Category Archives: Live Audio Tactics

Tips, tricks, and strategies for concert sound in small venues.

Livestreaming Is The New Taping – Here Are Some Helpful Hints For The Audio

An article for Schwilly Family Musicians.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

“The thing with taping or livestreaming is that the physics and logistics have not really changed. Sure, the delivery endpoints are different, especially with livestreaming being a whole bunch of intangible data being fired over the Internet, but how you get usable material is still the same. As such, here are some hints from the production-staff side for maximum effectiveness, at least as far as the sound is concerned…”


The rest is here. You can read it for free!


Hitting The Far Seats

A few solutions to the “even coverage” problem, as it relates to distance.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

This article, like the one before it, isn’t really “small venue” in nature. However, I think it’s good to spend time on audio concepts which small-venue folk might still run across. I’m certainly not “big-time,” but I still do the occasional show that involves more people and space. I (like you) really don’t need to get engaged with a detailed discussion regarding an enormous system that I probably won’t ever get my hands on, but the fundamentals of covering the people sitting in the back are still valuable tools.

This article is also very much a follow up to the piece linked above. Via that lens, you can view it as a discussion of what the viable options are for solving the difficulties I ran into.

So…

The way that you get “throw” to the farthest audience members is dependent upon the overall PA deployment strategy you’re using. Deployment strategies are dependent upon the gear in question being appropriate for that strategy, of course; You can’t choose to deploy a bunch of point-source boxes as a line-array and have it work out very well. (Some have tried. Some have thought it was okay. I don’t feel comfortable recommending it.)

Option 1: Single Arrival, “Point Source” Flavor

You can build a tall stack or hang an array with built-in, non-changeable angles, but both cases use the same idea: Any given audience member should really only hear one box (per side) at a time. Getting the kind of directivity necessary for that to be strictly true is quite a challenge at lower frequencies, so the ideal tends to not be reached. Nevertheless, this method remains viable.

I’ve termed this deployment flavor as “single arrival” because all sound essentially originates at the same distance from any given audience member. In other words, all the PA loudspeakers for each “side” are clustered as closely as is practical. The boxes meant to be heard up close are run at a significantly lower level than the boxes meant to cover the far-field. A person standing 50 feet from the stage might be hearing a loudspeaker making 120 dB SPL at 3 feet, whereas the patrons sitting 150 feet away would be hearing a different box – possibly stacked atop the first speaker – making 130 dB SPL at 3 feet. As such, the close-range listener is getting about 96 dB SPL, and the far-field audience member also hears a show at roughly 96 dB SPL.

This solution is relatively simple in some respects, though it requires the capability of “zone” tuning, as well as loudspeakers capable of high-output and high directivity. (You don’t want the up-close audience to get cooked by the loudspeaker that’s making a ton of noise for the long-distance people.)

Option 2: Single Arrival, Line-Array Flavor

As in the point source flavor, you have one array deployed “per side,” with each individual box as close to the other boxes as is achievable. The difference is that an honest-to-goodness line-array is meant to work by the audible combination of multiple loudspeakers. At very close distances, it may be possible to only truly hear a small part of the line, and this does help in keeping the nearby listeners from having their faces ripped off. However, the overall idea is to create a radiation pattern that resembles a section of a cylinder. (Perfect achievement of such a pattern isn’t really feasible.) This is in contrast to point-source systems, where the pattern tends towards a section of a sphere.

As is the case in many areas of life, everything comes down to surface area. A sphere’s surface area is 4*pi*radius^2, whereas the lateral surface area of a cylinder is 2*pi*radius*height. The perceived intensity of sound is the audible radiation spread across the surface area of the radiation geometry. More surface area means less intensity.

To keep the calculations manageable, I’ll have to simplify from sections of shapes to entire shapes. Even so, some comparisons can be made: At a distance of 150 feet, the sound power radiating in a spherical pattern is spread over a surface area of 282,743 square feet. For a 10-foot high cylinder, the surface area is 9424 square feet.

For the sphere, 4 watts of sound power (NOT electrical power!) means that a listener at the 150 foot radius gets a show that’s about 71 dB. For the cylinder, the listener at 100 feet should be getting about 86 dB. At the close-range distance of 50 feet, the cylindrical radiation pattern results in a sound level of 91 dB, whereas a spherical pattern gets 81 dB.

Putting aside for the moment that I’m assuming ideal and mathematically easy conditions, the line-array has a clear advantage in terms of consistency (level difference in the near and far fields) without a lot of work at tuning individual boxes. At the same time, it might not be quite as easily customizable as some point-source configurations, and a real line-source capable of rock-n-roll volume involves a good number of relatively expensive elements. Plus, a real line has to be flown, and with generous trim height as well.

Option 3: Multiple Arrival, Any Flavor

This is otherwise known as “delays.” At some convenient point away from the main PA system, a supplementary PA is set. The signal to that supplementary PA is made to be late, such that the far system aligns pleasingly with the sound from the main system. The hope is that most people will overwhelmingly hear one system over the other.

The point with this solution is to run everything more quietly and more evenly by making sure that no audience member is truly in the deep distance. If each PA only has to cover a distance of 75 feet, then an SPL of 90 dB at that distance requires 118 dB at 3 feet.

The upside to this approach is that the systems don’t have to individually be as powerful, nor do they strictly need to have high-directivity (although it’s quite helpful in keeping the two PA systems separate for the listeners behind the delays). The downside is that it requires more space and more rigging – whether actual rigging or just loudspeakers raised on poles, stacks, or platforms. Additionally, you have to deal with more signal and/ or power runs, possibly in difficult or high-traffic areas. It also requires careful tuning of the delay time to work properly, and even then, being behind or to the side of the delays causes the solution to be invalid. In such a condition where both systems are quite audible, the coherence of the reproduced audio suffers tremendously.


If I end up trying the Gallivan show again, I think I’ll go with delays. I don’t have the logistical resources to handle big, high-output point-source boxes or a real array. I can, on the other hand, find a way to boxes up on sticks with delay applied. I can’t say that I’m happy about the potential coherence issues, but everything in audio is a compromise in some way.


A Proven Methodology For Winning At Thermonuclear War

You may know the answer already, but you might prefer not to admit it to yourself.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

The cultural apex that was the 1980s taught us the answer to this one. The only winning move in Global Thermonuclear War is not to play. Sadly, in the world of audio and music, people play Global Thermonuclear War all the time.

What I mean by this is quite simple: People will throw vast amounts of money and time at all manner of problems and conflicts, hoping to solve them through technological means. This is, of course, encouraged by the equipment manufacturing and vending industry, which makes quite a bit of scratch on the premise that “there is something you can buy to fix this.”

And, you know, they are actually right. They are right in the sense that pretty much any sonic issue you can imagine is fixable if you have unlimited resources. I’ve said this to people on multiple occasions myself. “We can absolutely fix this.” Of course, I then follow up with: “How much time and money do ya got?” I can absolutely, positively, make your giant echo-chamber of a gym sound like a control room in Abbey Road studios. That is totally possible. I’ll need a starting budget of $100,000 for acoustical treatment and install labor, plus six weeks to get the task accomplished.

Oh, you were thinking of going down to that place that’s a “center” of guitars and plonking $200 down on some doodads? Yeah, that’s not really going to do it for you…

Recently, I was discussing a particularly difficult situation with a fellow, local-music human. A venue is constantly in trouble with its in-building neighbors for being too loud. The stage has been torn open and deadened. The absolute minimum necessary signal is run through the PA. Drumkits are not miced at all. Are the neighbors still pissed? Yup. What’s pissing them off? The drums of course. So, the inevitable question was asked – does the place need to get a drumshield, or a ton of acoustical foam for the walls?

Well, neither of those things is likely to work. I have a very strong hunch that the drumshield would help a little, by reducing some of the sound traveling through the air to the walls and ceiling. Even so, the shield won’t do anything at all to stop mechanical transmission from the stage to the building structure (which is what I think is the real killer), nor will it provide what I imagine the disgruntled co-tenants actually want: A 20 – 30 dB drop in level. By the same token, a big spend on in-room treatment will make the venue’s space dead, but won’t do squat when it comes to stopping the walls from moving due to low-frequency material and physical impact.

Isn’t there a technological fix? Of course there is! The establishment can close for a couple of months while everything is ripped out, and a soundproof chamber is built inside the existing shell. The ceiling and walls could be completely decoupled, and the floor could be floated. The whole shebang would be built of cinderblock filled with concrete. At last, the other folks would have peace and quiet, even if someone threw a death-metal show into the mix.

Possible? Yes. Plausible for any reasonable investment? Not a snowball’s chance.

As such, my answer to the query was, “Don’t book rock bands in there anymore.” The fight isn’t worth fighting, because more and more time and money is being thrown at a conundrum that isn’t getting solved. Irritated neighbors don’t award points for effort. The goings-on is a slugging match, a contest of wills between groups that want fundamentally different and incompatible things. To give the other guys what they want while getting the music side what it wants just isn’t practical in real life. Live-music can still happen in that space, but it needs to start out quiet instead of being turned into quiet “ex post facto.”

As such, the way to win the game is to stop playing. Gordian knots aren’t untied – they are cut.


Up In The Air

A good rigger is an important person.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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This is one of those topics that’s a little outside of a small-venue context.

But it’s still good to talk about.

I recently had the opportunity to work on a “big-rig” show. What I mean by that is we had six JBL SRX subwoofers deployed, along with two hangs (four boxes each) of JBL VRX. For some folks, that’s not a huge system, but for me it’s pretty darn large. Going in, I was excited to be on the crew for the event – and also a bit apprehensive. I had never before had any “hands-on” experience with rigging and flying a PA system.

As it turned out, my anxiety was misplaced. When you finally get up close and personal with a box like VRX, you realize that the box-to-box flyware is really easy to understand and operate. Constant-curvature arrays are hard to get wrong in and of themselves. You would basically have to actively attempt to screw up the hang in order to run into a problem. The boxes have a built-in angle, so you don’t have to think about much other than lining a couple of ’em up, flipping the connection flanges into place, and inserting the fly pins.

Another reason my anxiety was misplaced was twofold:

1) We had a good rigger on hand.

2) Everybody implicitly agreed that the rigger was the “lead dog.”

What I mean by point two is that I consider there to be exactly one proper attitude towards an honest-to-goodness, card-carrying rigger. That attitude is that you listen to the rigger, and do EXACTLY as the rigger tells you.

I don’t think I can stress that enough.

An actual rigger is somebody who can safely hang very heavy things above people’s heads, and has the maturity to do it the right way (with no tolerance for shortcuts or other horse-dip). They realize that getting a hang wrong may be a very efficient way to end people’s lives. They distinguish between “reasonably safe” and “truly safe,” and will not allow anyone to settle for the former.

As such, their word is law.

I DO think that safe rigging is within the mental capacity of the average human. However, I also think that there are numerous particulars of equipment and technique which are not immediately intuitive or obvious. I think it’s easy for an un-educated person to hang things the wrong way without realizing it. That’s why, when a rigger shows up in a situation where everybody else is NOT a rigger, the rigger immediately becomes the person in charge. Somebody else may be making executive decisions on what’s wanted for a hang, but the human with the most experience at actually flying things makes the final call on what can be done and how.

(If you ever get into a situation that appears to be the opposite of that, I think you should be concerned.)

Like I said, the case on this show was that everybody was listening to the rigger.

And that meant that everything got up in the air safely, stayed up in the air safely, and came down safely after everything was done.


Entering Flatland

I encourage live-audio humans to spend lots of time listening to studio monitors.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Do you work in live-audio? Are you new to the field? An old hand? Somewhere in between?

I want to encourage you to do something.

I want you to get yourself a pair of basically decent studio monitors. They shouldn’t be huge, or expensive. They just have to be basically flat in terms of their magnitude response. Do NOT add a subwoofer. You don’t need LF drivers bigger than 8″ – anything advertised to play down to about 40 Hz or 50 Hz is probably fine.

I want you to run them as “flat” as possible. I want you to do as much listening with them as possible. Play your favorite music through them. Watch YouTube videos with them passing the audio. When you play computer games, let the monitors make all the noises.

I want you to get used to how they sound.

Oh, and try to tune your car stereo to sound like your studio monitors. If you can only do so coarsely, still do so.

Why?

Because I think it’s very helpful to “calibrate” yourself to un-hyped audio.

A real problem in live music is the tendency to try to make everything “super enhanced.” It’s the idea that loud, deep bass and razor-sharp HF information are the keys to good sound. There’s a problem, though. The extreme ends of the audible spectrum actually aren’t that helpful in concert audio. They are nice to have available, of course. The very best systems can reproduce all (or almost all) of the audible range at high volume, with very low distortion. The issue is over-emphasis. The sacrifice of the absolutely critical midrange – where almost all the musical information actually lives – on the altar of being impressive for 10 seconds.

I’m convinced that part of what drives a tendency to dial up “hyped” audio in a live situation is audio humans listening to similar tonalities when they’re off-duty. They build a recreational system that produces booming bass and slashing treble, yank the midrange down, and get used to that as being “right.” Then, when they’re louderizing noises for a real band in a real room, they try to get the same effect at large scale. This eats power at an incredible rate (especially the low-end), and greatly reduces the ability of the different musical parts to take their appointed place in the mix. If everything gets homogenized into a collection of crispy thuds, the chance of distinctly hearing everything drops like a bag of rocks tied to an even bigger rock that’s been thrown off a cliff made of other rocks.

But it does sound cool!

At first.

A few minutes in, especially at high volume, and the coolness gives way to fatigue.

In my mind, it’s a far better approach to try to get the midrange, or about 100 Hz to 5 kHz, really worked out as well as possible first. Then, you can start thinking about where you are with the four octaves on the top and bottom, and what’s appropriate to do there.

In my opinion, “natural” is actually much more impressive than “impressive,” especially when you don’t have massive reserves of output available. Getting a handle on what’s truly natural is much easier when that kind of sonic experience is what you’ve trained yourself to think of as normal and correct.

So get yourself some studio monitors, and make them your new reference point for what everything is supposed to sound like. I can’t guarantee that it will make you better at mixing bands, but I think there’s a real chance of it.


A Weird LFE Routing Solution

Getting creative to obtain more bottom end.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

This is another one of those case studies where you get to see how strange my mind is. As such, be aware that it may not be applicable to you at all. I had a bit of a conundrum, and I solved it in a creative way. Some folks might call it “too creative.”

Maybe those people are boring.

Or they’re reasonable and I’m a little nuts.

Anyway.

I’ve previously mentioned that I handle the audio at my church. We’ve recently added some light percussion to complement our bass-guitar situation, and there was a point where our previous worship leader/ music director wanted more thump. That is, low frequency material that was audible AND a bit “tactile.” In any case, the amount of bass we had happening wasn’t really satisfying.

Part of our problem was how I use system limiting. I’ve long nursed a habit of using a very aggressive limiter across the main mix bus as a “stop the volume here” utility. I decide how loud I want to get (which is really not very loud on Sundays), set the dynamics across the output such that we can’t get any louder, and then smack that processor with a good deal of signal. I’ve gotten to a point where I can get it right most of the time, and “put the band in a box” in terms of volume. Drive the vocals hard and they stay on top, while not jumping out and tearing anyone’s face off when the singers push harder.

At the relatively quiet volume levels that we run things, though, this presents a problem for LF content. To get that extended low-frequency effect that can be oh-so-satisfying, you need to be able to run the bass frequencies rather hotter than everything else. The limiter, though, puts a stop to that. If you’re already hitting the threshold with midrange and high-frequency information, you don’t have anywhere to go.

So, what can you do?

For a while, we took the route of patching into the house system’s subwoofer drive “line.” I would run (effectively) unlimited aux-fed subs to that line, while keeping the mains in check as normal, and we got what we wanted.

But it was a bit of a pain, as patching to the house system required unpatching some of their frontend, pulling an amp partially out of a cabinet, doing our thing, and then reversing the process at the end. I’m not opposed to work, but I like “easy” when I can get it. I eventually came to the conclusion that I didn’t really need the house subs.

This was because:

1) We were far, far below the maximum output capacity of our main speakers.

2) Our main speakers were entirely capable of producing content between 50 – 100 Hz at the level I needed for people to feel the low end a little bit. (Not a lot, just a touch.)

If we wouldn’t have had significant headroom, we would have been sunk. Low Frequency Effects (LFE) require significant power, as I said before. If my artificial headroom reduction was close to the actual maximum output of the system, finding a way around it for bass frequencies wouldn’t have done much. Also, I had to be realistic about what we could get. A full-range, pro-audio box with a 15″ or 12″ LF driver can do the “thump” range at low to moderate volumes without too much trouble. Asking for a bunch of building-rattling boom, which is what you get below about 50 Hz, is not really in line with what such an enclosure can deliver.

With those concerns handled, I simply had to solve a routing problem. For all intents and purposes, I had to create a multiband limiter that was bypassed in the low-frequency band. If you look at the diagram above, that’s what I did.

I now have one bus which is filtered to pass content at 100 Hz and above. It gets the same, super-aggressive limiter as it’s always had.

I also have a separate bus for LFE. That bus is filtered to restrict its information to the range between 50 Hz and 100 Hz, with no limiter included in the path.

Those two buses are then combined into the console’s main output bus.

With this configuration, I can “get on the gas” with low end, while retaining my smashing and smooshing of midrange content. I can have a little bit of fun with percussion and bass, while retaining a small, self-contained system that’s easy to patch. I would certainly not recommend this as a general-purpose solution, but hey – it fits my needs for now.


The Unterminated Line

If nothing’s connected and there’s still a lot of noise, you might want to call the repair shop.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

“I thought we fixed the noise on the drum-brain inputs?” I mused aloud, as one of the channels in question hummed like hymenoptera in flight. I had come in to help with another rehearsal for the band called SALT, and I was perplexed. We had previously chased down a bit of noise that was due to a ground loop; Getting everything connected to a common earthing conductor seemed to have helped.

Yet here we were, channel two stubbornly buzzing away.

Another change to the power distribution scheme didn’t help.

Then, I disconnected the cables from the drum-brain. Suddenly – the noise continued, unchanged. Curious. I pulled the connections at the mixer side. Abruptly, nothing happened. Or rather, the noise continued to happen. Oh, dear.


When chasing unwanted noise, disconnecting things is one of your most powerful tools. As you move along a signal chain, you can break the connection at successive places. When you open the circuit and the noise stops, you know that the supplier of your spurious signal is upstream of the break.

Disconnecting the cable to the mixer input should have resulted in relative silence. An unterminated line, that is, an input that is NOT connected to upstream electronics, should be very quiet in this day and age. If something unexplained is driving a console input hard enough to show up on an input meter, yanking out the patch should yield a big drop in the visible and audible level. When that didn’t happen, logic dictated an uncomfortable reality:

1) The problem was still audible, and sounded the same.

3) The input meter was unchanged, continuing to show electrical activity.

4) Muting the input stopped the noise.

5) The problem was, therefore, post the signal cable and pre the channel mute.

In a digital console, this strongly indicates that something to do with the analog input has suffered some sort of failure. Maybe the jack’s internals weren’t quite up to spec. Maybe a solder joint was just good enough to make it through Quality Control, but then let go after some time passed.

In any case, we didn’t have a problem we could fix directly. Luckily, we had some spare channels at the other end of the input count, so we moved the drum-brain connections there. The result was a pair of inputs that were free of the annoying hum, which was nice.

But if you looked at the meter for channel two, there it still was: A surprisingly large amount of input on an unterminated line.


It’s Gonna Take A Minute

The secret to better shows is practice. Practice requires time.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

The Video

The Summary

We should strive to do our best work. The best work possible on the first try is usually not as good as the best work possible on subsequent tries – and we need to be okay with that.


More Features VS Groundwork

In this case, groundwork won: There wasn’t a compelling reason to lose it.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

The Video

The Summary

If you have significant prep that’s already done for one mixing system, you might want to avoid losing that effort – even if it would be to put a more powerful/ flexible mix rig into play.


The Power Of The Solo Bus

It’s very handy to be able to pick part of a signal path and route that sound directly to your head.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

headphonesWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

The Video

The Summary

Need to figure out which channel is making that weird noise in the midst of the chaos of a show? Wondering whether your drum mics have been switched around? Wish you could directly hear the signal running to the monitor mix that’s giving people fits? Your solo bus is here to save the day!