Tag Archives: Mixing

Sounding “Good” Everywhere

This is actually about studio issues, but hey…

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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My latest article for Schwilly Family Musicians has to do with the recorded side of life. Even so, I thought some of you might be interested:

‘Even before the age of smartphones, “translation” was a big issue for folks making records. The question that was constantly asked was, “How do I make this tune sound good everywhere?”

In my mind, that’s the wrong question.

The real question is, “Does this mix continue to make sense, even if the playback system has major limitations?”’


Read the whole piece here.


Monitor-World Is Not A Junior-Level Position

Mixing monitors is a mission-critical task, not an “add-on” to FOH.

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.

Worrying about Front Of House (FOH) doesn’t keep me up at night. Monitor-world, on the other hand…

It’s not just because an issue at FOH is much easier to hear, and thus much easier to correct swiftly and in detail. (Although that’s part of it.) It’s not just because midstream communication regarding monitor needs is difficult – exponentially so as the detail-level of a request rises. (Although that’s part of it, too.)

It’s because getting the monitors right is absolutely crucial to a successful show. If monitor-world isn’t doing its best, the musicians won’t be able to do their best, and if they can’t do their best, the most stupenfuciously awesome-sauce FOH mix will be a mix of musicians WHO ARE STRUGGLING. I don’t want to be forced to choose, but if I am compelled, I will take incredible monitors and mediocre FOH without hesitation.

Every day of the week.

And twice on Sunday.

Yet, for some reason, there has been a tendency to elevate the FOH audio human’s position above that of the monitor engineer. It’s as if there are two species of noise louderizer in the world, Homo Sapiens Mixus Audienceus and Homo Sapiens Musicius Keepem-Happyus, with the latter being an underdeveloped version of the former. Well, that’s a load of droppings from an angry, male cow if ever there was such a thing.

For FOH, you basically mix one show, a show that, as I mentioned, you yourself hear in detail. You generally get to make decisions unilaterally, and your path to those decisions is through your own interpretation of your hearing.

In contrast, monitor-world is the mixing of many shows to multiple audiences of one (sometimes eight or more). Those shows may have wildly different needs, and with wedges, each show bleeds into and heavily influences all the other shows. There may be a subtle detail that’s driving somebody crazy which is difficult for the operator to hear. Every significant choice has to filtered through the interpretation of another person, and nuanced communication is anywhere from challenging to outright impossible. At any given moment, you have to keep some sort of mental map about what’s going where, and also about what was recently changed (in case a problem suddenly crops up). Modifications have to be made swiftly and smoothly, and if you make a mistake, you have to be able to backtrack surgically. Panic is lethal.

To crib from The Barking Road Dog, mixing rock-and-roll monitors in realtime is not a skill possessed by a large number of people involved in the noise louderization profession.

…and then, there’s the gear side. It’s not uncommon to hear of a smaller audio provider upgrading a “point-and-shoot” FOH rig, with the old boxes being “demoted” to monitor duty. This sometimes happens by default or necessity. It’s certainly the reality in my case. But to do that intentionally doesn’t make sense to me. The boxes where being laser-flat across the audible spectrum helps stave off disaster? The boxes that have to stay “hospital clean” at high volume? The boxes that have to be able to produce large, uncompressed peaks, so that performers can “track” their own output? Those boxes are needed in monitor-land! (Seriously, if I ever get my hands on a bunch of disposable income, I’m going to bring my monitor rig UP to parity with my FOH system.)

So, no. Monitor-world is not for the intern or second-banana. The person running it is not a “junior” or “second” engineer. The gear is not the stuff that couldn’t cut the mustard at FOH.

What happens on deck is the bedrock, THE crucial and critical foundation for the show as a whole. It should be treated as such at all times.


EQ: Separating The Problems

You have to know what you’re solving if you want to solve a problem effectively.

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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There’s a private area on Facebook for “musicpreneurs” to hang out in. I’ve been trying to get more involved, so I’ve asked people to pose their sonic quandaries to me. One person was asking how to set up their system so as to get a certain, desired tone from their instrument.

I won’t rehash the whole answer here, but I will definitely tell you the key to my answer: Separate your problems. Figure out which “domain” a particular issue resides in, and then work within that area to find a solution.

That’s a statement that you can definitely generalize, but the particular discussion was mostly in the context of equalization. Equalization of live-audio signal chains seems to invite unfocused flailing at least as much as anything else. Somebody gets into a jam (not a jam session, but rather a difficult situation), and they start tweaking every tonal control they can get their hands on. Several minutes later, they’ve solved and unsolved several different problems, and might be happy with some part of their fix. Of course, they may have broken something else in the process.

If you’re like me, you’d prefer not to do that.

Not doing that involves being very clear about where your problem actually is.


Lots of people use the “wrong” EQ to address a perceived shortcoming with their sound. I think I’ve mentioned before that a place to find this kind of approach is with vocal processors. I’ve encountered more than person who, as far as I could tell, was trying to fix a PA system through the processing of an individual channel. That is, at a regular gig or rehearsal, they were faced with a system that exhibited poor tonality. For instance, for whatever reason, they might have felt that the PA lacked in high-end crispness.

So, they reach down to their processor, and throw a truckload of high-frequency boost onto their voice. Problem solved!

Except they just solved the problem everywhere, even if the problem doesn’t exist everywhere. They plug that vocal processor into a rig which has been nicely tuned, and now their voice is a raspy, irritating, sand-paper-esque noise that’s constantly on the verge of hard feedback.

They used channel-specific processing to manage a system-level problem, and the result was a channel that only works with one system – or a system with one channel that sounds right, while everything else is still a mess. They found a fix, but the fix was in the wrong domain.

The converse case of this is also common. An engineer gets into a bind when listening to a channel or two, and reaches for the EQ across the main speakers. Well, no problem…except that any new solution has now been applied to EVERYTHING running through the mains. That might be helpful, or it might mean that a whole new hole has just been dug. If the PA is well-tuned, then the problem isn’t the PA. Rather, the thing to solve is specific to a channel or group of channels, and should be addressed there if possible.

If you find yourself gunning the bottom end on every channel of your console, you’d be better served by changing the main EQ instead. If everything sounds fine except for one channel, leave the main processing alone and build a fix specific to your problem-child.

Obviously, there are “heat of the moment” situations where you just have to grab-n-go. At the same time, taking a minute to figure out which bridge actually has the troll living under it is a big help. Find the actual offender, correct that offender, leave everything else alone, and get better results overall.


Panning

Localization is a great idea, but it’s not my top priority at FOH.

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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As an FOH guy, I haven’t really given two hoots about regular stereo for many years. Since I also sit in the monitor-beach chair, though, I find stereo – or rather, multichannel output, interesting and helpful on occasion.

Why the difference?

Your Friend, Localization

Let’s start by saying that “localization” is a good thing. A listener being able to recognize a specific point in space where a particular sound comes from is very useful when many sounds are happening together. It increases perceived clarity and/ or intelligibility; Instead of hearing one giant sound that has to be picked apart, it’s far more mentally apparent that multiple sounds are combining into a whole.

When localization gets tossed out the window, volume and tone are pretty much all you have available for differentiation of sources. This can lead to a volume war, or just high-volume in general, because it’s tougher to get any particular source to really stand out. The fewer differences you have available, the bigger the remaining differences have to be in order to generate contrast.

The thing with localization, though, is that its helpfulness erodes as the consistency of its perception decreases. In other words, it’s best when the entire intended audience is getting the same experience.

Everybody Getting The Show That’s Right For Them

In monitor world, consistency of perception is generally not much of a problem. I’m basically mixing for an audience of one, multiple times over. Even with wedges and fills all banging away and bleeding into one another, we can construct a (relatively) small number of solutions that are “as right as possible” for each band member. Very nifty things are possible with enough boxes and sends. For instance, everybody in the downstage line might get two wedges. Wedge one might be just vocals, with each singer’s mic emphasized in their own mix, and the others faded into the background. Wedge two could be reserved for instruments only. With the vocals having their own position in space, they become easier to differentiate from everything else. These benefits of localization are consistent and maximized, because everybody has a solution that’s built for just them (and then balanced with all the other solutions happening on deck).

So, that’s monitor world. Do you see the potential problem with FOH?

In monitor world, assuming I have the resources, I get to hit each listener with at least one box each.

At FOH, I have to hit MANY listeners in many positions with only a few localized boxes in total. (A PA can be built of arrayed speakers, of course, but you generally don’t separately perceive each element in an array.)

This creates a consistency problem. The folks sitting right down the center of the venue are usually in a great position to hear all the localized boxes. Start getting significantly off to one side or another, though, and that begins to fall apart. More and more, one “side” of the PA tends to get emphasized as the audible, direct source, with the other side dropping off. If different channels are significantly panned around, then, the panning can be a large contributor to different people getting a very different, and possibly incorrect “solution.”

It’s not that the people in the center never get a different show than the people off to the sides anyway, it’s that trying to mix in stereo can make that difference even bigger.

As much as is practicable, I want to be mixing the same show for everybody in the seats. That means that each speaker/ array/ side is producing the same show. (Now, if I get to have a dedicated center box or array that hits everybody equally and lets me localize vocals, well, that’s something.)

Another reason that I don’t generally expend energy on stereo mixing for FOH is because the stage tends to work against me. In plenty of cases, a particular source on deck is VERY audible, even with the PA, and basically seems to be localized in the center. This tends to collapse any stereo effect that might be going on, unless the PA gets wound up enough to be far louder than the on-stage source. Quite often, that amount of volume would be overwhelming to the people in the seats.

Caveats

First, I want to make sure that I’m NOT saying that mixing a live show in stereo is “wrong.” I don’t advise it, and I generally think that it’s not the best use of limited resources, but hey – if it’s working for you, and you like it, and it’s not causing you any problems, then that’s your thing.

Also, Dave Rat is a proponent of using relatively subtle differences from one PA “side” to another to help reduce comb-filtering issues in the middle. I think that’s an astute observation and solution on his part. For me, it’s not quite worth worrying about, but maybe it is for you.


The First Rule Of FOH

It definitely isn’t “Get control over everything.”

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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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Well, I’ve done it. I’ve gone and had my first, real disagreement on Twitter. I may be a real boy now!

The (actually very mild) dust-up occurred between myself and another engineer. He was miffed at my “Pre or Post EQ” article, because – for him – my approach was far, far too passive. His response was that the first rule of FOH is to get control over the show.

Well, I’m sorry, but I can’t agree.

First of all, Rule #1 for all audio engineering is, “First, do no harm.” This job is very much like medicine: Shut your trap, listen to the musicians, try to get to the root of the problem, treat people like human beings, and don’t rush to a diagnosis.

Second: Not everybody is like this, but the process of getting in control over everything is basically installing a dictatorship. Not everybody is on board, and they may swallow their tongues for a while, but a rebellion will brew.

…and, if they aren’t afraid of you, folks may do nasty things to you out of spite. Does that sound like a fun show? That sounds like a TERRIBLE show, one that flat-out sucks for you, the players, and the audience.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Being an audio human for live shows has basically nothing to do with molding every second of the proceedings to your will. That kind of thing can (and does) happen, but I don’t see it as the normative case for folks doing shows where muting the PA doesn’t totally mute the band. That’s the vast majority of us, by the way. Rather, this gig is a sort of collaborative Judo, wherein we utilize the momentum of the band to transfer the best possible show to the audience. Forcing your way to maximum control is the opposite of that – I’ve seen it in action. Wrestling control of the show away from the musicians has an overwhelming tendency to KILL their momentum.

The musicians’ momentum is what the audience came to see. In the grand scheme of things, nobody truly cares about how “fat and punchy” the drums are. Nobody truly cares about how radio-ready the vocals seem to sound. If the show momentum is off, that will be the thing that the patrons notice. They’ll be impressed by the mixing for a few moments, but they didn’t buy those tickets for that purpose.

Now, if you can get complete control and also maintain musician momentum, I’m all for it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have full control if that’s the natural state of the show. If it’s not the natural state, though, you’re wasting a ton of energy (literally and figuratively) by swimming against the current.

Folks, it’s not “our” show. It’s the band’s show, and we are helping with it. We do get partial credit, and we may get an outsize portion of the blame, but – deep breaths, people! I’ve mixed plenty of shows that, to my mind, sounded rather poor. Some of them, in the opinions of audience members, were my fault when they really weren’t. Some of them, also in the opinions of audience members, sounded absolutely stellar (while I was grinding my teeth into fine powder over how terrible everything was). It’s okay! There are people who think I’m an idiot, but there are enough people who think the opposite that I’m not worried.

If something’s really amiss, comment on it, but don’t force your way into the captain’s chair. Interestingly, you’re far more likely to be promoted to that seat if you demonstrate an ability to collaborate with what’s already going on.


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.

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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.


Virtually Unusable Soundcheck

Virtual soundchecks are a neat idea, but in reality they have lots of limitations.

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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Before we dive in to anything, let’s go over what I’m not saying:

I’m not saying that virtual soundchecks can never be useful in any situation.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try them out.

I’m not saying that you’re dumb for using them if you’re using them.

What I am definitely saying, though, is that the virtual soundcheck is of limited usefulness to folks working in small rooms.

What The Heck Is A Virtual Soundcheck?

A virtual soundcheck starts with a recording. This recording is a multitrack capture of the band playing “live,” using all the same mics and DI boxes as would be set up for the show. The multitrack is then fed, channel-per-channel, into a live-sound console. The idea is that the audio-human can tweak everything to their heart’s delight, without having the band on deck for hours at a time. The promise is that you can dial up those EQs, compressors, and FX blends “just so,” maybe even while sitting at home.

This is a great idea. Brilliant, even.

But it’s flawed.

Flaw 1: Home is not where the show is.

It may be possible to make your headphones or studio monitors sound like a live venue. You may even be able to use a convolution reverb to make a playback system in one space sound almost exactly like a PA system in another space. Unless you go to that trouble, though, you’re mixing for a different “target” than what’s actually going to be in play during the actual show. Using a virtual soundcheck system to rough things in is plenty possible, even with a mix solution that’s not exactly tailored for the real thing, but spending a large amount of time on tiny details isn’t worth it. In the end, you’re still going to have to mix the concert in the real space, for that EXACT, real space. You just can’t get around that entirely.

As such, a virtual soundcheck might as well be done in the venue it concerns, using the audio rig deployed for the show.

Flaw 2: Live audio is not an open loop.

A virtual soundcheck removes one of the major difficulties involved in live audio; It opens the feedback loop. Because it’s all driven from playback which the system output cannot directly affect, it’s immune from many of the oddities and pitfalls inherent with mics and speakers that “talk” to each other. A playback-based shakedown might lead an operator to believe that they can crank up the total gain applied to a channel with impunity, but physics will ALWAYS throw the book at you for trying to bend the rules.

The further implication is that “going offline” is about as helpful to the process of mixing wedge monitors as a house stuffed with meth-addled meerkats. In-ears are a different story, but a huge part of getting wedges right is knowing exactly what you can and can not pull off for that band in that space. Knowing what you can get away with requires having the feedback loop factored in, but a virtual check deletes the loop entirely.

Flaw 3: We’re not going to be listening to only the sound rig.

As I’ve been mentioning here, over and over, anybody who has ever heard a real band in a real room knows that real bands make a LOT of noise. Even acoustic shows can have very large “stage wash” components to their total acoustical output. A virtual soundcheck means that the band isn’t there to make noise, and so your mix gets built without taking that into account. The problem is that, in small venues, taking the band’s acoustical contribution into account is critical.

And yes, you could certainly set up the feeds so that monitor-world also gets fed – but that still doesn’t fully fix the issue. Drummers and players of amplified instruments have a lot to say, even before the roar of monitor loudspeakers gets added. This is even true for “unplugged” shows. If the PA isn’t supposed to be drowningly loud, you might be surprised at just how well an acoustic guitar can carry.


As I said before, the whole idea is not useless. You can certainly get something out of playback. You might be able to chase down some weird rattle or other artifact from an instrument that you couldn’t find when everything was banging away in realtime. Virtual soundchecks also become much more helpful when you’re in a big space, with a big PA that’s going to be – far and away – the loudest thing that the audience is listening to.

For those of us in smaller spaces, though, the value of dialing up a simulation is pretty small. For my part, the whole point of soundcheck is to get THE band and THE backline ready for THE show in THE room with THE monitors and THE Front-Of-House system. In my situation, a virtual soundcheck does none of that.


When Do You Want To Sound Good?

Great gigs are the ones that get “picked at.”

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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There’s a point where a guys starts repeating himself; I have certainly reached that point here. Nevertheless, repetition of theme without rote regurgitation of content can be useful. So, I’m going to talk some more about time, and gigs, and showing up, and how it impacts success.

And I’m going to do it by borrowing the words of Jason Giron from Floyd Show and Loss of Existence. There was an occasion where a fellow band member asked, “When should we come to soundcheck?”

Jason replied, “When do you want to sound good?”

I tell you, every so often you get to stand next to someone who can perfectly encapsulate a tome of wisdom into a single sentence. This was one of those times for me.


There are plenty of bands, individual musicians, and production humans out there who want to minimize their exposure time when it comes to a gig. This is understandable, because in Western society, time and money sit on either end of an equality symbol. The problem, though, is that minimizing your on-gig time has an alarming tendency to minimize your on-gig success. When it comes to show production, getting the really amazing things to happen requires “picking at it.” Picking at it isn’t time and money efficient, but it’s necessary to create magic.

If you want to really get comfortable with how everybody sounds on a stage with no reinforcement, and truly dial that in so that the future reinforcement will be maximally effective, you have to take the time to pick at it. It doesn’t happen in the space of a minute. You actually have to get up there, play some songs, and figure out how everybody fits around everybody else.

If you want to dial up a truly killer starting point for monitor world and FOH, you have to pick at it. You can’t just throw it all up there, run a few test signals through, and walk off for a bite. You have to actually go up on deck and listen to a real mic through a real wedge. And then listen to a real mic through multiple wedges. At high gain! You also have to listen to real music through the FOH rig. If you want an objective measurement of the system, you have to get out your reference mic and attendant software, and then take a few minutes getting a good trace.

If you want me to create the best monitor mix possible for you in that room, you have to pick at it. We have to go through several iterations of tweak/ listen/ tweak/ listen/ tweak – and we have to be able to do it all with calmness and rationality. Thirty seconds of panicked gesturing from a cold start ain’t gonna get you there, pilgrim.

If you want to build the FOH mix that effectively translates what the band is doing into the house, leveraging and flowing along with the natural sound of the group in the room…You. Have. To. Pick. At. It. Before doors. Or do you want to be futzing around, “finding yourself” for the entirety of the first set? People, please. Bands and audiences deserve better.

As an experienced “Selective Louderization Specialist,” I can tell you that sounding good (and getting everybody truly comfortable) takes at least an hour of work. Bare minimum. (There are plenty of bands that require much more time than that.)

And that hour does NOT start until everybody is in the same room, with all the gear working, and with the entire audio system pre-tuned for the appropriate performance. (A hint for sound people: You have to be really early if you want a fighting chance at this.) It’s not to say that it’s impossible to sound decent in a smaller span of time. It can be done, and sometimes it must be done – but why choose that outcome if it’s optional?

“I’m not required to smack myself in the face with a sharp object, but I’m going to do it! Eugene, hand me that axe!”

Really?

Assuming that it’s going to take no less than 60 minutes of effort to make your show spectacular, I encourage you to ask yourself the “Giron Question.” When do you want to sound good? Figure out when that time is, and then show up a lot earlier than that.


A Message To A Concerned House Tech

Take things personally, but not too much.

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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You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. This is mostly because you’re not any particular person. You’re an aggregate character, an archetype that makes a regular appearance in one form or another. You have many avatars. These avatars ask questions, sometimes in person, sometimes on the Internet.

You’re worried.

You’ve been trying to do good work. You’re conscientious, always trying to get a better handle on your craft. You’ve had a string of shows that you felt good about, and then “it” happened. A band was booked at your place of work, and the results were nightmarish. The whole night felt like moving a rope by pushing it. You couldn’t get your mix to behave. The different parts wouldn’t blend together into a satisfying, holistic sound. Instead, you sat through several hours of sonic “Whack A Mole,” where one thing would be too loud, and then the next thing would be too loud, and then a whole other thing would be too loud.

In short, the show “fought” the whole way.

It was a roaring storm that improbably managed to combine shuddering murk with piercing shriek, and it made your ears hurt. It made other folks’ ears hurt. If you could have visualized the sonic splatter, it would have made a hyperactive toddler armed with pureed carrots and applesauce seem quite manageable.

You’re wondering if you’re any good at this audio stuff. You’re wondering if your reputation, and the reputation of the room you work for, have now been irreparably damaged. You may be storming around, barking exasperated questions like, “Why won’t musicians help me out? Why won’t they listen to me? What am I doing wrong?”

It’s good that you’re taking things personally. The truly awful people in the noise-louderization business don’t take any responsibility at all. They don’t bother to even consider if they should worry. They’re always right in their own mind, and you have managed to dodge that bullet. You want quality, and you’re willing to try for it. It bugs you when other folks aren’t on board. It worries you that maybe you don’t have a magic touch with audio; If you did, wouldn’t you be assured of perfectly consistent results?

I’ve been down this road. I still travel across it from time to time. I want to tell you to keep worrying, but not so much that you can’t put the worry aside and enjoy things.

Because, especially in live sound, you can’t fix stupid.


I realize that sounds very harsh. We’re supposed to be friends with, and respect musicians, and to say such a thing might bear the appearance of contempt. But it’s not contempt. It’s simply recognizing that the life of an audio human is to translate to the audience what’s already there (especially if you’re in a smallish room, where the band’s acoustical contribution is overwhelmingly high). If what’s already there isn’t much good, then everybody’s out of luck.

Our profession has a tendency to be compared to studio engineering. We use very similar tools. The basic vocabulary is the same. Shouldn’t we be able to overcome any difficulty? Get any drum or guitar sound we like? Tame any runaway sonic event? Massage any fractured ensemble into a respectable, even enjoyable gestalt?

Well, no, actually, because different disciplines can share both tools and vocabulary.

I have said this many times, but I will say it again. We are at the mercy of limited power, limited volume tolerance, and limited gain-before-feedback. The studio guys get to live in a world where all the audience hears is what comes through open-loop, after-the-fact playback. We, on the other hand, occupy that portion of the universe where life is realtime, where every part of the system interacts with and potentially destabilizes some other part of the system, and where completely reinventing the band would require us to be so loud as to require everyone to wear both earplugs and gun muffs.

The way the band sounds naturally is pretty much how they’re going to sound with a PA. A great PA, with truly top-shelf FOH control, in a very big room (or outside) will give you more options, but not infinite possibilities. Physics is a harsh mistress, because she makes no exceptions, but she is also a fair and ultimately predictable creature – also due to her not making any exceptions. As you get better and better at your craft, you will more readily identify just how much you can help a band along with what you have. You should use this power tastefully and wisely. You should ask yourself if you’ve done everything you know how to do, because that’s part of being a pro.

But you shouldn’t agonize, because you can’t fix stupid. None of us can. I have never, and you will never make a bad band sound good. It’s physically impossible. If you “make” a band sound good, the band probably wasn’t actually bad. (Remember that last bit. It’s very important.)

So, keep being conscientious. Keep asking yourself how you can get better. Keep showing up on time and doing your homework. Keep taking a personal interest in a show having a great outcome.

And realize that there will be things you can’t fix. As long as you did everything that was prudent to do, you can’t blame yourself. There are people who won’t get that, but most of them probably won’t be signing your paycheck. Let the rough experiences sweeten those times when the band is so good that you can’t possibly screw it up.

Keep on mixing.


The Majestic Grandeur Of Tranquility

Not everyone will appreciate it, but staying calm during a show is a really good idea.

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 didn’t really come up with the title of this article. Washington Irving did. I’m pretty sure Washington Irving knew basically nothing about production for rock shows, but he knew about life – and rock shows follow the rules of life.

One of the rules of life is that panic can kill you. It especially kills you in pressure situations involving technical processes. The reason why is pretty simple: Panic shuts off your rational mind, and a technical process REQUIRES your rational mind. When the…stuff…hits the fan, and you’re driving an audio rig, frantic thrashing will not save you. It will, instead, dig you an even deeper pit.

Calmness, on the other hand, allows you to think. The suppression of a fight-or-flight response means that your mental process is freed of having to swim upstream against a barrage of terrified impulses. You get more solutions with less work, because you’re able to linearly piece together why you’ve just been bitten in your ample, fleshy rear. Maintaining a tranquil, logical flow of problem solving not only means that you’re likely to get the problem fixed, it also means that you’ve got a fighting chance at finding your root cause. If you find and fix your problem’s root cause, your problem will stay solved. If all you do is mask the failure in a fit of “band-aid sticking,” you’re going to get bitten again – and soon, probably.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your emotional state is infectious in multiple ways. The most obvious connection is the simple transfer of mindset. If you’re seen as being in charge of the show – the person flying the plane, as it were – then you’re also unconsciously perceived as having authority over how to interpret the situation. If you, the authority are losing your crap, then the signal is being sent that the loss of one’s crap is the appropriate response to the problem. Deep down, we humans have “herd mammal” software installed. It’s a side-effect of how we’re constructed. Under enough stress, our tendency is to run that software, which obeys the overall direction of the group.

And the group obeys the leader. So, lead well.

The more indirect way that emotional state transfers is through your actions which affect others. The musicians on deck are not, of course, oblivious to what you’re doing with the console and system processing. If you’re banging away without much direction, eventually you will do something that seriously gums up a musician’s performance. This is especially true if you’re wildly tweaking every monitor channel in sight. One second, things are a little weird due to a minor problem. Then, you panic and start futzing around with every send and mute you can reach, and things get even weirder. Maybe even unusable. You don’t want that.

The majestic grandeur of tranquility, on the other hand, embodies itself in making precise, deliberate changes that mess with the performance as little as possible. It is engaging in the scientific process, running experiments and noting the results at very high speed. Being deliberate DOES slow down individual actions, but the total solution arrives more quickly. You end up taking the direct route, instead of a million side trips.

It’s Not Easy, And Not Everybody Gets It

If this sounds like a tough discipline, that’s because it is. Even being aware of its importance, I still don’t always do it successfully. (And I’ve had LOTS of practice.)

Also, some folks confuse serenity with inattentiveness.

I once worked a show where a member of the audience was a far more “high-powered” audio human than myself. This person worked on big shows, with big teams, in big spaces. This person knew their stuff, without a doubt.

The problem, though, was that the show was hitting some snags. The band had been thrown together to do the gig, and while the effort was admirable, the results were a little ragged. The group was a little too loud for themselves, and monitor world was being thrown together on the fly. It was a battle to keep it all from flying off the handle, and the show was definitely trying to run away. I was trying to take my own advice, and combat the problems surgically. As much as the game of “feedback whack-a-mole” wasn’t all that aesthetically pleasing, I was steadily working towards getting things sorted out.

Unfortunately, to this other audio-human, I didn’t look like I was doing enough. Their preferred method was to sledgehammer a problem until it went away, and I was NOT sledgehammering. Therefore, I was “doing it wrong.”

We ended up doing some pretty wild things to the performers in the name of getting things under control. In my opinion, the result was that the show appeared to be MORE out of control, until our EQ and monitor send carpet-bombing campaign had smashed everything in sight.

The problem was “fixed,” but we had done a lot of damage in the process, all in the name of “looking busy.”

To this day, I think staying calm would have been better for that show. I think staying calm and working things out methodically is best for all shows. My considered advice is (to take a page from Dumbledore) that everyone should, please, not panic.