Tag Archives: Digital Consoles

Console Questions

A few simple queries can get you going on just about any console.

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 when I was in school, we were introduced to “The Four Console Questions.” The idea behind the questions was that, if you walked up to a strange mixer, you could get answers to the questions and be able to get work done. Mixing desks come in many varieties, but there aren’t very many truly different ways to build them that make sense. In any case, all the basic concepts have to essentially stay the same. If a console can’t take some number “a” of audio inputs, and route those inputs to some number “o” of outputs, you don’t have a mixing console anyway.

With the growing commonality of digital mix systems, I feel that the essential “console questions” need some expansion and tweaking. As such, here’s my take on the material that was presented to me over a decade and a half (GEEZE!) ago.

1. Do I Know What I Want To Do?

You might say that this isn’t a console question at all, but in truth, it’s THE most important one. If you don’t know what you want to do with the console, then knowing a bunch of information about the console’s operation won’t help you one iota. The unfortunate reality is that many people try to engage in this whole exercise backwards; They don’t know what they want to accomplish, but they figure that learning the mixer’s whys and wherefores will help them figure it out.

Certainly, learning about a new feature that you haven’t had access to previously can lead you to new techniques. However, at a bedrock level, you have to have some preconceived notion of what you want to accomplish with the tool. Do you want to get a vocal into the FOH PA? Do you want to get three electric guitars, a kazoo, and a capybara playing Tibetan singing-bowls into 12 different monitor mixes?

You have to know your application.

2. How Do I Correctly Clock The Console?

For an analog console, the answer to this is always: “No clock is required.”

For a digital rig, though, it’s very important. I just recently befuddled myself for an agonizing minute with why a digital console wasn’t showing any input. Whoops! It was because I had set it to receive external clock from a master console a few weeks before, and hadn’t returned it to internal clocking now that it was on its own.

You need to know how to indicate to the console which clock source and sample rate is appropriate for the current situation.

3. How Do I Choose What Inputs Are Available To The Channels?

This is particularly important with consoles that support both on-board input and remote stageboxes. You will very likely have to pick and choose which of those options is available to an individual channel or group of channels. What you need to discover is how those selections are accomplished.

4. How Do I Connect A Particular Input To A Particular Channel?

You might think this was covered in the previous question, but it wasn’t. Your global input options aren’t the end of the story. Many consoles will let you do per-channel “soft-patching,” which is the connection of a certain available signal to a certain channel without having to change a physical connection. Whether on a remote stagebox or directly at the desk, input 1 may NOT necessarily be appearing on channel 1. You have to find out how those connections are chosen.

5. How Do I Insert Channel Processing?

In some situations, this means a physical insert connection that may be automatically enabled…or not. In other cases, this means the enabling and disabling of per-channel dynamics and/ or EQ, and maybe even other DSP processing available onboard in some way. You will need to know how that takes place, and with all the possible variations that might have to do with your particular application, it is CRITICAL that you know what you want to do.

6. How Do I Route A Channel To An Auxiliary, Mix Bus, Or The Main Bus?

Sometimes, this is dead-simple and “locked in.” You might have four auxiliaries and four submix buses implemented in hardware, such that they can only be auxiliary or mix buses, with the same knobs always pushing the same aux and a routing matrix with pan-based bus selection. On the other hand, you might have a pool of buses that can behave in various ways depending on global configuration, per-channel configuration, or both.

So, you’ll need to figure out what you’ve got, and how to connect a given channel to a given bus so that you get the results you want.

7. How Do I Insert Bus Processing?

This might be just like question 5, or wildly different. You will need to sort out which reality is currently in play.

8. How Do I Connect A Given Signal To A Physical Output?

Just because you have a signal running to a bus, there’s no guarantee that the bus is actually going to transfer signal to any other piece of equipment. Especially in the digital world, there may be another layer of patching to assign signals to either digital or analog outputs. Bus 1 might be on output 7, because six matrices might be connected to the first six outputs. Maybe output 16 is a pre-fader direct out from channel 4.

You’ll have to figure out where all that gets specified.


Obviously, there’s more to being a whiz at any particular console than eight basic questions. However, if you can get a given signal into the desk, through some processing, combined with other signals you want to combine, and then off to the next destination, you can at least make some real noise in the room.


No, Analog Isn’t Better

Analog gear does look cool, though.

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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Although the fight isn’t nearly so pitched as it once was, some folks might still ask: “Is analog better than digital?”

Analog audio gear does indeed have one major advantage over its number-crunching counterparts. Especially with the right lighting, it often looks a lot cooler on Instagram. Other than that, I’ll take digital over analog any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

Everyone’s got their own opinion, of course, and I can respect that. I believe that I can back mine up pretty convincingly.

“Back in the day,” you could make a case that analog sounded better. I maintain that this was because both analog and digital grunged up signals to about the same degree, but that digital grunge is generally perceived as being less pleasing. We’re in the 21st Century now, though, and those problems were fixed a good while back. Today’s digital is clear, hyper-accurate, and pristine, even with all manner of gain-changes piled on and low-level signals being passed. Along with that, digital gear is compact, lightweight, flexible, cheap, and feature rich.

Analog, on the other hand, is large, heavy, inflexible, expensive, and feature-limited. It also does not sound “better.”

What do I mean?

Let’s take the example of a modern, digital console, like an X32 Core. Such a console is the ultimate expression of digital’s strengths:

First of all, the setup is tiny. With six rack-spaces handy, you can have 32 X 16 I/O, plus a separate console for FOH and monitor world. Of course, the system has no control surface, so you’ll need a laptop or tablet to act as a “steering wheel.” Even so, the whole shebang could fit in the trunk of a small car. A similar analog setup would necessitate a good-sized SUV, truck, or van for transport.

This also factors into the lightweight aspect. I don’t know exactly how much the above system weighs, but I know it’s a LOT less than two, 32 input analog boards. Even with no other accoutrements, the old-school solution will put you into the 80-pound range at a minimum. Add in a traditional multicore and stagebox splitters, and…well…it’s a lot to carry.

The flexibility argument comes next. Although everything has a design limit, gear that runs on code can have updates applied easily. As long as any new functionality falls within what the hardware and basic software platform can manage, that new functionality can be added – through a simple software update – for as long as the manufacturer cares to work on the system. Front-end control is just as malleable, if not more. If it turns out that the software portion of the interface could do things better, an update gets written and that’s that. Equipment that operates on physical circuits either has no path for similar changes, or if it does, accomplishing the changes is a task that’s profoundly difficult in comparison.

Cost and feature-set dovetail into one another. At the very bare minimum, you can purchase the mixers for a dual-console analog system for about $2800. That’s not too bad in the grand scheme of things, until you realize that a similar investment in the digital world can also get you the stagebox and snake. Also, the digital system will have tons of processing muscle that the analog setup won’t be able to touch. Twelve monitor mixes, fully-configurable channel-per-channel dynamics, four-band parametric EQ, a sweepable filter, EQ and dynamics on every output, plus eight additional processing units? Good luck finding that in an integrated analog package. Such a thing doesn’t even exist as far as I know, and anything even remotely comparable won’t be found for less than tens of thousands of dollars.

So, what about my last point? That analog doesn’t actually sound better?

It doesn’t. No, really. It may sound different. You may like that it sounds different. I can’t argue with personal taste. The reality, though, is that the different sound (especially “warmth” or “fatness” or “depth”) is the product of the gear not passing a clean signal. Maybe the circuitry imparts a nice, low-frequency bump somewhere. Maybe it rolls off in the highs. Maybe there’s just a touch of even-harmonic distortion that creeps in at your preferred gain structure. That’s nifty, but in any objective sense it’s either a circuit that’s inflexibly pre-equalized or is forgiving when being run hard. That may be what some people want, but it’s not what I want, and I’m not going to label it as “better” when a pleasing result is precipitated by a design limitation. (Or only appears when the gain is set just-so.)

Analog isn’t dead, and it isn’t going to die. Our digital systems require well-designed analog stages on the input and output sides to function in real life. At the same time, there are good reasons to make as much of the signal chain digital as is possible. Digital sounds great, and holds too many practical advantages for it to lose out in an objective comparison.


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.

road-gig-3Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.
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.