The Board Feed Problem

Getting a good “board feed” is rarely as simple as just splitting an output.

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I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked for a “board mix.” A board mix or feed is, in theory, a quick and dirty way to get a recording of a show. The idea is that you take either an actual split from the console’s main mix bus, or you construct a “mirror” of what’s going into that bus, and then record that signal. What you’re hoping for is that the engineer will put together a show where everything is audible and has a basically pleasing tonality, and then you’ll do some mastering work to get a usable result.

It’s not a bad idea in general, but the success of the operation relies on a very powerful assumption: That the overwhelming majority of the show’s sound comes from the console’s output signal.

In very large venues – especially if they are open-air – this can be true. The PA does almost all the work of getting the show’s audio out to the audience, so the console output is (for most practical purposes) what the folks in the seats are listening to. Assuming that the processing audible in the feed-affecting path is NOT being used to fix issues with the PA or the room, a good mix should basically translate to a recorded context. That is, if you were to record the mix and then play it back through the PA, the sonic experience would be essentially the same as it was when it was live.

In small venues, on the other hand…

The PA Ain’t All You’re Listening To

The problem with board mixes in small venues is that the total acoustical result is often heavily weighted AWAY from what the FOH PA is producing. This doesn’t mean that the show sounds bad. What it does mean is that the mix you’re hearing is the PA, AND monitor world, AND the instruments’ stage volume, hopefully all blended together into a pleasing, convergent solution. That total acoustic solution is dependent on all of those elements being present. If you record the mix from the board, and then play it back through the PA, you will NOT get the same sonic experience that occurred during the live show. The other acoustical elements, no longer being present, leave you with whatever was put through the console in order to make the acoustical solution converge.

You might get vocals that sound really thin, and are drowning everything else out.

You might not have any electric guitar to speak of.

You might have only a little bit of the drumkit’s bottom end added into the bleed from the vocal mics.

In short, a quick-n-dirty board mix isn’t so great if the console’s output wasn’t the dominant signal (by far) that the audience heard. While this can be a revealing insight as to how the show came together, it’s not so great as a demo or special release.

So, what can you do?

Overwhelm Or Bypass

Probably the most direct solution to the board feed problem is to find a way to make the PA the overwhelmingly dominant acoustic factor in the show. Some ways of doing this are better than others.

An inadvisable solution is to change nothing about the show and just allow FOH to drown everything. This isn’t so good because it has a tendency to create a painfully loud experience for the audience. Especially in a rock context, getting FOH in front of everything else might require a mid-audience continuous sound pressure of 110 dB SPL or more. Getting away with that in a small room is a sketchy proposition at best.

A much better solution is to lose enough volume from monitor world and the backline, such that FOH being dominant brings the total show volume back up to (or below) the original sound level. This requires some planning and experimentation, because achieving that kind of volume loss usually means finding a way of killing off 10 – 20 dB SPL of noise. Finding a way to divide the sonic intensity of your performance by anywhere from 10 to 100(!) isn’t trivial. Shielding drums (or using a different kit setup), blocking or “soaking” instrument amps (or changing them out), and switching to in-ear monitoring solutions are all things that you might have to try.

Alternatively, you can get a board feed that isn’t actually the FOH mix.

One way of going about this is to give up one pre-fade monitor path to use as a record feed. You might also get lucky and be in a situation where a spare output can be configured this way, requiring you to give up nothing on deck. A workable mix gets built for the send, you record the output, and you hope that nothing too drastic happens. That is, the mix doesn’t follow the engineer’s fader moves, so you want to strenuously avoid large changes in the relative balances of the sources involved. Even with that downside, the nice thing about this solution is that, large acoustical contributions from the stage or not, you can set up any blend you like. (With the restriction of avoiding the doing of weird things with channel processing, of course. Insane EQ and weird compression will still be problematic, even if the overall level is okay.)

Another method is to use a post-fade path, with the send levels set to compensate for sources being too low or too hot at FOH. As long as the engineer doesn’t yank a fader all the way down to -∞ or mute the channel, you’ll be okay. You’ll also get the benefit of having FOH fader moves being reflected in the mix. This can still be risky, however, if a fader change has to compensate for something being almost totally drowned acoustically. Just as with the pre-fade method, the band still has to work together as an actual ensemble in the room.

If you want to get really fancy, you can split all the show inputs to a separate console and have a mix built there. It grants a lot of independence (even total independence) from the PA console, and even lets you assign your own audio human to the task of mixing the recording in realtime. You can also just arrange to have the FOH mix person run the separate console, but managing the mix for the room and “checking in” with the record mix can be a tough workload. It’s unwise to simply expect that a random tech will be able to pull it off.

Of course, if you’re going to the trouble of patching in a multichannel input split, I would say to just multitrack the show and mix it later “offline” – but that wouldn’t be a board feed anymore.

Board mixes of various sorts are doable, but if you’re playing small rooms you probably won’t be happy with a straight split from FOH. If you truly desire to get something usable, some “homework” is necessary.