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!

Waves Multirack: Just a Thought…

I wanted to take a break in the middle of this big series talking about my multirack setup because it’s just a lot of information to keep up with so it’s time for something just a bit different than you might have expected. If you missed those  first four posts here are some links for you (Vocals, Bass Guitar, Kick and Snare, Electric Guitar). Before writing this series I knew I wanted to be sure to make at least two points and make them stick. The first is that my setup doesn’t work for everyone. There are times when it doesn’t work for me and I need to start over and times when only minor changes are needed. Templates are starting points to decrease setup time not permanent configurations. I’ve said this a lot and so I don’t feel the need to drill this down even more if only to remind you that what I’ve been writing about is my starting point, there is a lot of tweaking, editing, adjusting, burning with fire, and general changes that are made so that it fits every weekend or event. This file exists to get me where I need to get to faster so I can focus on mixing and not programming.

The second thing I wanted to talk about is the topic of this post, sometimes you can over-process, overthink, and overdo live mixing. I’m seeing a trend of using as many plugins as you can thinking that if only you had that one plugin all your problems will be solved instead of going back to the basics and making sure you XLR lines are all cleanly soldered, you have a full understanding about every setting within your soundboard, etc. As with all technological advancements you still need to establish some sort of balance between traditional methodology and utilizing those shiny new tools that are now available. Keep in mind, I am in no way arguing against the use of waves plugins or processing of any kind, just that when you do, make sure there isn’t a fundamental issue that is easily fixed first not already taken care of. After you’ve done that it’s just as important to make sure you aren’t over-processing to the detriment of your mix.

I’ve compiled three things to keep aware of when you about setting up your waves plugins whether you are in a live setting or in a studio. As with every tool, it is possible to use it the wrong way or in a way that does not work as well as perhaps another tool.

If you have more than a few plugins on a percussive input (i.e. kick, snare, toms, etc) it’s time to go back to square one.

I see this so many times, whether in the live or studio world, people are stacking compressors, harmonics, EQs, etc up on things like the kick drum or the snare in search of that magical sound. To make matters worse these usually sit right on top of the processing they are already running on the soundboard (usually at least an EQ maybe some compression). I’ve had a few friends ask why their kick drum sounds dont’ sound quite right and one of the biggest and I would argue most neglected reasons is that they haven’t changed/tuned the drum heads in a really long time not because they aren’t using the right plugins. Back in those early days I used to fight getting good drum sounds and had never been at a place that really takes care of their drums like my current job and so I didn’t really know how easy things really get when you have a properly tuned and maintained drum kit. I can do all my EQ work on my console and can than use one of a few compressors doing different things, send it through NLS and that’s it. If you’ve hit that wall, take a minute, turn off all processing even your EQ on the board, walk up the drums, listen to it being played in person, than walk back to the board and start over. Use as few tools as you can. Save all your cool tricks for more dynamic sources like guitars and bus groups. You’ll thank me later because the easiest way to suck the life out of your drums is to over-process them. Secondly, make sure the rest of the fundamentals are there. I mentioned going up and listening to the drum itself because you will hear issues like that and realize that you need to fix that. Are your mics in the right places? Did you adjust them after the drummer got settled in? Are they all working? You get the picture.

If you don’t have the headroom like you used to have, start turning plugins off. This also goes the same for guitars and noise floors.

It is so easy to layer compression in a channel and then compound that even more by turning on a group compressor. Every time audio goes through a gain stage, noise is introduced. The quality of the pre-amp modeled or otherwise will affect how much is added. If you have another gain stage or compressor after this you are now gaining the added noise and so on and so forth. If you setup your gain without enough room before feedback, each time you compress you approach that limit even more until you lose all of your headroom. The thing to remember is when you add a compressor, you multiply the ratios. For example, if I have the c6 running on a vocal (average of 5:1), a cla-76 (running at 8:1), and then a group compressor (running at 3:1), that means your total ratio is 120:1. Sometimes this is a good thing but I’m guessing it’s not great for most. If your overall ratio is approaching or above 60:1, on any input, take a good look at how you are using that compression an whether or not you are actually improving the sound. There are some instances where this is a good thing but many more where it can be troublesome or not worth the squeeze.

The same thing goes for noise flors. Every plugin you add in and every gain stage will add noise to your input. There are many ways to mitigate how well this noise is heard but this is definitely something to consider if you are having issues. In fact, many of your waves plugin presets will have that “analog” knob turned on by default in many of their presets which is turning on the measured noise that is added from the original analog plugin. Sometimes you can turn this off, in many instances (I would argue anything outside of the studio) turning this off will benefit you. If it is bringing some sounds you like just be careful where this simulated warmth is coming from and what is after it. For me, this is one of the reasons why my HComp is sitting at the end of every chain it is in, because I don’t want that noise to be compressed and staged. In other occasions because you are adding in harmonics, plugins like the Vitamin, the plugins naturally add noise because it is yet another gain stage. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t use these plugins, we just need to be aware of the “price of admission” when it comes to increased processing. 

If you don’t know what plugins to use, try not using any to start with and add in plugins that solve specific problems. See above rules for additional guidance.

You don’t have to use a plugin on every input. I know, I know, I’ve just spent four weeks advocating using the NLS plugin on every input, but for me, I have a specific purpose and I’m not afraid to take it out of the chain if there is a problem being created by its presence. Using that plugin allows me to get the warmth out of the drivers in my Meyer PA that I usually don’t feel until I hit much higher SPL levels. When I demo’d it, if I’d found that it didn’t do anything that I needed, I would have happily walked on past and never used it again. Don’t be afraid to do that. If you’re having trouble with an input, take a minute, turn off all your processing (EQ, compression, everything!) and listen again to the issues you are hearing to make sure your processing isn’t the source (more often than not, it might be!). Than one by one, turn your EQ on and fix something. Listen again. Are there dynamic issues to be fixed? Ok, turn on the compressor of your choice. Listen again. Is it better than before you turned on that plugin? If there aren’t any more issues, just let it be and check in on the fundamentals in play like mic choice/placement, etc. If there are more problems, rinse and repeat. Don’t just throw plugins in there because you like using it or are familiar with it, put it on there because you know that the plugin in question will add something or fix a problem. Then, set it up and bypass it and make sure things are still better off just to make sure.

One last bit of advice, if you are new to the whole plugin thing and were never really exposed enough to the stuff that is being emulated leaving you unsure where to begin, you could start in waves by using some of the signal chain plugins like Butch Vig Vocals, CLA Signature Series, Maserati Signature Series, Greg Wells Signature Series, and so many more. The key here is that these are sets of plugins that can be used over a wide variety of inputs. Each plugin is a specifically designed plugin chain and gives you an easy way to achieve results quickly. You don’t have much control over each setting but you get the basics and it will make starting out easier. If you are more experienced than I wouldn’t recommend these because you will likely want more control but if speed and usability is your goal or you are just starting out, these are very reasonably priced packages that can do a lot for you without much effort. Than later, once you get your feet wet within the waves ecosystem you can start picking up the individual plugins that these are using. Just my two cents….

Don’t worry, this was just a one week reprieve from the fire hose, I will be back next week to discuss how I handle acoustic guitars. If you like what you are reading and want to be sure not to miss the next post, please feel free to subscribe to this blog at www.studiostagelive.com/subscribe. Lastly, as always if you have any questions feel free to comment below or email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com. See you next week!