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!

Editorial: Three Statements We All Need to Hear

Welcome back to Studio.Stage.Live.com! Hopefully you have enjoyed my writing recently. I have been touching on subjects that probably aren’t as popular as plugin reviews or live mixing videos but rather things that I have personally been working through or helped others through. I did want to add that if you ever have feedback about any of the posts on this site please leave a comment in the post or shoot me a quick email at daniel@studiostagelive.com. I truly want this to be a useful tool in for audio engineers. I’m not out to make money on this, my goal is to truly just be a resource people can use to better themselves or help others. I’m also looking for additional writers to further that goal. If you’re interested shoot me an email or drop me a message on facebook. I’d love to follow up.

My TD, where I work, has a great analogy. It applies to most things but it’s his overarching policy when it comes to technical matters. “We need to have a great cake before we frost it.” In other words before you get into all the crazy or cool stuff, you need to have the basics nailed down and basically flawless. Following closely after that he says things like “stop trying to re-invent the wheel.” Meaning, if someone else is already doing that task well, look at what they are doing and start there, don’t try some crazy method before you’ve tried the normal methods. The last thing I hear him say is “consistency is king,” in that whatever we do and however we do it, those results need to be reproducible and predictable. This week I want to dissect those phrases and how they should shape what we do in audio production.

That first statement is “we need to have a great cake before we frost it.” For audio the meaning is pretty simple. The basics of our mix (i.e. the balance, EQ, basic verbs, most importantly mic choice/placement) need to be solid before we get into crazy routing or compression to do cool stuff. I’ve been guilty of this in past personally where I’m focused on getting the drum tones to sound good and not realizing that my gates aren’t opening when they should be or chasing feedback issues when it’s clear that I have a gain staging issues in my dynamics processing. Probably the biggest example of this is new engineers wanting to get into waves processing ASAP before they’ve even mastered how the console they are mixing on works. No matter the circumstances, make sure you can get to a good mix without any of the extra tools (I have plenty and need to be continually checking this) and then consider using those tools to further enhance your mix.

The second line I hear a lot is “don’t reinvent the wheel.” This comes in all areas but I think applies especially in the studio environment. The best example I can think of is using presets. I wouldn’t argue that any of those presets are perfect but they are all at least a great starting point. When I have a new source come down the pipe at me I’ll do a bit of research on what others are doing with that type of input and load up some stuff and click through the preset menus to see if I can find something to start with. Not only can this save you time but it can save you from going down some rabbit hole and ending up with something that just doesn’t sound right. This also applies to mic techniques as well. I’m all for experimenting but at some point, if you’re having issues, you’ve got to fall back on what you already have found out works. Apply those basics you’ve hopefully learned and just do what others have done. At the very least it’s a starting point and will get you going.

That last phrase he says a lot is “consistency is king.” In the live sound realm, where I spend most of my time, consistency is a huge value of my work. It’s important to my TD and those above him that people who come in and hear my mixes be treated to similar balance, week to week. If you’re touring, the artist you’re mixing for is probably asking for the same thing. This often means using templates that have EQ settings baked in and gain staging already setup for the most part. But consistency is more than just pre-programming everything you can to generate consistency of sound, it’s also about using gear that will work consistently, every….single….time. Risk assessment should be part of your job in the live sound and touring worlds. Especially when it comes to gear choice. What can we get our hands on that will produce consistent results every time it’s used? What processes can we put into place that will drive us down specific paths in our mixing style and ensure zero downtime? Be asking yourselves these questions if you haven’t already. If you’re constantly trying to Frankenstein conversion cables and wireless units each week, be ok with a little downtime. However if zero downtime is the goal, you may need to spend a bit more on your equipment to lower that failure risk quite a bit. There are a lot of off brand audio manufacturers that, in all honesty, probably work pretty well as their name brand competitors, but, the difference is in the internals. Usually when it comes to electronics you get what you pay for. If you buy the cheapest option it’s likely going to have some Chineseum in it and have lower quality control standards. However, when you get more mainstream gear, like what you’d find on a tour, you’re going to find yourself needing to do less maintenance and have fewer issues that cause downtime in your rig. You’ll also get very consistent sounds as well, which from what I’ve learned helps take you to that next level pretty quickly.

I’m sure you guys have heard phrases like this before or have been considering their impact, the key is to actually implement the principles. If you are looking to get the next best audio tool or plugin, before you buy it, ask yourself, “do I have all my ducks in a row with what I have and is this the only solution to my issue?” Or “am I trying to do something a lot of people are doing but doing it in a completely different way?” Lastly, “is the real complaint from my client about consistency?” I’m not out here trying to stop you from buying that new tool or poke holes in your work, the goal here to make sure that as engineers we are as best as we can be. In this age of technology it’s easy to miss simple solutions because a friend of ours got something new. The underlying principle here is that we need to have thought out our decisions before we pull the trigger. So sit down this week sometime, think through these three statements and how they might apply and see what new innovations come to mind as you apply it to your work. Happy mixing!

Editorial: What to do When Everything Breaks

In this season of holiday shows and long recording sessions gearing up for summer things just break. We’ve all been there, up against a deadline, everyone is waiting, and something critical that has never had an issue just takes a dump. For me that was the story of the week. My team put on the annual Christmas show at CCC where I work. Our church’s Christmas show is usually always stressful and involves some pretty intense triggered sequences.

This year was no different. Because of some personal situations I was a little late to join the team in rehearsals. Leading up to our production week it all started with some instability with our outboard processing gear. Our soundgrid server, something that has had no hiccups in almost 4 years, just started having some random dropouts. Since the entire band runs through that gear, any dropout, no matter how short is significant. On top of that, our video matrix, which is aging but still works for us, broke down as well. The team did however get things stabilized and we were set for rehearsals. We thought we’d seen the worst of it but little did we know that more was coming. Wednesday night we held our final full rehearsal for the big show, we had a few issues but things went pretty well, then, on thursday we held our weekend service rehearsal and things went a bit nuts. The soundgrid server went haywire again with dropouts despite having received a brand new network, new cables, the works. After a long phone call with Waves tech support we thought we had a solution but remained skeptical. By this time our lighting director had pretty much finished programming for our Christmas show and despite our fog machines not working as expected, he had worked through it.

We got through our first show on friday with a fair amount of issues with our video playback system that is operated by a brand new iMac Pro. It was clear we had some issues to work through. With some work staying late we talked through a few things, helped figure stuff out, and went home mostly ready for our second show the next day. Little did we know what we would go through.

During rehearsal, our issues would really hit a climax. We soon discover that one of the video output devices has basically completely failed. We don’t have a duplicate of it so we would need to come up with another option. In the process we needed to restart the iMac Pro and when that starting to boot back up it totally lost it’s startup drive. After hearing some frustrated voices I came back to take a look and just started trying stuff one at a time to see if we could get it to come back. After re-selecting the boot drive, it came back. A huge sigh of relief because that computer drives a huge visual element it was time to keep moving forward. We redirected the triggers playing the video toward a different computer, adjusted when things get triggered and had just enough time to try it just once before the show. Once again, the show goes pretty well. God really held things together and we worked together as a team to just make it happen.

Then, during the weekend service rehearsals on saturday, the waves server glitched again. With it being too late to call Waves my TD just decided to mix without it and he pulled off a masterful mix in no time at all. Years of experience are what made that happen. I’m thankful he was mixing because I’m not sure I would have been able to do that. However, I did need to find a solution because with no full rehearsals remaining I wouldn’t have much time to develop a mix without waves. Not impossible, but if we can find a solution, that would be preferable. So because Waves tech support wasn’t able to diagnose the problem yet, I took to social media and the 4 audio groups I’m a part of. Lots of people have experienced similar issues so I was just making a list of everything I hadn’t done yet and I’d try everything. I think the clincher was a server update that had literally been released days ago that I didn’t know was out. However, I found myself still checking everything else just to be safe. We monitored the changes to the server throughout the services but still did not use it. Having sorted out the bad gear issues our lighting team was finally out front of things and we were set as well.

During our final rehearsal, we experienced one of the worst of our issues, one of our lead vocals had some health issues and we found ourselves scrambling again to prepare for whatever happens. Waves had some other issues but they worked themselves out and I was able to test out a mix without waves to see what I’d need to do if the worst happens. After rehearsing some options that might be needed during the show, it was time to clear the room and open the doors for the show. The two shows that would follow went off without a hitch. We had made it.

I tell you that story so that you know that even the most resourced and planned events can still have issues. We will all have to solve problems on the fly. The key is to respond appropriately, take a second to think, include your team, and work as quickly as possible. Doing those four things will ensure that you emerge the on the other side of adversity with friendships AND the gig in tact. The first step is to respond appropriately. This is probably my weakest area. So many times I’ve responded harshly instead of just staying level-headed. If you can master this initial stage of troubleshooting, the rest will all fall into place.

Secondly, just take a second to think. Consider the implications to your issue (i.e. what else is affected that you cannot see at this moment), weigh the options internally, and just breathe. Especially that last part. When you stop to think, just breathe. Most of us don’t respond to stress by taking a second to relax but when you do, you will always make much better decisions. Than proceed directly to step 3, include your team. It is easy to make decisions in a bubble but if you are a part of team, odds are, what you decide will affect others. Because of that, everyone needs to be on the same page. This is where producers for complicated live events can be extremely helpful. As you include your team, don’t forget to to trust them in the process. You’ve all been through the ringer, everyone has skills that are useful in a pinch, resist the urge to micromanage and let everyone help. This came into play especially during our last rehearsal as our team flexed its’ muscles and quickly prepared for all the possibilities that could happen through the show.

Lastly, work quickly. This is obviously implied but its’ importance is also key. Once everyone knows what to do, there is often a timeframe the work must be completed to be considered a useful solution. In our case we had both short and fast timeframes. So many times I’ve seen people who just always work slowly. The solution is easily attainable but they don’t forth the effort to make it happen. Each situation is different however. Sometimes you need to work slow and methodically. No matter what you have to do, if you have to stop and think again for a brief moment just to collect yourself again, do it. We all make better decisions when we remain objective and calm. When I need to do a quick routing change in my SSL I almost have to take a breath and then go at it because it is so easy to make a mistake. There are so many different ways to do things on digital consoles, the key is to find the fastest method to do it and then check your work.

When it’s all said and done, you have to be able to look back and be proud of how you handled yourself. If you finish an event, solve all the problems, and then turn around and see a wake of messed up friendships or unsatisfied customers, you’ll wish you’d done something different. Do yourself a favor, take a breath, think about your options, include your team or your customers, and get it done quickly. Hopefully this advice can help you navigate the murky waters of the holiday season when we all are up against a wall at one point or another. As always, if you have any questions, or even just need some troubleshooting advice, comment below or email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com. If you like what you are reading and want to read more, you can subscribe to this blog at this link. Each week you’ll get an email when a new post is up. Good luck on your productions and recordings, I’ll see you on the flipside next week!