From the Author: Tools of the Trade

We use so many tools in our every day work.  From actual tool like screwdrivers and soldering irons to software tools like a DAW for recording or waves multi-rack for FX processing but there are four tools that I believe aren’t utilized enough by audio engineers in the studio or live environment.  I personally carry a leatherman wave which has proved itself invaluable but not everyone wants to carry around a multi-tool so I won’t judge you too harshly for that (I can’t count the number of situations that have been saved because I had my multi-tool on my waist). The tools I’m talking about you could be using them already or you may not have even heard of them, the idea here is to expose you to a couple of things you just may not have thought about with these 4 tools.

The first tool I wanted to mention has been invaluable over the last 3 or 4 years I have been using it….Teamviewer.  This is basically a piece of software that you can install on any computer where you can access a desktop (windows, Apple OS, or linux).  Unfortunately that means we can’t use it on our consoles but we can use it on computers like our waves multi-rack computer or on playback machines.  At Christ Community where I work we have installed it on countless machines.  We even got our IT guy on board, not only to help pay for a commercial license package, but also because this tool is just as helpful for him as it is for us.  We can literally remote into any computer at any time.  No need for firewall configuration at all.  This has saved us so many times in the past.  It makes our tech support phone calls faster because the guy on the other end can remote in and see what we are talking about but it also makes the calls we get from our volunteers easier because I can remote into that pesky ProPresenter machine in the chapel and fix their problem without the need for a lengthy or frustrating phone call where you may or may not fix the problem.  Production wise we’ve implemented a few policies to ensure that we don’t interfere with critical machines like our Ableton or Mainstage macs but it’s also helpful to be able to remote in during an event and fix an issue on the fly so we can keep on keeping on. Teamviewer is incredibly helpful in our day to day operations as well with things like access to the waves computer from my desk so I can set the show up from my desk or move licenses to our audio editing machine so plugins can be used elsewhere (don’t have to walk back and forth anymore!).  I know this is a pricey tool but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much time it will save you when you sit down and think about it.  If your church or studio has remote locations this program will save you many many hours driving, guaranteed.

The next tool is Smaart (or your audio monitoring software of choice).  We have a monitor setup at my FOH desk that shows our RTA, a spectrograph of the last minute or so, and the one-minute average of the SPL for our event.  This helps us see feedback frequencies easier, make sure we are getting a great SPL curve with a strong low end and a big falloff around 12k or so, that way we aren’t hurting any ears.  I also have an a 10 second average SPL that I picked up from a tour tech which helps to show trends or building frequencies that might lead to feedback or just something you need to be aware of.  At CCC Smaart has been crucial for our sound level discussions.  This is a piece of equipment that when calibrated shows an unbiased objective point of view for how loud the room is currently.  We have ours setup to log the actual SPL dbA value 6 times per minute so we can look at the data afterwards if anyone is concerned.  So many times the audio loudness discussion leans toward opinion not fact and this tool, when set correctly, can bring some facts back into that discussion.  I also think a tool like this should be used frequently in houses of worship so the sound engineer is always aware of where things are SPL-wise. It is very easy to get carried away with a song and forget that you can physically hurt people.  In the studio world this software can be useful for loudness monitoring and in helping to identify that input that is just to overbearing. It can take a direct input (straight from the computer, not necessarily a microphone) so you can patch it directly from you DAW of choice. Personally, I use it a lot to help track down feedback as well as you can see the curve changing in front of your eyes, no more need for guessing! Having Smaart running just keeps everyone accountable and helps keep us all doing what we do best, mixing great sound!

Next is Google Drive.  If you’ve been reading this blog at all you should have seen that documentation is a big part of what I think people should do and something I’m always hoping to be improving upon. Google Drive is the perfect companion for that.  Now, to be clear, dropbox, owncloud, etc will all work, what makes Google Drive different is the live document editing that you can do in partnership with your syncing program of choice.  The biggest thing we use this tool for is our patch list. From anywhere I can make a patch change in the list and it is updated in real time to everywhere, like for instance the monitor desk. There is also a tab in there that allows our worship leader to list out the tracks that will be in use for the event. We also use Google Drive to keep our showfile backups or system documents in the cloud and safely backed up no matter what happens so we can recover a console or a piece of gear quickly in an emergency.  Several times we have had a soundboard go bad and haven’t been too concerned because we know that we can just reload the board and the config for that board should be saved up in the drive for us to download and load right in. The best thing about this tool is that it is completely free.  Anyone can sign up and get a free gmail account at any time and be able to take advantage of this great tool for free! Set it up today!

This last tool is a bit specific to Shure users.  I have been a Shure guy my whole life.  I’ve used other wireless companies but always seem to find my way back to Shure before too long because of the sheer reliability of the products. You might be able to guess the tool I’m talking about is Shure Wireless Workbench. I love having the ability to monitor battery life, signal strength, audio input, etc from FOH and my monitor desk. I don’t have to setup the wireless receivers/transmitters up in front of me anymore!  Not only can you use it to frequency coordinate all your wireless channels but you can put it into monitor mode and use it keep better track of battery life and signal dropouts.  Now any operator at either of our sound boards can from that position see and better diagnose wireless issues without having to step away to the rack where the gear is mounted. If you have a Shure device with a network jack on it you owe it to yourself to at least get this setup and running. At the very least you will greatly reduce the possibility of running out a battery during a show. Just a few weekends ago when I was on my own mixing sound for a weekend, Wireless Workbench was invaluable in helping me monitor battery life from FOH and it saved from an outage that I caught at the last minute and got changed before the service started.

Hopefully I’ve introduced you to something new here. These four tools have been so very helpful if I’m in house at CCC, on the road doing some side work or sitting in a studio. If there is something that I didn’t mention that is crucial to your operation please comment below and let me know about it!

Back to the Basics: When it’s All Said and Done

The last part of this first Back to the Basics Series covers what happens when it’s all said and done.  I always dread this part. I love putting things together, wiring it all up, coming up with clever ways to solve problems or help accomplish new ideas but by far my least favorite is cleaning up. However, this can be where you can get your new ideas for the future if you pay close attention.

Usually after a show or session I’ll just take a moment and relish what just happened.  Than if I can I’ll take a quick listen to a recording and start up a conversation with someone in the band and get a feel of how they felt in the studio or on stage. Most of time things go swimmingly but other times things happen that I don’t even notice from FOH.  Because at CCC we have a great team of monitor techs that are actively helping solve issues without necessarily notifying me I don’t hear or see every issue. Even in a recording session, one of the musicians may have made a mistake but kept going and may want to just re-record that one part so that he/she can feel good about what was put down during that session. The key here, like in the other posts, communicate. Be a part of the band not separate doing your own thing.

If someone I trust was listening in the studio or in the audience I’ll usually ask what they think.  A lot of times you have to take opinions like grains of salt because so much of mixing is subjective to the technicians taste.  However, it is important to hear the feedback as that might spark an idea or point out something you may not have noticed or heard. Don’t just ask anyone though, make sure you can trust who you ask and that if you ask for their opinion that you’ll actually hear it and not just glance it off.

Lastly, it’s time to plan for next time.  What went well this time that didn’t go well last time? Did you try anything new that made things better or worse? What about the issues that you had…any ideas on how to fix them? Personally, because the time from the end of the show to when I’ll be back in the room is usually a few days, I keep a list of things I’d like to fix or change.  This drives innovation and improvement for me.  I try to think about solving one problem per weekend at Christ Community, than at the end of the year I’ll have solved 52 problems.  Sometimes the problems are bigger and more impactful, but other times they aren’t even visible.  Like replacing a bundle of cables with a sub snake to clean up the stage and free up cables for use elsewhere or following up with issues in Ableton or Mainstage and making sure we have the kinks worked out for next time so there aren’t patterns of issues within gear and equipment that tend to make people not want to play or hinder the creative space.

Well that wraps up this first round of Back to the Basics, be sure to leave a comment and let us know if there is something you liked about what was written or if there is something we may have left out or should change.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Back to the Basics: The Show

Part 4 of this inaugural Back to the Basics series covers the show or recording session itself. This is where the fun begins. I love mixing live shows or laying down an awesome recording. There is something to be said about the act of creating music that will be what is, no stopping, not starting over, just making music. You just never know what will happen.

However, before the magic happens it’s always good to do some final checks. Personally, I go grab a bottle of water and some food, stop by the bathroom, and walk around a bit.  Just a good way for me to loosen up but your pre-show routine is up to you.  I also take the time to check in with my monitor technician if I have one and do one last battery check for critical components. For shows that rely on midi connections we will do a dry run to test and make sure everything is all ready to go.  I also like to step through the big scenes within the soundboard and make sure everything is ready to go when I am. I also, whether it’s a studio session or a live concert will do a live countdown in the bands ears so everyone is on the same page for the start.

During the show it’s just fun.  I love actively mixing, hearing those little things I missed during rehearsals and making a quick change to a plugin or an eq or perhaps adjusting the verb a bit for the moment. While personally I do tend to think through what I’ll do in advance I try to create in the moment as well. Some of my best ideas come from spur of the moment thoughts in the middle of the show. This is where all that preparation comes in.  Did you prepare such that you have given yourself room to create on the fly during a live show? Did you think through appropriate micing for that studio session so you can be sure to capture that sound you just realized would be sweet to highlight for the final edit?

The biggest thing to consider when operating a live show is to be actively mixing.  Don’t just get to your perfect mix and stop there.  Live audio is a living and breathing animal that changes through each part of the song. Don’t be afraid to experiment with not just riding input faders but verbs and FX returns as well. Sometimes all that chorus in a song needs is more verb to accentuate the vocals, or that drum breakdown during the bridge means you should be pushing your drum VCA wild breathing life and energy to that part of the song. The real wildcard is the musicians, as they play their intensity will be different than in rehearsal so the mix will need to be altered. This is a good thing, they are expressing themselves, so you should as well.  Audio mixing in any environment is always an active event, never passive.  You should never set and forget your mix.

No matter your style, this is what you have been working for, be a part of it. Many people think all the artists are on stage but in reality there is a whole other crew they can’t see doing their part to create the art that we will all hear and enjoy!