Tips and Tricks: Maximizing Backing Tracks Live/Studio

Thus far in this short series we have dicussed the keys to great piano and keys sounds, properly gating drums, and last week we talked about appropriately extending guitar cables to avoid interference. We continue this week talking about using backing tracks while considering both ease of use in setup and soundboard layout. Musicians in just about all genres of music have used and will likely continue to use backing tracks for many years to come. Now, with the advent of DAWs that run on any computer and vast libraries of samples many artists develop tracks to go along with their music. Where it gets interesting as audio technicians is how we integrate those tracks into our studio recordings and live mixes. Some mix the tracks down to a stereo two-track, others split them up and keep them as individual inputs. This week I want to discuss some of the different ways you can integrate the tracks into your workflows in both the studio and live environment and then offer up some suggestions on things you can do to help make your life easier.

Since tracks started in the studio, so will I. Using tracks for recording purposes has been going on for quite some time. Especially when you are starting to record a new song it isn’t at all uncommon to create a sampled band to lay down the vocals and start recording the other parts so musicians have something to play too. Than, when the song is all recorded you go back to the drawing board and develop some new sounds to help fill it in musically. Dealing with those extra tracks can be pretty simple. Personally, in the past I’ve provided a both and solution to provide as much flexibility as possible when recording. I’ll take all the tracks they have and mix them down to groups than eventually down to a stereo track. Than, I have a great mix of their tracks in a stereo format for them to hear, with the ability to adjust those mixes easily when it comes down to the nitty-gritty. I tend to make these mixes quickly paying attention to the big picture and worry about the finer details of each track after everything has been recorded. The key here is having something in decent shape before the recording starts to make getting monitors set faster so you can get straight to the good stuff. As always, be sure to include the artist in edits that you do to the tracks that they created if something needs to change. Communication is always the key. Many times tracks are created or laid down with a concept but rather an idea so in reality they might need to be tweaked a bit before being finalized.

For live, it gets a might dicier. In the studio you can have just about as many tracks as your computer can handle but in the live mixing world, you are limited to what your console can do. Some of us mix on analog desks, some of us on small digital consoles, and others on full size consoles with all different forms of inputs. One way or another you need to figure a good way to get the tracks into your mixes. For me it started with two inputs coming out of the headphone output of the laptop and in and through a DI, one (the left side) was tracks and one clicks (the right side). Those days were both good and bad but they illustrate well the issues at hand. How do you balance getting a good mix with simplicity. Because the click track is so important you are only left with one mono track to fit everything into. It was always a software based mix-down of what all was going to be played. But the FOH engineers never got to mix it, we had to rely on the musicians to get something good put together or ask them for all kinds of changes through rehearsal. But more often then not the musicians just threw it together last second and leave the tech guys to just figure it out, which is fine, because we always do.

Today however, things have changed quite a bit. There are quite a few pieces of software specifically designed to help with the playback of tracks in a live setting with various amounts of outputs and options to assist integration into the soundboard. The most common interface I’ve seen and used is the Motu USB interface (this is the updated version with a few different connectivity options). With up to 8 outputs you can get pretty flexible when it comes to choosing how the sounds get to the board. I typically created one stereo track for any keys or pad sounds, a click track, and the rest were open to whatever needed to be used. Soon after a track was dedicated to having band guide stuff but that is sometimes mixed in with the clicks. After I got used to mixing that many extra tracks, I started asking that we split up the mixed tracks to open or unused tracks for the song. Generally what I found is that you want the percussive tracks split up from melodic tracks; things like tambourines and drum tracks needed to be EQ’d and treated differently than others so having them separate can really help to get the tracks mixed in well. Since then, I have been able to step it up a bit. We finally bit the bullet and picked up a dante interface (focusrite D4R, picture below) which can handle 32 bi-directional channels over coaxial madi which is our L500s primary mode of connection. Because we also take mainstage inputs with dante, I decided to limit our setup to 16 tracks (seemed like a big enough number to allow for lots of flexibility given our current track usage but not so big it’s unmanageable by our staff or volunteers). Beyond that, I decided to start pairing them down to stereo tracks so all of the Ableton inputs land on the same fader page so our techs don’t have anything crazy to deal with on the consoles. We have 12 faders on each page so that meant 4 stereo inputs and 8 mono inputs. The last two are automatically click and guide which is a nice feature to add as many of our band members don’t need the guide as loud as others. What we are left with however is what could be a mess of tracks to have to deal with (if you click on the picture you should be able to read the scribble strips, I’ll also explain later) but when organized correctly having individual control over a wider selection of the the tracks can turn into a very powerful tool to enhance your mix and the monitor mixes of the band as well as different musicians will want to hear different things differently!

However if you can’t split them all up as much as I can, what you can do is take in as many as you can, whether its 2, 16, or even 32 track inputs, there are a  few things you can do to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. The first is to just be sure to collaborate and communicate. For me that meant setting up a way that the worship leader this weekend fills in a patch list of sorts to tell me what is being used on each track. We use a google document that is shared to all the appropriate folks that tells whoever is on FOH which tracks are being used and what is in each track. As I said before, we have 16 inputs from Ableton (our software of choice, there are many to use) that get fed to each of our boards so the monitor mixes can do things differently as needed. To help that not be so overwhelming, we have preset categories for each input already decided (see picture above). When I expanded the number of inputs I sat down with our campuses worship pastor and developed what these would be. The first four stereo tracks are for any keys or pad tracks (labelled pad, organ, synth, aux keys) than the remaining 6 mono tracks (labelled perc, electric, acoustic, misc 1, misc 2, and BGV) plus the last two which are always guide (voice announcing sections of the song that are coming up) and click. While these aren’t rigid naming schemes, they provide a consistent structure so that both the monitor engineer and the FOH engineer know where to start looking when something needs to be changed. Because I sat down with the artist when I expanded the previous setup to this one, just about everything he does fits into these categories so we haven’t really ever needed to change the labels except for special occasions. Having two misc channels also helps to cover most things as well. Secondarily, having a track patch (see picture) list makes this all too simple to follow any complex setup that we need to do each week.

Secondly, to make it easy for everyone to stay within the bounds of the setup, we use a template for Ableton that’s all ready to have tracks dropped in and be programmed. I’ve even setup a folder sync between our leader’s laptop and the Ableton machine so he can just drop in the folder and a few minutes later just open it up on our production laptop and finish setup. We use Owncloud to do this for us but you can use google drive, dropbox, box, or whatever you like to help this happen. We used to use google drive but we needed more space than google drive could offer so we coordinated with our IT team to get something setup (I’m happy to help you set one up, just email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com). No matter what you do, try to figure out a fast and easy process for the artist so they have motivation to be a team player.

The biggest suggestion I have is to just remain flexible. Even in the most organized environment sometimes things just need to be different than planned. Maybe it just doesn’t sound right or something is missing but the key is to be flexible and willing to fix as many things as possible. Remember you are there to support your artist, not the other way around. As frustrating as it can be, sometimes you just need to buckle up and get at it so you help each artist find what they are looking for. Especially in the studio world, take after take can be frustrating but in the end you’ll find that it’s worth it. This is also a reason to get as many inputs from the tracks rig as possible. Whether it’s 4 or 40, the more you have available, the more flexible you can be. Even on channel limited consoles like the x32, everything you can spare is helpful. This often means extra prep-work, but the more you can flex with each artist, the more likely you are to get a call-back to mix a show or record again for them in the future. If it’s a job for you, that’s extra money in the bank you just stored up for that time when you won’t be able to help them because they will believe that you really can’t fix a problem because in the past you’ve gone out of your way to pull something off….ok, I’m getting off my soapbox now, sorry about that.

While this isn’t an exhaustive explanation I do hope that it’s covered at least some of the bases you needed to learn about. Our setup is a bit larger than most but I love being prepared for whatever could happen so that in the moment, there are always options. If you share that want but don’t know how to pull that off in your situation please don’t hesitate to reach out through the website contact form, subscribe to learn more each week, comment below, or email us at engineers@www.studiostagelive.com. See you next week for the last entry in this series where we will talk more about leveraging cloud services to improve not only your documentation but also your support of the bands that you mix for!

Tips and Tricks: Avoiding Interference on Guitar Lines

Well it’s that time, week 3 of our Tips and Tricks series (check out this link if you’ve missed the other posts), where we are going to briefly discuss the proper way to make guitars wireless and how to properly extend that guitar cable between the pedal board and the amp. Too many times I’ve seen guitar players or sound techs wanting to isolate the amp from the stage or run the show wireless and do so by running 60 foot long unbalanced cables everywhere to accommodate that need. Than, during rehearsal or the show they start hearing some interference and are all too quick to blame pedalboard’s or guitar pickups or grounding issues in the audio system. But, in this instance, maybe for once, it isn’t the ill-soldered pedalboard’s fault. Simply making a cable that has the right connectors on it won’t work as simply as you think it might. It’s important to maintain proper signal and impedance between the pedals and the amp to ensure that we aren’t attenuating or altering the signal in any way. The same applies if you want to make your guitar players wireless.

The first thing to consider is if you are plugging the guitar in wireless you are electronically balancing the signal in the receiver so you need to get it back to unbalanced guitar signal. We use the line output setting on the receivers and our sub snake system to get the signal back out to the players pedalboard. From there, radial makes a box called the Pro-Amp Studio Re-Amper. This box acts like a reverse direct box (because of the way you’ll likely plug it in you’ll also need a gender changer). It takes the balanced signal and through the use of a transformer changes it back to the unbalanced signal that the pedals are expecting. There is also a level attenuation adjustment in case it’s coming in too hot (never had to use this). You can also choose to lift the ground if there is an issue there as well. Here is a link from radial describing the box and a link to amazon if you would like to buy one. We keep a few around for use with any of our guitar players if necessary.

But that is only step one in the process. Step two is getting from the pedalboard back to the amp that has hopefully been isolated back stage or perhaps is in the corner.  Lots of people is this step will just get long guitar cables but this isn’t generally a good idea as it is an unbalanced signal. Over any length, if it comes close to power or just about anything magnetic you will start to hear interference from other sources get picked up and than get amplified by the guitar amp (I’ve done this before and under the right circumstances can work, but you have to be very careful about where that cable runs in order to avoid issues). In this situation you will want to use an SGI set from radial as well. This is a two box system with a power supply on the sending box (it does take a unique power supply so unfortunately can’t be powered by the pedalboard power supply). The SGI boxes take the unbalanced guitar signal, converts to balanced xlr (which can go 100 meters) and then reverses the process at the amplifier. Because we all have xlr infrastructure just about everywhere, these boxes are really helpful and useful. Once again, lots of folks will just use a long guitar cable but the same issues that we dealt with in the last step still apply here. These boxes, while I understand is another expense, really ensure clean and proper signal flow between the pedals and the amp. Several players I’ve known were hesitant at first after having issues in the past when people attempt to just use cables to convert or don’t convert at all having signal degradation issues. But after doing this they are sold. Here are some links like we did above: informational page from radial, purchasing link from amazon.

So just to reiterate, we go from guitar to wireless pack, to receiver, back to the pedalboard, through the Studio Re-Amper, through the pedals, into the SGI TX box, back to the amps, through the SGI RX box, and into the amp. As long as you follow this path, everything will turn out exactly like it should. I know, I know, shortcuts are easier and cheaper but as sound techs we are here to support the band as best that we can, this is the way to do that. Ensuring clean audio is especially important in the studio, which is where these products were developed but they work so well everywhere else, you’ll see them in a variety of roles. It wasn’t until more recently I even knew about them and just had to deal with issues from isolating amp cabinets but with this knowledge now, I definitely won’t go back. If you don’t even have the SGI pairs, please consider picking up one or two pairs, I promise they will save you at least a few hours of headache.

That’s it for this week, hopefully you better understand the correct way to move guitar signal around and have the ability to improve your setup as necessary. As always feel free to comment below or email us at engineers@www.studiostagelive.com, and we will answer as soon as we possibly can. See you next week!

Tips and Tricks: Gating Drum Inputs

This is week two of our current tips and tricks series where I’ll be discussing gating drums and how to set them up the best way. Last week in the series, we discussed things that I do in order to get full piano/pad sounds on a stage with a full band as well. If you missed it check it out at this link. This week we are going to touch on using gates on drums, what not to do, and the little tricks to make the best of whatever you have. For the sake of discussion, lets already assume that you have your drums tuned and that you’ve chosen the best mic from what you have to suit each drum.

So, you’ve decided that you would like to use a gate on your drums. Not at all uncommon. There are some that are afraid of gates because you might miss out on a hit that you may need or simply don’t have the know-how to turn it on and set it up right and many more that use them religiously. The benefits to gating are quite apparent, most of which include the elimination of sounds entering your mix beyond what you are looking for from that input and secondarily controlling how much sustain that sound is allowed. For those reasons, gates are generally used on percussive inputs over less instantaneous and more sustained inputs like vocals or keys. Personally, the majority of my gating shows up on the drum sets with some very minor use on guitars to automatically rid me of that pesky tube noise coming from amps or hums from pickups. But before we get into this it’s important to go over the terms. There are 5 key terms to be aware of and unfortunately, each board uses different numerical schemes for these variables so you really just have to play around until you like what you are hearing and seeing happen within your console.

Range – the amount the input is lowered by if the audio input is beneath the threshold.

Threshold – this is the input level required to open the gate

Attack – attack is how fast the attenuation is released from the input after the audio levels pass the threshold

Hold – the time after the audio goes back under the threshold but before the attenuation starts again is referred to as the “hold”

Release – this is how fast the attenuation kicks in after the audio is beneath the threshold and after the hold time has been completed.

Here is a graph that shows what these mean if that would help you to understand things better. I know it helped me a lot when I was learning (if you click on it, you can look at a bigger version.

Through most of my career mixing I’ve just gated the regular way, by using the audio from the microphone as the thing that triggers the gate to open. This works pretty well.  I have always been able to gate the bottom snare, kick in (if I have one), and the toms. This has allowed me to be able to control the non-useful ambient sounds of the drum kick that I don’t need. Sounds like snare in my kick and cymbals in the tom inputs. Usually on these gates I’d run a range of about -20db, thresholds set with some wiggle room to allow dynamic playing by the drummer, attacks that are about as fast the board with go without added any weird sounds, small amount of hold, and a release times between 150ms and 300ms. While these settings didn’t work for everything, they worked for most things. I unfortunately couldn’t really gate the snare top or the kick out mic (the one in the hole) because they lose their punchiness and attack while gated, this is because the gate couldn’t react fast enough while it’s being triggered by the acoustics of the drum. While you are still significantly better having gated bottom snare and tom mics, there is still some bleed that is especially noticeable in the drum verbs and the cymbals and hi hat still leak into mics all over the place because the other kick and snare mics are wide open. There are little things you can do to help (like using a dynamic EQ to created a frequency based gate) but you still can’t really gate the whole kit and really suck out that bleed unless you are editing in post production. However, there is one way….

That other way is by drum triggers. No no no, we aren’t talking about triggering recorded sounds to play with the drum is hit (though these can be used for that) but rather using a different type of mic that reacts faster in order to open up the drum gates. Drum triggers use a vibration pickup similar to that of some acoustic guitars that is much more sensitive than standard mics. This does of course require some extra inputs and a sound board that externally key a gate but most modern consoles have that ability to do this. For the kick drum you’ll need this trigger and for the rest of the drums, you’ll need this trigger. Just a heads up, you do actually need to get the kick drum trigger because of the difference in the rim on the kick being much deeper than in the snare and toms. After you get them installed on the drum hoops of your drums, I just plugged those into a DI and straight into the board. I’ve heard that you can make a cable instead of going through the DI but I haven’t tried that. So that is something to try if you don’t have any extra DI’s sitting around. We just used an 8-way radio DI because we had one sitting around because the 8th channel was broken. From there we patched each trigger to a channel so we could do whatever we needed to with the sound before we used it than set the external keys on basically the whole drum set excluding cymbals, ride, and hi-hat. I was really skeptical at first that we still wouldn’t be much better off but surprisingly, it was amazing! Because the triggers pick up vibrations not sound waves, they picked up the softer sounds much more effectively. We gated both kick mics to the kick trigger, both snare mics to the snare trigger, and each tom to itself. The very first week, without being prompted one of our more professional drummers came up asked what we did because the drums sounded so much tighter and clean. This also really cleaned up the verbs which had a profound effect on the slop in the drum sounds. Even on the ballads, I just make a quick adjustment to the thresholds to make sure they open for all the ghost notes. Just like that, I can gate just about everything all time. Personally I don’t gate any brass (cymbals, hi hat, ride) because I still want some drum set sounds so they don’t sound like samples and with setup, I still get plenty. Settings on the triggers are about the same just with a lower threshold because everything but the threshold can really shape the actual sound which we still want to happen. The only thing I use the triggers for is to speed up the gate opening, and for that they have been flawless so far. The biggest thing is that even on the softer songs I don’t have to adjust the gate near as much because of the sensitivity of these triggers and we can still get all those ghost notes without having to automate the gates on and off.

Now, I know that not everyone can afford to buy the triggers for their whole kit right away or have enough extra inputs to plug them all in, so if that’s the case, I’d focus on getting one or two triggers and putting them on your snare and the tom closest to your snare. These usually are the two that produce the most bleed so if you have to limit yourself, just try to get one or maybe two and get started with that. I promise you’ll be happy. As always, don’t just take my settings and run, be sure to test things in your room. What works for me may not work for you, so no matter what, put the trigger in, bring up some playback if you have some, and just start using your ears.

Next we will be looking at setting up guitars to be wireless the right way so that pedal boards and amps can all get the right signals. As always please feel free to tell your friends about the blog and subscribe at this link if you haven’t already! See you next time!