Tag Archives: Digital Consoles

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.

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“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.


Console Envy

When it comes to sound quality, any console capable of doing the show will probably be fine.

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

Which console sounds best? The one with the features you need. If an inexpensive mixer has all the necessary features for your shows, spending more doesn’t have much of a point.


The Effervescent Joy Of Meeting A Knowledgeable Outsider

Some of the best folks to find are those who know the craft, but aren’t invested in your workflow.

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.

Last week, I got to spend a few days with students from Broadview Entertainment Arts University. The Live Sound class needs some honest-to-goodness shows to work on, so Bruce (their actual professor) and myself worked out a bit of a mechanism: I put a couple of gigs together every quarter, BEAU provides the room, I bring the PA, and we spend three days getting our collective hands dirty with building the thing.

Last week was the first round. As usual, I spent too much time talking and we didn’t get as far as maybe we should have. I also made some hilarious blunders, because everything involved in putting on a live gig is a perishable skill, and I sometimes have sizable gaps between productions. (For several minutes, I couldn’t find the blasted aux-in remap selector for my X32, even though I was on the “Input” routing page and staring right at it. I also absent-mindedly walked off the drum riser while I was mid-sentence. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.)

Anyway.

We had a really solid group of students all around. One of the most solid students was Patrick. Patrick is a guy who’s coming at this whole live-sound thing with a background in telecom. Telecom, like audio for entertainment, is the sort of business where you have to manage and troubleshoot every possible species of signal-transfer problem imaginable. Telecom skills are also becoming increasingly relevant to audio because of our increased reliance on high-speed network infrastructure. When all your audio, control, and clock signaling gets jammed onto a Cat6, it’s important to have some sort of clue as to what’s going on. (I have just enough clues to make things work. Other people have many more clues.)

As the story ended up going, we had a problem with my digi-snake. We got everything plugged together, and…oh dear. The consoles were only seeing one stage box, instead of both cascaded together. I walked over to the deck and started puzzling through things. Did the cascade connection get partially yanked? No. Did the boxes simply need a reset? No. Had I crunched the cascade cable at some point? No. I was on the brink of declaring that we’d just have to muddle through with one box when Patrick got involved.

Had I tried running a signal directly to the second box? Well, actually I hadn’t, because I was used to thinking of the two boxes as a unit.

Click.

Oh, look! The second box illuminated its green light of digital-link happiness.

Had I tried plugging directly into the secondary connection on the first box? Well, actually I hadn’t.

Click.

No happy-light was to be found.

I considered all that very nifty, but still being invested in my way of doing things, I failed to immediately see the obvious. Patrick enlightened me.

“The B-jack on the top box is the problem. Just connect them in reverse order, and you’ll have both. You can always change them around in the rack later.”

Of course, he was exactly right, and he had saved the day. (I was really glad were working on the problem the night before the show, instead of with 30 minutes to spare.)

The point here is that Patrick’s skillset, while not directly related to what we were doing, was fully transferable. He didn’t know the exact system we were working on, but he had plenty of experience at troubleshooting data-interconnects in general. He also had a distinct advantage over me. He was looking at the problem with a set of totally fresh eyes. Not being locked into a particular set of assumptions about how the system was supposed to work as a whole, he could conceptualize the individual pieces as being modular rather than as a single, static, integrated solution. I was thinking inside the flightcase, while Patrick was thinking outside the flightcase about everything inside that same flightcase. There’s a difference.

The whole situation was the triumph of the knowledgeable outsider. A person with the skills to make your plan work, but who isn’t yet invested in your specific plan may be just what you need when the whole mess starts to act up. They might be able to take a piece of the whole, reconfigure it, and slot it back in while you’re still getting your mind turned around. It’s really quite impressive.


When The Control Surface Fails

You may have to reboot – or you might not want to.

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.

Back in “the day,” we got wind of an exciting development: Consoles now existed that had a measure of independence between the actual audio processing and the control system. If the controls – the “surface” – had a problem, you could restart the surface without interrupting your show. Neat!

Of course, only the big boys and girls had access to this. I still have in my possession a pair of digital consoles that do not allow that kind of behavior. When they were newly built, the asking price per each was $3000. Nowadays, you can swipe a card for $450 and get the DSP part of a digital console equation that’s noticeably better.

These new, mini-consoles are designed to connect to a tablet or computer via a network, presenting a virtual surface through the external device. The convenient and fast way to do this is over WiFi, and it’s great when it’s really working…but it’s not so great when something goes amiss. (To be brutally frank, it’s another case of “It takes a pretty darn spendy wireless unit to be as good as a $5 cable.”) The console keeps charging along, passing audio without a hitch. You, on the other hand, are sitting there, somewhat alarmed that your display is freezing and lagging like a Tenderfoot Boy Scout on his first cold-weather hike.

So, what do you do?

Well, first, I would urge you to remember that disrupting a show or event is the last thing you want to do. Second, you need to keep in mind that some control is better than no control at all. Third, having no control at a critical moment will disrupt the show. (You see, Simba, we are all connected in the great circle of…mic cables…no…loading in and out…no, that’s not it…)

Anyway.

The point is that if you reboot your surface, or the WiFi module that communicates with it, you are no longer a “pilot in command.” Instead, you’re a pilot strapped to a jet that is going to do whatever it was last told to do, come hell or high water. That might be a good thing; A right thing. It might also be the wrong thing, or a thing that’s so horrifically bad that you want to hide your eyes and run for an exit. In whatever state you are, you are going to be stuck until the surface or network is back up. How long will that take? A few seconds? A minute? Several minutes?

You may not be able to be sure.

If the problem is degrading your control, but not completely preventing it, keep what control you have. Only reboot if you actually lose control, and that’s what you need to do to return to the driver’s seat. If it looks like you’ll soon be forced to let the system drive itself for a bit, try to use what influence you have left to make your mix stable and accommodating of coming changes. Open all channels that might need to be un-muted in the next while, and pull your output masters down a bit to guard against feedback.

Otherwise, just let the situation ride. Things might be clumsy and disconcerting, but you’ll be able to get through.

And have an alternative control connection available if at all possible. Like something that uses a $5 cable.


Why I’m Excited About The New X32-Edit

Alternative interfaces are best when they actually leverage the power of being alternative.

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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Even if you don’t use X32-Edit, the remote/ offline software for Behringer’s X32 series of consoles, I think you should keep reading. I say this because the point of this article is not to “dig deep” into the feature set of X32-Edit. Rather, I want to speak in (fairly) general terms about what console-remote software can get right, and not so right.

So, anyway…

I’m a publicly avowed fan of Behringer’s X18. I’m especially a fan of the control software, which I feel absolutely nailed what console control software should be. The ironic thing was that I felt the X18 application was markedly BETTER than the remote control/ offline editor for the X32 – and the X32 is the higher-tier product!

But why would that be?

Well, rather like the gentlemen of “Car Talk,” I have a theory – or, more correctly, a hypothesis. My guess is that the X18 software was better because it was free, from the very beginning, to act purely as a virtualized interface. The X32 series is solidly founded on consoles which have a real control surface, the only true exception being the X32 Core model. An X18 and its cousins, on the other hand, are built on the idea of having almost no physical controls at all.

With the X32, then, it was very easy for the software designers to choose to closely emulate the look and feel of the physical control surface. In the case of the X18, there was never any surface to copy – and the control implementation benefited greatly as a result. The software was always meant to be a connection to something abstract; DSP and digital console commands have no physical form that they are required to take. With this being the case, the presentation of the controls could be built to fully embrace the nature of a display device fundamentally decoupled from the console. The control layout can be rearranged to best leverage whatever screen size and geometry is available. Actions can be streamlined, contextualized, and made more powerful with the recognition that a user can apply multiple control gestures (click, long-click, double click, right-click, etc) on a single element. You can easily have a console overview that provides a ton of information, yet remains interactive.

The X18 software took great advantage of the above, which meant that I immediately recognized it as the way that X32-Edit SHOULD have worked. To be both clear and fair, the previous iterations of X32-Edit weren’t poor or unusable. What they were was “conflicted.” They sort of took advantage of what a large, decoupled view device could do for console usage, but they also often limited their behavior based on the limitations of the physical control surface’s display. Why make something less capable than it can be? In my mind, yes, there is a point in having familiarity – but getting powerful usage out of a console is more about understanding the concept of what you want to do than memorizing the button presses to do it.

Also, the old X32 remote implementation never showed as much overview as it could have with all the screen real-estate that was available, and it couldn’t really “flow” itself into different screen shapes and resolutions either. It had a basically fixed size and aspect-ratio, and if that didn’t take advantage of what was there…tough.

Thus, I am very, very happy with the new X32-Edit. It acts like a beefed-up version of the X18 application, taking all kinds of advantage of being a virtual window into the mixer. Everything seems to be more immediately accessible, and the display offers real customization in terms of what you’re looking at. The software isn’t trying to be a copy of the control surface; It’s trying to be a replacement for it.

And that has made X32-Edit into the software that it always should have been.


The Pros And Cons Of Distributed Monitor Mixing

It’s very neat when it works, but it’s not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.

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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Along with folks who rock the bars and clubs, I also work with musicians who rock for church. Just a few months ago, as City Presbyterian’s worship group was expanding (and needing more help with monitoring), I decided to put the players on a distributed monitor-mix system. What I mean by a “distributed” system is that the mix handling is decentralized. Each musician gets their own mini-mixer, which they use to “run their own show.”

The experience so far has been basically a success, with some minor caveats. The following is a summary of both my direct observations and theoretical musings regarding this particular monitoring solution.


Pro: In-Ear Monitors Become Much Easier For The Engineer

One downside to in-ears is that the isolation tends to require that everyone get a finely tuned mix of many channels. This is especially true when you’re running a quiet stage, where monitor world is required to hear much of anything. What this mandates is a lot of work on behalf of each individual performer, with the workload falling squarely on the shoulders of the audio human.

Distributed monitor mixing takes almost all of the workload off the sound operator, by placing the bulk of the decision making and execution in the hands of individual players. If the lead guitarist wants more backup vocals, they just select the appropriate channel and twist the knob. If they want the tonality of a channel altered, they can futz with it to their heart’s content. Meanwhile, the person driving the console simply continues to work on whatever they were working on, without giving much thought to monitor world.

Con: Monitors Become Harder For The Player

Much like effort and preparation, complexity for the operation of a given system can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be transferred around. A very, very important thing to remember about distributed monitor mixing is this: You have just taken a great deal of the management and technical complexity involved in mixing monitors, and handed it to someone who may not be prepared for it. Operating a mix-rig in a high-performance, realtime situation is not a trivial task, and it takes a LOT of practice to get good at it. To be sure, a distributed approach simplifies certain things (especially when in-ears essentially delete feedback from the equation), but an inescapable reality is that it also exposes a lot of complexity that the players may have had hidden from them before. Things like sensible gain staging and checking for sane limiter settings are not necessarily instinctual, and may not be a part of a musician’s technical repertoire on the first day.

Also, as the engineer, you can’t just plug in each player’s mixer and mentally check out. You MUST have some concept of how the mixers work, so that you can effectively support your musicians. Read the manual, plug in one of the units, and turn the knobs. Personal mixers may be operated by individual players, but they really are part of the reinforcement rig – and thus, the crew is responsible for at least having some clue about how to wield them.

Pro: You Don’t Necessarily Have To Use In-Ears

I have yet to encounter a personal-mix system that didn’t include some sort of “plain vanilla” line output. If the musicians want to drive a powered wedge (or an amplifier for a passive wedge) with their mixer, they can.

Con: Not Using In-Ears May Cause Trouble

As I said before, mixing in a high-performance situation isn’t an easy thing that humans are naturally prepared to do. Life gets even more hairy in a “closed-loop” situation – i.e., onstage monitoring with mics and loudspeakers. A musician may dial their piece of monitor world (at a bare minimum) into SCREAMING feedback without realizing their danger. They may not recognize how to get themselves out of the conundrum.

And, depending on how your system works, the audio human may not be able to “right the ship” from the mix position.

Even if they don’t get themselves swallowed by a feedback monster, a player can also run their mix so loud that they’re drowning everybody else, including the Front Of House mix…

Pro: Integrated Ecosystems Are Powerful And Easy

As more digital console “ecosystems” come online, adding distributed mixing is becoming incredibly easy. For instance, Behringer’s digital Powerplay products plug right into Ultranet with almost zero fuss. If your console has Ultranet built-in, you don’t have to worry about tapping inserts or direct outs. You just run a Cat5/ Cat6 cable to a distribution module, the module sends data and power over the other Cat5/6 runs, and everything just tends to work.

Con: Once You’ve Picked Your Ecosystem, You’ll Have To Stay There

Integrated digital audio ecosystems make things easy, but they tend to only play nice within the same extended family of products. You can’t run an Ultranet product on an Aviom monitor-distro network, for instance. More universal options do exist, but the universality tends to come with a large price premium. Whenever you go a certain way with a system of personal mixers, you’re making a big commitment. The jump to a different product family may be difficult to do…or just a flat-out expensive replacement, depending upon the system flexibility.

Pro: Everybody Can Have Their Own Mixer

Distributed mixing can be a way to banish all monitor-mix sharing for good. Everybody in the band can not only have their own mix, but their own channel equalization as well. If the guitar player wants the bass to sound one way, and the bass player wants the bass to sound totally different, that option is now very viable. Each musician can build intricate presets inside their own piece of hardware, without necessarily having to consult with anyone else.

Con: Everybody Having Their Own Mixer Is Expensive

Expensive is a relative term, of course. With a Powerplay system, outfitting a five-piece band is about as expensive as buying a couple-three “pretty dang nice,” powered monitor wedges. Other systems involve a lot more money, however. Also, even with an affordable product-line, adding a new member to the band means the expense of adding another personal mixer and attendant accessories.

Pro: Personal Mixing Is Luxurious

When we deployed our distributed system, one of the comments I got was “This is what we’ve always wanted, but couldn’t have. It should always have worked this way.” Everybody getting their own personal, instantly customizable mix is a “big league” sort of setup that is now firmly within reach for almost any band. Under the right circumstances, moving the on-deck show into the right place can transform from a slog to a joy.

Con: Not Everybody May Buy In To The Idea

The adoption of a distributed monitor mixing system is like all personal monitoring: Personal. The problem is that you have to try it to find out if you want to deal with it or not. Unless someone categorically states at the outset that they want no part of individualized mixing, the money has to be spent to let them give it a whirl.

…and they may decide that it’s just not for them, with only 30 minutes of use on their mixer and the money already spent. You just have to be ready for this, and be prepared to treat it as a natural cost of the system. Forcing someone to use a monitoring solution that they dislike is highly counterproductive.

Distributed monitor mixing, like all live-audio solutions, is neither magic nor a panacea. It may be exactly the right choice for you, or it may be a terrible one. As with everything else, there’s homework to be done, and nobody can do it but you. One size does not fit all.


I Think My Spaceship Knows Which Way To Go

A superbly talented and highly rehearsed band roars back from the brink of disaster.

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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It’s funny how we’re often separated by a common language.

If you’re a regular reader, you are certainly aware by now of how much I emphasize logistics and preparation. On deck to handle the sound reinforcement for a Major Tom & The Moonboys appearance at the Sugarhouse Farmer’s Market, I was feeling pretty confident. We’d managed to talk the event folks into an extra hour for setup, and we were on track to make good use of the time. The van o’ audio was 75% unloaded into Fairmont Park’s west pavilion. We were cookin’.

We then got the news that we were in the wrong place.

You see, when the Farmer’s Market folks said “the west pavilion,” what they meant was, “the pavilion on the west side of the Farmer’s Market.” Unfortunately, the additional qualification wasn’t what we heard. What we heard was “THE west pavilion.”

So that’s where we were.

And being both on time and industrious actually worked against us.

We could easily pull our vehicles right up to where we were really supposed to be, but the van was almost empty. To make matters worse, it would take just as long to walk everything back to the van as it would to walk it over to the correct location. By the time it was all done, our lead time had evaporated. The situation was now “throw and go” with a band that is decidedly NOT meant to be “throw and go.”


Some weeks earlier, my cautionary inner voice had said, “You know, Danny, you probably don’t want to be dialing up monitor world from scratch on this gig.” As such, I had gone out to a rehearsal and built a preset monitor solution. This did indeed turn out to be a Very Good Idea™ in the end, but at first it tripped us up. With the stage not necessarily being patched in a house-left-to-house-right order, but rather jumping around a bit, it wasn’t possible to set out a simple “patch logic” and have other folks go to town. I couldn’t walk out to FOH and work on that setup while the stage was getting taken care of. Every task had to be done in series, with me directing traffic in detail.

And, of course, my danged CAT6 cables for the stagebox connections got tangled in the box. It’s amazing how even nice coils will find a way to glom onto each other. With the help of Layne, the percussionist, the two of us managed to sort out 200 feet of pissed-off, solid-wire data cable in decent time – but we were still late, and nowhere near where we needed to be.

We were a little over halfway patched overall when FOH control finally came together. Or sort of did. There’s a special kind of horrified panic that audio humans experience when something that, by all measures should be working…flat-out fails to work. We had this whole plan for a grunge-a-delic break music solution involving David Bowie instrumentals coming through a mic’ed boombox. The boombox was working, and the mic was working, so why wasn’t anything coming through the FOH PA when I pushed the fader up? Even worse, why was the channel routed to the main bus, but the main bus meter showed no signal?

I was racking my brain.

I checked all the global routing I could think of, with my half-panicked brain going mushy with reinterpreting the odd machinations required to string two X32 consoles together in a daisy chain. Had I reset something by accident? How was that even possible?

Finally, the lead videographer made the simple suggestion: Just restart the software. Of course this had not occurred to me, because a problem of this nature could not possibly occur without active misconfiguration, right? Well, at that point I was ready to try anything. Ten seconds later, FOH was in business.

So, if you didn’t know, it is indeed possible for X32-Edit to connect to a console and “see” meter activity, yet not successfully send control data.


At this point we were over half an hour past our scheduled downbeat. Michael, the guitar player, said what I was very definitely starting to think. “Let’s just plug in the keyboards and bass and go for it.” So, with neither guitar in the PA, nor drums, and the FOH subwoofers metaphorically thrown under the bus, we went for it.

Our luck changed immediately.

The band dove in, and our prep work started to pay off. I had also prebuilt some of FOH, which meant that I could just grab faders and basically have something usable come out of the system. What was coming out of the system was the music provided by seasoned pros with hours upon hours of rehearsal. I think it’s quite fitting that a Bowie tribute act would embody the line “I think my spaceship knows which way to go.” From everything I could perceive, the audience was IN LOVE.

The songs were being beautifully played by people who adored the material, and the whole thing was basically balanced – guitars and drums in the PA or not – because the players know how to be a band without a sound operator taking everything apart and putting it back together.

Exactly zero people complained about the lack of subwoofer material. (I eventually got the guitars into the system. I never finished patching in the subs.)

Kids were dancing.

The folks down front were smiling.

People were offering compliments on the sound.

As I’m sure happens almost every night all over the world, a supremely rehearsed and professional band had salvaged a bad situation so completely that the problems leading up to the music were essentially forgotten.

Boy, what a ride.


The Story Of A Road Gig, Part 3

Commentary with pictures – or maybe it’s the other way around.

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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Rather than try to relate the entire story of this overnighter as a narrative, I’ve decided to take the approach of commenting on the various photos that were taken at the gig (or around the process of it). There are, amazingly, some shots where yours truly makes an appearance. Scotty of Eyes Open got ahold of my camera, and, well, there ya go.


X32 Cores

X32 Cores

While it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart, running surfaceless consoles can potentially save you money, weight, and some space. Consoles like this really hammer home what a digital mixer is: A whole lot of software running on specialized hardware. Delete the control hardware, and all the heavy-lifting for audio still remains.

Going surfaceless requires significant homework. You’ll have to get both your “mix brains” and their associated control devices (laptops, tablets, etc.) onto a network and talking to each other. An inexpensive wireless router is really all you need for this, but DO have a fallback option. Also, anything that doesn’t need to be wireless probably shouldn’t be, so use a wired connection to your control gear whenever you can. Ethernet cable is cheap, available almost everywhere, and pretty much stupid-proof.

And, for heaven’s sake, set up meaningful security on your wireless network. Nothing but your consoles and controllers should be connected to it.

I have two X32 cores for more than one reason. Reason #1 is to be able to have separate FOH and monitor worlds with full “first-class” channel counts – 32 inputs each. Reason #2 is that, if one console were to give up the ghost, I could fall back to its counterpart and keep going.

As much as is practical, build mix templates for your show before you leave. The ability to walk up to the show and “just go for it” without having to think through everything on the fly is a big help. Remember to do some meaningful tests on your setup to ensure that it works, and that you know how it works.

S16 Stageboxes

S16 Stageboxes

Digital stageboxes help you save space and weight by removing the need for a big, heavy, multicore trunk. The irony is that digital stageboxes are rather more expensive than their analog cousins. Your overall cost may be slightly reduced if you get a single unit with all the inputs and outputs you need, but you have to account for the risk of that unit dying on you. Using two boxes to do the job allows you to continue in some way if one of them stops cooperating.

Use the network cabling recommended by the manufacturer. If your digital snake system calls for shielded Cat5e with Ethercon connectors, that’s what you should use. There are plenty of stories out there of people who encountered…interesting results while using connectivity that was not up to spec. (At the same time, I’m not convinced that “super premium” is necessary. GLS Audio makes SSTP ethercon cables that seem pretty darn good, and clock-in at under $1.00/ foot.)

Remember to have spare cables for this high-speed, highly-mission-critical audio network you’re building.

Which One Is Which?

Which One Is Which?

Here we see a common, North-American noise-louderizer with a remote console control, he being somewhat perplexed by how the mix-bus order is now reversed due to his move from FOH to the stage.

Tablets And Monitors

Tablets And Monitors

I am brand new to the whole idea of walking up on deck with a remote, but let me tell you, it’s one of the greatest things since sliced bread. For your initial rough-in of monitor world, it’s downright beautiful to be able to put things together without any guesswork, or running back and forth to a console. Instead, you park yourself in front of a wedge, start dialing things up, and instantly hear the results of your changes. This means that you can actually pick up on the exact point where additional gain on a channel starts to get “weird.”

It’s also beautiful to have the remote when artists are actually on stage. Again, a lot of guesswork and disconnection simply goes away. You can talk to each other naturally, for a start. Even more important, though, is that you can actually hear what the musician is hearing. Problems with a mix don’t have to be described, as you can experience them directly for yourself. Finally, it’s a great bit of “politics;” Musicians who have often dealt with uncaring (or just absent) audio-humans now have one who’s really paying attention – and who’s also very much in the same boat as they are.

As was jokingly mentioned above, you do have to remember that your mix order may be “flipped.” If you numbered your mixes based on how you’re looking at things from FOH, walking up on deck now means that you’re seeing the mirror image.

When putting a system together, don’t be stingy with your monitor mixes. I’ve never regretted having more mixes and wedges available. As I’ve said before, and will probably say again, getting everyone happy on deck means a much better experience at FOH. A recipe for success really is making sure that a big piece of your budget goes to monitor world. Give those drummers “Texas headphones” (a drumfill) if at all possible. They tend to like it.

Scotty And McCrae

Scotty And McCrae

Scotty and McCrae were the guys who brought me out on the trip, and on a practical level, the show would NOT have happened without them. McCrae handled a lot of behind-the-scenes logistical elements in real time, making sure that things like shelter, power, and scheduling were actually working.

Scotty joined with McCrae to form my weekend stage crew. It was a little slice of heaven to work with those guys, because all I had to do was describe what I wanted to happen, and then wait a few minutes. The importance of such a crew, that has a can-do attitude and a real sense of humor, can NOT be overstated. I was able to deliver because (and only because) everybody else did their job.

(Also, a huge “Thank You” goes out to Bayley H. for running the event as a whole, for giving Scotty and me a place to sleep, and for chasing down one of those super-rad Honda generators for us. She was juggling about 80 things all weekend, one of those things being the music, and we were very well taken care of.)

Run!

Run!

Spooked by the sudden noise of a band getting comfortable on deck, a black-footed knob-turner (voluminus maximus) bolts for the safety of FOH.

FOH

FOH
FOH 2

I put FOH control on top of the console case, with monitor world off to the side. The laptops are different colors so that I can tell them apart easily when unpacking them. The trackballs are there because, let’s face it, trackpads are fiddly, imprecise, and (to be both blunt and slightly crass) just tend to suck in general.

Another tip: If your primary monitor-world controller has a case, put the monitor control tablet in that same case. It will make things ever so slightly faster and easier at setup.

Talkback is one of the main reasons to have at least one microphone equipped with a switch. Choose where you want talkback to be routed to, latch the console’s talkback control, and then simply flick the switch on the mic when you want to talk.

Laptops (with good batteries) and a UPS are helpful at FOH, because a power failure means that your audio processing and routing stay up. No, there might not be any audio for them to work on, but they’ll be available immediately when you get the power back.

Troopers

Troopers 1
Troopers 2
Troopers 3
Troopers 4

Katie Ainge and her band were real troopers throughout the show. Over the course of two days, we would have a few technical issues, and we would also get rained on twice. Through it all, they played their best, kept smiling, and kept coming back for more:

Originally, they were only supposed to play on the Friday night. However, a storm ended up rolling in. Katie and company played right up until the rain started falling, only calling a halt because their instruments were getting wet. After a hasty pack up and retreat, after which they could have bailed out with full pay, they elected to stay around and get a full show in on the following morning.

Also, large garbage bags make pretty decent rain protectors for loudspeakers and other gear. They do tend to buzz at certain frequencies, but that’s the least of your worries when water starts falling out of the sky.

We only hung a single overhead. With a well-balanced band, a single mic in the right spot will get everything on the kit without getting swamped by bleed. Also, I mix live audio in mono about 99.9% of the time, and a single mic is always in phase with itself.

Try, Try Again

Try, Try Again

After a frantic night of Scotty and McCrae packing, unpacking, and drying out the gear, the next morning came along with the promise of actually doing the show. Notice that the generator really is NOT in the right place. I should have placed it off to the side of the deck, so that the exhaust would have stayed away from the performers. Oops.

Double Hung

Double Hung

McCrae and Bayley, masters of all they survey.

With the PA deployed as it was, putting the same signal into all four FOH mid-highs probably would not have sounded all that hot. The outer pair was slightly behind the inner pair, which would have resulted in the high end being out of phase alignment. That problem did not come into play, however, because the different pairs were used for different signals. The inner pair was my vocal cluster, and the outer pair was for instruments. This technique borrows both from The Grateful Dead’s “Wall Of Sound,” and Dave Rat’s “double hung” PA deployments – it’s just on a very small scale.

The configuration as pictured and described trades coverage area for power and/ or clarity. We essentially have one, larger PA setup that’s firing in a narrow pattern. (Even so, some walking around proved that you could hear the PA pretty much everywhere in the park proper.) An alternative would be to put the entire mix into all four boxes, but aim the boxes to hit different zones. In that case, we’d be trading power/ clarity for coverage.

For Real This Time

For Real This Time 1
For Real This Time 2
For Real This Time 3
For Real This Time 4

With no rain during the actual show, the retry of the previous night went much more smoothly. We did have a couple of problems with the cables to Katie’s DI, with my suspicion being that the metal on their XLR connectors is inexpensive, soft, and therefore prone to change shape when heated significantly in the sun. (I can’t prove it though – this is just a wild theory.)

In any case, though, it was great to see Katie and her friends bring some really enjoyable tunes to an audience able to stay for the duration.

Afterwards, packing the van, we got another rain shower.

But it was time to go home anyway.


The Behringer X18

Huge value, especially if you already have a tablet or laptop handy.

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.

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

From where I’m standing, the X18 is proof that Behringer should stop fooling around and make a rackmountable X32 with full I/O. Seriously – forget about all the cut-down versions of the main product. Forget about needing an extra stagebox for full input on the rackable units. Just package up a complete complement of 32X16 analog, put a DSP brain inside it, and sell the heck out of it.

I say this because the X18 is a killer piece of equipment. It packages a whole ton of functionality into a small space, and has only minor quirks. If someone without a lot of money came to me and asked what to use as the core of a small-but-mighty SR rig, the XAir X18 would be high on my list of recommendations.

Software Breaks The Barriers

We’ve hit a point in technology where I don’t see any economic reason for small-format analog mixers to exist. I certainly see functionality reasons, because not everybody is ready to dive into the way that surfaceless consoles work, but any monetary argument simply fails to add up. With an X18, $500 (plus a laptop or tablet that you probably already have) gets you some real big-boy features. To wit:

Channel-per-channel dynamics.

Four-band, fully parametric EQ on all inputs and outputs, plus an additional hi-pass filter that sweeps up to 400 Hz.

Up to six monitor mixes from the auxiliaries, each send configurable as pre or post (plus some extra “pick off point” options).

Four stereo FX slots, which can be used with either send-model or insert-model routing as you prefer.

Sixteen, full-blown XLR inputs with individually(!) switchable phantom.

A built-in, honest-to-goodness, bidirectional, multitrack USB interface.

Full console recall with snapshots.

Mute groups (which I find really handy), and DCA groups (which other people probably find handy).

A built-in wireless access point to talk to your interface device.

Folks, nothing in the analog world even comes close to this kind of feature set at this price point. Buying an analog mixer as a backup might be a smart idea. Starting with an analog mixer because all this capability is overwhelming is also (possibly) a good idea. Buying an analog mixer because it’s cheaper, though, is no longer on the table. Now that everything’s software, the console’s frame-size and material cost no longer dictates a restricted feature set.

I’ll also say that I’ve used X32 Edit, which is the remote control software for Behringer’s flagship consoles. I actually like the XAir software slightly better. As I see it, X32 Edit has to closely emulate the control surface of the mixer, which means that it sometimes compromises on what it could do as a virtual surface. The XAir application, on the other hand, doesn’t have any physical surface that it has to mirror, and so it’s somewhat freer to be a “pure form” software controller.

Anyway, if you really want to dive into mixing, and really want to be able to respond to a band’s needs to a high degree, you might as well start with an X18 or something similar.

Ultranet

I didn’t list Ultranet with the other features above, because it exists outside the normal “mixing functionality” feature stack. It’s also not something you can make work in a meaningful way without some significant additional investment. At the same time, Ultranet integration was what really made the X18 perfect for my specific application.

We wanted to get the band (in this case, a worship band for church) on in-ears. In-ears can be something of a convoluted, difficult proposition. Because of the isolation that’s possible with decent earbuds, getting everybody a workable mix can be more involved than what happens with wedges; Along with assuring that monitor bleed can’t hurt you, you also get the side effect that it doesn’t help you either. Further, you still have to run all your auxiliaries back to the IEM inputs, and then – if you’re running wired – you have to get cables out to each set of ears. The whole thing can get tangled and difficult in a big hurry.

The Ultranet support on the X18 can basically fix all that – if you’ve got some extra money.

Paired up with a P16-D distribution module that links to Ultranet-enabled P16-M personal mixers, each musician can get the 16 main input channels delivered directly to their individualized (and immediate) control. If a player needs something in their head, they just select a channel and crank the volume. Nobody else but that musician is affected. There’s no need to get my attention, unless something’s gone wrong. Connections are made with relatively cheap, shielded, Cat6 cables, and the distribution module allows both signal and power to run on those cables.

The “shielded” bit is important, by the way. Lots of extra-cheap Ethernet cables are unshielded, but this is a high-performance data application. The manufacturer’s spec calls for shielded cable, so spend just a few bucks more and get what’s recommended.

Depending on your needs, Ultranet can be a real chunk of practical magic – and it’s already built into the console.

The Quirk

One design choice that’s becoming quite common with digital desks is that of the “user configured” bus. Back in the days of physical components, never did the paths of “mix” and “auxiliary” buses meet, unless you physically patched one into another somehow. Mix buses, also called subgroups, would be accessed via a routing matrix and your channel panner. Aux buses, on the other hand, would live someplace very different: The channel sends section.

In these modern times, it’s becoming quite common for buses to do multi-duty. From a certain standpoint, this makes plenty of sense. Any bus is just a common signal line, and the real difference between a sub-group bus and an aux bus comes down to how the signal gets into the line. When it comes right down to it, the traditional mix sub-group is just a post-fader send where the send gain is always “unity.”

Even, so, may of us (myself included) are not used to having these concepts abstracted in such a way. In my case, I was used to one of two situations: Dedicated buses existing in fixed numbers and having a singular purpose, or to an effectively unlimited number of sends that could be freely configured – but that always behaved like an aux send.

In the case of the X18, the “quirk” is how neither of those two situations is the chosen path. X18 buses exist in fixed numbers, but are not necessarily dedicated and don’t always behave like an aux send. When a bus is configured to behave as a sub-group for certain channels, it is still called a send and located where the other sends are found. However, its send gain is replaced with an “on” button that either allows post-fader, unity-gain signal to flow, or no signal to flow at all. Now that I’m used to this idea, the whole thing makes perfect sense. However, it took me a few minutes to wrap my brain around what was going on, so I figured I ought to mention it.

Other than my minor befuddlement, there’s nothing I don’t like about the X18. It’s not quite as capable as an X32, but it’s not a “My First Mixer” either. It’s actually within shouting distance, features wise, of the more expensive Behringer offerings. There’s a lot of firepower wrapped up in a compact package when it comes to this unit, and like I said, one of these would be a great starting point for a band or small venue that wants to take things seriously.


Just What Signal Is It, Anyway?

This business is all about electricity, but the electricity can mean lots of different things.

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.

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

A fader, an XLR cable, and an Ethernet cable walk into a bar.

None of them could have ducked, because cables and faders can’t walk into a bar anyway. Besides, they don’t play nice with liquids, if we were talking about the other kind of bar.

Look, some jokes just don’t work out, okay?

Every object I mentioned above deals with electricity. In the world of audio it’s pretty much all about electricity, or the sound pressure waves that become (or are generated by) electricity. What trips people up, though, is exactly what all those signals actually are. An assumption that’s very, very easy to make is that all electrical connections in the world of audio are carrying audio.

They aren’t.

The Three Categories

In my experience, you can sort electrical signals in the world of audio into three “species:”

  • Audio signals.
  • Data signals that represent audio.
  • Signals that represent control for an audio-processing device.

Knowing which one you actually have, and where you have it, is critical for understanding how any audio system or subsystem functions. (And you have to have an idea of how they function if you’re going to troubleshoot anything. And you’re going to have to troubleshoot something, sometime.)

In a plain-vanilla audio signal, the electrical voltage corresponds directly to a sonic event’s pressure amplitude. Connect that signal – at an appropriate drive level – to a loudspeaker, and you’ll get an approximation of the original noise. Even if the signal is synthesized, and the voltage was generated without an original, acoustical event, it’s still meant to represent a sound.

Data signals that represent audio are a different creature. The voltage on the connection is meant to be interpreted as some form of abstract data stream. That is to say, numbers. The data stream can NOT be directly converted to audio by running it through an electrical-to-sound-pressure transducer. Instead, the data has to reach an endpoint which converts that “abstract” information into an analog signal. At that point, you have electricity which corresponds to pressure amplitude, but not before.

Signals for control are even further removed. The information in such a signal is used to modify the operating parameters of a sound system, and that’s all it’s good for. It is impossible, at any point, for that control signal to be turned into meaningful audio. The control signal might be analog, or it might be digital, but it never was audio, and never will be.

The Console Problem

Lots of us who louderize various noises started on simple, analog consoles. Those mixers are easy to understand in terms of signal species, because everything the controls work on is audio. Every linear or rotary fader is passing electricity that “is” sound.

Then you move to a digital console.

Are those faders passing audio?

No.

Ah! They’re passing data that represents audio!

Nope.

I have never met a digital mixing desk that does either of those things. With a digital console, the faders and knobs are used for passing control data to the software. With an analog console, the complete death of a fader means the channel dies, because audio signal stops flowing. With a digital console, a truly dead fader doesn’t necessarily stop audio from flowing through the console; It does prevent you from controlling that channel’s level…until you can find an alternate control method. There often is one, by the way.

And then there’s the murky middle ground. More full-featured analog consoles can have things like VCAs. Voltage controlled amplifiers make gain changes to an analog audio signal based upon an analog control signal. A dedicated fader for VCA control doesn’t have audio running through it, whereas a VCA controlled signal path certainly does.

And then, there are digital consoles with DCAs (digitally controlled amplifiers), which are sometimes labeled as VCAs to keep the terminology the same, but no audio-path amplifiers are involved at all. Do your homework, folks.

Something’s Coming In On The Wire

I’ve written before about how you can’t be sure about what signal a cable is carrying just by looking at the cable ends. The quick recap is that a given cable might be carrying all manner of audio signals, and you don’t necessarily know anything about the signal until you actually measure it in some way.

There’s also the whole issue of cables that you think are meant for analog, but are carrying digital signals instead. While it’s not “within spec,” you can use regular microphone cable for AES/ EBU digital audio. A half-decent RCA-to-RCA cable will handle S/PDIF just fine.

Let me further add the wrinkle that “data” cables don’t all carry the same data.

For instance, audio humans are interacting more and more with Ethernet connections. It’s truly brilliant to be able to string a single, affordable, lightweight cable where once you needed a big, heavy, expensive, multicore. So, here’s a question: What’s on that Ethernet cable?

It might be digital audio.

It might be control data.

It might even be both.

For instance, I have a digital console that can be run remotely. A great trick is to put the console on stage, and use the physical device as its own stagebox. Then, off a router, I run a network cable out to FOH. There’s no audio data on that network cable at all. Everything to do with actually performing audio-related operations occurs at the console. All that I’m doing with my laptop and trackball is issuing commands over a network.

It is also possible, however, to buy a digital stagebox for the console. With that configuration, the console goes to FOH while attached to a network cable. Because the console has to do the real heavy-lifting in regards to the sound processing, digital audio has to be flying back and forth on that network connection. At the same time, however, the console has to be able to fire control messages to the stagebox, which has digitally remote-managed preamp gain.

You have to know what you’ve got. If you’re going to successfully deploy and debug an audio system, you have to know what kind of signal you have, and where you have it. It might seem a little convoluted at first, but it all starts to make logical sense if you stop to think about it. The key is to stop and think about it.