Tag Archives: How-To

Case Study: Creating A Virtual Guitar Rig In An Emergency

Distortion + filtering = something that can pass as a guitar amplifier in an emergency.

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 Script

Imagine the scene: You’re setting up a band that has exactly one player with an electric guitar. They get to the gig, and suddenly discover a problem: The power supply for their setup has been left at home. Nobody has a spare, because it’s a specialized power supply – and nobody else plays an electric guitar anyway. The musician in question has no way to get a guitar sound without their rig.

At all.

As in, what they have that you can work with is a guitar and a cable. That’s it.

So, what do you do?

Well, in the worst-case scenario, you just find a direct box, run the guitar completely dry, and limp through it all as best you can.

But that’s not your only option. If you’re willing to get a little creative, you can do better than just having everybody grit their teeth and suffer. To get creative, you need to be able to take their guitar rig apart and put it back together again.

Metaphorically, I mean. You can put the screwdriver away.

What I’m getting at is this question: If you break the guitar rig into signal-processing blocks, what does each block do?

When it comes right down to it, a super-simple guitar amp amounts to three things: Some amount of distortion (including no distortion at all), tone controls, and an output filter stack.
The first two parts might make sense, but what’s that third bit?

The output filtering is either an actual loudspeaker, or something that simulates a loudspeaker for a direct feed. If you remove a speaker’s conversion of electricity to sound pressure waves, what’s left over is essentially a non-adjustable equalizer. Take a look at this frequency-response plot for a 12″ guitar speaker by Eminence: It’s basically a 100 Hz to 5 kHz bandpass filter with some extra bumps and dips.

It’s a fair point to note that different guitar amps and amp sims may have these different blocks happening in different orders. Some might forget about the tone-control block entirely. Some might have additional processing available.

Now then.

The first thing to do is to find an active DI, if you can. Active DI boxes have very high input impedances, which (in short) means that just about any guitar pickup will drive that input without a problem.

Next, if you’re as lucky as I am, you have at your disposal a digital console with a guitar-amp simulation effect. The simulator puts all the processing I talked about into a handy package that gets inserted into a channel.

What if you’re not so lucky, though?

The first component is distortion. If you can’t get distortion that’s basically agreeable, you should skip it entirely. If you must generate your own clipping, your best bet is to find some analog device that you can drive hard. Overloading a digital device almost always sounds terrible, unless that digital device is meant to simulate some other type of circuit.
For instance, if you can dig up an analog mini-mixer, you can drive the snot out of both the input and output sides to get a good bit of crunch. (You can also use far less gain on either or both ends, if you prefer.)

Of course, the result of that sounds pretty terrible. The distortion products are unfiltered, so there’s a huge amount of information up in the high reaches of the audible spectrum. To fix that, let’s put some guitar-speaker-esque filtering across the whole business. A high and low-pass filter, plus a parametric boost in the high mids will help us recreate what a 12″ driver might do.
Now that we’ve done that, we can add another parametric filter to act as our tone control.

And there we go! It may not be the greatest guitar sound ever created, but this is an emergency and it’s better than nothing.

There is one more wrinkle, though, and that’s monitoring. Under normal circumstances, our personal monitoring network gets its signals just after each channel’s head amp. Usually that’s great, because nothing I do with a channel that’s post the mic pre ends up directly affecting the monitors. In this case, however, it was important for me to switch the “monitor pick point” on the guitar channel to a spot that was post all my channel processing – but still pre-fader.

In your case, this may not be a problem at all.

But what if it is, and you don’t have very much flexibility in picking where your monitor sends come from?

If you’re in a real bind, you could switch the monitor send on the guitar channel to be post-fader. Set the fader at a point you can live with, and then assign the channel output to an otherwise unused subgroup. Put the subgroup through the main mix, and use the subgroup fader as your main-mix level control for the guitar. You’ll still be able to tweak the level of the guitar in the mix, but the monitor mixes won’t be directly affected if you do.


If You’re Going To Talk, Talk Like You Mean It

A guest post for Schwilly Family Musicians.

Please Remember:

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

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

“As near as I can tell, the trouble comes from not realizing that the entire time you’re on stage, you’re performing – or rather, that’s what’s expected. If you stop performing, the emotional connection between you and the “folks” starts to get scratchy and intermittent.”


Read the whole thing (for free) here.


Drivers Don’t Have To Die With A Bang

Sane powering shields you from accidents.

Please Remember:

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

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

I once lived in abject terror of pops, clicks, and bangs. I was once frightened by the thought of a musician unplugging their instrument from a “hot” input before I found the mute button. This was a result of my early experience in audio, where well-meaning (but incorrect) people had assured me that such noises were devastating to loudspeakers. A good solid “thump” from powering up a console when the amps were already on, and some poor driver would either:

A) Take another step towards doom, or…

B) Blow up like that one space station that could be confused with a small moon.

Well, that’s just a load of horsefeathers, but like all audio myths, a kernel of truth can be found. The kernel of truth is that loudspeakers CAN be destroyed by a large spike of input. There’s a reason that drivers and loudspeaker enclosures have peak ratings. Those are “Do Not Exceed” lines that you are smart to avoid crossing. Here’s the deal, though – if you’re using a sane powering strategy with passive boxes, or are using any truly decent powered speaker, worry is essentially unnecessary.

An amplifier simply can not “swing” more voltage than is available from the supply. If the peak voltage available from the amp results in power dissipation equal to or less than what the loudspeaker can handle, a brief transient won’t cook your gear. The instantaneous maximum power will be in the safe range, and the whole signal won’t last long enough for the continuous power to become a factor. An active box that’s well designed will either be powered in such a way, or it may be overpowered and then limited back into a safe range.

So, when a system is set up correctly, the odd mishap isn’t necessarily dangerous. It’s just displeasing to hear.

I believe that the persistence of this myth is due to folks who get talked into “squeezing maximum performance” out of their loudspeakers. They’re told that they have to use very large amplifiers to drive the boxes they have, and so that’s what they do. They hook up amps that can handily deliver power far beyond the “Do Not Exceed” line specified by peak ratings. If they take no other safety precautions, they ARE playing with fire. One good, solid accident, and that may be it for a driver. (If I might be so bold, I would recommend that those folks instead use my speaker powering strategy instead of “spend lots more, maybe get a touch louder, and hope you’re lucky.”)

The worrier doesn’t have to be you. Keep things reasonable, and you’ll be very unlikely to lose money because somebody yanked a cable.


Basic Power Distro Pointers

It’s all about impedance – either to ground, or to the load.

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.

Power distribution is a huge subject in concert production, and there’s no way for me to truly do it justice here. Especially when you get into the electrical supply issues for big shows, the topic can get pretty hairy.

Of course, we’re talking about small shows, so that makes things easier. Even so, please be aware of two major points:

1) Handling electricity correctly is absolutely critical to life and safety. Don’t take anything I say and run off towards some sort of homebrew, half-baked solution that can get someone killed. Making something in your garage to fix one problem is very likely to expose you to some other – potentially lethal – problem.

In fact, there’s the first pointer for small-venue power distro: If you made it yourself and you’re not an actual electrician, it doesn’t belong in the mains-power chain. If you ARE an actual electrician, it still might not belong in the chain. If you can’t buy it in an assembled form from a reputable vendor, plugging it into the wall is probably a bad idea.

2) This is not some sort of exhaustive discussion about everything that can possibly go wrong (or right) with power. This is just a few points that I’ve found helpful over the years.

Impedance To Ground Should Be As Low As Possible

A valid connection to ground is imperative for safety. Removing or bypassing the ground connection to “get on with the show” creates a situation where the impedance to ground is effectively infinite. That’s a very, very, VERY bad thing. If you don’t have a reliable, permanently attached, and code-compliant connection to ground, there’s no reason to go any further. Keep your power disconnected until that problem is fixed.

Electricity is very reliable about following the path of least resistance to a 0-volt reference point, that is, “ground” or “earth.” Solid, low-impedance connections to ground are a kind of insurance against accidents. If, say, a piece of equipment suddenly suffers a fault where the case becomes “hot,” a sufficiently low-impedance connection to ground allows a large current to flow across the connected supply circuit. This doesn’t seem helpful, until you realize that large currents are what trip breakers. The (hopefully) enormous surge pops the breaker or blows the fuse, in an effort to prevent people from dying.

An unreliable or absent connection to ground means that YOU may suddenly be the path to ground with the lowest impedance. Such a condition may end poorly for you.

Impedance To Ground Should Be Equal For Everything

Actually getting this exactly right is pretty close to impossible, however, it’s something to consider if you’re having a stubborn hum or buzz problem.

The issue for us audio humans is that our gear all gets connected together in some way. Although this interconnection doesn’t directly involve mains power, the connections to the main power service are definitely a factor. If you’re in the very common situation of the mixing console and other control gear being powered from a different outlet (and, very possibly, a completely different circuit) than the gear “on deck,” different pieces of gear can have multiple paths to ground. If the available pathways have impedances that differ significantly, current can end up flowing back around the various electrical junctions involved.

(Buzzzzzzzz…)

Since good, low-impedance connections to ground are critical to safety, one solution to this conundrum is to maintain connectivity to ground while using the fewest outlets and circuits practicable. For instance, getting an offending device to use the same circuit as non-problematic devices may help. You have an even better chance if you can use the same outlet box. You must NOT overload an outlet or circuit in the process of trying to achieve quietude, however. Safety has to win all contests of priority. If safety requires that you use multiple outlets and circuits, and you end up with some noise, you just have to live with it.

Resistance To Load Should Be As Low As Possible

Wire has resistance. It may be very low, but it is definitely not zero. Resistance increases in proportion to wire length, and increases in inverse proportion to wire cross-section. In other words, 100 feet of high-gauge (thin) wire resists current more than 1 foot of low-gauge wire.

Resistance causes electrical power to be wasted as heat, and causes noticeable voltage drops across long runs of supply cable. Cable offering too much resistance for the application can overheat under heavy use. This can cause a short, or even a fire.

So, very simply, use the shortest length and lowest gauge of mains power cabling that you can. Keep in mind that everything you connect in series is adding to the length of your run; The 15-foot pigtail on that power-strip counts!

Also, remember that any power cord in direct connection to the wall MUST be rated to carry the entire load that might be present on that connection. “Branches” to individual devices down the line can use lighter-gauge cable, because that single cable doesn’t have to manage the full load on the circuit. The feed to those branches, including any power strip or multitap involved, must be capable of safely operating with the full wattage of the circuit flowing across it. (Speaking generally, “14/3” electrical cable is sufficient for most small-venue power distribution applications. Going down to 16/3 is fine for branching from a multitap, but avoid using that cable for the direct run from the wall.)


As I said, this isn’t everything there is to know about power distro. However, you might find these tips to useful as you go along.


Pre Or Post EQ?

Stop agonizing and just go with post to start.

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.

Oh, the hand-wringing.

Should the audio-human take the pre-EQ split from the amplifier, or the post-EQ split? Isn’t there more control if we choose pre-EQ? If we choose incorrectly, will we ruin the show? HELP!

Actually, I shouldn’t be so dismissive. Shows are important to people – very important, actually – and so taking some time to chew on the many and various decisions involved is a sign of respect and maturity. If you’re actually stopping to think about this, “good on ya.”

What I will not stop rolling my eyes at, though, are live-sound techs who get their underwear mis-configured over not getting a pre-EQ feed from the bass/ keys/ guitar/ whatever. Folks, let’s take a breath. Getting a post-EQ signal is generally unlikely to sink any metaphorical ship, sailboat, or inflatable canoe that we happen to be paddling. In fact, I would say that we should tend to PREFER a post-EQ direct line. Really.


First of all, if this terminology sounds mysterious, it really isn’t. You almost certainly know that “pre” means “before” and “post” means “after.” If you’re deducing, then, that setting a line-out to “pre-EQ” gets you a signal from before the EQ happens, then you’re right. You’re also right in thinking that post-EQ splits happen after all the EQ tweaking has been applied to the signal.

And I think we should generally be comfortable with, and even gravitate toward getting our feed to the console from a point which has the EQ applied.

1) It’s consistent with lots of other things we do. Have you ever mic’ed a guitar amp? A drum? A vocalist? Of course you have. In all of those cases (and many others), you are effectively getting a post-EQ signal. Whether the tone controls are electronic, related to tuning, or just part of how someone sings, you are still subject to how those tonal choices are playing out. So, why are you willing to cut people the slack to make choices that affect your signal when it’s a mic that’s involved, but not a direct line?

2) There’s no reason to be afraid of letting people dial up an overall sound that they want. In fact, if it makes it easier on you, the audio-human, why would that be a bad thing? I’ve been in situations where a player was trying desperately to get their monitor mix to sound right, but was having to fight with an unfamiliar set of tone controls (a parametric EQ) through an engineer. It very well might have gone much faster to just have given the musician a good amount of level through their send, and then let them turn their own rig’s knobs until they felt happy. You can do that with a post-EQ line.

3) Along the same track, what if the player changes their EQ from song to song? What if there are FX going in and out that appear at the post-EQ split, but not from the pre-EQ option? Why throw all that work out the window, just to have “more control” at the console? That sounds like a huge waste of time and effort to me.

4) In any venue of even somewhat reasonable size, having pre-EQ control over the sound from an amplifier doesn’t mean as much as you think it might. If the player does call up a completely horrific, pants-wettingly terrible tone, the chances are that the amplifier is going to be making a LOT of that odious racket anyway. If the music is even somewhat loud, using your sweetly-tweaked, pre-EQ signal to blast over the caterwauling will just be overwhelming to the audience.

Ladies and gents, as I say over and over, we don’t have to fix everything – especially not by default. If we have the option, let’s trust the musicians and go post-EQ as our first attempt. If things turn out badly, toggling the switch takes seconds. (And even taking the other option might not be enough to fix things, so take some deep breaths.) If things go well, we get to ride the momentum of what the players are doing instead of swimming upstream. I say that’s a win.


The Mathematical Key To Truck Pack Tetris

The emptiness is as important as what is filled, grasshopper.

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.

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

The world of live audio has many frustrating moments wrapped inside it, but very few of those moments is as frustrating as when the cargo vehicle refuses to wrap enough gear inside of itself. If you haven’t come to the end of your cargo space with one more box left to go inside, you may not actually have done this job.

Those of us who have spent a significant time either generating or augmenting musical noises will, generally, have gotten an intuitive grasp of “truck packing.” It’s basically 3D Tetris. You try to find nooks and crannies that might fit your gear, and then you rotate and relocate that gear to wedge into the hole you found. This process is repeated until you run out of gear to pack, or you run out of room (at 1 AM, with snow falling, a flood of tears welling up in your eyes, and a growing urge to sit down with an alcoholic beverage so as to re-examine your life).

Sometimes you run out of room because you simply have too much gear for the truck, van, SUV, moose-powered sleigh, or jet-equipped platypus. At other times, though, you get stymied due to bad math. Packing is applied geometry, and geometry, like all regular math, runs on a system of predictable rules.

The key rule to getting the most out of your cargo space can’t be talked about until we establish the meta-rule, however:

All cargo-packing must be done in a way that allows the cargo vehicle to be operated safely. If a mathematically perfect pack prevents the vehicle from being operated safely, the pack must be changed.

So, there’s the meta-rule. Here’s the key bit of math, assuming that you start with the largest items first (they have the least flexibility in terms of finding a space to squeeze into):

At any point in the pack, the remaining cargo space can be subdivided into one more more volumes described by a rectangular prism (a cubic or rectangular box). Each imaginary box of remaining space should be as large as possible; The number of imaginary boxes should be as few as possible.

In real life, this is a 3D problem. However, to make it easier to visualize, I’ll show some 2D examples. Below is our 2D cargo vehicle, with 2D roadcases strewn all around. If we can arrange the cases such that they are inside the dotted outline of our cargo vehicle, we can get to the gig.

empty

Our first try doesn’t go so well. There are supposed to be six of those light grey boxes, but we only got five in the van. The pack looks very efficient and orderly, but it doesn’t work.

oops

But, if we’re careful about continually maximizing the remaining, contiguous space during the pack, we actually make it. It’s important to note that concessions have to be made for other, physical practicalities, like generally being able to load the vehicle from the front to the back.

step1

step2

step3

step4

step5

The end result doesn’t look as orderly as our first try, but it actually lets us transport all the necessary boxes.


How To Buy A Microphone For Live Performance

A guest-post for Schwilly Family Musicians

Please Remember:

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

vintage_microphone-wallpaper-1280x800

From the article: “At the same time, though, a LOT of mics that are great for recording are a giant ball of trouble for live audio. Sure, they sound perfect when you’re in a vocal booth with headphones on, but that’s at least one whole universe removed from the brutal world of concert sound. They’re too fragile, too finicky, too heavy, their pickup patterns are too wide, and you can’t get close enough to them to leverage your vocal power.”


The whole thing is available for free, so go ahead and take a gander.


Dear Audio Humans

This is a service industry that just happens to involve sound.

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.

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

Dear Audio Humans,

It has come to my attention that a good number of our friends, the musicians, have had some unfortunate experiences with us. My conversations with these players, these people who create the noises we selectively louderize, have revealed that we often do a poor job of serving them. This is a bad thing, but it’s correctable.

I want to lead off by addressing a myth of monstrous proportions. It very well may be THE myth that drives the majority of these fraught encounters.

It is the myth that success in our job is about creating the very best sounds. It’s the fable that the single biggest measure of our success is audio quality.

Actually, no. Our job is to facilitate the creation of a show, by way of helping the musicians with the scientific and technical disciplines involved in the inconveniencing of electrons and air molecules. Helping. Service. This is a service industry, and the musicians are almost always our biggest client when it’s all said and done. If they aren’t happy and cared for, we’re failing – no matter how perfectly tuned the PA is, or how awesome that snare-drum sounds out front.

You see, Maya Angelou was exactly right. She’s quoted thus: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Corollary: No musician goes home humming the FOH mix. They go home remembering their emotions about the show. If, because of us, they remember how frustrated or insignificant they felt, perfect phase alignment of the crossover point between the subs and tops doesn’t matter for crap. I can tell you for a fact that there are musicians who have played at class-A venues, and who have been treated very poorly. Do you know what those musicians talk about? They talk about the venue’s name, the name of the company responsible for production, and how seriously pissed off they still are at the lack of decorum shown by the crew.

Not a word about the awesome mics.

Not a peep about what name was printed on the monitor-wedge grilles.

Not a syllable about how many watts the PA could dissipate.

But they could write us all an epic-length poem on the effects of jerkdom.


So, in a practical sense, what does this mean?

First, let’s remember to smile and shake hands.

With everybody, including the opening act(s).

(The opening acts are real people playing real music, and are not any less important to the show than the headliners. If anyone says anything to the contrary, be polite to that person – and then ignore them as much as is feasible.)

As much as we can, let’s try to find a way to be pleased that the musicians have arrived, and try to show it. People like to be welcomed and treated with importance. We are the Maitre D’s, and the musicians are hungry for what we can serve.

Let’s also try to have a sense of humor. The hangups and misadventures are going to happen, so we may as well laugh it off. It can take quite a while to be able to do this consistently, but it’s worth it. When the day comes where you realize that the rough spots of show production are actually just hilarious war-stories in the making, you begin to see how every moment is really just a grand adventure. Putting a gig together is serious business, but even the most serious business has a joke buried somewhere. It may not be appropriate to voice that joke at a particular time, but we can be mindful of it.

Next, let’s try to be helpful instead of just sitting around. Musicians get so little help with their gear that you can often ascend to superhero status by simply picking up a combo amp and moving it indoors. The practical side to this is that a rested band plays better than a tired one.

Let us banish the idea from our minds that it is our job to “fix” the band. That is not our job. Our job is to translate what the band is doing. We may take the opportunity to sweeten. We may be able to correct some problems. These are good things, but they are always done by working with the band’s momentum instead of against it. The players are not wrecking OUR mix or making it hard to get OUR favorite sound. They are making THEIR sound, and we are here to help them sound as much like themselves as possible. Some bands don’t yet sound like themselves, or don’t know how to sound like themselves. Patience and gentle assistance are required in these instances. Insults, complaining, exasperated lecturing, and other rudeness are inappropriate. (The band will not remember that you fixed their lead guitar sound. They will definitely remember that you were unpleasant.)

Let’s “stay on station.” If we don’t see as unacceptable the phenomenon of an engineer getting a mix basically dialed up…and then disappearing for an hours-long smoke-n-beer break, let’s start seeing it. It will not kill us to stick around and listen to what’s going on. We will not suffer permanent harm from being available to respond to a band’s requests of us. Being present is actually very easy, and highly noticeable.

Last, let us not view requests for changes in monitor world as some sort of imposition, diva-hood, or pickiness. Instead, let’s view it for what it is: An expressed desire for a change that will help the show along. The show on deck IS the show out front – we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s somehow vice-versa. If the musicians have what they need, they will create a show that feels better to themselves and the audience. We can be honest if a desired change is being opposed by the laws of physics, but let’s at least try to get there first. Denying a change-request for monitor world because we don’t think it’s reasonable or are afraid of what it might do to the FOH mix is…well…cheap. When the monitors are as correct as they can possibly get, we can (again) ride that momentum out front.

There is no shortcut to doing a bad audio job that is any shorter than forgetting that this is a service job that involves sound. The inverse is also true. I’ve been in situations where I had done the service part, but felt pretty poorly about how the show sounded, only to have people tell me how great the show was.

So, let’s remember to do our real job.


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.


The Van Buying Experience

Don’t rush, and remember to do your homework.

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 recently plonked down a bunch of dough to buy a cargo vehicle. If you are a show-production human or a musician, you are probably going to end up doing the same thing at some point.

Let’s face it, gear is large and heavy, and at some point you’ll want to haul more than what a regular passenger car will let you get away with.

Vehicles are a major expense, and in fact, that’s my first tip: A vehicle should be a significant expense. This is not to say that you should be reckless with your money – you should buy well within your means. At the same time, you should buy a vehicle that’s worth having. All that cool gear that you’ve researched, tweaked, and horse-traded for? It’s worthless if you can’t get it to the gig. So, if you wouldn’t buy a half-dead guitar that’s on sale for $50, why would you buy a half-dead cargo hauler that’s on sale for $500?

A vehicle is an investment in the future of your profession, so treat the decision like it actually matters.

(Side note: Yes, you can trade purchase-price for a willingness to work on the vehicle yourself. If you’re determined to buy a $500 mechanic’s special, be sure you’re actually a mechanic.)

Please be aware that this is NOT a definitive guide to purchasing a cargo vehicle. I would consider this a decent primer based on my experience, but I’m only slightly less new to all this than you are.

Decide What Actually Fits Your Logistics

First of all, you have to figure out what you’re hauling. Gear? Humans? Both? Humans require a LOT of space, so take that into account if your “ship” is going to have to do double duty.

Especially if your prospective van is going to be all things to all people, be ready to find something in the heavier-duty range. Basic models won’t cut the mustard, especially if you need to fill the main vehicle…and then add a trailer. Do your best to overestimate the space AND (very important) the weight of what you’re going to haul around, because you want to avoid a vehicle that can just barely handle either one. In my own case, I thought I was overestimating, and I basically hit my cargo volume right on with a bit of play in the gross weight. It’s very easy to think you’re getting more van than you actually are.

I myself am not planning to add a trailer anytime soon. However, my personal feeling on trailers is that you want to have the actual leftover capacity to pull the maximum GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) of whatever trailer you’re interested in. That is, don’t assume you’re only going to pull what you’re going to pull right now. Rather, act as though a trailer capable of operating at a certain gross weight actually has that much mass when empty. It’s much safer to overestimate your potential vehicle weight than to low-ball. Remember that the more internal payload you have in the van, the less trailer you can pull. Yes, the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) really does matter, and no, you should not play any head games with that number. Safety matters a lot. Other things that matter a lot are your engine and transmission, and they don’t like being overloaded.

Now, with all that, there’s a wrinkle you have to keep in mind: The bigger the vehicle gets, the tougher the care and feeding can be. Parking a big vehicle can be a real bear; Be ready to tell show organizers that you absolutely MUST have a ready-made place to put vehicles with a total combined length of however much you’ve managed to string together. The bigger it is, the tougher it is to store. The bigger it is, the more fuel it will consume – and be aware that getting into really “big dog” territory may require you to get a van with a diesel power plant. (Diesel isn’t anything to be frightened of, but it’s not as familiar as gasoline in the USA, and not every mechanic can work on diesel engines.)

Consult The Car Gurus

Making use of more than one online vehicle listing service is very helpful, but in my opinion, CarGurus.com is the place to spend most of your time. It has one of the better search interfaces out there, where the listed automobiles can be generally counted on to have been posted with all the relevant information provided. The point is that you don’t want to spend time hunting around in “free-text” for the specs you want. At CarGurus, you can ask for a lot of specifics, and if those specifics haven’t been put in correctly by the seller – well, that’s too bad for them. The vehicle won’t show.

In my opinion, you should start this bit several months before you actually want to make your purchase. Do lots of searches. See what’s out there. Change your mind a few times. Stop and think. Just like when setting up for a show, you don’t want to shop for a van while under the gun.

As far as my own personal feelings about what to look for:

  • Buy from a dealer. I’m not saying that a private-party sale can’t be okay, but dealers are meaningfully regulated; You have at least some chance of official recourse if you end up getting bit, and a dealer running a legitimate business has real reasons to want to preserve that business.
  • If it’s less than five years old, you’re probably paying a big premium on newness and depreciation.
  • On the flipside, a vehicle with more than 10 years on the clock is going to be more of a risk in terms of general deterioration.
  • Cargo vehicles are meant to go a long way over the course of their lives. Even so, 150,000 miles is probably the maximum that want to see on an odometer. I would personally consider that the point for most of the original parts to be at least “halfway used up.” (I’m really not a car guy, but I can do some educated guessing.)
  • If the engine doesn’t have at least eight cylinders, be wary of it. Even a smallish van is a heavy creature. Also, remember that not all engines are created equal. More displacement rather than less is generally a good idea, if you have the choice.
  • Filter out anything that has frame damage reported. The frame is a fundamental, bedrock part of the vehicle, and “one shot.” Again, I’m not really a car guy, but everything I’ve heard has lead me to believe that an automobile’s frame is not really “unscrewuppable” after it’s taken a major hit. If you’re going to save money, don’t save money by way of the frame.
  • Also, set that “Accidents Reported” slider to zero. You’ll have fewer vehicles to choose from, but they’ll be the ones that weren’t unloaded due to being wrecked.
  • Anything other than a clean title means “no deal.”
  • A vehicle tall enough for you to stand up straight in is really neat, but will cost you. It will also be tougher to drive, harder to find indoor parking for, and likely to catch crosswind in a manner similar to a kite.
  • Hydraulic lifts are a neat idea, but remember that they have real weight, take up space, and are a whole separate mechanical component that your average auto shop can’t be counted on to know how to deal with.
  • Cargo vans have an alarming tendency to have a bunch of shelving and other crap bolted into them. For electricians, plumbers, and other similar trades, shelving is a plus. For audio, not so much. It’s a waste of space and weight.
  • Look carefully at the pictures. Does the poor thing have the appearance of being abused? The appearance is likely the reality. Also, if the seller only shows one side of the vehicle, ask yourself what’s being hidden.
  • Obviously, you should not buy an overpriced vehicle. Also, though, be wary of anything listed way below the market rate. The seller might be trying to throw out a problem child.
  • Backup cameras and backup sensors are a really good idea. Even if you’re good at knowing where all parts of a big automobile are at all times (I’m not), all the assistance you can get with maneuvering will be helpful.

Get yourself a short-list of candidates, and then…

Get Your Mitts On One Of Those Suckers

Go look at your favorites. Physically. And REALLY look. Get close to everything and note the wear and tear. Ask to have the hood opened. Get on your hands on knees and take a serious gander at the undercarriage. If it seems sketchy and beat-up, guess what – it is. You don’t have to be an expert to notice if something major is rusting through, leaking profusely, or otherwise about to fall off your potential purchase.

Remember, by the way, to be cordial, friendly, and patient with the dealer. Smile, shake hands, try to look people in the eye, and have a sense of humor. Bring your best manners, and if your best manners aren’t all that great, bring the manners that belong to a respectable somebody else. Being picky requires being nice. If you’ve got an attitude, that needs to stay home. Say “please” and “thank you” at every opportunity.

Also, do some feeling around. Get your hands up in the body and interior overhangs, claw around a bit, and see if you come back with dirt, leaves, sticks, or other debris. If you do, that’s a bad sign. The vehicle may have been flooded. Use your nose, too, because a van that smells like it’s been sitting at the bottom of a swamp may indeed have been home to water, mud, alligators, and a wayward outboard motor or two.

Ask to see any and all documentation that came with the vehicle. Get a Carfax (or the equivalent), and actually read through it. You want to know as much about the van as your brain can hold.

You did bring your driver’s license, right? Good, because if the vehicle doesn’t scare you, you do want to drive it.

Try to get a feel for how the van behaves in a variety of situations. Try some non-trivial maneuvering in reverse. See what the thing is like on surface streets, and also on the freeway. (A vehicle can be fine at low speeds…and downright terrifying on the highway.) Can you see what you’re doing? Does changing lanes cause an unsafe spike in blood pressure? Are the mirrors actually helpful? What do the brakes feel like when used normally? What do the brakes feel like when you really get on them? (Seriously, folks, be sure that the brakes don’t scare you. It’s far better to be stopped, desperately wishing that you were moving, than to be moving, desperately wishing you could stop. If the brakes don’t feel smooth and perfect, forget about it.) A real road test doesn’t – and shouldn’t – take a whole day, but you also need more than the five minutes it takes to find the pedals and the turn signal.

Use these hands-on experiences to work up your short, short, short list, and then pick your favorite.

The next thing to do is to have the short-list leader inspected by a third-party mechanic. At the very, very least, take the vehicle to a dealer who sells brand-new versions of whatever you’re buying, and have their service department do a “tell me what’s wrong” workup. If you’re serious about the van, but have some misgivings, make an appointment for a more thorough, more extensive going-over. It will cost you some money, but you’ll know more.

If things still look okay, you’re ready to “light the candle.” Ask about what proof of insurance will be necessary to drive the van off the lot, and then procure whatever is necessary to get that proof immediately before taking actual possession. After that, put as much real “cash” as is prudent into the purchase, so as to minimize any interest payments to be made on financing. Remember that there are fees aplenty that get tacked onto the advertised price, so multiply the sticker by about 1.1 to get into the ballpark.

When it’s all said and done, you should have a basically decent vehicle that you can put to work.