Tips and Tricks: Automation Part 2

Time for week two in this new tips and tricks series based around the idea of automation. Last week we saw an overview of automation and discussed what automation is, how it can help, the consistency it can bring, and how it can generally bring up your mix. But I don’t want to gloss over the hurdles that need to be overcome in regards to automation. So this week, I am going to highlight a few of the biggest hurdles I see to automating your console and discuss how I stepped over those hurdles and pushed forward. Hopefully if one of you is facing these issues you can learn from my struggles and be able to grow yourself. This is by no means an exhaustive list so if there is a significant hurdle you are facing, with regards to automation, please feel free to comment below and I’ll respond if it’s a problem I faced and how I got over it. Obviously if you are mixing on an analog console, you’ve discovered one of your biggest hurdles and if you are looking for a new board if you reach out to me at daniel@studiostagelive.com I can pass some suggestions your way as to great consoles that fit just about any budget besides no budget. Some boards also have more capability to others, if you’d like some help getting your settings correct or just figuring out what you can do with your existing gear, feel free to shoot me an email as well.

Probably the biggest hurdle to get over is fear. So many times I’ve heard big name FOH guys talk about the biggest reason they don’t want to automate is because they are afraid of what happens when they aren’t looking during scene changes. In many ways this is a legit fear but for me, it seems more like a fact of life in today’s digital console world. We don’t have as many faders as inputs we are running. We don’t have a knob for each function of our boards. We are moving to an age of programming and setting up computers to do things we just don’t have time for but would like to manage. This is especially true for plugins we use. We don’t have a display for all of our compressors anymore like we used when we only had a few. We are programming these plugins, checking them throughout the event, and just simply trusting that we have it setup right and listening for a time when somethings not right. Fear is simply not a good reason to not take a calculated and acceptable risk in order to make an improvement to our mix. Things might not go well but it’s when we fail that we learn the most. For me, I got over my fear because I was simply told to do it. Yep, my boss at the time just said to me something like, “look, this is how we do it here, just give it a try, take your time, do it right, and if at the end it’s not working for you we will figure it out,” basically telling me to just jump in the deep end. Looking back, that was the best thing that could have happened to me. That weekend was a bit risky but I got through it, without issues, and walking away much happier with my mix having just stepped up to a new normal for my mixes. If this is your hurdle, I challenge you right now to at least sit down with some playback and try it. If you are still hesitant, stick around for the rest of the series, by the end I’ll have given you a process to automate and helped you setup some fail safes.

Right after I got over my fear and stepped up to get some work done on the console I reached my second hurdle, the setup. Between store safes, recall safes, propagation, saving, showfiles, fade times, and everything else I realized that I may have electronically labelled channels on my board but I am going to have to know a lot more about my console that I had ever needed to before. That setup would not come easy. But I was lucky, I had the fortune of building on a console template that had been improved and built upon for over 8 years before. Getting all those check-boxes setup so the board does what you want it to when you want it to is difficult but it isn’t unlike the first time you see a huge xlr patch bay with wires going everywhere. At first you see the wires running everywhere but once you start digging in and learning, making mistakes, etc you start “seeing the matrix” as it were and stuff starts clicking. Once you get oriented in your new world of automating, your brain starts making connections and soon enough you’ll hit a critical mass and then it’s like you see things from 50,000 feet and it all makes sense. If you don’t have someone who can teach you personally check out youtube. There are so many videos on just about anything you can think of. You will probably find that someone somewhere has what you have and made a video of how to use it.

The next thing you’ll realize that you have to conquer is time management. Before you pushed quickly to get to a good mix not only for the band but also because our ears get tired quickly. That practice of time management and priorities will come back into play as you consider automation. Each week you automate be on the lookout for the things that you didn’t setup beforehand that if you could have waiting for you would make life easier and get you to that basic mix faster. I personally keep a simple text document with template issues so when I get time I can go back and fix those and not worry about forgetting that one thing I have to do every week that I keep forgetting to fix in the template. Taking the extra time to properly set your automation in rehearsal can pay dividends later in the event. Putting aside the obvious benefit of anyone being able to walk through your cues with the band during the show as a great backup if something happens to you, automation in general allows you to improve your mix with each pass and fix issues that you’d otherwise not even be able to hear or think about because of everything else going on. So take that basic mix, save it as your primary scene that you will duplicate. Take your time with it if you can so that you have less to do later. Many times with bands you get little or no soundcheck but I would argue wholeheartedly that if you have time, automation is always worth it in the long run.

So you’ve gotten past your gear, past your fear, past the setup and have a great template to improve each week, and managed to fit proper prep into your rehearsal time, the last thing you have to deal with is the variable of change or issues during the event.  I’ve talked with so many people who think that when I automate I program everything and just hit go the whole time. But in reality, this is pretty far from the case. I still use VCAs, mutes, manual fades, etc, just like I did before I got a digital console and started automating. Automation doesn’t mean I don’t need to actively mix but it also doesn’t mean that I’m manually triggering everything. Some things I do program and trust to work. If there are issues, which do happen either as glitches or as programming mistakes, I can still react and interrupt the process or change it on the fly. What you can do while the console is transitioning depends more on your console than anything else but since I still use VCAs which allow me to quickly mute inputs as well as the fact that you can just touch the fader and stop the movement that started in transition. My biggest piece of advice in regards to fighting against programming mistakes is to always watch those inputs that are extremely important. If a speaker is coming up on stage, I’m going to have his/her fader up and make sure it does what I programmed it to do during the process. I also love safe buttons. These can be found on just about any console that can make scenes is a feature to basically remove that input from the automation and exclude it from everything that’s going on. If I’m at all concerned with what I may or may not have programmed you’ll find me quickly getting to this setting and using it through a transition. This then allows me to go “old school” and manually take care of things as I see fit. Programming issues aren’t always avoided but don’t think automation takes away the mixing, If anything, because I automate, I’m tweaking more than I’d ever have gotten to without automation.

Well that is my list of keys issues regarding automation and how I’ve dealt with each one. As I mentioned above, let me know if there is something glaring that I missed, I’d love to help as best that I can as you venture into this new way of mixing. Last week, my survey showed that most of people’s concern lied with setup issues or complications so consider this my first response to that concern with my second response coming two weeks from now when I discuss how I have my boards setup and what you can do to help avoid issues when you setup your scenes. Next week we are going to go through the opposite list, all the things that should excite you about automation. As always if you have any questions or thoughts, comment below, email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com, or leave a message on facebook, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to submit your responses to last week’s automation survey, check out this link. Lastly, if you want to receive an email when new posts are up, follow this link and sign up to subscribe and you’ll receive a weekly email with a link to that week’s post.

Tips and Tricks: Automation Part 1

Welcome to a new tips and tricks series. This time around, as the title suggests, we will be discussing using automation to enhance live mixing. Since the advent of motorized faders and eventually digital mixers, engineers have been automating settings for years. Some analog consoles even allow you to setup scenes and mutes for channels or VCAs that can be controlled automatically based on what scene you are on. But there are some drawbacks and challenges to be overcome if you start automating even in its simplest form. In the coming weeks we will be talking about all of that. This week will just be a broad overview of automation, in the weeks after that we will be talking about the pros and cons, getting automation setup and process to step through that, and lastly some tips and tricks to think about as you walk through your first few weeks automating your audio console. My goal in this series is to expose you to automation if you’ve never heard of it or to perhaps help you better understand and use automation if you are familiar with it already.

For some of us older guys (in terms of sound I’m in this group) automation used to be a guy standing next to you, with a script or plan, reminding you what is coming up and you frantically getting ready for that event. I can remember Christmas shows at school or church, running what seemed like a million wireless channels (likely just 16 or so), with people swapping packs, running several monitor mixes for the bands and speakers, and just realizing as we plan for those shows that I’d need some help keeping it all straight. Those were the days when an A2 was a really important position to have at every show. Many times, because there were so many shows happening, you’d find that A2 mixing and the A1 running the notebook helping hit all the cues. The idea of automation was limited to studios with really high end consoles with those cool motorized faders. But these days the landscape looks quite a bit different. The tools of the studio have made their way to the FOH consoles in use today in many, if not most, of the active venues around the world. We can makes scenes to change just about every function your console can control. Depending on your console, you can automate patch changes, bus mixing assignments, compression settings, gates, and even manage outboard gear through the use of transport protocols like midi.

Sure, you can go on without automation and mix the way men and women have been mixing for decades. There is nothing wrong with that, but what if using that new tool, though it might be hard to learn and you may make a few mistakes, helps your mix get to the next level. I’ve just mentioned the biggest hurdle to automation is learning curve of starting to use it and the inherent risk of using it, but, I would argue that if you truly use your automation to its’ fullest potential you can bring a new level of consistency and truly begin to mix smarter and more proficiently. Transitions between music and speech with be smoother and PA noise from things like electric guitar amps and open microphones will be reduced. That crazy transition during the Christmas show just needs to be programmed and with the hit of one button, it all can happen, instantly. That A2 could be a trainee that you’ll actually have time to train during the rehearsals/shows instead of handing them a run down sheet and asking them to help you through the transitions.

Most importantly, your mix will improve. How do I know? Because of the universal principle I’ve come to understand about mixing audio. If you take away my sound check, I can get to a good mix before the song is done. If I get a soundcheck and a run-through before the show starts I can get there much faster. If you give me multiple runs, I can guarantee it will sound great from the first note. That applies to automation because by the time the process is done, you have scene created for each song that you’ve been refining since it was made. For me, even for our first service on Saturday evening, I’ve heard that song 3-4 times after the cue was made so I have arrived at a great mix. I know that for each service, I have a great starting point to mix from, every single time. On top of that during the final rehearsal I usually have time to walk around the room real quick and make sure things sound good everywhere in the room, not just at the soundboard. Without a scene created I would have to recreate that scene from memory which is a lot of information to have to remember and implement each time. If I remember all those little things I had planned I’m often through a good portion if not all of that first verse. Before I automated I often found myself sitting on my laurels mixing and just going with what I had instead of pushing my mix to new levels each time I stand behind the console. If I’d automated, I’d hit go, and it would all happen instantly. and I can build on each mix before the one I’m currently mixing.

Most consoles can automate all the main settings like bussing assignments and fader levels and there are few that automate everything you can think of under the sun (patching, matrixes, FX settings, inserts, etc). If the console has a midi output it can likely send signals to an outboard rig like waves multirack or a slate rig. Automation can make what would be a difficult transition to make, instantaneous and pain free. The key is to spend some time behind your console and experiment. If you have some multi-track recordings you can load up this is a great tool to use as you figure out how best to automate with your console. One of the best ways to learn is just to dig in and see how things work. However, if you are a manual reader, I hear those work pretty well too. Lastly, one of the benefits I love about automation is the built in reminder of what is coming next in the show. Personally, I create a scene for just about every change in the show and try to include in the name of the scene who/what needs to be emphasized so that anyone can step up and mix just in case something happens. Once again the key is to figure out what works best for you, whether that means complex automation or a simple system. Over the next few weeks we will talk more about how we do things here at CCC and hopefully you can pick out a few principles to make your own.

That’s all for this week. If you have a few minutes, follow this link and answer a few questions for me about how you see automation. My hope is to do these every now and again to help guide a series that I’m not exactly sure what to do with. This way, with your input, I can make sure these posts end up being useful to those who read it. As always if you have any questions or just want to talk about automation with your system please feel free to hit me up on facebook, leave a comment here, or email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com. If you’d like to get email reminders when new posts are posted just head over to this link and sign up! See you next week!

Tips and Tricks: Utilizing Cloud Services

So far in this Tips and Tricks series we have discussed getting the perfect keyboard sounds, using drum triggers to get the perfect gate settings, properly setting up wireless guitars or extending drum cables, and last week we talked about getting the most out of your tracks channels. This week we are going to discuss using online services to expand and enhance your support and documentation. We all have heard of these website and services but throughout my career and conversations it seems like so few of us utilize them very well. I’m sure there are many more options but these are the ones that I use at this moment.

The first online resource that many of us use but more should probably be using is Planning Center Online. PCO is also the only one of these services that is a paid service. I will be the first to say that it is worth whatever you pay for it let me be clear. Every church in America, including my own, could probably improve how we schedule volunteers. PCO is the best tool for this. Volunteers can put in blockout dates (this is key on my team) so that when I go and schedule I can know right then and there if they are available. You can also have them fill in contact information with at least an email so they can schedule through email and not even have to log into the app or the website. At a glance I can look at the schedules for the next 90 days (yes that’s how far out I schedule my sound team) and start the game of musical chairs so that by the time we get down to 30 days out, I’ve got a team locked and loaded and tuned for the obstacles that are coming down the pipe. This also allows me to schedule with the lighting and video teams because many of our volunteers serve on more than one team so I can be sure not to always be using everyone only on audio, we can plan the big weekends so that every team is staffed to meet the challenge. If you’ve never used PCO you can reach out and get a demo which I would highly encourage you to do. You’ll be hooked, I promise!

The next resource is free, it’s soundcloud.com. For a long time we were looking for ways we could improve the potential for our worship teams to practice between our rehearsals and the weekend. The biggest hurdle was just that we don’t have recordings of how we sing each song each weekend. There are some up there that can be used but even then, sometimes we sing songs differently or change the number of a given element so it’s difficult to practice too. Since we were already multi-tracking our rehearsals for playback/prep and archiving, we decided to set it up to record our broadcast mix (could just use your Main Mix as well) and then upload that to soundcloud. The free service has only one limit and that is just the number of minutes of audio you have up at one time there is plenty of room for the entire run-though to be recorded and uploaded. Than when rehearsal is over, we normalize and upload to same soundcloud account every week named for our church. Beyond that, then we go into PCO and email the entire team with a hyperlink to the page where the recording can be heard and practiced with. Than, our worship bands have recording, with transitions, with exactly how we are going to sing and play the songs each week. It’s also good for guitars and vocals to hear themselves and be able to make changes before the weekend comes.

The last resource that I don’t see enough people use is google drive (as a part of gmail). Not only are gmail accounts free but they also come with 15 gb of storage. If you need more it’s incredibly reasonably priced. But for us, 15 gb is more than enough.  We have a few gmail accounts setup for the different tech areas that are in place. With Google Drive sync setup we can automatically backup critical templates and show files with ease so that no matter what happens to our production computers, everything is backed up. The other great thing about google drive is the live documents. We use this to keep a log of passwords for our various services and software downloads, patch lists for our larger venues, and even IP address tables for our tech subnets so we can keep track of what is where on our network. Because they are live at all times, the instant I make a change, it’s instantly propagated to all other windows. Because documents can be easily shared amongst gmail accounts, we shared all of those documents to the entire team so that we can all have access to all the documentation that our team needs on a day to day basis. Personally I use google sheets to generate organized quotes with purchase links for each project I manage and than archive them when completed so when a similar project comes along (perhaps the same thing but for a different regional campus) I already have the majority of the work completed. I just have to bring it up, be sure prices and links are up to date and I’m done. I find this incredibly helpful when I’m building our production PCs so I can be sure they all have compatible parts (if you want to read more about what I do with my production PCs check out this link!).

Well that about wraps it up for this post and series. I hope you have learned something. There are always things that as technicians we can do better so even if you haven’t been able to identify with these, find the area in your work that you can improve upon, figure out what you can do, and just do it. Commit to improving yourself professionally so that as you work, artists want to have you around. If you do have any questions about what we did talk about please don’t hesitate to use the contact form below or email us at engineers@studiostagelive.com.