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!

Back to the Basics: Rehearsal

Part three of our Back to the Basics Series is all about the rehearsal. Rehearsal can be a really good time or a really rough time for an audio tech.  Hopefully in the studio world your artist has come ready to record but will still need some time to warm up to the space and get used to the monitoring setup.  In the live world however, rehearsal is a whole different animal. Rehearsals are used to help get the consoles dialed, get the monitors dialed in, make sure the PA is working well, checking RF setups, etc.  If you read the last entry you have spent a good amount of time preparing and making sure everything is ready, if you haven’t prepared your space, rehearsal will likely have some issues. But, let’s assume you have. Everything is wired correctly, you’ve line checked to make sure all is well, and you’ve helped the band get situated and plugged in before rehearsal starts.

After everyone has arrived and is all ready to go start sound check ASAP. No one likes to stand around and get started late. Our monitor techs have been working with each band member beforehand if possible to get gains on the monitor console set as early as possible for everyone. For us at CCC sound check is primarily to get a general mix going for the band in their ears that will be refined as the night goes on. At the FOH console we make sure that at the very least the lead singers mic is open and at full volume during this time (at best, the entire band is up and raring to go).  We do this to create the environment the band will use their IEM mix within to help create it faster and avoid lots of stopping during rehearsal to adjust each mix.  We always start with the click, then add the whole drum set (we have a basic drum mix that gets everyone started with gains set and ready to go), then we add the bass guitar, then each electric, the acoustic, and lastly add the piano inputs.  We don’t set levels in isolation because that isn’t how they are listening to their mix, they hear the band as a whole during the service so we make sure to have that full sound when we do sound check.  We check the vocals separately but make sure to add them together where possible so that once again. Once again the idea is that we are giving them as much of a full mix as we can for them to adjust not just individual pieces.  Lastly, we have several tracks that run during the service that have added by default to everyone’s ears and can be adjusted on demand where necessary.  Doing that saves time by not adding an additional 12 inputs or so that we need to get set.  

At FOH however it’s a different picture. We’ve created a very general mix that can be used to start with (mentioned above to help get mixes set faster) and since gains are dialed in at monitors we only need to trim our gains here and there as necessary (this step is added because of our how consoles work, if your consoles audio is split first or  your just have one console that won’t apply).  Most of the time during sound check is spent working with our outboard waves processor dialing plugins to the player’s style and intensity. We do have a template for Waves to help speed the process  but compressor thresholds must be set each time, gates must be adjusted as trim changes, any dynamic compressors or gates (i.e. C6, F6 etc) must be set correctly.  The template is only there so we can avoid needing to do a full setup each time but rather start with something that’s close that just needs to be dialed in. But since the whole band is playing for about 15 minutes during the check there is no need for a frantic pace, we can move step by step making sure everything is set correctly. The big thing here that gets the operator to a mix faster is the use of templates.  For instance, we have a template for our sound board that includes things like an already programmed in EQ for each channel that gets reloaded every week, proper bussing already programmed, channel strips labelled before rehearsal starts, and also things like delay and verb settings already dialed in. These all save time during rehearsal and allow the technician to quickly configure and focus on improving the mix rather than spending all the time making the mix.

Rehearsal time is also a great time to start listen to the musicality of the band.  Are there any solos you need to be highlighting? Are your gates opening when the drummer is hitting those toms? Do you have enough headroom before feedback to be able to push the voices if you need to? Personally, I like to start making note of who is doing the guitar solos and what parts of the song will require me to push a certain aspect of the mix to bring extra depth. If you have near field speakers they are great to use to check for tonality issues in voices, guitars, and also to listen in on the gate actions.  But you need to be careful not to wear your ears out in doing so.  Too much soloing will fatigue your ears much faster than listening to the PA. Ear fatigue should be something you are aware of as the night goes on. Make sure you do all your EQ’ing first and take care of things that don’t depend on rested ears to do well.  I find that by the time our first run-through has been completed at full volume I need to have my EQ’s set and ready to move on to mixing FX and working with our Waves Multirack because at this point after about an hour of mixing at 92 db, ear fatigue will start to affect what you are hearing (note this isn’t to say you will suffer hearing loss just that, like every muscle in your body, your ear drum will start to get tired and not operate as well as it did earlier that day).

One last thing I like to do at the end of a rehearsal or recording session is to very quickly bounce a 2-track of the master bus and upload it to an audio host like soundcloud.com or another medium so the artists can start to hear what they sound like. It also allows players time to practice at home to an actual recording before the weekend comes.  In some cases I’ll even do some immediate playback in virtual sound check if there is a song I’d really like to hear again or get our Worship Pastors opinion on so that he can speak into my mix.  Remember it’s our job to make sure we are accurately amplifying the band not completely changing tone and musicality to fit our tastes.  Regardless of how you rehearse, continue to communicate with the band leader and have him/her listen in on your mix from time to time, get their opinion, and strive to the type of sound tech that rehearses well!

Back to the Basics: Line Check vs. Sound Check

This round of back to the basics is focused on differentiating between two related but different tasks that we need to do while we prepare for any event, recording, or live show.  They are line checking and sound checking. The biggest red flag is when you stop doing both on a regular basis. There are a few exceptions for places like Houses of Worship where there is often no change in band setup between weeks (this does mean that if you change something you need to be sure to do a line check before rehearsal starts). On the whole, as we discussed in the first part of this series, the key here is to be completely ready before any band members arrive. I’m not going to lie here, there are have been several weeks when I haven’t been so diligent at making sure that my stage is completely ready for the artists who will perform each week at our weekend services.  Each time it seems, I find myself running around fixing small problems that should have never been an issue if I had done a line check before rehearsal started.

What exactly is a line check you ask? Well that depends on the context really. Sometimes, like on a tour, line check means simply going through each input all the way back to the source and making sure you are getting clear audio with no ground hums or breaks at each new venue.  For a corporate event it may mean going through all the wireless channels and checking to make sure there aren’t any RF issues that will cause issues down the road when you don’t have any time to troubleshoot them.  For a studio, its about making sure your DAW is routed correctly and the audio from each mic is as clear as possible. Lastly, for a church, it’s checking to make sure that there wasn’t any visible damage to gear or wiring that week that you didn’t notice and that everything is patched in correctly.  At CCC, whenever we do a big layout change or a set build and it all has been taken apart, it’s important that I take the time to verify clear audio and correct patching as we have several points of failure/patching in our signal chains from things that were likely disassembled because of the set change. Often I do this step with that first stage setup after a set change or a big changeover after an external event or a special event like Christmas or Easter. Because we maintain our own drum set and keyboard I’ll also take the time here to make sure that aren’t any glaring issues with drum heads or within Mainstage. I try to always remember that when I don’t check or when I settle in and assume that nothing will go wrong is usually when it does and most often when we aren’t adequately prepared to quickly solve the problem.  

If that’s what a line check is here is what a sound check should be, what we actually do with the band before rehearsal starts.  Sound check is meant to be for setting monitor mixes and dialing in the basic settings of the FOH soundboard so that when the run-through begins everyone is able to focus on improving our area without needing to worry about finishing setup or ironing out details. At CCC our soundchecks begin with the click and additively progress through each instrumental input (we hear the whole drum set, than add the bass guitar, add the electric guitar, etc, so that at the end each musician can hear it all together and the first song sounds a lot better).  During this time I always try to make sure at least a basic mix is up and on in the room so the musicians are sure to set levels in response to house levels and not in isolation since the PA will be on during the event.  At the very least we make sure the band on the lead vocalist mics are up and open so we can be sure to listen for feedback issues that will likely show up right away if they exist.  In the studio world this is primarily for monitoring setup and making sure everything in the DAW is working properly before we start recording.  For simpler corporate events this is usually just long enough to put headsets on speakers and get them live on the stage to make sure everything is going to sound great for the event.

In any case, to reiterate, do your best to be finished line checking by the time musicians and vocalists arrive.  As technicians, we need to be sure to honor the time of our artists or customers and make sure that we have already line checked the gear before they arrive so we can get right down to business when it’s time for sound check and rehearsal.