Waves Multirack: Philosophy and Vocals

Well, it’s finally that time. I have alluded to this series over and over again and finally found the extra time needed to dig into my waves setup. Each week we will dig into the my default plugin chain for a given set of inputs. Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me if you have any questions.

I think it’s important to start this series off with a bit of a disclaimer. Mixing audio is incredibly subjective. Everything I do is what works best for my room. At best the presets I use would be a good place to start anywhere else. Just like EQ or compression, FX processing is different for every room. What I do won’t necessarily work anywhere else. The keys I look for when reading articles like this is looking for new uses for the tools I already have or things that the author is doing that I need to try. Perhaps someone was working to solve a similar problem and is using a plugin or an EQ to approach the issue from a different angle. I hope that you can read through what I do, see how I solve different problems, and walk away with a new idea how to solve similar problems in your space. As always, I’m happy to answer any questions you have in the comments below or at my email, daniel@studiostagelive.com.

Just to give an overview of how audio is processed on a macro scale at CCC where I work, we mix on an SSL L500.  There are several optical and coaxial madi I/O ports that we use to get in and out of our waves soundgrid with. Right now, we have 64 96k channels inserted across the entire band input list. Every channel, ableton input, group bus, etc is inserted to a channel in waves. This includes our master groups. We do not currently use waves for our main verbs for two reasons: verbs are dsp hogs but more importantly, the verbs built into the L500 are amazing as all SSL verbs always seem to be. This leaves waves to be basically a dynamic processor which works great. All 64 channels, whether they are stereo or mono, have the NLS plugin inserted which does some pretty amazing stuff (I’ll get into this more when I discuss this particular plugin later). Lastly, waves is inserted, in most cases, directly before the fader.

Well this week is all about the vocals so let’s great right down to it. At CCC the vocal inputs are the most important part of our mix, they are always as intelligible as possible. After around 3 years I’ve finally landed on a vocal chain that I really love for the live environment that I haven’t really messed with a lot (I’ve played around in studio with this and short of needing to add an EQ it works pretty well there as well). Because waves presets can move between work environments, when I sit down at our audio workstation, I’ll often start with this chain and see what happens. I’ve included pictures of my presets for our worship leader and while these get dialed in each week for each vocalist, this is just where I usually start the process. The very first plugin I use is a de-esser, Renaissance DeEsser. This is a very easy plugin to use and one of the most transparent de-essers I’ve used. You have the option for a band pass de-esser or a low-pass de-esser. As with all de-essers, you need to be careful not to turn this down to low because you will sacrifice presence and in some cases intelligibility. A good test is to watch your compressors for this channel and make sure they aren’t working in tandem, if they are this might mean you need to turn the frequency of the de-esser up a bit so it only triggers when needed and not during regular speech. My worship leader can have a harsh ess so sometimes I lower the frequency down a bit but it’s usually never below 5k and usually lands between 6-7k (this is where Smaart comes in handy because I can bypass this plugin, see the ess on the meters and really be able to dial this in a lot faster). I then just adjust the threshold to taste being careful not to overdo it and create a lisp. That reason is also why I often stick with the de-esser working low-pass mode rather than band pass. It just sounds better in our environment.

Next I have the perennial Waves C6. I have traded the F6 in here a few times but have always come back to the C6. Others have said this and I agree, the C6 seems to respond a bit faster for whatever reason. I also like the UI when it comes to vocals as well. I use EQ with vocals to fix global issues and use the C6 to correct dynamic issues that occur when a vocalist really sings out.  Then, when he really sings out, I use the C6 to really shape his amplified voice to make the sure clarity and crispness remains. I try to keep his EQ light and only end up pulling some low mids. I’ve found that with the seV7 capsule I need very little EQ and this allows his voice to sound incredibly natural despite how much processing is actually happening. In the past I had some more dramatic cuts at the EQ level brightening it up and such but had a few issues when he is talking so I swapped to using the C6 instead which allowed for a more normal EQ curve and dynamic compressor that simply doesn’t trigger when he is just talking. I don’t use the orange band because I low pass all my vocals up to about 200 anyway so there isn’t any point in processing that range and I just didn’t need the other sweeping band. Generally I’m setting thresholds so the compressor is doing something measurable when singing out and not doing a whole lot when he is just singing normally. I love setting this with the adjustment to the far left where I can grab all the thresholds together so I can keep the curve that I set with the individual thresholds. A lot of times with female vocalists I’ll bypass that high yellow band to keep the presence in their voice that they naturally have when singing.

Third in the chain I insert a CLA-76 compressor. This really helps me lock in the whole voice together. Notice how I went from the C6 to the CLA-76. I don’t want to compress the voice as a whole before I dynamically compress different parts of it. The CLA-76 itself is based on a modified 1176 and is one of the fastest compressors out there. It also is a little different to setup as the threshold is not adjustable, you are setting input and output gains and setting the ratio and attack/release times. I turn the input gain up until I see the desired amount of compression happening, set attack/release based on role (for the worship leader I slow the down the attack and set the shortest release time, for BGV I speed up the attack and slow the release down a bit) so that even in my compression settings, the worship leader will have priority. I often have it on a ratio of 8 or 12 depending on circumstances and turn up the output gain to at least match input levels if not a bit higher. That output nob is basically post-compression gain. Also, it’s important to note that with the attack and release knobs, faster is to the right, slower is to the left. I’ve used the vocal rider here in the past but when I tried out the CLA-76, I’ve basically never gone back. If I need it I’ll put a vocal rider after this plugin but that is a pretty rare circumstance anymore. The biggest thing to remember when layering compressors is that ratios are additive. If you have 3 or 4 compressors on a voice you might end up with 15+:1 compression happening could all but eliminate dynamic range. Just something to keep in mind as you choose your plugin chains.

Before the NLS plugin sits the Primary Source Expander. This isn’t just an expanding gate, it works better than many other gates with expanders work and I really believe Waves when they say they developed this plugin as “the” gate to use with melodic sources such as vocals. They claim to have developed with voices in mind and it seems to have really paid off. I think the ballistics in the meters don’t truly show what’s happening, you really need to set this with your ears live. Occasionally you’ll have to make a change mid-show as well. Because this is post compression the threshold can be set pretty high with an aggressive range. I’ll set the threshold during soundcheck and often never have to touch it and will experiment with different speed settings but usually land on medium 95% of the time as well. If I change it I’ll slow it down for BGVs or have to speed it up for a song for the lead voice. When I first started using it I was only at a -6 range or so with my lead vocal and a few less for BGVs but as I’ve learned to use it and start automating Waves so I can turn this plugin off when not singing, I’ve gotten real comfortable down around -12. Because the plugin is so smooth you get all the benefits of a strong gate to lessen drum bleed but have it open up every single time. PSE at this point is basically on by default for all of our events for vocals in general. Having it in line has really tightened up the band sounds and been one of the factors in allowing me to actually get to have cymbal mics up in the mix a bit to hear them better. In addition, having it after compression easy takes care of the higher noise floor from any compressors you’ve added up to this point. 

Then comes the NLS plugin. As I said earlier, this stands for non-linear summer. This plugin simulates the harmonics added by the electronics of the faders on every channel of three famous consoles. The first, Spike (as it’s called in the plugin), is modelled from the SSL console used for bands like Muse and Maroon 5. The second, Mike (a console owned by Mike Hedges), was used for some big name singles like Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.” The third, Nevo (a modified british vintage console owned by Yoad Nevo) which was used for Sugababe, Air, and many more. They all have their own unique characteristics. We start them all on the Nevo setting with each on their own channel model because this seems like the brightest model of the three which is the best starting point for us of the three available. I have set a global drive level to the same numeric value so the plugins are all having about the same impact and sometimes turn it up on a few inputs to really push the harmonics. Because I have my bus groups in waves I can use the dca settings as well so those are setup as well. This adds the modeled harmonics of the DCA pots on the consoles as well which is a really unique feature. While the differences in the models are minor, if you take the time to try all three A/B/C style, one will pop out as sounding the best. So most weeks, I’ll go through the guitars and vocals and make sure that Nevo model sounds the best still and make changes as necessary. Having this plugin in the chain has really given me the ability to mix at the same warmth of sound our PA provides between 95-100 dBa down at levels in the low 90s where we usually try and mix.

Last in the chain is the Waves Tune Real-Time. This is an auto-tune plugin I use to really lock in good vocals to each other.  I don’t use this all the time because it can make vocals who struggle with pitch worse but if you have a group of really good singers, you can enable this and really lock them in pitch-wise. We use it very gently in a live setting. For example, one of our vocalists hits the note but sometimes has trouble holding that pitch which I can fix with this plugin. We also have it react relatively slowly with a correction of only 85% so this plugin is not going nuts. Sometimes I’ll set a key if the chromatic setting isn’t finding itself but most of the time it works great. I’m not using this as an effect so the key here is keeping it incredibly transparent and slow moving.

***UPDATE*** After some experimenting with having this at the end, I now have this at the beginning of the chain.

Well that is week one. I hope you got some new ideas or confirmed what you are already doing. Next week we will going through the default chains for guitars. While they default chains are a bit different for each they are also quite similar. As always if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below or email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com and I’ll respond as quick as I can. See you next week!

Tips and Tricks: Utilizing Cloud Services

So far in this Tips and Tricks series we have discussed getting the perfect keyboard sounds, using drum triggers to get the perfect gate settings, properly setting up wireless guitars or extending drum cables, and last week we talked about getting the most out of your tracks channels. This week we are going to discuss using online services to expand and enhance your support and documentation. We all have heard of these website and services but throughout my career and conversations it seems like so few of us utilize them very well. I’m sure there are many more options but these are the ones that I use at this moment.

The first online resource that many of us use but more should probably be using is Planning Center Online. PCO is also the only one of these services that is a paid service. I will be the first to say that it is worth whatever you pay for it let me be clear. Every church in America, including my own, could probably improve how we schedule volunteers. PCO is the best tool for this. Volunteers can put in blockout dates (this is key on my team) so that when I go and schedule I can know right then and there if they are available. You can also have them fill in contact information with at least an email so they can schedule through email and not even have to log into the app or the website. At a glance I can look at the schedules for the next 90 days (yes that’s how far out I schedule my sound team) and start the game of musical chairs so that by the time we get down to 30 days out, I’ve got a team locked and loaded and tuned for the obstacles that are coming down the pipe. This also allows me to schedule with the lighting and video teams because many of our volunteers serve on more than one team so I can be sure not to always be using everyone only on audio, we can plan the big weekends so that every team is staffed to meet the challenge. If you’ve never used PCO you can reach out and get a demo which I would highly encourage you to do. You’ll be hooked, I promise!

The next resource is free, it’s soundcloud.com. For a long time we were looking for ways we could improve the potential for our worship teams to practice between our rehearsals and the weekend. The biggest hurdle was just that we don’t have recordings of how we sing each song each weekend. There are some up there that can be used but even then, sometimes we sing songs differently or change the number of a given element so it’s difficult to practice too. Since we were already multi-tracking our rehearsals for playback/prep and archiving, we decided to set it up to record our broadcast mix (could just use your Main Mix as well) and then upload that to soundcloud. The free service has only one limit and that is just the number of minutes of audio you have up at one time there is plenty of room for the entire run-though to be recorded and uploaded. Than when rehearsal is over, we normalize and upload to same soundcloud account every week named for our church. Beyond that, then we go into PCO and email the entire team with a hyperlink to the page where the recording can be heard and practiced with. Than, our worship bands have recording, with transitions, with exactly how we are going to sing and play the songs each week. It’s also good for guitars and vocals to hear themselves and be able to make changes before the weekend comes.

The last resource that I don’t see enough people use is google drive (as a part of gmail). Not only are gmail accounts free but they also come with 15 gb of storage. If you need more it’s incredibly reasonably priced. But for us, 15 gb is more than enough.  We have a few gmail accounts setup for the different tech areas that are in place. With Google Drive sync setup we can automatically backup critical templates and show files with ease so that no matter what happens to our production computers, everything is backed up. The other great thing about google drive is the live documents. We use this to keep a log of passwords for our various services and software downloads, patch lists for our larger venues, and even IP address tables for our tech subnets so we can keep track of what is where on our network. Because they are live at all times, the instant I make a change, it’s instantly propagated to all other windows. Because documents can be easily shared amongst gmail accounts, we shared all of those documents to the entire team so that we can all have access to all the documentation that our team needs on a day to day basis. Personally I use google sheets to generate organized quotes with purchase links for each project I manage and than archive them when completed so when a similar project comes along (perhaps the same thing but for a different regional campus) I already have the majority of the work completed. I just have to bring it up, be sure prices and links are up to date and I’m done. I find this incredibly helpful when I’m building our production PCs so I can be sure they all have compatible parts (if you want to read more about what I do with my production PCs check out this link!).

Well that about wraps it up for this post and series. I hope you have learned something. There are always things that as technicians we can do better so even if you haven’t been able to identify with these, find the area in your work that you can improve upon, figure out what you can do, and just do it. Commit to improving yourself professionally so that as you work, artists want to have you around. If you do have any questions about what we did talk about please don’t hesitate to use the contact form below or email us at engineers@studiostagelive.com.

Tips and Tricks: Maximizing Backing Tracks Live/Studio

Thus far in this short series we have dicussed the keys to great piano and keys sounds, properly gating drums, and last week we talked about appropriately extending guitar cables to avoid interference. We continue this week talking about using backing tracks while considering both ease of use in setup and soundboard layout. Musicians in just about all genres of music have used and will likely continue to use backing tracks for many years to come. Now, with the advent of DAWs that run on any computer and vast libraries of samples many artists develop tracks to go along with their music. Where it gets interesting as audio technicians is how we integrate those tracks into our studio recordings and live mixes. Some mix the tracks down to a stereo two-track, others split them up and keep them as individual inputs. This week I want to discuss some of the different ways you can integrate the tracks into your workflows in both the studio and live environment and then offer up some suggestions on things you can do to help make your life easier.

Since tracks started in the studio, so will I. Using tracks for recording purposes has been going on for quite some time. Especially when you are starting to record a new song it isn’t at all uncommon to create a sampled band to lay down the vocals and start recording the other parts so musicians have something to play too. Than, when the song is all recorded you go back to the drawing board and develop some new sounds to help fill it in musically. Dealing with those extra tracks can be pretty simple. Personally, in the past I’ve provided a both and solution to provide as much flexibility as possible when recording. I’ll take all the tracks they have and mix them down to groups than eventually down to a stereo track. Than, I have a great mix of their tracks in a stereo format for them to hear, with the ability to adjust those mixes easily when it comes down to the nitty-gritty. I tend to make these mixes quickly paying attention to the big picture and worry about the finer details of each track after everything has been recorded. The key here is having something in decent shape before the recording starts to make getting monitors set faster so you can get straight to the good stuff. As always, be sure to include the artist in edits that you do to the tracks that they created if something needs to change. Communication is always the key. Many times tracks are created or laid down with a concept but rather an idea so in reality they might need to be tweaked a bit before being finalized.

For live, it gets a might dicier. In the studio you can have just about as many tracks as your computer can handle but in the live mixing world, you are limited to what your console can do. Some of us mix on analog desks, some of us on small digital consoles, and others on full size consoles with all different forms of inputs. One way or another you need to figure a good way to get the tracks into your mixes. For me it started with two inputs coming out of the headphone output of the laptop and in and through a DI, one (the left side) was tracks and one clicks (the right side). Those days were both good and bad but they illustrate well the issues at hand. How do you balance getting a good mix with simplicity. Because the click track is so important you are only left with one mono track to fit everything into. It was always a software based mix-down of what all was going to be played. But the FOH engineers never got to mix it, we had to rely on the musicians to get something good put together or ask them for all kinds of changes through rehearsal. But more often then not the musicians just threw it together last second and leave the tech guys to just figure it out, which is fine, because we always do.

Today however, things have changed quite a bit. There are quite a few pieces of software specifically designed to help with the playback of tracks in a live setting with various amounts of outputs and options to assist integration into the soundboard. The most common interface I’ve seen and used is the Motu USB interface (this is the updated version with a few different connectivity options). With up to 8 outputs you can get pretty flexible when it comes to choosing how the sounds get to the board. I typically created one stereo track for any keys or pad sounds, a click track, and the rest were open to whatever needed to be used. Soon after a track was dedicated to having band guide stuff but that is sometimes mixed in with the clicks. After I got used to mixing that many extra tracks, I started asking that we split up the mixed tracks to open or unused tracks for the song. Generally what I found is that you want the percussive tracks split up from melodic tracks; things like tambourines and drum tracks needed to be EQ’d and treated differently than others so having them separate can really help to get the tracks mixed in well. Since then, I have been able to step it up a bit. We finally bit the bullet and picked up a dante interface (focusrite D4R, picture below) which can handle 32 bi-directional channels over coaxial madi which is our L500s primary mode of connection. Because we also take mainstage inputs with dante, I decided to limit our setup to 16 tracks (seemed like a big enough number to allow for lots of flexibility given our current track usage but not so big it’s unmanageable by our staff or volunteers). Beyond that, I decided to start pairing them down to stereo tracks so all of the Ableton inputs land on the same fader page so our techs don’t have anything crazy to deal with on the consoles. We have 12 faders on each page so that meant 4 stereo inputs and 8 mono inputs. The last two are automatically click and guide which is a nice feature to add as many of our band members don’t need the guide as loud as others. What we are left with however is what could be a mess of tracks to have to deal with (if you click on the picture you should be able to read the scribble strips, I’ll also explain later) but when organized correctly having individual control over a wider selection of the the tracks can turn into a very powerful tool to enhance your mix and the monitor mixes of the band as well as different musicians will want to hear different things differently!

However if you can’t split them all up as much as I can, what you can do is take in as many as you can, whether its 2, 16, or even 32 track inputs, there are a  few things you can do to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. The first is to just be sure to collaborate and communicate. For me that meant setting up a way that the worship leader this weekend fills in a patch list of sorts to tell me what is being used on each track. We use a google document that is shared to all the appropriate folks that tells whoever is on FOH which tracks are being used and what is in each track. As I said before, we have 16 inputs from Ableton (our software of choice, there are many to use) that get fed to each of our boards so the monitor mixes can do things differently as needed. To help that not be so overwhelming, we have preset categories for each input already decided (see picture above). When I expanded the number of inputs I sat down with our campuses worship pastor and developed what these would be. The first four stereo tracks are for any keys or pad tracks (labelled pad, organ, synth, aux keys) than the remaining 6 mono tracks (labelled perc, electric, acoustic, misc 1, misc 2, and BGV) plus the last two which are always guide (voice announcing sections of the song that are coming up) and click. While these aren’t rigid naming schemes, they provide a consistent structure so that both the monitor engineer and the FOH engineer know where to start looking when something needs to be changed. Because I sat down with the artist when I expanded the previous setup to this one, just about everything he does fits into these categories so we haven’t really ever needed to change the labels except for special occasions. Having two misc channels also helps to cover most things as well. Secondarily, having a track patch (see picture) list makes this all too simple to follow any complex setup that we need to do each week.

Secondly, to make it easy for everyone to stay within the bounds of the setup, we use a template for Ableton that’s all ready to have tracks dropped in and be programmed. I’ve even setup a folder sync between our leader’s laptop and the Ableton machine so he can just drop in the folder and a few minutes later just open it up on our production laptop and finish setup. We use Owncloud to do this for us but you can use google drive, dropbox, box, or whatever you like to help this happen. We used to use google drive but we needed more space than google drive could offer so we coordinated with our IT team to get something setup (I’m happy to help you set one up, just email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com). No matter what you do, try to figure out a fast and easy process for the artist so they have motivation to be a team player.

The biggest suggestion I have is to just remain flexible. Even in the most organized environment sometimes things just need to be different than planned. Maybe it just doesn’t sound right or something is missing but the key is to be flexible and willing to fix as many things as possible. Remember you are there to support your artist, not the other way around. As frustrating as it can be, sometimes you just need to buckle up and get at it so you help each artist find what they are looking for. Especially in the studio world, take after take can be frustrating but in the end you’ll find that it’s worth it. This is also a reason to get as many inputs from the tracks rig as possible. Whether it’s 4 or 40, the more you have available, the more flexible you can be. Even on channel limited consoles like the x32, everything you can spare is helpful. This often means extra prep-work, but the more you can flex with each artist, the more likely you are to get a call-back to mix a show or record again for them in the future. If it’s a job for you, that’s extra money in the bank you just stored up for that time when you won’t be able to help them because they will believe that you really can’t fix a problem because in the past you’ve gone out of your way to pull something off….ok, I’m getting off my soapbox now, sorry about that.

While this isn’t an exhaustive explanation I do hope that it’s covered at least some of the bases you needed to learn about. Our setup is a bit larger than most but I love being prepared for whatever could happen so that in the moment, there are always options. If you share that want but don’t know how to pull that off in your situation please don’t hesitate to reach out through the website contact form, subscribe to learn more each week, comment below, or email us at engineers@studiostagelive.com. See you next week for the last entry in this series where we will talk more about leveraging cloud services to improve not only your documentation but also your support of the bands that you mix for!