January 15, 2013, by Mike Sessler
After sorting our input lists, stage cabling and custom boxes, the next step to optimizing our stage is not really on the stage at all.
For me, the final phase is getting an optimized baseline show file for each position.
In this post, we’ll be discussing audio files (in the digital world), but much of the concepts apply to lighting, presentation and video as well.
The Baseline Show File
When I refer to a baseline show file, I mean the starting file that we call up each week to use as a starting point. Depending on your console, this could also be a starting scene or memory location.
It is important to preserve the baseline file, so the first thing we do once we load it up is to re-save as a different file name (we name ours the date of that Sunday). We also keep our baselines in two different folders in Dropbox, one which auto-syncs to the attached computer, and one that does not. I may talk more about this process in another post.
What To Baseline?
There are some basic things you’re going to want to include in the baseline no matter what your situation is. Output patching, matrix mixes that feed other rooms, basic input patching and channel names, starting grouping and VCA assignments and the like are all great places to start a baseline.
Once you have those things in place, you have a decision to make; do you start with a “zeroed” board or “dialed” board? Each has it’s pros and cons, and which you choose will depend on your situation. Here are some thoughts.
The concept of zeroing the board goes back to analog days. Back then (or yesterday if you’re mixing on an analog console still), you would reset the gain, EQ and aux settings to “zero” each weekend and start the mix from there. A digital version of that baseline is easy to do.
Your baseline show could be zeroed out with your gains at their lowest setting, EQ’s all flat, and Aux sends all off. In a zeroed baseline, you would probably not have any snapshots (except perhaps an “all off” with all inputs and outputs down—a trick I learned from my friend Dave). This is a great way to go if your band configuration changes regularly or you have a variety of operators who like to do things their way.
To be sure, there are some good things about this strategy. It doesn’t let anyone get lazy with their setup because it has to be re-built each week. You’re always starting fresh, and that can be really healthy. It does take a little more time each weekend during sound check, however. You’ll have to build your gain structure, EQ and aux mixes for the whole band from scratch, and that takes time.
If you have the time, I think it’s a great way to go. But it’s only one way to go. Personally, I prefer the next method, which is what we do.
The left fader bank of my baseline show file. Note (in the image above) how much is already pre-set.
I call this the “dialed” baseline because we have so much of it preset. Typically, my gain settings are within 3-4 dB of final, I have basic EQ, dynamics and even monitor mixes pre-built based on the last few hundred services I’ve mixed.
If time were really a major factor, we could probably call up the baseline and mix the show live and it would be fine—it’s that close. I even have presets for various players and vocalists in my library that I can call up to get me even closer based on the band configuration that week.
None of this means I’m locked into anything, and we can and do change stuff, sometimes quite a bit. But the baseline we use gets me really close right out of the gate.
For us, this is important because we have 2 1/2 hours on Saturday to practice and rehearse the service before we kick off the weekend services. Anything we can do to help the process go faster is a big deal. That’s how this whole series came about in the first place.
Like everything else in live production, everything has trade-offs. Yes, I could probably stay a little fresher from a mixing perspective if I started from zero each week; but for me, getting the band up and running in 15-20 minutes is a bigger value as it gives them more time to practice. A more comfortable band means they can give me better source material, which makes my job easier.
We version our baselines like we would software—really, that’s what it is. As of this writing, we’re on version 8.8; that shows you how many tweaks we make. Each version gets us closer to the ideal starting point, and occasionally introduces a few “bugs.” These are corrected with additional point version updates.
Depending on your mixing platform, you may have to come up with different ways to version your baselines. On the Yamaha platform, for example, you may have starting configurations stored in Studio Manager, and use the computer to store your versions. Just push the latest one over to the desk.
Develop A Plan For Your Setting
However you do it, the plan should work for you. Just because I have a fully dialed baseline doesn’t mean that’s the right thing for you. Consider your needs, your band and your operators. I’ve made the choice that I’d rather let the computer do most of the heavy lifting set up for me, which frees me up for other things. But that may not be the best option for your church.
Whatever you do, come up with a plan to back up your baselines. There’s nothing worse than coming in on a Saturday afternoon to discover that someone has overwritten your baseline with a whole bunch of changes. Keeping a spare on a thumb drive in your office is not a bad idea—as long as you keep it current. Dropbox is also a wonderful solution.
Like everything else in the Optimized Stage series, this takes some time. It doesn’t happen over night; I’ve been at Coast Hills for 3 1/2 years and I’m still working on this process.
However, every time we implement another step in the process, our weekend set up goes more smoothly and the services happen with less stress on everyone, so I think it’s worth it. Start with a plan, and work the plan; you’ll get there eventually!
Mike Sessler is the Technical Director at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA. He has been involved in live production for over 20 years and is the author of the blog Church Tech Arts. He also hosts a weekly podcast called Church Tech Weekly on the TechArtsNetwork.