June 28, 2012, by Craig Leerman
It’s always a good idea to have a spare mixer on hand at every show.
Years ago I learned this valuable lesson first hand while freelancing as an A1 for an A/V company. Let’s take a trip in the wayback machine…
We were setting up the sound system for a large general session at a corporate show when I discovered that the house console would not power up.
It turned out that the rack housing the power supplies for the console had rolled off the dock and landed hard on its side, disabling both units.
While the production manager frantically made phone calls trying to locate replacement power supplies or another console, I discovered a small mixer in a breakout room that was not being used. We placed this 4 mono/4 stereo input unit on top of the house console and commenced getting the system up and running.
Right away, the CEO wanted to rehearse his speech, so I plugged in the podium microphone and his lavalier. Just then, a guy from “Video World” called me on the comm and asked for a feed so he could test his recorders. With two aux sends available on the mixer, I grabbed an XLR-to-TRS adapter and supplied his feed.
So far, so good…
A Simple Plan
Less than a half-hour to doors open, it looked like we were going to need to go with what we had – the production manager was striking out on a substitution. The A2 and I took stock of what we had and quickly devised a plan.
With no group or matrix outputs, the PA would run in mono, with the left output dedicated to the main loudspeakers and the right output feeding the delay stacks. Left for LOCAL and right for REMOTE – to this day, it’s still my approach on shows when I have limited outputs.
One of the aux sends would remain as the video recording feed, and the other would supply the backstage monitor system feed. The mixer’s mono output would feed the board “safety” recording.
Input-wise we would still have two podium mics, but only one could be plugged into the mixer (channel one).
The clearly marked cable for the backup podium mic would be sitting next to the mixer, ready to go in case of trouble. Mic channels two and three would handle wireless lavaliers for presenters, and channel four could take care of the announcer’s mic.
We reduced the number of audience Q&A (question and answer) mics down to just a pair, and using XLR-to-TRS transformers, we would plug these two mics into the mono inputs on two stereo channels.
The last two stereo channels would be occupied with the audio tracks from the video playback units. The CD player for walk-in music would be patched into the mixer’s RCA inputs.
With our plan in place and then transformed to actual reality, we were ready for the show. And fortunately, it all went according to plan (pardon the pun).
That little mixer sitting on the dead console did its job, and it also taught me the value of bringing along a backup to every gig.
For every gig, I usually carry at least one unit that I call a “utility mixer,” and sometimes bring along an additional 6-channel powered mixer.
Fortunately, I’ve not suffered dead console syndrome since that corporate gig, but I’ve come to rely on my utility mixer in a variety of valuable ways.
Sub-mixing. I can’t count the times I needed more inputs, usually because a band showed up and was larger than what was advanced – or more common, the band was never advanced. Typical uses include sub-mixing toms on a drum set, percussion instruments, keyboards, or a horn section.
In addition to sub-mixing musical instruments, at corporate gigs I’ve grouped panel and audience Q&A mics in a sub-mixer.
Announcer Station. Utility mixers work well for an announcer station. It gives announcers a “cough button” (a.k.a., mute switch) and provides them with a good headphone amplifier. I also feed the program from the main console into the mixer so announcers can mix in the program audio to their headphones.
Press Mult. While most small mixers don’t provide a ton of outputs, they can still be valuable as a press mult in a pinch. The left, right and mono outputs can provide mic or line level outputs – and by using a few 1/4-inch-to-XLR adapters – the aux outputs, control room outputs and even the direct channel output can feed a signal to a camera.
Phantom Power Supply. I’ve had to work with in-house A/V gear on a few occasions where I wanted to change out the dynamic handheld mic they provided on the podium (usually placed in a gooseneck that won’t support the microphone’s weight) to a regular podium gooseneck condenser.
Sometimes, the house mixer either doesn’t provide phantom power, or I don’t have access to the mixer to engage the phantom power. A utility mixer can be used to provide the necessary phantom to the condenser mic, and gives you a bit of EQ to boot.
Mic Splitter. Several times I’ve been asked by presenters to provide a feed to a small recorder so they can record their presentation for later review and/or archival purposes. If I’m using the facility’s provided system, outputs are sometimes limited.
A small mixer inserted between the podium mic and the house console provides an output for the recording unit, as well as some EQ dedicated just to the recording.
Distribution Amp. Supplying a distributed system at a large casino property for a fireworks show, we quickly realized that there were some reliability and quality with some of the signal being run wirelessly to some of the remote loudspeakers.
So we ran cable to them; in fact, more than 1,000 feet of cable. A utility mixer placed centrally at the remote location provided a quick tap for those loudspeakers, and it also acted as the distribution amplifier, splitting and boosting the signal to additional locations.
Effects. It’s not uncommon to get a request to provide a mic for a singer at a small corporate meeting. This may be for an a-cappella rendition of the national anthem, or just a certain song accompanied by a track.
When I provide my small speech rig, I also have the capability to use some reverb on the singer, but when I’m freelancing, I can’t always count on having an effects unit available. Many utility mixers have built-in effects, including some really nice reverbs, and can be patched into the system for this purpose.
Adapter. While I carry a lot of adapters to hook up almost “anything to anything” at a gig, sometimes there’s a connector I don’t have in the bag. For example, one time we needed to plug in an additional computer, and all that I had on hand was a 1/8-inch TRS-to-dual RCA adapter.
A small mixer sporting a stereo pair of RCA inputs came to the rescue and acted as the adapter, interfacing the computer into the PA system.
Direct Input (DI). More than a few times I’ve been on corporate gigs where musicians show up to perform and there’s a need to get an instrument (usually a guitar) into the house PA. If DI boxes are in short supply, it’s time to deploy a utility mixer.
Backline Amp. Similar to above, on several occasions I’ve used a small mixer with a powered loudspeaker as an onstage instrument amplifier. (Or, a powered mixer with a passive loudspeaker.) While the combination does not make a good bass rig, it does fine in a pinch for a keyboard rig or acoustic guitar.
Crossover. Once while working a small festival, the crossover decided to cease operation. The system was a simple 2-way rig with passive mains over subwoofers. We decided to run the mains full range, and use a utility mixer’s EQ section to roll off the highs to the subs and act as a simple low-pass filter.
Confidence Monitor. Sometimes it’s nice to have a visual reference for an important feed being sent to a remote location. Patch the signal through a utility mixer so that during the show, you can easily glance over and see the meters on the mixer to make sure it’s working OK (or not).
Utility (yoo-til-i-tee), noun: The state or quality of being useful; usefulness. (Dictionary.com) Small mixers fit that definition to a “T” in duties ranging from saving the show to providing additional options to enhance our presentation.
They’re also quite useful in making our lives on the job easier, turning “uh oh” into “no problem” while requiring little in terms of time, effort and money to have on hand, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Craig Leerman is senior contributing editor for Live Sound International and ProSoundWeb, and is the owner of Tech Works, a production company based in Las Vegas.