Tag Archives: Digital Consoles

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.

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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.

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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.


Pretty Close To An SC48

The great thing about this business is that, nowadays, you can get a lot of functionality for a little money.

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 just had the privilege of spending four days working in an amazing venue. I won’t be naming names here on the site, although where I worked (and who I worked for) are not secret – it’s just a bit of courtesy, as it was my “first rodeo” with the performing group.

The venue was not small by my standards. A 500-seater sits squarely in what I consider the “midsize” bracket. Also, the place has a gloriously high ceiling, full fly-system (you know, curtains, big battens to hang lights on, that sort of thing), tons of power, and pretty much whatever else you want. Plus, they have a helpful, good-natured, knowledgeable staff that are always around when you need them.

At FOH, they installed an SC48.

An SC48 is a tour-grade digital console by Avid. It’s one of those pieces of gear that folks salivate over, and with good reason. It’s got an eminently usable control surface, a well-designed software interface, and lots of channels. Plus, as I said, it is an honest-to-goodness tour-grade unit. When you’re driving one, you are very definitely sitting in “the big chair.”

A basic model of the SC48, purchased new, will run you about $29,000 US.

And, for less than 1/10th of that, you can buy a digital console that will basically do all the same things an SC48 can do.

I’m Not Slagging The SC48

I hope that it’s abundantly clear that I am in no way ragging on the Avid product. There are things that I wish were different on it, but that can hold on for a bit.

What I am saying is that the gap between “pro-sumer” units and the biggest, coolest toys is continually narrowing.

See, I have in my possession, right now, a Behringer X32. It’s not even the full-size model. Spending four days with an SC48 made it very clear to me that an X32’s core functions are entirely competitive with the Avid desk. By extension, this means that pretty much any “affordable” digi-mixer is competitive on the basis of core functionality.

Full dynamics processing available on all input channels? Check.

Multi-band, fully parametric EQ on all input channels? Check.

A snapshot system? Check.

Recallable input gains? Check.

Matrix mix functionality? Check. (Matrix mixing is creating a blend of inputs and/ or outputs, as opposed to regular bus and aux mixes which are input-fed only. I don’t really use matrices, but it is one of the features, so…)

Now, let’s be fair. When you invest in something like an SC48, you’re buying more than just the core functionality. You’re buying (hopefully) great manufacturer support, which can get you out of a jam on nights and weekends. You’re buying redundant power supplies. You’re buying industry recognition and acceptance of the hardware and software platform. You’re buying (again, hopefully) better and more careful manufacturing. You’re buying a product which is meant to have a lengthened life cycle.

None of that is a mere triviality.

At the same time, though, those elements represent a VERY large price premium that doesn’t really make sense for small-venue types.

How Much Is It Worth To You?

Yes, an SC48 can run ProTools plugins, which is something my X32 can’t handle.

I did find that functionality very useful!

Because – for some bizarre reason – Avid doesn’t seem to think that integrated dynamics and EQ on OUTPUT channels is something anybody needs. (Avid…guys…if a console costs as much as a car, I really think that full processing on outputs ought to be there. Just an idea. Behringer can help you with that, as can Soundcraft, A&H, Yamaha, whoever you like.) Also, an X32 can’t crossfade from scene-to-scene, whereas an SC48 does it intuitively and effortlessly. Along with that, there’s very finely-grained control over what is “recall safe” on the Avid. I liked all that for the show I was doing, and it’s super-nifty in general, but I don’t know if I’d be willing to pay $26,000 extra for the privileges.

The ease of patching on the Avid unit blows most other implementations completely out of the water. Again, though, I’m not sure that’s worth a 14X price differential. (As a side note, if you can handle the routing matrix in Reaper, you can patch on an SC48. The concepts are exactly the same.)

Pretty much the only thing that you can’t get around is the option of having 48 inputs in one frame.

I realize that this sounds dangerously close to ripping on the SC. What it really is, though, is a celebration of just how level the playing field is becoming. Some folks lament that everything is turning into software; I, on the other hand, think it’s great. It means that affordable gear has staggering power and flexibility. The work you can do with a relatively inexpensive mixer really is not that far away from what a big-time desk can pull-off. There are definitely folks who need the tour-grade units, and can pay for them. You HAVE to have the appropriate tool for the job, and I’m not suggesting that folks who need all that an SC48-class console provides should use an incorrect tool.

I’m just saying that, more and more, the technological barriers to the best possible sound being available from a console are collapsing. As time goes on, operator dedication, curiosity, and professionalism – which have always mattered the most, anyway – are completely eclipsing the limitations of the “toolkit.”

Because the toolkit is getting better and more capable on a continuous basis.


Why I Think Steam Machines Are Cool

My audio-human mind races when thinking of high-performance, compact, affordable machines.

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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“Wait,” you’re thinking, “I thought this site was about live shows. Steam Machines are gaming devices.”

You’re right about that. What you have to remember (or just become aware of), is that I have a strange sort of DIY streak. It’s why I assembled my own live-audio console from “off the shelf” products. I really, really, REALLY like the idea of doing powerful things with concert sound via unorthodox means. An unorthodox idea that keeps bubbling up in my head is that of a hyper-customizable, hyper-expandable audio mix rig. It could be pretty much any size a user wanted, using pretty much whatever audio hardware a user wanted, and grow as needed. Also, it wouldn’t be too expensive. (About $900 per 16X16 channel “block.”)

When I look at the basic idea of the Valve Steam Machine, I see a device that has the potential to be a core part of the implementation.

But let’s be careful: I’m not saying that Steam Machines can do what I want right now. I’m not saying that there aren’t major pitfalls, or even dealbreakers to be encountered. I fully expect that there are enormous problems to solve. Just the question of how each machine’s audio processing could be conveniently user-controlled is definitely non-trivial. I’m just saying that a possibility is there.

Why is that possibility there?

The Box Is Prebuilt

The thing with prebuilt devices is that it’s easier for them to be small. A manufacturer building a large number of units can get custom parts that support a compact form factor, put it all together, and then ship it to you.

Of course, when it comes to PCs, you can certainly assemble a small-box rig by hand. However, when we’re talking about using multiple machines, the appeal of hand-building multiple boxes drops rapidly. So, it’s a pretty nice idea that a compact but high(er) performance computing device can be gotten for little effort.

The System Is Meant For Gaming

Gaming might seem like mere frivolity, but these days, it’s a high-performance activity. We normally think of that high-performance as being located primarily in the graphics subsystem – and for good reason. However, I also think a game-capable system could be great for audio. I have this notion because games are so reliant on audio behaving well.

Take a game like a modern shooter. A lot of stuff is going on: Enemy AI, calculation of where bullets should go, tracking of who’s shooting at who, collision detection, input management, the knowing of where all the players are and where they’re going, and so on. Along with that, the sound has to work correctly. When anybody pulls a trigger, a sound with appropriate gain and filtering has to play. That sound also has to play at exactly the right time. It’s not enough for it to just happen arbitrarily after the “calling” event occurs. Well-timed sounds have to play for almost anything that happens. A player walks around, or a projectile strikes an object, or a vehicle moves, or a player contacts some phsyics-enabled entity, or…

You get the idea.

My notion is that, if the hardware and OS of a Steam Machine are already geared specifically to make this kind of thing happen, then getting pro-audio to work similarly isn’t a totally alien application. It might not be directly supported, of course, but at least the basic device itself isn’t in the way.

The System Is Customizable

My understanding of Steam Machines is that they’re meant to be pretty open and “user hackable.” This excites me because of the potential for re-purposing. Maybe an off-the-shelf Steam Machine doesn’t play nicely with pro-audio hardware? Okay…maybe there’s a way to take the box’s good foundation and rebuild the upper layers. In theory, a whole other OS could be runnable on one of these computers, and a troublesome piece of hardware might be replaceable (or just plain removable).


I acknowledge that all of this is off in the “weird and theoretical” range. My wider goal in pointing it out is to say that, sometimes, you can grab a thing that was intended for a different application and put it to work on an interesting task. The most necessary component seems to be imagination.


Building A Small System

A guide to building a simple live-sound rig, from input to output.

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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Every once in a while, I get a request for information on how to create or add-on to a system for live audio. I like to personalize this information, because rigs for show and event production are best built for specific applications. However, there is a point where insisting that everything be approached in a customized way becomes inefficient – a lot of the same ground gets covered repeatedly.

So…

If you’re wondering what I think is required for a “small, basic, but still worthwhile” audio rig, read on. I’ll be including lots of links to vendor pages where you can buy various products.

(We’re going to go in order of signal flow, by the way.)

Input Transducers and Interfaces

For the smallest possible rig, take a distributed approach: With anything other than vocals, have the musician supply their own, personalized sound. Further, seek to avoid the whole issue of putting the output of that sound through the PA. Let a guitar amp make the guitar sound, let the drums just make their own noise in the room, and so on.

Having the ability to put more in the PA increases your potential control over the sound of the show, but outside factors can prevent that potential control from becoming actual control. Also, more inputs means more complexity, and thus more difficulty in system operation. There’s no hard and fast rule of what to be ready to reinforce, but I generally encourage folks – especially folks new to this whole thing – to ease themselves into the maelstrom that is live audio.

Wired Microphones

A decent mic will basically sound like the thing it’s being pointed at. For this reason, don’t agonize about getting specialized mics for everything right off the bat. A good “vocal” mic will be fine for many, many instrument applications. I recommend buying mics with tighter patterns (super or hypercardioid), as they can make the handling of high-gain situations much easier. Tight-pattern mics do require that the musicians – especially the vocalists – be able to use them appropriately. This issue should be considered as something for the musicians to figure out, because no system can fix everything (and a basic rig can fix even less of everything, if you take my meaning).

My current favorite mic is the EV ND767a. You might also consider the Audix OM2. Here’s a comparison of the two at Sweetwater.

Microphone Accessories

Each mic you buy will require an appropriate stand and XLR-Female to XLR-male cable.

Budget stands (like these from OnStage Stands) are just fine… if you can put in the effort to be nice to them. Gator Frameworks also has some promising offerings.

When it comes to cable, don’t overspend and don’t oversave. For a 20+ foot mic cable, paying more than $1.00 per foot is a huge premium for no benefit that I’ve been able to clearly observe. There are perfectly decent cables that can be had for as low as $0.40 per foot when purchased in a bundle. Going much below that, though, is likely to lead to problems.

I’ve been quite happy with cables I’ve gotten from Audiopile and Orange County Speaker. I’ve gotten some REALLY inexpensive cables from Unique Squared that were okay for a good while, but started having problems after a number of uses.

Wireless Mics

One word: Don’t.

Wireless is a pain in the donkey, with the FCC selling off all kinds of UHF spectrum to cellphone and computing companies, and the frequencies used for digital wireless becoming ever more crowded and hostile. Functionally, wireless transmission of audio is far more “fragile” than signal running on a cable, with all kinds of weird things that can happen outside your control.

But no matter what I say, you’re going to buy at least one wireless mic anyway, so…

Buy a digital system that operates in the 2.4 Ghz band if you want a chance at retaining your sanity in the short term. Specifically, look at the XD-V55 systems by Line 6. They’re very reasonably priced, have nice features like remote monitoring of mute status and battery level, and are the best wireless experience I’ve personally had to date.

You can, of course, go up from there.

Wireless Mic Accessories

Handheld wireless mics benefit greatly from having a stand available for every transmitter. Further, each receiver will need a cable to interface with the rest of the system.

Direct Boxes

A direct box is what I class as an “interface,” because it doesn’t convert acoustical events into electrical signals. A DI makes signals that are already electrical play nicely with pro-audio equipment when they might not otherwise. An aspect of this is also isolation, in that the DI creates what you might call an indirect connection between a console and a device. This can be very handy if the sending device (a guitar, keyboard, sampler, whatever) can’t tolerate phantom power, and the console has phantom applied to the signal line in question.

Direct boxes come in two main flavors, passive and active. Active DI boxes require external power of some kind, be that power from the wall, batteries, or phantom from the console. If you’re going to buy DI boxes, buy ACTIVE models. An active DI will work with almost anything, whereas some instrument pickups pair quite badly with passive boxes. You might as well buy units that work everywhere, and thus simplify your life. Expensive models from BSS, Radial, and Countryman are certainly nice, but there’s great value to be had in units from ART and Behringer, especially the “multiple modules in one box” offerings.

DI Box Accessories

Just like a microphone, each DI box will require an XLR-Female to XLR-Male cable. Remember that multi-module DI boxes require a cable for each individual module.

You don’t have to actually mount a rackable DI system, but you might want to. Sweetwater and Audiopile both sell quality rack cases in a huge variety of configurations.

Snakes/ Multicore Connections

Depending upon how you implement the mix and signal processing part of the rig, you may or may not require multicore cabling. If you want to send and receive a bunch of audio signals at a remote location, a snake really is a must. If you merely want to control the processing of signals from a remote location, you might be able to use your console in the same way you would use a traditional snakehead or stagebox.

If you do use a multicore, I suggest getting one that’s a little “overkill” in terms of the number of lines it contains. If a line fails, you’ll have a spare to patch to. “Headless or “fan-to-fan” snakes are a bit cheaper, but less convenient than multicores that terminate one end at a box. (You will always have to hunt for the specific line you want to connect to. It’s like a law of nature, or something.)

Audiopile would be my first choice for buying a snake I was really serious about. I have had good results with Seismic Audio fantail-to-fantail snakes, but my experience with their stagebox offerings has been mixed.

Mixing Consoles and Output Processing

This is where things get REALLY interesting.

Essentially, you have three major choices:

1) Use a relatively simple console where output processing is handled externally, and place all that at a “remote” location.

2) Use a more sophisticated console that encapsulates the output processing, and place the console at a “remote” location.

3) Use a more sophisticated console that encapsulates the output processing, leave the console close to the stage, and control the console from a remote location.

Option one takes up more space and requires more complicated physical patching, but the interface can be easier to understand at an intuitive level. Option two is compact and easy to physically patch, but the whole thing can be less intuitive for an inexperienced operator. Option three is like option two, with the added issue that control can depend entirely on an external device and network connection. If those fail, you may be in big trouble.

In every case, a console with some room to grow in terms of both inputs and outputs is a good idea. Don’t go overboard, though. You’ll end up spending a lot of money to no functional end. Especially if you’re new to all this, keep your monitor sends down to a maximum of four.

Option 1

The Console

Whatever you do, buy a console where the EQ has sweepable mids on the EQ and pre-fader auxiliary sends for each unique monitor mix you want to handle. A Soundcraft EPM8 is probably the minimum you should look for. I’ve been quite pleased with Yamaha’s mid-basic offerings, which have been revamped since I’ve bought one.

Simple, analog consoles “race” in a VERY tight pack, which means that there are lots of little permutations and many viable choices. Mackie, A&H, and Peavey are all worth looking at, and Behringer, while not having the shiniest reputation, has a knack for cramming lots of features into small cost. An XL2400 has what I would consider to be pretty darn flexible routing for a $650 mixer.

Console Accessories

Some consoles can be easily cased up or rackmounted, and some can’t.

You will need patch cables and/ or adapters with appropriate ends to get from your console outputs to your processing, one cable for each channel. As with other cables, high-dollar options really aren’t necessary. Stay somewhere in the $2/ foot range, and you’ll have patch connections that are long enough for some wiggle room and cheap enough that you won’t cry about ’em.

Also, get yourself a decent set of headphones for listening to the console’s solo bus. I have a pair of very-well-loved HD280s, and lots of other options exist. You want to look for closed-back, durable, “un-hyped” phones if you’re doing your own hunting.

The Processing

What you choose for output processing depends greatly on your own personal taste and comfort level. At the minimum, you should have an independent EQ for each mix. A really basic setup might be three mixes – one for the audience, and two monitor mixes for the stage. Things go up from there, of course.

Graphic equalizers, while not my personal favorite, are straightforward for most folks to operate. I generally recommend 31-band models over 15-band units, because you can focus in on a problem area without sledgehammering material that’s not making trouble. Peavey and dBX are good overall bets, but affordable graphics are similar to affordable consoles: All the players are very similar. I do like the features of the Behringer FBQ3102, but I also had one die after a year of use and a bumpy ride in the back of a truck.

If I’m going for an EQ-only solution, I can tell you that I vastly prefer a flexible parametric EQ over a graphic. In that realm, I have been extremely impressed by Behringer’s Feedback Destroyers. To be clear, my experience is that their automated feedback management is mediocre at best – but they are WICKED HANDY when you run them manually. You get a huge number of fully parametric filters at a very low price point. I’ve never had a major problem with any Feedback Destroyer I’ve owned. (Be aware that parametric EQ is more involved than graphic EQ. It’s not quite as “grab-n-go.” There are more choices that you have to make deliberately.)

If you want your processing to include dynamics, and also to let you have a graphic EQ combined with a parametric EQ, then a Behringer DEQ2496 is another killer device. Again, I haven’t found anything else exactly like it “in the wild,” although a Driverack PA2 is actually very close. DEQ2496 units do sometimes have problems with one of the internal connectors getting loose, but it’s an easy fix once you get the cover pulled off the device…and the connector freed from being glued down. (You will very definitely void your warranty if it’s still in effect, but hey, live a little.)

Processing Accessories

You may or may not be able to patch your snake returns (or other output cables) directly to your processing, so some adapters or patch cables might be necessary.

Also, you should definitely rack up any outboard processors you have for your system. It really does help to keep things neat and tidy.

Option 2

The Console

Digital consoles are a great route to take if you want to keep everything in one box. The downside, of course, is that the one box becomes a single point of failure. Then again, in any case, losing the console pretty much ends your day if you don’t have a spare.

Another factor to consider is that the processing available in digital consoles tends to be more fully featured while also being somewhat abstracted. This can make them overwhelming for new users, who simply don’t know what to make of all the options available.

If you’re going to be physically present at the console, you may as well get one that has a control-surface integrated in some way. An X32 Producer is a pretty natural choice, along with offerings from Presonus, Allen & Heath, and QSC.

Console Accessories

As was said earlier, rackmounting or casing the console might be possible. You can decide if you want to go to the expense or not.

The need to buy patch cables or adapters may still be there, depending on the configuration of your snake or other output lines.

And you’ll still want some headphones.

Option 3

The Console

You can leave the console on stage and mix remotely with the consoles detailed above, although the control surface might be a bit of a waste. Affordable digi-mixers that lack a surface are an interesting new product on the scene – just remember to factor in the cost of a remote-control laptop or tablet. Also, be aware that remote control is inherently a bit more “shaky” than being physically present at the mixer. It’s not horribly problematic, of course, but you have to have a contingency plan.

Surfaceless consoles at lower price points are available from Behringer, Soundcraft, and A&H. More expensive units also exist, of course.

Console Accessories

Surfaceless consoles are definitely rackable, and definitely should be.

Remember to buy the necessary patch cables or adapters for the outputs.

…but you can probably skip the headphones, because the consoles don’t currently stream the solo bus to a remote location (that I know of). That’s another downside of the number three option – to access the solo bus, you still have to be physically present at the console’s location.

Output Transducers (Speakers, That Is)

You’ll notice that I didn’t include an option for amps and passive speakers, and there’s a reason for that: This is supposed to be a simple system, and powered speakers are really the way to go to achieve simple.

Also in the service of simple is to keep your monitor wedges and FOH speakers interchangeable. Unless it’s completely inappropriate for your application, having loudspeakers that are all of the same model means that you can expect similar behavior from each box. If a failure occurs, you can swap one box for another and not have to think about it too much.

When buying powered loudspeakers, accept nothing less than an honest-to-goodness, biamped, fully processed unit. There are plenty of powered speakers that are single amped, with no processing outside of a passive crossover that is placed between the amplifier and the drivers. You want something more – something with an active crossover, basic corrective EQ applied at the factory, and an internal limiter. A peak SPL rating of greater than 120 dB @ 1 meter is also a good thing to look for, even with all the “fudging” that marketing departments apply to output numbers.

In terms of specific recommendations, I can say that PVXP12s have done very well for me. I can do “rock and roll” monitors with them in a small space, and I’m confident that they would perform equally well as an FOH unit. There are lots of other possibilities of course, provided by JBL, Mackie, Yamaha, and Behringer (just to name a few).

Loudspeaker Add-Ons

First, make sure you have the necessary cables to get from the console or snake outputs to the loudspeakers. Because speakers tend to be deployed in a rather spread-out fashion, it’s advisable to buy a bit more cable than you think you need. A 50 footer for each loudspeaker is probably a good start.

When it comes to stands for your FOH speakers, it’s good to get something a little nicer. Stands with locking collars and/ or piston assists can be a big help. I’ve used crank stands in the past, and they’re okay, but given a chance I’d make the upgrade to a more technologically advanced support.

The Biggest Accessories Of All

In the end, none of the fancy gear will mean much without power. You don’t have to buy really fancy power-conditioning equipment, but some rackmountable power units help reduce the need to fish around for a bunch of “free range” power taps. Of course, you should still keep a few freely-positionable power taps handy, along with several extension cords that use 14-gauge conductors (or something beefier, like 12-gauge). Powered speakers spread out all over creation have an alarming tendency to need those extension cords.


While there are other sundries and gadgets you can add on, going through the above should get you a working rig. As I said, this is a basic system. It won’t do everything for everybody all the time, but it should provide you with a decent start.


Not Remotely Successful

Just getting remote access to a mix rig is not a guarantee of being able to do anything useful with that remote access.

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.

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

The nature of experimentation is that your trial may not get you the expected results. Just ask the rocket scientists of the mid-twentieth century. Quite a few of their flying machines didn’t fly. Some of them had parts that flew – but only because some other part exploded.

This last week, I attempted to implement a remote-control system for the mixing console at my regular gig. I didn’t get the results I wanted, but I learned a fair bit. In a sense, I think I can say that what I learned is more valuable than actually achieving success. It’s not that I wouldn’t have preferred to succeed, but the reality is that things were working just fine without any remote control being available. It would have been a nice bit of “gravy,” but it’s not like an ability to stride up to the stage and tune monitors from the deck is “mission critical.”

The Background

If you’re new to this site, you may not know about the mix rig that I use regularly. It’s a custom-built console that runs on general computing hardware. It started as a SAC build, but I switched to Reaper and have stayed there ever since.

To the extent that you’re talking about raw connectivity, a computer-hosted mix system is pre-primed for remote control. Any modern computer and accessible operating system will include facilities for “talking” to other devices over a network. Those connectivity facilities will be, at a basic level, easy to configure.

(It’s kind of an important thing these days, what with the Internet and all.)

So, when a local retailer was blowing out 10″ Android tablets for half price, I thought, “Why not?” I had already done some research and discovered that VNC apps could be had on Android devices, and I’ve set up VNC servers on computers before. (It’s not hard, especially now that the installers handle the network security configuration for you.) In my mind, I wasn’t trying to do anything exotic.

And I was right. Once I had a wireless network in place and all the necessary software installed, getting a remote connection to my console machine was as smooth as butter. Right there, on my tablet, was a view of my mixing console. I could navigate around the screen and click on things. It all looked very promising.

There’s a big difference between basic interaction and really being able to work, though. When it all came down to it, I couldn’t easily do the substantive tasks that would make having a remote a handy thing. It didn’t take me long to realize that tuning monitors while standing on the deck was not something I’d be able to do in a professional way.

A Gooey GUI Problem

At the practical level, the problem I was having was an interface mismatch. That is, while my tablet could display the console interface, the tablet’s input methodology wasn’t compatible with the interface being displayed.

Now, what the heck does that mean?

Reaper (and lots of other audio-workstation interfaces) are built for high-precision pointing devices. You might not think of a mouse or trackball as “high precision,” but when you couple one of those input devices with the onscreen pointer, high precision is what you get. The business-end of the pointer is clearly visible, only a few pixels wide, and the “interactivity radius” of the pointer is only slightly larger. There is an immediately obvious and fine-grained discrimination between what the pointer is set to interact with, and what it isn’t. With this being the case, the software interface can use lots of small controls that are tightly packed.

Additionally, high-precision pointing allows for fast navigation across lots of screen area. If you have the pointer in one area of the screen and invoke, say, an EQ window that pops open in another area, it’s not hard to get over to that EQ window. You flick the mouse, your eye finds the pointer, you correct on the fly, and you very quickly have control localized to the new window. (There’s also the whole bonus of being able to see the entire screen at once.) With high-precision input being available, the workstation software can make heavy use of many independent windows.

Lastly, mice and other high-precision pointers have buttons that are decoupled from the “pointing” action. Barring some sort of failure, these buttons are very unambiguous. When the button is pressed, it’s very definitely pressed. Clicks and button holds are sharply delineated and easily parsed by both the machine and the user. The computer gets an electrical signal, and the user gets tactile feedback in their fingers that correlates with an audible “click” from the button. This unambiguous button input means that the software can leverage all kinds of fine-grained interactions between the pointer position and the button states. One of the most important of those interactions is the dragging of controls like faders and knobs.

So far so good?

The problem starts when an interface expecting high-precision pointing is displayed on a device that only supports low-precision pointing. Devices like phones and tablets that are operated by touch are low-precision.

Have you noticed that user interfaces for touch-oriented devices are filled with big buttons, “modal” elements that take over the screen, and expectations for “big” gestures? It’s because touch control is coarse. Compared to the razor-sharp focus of a mouse-driven pointer, a finger is incredibly clumsy. Your hand and finger block a huge portion of the screen, and your finger pad contacts a MASSIVE area of the control surface. Sure, the tablet might translate that contact into a single-pixel position, but that’s not immediately apparent (or practically useful) to the operator. The software can’t present you with a bunch of small subwindows, as the miniscule interface elements can’t be managed easily by the user. In addition, the only way for the touch-enabled device to know the cursor’s location is for you to touch the screen…but touch, by necessity, has to double as a “click.” Interactions that deal with both clicks and movement have to be forgiving and loosely parsed as a result.

Tablets don’t show big, widely spaced controls in a single window because it looks cool. They do it because it’s practical. When a tablet displays a remote interface that’s made for a high-precision input methodology, life gets rather difficult:

“Oh, you want to display a 1600 x 900, 21″ screen interface on a 1024 X 600, 10″ screen? That’s cool, I’ll just scale it down for you. What do you mean you can’t interact with it meaningfully now?”

“Oh, you want to open the EQ plugin window on channel two? Here you go. You can’t see it? Just swipe over to it. What do you mean you don’t know where it is?”

“Oh, you want to increase the send level to mix three from channel four? Nice! Just click and drag on that little knob. That’s not what you touched. That’s also not what you touched. Try zooming in. I’m zoomi- wait, you just clicked the mute on channel five. Okay, the knob’s big now. Click and drag. Wait…was that a single click, or a click and hold? I think that was…no. Okay, now you’re dragging. Now you’ve stopped. What do you mean, you didn’t intend to stop? You lifted your finger up a little. Try again.”

With an interface mismatch, everything IS doable…but it’s also VERY slow, and excruciatingly difficult compared to just walking back to the main console and handling it with the mouse. Muting or unmuting a channel is easy enough, but mixing monitors (and fighting feedback) requires swift, smooth control over lots of precision elements. If the interface doesn’t allow for that, you’re out of luck.

Control States VS. Pictures Of Controls

So, can systems be successfully operated by remotes that don’t use the same input methodology as the native interface?

Of course! That’s why traditional-surface digital consoles can be run from tablets now. The tablet interfaces are purpose-built, and involve “state” information about the main console’s controls. My remote-control solution didn’t include any of that. The barrier for me is that I was trying to use a general-purpose solution: VNC.

With VNC, the data transmitted over the network is not the state of the console’s controls. The data is a picture of the console’s controls only, with no control-state data involved.

That might seem confusing. You might be saying, “But there is data about the state of the controls! You can see where the faders are, and whether the mutes are pressed, and so on.”

Here’s the thing, though. You’re able to determine the state of the controls because you can interpret the picture. That determination you’ve made, however, is a reconstruction. You, as a human, might be seeing a picture of a fader at a certain level. Because that picture has a meaning that you can extract via pattern recognition, you can conceptualize that the fader is in a certain state – the state of being at some arbitrary level of gain. To the computer, though, that picture has no meaning in terms of where that fader is.

When my tablet connects to the console via VNC, and I make the motions to change a control’s state, my tablet is NOT sending information to the console about the control I’m changing. The tablet is merely saying “click at this screen position.” For example, if clicking at that screen position causes a channel’s mute to toggle, that’s great – but the only machine aware of that mute, or whether that mute is engaged or disengaged, is the console itself. The tablet itself is unaware. It’s up to me to look at the updated picture and decide what it all means…and that’s assuming that I even get an updated picture.

The cure to all of this is to build a touch-friendly interface which is aware of the state of the controls being operated. You can present the knobs, faders, and switches in whatever way you want, because the remote-control information only concerns where that control should be set. The knobs and faders sit in the right place, because the local device knows where they are supposed to be in relation to their control state. Besides solving the “interface mismatch” problem, this can also be LIGHT YEARS more efficient.

(Disclaimer: I am not intimately aware of the inner workings of VNC or any console-remote protocol. What follows are only conjectures, but they seem to be reasonable to me.)

Sending a stream of HD (or near HD) screenshots across a network means quite a lot of data. If you’re using jpeg-esque compression, you can crush each image down to 100 kilobytes and still have things be usable. VNC can be pretty choosy about what it updates, so let’s say you only need one full image every second. You won’t see meters move smoothly or anything like that, but that’s the price for keeping things manageable. The data rate is about 819 kbits/ second, plus the networking overhead (packet headers and other communication).

Now then. Let’s say we’ve got some remote-control software that handles all “look and feel” on the local device (say, a tablet). If you represent a channel as an 8-bit identifier, that means you can have up to 256 channels represented. You don’t need to actually update each channel all the time to simply get control. Data can just be sent as needed, of course. However, if you want to update the channel meters 30 times per second, that meter data (which could be another 8-bit value) has to be attached to each channel ID. So, 30 times a second, 256 8-bit identifiers get 8-bits of meter information data attached to each of them. Sixteen bits multiplied by 256 channels, multiplied by 30 updates/ second works out to about 123 kbits/ second.

Someone should check my math and logic, but if I’m right, nicely fluid metering across a boatload of channels is possible at less than 1/6th the data rate of “send me a screenshot” remote control. You just have to let the remote device handle the graphics locally.

Control-state changes are even easier. A channel with fader, mute, solo, pan, polarity, a five-selection routing matrix, and 10 send controls needs to have 20 “control IDs” available. A measly little 5-bit number can handle that (and more). If the fader can handle 157 “integer” levels (+12 dB to -143 dB and “-infinity”) with 10 fractional levels of .1 dB between each integer (1570 values total), then the fader position can be more than adequately represented by an 11-bit number. If you touch a fader and the software sends a control update every 100th of a second, then a channel ID, control ID, and fader position have to be sent 100 times per second. That’s 24 bits multiplied by 100, or 2.4 kbits/ second.

That’s trivial compared to sending screenshots across the network, and still almost trivial when compared to the “not actually fast” data rate required to update the meters all the time.

Again, let me be clear. I don’t actually know if this is how “control state” remote operation works. I don’t know how focused the programmers are on network data efficiency, or even if this would be a practical implementation. It seems plausible to me, though.

I’m rambling at this point, so let me tie all this up: Remote control is nifty, and you can get the basic appearance of remote control with a general purpose solution like VNC. If you really need to get work done in a critical environment, though, you need a purpose built solution that “plays nice” at both the local and remote ends.


The Cost Effectiveness Of Premium Soda

$1.00 per usage cycle is a magical number.

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.

1Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Whether or not you like them, energy drinks are actually pretty cheap.

That is to say, for about a buck you buy a can of soda. You consume the contents of that can and chuck out the container without a second thought. You got exactly one use out that product for $1.00, and you barely noticed the transaction at all.

In my mind, that’s a pretty strong definition of “cheap, and cost effective.” The acquisition price was basically forgettable on its own, and the amount of utility you got for that acquisition price was reasonable to you – maybe at an unconscious level, but reasonable.

For show-production techs, there comes a day when we either have to procure our own gear or procure gear with someone else’s money. On that day, we have to think about cost effectiveness. We may not give it the conscious thought it deserves, but some sort of mental evaluation takes place. In this business, an oft-occurring result of considering gear is “sticker shock.” We look at the price attached to something and go “Geeze! That’s a lot!” Sometimes the reaction is justified, but there are other times when the number associated with entry isn’t rationally compared with what happens after the entry occurs. In certain cases, the long-term utility of a piece of gear actually makes the entry cost seem microscopic – but that can be hard to see at the time.

Now, there are all kinds of ways to determine cost-effectiveness. Some available methods are incredibly granular, taking into account depreciation, cost of transport, industry acceptance, and so on. Dave Rat, for example, put together a rather interesting “Buy Vs. Lease” calculator that you can find at the bottom of this post. If you know me, you know that I’m a great appreciator of granularity. I like to be able to deal with all kinds of minutiae. I like sniper-rifle focus in lots of areas, especially when it comes to mixing FOH (Front Of House) and monitors from the same spot.

But when it comes to making purchasing decisions in a rational way, I think that getting buried in a barrage of detailed considerations can lead to paralysis. I think that a basic shorthand can help make cost-effectiveness decisions go much more quickly – which provides a shortcut to the fun part, which IS GETTING NEW GEAR AM I RIGHT?

Anyway.

When I talk about shorthand, I mean REALLY shorthand. It’s probably one of the quickest questions you can ask yourself about a piece of gear: “Will I be able to get enough usage out of this item that each deployment cycle will have cost $1.00 or less?”

Of Power Amps and Microphones

At my regular gig, the amplifier for the full-range FOH loudspeakers is a QSC GX5. It’s been very good to us, and by my shorthand test, it’s been entirely inexpensive.

See, I just passed my four-year mark at the job. We do just a bit more than 104 shows per year, so the amp has about 416 shows on it. GX5 amps retail for $400 when brand new. Divide $400 by 416 shows, and you get a “cost effectiveness factor” of $0.96/ deployment. To be brutally honest, that’s peanuts. It’s not that we’d want to, but at this point we could just give the amp away and have lost nothing more – proportionally speaking – than if someone had bought and consumed about 400 energy drinks.

And the amp is still going strong! (It needed a replacement power switch last weekend, but that’s it.) It’s cost effectiveness is already slightly better than what we, as a society, expect from a product that we simply buy, swallow, and eliminate into a toilet.

Four hundred dollars might seem like a sizable chunk of change (and it is when your budget is constrained) but when you look at the whole utility of something like a power amp…well, you ultimately realize just how cheap certain aspects of live-sound have become.

In the same vein, I bought six EV ND767a vocal mics at the beginning of last year’s August. One of them died early on, so the total cost per working mic was $155. They haven’t all been used at every show, but figuring everything out in excruciating detail isn’t what a shorthand is for. As a group, those EV mics have been available to me at about 132 shows so far. Their cost effectiveness factor (as a group) is $1.18 / deployment, and improving every week.

When you consider that a vocal mic can be trouble-free for hundreds of shows, $100 – $200 for such a transducer works out to be what you would expect for a “mediocre commodity.” In the long run, a bog-standard stage microphone doesn’t actually cost any more than something you would casually throw away.

So, when it all comes down to it, dividing the purchase price of gear by the number of expected usage cycles can be illuminating. There’s quite a bit out there that, over its lifetime, becomes of no more monetary consequence than “fancy sugarwater.” If you need a quick assessment of what it makes sense to buy, items that can reach the $1.00/ deployment neighborhood are probably decent bets.

You have to be careful, though, because this kind of shorthand doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

The Blind Spot

What you have to realize is that there’s plenty of gear in plenty of situations that can not, and should not be expected to meet a long-term goal of “throwaway” pricing.

Mixing consoles, for instance, are unlikely to quickly reach the price point of mass-consumables. Pricing as compared to functionality has indeed gone over a cliff, but even that hasn’t stopped mixers from being a premium product. A $3000 digital console can do a LOT these days, but even doing 312 shows a year (six days a week, every week) it would take over nine years to make the console “disposable.” Especially with digital consoles, nine years is rather longer than the effective product lifecycle.

A console is a premium product, not a consumable. You can use the dollars/ usage cycle calculation to get an idea of your potential value for money, but trying to get to the $1 point just isn’t an appropriate goal. If you’re going to use a shorthand to determine cost-effectiveness of gear, you have to take care to apply the appropriate “goal ratios” to appropriate items. Gently treated and well-constructed mics, cables, amplifiers, and small-venue loudspeakers can usually be looked at as commodity items. Mixing consoles and large-format loudspeakers usually can’t.

For the non-commodities, an approach more in line with traditional cost/ benefit analysis is far more appropriate.

For everything else, if it seems to be made decently and will have a long-term cost effectiveness that’s comparable to premium soda, it’s probably a decent buy.


My Interview On AMR

I was invited to do a radio show on AMR.fm! Here are some key bits.

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.

About a week ago, I was invited into “The Cat’s Den.” While that might sound like a place where a number of felines reside, it’s actually the show hosted by John, the owner of AMR.fm. We talked about a number of subjects related to local music and small venues. John was kind enough to make the show’s audio available to me, and I thought it would be nifty to chop it all up into topical segments.

The key word up there being “chop.”

That is, what you’re hearing in these files has been significantly edited. The whole thing was about two hours long, and there was a lot of “verbal processing” that occurred. That’s what happens during a live, long-form interview, but it’s not the best way to present the discussion afterwards. Even with having tightened up the key points of the show, I’ve taken pains to not misrepresent what either of us were getting at. The meaning of each bit should be fully intact, even if every sentence hasn’t been included.

So…

The Introduction

Supatroy

A quick reference to an earlier show that featured Supatroy Fillmore. (Supatroy has done a lot of work in our local music scene.)

Why The Computerization Of Live-Audio Is A Great Thing

Computerizing live-sound allows guys like me to do things that were previously much harder (or even impossible) to do.

How I Got Started

A little bit about my pro-audio beginnings…way back in high-school.

Building And Breaking Things

I’m not as “deep into the guts” of audio equipment as the folks who came before me. I give a quick shout-out to Tim Hollinger from The Floyd Show in this bit.

Functional Is 95%

A segment about why I’m pretty much satisfied by gear that simply passes signal in a predictable and “clean” way.

The Toughest Shows

The most challenging shows aren’t always the loudest shows. Also, the toughest shows can be the most fun. I use two “big production” bands as examples: Floyd Show and Juana Ghani. The question touches on an interview that I did with Trevor Hale.

I Worry Most About Monitor World

If something’s wrong in FOH, I can probably hear it. If something’s not quite right on the stage, it’s quite possible that I WON’T hear it – and that worries me.

Communication Between Bands And Audio Humans

I’m not as good at communicating with bands as I’d like to be. Also, I’m a big proponent of people politely (but very audibly) asking for what they need.

The Most Important Thing For Bands To Do

If a band doesn’t sound like a cohesive ensemble without the PA, there’s no guarantee that the PA and audio-human will be able to fix that.

Why Talk About Small-Venue Issues?

I believe that small-venue shows are the backbone of the live-music industry. As such, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about how to do those shows well.

Merchant Royal

John asks me about who’s come through Fats Grill and really grabbed my attention. I proceed to pretty much gush about how cool I think Merchant Royal is.

What Makes A Great Cover Tune?

In my opinion, doing a great job with a cover means getting the song to showcase your own band’s strengths. I also briefly mention that Luke Benson’s version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” actually gets me to like the song. (I don’t normally like that song.)

The Issues Of A Laser-Focused Audience

I’m convinced that most people only go to shows with their favorite bands in their favorite rooms. Folks that go to a bar or club “just to check out who’s playing” seem to be incredibly rare anymore. (Some of these very rare “scene supporting” people are John McCool and Brian Young of The Daylates, as well as Christian Coleman.) If a band is playing a room that the general public sees as a “venue” as opposed to a “hangout,” then the band isn’t being paid to play music. The band is being paid based on their ability to be an attraction.

Look – it’s complicated. Just listen to the audio.

Everybody Has Due Diligence

Bands and venues both need to promote shows. Venues also need to be a place where people are happy to go. When all that’s been done, pointing fingers and getting mad when the turnout is low isn’t a very productive thing.

Also: “Promoting more” simply doesn’t turn disinterested people into interested people – at least as far as I can tell.

Shout Outs

This bit is the wrap up, where I say thanks to everybody at Fats Grill for making the place happen. John and I also list off some of our favorite local acts.

 


Split Monitor For The Little Guy

You don’t have to be in the big-leagues of production to get big-league functionality.

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.

So, I’ve already talked a bit about why “split monitoring” is a nifty idea. Independent signal paths for FOH and monitor world let you give the folks onstage what they want, while also giving FOH what you want – and without having to directly force either area’s decisions on the other.

…but, how to set this up?

Traditional split-monitor setups are usually accomplished with a (relatively) expensive onstage split. Individual mic lines are connected to the stagebox, which then “mults” the signal into at least two cable trunks. This can be as simple as bog-standard parallel wiring – like you can find in any “Y” cable – or it can be a more complex affair with isolation transformers.

While you can definitely use a splitter snake or stagebox to accomplish the separation of FOH from monitor world, the expense, weight, and hassle may not really be worth it. Traditional splitters are usually built with the assumption that there will be separate operators for FOH and monitor world, and that these operators will also be physically separated. As a result, the cable trunks tend to be different lengths. Also, those same cables are made of a lot of expensive copper and jacketing material, and the stagebox internals can be even more spendy.

Now, if you actually need the functionality of a full-blown splitter snake, you should definitely invest in one. However, if you just want to get in on the advantages of a split monitor configuration, what you really need to shift your spending to console functionality and connectivity.

General Principles

Whether you implement a split monitor solution via analog or digital means, there are some universally applicable particulars to keep in mind:

  • You need to have enough channels to handle all of your inputs twice, OR you need enough channels to handle the signals that are “critical for monitoring” twice. For instance, if you never put drums in the monitors, then being able to “double up” the drum channels isn’t necessary. On the other hand, only doubling certain channels can be more confusing, especially for mixes with lots of inputs.
  • You actually DON’T need to worry about having enough pre-fader aux sends. In a split monitor configuration, post-fader monitor sends can actually be very helpful. Because you don’t have to worry about FOH fader moves changing the monitor mixes, you can run all your monitor sends post fader. This lets you use the monitor-channel fader itself as a precise global trim.
  • If the performers need FX in the monitors, you need to have a way to return the FX to both the FOH and monitor signal paths.
  • You need to be wiling to take the necessary time to get comfortable with running a split monitor setup. If you’ve never done it before, it can be easy to get lost; try your first run on a very simple gig, or even a rehearsal.

With all of that managed, you can think about specific implementations.

Analog

To create an affordable split monitor rig with an analog console (or multiple consoles), you will need to have a way to split the output of one mic pre to both the FOH and monitor channels. You can do this by “Y” cabling the output of external pres, but external mic preamps tend to be pretty spendy. A much less expensive choice is to use the internal pres on insert-equipped consoles. Ideally, one pre should be the “driver” for each source, and the other pre should be bypassed. Whether you pick the FOH or monitor channel pre is purely a matter of choice.

Your actual mic lines will need to be connected to the “driver” pre. On most insert-equipped consoles, you can plug a TS cable into the insert jack halfway. This causes the preamp signal to appear on the cable tip, while also allowing the signal to continue flowing down the original channel. The free end of the TS cable should also be connected to the insert on the counterpart channel, but it will need to be fully inside the jack. This connects the split signal to the electronics that are downstream of the preamp.

If you are working on a single console, you will need to be extra careful with your routing. You’ll need to take care not to drive your monitor sends from FOH channels, and on the flipside, you should usually disconnect your monitor channel faders from all outputs. (If all your monitor auxes are set as pre-fader, you can connect your monitor channel faders to a subgroup to get one more mix. This costs you your “global trim” fader functionality, of course. Decisions, decisions…)

Digital

Some digital consoles can allow you to create a “virtual” monitor mixer without any extra cables at all. If the digital patchbay functions let you assign one input to multiple channels, then all you have to worry about is the post-split routing. Not all digi consoles will let you do this, however. There are some digital mixers on the market that are meant to bring certain aspects of digital functionality to an essentially analog workflow, and these units will not allow you to do “strange” patching at the digital level.

As with the analog setup, if you’re using a single console you have to be careful to avoid using the monitor auxiliaries on the FOH channels. You also have to disconnect the monitor faders from all post-fade buses and subgroups – usually. Once again, if you don’t mind losing the fader-as-trim ability, setting all your monitor auxes to pre-fader and connecting the fader to a subgroup can give you one more mix.

Split-monitor setups can be powerful tools for audio rigs with a single operator. The configuration releases you from the compromises that can’t be avoided when you drive FOH and monitor land from a single channel. I definitely recommend trying split monitors if you’re excited about sound as its own discipline, and want to take your system’s functionality to the next level. Just take your time, and get used to the added complexity gradually.


The Pros and Cons of Decoupling

Separating gear into its components gives you more control, but it also creates more work.

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.

Question: If I gave you a mic pre, a parametric equalizer, a couple of splitter cables, an output selector box, and three volume pots, what could you make?

Answer: A basic channel strip.

Think about it – for all intents and purposes, the items listed above are the basic components necessary to construct an audio chain that behaves like a channel found on a simple console. What made them seem different is that they were packaged as single items, instead of all being attached to a circuit board.

They were decoupled from one another. Unbundled. Unboxed.

Decoupling pro-audio components can give you a lot of powerful choices, but it isn’t appropriate for everyone or every situation.

What The Heck Am I Talking About?

When I talk about “coupled” or “bundled” audio products, I’m referring to a device that houses multiple functions in one enclosure. Each function could theoretically be performed by a separate device in its own enclosure, but for various reasons the devices have been combined. For example:

  • “Powered” speakers, which stick an amplifier (and often, a lot of very carefully tweaked processing) into the loudspeaker enclosure. This is in contrast to “passive” speakers, which require amplification and processing from external products.
  • “Multiway” loudspeakers are even an example of bundling. Some people are happy to run entirely separate enclosures (and amps, and processing) for subs, low-mids, high-mids, and high-end. Lots of other folks are happy to combine everything above the subwoofers into one cabinet.
  • “Monolithic” mixing consoles, which put audio circuitry and/ or processing in the same case as the controls. I’m unaware of any analog console which ISN’T essentially monolithic out of sheer necessity. Some digital consoles, on the other hand, have DSP brains that are at least physically independent of the control surface.
  • System controllers, AKA loudspeaker management systems, are devices which combine equalizers, crossovers, and dynamics processors (amongst other things) into a single unit.

Each of these products presents you, as the buyer, with a choice. Accept the bundle offered, or decline it and construct your own solution. So – why pick one route over the other?

Conservation Of Responsibility

I don’t know if this is the biggest factor to consider when you’re thinking about whether to use a coupled or decoupled setup, but it’s the most generalized description that I could easily think of:

In a coupled solution, the manufacturer bears most of the responsibility for an effective configuration. In a decoupled solution, the responsibility shifts to the operator.

One of the best examples of this is the powered or “active” speaker, especially when the unit is biamped or triamped. The manufacturer of the speaker is the one who has to pick an appropriate amplifier for each driver. Not only that, but they have to include appropriate crossover processing at a minimum. Often, advanced driver-protection, driver-to-driver time alignment, and corrective EQ are “baked in” to the total solution.

If, on the other hand, you choose to go with passive speakers, you have to choose which of these functions are worth implementing, which products you’ll use to fulfill them, how to connect those products, and how to configure each unit.

The upshot is that there’s “conservation of responsibility,” in that the obligation of deciding how to put everything together is always present. Who actually gets most of that obligation depends on how much is packaged in one box. This is also true for the audio knowledge required when using the product(s). Audio gear that’s been bundled can reduce the knowledge demands for whoever is actually doing a show with that gear. Unbundled gear usually requires a more knowledgeable operator for maximum success.

Weight and Volume

Whenever you choose a bundled or decoupled solution to an audio-gear need, it’s helpful to have an awareness of the weight/ volume tradeoff that can occur (it doesn’t always happen):

All things being equal, “coupled” gear reduces the space required for deployment and transport, at the cost of each unit becoming heavier. Decoupled gear makes for lighter individual units, at the cost of more space being required for the entire system.

It’s important to notice that the above starts with “all things being equal.” In many cases, all things are not equal. For instance, if you replace a whole stack of PA management gear with a single Driverack processor, the weight AND volume of PA management equipment goes down. This is because all things aren’t equal – all the physical components of each piece aren’t included, because the functions are replicated in software.

In the same way, a powered speaker may not actually be as heavy as the passive version plus an amplifier, because the manufacturer will probably choose an amplification unit that allows for less weight (not to mention one that doesn’t require a hefty rackmount chassis).

Cost And Risk

Choosing coupled versus decoupled solutions in pro-audio influences both how much money you pay for things, and how many eggs you have in one basket:

Because of various “economies,” coupled products can sometimes be less expensive than their decoupled counterparts.

Powered speakers are another excellent example of this phenomenon. By the time you add up the cost of amplifiers, processing, speaker cable, and racks, creating equivalent functionality with a passive speaker enclosure can be more expensive than just buying a decent, pre-packaged, active box. If cost is a big factor for a production, coupled products can be a big help.

Because of tight, inter-component integration and dependence, the failure of one part of a coupled product can deprive you of the functionality of ALL parts of the product.

An example of this can be found with a loudspeaker management unit. All of the functionality of the unit (EQ, crossover, dynamics, etc) is tied to one power supply and one front-panel control setup. If either one of those is damaged or fails, everything “in the box” becomes unusable. In a decoupled system, the death of the crossover doesn’t deprive you of the use of the EQ. Bundled gear allows for each individual product to do more, but if there’s a problem you may lose ALL of that “doing more” in an instant. It’s just a risk that you have to be aware of.

Control Issues

The final point I want to make is in regards to the overall command that you have over coupled vs. decoupled audio systems:

Using decoupled products provides you with greater system flexibility and control than using bundled units.

I do want to be careful to point out that the above is NOT a value judgement. Greater control and flexibility are not an advantage unless you actually want them and will benefit from them. For instance, I’ve chosen to use a “decoupled” console, where the I/O, processing, and control all have some amount of separation. As a result, I have a ton of control over how the console behaves. If I don’t like some part of it, I can swap that part without losing my investment in the other parts. On the flipside, though, my console is not industry standard, it’s difficult to just “pick up and use,” and I have to be personally invested in making the whole thing work.

In the end, I definitely encourage audio enthusiasts to go for decoupled systems where it makes sense for them. For folks who just want things to work without much hassle, bundled gear is a great choice. I happen to use both kinds of pro-audio equipment, because I have to pick my battles. It all seems to be working out, so far.