The Festival Patch

Hierarchies are handy, and if you’ve got the channels, use ’em.

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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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Last weekend, my regular gig hosted a Leonard Cohen tribute show. It was HUGE. The crowd was capacity, and a veritable gaggle of musicians stepped up to pay their respects to the songwriter. The guy in charge of it all (JT Draper) did a brilliant job of managing all the personnel logistics.

On my end, probably the most important piece of prep was getting the patch sorted out. If you’re new to this whole thing, the “patch” is what gets plugged into where. It’s synonymous with “input list,” when it all comes down to it.

For a festival-style show (where multiple acts perform shorter sets and switch out during the gig), getting the patch right is crucial. It’s a pillar of making festival-style reinforcement basically feasible and functionally manageable. A multi-act, fluidly-progressing show stands or falls based on several factors – and the patch is one of those supercritical, “load-bearing” parts that holds a massive quantity of weight.

If it fails to hold that weight, the wreck can be staggering.

But we got the patch right, which contributed greatly to the show being well-behaved.

Here’s the patch that actually got implemented, as far as I remember. The stage locations used are traditional stage directions, given from the perspective of someone on the deck and looking out at the audience:

  1. Vocal (Down-Right)
  2. Vocal (Down-Center)
  3. Vocal (Down Left)
  4. Vocal (Drums)
  5. Guitar Amp (Center-Left)
  6. Guitar Amp (Center-Center)
  7. Guitar DI 1
  8. Guitar DI 2
  9. Guitar Mic
  10. Bass DI (Unused)
  11. Bass Amp DI
  12. Keys DI (Unused)
  13. Percussion Mic
  14. Guitar Amp DI
  15. SM58 Special
  16. Empty
  17. Empty
  18. Empty
  19. Kick
  20. Snare
  21. Tom 1
  22. Tom 2
  23. Tom 3
  24. Tom 4 (Unused)

Why did it turn out that way?

You Have To Get Around Swiftly

Festival-style reinforcement demands that you can find the channels you need in a hurry. The biggest hurry is to get to the channels that are absolutely critical for the show to go forward. Thus, the vocals (with one exception) are all grouped together at the top of the patch. It’s very easy to find the channels on the “ends” of a console, whereas the middle is a little bit slower. If everything else went by the wayside – not that we would want that, or accept it without a fight, but if it happened – the show could still go on if we had decent vocals. Thus, they’re patched so they can be gotten to, grabbed, and controlled with the least amount of effort.

You’ll also notice that things are generally grouped into similar classes. The vocals are all mostly stuck together, followed by the inputs related to the guitars, then the basses, and so on. It’s easier to first find a group of channels and then a specific channel, as opposed to one specific channel in a sea of dissimilar sources. If you know that, say, all the guitars are in a general area, then it’s quite snappy to go to that general area of the console and then spot the specific thing you want.

A final factor in maintaining high-speed, low drag operation is making the internals of each patch group “look” like the stage. That is, for a console that’s numbered in ascending order from left to right, a lower-numbered patch point denotes an item that is closer to the left side of the stage…from the perspective of the tech. When I look up, the first vocal mic should be the farthest one to my left (which is STAGE right). The point of this is to remove as much conscious thought as possible from figuring out where each individual mic or input is within a logical group. Numbering left-to-right from the stage’s perspective might be academically satisfying, but it requires at least a small amount of abstract thought to reverse that left-to-right order on the fly. Skipping that abstraction gives one less thing to worry about, and that saves brainpower for other tasks.

Of course, now that I’ve said that, you’ll notice that the first guitar amp is actually on the wrong side of the stage. That leads into the next section:

Things Don’t Go Precisely To Plan

So…why are there some inputs that don’t seem to be numbered or grouped correctly? Why are there channels marked as unused? Didn’t we plan this thing out carefully?

Yes, the night was planned carefully. However, plans change, and things can be left unclear.

Let me explain.

Not everything in a small-venue festival-style show is necessarily nailed down. Getting a detailed stage plot from everybody is often overkill for a one-nighter, especially if the production style is “throw and go.” Further, circumstances that occur in the moment can overtake the desire to have a perfect patch. In the case of the guitar amps, I had thought that I was only going to have two on the deck, and I had also thought that the placement would be basically a traditional “left/ right” sort of affair. That’s not what happened, though, and so I had to react quickly. Because the console was already labeled and prepped for my original understanding, bumping the whole patch down by one would have been much harder than just patching into the empty channels at the end. Also, from a physical standpoint, it turned out to be more expedient to run the first guitar line over to the other side of the stage than to pull the center-center microphone from its place.

I clearly labeled the console to avoid confusion, and that was that.

The unused channels were a case of “leaving a channel unused is easy, patching in the middle of the show is hard.” During the planning for the night, it was unclear as to whether we’d have acoustic bass or not, and it was also unclear if we’d have keys or not. When the time came to actually plug-in the show, those unknowns remained. As such, the wise thing to do was to have those channels ready to go. If sources for those inputs materialized, I’d be ready with zero fuss required. If I wasn’t ready on those channels, and it turned out that they were needed, I would have to get them in place – potentially in the middle of the night. If those channels were never needed, all I had lost were a couple of inputs, and a few minutes of running cable at my leisure.

Look at all those “if” statements, and it’s pretty clear: The penalty for setting up the channels and not using them was very small compared to the advantage of having them in place.

Spend Channels, Get “Easy”

Now, what about that SM58? Why not just swap one of the other vocal mics, save time, and save space on the deck?

That seems like it would be easier, but it actually would have been harder. For starters, the other mics on the stage were VERY unlike the SM58 in terms of both output level and tonality. Yes – I could have set up a separate mix for the act that used the 58 (which would have fixed the tonality issue), but my console doesn’t currently have recallable preamp levels. I would have had to remember to roll the appropriate preamp back down when that act was finished. That might not seem like much to remember, and it isn’t really, but it’s very easy to forget if you get distracted by something else. Using one more channel to host the special mic basically removed the possibility of me making that mistake. It also removed the need for the act and me to execute a whole series of actions – on the fly – just to make the mic work. I set a preamp level for a channel that was ALWAYS going to belong to that microphone, and built EQ settings that would ALWAYS apply to that microphone, and we did the show without having to futz with swapping mics, changing mix presets, or rolling preamp gains around.

In a festival-style show, trading one spare input for a whole lot of “easy” is a no-brainer. (This is one reason why it’s good to have more channels available than you might think you actually need. You’ll probably end up with a surprise or two that becomes much easier to manage if you can just plug things into their very own channels.)

An orderly, quickly navigable festival patch is a must for getting through a multi-act gig. Even when something happens unexpectedly and partially upsets the order of that patch, starting with a good channel layout helps to contain the chaos. If you start with chaos and then add more entropy, well…