Tips and Tricks: Automation Part 5

This is week five of our series on automation. In the last few weeks we have covered the pros and cons of automating and last week I walked you through my process of automating. This week, I just want to give you all some pointers to get you started. These are things that I either was told by someone who learned the hard way or learned the hard way myself or just little tips I picked up along the way. I won’t go into too much detail to keep things moving along and squeeze as many ideas in here as possible. I hope these next 6 ideas will help you get started and maybe start a conversation about what we have all been learning as we begin to push our mixes to the next level.

For me, It all starts for me with remember to take your time. So many times in my career I have been up against the clock and I rush into the solution and end up making a mistake or I let myself get all worked up to get things done that I fail to think through the situation. That rushing to the solution usually meant that I would miss something that would cost me twice as much time as if I’d taken a second to think and do what really needs to be done. If there was one thing I could tell a younger version of myself to do it’s to take a moment, breathe, and then dig in full force. Remember the phrase, “measure twice, cut once?” Well it applies to just about every problem solving situation in the tech world and especially to programming scenes into a sound console. 

Next is to check your work. I know, I know, we are rushed sometimes and you just don’t have the time. Well, make the time. Especially when it comes to those big wiring setups, doing a line check before sound check will save so much running and wasted time, under the gun no less, trying to figure out why the cymbals are showing up in the keyboard channels. This also applies to studio work. I’ve found that the higher the variety of speakers you listen to your mix in, the better you can get it sounding. In regards to automation that means taking the time to step through all of your scenes before the show and make sure what you programmed has been saved correctly. The times when I don’t do this I either make a mistake or find myself needing to do so much more just to transition between scenes that automation probably wasn’t worth it. 

The next thing to remember is to save your work often. Whether you are doing a wiring diagram on a computer, working on a sound console getting a complex show setup, or working in your DAW, save your work. Save incrementally. Save often. Much like the voting ideals here in Illinois, you should save early and often. For big shows or recordings, I’ll create multiple chains of saves so that if I need to step back in time, it’s easy to do so. Additionally, saving your work can really save your butt if you try to propagate some changes in your scenes that goes awry. There are even a few consoles out there that automatically save your showfile behind the scenes. If your console doesn’t do that, set a timer on your phone, and just do it on your own. I’d recommend for any bigger show that you automate that you create new showfiles after every rehearsal. You probably won’t need them but there will be a time when something will have happened and you’ll need those showfiles. Trust me. 

Despite all the automation, it is still important to mix. You can make as many scenes as you would find helpful but I try to just stick with one scene per item or song. This encourages me to still mix throughout the song and be alert as to what is going on around me. Remember, automation and scenes are a tool not an auto-mixer. A surefire way to know if you are automating to many things is to notice when you are hitting “go” for instrumental solos instead of just pushing the fader or if you realize your head is stuck looking at your console screen instead of looking up and mixing what you see and hear. Computers don’t know how to read rooms or respond to that solo like we do as mixers. Let the computers do what they are good at, saving a starting point for songs, and keep you doing you, mixing the song with the band. 

One thing I took awhile to learn is getting fade times right between scenes. Too long of a fade time will make your scene changes be very audibly noticeable. Too short and you may as well not even fade the source in/out at all. The best guideline I can give you is experiment with different times during rehearsal or playback and then pick the time that feels the closest to if you were actually going to manually fade inputs in and out. Each console will be a little different based on how the software actually fades but I am usually around 1.2 seconds for fading into a song and 1.8 seconds coming out a song into speech.

The last tip I wanted to give was to make sure you get comfortable with automating before you go big. I wouldn’t recommend your first show with automation be a Christmas program or a big concert. Find smaller, simpler events to experiment with and learn more about how your console works. Beyond that, once you are comfortable, really dig in and be thinking about what would be helpful. A great milestone is to get to a point where don’t need to use mutes very often. This allows for smooth faded transitions through the show which adds a nice layer of invisibility to your work. I always think that if people don’t see or hear any issues, the techs are invisible. This should be the goal. Your mixing should feel natural and transparent. Also consider using that automation to help you do things that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do. Before I automated I found myself always making a mute group to kill the FX returns when needed to clean up speech but now, I can just use the scene to lower the return a bit. Having just a touch of reverb helps to keep a sense of consistency to those few seconds of speech between songs. Not talking about lots here but just enough that you can just barely hear it. I discovered that once I started doing that (only with the verbs, delays are always killed) made those transitions sound audibly put together and less jarring.  Automating can also improve your FX game as well. Adjusting verbs can really bring some life to each song you may not have been able to hear up to this point. Give it a try, I promise you’ll love it. Not only will your mixes be active and responding to the band but your FX will as well and you will start to hear a difference in your mixes. 

Well, those are my six tips for mixing while automating. I recognize how basic they are and how they probably can be applied universally to mixing but I feel as though automation doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be really simple. This week I’d love to know from you what you’ve learned. What are the things you have had to learn the hard way or the things that you have found to be essential to your mixing technique in regards to automation or just mixing in general? Just write in the comments below. If you have any questions for me, drop me an email at daniel@studiostagelive.com or drop a comment below. If you’d like to know when new posts are up on the site, go to this link, and subscribe to the blog and you will get an email shortly after any new post goes live. See you next week!

Tips and Tricks: Automation Part 4

Welcome back to week 4 of our series talking about Automation. In the last few weeks we’ve talked about the pros and cons of automation but this week is when we get to the fun part. We are going to be talking about setting up console automation and my process to ensure everything goes well during the show. There are hurdles to every problem when it comes to technical issues, especially when it comes to automation, but when you prepare appropriately, the risks are minimized and you can easily reap the benefits that automation can bring.

But first, it’s important to do a quick overview of the terms involved to make sure we are all on the same page. Depending on your console, you may or may not have some of the options I’m discussing available to you, I’ll try to point out where some of those differences that I’ve noticed are as we go through this post. The first can be found in the scene creation process. The lower end of the spectrum in digital consoles often just asks you what you’d like to be “safed” out of the storing process. That is the first term I’d like to define. When it comes to automation, safe, means to protect from storing or automatic changes when scenes trigger. It basically puts that channel into “manual” mode for the lack of a better word. With more feature rich consoles, you will be able to determine safe items, either globally or per scene, what settings are stored in the scene, and what settings are recalled when the scene is triggered. Separating what is stored and what is recalled can give some pretty advanced options when it comes to creating a show but there are a few things you can do to keep it simple.

You can usually choose to one of two methods when it comes to storing settings. Some say you should only store what you need and recall everything and others say you should store everything and only recall what you’d like to change with each scene. While there are benefits to both sides of the equation, I fall in the second camp. On our console, we store every possible variable with each scene and then turn off those things we don’t want to recall with each scene. For instance, we store input gain settings but don’t recall them for most inputs except the tracks inputs, because those tracks change for each song (almost like a different input) we store and recall gain settings so the operator can maintain good levels in the preamp throughout the show. This also allows us to turn on new variables and already have a setting saved into the scene. On normal band channels we are only recalling sends, compressor/gate settings, and fader levels (and a few other things specific to our setup and console). It doesn’t have to be complicated. Than when we need to do more complex things we go into the settings and turn it on as needed. I think some people see automating as complicated because they believe you need to save everything and are afraid of that messing things up but when you keep things simple, save only what you believe you’ll use, and ease your way into it, this big hurdle becomes much smaller.

The last few terms to discuss beforehand are duplication and propagation. Not all consoles have these options so you may end up coming up with creative ways to do the same thing but these two terms can be very helpful as you begin to make your cues and find yourself needing to make global changes or make a scene really quickly. The first is duplication, which is exactly what it sounds. I use this a lot to create the basis for my shows (I’ll talk about that next) and just means I’m going to make another scene with exactly the same settings saved from my current scene into a new one. Secondly is propagation, which is a little more tricky. Sometimes you make all your scenes and realize that you need to change one setting, by the same amount or set it to a universal value, in each scene. Every board calls it something different and you should always be careful (i.e. save showfile before attempting so you can get back if you mess it up) but this allows you to make that change you wanted.

My process of setting this all up is a little bit challenging when you look at it from the outside but when you’re doing it, it just makes sense. It all starts with a good template. That means having a showfile setup with all the background settings already set. I don’t make any cues or anything special like that just things like basic EQs, compressor settings close (threshold set so nothing happens), automation setup and waiting, etc. The only cue I have in the showfile is an all off cue that has all the faders down, basically the scene we leave recalled on the console when we walk away. From that scene I copy it once and call it “Worship.” With that scene I go through soundcheck and the first run-through. The idea is to create a mix within the worship scene that is a good average for all the songs and just a good mix in general (I typically don’t dig into the FX for this scene, only the standard reverbs are engaged). This is a cue I’ll keep as well for easy reference and access if something happens with my other cues so I always have this basic cue available for use in a bind. Then, during the break between run-throughs I duplicate this cue according to how many songs there are in the set. After they are all labelled I’m ready for the next part of rehearsal. At this point I have an “All Off,” “Worship,” and a cue for each song. During that second run through as I’m mixing each song I’m able to tweak FX, adjust the vocal mix, dial in delay times, etc specific to each song. Occasionally for bigger shows I’ll take notes and remind myself where the solos are if needed. Within Multirack I’m checking during each song to see if I need to make an additional cue within Multirack to be triggered from the console. But, mixing is the easy part, the hardest part of automating a show is the transitions.

They can be made easier however. For instance, if I’m needing to make a welcome cue for the service but the band is playing underneath it, starting the first song, I’ll just duplicate the cue for the first song and place it where the welcome needs to be. In that newly made welcome cue I’ll just drop the vocal verb and voila, I have a ready-made welcome cue. If we are doing a worship focus between songs, I’ll go through the same process to duplicate the cue of the song that is being used as the underscore. For video cues, I just copy the “all off” cue I have set aside and turn up the video inputs to taste. The same goes for any cues necessary for announcements, the message, etc. If I have time I’ll make those extra cues during that run-through so that as we are checking for transitions for the band and talking through the show I can run cue to cue along with them. At first you may not be fast enough on the programming to do this but with time you will learn speed and be able to track along with the producers.

The last step is to adjust transition times. Mutes trigger usually when the button is pressed to advance the scene however some consoles allow you to have them trigger at the end of the transition. I prefer to have them trigger at the beginning so my “go” button also triggers whatever muting or unmuting I’d like to happen. Because the position of the fader is also being stored, if I want my pastors mic on for his cue immediately (instead of fading up with the transition) in the previous cue I’ll save that fader where I want it but muted than when I trigger the scene change, the mute triggers, the fader is already up, and we are good to go. With that process, I can have mics on and full volume at the instant the go button is pushed and the rest of the inputs fade out or in accordingly. As a safety precaution, I’ll often find myself flipping to the fader pages most critical to the transition and watching to make sure everything goes off without a hitch as well. However, I will admit, I do this more out of comfort than necessity. I also make sure to adjust the fade time itself. Some consoles use this time to adjust anything that is not the mute button smoothly over that period of time. My SSL L500 for instance will fade into the EQ curve I’ve assigned or removed. Things like thresholds will gradually move instead of jumping. This is often only a feature of higher end consoles but most consoles will allow for at least the fader to move slowly over that time. This is one of the biggest advantages to automation I believe, at least audibly, is that when you transition the band off, you aren’t muting, you are fading. So even if someone bumps a string or hits a note, it doesn’t slam off, it fades out.

These smooth transitions can allow the FOH technician to have more control over when things happen so he/she can feel out the room and the transition itself and execute the transition when it feels right not when things have quieted down enough so that mutes aren’t heard. For band transition I’m at least 1.2 seconds fading them in so my faders are up by the time they hit their first notes and 1.8 seconds on the way out so things are allowed to linger. Often times however I will slow it down quite a bit to help it feel smoother. These times are arbitrary to the fade curves on my console so you really need to hear how it sounds on your console and go with the times that feel right.  By that I mean, don’t trigger the fades so they are very audible (i.e. instead of letting the band ring out naturally you trigger the transition and they are faded out electronically), trigger the fades when it feels like it should be happening. It’s a subtle difference but will make a big impact. Often times I’m doing the time changes and last minute programming either after rehearsal is over on Thursday or before it starts on Saturday so I get a full run-through with my programming and can check that everything is good. From there it is smooth sailing. Every time we play the song I can improve the mix, feel out the room, make a few changes, see how the crowd is responding, make a few changes, etc. Automation allows me to really be able to refine my mix and end up with a great and consistent product, each and every week.

Lastly, if you find yourself realizing that you need to change that compression setting globally, here is where propagation happens. If your console can do it you usually have a choice to set a universal value to the variable or alter it, say +5, to whatever value is saved. Just make sure that if you try this, save your showfile beforehand. Just do it. You’ll thank me later. If your console cannot do it, just quickly step through each applicable scene and make the change. Issues like this are why I always advocate making the worship cue first and automating second. Yes you can save time if you have pre-made cues but you might end up losing that time later making tiny changes like what I just talked about. Get a good mix first, than automate second.  Resist the urge to duplicate cues until you are sure you like what you have.

With that I wanted to challenge everyone this week, if you aren’t automating, just take a few minutes and think about it again. Look at your console, see what you can do, and really evaluate if not doing it is really better for your situation. Even if all you did was create that worship cue and a couple speech cues, that would really bring so much consistency to your mix and I know your bands are asking for that. Even if step one is really getting a template put together so that you can begin to automate in a little while, just try it. If after doing it for a few weeks, you’re struggling, you’ve had some issues, and you just aren’t comfortable, great, than you know it’s not for you. But I have yet to meet someone that really tried it, stuck with it long enough to know, and realized that they were better mixers without it. Just a few scenes can go a long way, you don’t have to create a scene for everything to start. If you have questions or need help translating this post in particular to your board please leave a comment below or email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com. Next week I’m going to end the series by going through a bit of checklist for automating and mention a few things I’ve learned while automating sound boards myself. If you want to get an email when next week’s post is up, follow this link, and subscribe to my blog. You’ll receive a weekly notification when a new post is up. That’s all for now, happy automating!

Tips and Tricks: Automation Part 3

On this the third week of our Tips and Tricks Series focusing on Automation we are going to get to the pros of using automation in your mix. Last week we talked about the issues when implementing and using automation can be and they included things like fear of the system breaking down and the need for better time management during rehearsal times. If you missed that post, check it out at this link. But if you decide to start utilizing tools like board automation than you can reap several benefits that would be nearly impossible to achieve without the use of some sort of scene memory tool, which is at its’ core, automation. The benefits I planned to discuss in this post include things like just being able to getting to mix faster, the ability to bring a level of consistency to your mix even with inconsistent inputs, and the ability to get into the more complex audio routing and bussing with ease so that your mix can be more dynamic.

But, let’s start with the most basic of benefits that I can see with automation. Back in the day when I was mixing on a Mackie 24:4:4 for the big shows I used to have someone standing next to me with a list of all the things I needed to do for each mic change. I needed someone to remember for me all the sends to monitors, FX sends, etc. Man were things a bit crazy. The funny thing is that we weren’t doing anything that was all that crazy. Whatever it was, I couldn’t remember it all. One thing I love about making scenes for things is that I can make notes on the console to remind me about the little minute things but more importantly I can setup the board to make all those changes for me instantly. As fast as I hit the button the board switches everything in an instant for me. In recent shows I’ve been able to do some crazy FX routing both to on-board and outboard gear, on-board plugin changes, adjustments to verb sends, all setup during rehearsal (occasionally adjusted if the situation warrants it), and everything goes every time. It’s almost like I have a digital assistant, taking notes on all the simple, routine, and mundane things that anyone can do, than execute those tasks, leaving the operator to do the things that computers cannot do.

Along with that huge help comes the ability for anyone to step in and mix. The way we automate here at CCC becomes really helpful when someone gets sick between rehearsal and the weekend or perhaps during the weekend. Several times in just my stint at CCC has something happened where the FOH engineer that weekend has gotten sick or needed to step away and anyone from my team has been able to step up and mix because we had a set of scenes setup and ready to go. There has even been a few times when I’ve stepped in during a show, reviewed notes left, caught with our producer, and been set for the show. I may end up mixing things a bit different but I all the mutes and transitions are setup just as practiced so most people wouldn’t even know the difference. This is something that is possible without automation but is definitely not easy and I bet most people would notice a difference. This kind of preparation allows for an extremely prepared technical environment. However i want to stress that automation is not auto-mixing, it is simply a streamlining of mundane non-active tasks. My scenes only save the starting place of the song, not is build or ending. I still have to mix to produce a great sounding dynamic product.

That planned beginning state also gives the operator to bring a great level of consistency to each individual event that belongs to a series. This is something that for me produces some spectacular customer relations results because they aren’t guessing what things will sound like generally. In my own career so far this has been something everyone has been expected: things don’t have to be perfect, just keep it consistent. Each week, by the time rehearsals are over, I have a scene saved, FX setup in each scene, and a great starting point saved which gives me a pretty good idea what things will sound like from a 30,000 ft perspective which then frees me over in playback and in our last rehearsal to start focusing on the little things like making the solos pop, increasing vocal clarity, and highlighting those unique things in each song from inputs across the board. Each time I mix the song after that initial rehearsal, it’s going to get better and better (unless I tweak it to death, which has happened before). Having that ability has made my mixes jump light years beyond where they were and it can do the same for you.

Another great benefit is the ability to setup the same conditions you had in the show and be able to leverage multi-track playback into helping you reproduce what you were doing. For instance, if I heard something weird in my mix I could play it back, recall the stored scene taken from when I heard it, and actually have a chance to troubleshoot the issues. This works doubly well for when, not if, you get complaints about your mix, you can pull up that scene, turn on playback, and you’re there. This works great for troubleshooting and learning waves plugins as well. Sometimes you don’t always have something content accessible to try out waves plugins with but because we save showfiles and scenes I can pick the service, pull up the cue and in a matter of moments be ready to start experimenting.

Lastly, and I believe most importantly, automation gets you to doing your job faster during the show. Instead of fumbling through FX routing, bus assignments, etc when a song starts you can have the board set it up for you like we discussed above and just as soon as the song starts, everything is set and your focus is back on that opening lead guitar line or the lead vocal that could come busting in at any moment that you’ll need to ride up and down. Many people will tell you that automation could make you a lazy mixer, but I’d argue the opposite. As technicians we have utilized yet another tool in the arsenal to improve our mix. That subtle improvement in the long run will push you into mixing more dynamically because that cool tap delay you want to use from the chorus is already setup, right along with the snare verb that was dialed in perfectly each time to the sweet spot you found in the last run through in rehearsal (or in my case occasionally, the last show you ran). As as you hit your next go your consoles instantly allows you to build on what you’ve setup and recall on a whim freeing your ears and mind to actually focus during that real short opening bridge followed by a solo guitar part that always seems to need a little mix love.

Well that about does it for this week’s post. Thanks for tuning in as we discussed some of the more prominent benefits of using automation during a live event. Hopefully you can see why I automate at all and will start to consider it if you don’t at all. Feel free to message me if you are on the brink and want more practical examples of why or how I automate, I’d love to help. Next week I’ll be talking about automation setup, go through what I do during rehearsals to get my scenes setup, and talk about what exactly I automate regularly. As always if you have any questions, please leave a comment below or email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. If you’d like to receive a notification when new posts are up each week sign up at this link and you’ll be added to our emailing list. I hope to see you next week and happy mixing!