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Backstage Class: Strategies For Festivals

Quickly getting the max from the mix in these tough situations.

By Dave Rat August 31, 2017

Mixing front of house sound for festivals is both one of the easiest and most challenging situations we face as live sound engineers.

They present a perfect storm of all factors working against us: minimal setup and sound check time, huge audiences, pressures from band management, outdoor environmental factors, plus show reviewers can make direct comparisons between the quality of our mix and a multitude of others.

To make things worse, unless we work for a top-billed artist on the event, we often have little or no control over the gear we use or the configuration of the sound system.

How can we hope to present quality audio to the audience, let alone dial the show up with an impressive and memorable mix?

Carpe diem! This Latin phrase meaning “seize the day” captures my thoughts on the matter.

Developing the ability to walk into festivals with no sound check and consistently offer a solid, well-balanced mix, dialed in at the right volume from the very first note, is a skill that can define one as a world-class sound engineer.

Beyond Our Control

It’s all about preparation, establishing reference points and then having multiple methods of achieving the well thought-out goals.

Typically the plan starts with advancing the show and mining as much useful information as possible.

What type of sound system? What type of console? Are the subs on an aux? Can digital files be uploaded to the console? How much time will there be to set up the console?

Can music be played over the system? Will setup occur while another band is playing or during a slotted set change time? Will there be a line check through the system, through headphones, or even at all?

The answers to these questions are extremely useful, but I’m going to share some tricks that will help lead to a stellar mix regardless of the answers.

Let’s preface with a few assumptions: a) you’ve worked with the artist before and will continue to do so; b) the artist is carrying backline instruments; and c) you’re a reasonably skilled engineer capable of achieving a desirable mix under normal conditions.

The Strategy

The first key to getting a solid sound at festivals is to establish predictable levels and tones from the stage inputs.

The first step of the process is to lock in your microphone types and placements – one of the few things that we as engineers actually have control over on a regular basis.

If you don’t carry a mic package, then standardize on mics that are readily available. Even if you just carry Z-Bars, Atlas MAC-1s, Audix CabGrabbers or any of a multitude of small and portable mic mounting devices, establishing consistency is very important.

A festival is not the time to experiment with mic types and placements, so settle it beforehand.

Mark and label all placements. Take pictures of each mic location and print them out so the task of setting the mics can be delegated if need be. Small strips of gaff tape forming squares on the front of guitar cabinets can be helpful.

Label the backs of the instrument amps with the same names they’re referred to on the mic chart and stage plot so the crew knows where the mics and DIs are to be placed and connected.

Keep in mind that the closer you mic the instruments, the less “room sound” will affect the sound you’re getting. Since the goal is to achieve a high level of sonic consistency from the stage, mic’ing closer is usually better.

You can always use the console’s high-pass filters to compensate for added low-end from proximity effect. Getting rid of spurious venue and stage noise bleed due to distant mic’ing is very tough.

Gain

Memorize your mic preamp settings for every single channel input. (I’m serious!) If you can’t remember them, then catalog them, save them in files, learn them, know them.

I realize that the popularity of digital consoles and the ability to store and recall settings makes this seem like a waste of time, but hey, if you’re so well established that you get the exact console you want every single gig, then you’re doing better than most of us. I still run into gigs where I have to dial in a mix on the fly.

Know which input channels need pads. Know that the lead vocal has 3dB hotter gain than the other vocals.

Know that the second guitar rig is louder than the main rig. Know the relationship between those gain knobs as if they’re the directions to the catering tent. Practice knowing them. Be able to set the approximate gain levels close to correct without ever hearing a single sound through the console.

Be able to scan across the channels on a digital board and know if one or more gain controls is set incorrectly.

Pay attention to the numeric dB gain numbers written around the gain knob on analog consoles, and the amount of dB gain of a digital console, as well as the rotational positions of those knobs.

Even if you’re working on a board you’ve never seen before, you should be able to set the gains fairly well by checking the gain of your voice on a familiar mic and then adjusting the relative gain settings for the rest of the channels.

Practice this. Know which channels have the pad and/or polarity switches engaged. Take pictures and print them out in case you can’t remember.

Gain is not a mystery, it’s a value, and that value can be transcribed with a reasonable amount of accuracy from one console brand or type to another.

EQ

Get a handle on the channel EQs and high-pass filters. If your mic selection and placement is reasonable for the stage sounds being captured, the channel EQ settings should not be drastic.

In fact, more than half the channels should be flat or close to flat, and there should be some distinct patterns. The rack and floor tom mics may have nearly identical EQ or be so close to the same that identical settings can be used.

All of the vocal mics of the same type tend to have the same issues that need to be EQ’ed in a similar fashion.

If one guitar rig is bright and another dull, rather than EQ’ing the difference, alter and label a new mic placement that compensates and brings your guitar channel EQs closer to identical.

Look for trends. If you’re cutting 250 Hz and/or boosting 8 kHz on more than half of the console channels, it’s quite likely that your system EQ needs more 8K and/or less 250.

Make corrections to the system EQ to force as many channel EQs to flat. The goal is to get the sound you want with the least amount of EQ possible.

Aux Sends & Fader Levels

When setting up the console, minor adjustments to the gain knobs can be used to force the faders to all be at that magical nominal 0 dB point.

I take it a step further and set my gains to force the faders into logical positions that correspond to how I want the mix to look on the console – which corresponds to how I want it to sound.

For example, I usually find that if I set the gain of the hi-hat to read 0 on the PFL meter, and then bring the fader up to 0 dB, the hi-hat is usually blasting way too loud.

If I push the hi-hat channel fader down to get the proper level I’m looking for, the fader position is then awkward both ergonomically as well visually.

Plus, the fader sensitivity to small changes is more sensitive at the bottom of its travel. So instead I turn the hi-hat gain down and the fader up until the fader is positioned where I want it.

Typically when I mix, the snare, toms, guitar, and bass faders are all at 0dB, the cymbals, hi-hat, and ride are 5 dB lower in fader position, and the vocals are a bit higher with the lead vocal at the highest position.

This logical visual fader starting point is useful and often I reset to it several times during the show.

I also try to set my channel aux sends to the exact same levels regardless of the console I am working on, and then adjust the aux master level so the actual audio levels sent are correct to the effects.

Comps & Gates

Memorizing, documenting, and photographing the compressor and gate settings is important as well – not just the knob positions, but also the actual dB level of the thresholds, output makeup gain, as well as the attack times, release times and ratios.

I use the same settings on multiple compressor types with quite excellent results. Worldwide sonic consistency regardless of venue or system type is a challenging and worthy goal.

So let’s say you do all of the homework, studying, and learning your console setup. You’re now armed with the ability to walk up to any console and at least get close, even when you don’t have file on a USB stick.

I know this method works; in fact, it works so well that the console settings can even transfer over to live recording setups, mobile trucks, broadcasts and TV show gigs.

Next time I’ll further this discussion as well as share some best overall practices that apply to all live work, including festivals.


About David

Dave Rat
Dave Rat

President, Rat Sound Systems
 
Dave Rat heads up Rat Sound Systems (www.ratsound.com), a leading sound reinforcement company based in Southern California, and has also been a mix engineer for more than 30 years.
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