance issues. This seems like a small thing but as we get busy it’s the little things that aren’t an everyday concern that slip our minds first. Usually when I get in to work in the morning I’ll just stop by one of them, start a transfer, then at the end of the day come back and verify that it completed successfully. This is an easy way to get this large hurry up and wait job completed as you work on other things. I don’t know about you guys but about 30% of the media that my team creates throughout the year is generated over the next few weeks so making sure we are ready to record is crucial. While we are talking about clearing out drives, I always try and make it a point to clear out my patch bay of any unnecessary patches and look through my patch list for anything that doesn’t look right. The whole idea is to try and get back to a clean slate so that when we are in the thick of things, we don’t have to deal with problems that are either hard to find or take a long time to solve. Lastly, I did mention maintenance of production machines. Make a couple of days where you can run a round of windows updates to catch up to what’s recent and still have time to test software. I know this sounds hard but just take the time and get it done. There have been several key virus protection over the last few months that prevent lots of critical issues. I’m no advocate of allowing updates to run automatically but every few months, your IT manager will tell you to just catch up to help keep your computer and his/her network running smoothly. 

Well that’s it for this week. I’m going to make an honest attempt to keep these holiday posts a bit shorter if I can. Next week we will be talking about pacing yourself. Not only your ears but your mind as well. Mixing for long periods of time, whether at full volume or not, is taxing and inserting proper breaks into your routine can be really helpful. Feel free to reach out with any questions to daniel@studiostagelive.com or leave a comment below. If you want to be sure to be notified when a new article is up, feel free to subscribe at this link and you’ll get an email. See you all next week and remember to relax a bit with family this holiday season, I promise it’s worth it.

Editorial – Pre-Show Routines

This week I decided to mix it up a little bit and do a one-off post on my pre-show routines. We all have those things that we do that help us prepare for what’s on our docket for that day of audio work so I thought I’d share mine with the hopes that if you don’t have any routines, you might pick some up, and that if you do that you’d share it back.

I thought I should start with what you should be doing to prepare for a recording or show before you even start. It is incredibly important to know your artist as well as their audience. In order to accomplish this I find myself listening through the tracks either in our planning software or finding equivalent recordings on spotify so that I’m preparing and thinking about what things should be sounding like. Secondarily, and I’ve talked about this in previous posts, before I even have a rehearsal I try and make sure that my template is up to date with all the fixes I’ve discovered recently. I don’t know about you guys but I hate fixing problems more than once. Going into this Christmas season I have really focused on fixing as many issues as I can before the madness begins. I didn’t quite get to all of them but through prioritization and time management I’ve crossed off most of the issues I’ve observed over the last few months and implemented a few updates and changes as well that have been on the horizon (i.e. further dante implementation, production computer cleaning and maintenance as well as performance checks, etc) for quite some time. The last thing I get done before a show is the patch list. Why do I wait you ask? Well as I fix issues or implement some upgrades things naturally change. I don’t like making the patch lists, creating showfiles, etc before I know that our architecture is correct. For instance, I wanted to get our multitrack playback system working to both consoles. This required a bit of digital craziness within my console to implement and also required modifying my monitor consoles channel order list to match. If I’d created a show or done any patching, that may have all been for naught, and we’d be making that show again if I hadn’t gotten that done first. Lastly, before rehearsal for the bigger shows, I’ll try and put together a stage plot so that when the crap hits the fan, I’ll have a physical piece of paper that shows spatially how things are setup. 

During my rehearsal I also have a routine for how I work through getting my console setup and all customized for each week. My first step is always gain staging. My template gets things pretty close but there are always adjustments to be made. When I load my showfile the meters are set to meter the audio right after my trim (FOH in my setup is not the gain master, our monitor desk is so I am trimming). This allows me to gain stage properly. After sound check is over I’ll switch to meter the audio just before the fader. This allows me to monitor how things look coming back out of waves. In theory, because of the 64 bit floating point processing in my console, clipping after the preamp is in theory impossible but I still like to avoid testing that. Also during rehearsal I’m checking wireless transmit packs, checking to make sure we aren’t overloading the receivers for instruments, that rf signal is strong and consistent, and that everything is patched and recording correctly in Reaper (our DAW of choice for multi-track recording). That last one is particularly important because I love to do playback as much as possible/needed so that I can walk around the room, listen for the small things to change, and just make sure my cues are what they need to be.  At some point I try to make it a point to step through my automation cues on my own and just confirm everything as well before show day. 

The day of the show is all about checking my gear. I usually arrive early and do some playback if I am setup to do so. This allows me to do some walking around the room again as the mix is playing so I can get a feel for the room that day. I’ll also be thinking through the show mentally and focus on those areas that require my input or where timing is critical. At some point as well, I insist on a quick input check with the band. Usually just the length of one song is more than enough. This allows for me to get one last glance at the signal path and make sure everything is patched correctly. It also allows for a practical battery level check for any wireless gear in play as well. After that is all over it’s just mixing time. Just a few minutes before things kick off there is a quick trip to the head and then back to the console to have some fun! 

So now that you think I’m crazy for having all these routines let me explain why. Over the years I’ve been through quite a bit of craziness in shows, load-ins, meetings, etc and that experience has taught that probably one of the most important things for an audio technician is consistency. Obviously the mix has to be good and well executed but consistency across multiple weeks/shows is what builds trust with musicians. They need to know that you are working as hard as they are. So yes, all these routines sound like a lot, but until I wrote this series, I’ve been doing all this stuff for so long, I didn’t even know that I do it every time. What things do you do to prepare for your shows/concerts? Have any routines that you think I should add? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any questions about what I’ve said be sure to either comment below or email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com. If you have enjoyed reading these posts go ahead and subscribe at this link and you’ll get a message whenever something new has been posted. See you all on the flipside!