Monday, August 10, 2015
Church Sound: Go Big Or Go Home? Not Quite… Being Excellent With Less
Have you heard the expression “Stuff expands to fill the space available?”
It was true in my life. When we lived in our first, tiny little house, we didn’t have that much stuff. In fact, it all fit in a single moving van when we bought our next, larger house.
After 10 years there, however, we had a lot of stuff. In fact, the once empty basement was full. It took an interstate move to a smaller house to clear out the clutter.
I think the same concept applies in the technical and worship arts. We are always striving to make things a little bigger, a little better.
And therein lies the challenge. Not with getting bigger necessarily, but in outgrowing our capacity. Let me explain.
A few years ago, we began a new ministry in our church. The program included weekly meetings that would have a worship component. As a general rule, we do worship really well, and it’s very much in the contemporary style — full band, great vocals, lighting – the complete package.
It also takes a small army of volunteers to make it happen. In fact, there are upwards of 70 people participating in worship in any given month.
For this new ministry, it was supposed to be simple—pre-packaged PowerPoint slide shows, split-track CD for music and a few vocalists. They would use the youth room, which has a capable but simple lighting rig (30 or so fixtures). At least that was the plan.
The first week there were five vocalists on stage, two guitars and keys. They wanted lights, four monitor mixes and big sound. To support this “simple” set-up, there was one guy who is one of our best lighting people, but new to Media Shout & Sound, and another tech who was completely green. The next week, they added drums and some more vocals. Oh, and that week there was only one tech.
Now, I’m all about doing things right, even big. “Go big or go home,” I often say. Yet in this case, it’s a clear mistake. Without sufficient technical support, the music team must scale back. If it doesn’t, both the techs and the musicians will be frustrated, the techs will burn out and the whole thing will collapse.
This is a classic case of being only as strong as the weakest link. In this case the weak link is the tech team (a lack of trained multi-disciplinary techs), and thus that becomes the limiting factor of the program.
And understand it’s not for lack of trying; the techs we have in our church are the best I’ve ever worked with. But not every one is trained yet in all disciplines, and it takes a lot of years of experience to cover two or three roles in a tech booth at once.
I would like to propose a radical concept – simplify down to the level of excellence. What does that mean? Look at it this way; design your program (worship, new ministries, that big Easter musical, whatever) around whatever the weakest link is, and do what you can do with excellence up to that point.
If you don’t have enough musicians to pull together four different full on bands for a month of worship services, make one a simple acoustic set. If you can’t staff the tech teams to do a wild musical production, simplify it. Once you simplify to the weakest link, you now have the ability to be excellent.
Too many ministries think that bigger is better. It’s not. Better is better. Excellence should be the goal, not getting bigger. Putting more bodies on the battlefield before they’re ready simply results in more casualties.
Do what you can do really, really well. Then stop. Raise the bar when all the elements are in place to do so. Want to do a huge musical production that requires 20 actors on stage with wireless mics? You’d better own (or be able to rent) high quality mics that are frequency coordinated, a soundboard with automation capability, and have a couple of high quality sound guys.
Miss any of those elements and you’re asking for trouble, and you will not have an excellent production. If you can’t accommodate that, scale back until you can do what you do really well. Stretch the crew, yes. But if you push too hard, things break. Don’t do it.
So what was the solution for our new ministry? It’s easy—simplify. Go back to a split track CD for music with one or two vocalists. Stick with simple PowerPoint presentations. Continue to recruit and train tech volunteers. Once they are ready, we can add musicians. It will happen, but it needs time. Failure to pull back will ultimately result in failure of the ministry. That benefits no one.
Those that come into our ministries deserve excellence. God wants our best, not our biggest. We can get bigger as we get better, as we add volunteers and the equipment to support them. But we should never get bigger before we get better.
Mike Sessler recently joined CCI Solutions and is serving as a project lead, based in Nashville. He’s been involved in live production for more than 25 years and is the author of the blog Church Tech Arts.
Friday, August 07, 2015
Recording Vocals “The Motown Way”
Editor’s Note: In this article, famed Motown producer/engineers Dave Isaac and Reggie Dozier reflect on capturing some of the best-recorded vocal performances in history. As the men behind the boards for Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and many more, this dynamic duo has helped shape more than a few Motown hits.
There were many recording techniques used in my years as an engineer back in Detroit in the various recording studios around: Selah, Sound Suite, Vanguard, LaMonte’s, United Sound, Studio A, and more. I shared some of these memories with another fellow Detroiter, the great engineer Reggie Dozier (brother of Lamont Dozier from Holland-Dozier-Holland), over lunch to help me recall the analog days and to give you guys even more bang for your buck in this article.
Getting Started: Techniques
Recording vocals can be simple or scientific. It depends on how much time you have to try different microphones, gear, or techniques if you’re in a recording studio on the clock, or in the privacy of your own home studio. Of course, you hope that the vocalist coming through the door knows how to “work” a microphone.
Two of Detroit’s finest: Reggie Dozier and Dave Isaac.
For example, vocalists like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Gladys Knight will move in and away from a mic, depending on the intensity of thoughts they are singing. This technique provided us with incredible dynamics, and in most cases meant we did not have to heavily compress a vocal.
Next, the proximity of where the vocalist stood was key. When we did anything like doubling or background vocals, the proximity on one track may be closer than on another track, or if background vocalists were recorded together, the blend of the harmonies or levels were based on how close they stood to the mic. If you were loud, or if your harmony stood out, you had to stand back more.
Back in the days of analog tape, you might have one chance to get it right. Some vocalist would come in ready to go, do one or two takes and that’s it. They barely would allow you to get a level.
Usually, the first take was the best take or it might have the most creative moments in it, so your levels needed to be close immediately. We couldn’t assume that we had plenty of warm up time, and punching in to fix a distorted vocal was embarrassing to say the least!
The key was to make sure that you kept the dynamics of the vocal without overloading and distortion, to use a pop or wind screen, and having the mic at a good height and angle helped to eliminate plosives and kept you from having to de-ess later.
For the most part, there was no copying and pasting unless you transferred the information to another tape machine, then pressed Play at the right time to record it back to the multi-track. Later, in the ‘80s, units with short sampling times came along which made that much easier.
We made sure that the vocalist had a good headphone mix to prevent any distractions. The right headphones were used to keep out as much headphone leakage as possible in the recording.
The booth was usually dark or dim, in most cases to create the mood and allow the singer to see the music easier. This also kept them from feeling self conscious and gave them the ability to give an uninhibited performance. To see a room full of guests in the control room could sometimes be nerve wracking, so it helped to know that they couldn’t see you.
The producers had to know the art of what to say to the vocalist over the talk-back and in the studio, between takes, to motivate them and guide them to the promised land of the perfect take.
My first response was and still to this day is, “Use whatever you have that sounds the best!”
Typically, if you stand in the vocal booth and listen to the vocalist, then go into the control room, it should sound close to what you heard in the vocal booth to maintain the natural color of the vocalist, unless you want to add warmth or a color via the mic, mic pre, or compressor.
In other words, use a ribbon, dynamic, condenser, whatever works and fits the track. What good is a big fat vocal in a dance track if it’s not the main focus of the song, or a small vocal in a big lush ballad that calls for a big vocal because you did not choose the best mic?
Now with that being said, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I used Sanken, AKG 414 EB or C 12, and Neumann U 87 mics a lot. Sometimes we would use the Electro-Voice RE20 dynamic mic. We used to call it the “Stevie Wonder” mic. This mic allowed you to not have to worry about the typical proximity problems if you were working with either a soft singer or a strong singer who was close to the mic, the low end didn’t change like it would using the typical dynamic mic.
We also used the Shure SM7. We called that one the “Michael Jackson” mic. If the singer was one to snap their fingers, stomp their feet, et cetera, and we wanted to hear that, we might set the mic pattern to omni to record everything, and heavily baffle the area behind the mic so as not to pick up anything in that area.
Choosing A Compressor
Now that we’re recording into computers, those of you who aren’t sure can always record an extra track simultaneously without compression to be safe and not lock yourself or a mix engineer into an over-compressed vocal. UREI 1176, dbx 160 and 160X, Drawmer 1960, LA-2As were used often. We would compress anywhere from 3:1 to 8:1, and only if needed and always using soft knee whenever available.
Since we’re in the age of recording digitally, it’s really important not to distort. In the days of analog, you could also hit a little bit of tape compression and that was okay too, but today some of those levels would sound nasty in the digital realm.
Pictured left to right behind Reggie Dozier: Michael Jackson, Susie Akita, unknown, Brenda Richie, and Lionel Richie
Typically, we used a plate reverb lightly on the vocal, just enough to give the vocal a good tail without being too thick. The choices of reverbs ranged from the EMT 140 and EMT 250, the newcomers from Yamaha at that time, the REV1 and REV7, as well as the Lexicon 224XL, and the AMS RMX 16. EQ was never used. We always got our sound via the best selection of mic, mic pre, and sometimes the best compressor based on what was available in the studio
If time permits, don’t be afraid to experiment. If you’re recording in your home studio, closet, et cetera, be sure to place sound dampening materials on low ceilings and close walls to avoid as many early reflections as possible.
So in closing, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Choose a mic/mic pre that work best for the color and power of the vocalist, unless purposely trying to change the sound.
2. Be prepared to get a great recording on the first take.
3. Make sure nothing will distract the vocalist from giving a great performance.
4. Only use a compressor if need be, and really try to steer clear of using EQ.
5. Make sure vocalists can hear themselves in the track as though listening back to a recording, unless they say otherwise.
6. If time permits, have fun and experiment.
Dave Isaac is a three-time Grammy Award winning producer and mix engineer, as well as an artist, author and educator. He sends a big thanks to Reggie Dozier for joining him in this article, which is courtesy of Universal Audio.
Flying Solo On The Front Lines
Are you a Lone Ranger of the audio world? I’ve been one for 20 years, working as an independent practitioner of live sound.
Lone Rangers face the common scenario of ever-increasing responsibilities from advancing the load in and out, to pinning the stage, handling musicians and tour managers, corporate clients and eager brides. All with no A2 or enough hands or help – just a steady schedule of shows ranging from music to corporate events to weddings to comedy shows, plus that children’s theater show thrown into the mix at the last moment (of course).
We strive to make the nearly impossible possible, all while flying solo as the promoter, client and entertainers put the squeeze on our time and patience. The aim of this column is to share what I’ve learned over the past two decades in hopes of helping fellow Lone Rangers better deal with the challenges that lay before us day after day. And while these challenges are unfortunately quite common, they also present a wonderful opportunity to learn some powerful fundamentals.
Future topics will range from gear and maintenance to troubleshooting and organization, as well as advancing shows, client relations, work flow strategies, wireless challenges and of course, mixing tips and tricks. But first let’s start with some workflow strategies for mixing monitors (wedges and in-ear monitors) from front of house, in addition to stage techniques to maximize monitoring success.
Stop The Hacking: Output EQ
Imagine this common scene: a singer is playing acoustic guitar through a direct box (DI) and a wedge, providing foldback for both her voice and guitar. The acoustic guitar is feeding back in the wedge and/or just plain sounds bad. You start hacking away at the mix graph, yet now her vocal in the wedge sounds horrible. The problem is that you’re trying to solve one problem while making another worse.
A classic Y-Split XLR cable splitter.
Look to the output EQ as the tool for making the wedge sound natural, not the input. This also serves as a quick test to know if something is wrong with the monitor, crossover or amplifier. Once comfortable, you now have a reference – when something doesn’t sound right, you know it’s the source.
Mixing For Two Bosses
A sole mix engineer is responsible for providing a mix to two important groups: the audience and the performers. The audience is hearing the house mix through the main PA. The performers hear the monitor mix through wedges and possibly IEMs, both of which are completely different from the PA.
When confronted with a single channel strip for the singer’s main vocal and another for her guitar, how do you manage making both sound good through two or three completely different loudspeakers? Split. Think of yourself as a hybrid engineer. In the traditional live audio world, both house and monitor engineers have a split of all inputs. But as a Lone Ranger, you’re not that fortunate; it’s all you.
Whirlwind IMP and Radial Engineering ProMS2 isolated splitters.
But why can’t there be the same flexibility and separation? There can be, by splitting inputs to separate channels on the console, one for the house mix and the other for the monitor mix. Be sure to un-assign the “monitor channels” from the stereo bus. The monitor sends will come from the “monitor channels” and not the house channels. The parametric nature of channel EQ and its accompanying high-pass filter are potent tools for monitor mixing.
This approach provides independent control over each input for each type of output/loudspeaker. It can be done at the desk or at the snake head using simple XLR “Y” cables or a proper isolated splitter such as a Radial Engineering ProMS2 or Whirlwind IMP splitter. (Both are available in 1 x 2 and 1 x 3 configurations). Another useful tool for this purpose is the Klark Teknik Square ONE, a unit providing a 8-in x 24-out split.
If the number of open channels is tight, prioritize the most important and challenging inputs, such as vocals and acoustic instruments.
In the digital world, physical splits may not be required, yet be aware that when “soft” splitting channels on a digital desk, sharing the head amp may be necessary. The use of physical splits provides the benefit of independent head amp control.
I tend to set up the monitor channels as post fader because they provide the benefit of the channel EQ and the fader, which makes it much easier to give everyone more or less of a single input by simply using the fader.
A trick with analog consoles is to take off the fader cap or exchange different colored caps for easy identification. If digital, label the monitor channels in lower case and/or a different color.
The cue wedge is essential to a monitor engineer, supplying a true reference of what the musicians are hearing through their monitors. This is especially useful when doing double-duty on house and monitor mixes. Try to borrow (from the stage) a wedge with the same drive quotient (crossover, amplification, etc.) as the monitors on stage and place it next to the console.
If mixing IEM, invest in decent buds (preferably molds), but I’ve found that the foamy Shure tips work well. In addition, a wired IEM pack such as a Shure P4HW or a wireless unit is a smart thing to have and use. In soloing the output for the mix, you hear the actual mix(another word for mix) as the musician hears it on stage, not just the description from the musician.
The polarity button, often incorrectly referred to as the “phase button,” simply flips the input polarity 180 degrees. This is especially useful in eliminating low end feedback from acoustic guitars and other instruments.
In addition, when mixing ears, flipping the polarity on a singer’s vocal and other inputs can yield incredible results without needing to pull out an excessive amount of EQ. Don’t be afraid to hit that button.
Polar patterns of the SM58 (above) and BETA 58A (below)—see the difference?
Wedge & Mic Placement
This one is a biggie, a bedrock fundamental that I teach others constantly. A mic and a wedge are always a compromise, and there’s always a limit to how loud a wedge can be. Feedback happens when the mic is picking up the output of itself in the monitor. Therefore it’s very important to know the pick-up patterns of the mics on stage. So if you’re at a gig and not sure, look it up!
For example, a standard (Shure) SM58 has a cardioid pattern, so it’s null (rejection zone) is in the rear. A Shure BETA 58, meanwhile, has a supercardioid pattern so the null is to the sides. The essential take-away is to make sure the null faces the wedge or wedges so the mic(s) avoid sound you don’t want to pick up. A great resource is an article on here on PSW by Mark Frink entitled “Monitor Mixing Tips & Tools Of The Trade For A Successful Show.”
Staying In Control
As a Lone Ranger, it’s important to be creative and able to adapt on the fly – while adhering to essential fundamentals of audio. There’s no other way to success. Give these techniques outlined here a try, and let me know your experiences and questions. Next time I’ll address advancing and handling multiple performances on the same bill with maximum efficiency. Good luck out there!
Nicholas Radina is an audio engineer and musician based in Cincinnati. In addition to keeping up with a busy freelance schedule, he’s currently touring as the monitor engineer with the band O.A.R. and smacking cowbells with Salsa bands. He invites your input via his website at NicholasRadina.com.
Microfiles: RCA Aeropressure MI-6207-G
Two of the coolest microphones in my collection are from the RCA MI-6207-G Aeropressure Series.
What makes them unique is a “Paracoustic baffle,” a parabolic shaped piece of metal used to help convert them from omnidirectional to more directional.
Complete units are rare because the baffles were easily damaged or lost. I’m lucky to have found two: an almost mint condition example in the common burnt umber (RCA brown) finish, and a very clean specimen in the rare black and chrome color scheme.
While RCA is out of business now, it did make some of the most iconic-looking mics of all time and some of the best-sounding units of their era. I don’t have a lot of RCA mics, primarily because many of them are for recording and broadcast while I work in live sound. At least that’s what I tell everyone.
The truth is that the classic models like the iconic Velocity Ribbon Model 77 pill-shaped mic (manufactured from the mid-1940s until the early 60s) and Velocity Ribbon Model 74 (made from the mid-30s through the 50s) and Model 44 (early 30s to 1946) are much in demand by both users and collectors, meaning they’re both rare and pricey.
During World War I, radio communication was deemed vital to the war effort by the U.S. government, so it took charge of the industry. And after the war, the government wanted control of the airwaves, forming a corporation that would have a monopoly on radio equipment and transmission. It worked with General Electric (GE), which then bought the American Marconi wireless company, and these firms, along with the Pan-American Telegraph Company (controlled by the U.S. Navy), became a publicly traded company known as the Radio Corporation of America on October 17, 1919.
The incorporation stipulated that the majority of the stock be held by U.S. citizens, but GE held controlling interest in RCA, along with Westinghouse. RCA also bought up radio stations, and in 1926 formed the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). GE and Westinghouse stepped away from ownership of RCA in 1930, and the three companies became competitors.
In 1941, RCA Laboratories was formed in Princeton, NJ, and over the years produced innovations such as color television, the electron microscope, and liquid crystal displays (LCDs). For the next 30 years the company focused on electronics, but eventually diversified to a broad range of interests, including ownership of Hertz Car Rental and Banquet Foods. Plagued by financial problems that began in the 70s, RCA was acquired by GE in 1986, which then set about breaking it up.
Of course, RCA was also an innovator when it came to microphone technology. Manufactured between 1945 and 1951, Aeropressure Series mics were marketed for low-cost PA applications and for “talk back” in broadcast or recording studios. RCA called them (and the Type 88 Series) “pressure” microphones. Today the term is “dynamic.” A catalog description from 1950 informs us that “the sound pressure actuates a thin but rugged molded diaphragm to which an annular coil is attached, with the coil in an air gap of a magnetic structure.”
The baffle is used to tighten or broaden the directional pattern.
A magazine ad terms Aeropressure mics “semi-directional,” with the catalog stating that the sound is “non-directional” below 1,000 cycles and increasingly directional above those frequencies. It adds that “the directional pattern can be sharpened or broadened depending upon the position of the supplied Paracoustic baffle. With the concave side toward the front, the pattern is narrowed, and with the convex side toward the front, it is broadened.”
Of course, for a solid omnidirectional pattern, you could simply leave the baffle off the mic. And in fact, a knurled bolt was supplied with the baffle that allowed users to easily attach or remove the baffle without needing a tool. My Aeropressure mics don’t have their original knurled bolts and are equipped with standard slotted screws that need a screwdriver.
Both of my models work well but sound a little thin compared to today’s offerings. Frequency response is stated at 80 Hz – 8 kHz, which is rather limited but functional since these mics were targeted primarily for use with the human voice.
Without the baffle it’s an omnidirectional mic.
“G” models shipped with a short length of cable terminated to an XLR. “B” models came with a 15-foot cable and plug, and “E” models had an attached 30-foot un-terminated cable. My burnt umber mic is a G model, while the model designation for the black and chrome unit can’t be determined because the cable’s been repaired and a modern XLR installed.
Stand-mounting is accommodated with a 1/8-inch pipe thread socket on the rear of the body that accepts a swivel fitting. The other end of the fitting accepts a 1/8-inch pipe or bolt, along with a variety of adapters to convert the 1/8 thread to 5/8-27 standard mic stand thread as well as the 1/2 pipe that was more commonly used for stands in that era.
Another catalog of the period notes that the company sent out questionnaires to customers that confirmed “for its simplicity in procurement and availability, standard 1/2-inch pipe size was infinitely more popular than any other pipe size.” RCA also offered desk and floor stands with a choice of thread sizes, and adapters.
While my Aeropressure models aren’t worth thousands of dollars, they’re priceless to me because they show a step in the evolution of directional microphones – and they look pretty cool as well.
RCA Aeropressure MI-6207-G Specs
Transducer: Dynamic, non-metallic molded diaphragm
Polar Pattern: Semi-directional with baffle, Omnidirectional without
Frequency Response: 80 Hz – 18 kHz
Sensitivity: -56 dB
Nominal Impedance: 250 ohms
Size: 5 x 2.1 inches without baffle, baffle is 4 inches in diameter
Net Weight: 2.25 pounds
Retail Price In 1950: $25.50
Craig Leerman is senior contributing editor for Live Sound International and is an avid collector of vintage microphones. Click here to read more of his Microfile articles here on ProSoundWeb.
Thursday, August 06, 2015
Life On The Leading Edge
Bryan Bell has worn many hats over the course of his career: long-time front of house engineer and technician for Herbie Hancock, MIDI system designer for artists such as INXS and Neil Young, system designer for venues such as the Berkeley Greek Theatre, and an innovator in audio and MI technology whose work was ahead of its time.
Bell describes his career path as accidental – a product of a series of choices and circumstances he could never have foreseen. But it was his twin passions for music and science (and, in one case, fast cars) that led to creating instrument/audio technology for some of the most respected artists in jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.
Born in New Orleans, Bell attended elementary school in Albuquerque, NM, where his father worked as a professor, composer, conductor and director at the Center for the Arts.
At his father’s insistence, music came first and, as a child, he studied classical piano and conducting and was exposed to recording and technical theatre.
“My father’s choir did live two-track recordings in local venues and we’d edit them on high-end, professional audio equipment at home,” he says, adding that he acted as assistant engineer on his first record at age 11. He also apprenticed with the choir’s engineer, noting “That’s how I learned basic live sound, but I also learned about lighting at the Center for the Arts and at La Petite Theatre in New Orleans.”
Bell conducted his first choral group in fifth grade and sang, played piano, B3 and guitar in various bands in his teens. “But poorly,” he laughs. His preference for performing originals over covers kept him out of many bands, “but that was OK. I didn’t need to be on stage because I liked engineering so much.”
At age 15, he built his first sound system and continued to build systems and mix local bands during summers in New Orleans and while finishing high school and during his studies at Oregon’s Portland State University.
Bell’s interests extended beyond audio, however. In 1969, dissatisfied with the response time of traditional theatre dimmers, he invented a lighting system for a New Orleans nightclub comprised of micro switches mounted underneath a section of cut down acoustic piano keys so the lights could be changed in time with the music. Later that year, he built an electric car with a mentor.
Bell in his home office in the early 1980s with his mini-comupter and early Apple computers running his first online music system, Synth-Bank.
“He (the mentor) was a commercial real estate guy and old-school ‘hacker’ with the wherewithal and disposable income to build whatever he was interested in,” Bell explains. “He got mad at the oil companies, so we went to the junkyard and bought a steamship starter motor, a tractor transmission and a junked Ford Anglia. We filled it with lead acid missile batteries weighing 90 pounds for each two volts. Technically it was a hybrid because we had a backup rototiller gas engine and generator to recharge the batteries if they ran out.”
He also owned race cars briefly while in college, but his ultimate goal was to be a nuclear physicist; a dream inspired by the fact that Albuquerque was home to various military installations, including the Naval Weapons Center for Nuclear Weapons, and where he was literally the only kid in the neighborhood whose father had a civilian job.
After becoming a Sri Chinmoy disciple in his late teens, Bell met John McLaughlin, who asked him to mix the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “Through Sri Chinmoy I was trying to learn humility,” he says. “Unfortunately, I failed at that, but I got a career out of it. At 19, I was married to another disciple, but wasn’t going to college, making music or racing cars, and John asked me: ‘What are you really doing with your life?’
“I told him that I had this ivory tower notion of solving cold fusion and running New York on a gallon of seawater, but he said, ‘Look, there are no good jobs in nuclear physics: you can build weapons of mass destruction or power plants, which, if they leak, become weapons of mass destruction. Or you can teach college kids to build power plants and weapons. So why don’t you come invent cool stuff for me and do my sound?’”
Touring with McLaughlin ended Bell’s marriage, but it allowed him to further explore his passion for invention (Leo Hoarty, Bob Easton and Bell developed McLaughlin’s first guitar synthesizer) and to deepen his knowledge of mixing live in a very challenging environment.
“Mahavishnu played a lot of unison lines,” he says. “The guitar, violin and keyboard players worked very hard to sound like each other so you didn’t always know who was playing what. The music was so complicated, the main thing was getting a good rhythm section balance and letting the band control the dynamic.”
Working with McLaughlin and, later, with Herbie Hancock, provided ample opportunity to innovate, but dampened any musical aspirations Bell still had. At that young age, he explains, he considered himself a highly skilled pianist, guitarist and composer.
But while engineering Mahavishnu, he decided his guitar chops weren’t in the same league as McLaughlin’s, and after working for Hancock, ditto his piano playing, and after working with Wayne Shorter, ditto again for his composition skills.
Instead, he focused on engineering and listening and found himself, with Hancock, in a situation where his technical skills complimented his employer’s musical prowess. “I met Herbie in 1975 when Mahavishnu opened for The Headhunters,” he recalls. “I’d just finished sound check and was told Mr. Hancock wanted to see me in his dressing room.
Bell with Neil and Pegi Young.
“I went downstairs, but he was chanting, so I loitered for a little while, then finally interrupted him and said, excuse me, Mr. Hancock, you sent for me? He replied, ‘who are you?’ I said I’m John’s sound engineer, Bryan. And he said, ‘that’s the best sound I’ve ever heard. If you ever need a job call me first.’ Then he went back to chanting.”
After finishing up with McLaughlin, and then between jobs, Bell dropped in on Hancock unannounced. “I knocked on his door at 9 am and said, hi, it’s Bryan, John McLaughlin’s sound engineer. You told me if I needed a job to call you first. But I got a blank stare – no recognition whatsoever. He just said, ‘I don’t remember.’”
That would have been the end of it but for the fact that Hancock owned a Ford Cobra and Bell loved cars. “I’d given up racing to mix and here’s one of the coolest cars in the world, so I asked for a ride,” he says. “Herbie said it wasn’t running, but I asked him if he had any tools. The fuel line had cracked at the connector, so I cut an inch off, slid it back on and the car started right up. Then he goes, ‘It’s coming back to me now. You can mix your ass off and you don’t mind fixing my car. Why don’t you stay for a couple of weeks?’” A couple of weeks became eight years, more than 20 of Hancock’s albums and numerous music technology firsts.
Hancock’s long-time recording engineer/producer, Fred Catero, who’d recorded everything from symphonies to Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Chicago, Blood Sweat Tears, Santana and Janis Joplin, became an important mentor to Bell. “Whenever we were in the studio, Fred was there. He taught me analog recording and I shared computer technology with him.”
With Hancock, Bell worked as a sound engineer and keyboard technician, as well as production manager, stage manager and truck driver when necessary.
“It was a brutal workload,” he states, but a gig in which he thrived, both professionally and personally, after doing something he swore he’d never do again – he got married.
“We met in 1977 at Herbie’s home,” Bell says, “but I was 24, a rock ‘n’ roll divorcee and I thought, not a chance. Not again. Herbie’s band actually had a pool going on how long we’d last. It ranged from six weeks to 18 months. We’ve been married 38 years now and have three children and a granddaughter, so I won the pool.
“My wife (Margarita) is very traditional but highly independent. She wanted kids and I wanted to rock ‘n’ roll, so I basically outsourced the children to her.” It was a match that allowed him to have his own family but continue to tour and innovate.
During that time Bell built one of the first wireless headset microphones, added a disk drive to a synthesizer and built an automated patch bay – both firsts – and, in 1979, he and others created an integrated, multivendor interface (an analog version of MIDI) to integrate Hancock’s various keyboards.
They later expanded on that system to include a mixing console, tape machine, video deck and multiple keyboards, with an Apple II as the user interface and a 16-bit master computer running a custom built operating system, designed by Bell, to speed up processing.
Hancock at one of the keyboard rigs from “the stone knives and bear skin rugs era” of keyboard and audio technology.
The concept was to use different manufacturers’ gear in an open architecture – a precursor to the networked business model MIDI later helped foster. “Where multiple companies are invested in the outcome and therefore amplify the whole business,” he adds.
In part, the concept was inspired by a 1976 visit to Xerox Park where Bell and Hancock were introduced to a prototype for a personal computer, well before the Macintosh. “We had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t talk about what we’d seen for years, but Dr. Alan Kay, who showed us the computer, was a huge inspiration to me. He said: ‘The easiest way to predict the future is to invent it’ and that was my philosophy about technology and system design. The easiest way to have a reliable sound system and great sounding bands was to build a reliable system and great sounding band gear.”
Bell refers to the mid-70s/early-80s as “the stone knives and bear skin rugs era” of keyboard and audio technology. “We built our own amplifiers. Early wireless technology was cutting edge, but not stable. We used a British Kelsey console for monitors. I built my own direct boxes and front-loaded speaker system to maximize bass response. I replaced every piece of The Headhunters’ sound and band gear except the instruments. We used military grade connectors on multi-cables, shock-mounted every microphone and cut low frequencies by putting 12-inch speakers downstage so the bass player could hear the band without any 40 to 80 cycle stuff on stage at all, and had super clean sounds because everything was properly isolated.”
The challenge with VSOP, Hancock’s acoustic band, was different. “It was about translating their acoustic sound in a way that worked for up to 100,000 people,” he explains.
But his philosophy of mixing was the same regardless of the artist, he maintains: “My job was to get a balance and be invisible, to be a servant of the music and provide the technology to establish an emotional connection between the musicians and audience.”
In doing so, one gig stands out above the others: Joni Mitchell performing “Mingus” at the Greek Theatre in the late 1970s. “I’d designed and tuned the PA there and had it perfectly dialed in,” he says. “I actually met people 30 years later who’d seen that show and said it was the best they’d ever been to, and when someone remembers when you had a really good day, it’s very cool.”
Other artists he worked for over time include the Hawaiian band Kalapana as well as Carlos Santana, who offered him a job if he ever left Hancock. He eventually did and worked for Santana as manager of his sound company as well as a live mixer, electronics tech.
His next big gig was Neil Young in 1985. It was the first time Bell didn’t mix and do something else, working instead as a MIDI/computer tech and playing in the band on a few songs.
The Coming World
Bell’s work at the Greek and a variety of other venues was an offshoot of his founding Bryan Bell Productions in the mid-70s – a company that would ultimately become Synth-Bank, the first online database system for music, in 1984, and resulted in his spending far less time on the road. Initially Synth-Bank was intended as a backup provider for keyboard sounds, tour accounting files and other data, as well as a library providing sounds created by A-list artists to other musicians and an online community in the early days of the Internet.
“That business model didn’t work,” he says, “but it led to doing MIDI designs for acts like INXS and consulting for Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Yes, ELP and others. I still made records, but there was so much demand for the designs that I couldn’t tour and mix house. I’d design a system, train a crew, send them out and then design the next.”
Bell with yet another top artist he’s worked with, this time Carlos Santana.
Bell has continued to consult for various artists, in addition to serving as outsourced chief technology officer for Domain Chandon and working on The Tonight Show from 1992 to 1994 as band engineer and sound designer when Jay Leno took over. Eventually, however, he decided to get out of the music business and learn more about the “coming world of technology.”
Consequently, from 1994 to 2000 Bell served as Strategic Technologist for The Frank Russell Company (currently Russell Investments) and continued his work with Russell Family Enterprises as outsourced CTO from 2000 to 2013. “The Russells were very supportive of me keeping my passion for music alive in side projects and community service,” he adds.
Bell has since returned to music and now, at 62, maintains contact with many of the artists he mixed, including Hancock, Santana and Young while also continuing to engineer and produce records, his first and most lasting passion. “A lot of what I made was built because we didn’t have the tools I wanted to make records,” he concludes. “But my main motivation for innovating, inventing, or whatever, was to serve artists.
“With VSOP, I used to pray before every show to just not screw it up – to not let the sound system get between the band and the audience. That’s challenging with an acoustic piano in a 60,000-seat stadium, but it’s the most amazing thing when you get it right.”
Based in Toronto, Kevin Young is a freelance music and tech writer, professional musician and composer.
Church Sound Humor Files: Unintended Amendments To The Laws Of Physics
It’s clear to us that God’s laws of physics must operate differently inside a church than outside.
After several moments of grueling research, painstaking addition, and… Well, we offer these amendments.
Regrettably, they are true stories passed along by members of our ChurchSoundcheck Discussion Group. They arrived via email, so you know they’re true!
Amendment #1: We’ve been pointing microphones in the wrong direction!
A friend of ours went into church early one Sunday morning only to find that all of his choir mics had been meticulously turned around so that they faced away from the choir and towards the congregation.
As it turns out, some overly helpful church members had decided to take things into their own hands and fix some audio problems.
Their explanation for this change was their belief that all mics should be pointed in the direction where the sound is going, and since the choir is projecting their sound into the congregation, that they should point the mics toward where the choir sound is being projected.
Amendment #2: Sound is like artillery fire - it must be lobbed out into an audience.
While on a consulting visit at a church several years ago, I noticed that the main loudspeakers were hanging from some columns at the front edge of the stage, and aimed up at about a 5-degree angle. When I asked the sound tech at the church why they were aimed up, he said that a previous consultant had positioned them that way.
Apparently the consultant was convinced that sound responds to God’s law of gravity, and therefore must be “lobbed” out into the audience. After careful consideration of this principle, I think we can safely assume that the trajectory would be similar to that of a cannon ball.
Important Note: Amendment #2 appears to be in direct conflict with Amendment #1, therefore suggesting that the laws of physics are somehow denominationally dependent. Further research is warranted.
Amendment #3: New units for decibels
The previous example requires that we add a new unit to the decibel. If the sound is turned up to 80 dB, then the cannon ball, or I guess I should say sound ball, must weigh 80 pounds. If we turn up the sound to 100 dB, then the sound ball must weigh 100 pounds.
I suppose that should actually read 100 dB-SP, for sound pounds. We must further assume that sound reaching a level of 130 dB-SPL would be considered at the “threshold of pain”. Go ahead and test it. Drop a 100-pound anything on your foot and my bet is that you’ll be in pain.
Amendment #4: Bigger wire slows down current flow so I should be using smaller wire on the loudspeakers.
Clearly, power loss and damping factor work differently inside a church building. I have a doctor friend who often tries to convince me that any food eaten while visiting at a friend’s house has no fat or calories. I think those two theories are somehow related.
Amendment #5: Sound rises, therefore microphones on stands should always be pointed up.
Watch any highly regarded acoustical consultant measure a sound system, and you’ll probably see the mic pointed up. They’re spent years studying acoustics and sound systems, so they must have determined that sound rises. Why else would they point the test mics up?
Amendment #6: How Electricity Really Works
The following startling theory was sent to us by Daniel A. Wells with the comment “... submitted to me by a friend who saw it in an issue of the ISA newsletter.”
“So simple! So obvious that we couldn’t see it! Leo discovered how power circuits work. He says smoke is the real thing that makes power circuits work because every time you let smoke out of something electrical, it quits working. He claims to have verified this with thorough testing.”
“Of course! Smoke makes all things that are electrical work. Remember the last time smoke escaped from a transformer? Didn’t it quit working? I sat and smiled like an idiot as more of the truth dawned. I remembered when I’d witnessed the awful destruction of a four-kilovolt breaker and bus at Sunnyvale. The breaker and bus had leaked out so much smoke that they actually melted and quit working.
“See, it’s the conductor that carries the smoke from one device to another. It starts at a power plant where the stuff is burned to produce smoke. The smoke we see coming from the stacks is excess that the system doesn’t need. The smoke is then sent down the conductors to transformers.
“Transformers are big and require lots of smoke to work properly. That’s why the conductors are so big. If those conductors spring a leak, it lets the smoke out of everything, and then nothing works! Forget about electron theory!”
“I plan to spend more time with Leo on some of his other theories!”
Where do they get this stuff? There seems to be a lot of people who won’t volunteer to work on the sound team, but who think they have the answer to the problems with the sound. I think that most of them mean well as they attempt to apply the mythological advice of their friends and neighbors.
Many thanks to Bob Lewis, Daniel Wells, and others for offering up these absolutely true stories upon which this exploration was based. Some people actually believe this stuff. Don’t you?
The end (for now…)
Curt Taipale heads up Church Soundcheck.com, a thriving community dedicated to helping technical worship personnel, and he also provides expert systems design and consulting services with Taipale Media Systems. Note that Curt is hosting a Church Sound Boot Camp “How to Get the Sounds” workshop in Texas this August—learn more here.
Wednesday, August 05, 2015
Seven Habits Of Highly Effective Sound People
This list of “effective habits” is distilled down from a much larger list as being the most important – based on my experience over many years in the business.
How these relate to you will depend of course on exactly what kind of work you are doing, but in general, they apply across the board, so to speak.
You probably have your own list but because you are reading this article, it points to the fact that you’re probably willing to learn new things and already have a great attitude.
Without further latency…
1. Excellent Organization
Understanding how to be organized is partly a personality thing and also partly a learned skill. It takes time to gather enough experience to know how to be efficient and organized for your set of circumstances.
Some people seem to just have a sense of timing, priorities, and how to get things to happen. But the other side of this – the tools – take some learning. Now that PDAs, iPhones, various software packages, etc., are out there, in many ways staying organized has never been easier.
At the same time, these tools require learning, updating, and almost constant attention.
My advice is to avoid trying to be “ahead of the curve” and stick with using the simplest tools available that will get the job done. This will help keep you from getting bogged down in using the tools for the sake of using the tools – not that we are gear sluts or anything! Once you have established an effective routine, stick with it.
2. Continuous Learning
Like with the organizational tools mentioned above, audio equipment is constantly changing and getting more complex and sophisticated.
This is good because we always want the best tools and the most efficient ways of doing things. But the bad side is that the barriers to entry are ever higher and it requires all of us to keep on top of the latest technology.
But even without chasing the latest software or hardware solution, we need to be on a path of continual learning in our craft. Although this concept would apply to toilet paper and water pumps, it is even more important in our field where art and science meet to create new experiences.
None of us should ever think that we can coast from here on out. I suggest signing up for a class or seminar once or twice a year. There are some great workshops and panel discussions at the trade shows, particularly InfoComm and AES.
And then good ol’ OJT has never let us down. Ask around to see where you might be able to get in on a job and learn something you didn’t know before. What are you waiting for?
3. Good Attitude
This is one of those universal things that applies anywhere. Without a good attitude, you will make enemies and stunt your career’s growth.
But with a good attitude, you’ll be more able and willing to learn, take direction, and impress your clients, employees and bosses.
Of all the factors that I’ve seen make a difference in a person’s potential career, this is probably the most important one. What are some examples?
Re-filling the paper in the copy machine or fax machine. Not waiting for someone else to change the toner cartridge. Volunteering to fix cables, load racks, replace drivers or any other “dirty work” while you have some down time. Offering to be the one that shuts off the lights, sets the alarm and locks up at the end of a long day. Being willing to admit when you make a mistake and offering to “make it right” then being ready to accept what that means.
I’m sure you can figure out plenty of other examples on your own. Basically, you want to be thought of as the person that just “makes it happen.”
This is perhaps not as obvious or intuitive as the other items on the list, but equally important. All those skills you’ve picked up along the way? Be sure to pass them on without fear of others surpassing you.
Frankly, it is inevitable that the young guns will end up knowing more than you do and will eventually replace you. But wouldn’t you want them to think of you as the guy that helped them get there, like some sort of hero?
Instead, many of us hold our “secrets” to our chest and pretend that others should “figure these things out for themselves.” Don Davis, founder of SynAudCon, used to say “two people meet and exchange dollars, so now each still has one dollar. Two people meet and exchange ideas, now each has two ideas.”
Nothing fosters growth of the team faster than sharing the ideas and working to support the best ones. And don’t forget that the best ideas may not be your own.
5. People Skills
This one should be obvious, but nevertheless, I think it can’t be emphasized often enough. The people skills will almost always win out over the technical skills. No one wants to work for the “genius” that treats others poorly.
We’ve seen it in bands, we’ve seen it on crews, and it always ends up badly. If you tend to ever think, “this is everybody’s fault but mine,” (to quote Homer Simpson) you might just want to look in the mirror and figure out how to get some people skills.
Generally, most everyone is trying to do his best. So how will you help them do that? And, of course, people skills are even more important when dealing with clients. Don’t forget that they are paying the bills, and need to be treated accordingly.
Sure, they might have some stupid ideas or an unrealistic sense of “what it takes” to get a particular job done.
And there’s a nice way to tell them those things – a way that will have them eating out of your hand and not calling your competition.
Here’s a statistic to remember – people generally feel more loyal to a vendor when something goes wrong, was corrected, and they were treated fairly vs. loyalty to vendors where nothing ever went wrong. Think about that.
6. Technical Skills
Yes, of course – in our technical industry, tech skills are a must. But how good are your tech skills really? If you don’t think you have anything to learn, check the second item (Continuous Learning) above. We can all learn more.
In fact, it never ceases to amaze me whenever I learn something new how it immediately is applicable to what I’m doing.
Back when I was starting out in this business, I was surprised how some of the basics I’d been taught in school, like how to calculate dB, Ohm’s law, basic power supply design, and signal flow through various systems set me apart from my peers.
Part of the problem with our industry is that anecdotal information is prevalent, but real knowledge is often more rare than anyone is willing to admit. Take the classes, attend the seminars, hit the books once in a while.
Even “old” books like the Yamaha Sound Reinforcement Handbook can be an excellent resource. You should have a copy, and you should randomly flip to sections and read what’s in there.
Related to this are things like soldering technique, how to use a Volt/Ohm meter, how to troubleshoot a system, how to solve grounding problems. It’s almost inconceivable that any of us could be in this business without some of these kinds of skills, but you and I both know that indeed it is the case.
Finally, we all have to learn how to listen. First off, we have to listen to what people are telling us, even if we don’t agree. There’s almost always an element of truth to what others are saying. This is true in any business.
The type of listening specific to our business is about sound. And even if our physical hearing acuity is excellent, we must train our brains how to listen critically and then what to do with that knowledge.
Unfortunately, 99 percent or more of the sound we hear is of poor quality in a variety of ways. Mucho distortion. Horrific frequency imbalances. Too loud. Inappropriate for the source or the genre of music, etc.
So what do we do? Well, I always recommend spending time listening to acoustic music whenever possible. Listen to or play an acoustic guitar. Go hear an orchestra or a bluegrass band. Get your ears used to what real music sounds like, without any system and the associated distortion involved.
And while doing so, ask yourself, “how can I tell this is acoustic sound?” This is the great question, and the answers are not obvious.
By now you should have noticed many times before that when you hear a real instrument, you know it’s real. The sound of a saxophone coming out of an open window. A real Celtic harp. A real string quartet.
But how can you tell? Take this question and apply it to how you design, set up and run your sound system. We’ll all be better off for it.
Karl Winkler is the vice president of sales/service at Lectrosonics and has worked in professional audio for more than 20 years.
Posted by House Editor on 08/05 at 01:36 PM
File Based Touring: What’s In Your Mic Box?
Digital consoles have produced many benefits and changes to touring live sound workflow.
Instant reset-ability, automated scene changes and multi-band festivals on a single mixer, just to name a few.
Perhaps the biggest is that it’s no longer necessary to bring the console itself from on tour; instead, the console’s show file just needs to be loaded onto a similar desk.
While the move from analog to digital also drastically reduced console size and weight on a per channel basis, a digital console’s file, made of a small collection of ones and zeros, takes no space at all when it’s emailed across the country or around the world.
The file is only a few hundred kilobytes, about the same as the digital file for the input list and stage plot PDF document used to describe the show.
Early on, mix engineers understood that for analog consoles, getting microphone pre-amp gains, high-pass filters and EQ settings for individual channels correctly reset was one key to getting multiple bands on and off a festival stage, leading to various methods of “charting” a console. Today, digital consoles are extremely precise, producing accurate settings for not just gain and filters, but for every adjustable parameter in the desk.
A prime directive of file-based touring (FBT) engineers is using the exact same make and model of mics every night, so that precise, predictable results are produced by the console and the same mix can be provided at its outputs, aside from output EQ that must be customized for the daily combination of loudspeakers and room acoustics.
A digital console reproduces a matrix of precise gain and EQ settings from inputs to outputs with precision in tenths or even hundredths of a dB. FBT engineers that headline an appearance often have ample time after they load their files onto the console du jour, to adjust for any microphone substitutions from the previous show, as well as to optimize their loudspeaker system.
FBT engineers shouldn’t leave home without one of these; in this case, a LaCie Rugged Key USB stick.
Throw And Go
However, when FBT engineers appear at festivals, they may have little or no time to hear what each input sounds like, often just a quick “throw-and-go” line check to hear if every input is connected. Using consistent mics and DIs allows engineers to enter into the festival process with confidence, knowing each channel has the correct gain and EQ because the same makes and models are being used without substitution.
For FBT engineers who bring only a console file to a festival, correctly fulfilling their input list requirements from local inventory is the key to success, so they can mix from the first song while adjusting system EQ, instead of beginning their show tweaking input gains to re-balance their desk and checking channel EQ.
The combined response of speaker systems and venues varies from one show to the next and FBT engineers must rely on the PA being adjusted to a consistent standard so their mix translates correctly. The same is true for monitor engineers using local wedges.
In-ear monitor engineers enjoy a huge benefit from their performers playing inside a similar ‘room’ at every show.
Since IEMs travel with their performers, simply using the same wireless or hardwired systems produces consistent results, with the effects of the changing acoustics of different venues reduced by the 25 dB of isolation provided by custom molds.
If the same make and model of mics and DIs are used in every day, the results for IEM performers are surprisingly consistent, other than extreme venue acoustics and slap back that get into open stage microphones.
For wedge-based performers and front of house engineers, daily changes in acoustics are a bigger problem and consistent input list inventory is even more important, allowing engineers to quickly focus on the sound of the venue.
Regular Round Mic
The FBT engineer’s microphone choices dictate the ability of local suppliers to duplicate them from one show to the next. Some microphones are almost universally available. Shure’s venerable and ubiquitous SM58 can be found in every professional microphone locker or workbox, hence the expression “No one ever got fired for bringing an SM58 to the gig.”
Popular vocal mics that are also found in house inventory include the AKG C535, Audix OM7, beyerdynamic M-88, Neumann KMS 105, and Shure’s own BETA 87. While there are other modern vocal mics to choose from, it takes time for newer products to proliferate into house and local vendor stock.
“No one ever got fired for bringing an SM58 to the gig.”
Engineers who choose vocal mics that are less common in local inventory are forced to bring them along if they want consistency. However, an extra benefit of carrying vocal mics is it can guarantee each performer hygienically puts their mouth on the same mic every night, which is important for singers whose ability to perform daily requires them to be healthy enough to sing.
The discussion could easily turn towards personal feelings about the SM58. However, their cost is low and their use so widespread that it’s easy to expect venues or their vendors can supply them universally. SM58s work predictably on stages with moderate SPL and where IEM use precludes wedges and side-fills from being pointed at singers. Wedge-based monitoring benefits from the tighter polar patterns of hyper- or supercardioid vocal mics on louder stages.
FBT engineers quickly learn that substituting a Shure BETA 58 for an SM58 results in a 4 dB increase in signal into the console, along with an increase in proximity effect from the mic’s higher directivity, requiring a corresponding reduction in gain and higher high-pass filters. Other vocal mic manufacturers carefully provide similar or lower sensitivity to promote substitution.
Another issue is choosing between standard, widely available inventory that can be supplied at every gig or widening the mic options to include less commonly available makes and models. It’s simply not practical for many FBT engineers to carry a full complement of mics and DIs.
A blended approach, where one or more special vocal or instrument mics are carried for “money” channels, while the rest of the inputs are covered by standard choices, allows the engineer a bit more freedom and is commonly used. This can reduce carried mics to just a lead vocal and a kick drum or couple piano mics, depending on the artist.
No matter how carefully an artist’s itinerary is planned, there will always be special performances where it’s only practical for every microphone to be supplied by a local audio vendor due to logistics, whether it’s a TV show or a one-off in Dubai. An input list that’s supplied entirely locally has the additional benefit of allowing the artist’s engineer to simply walk away from the stage afterwards.
Different makes of active direct boxes can vary in gain as well as providing subtle variances in coloration. Prove it to yourself by taking four different models and playing the same instrument or test source in each.
Direct boxes are often not interchangeable for file-based touring and just like microphones, there are two basic types: active DIs that use phantom power and passive DIs that are simply a transformer in a box.
In fact, making your own passive DI is relatively easy and back in the day, building your own (as well as XLRs, snakes and stage-boxes) was a rite of passage.
Today we buy manufactured direct boxes and whether it’s a Radial JDI or Whirlwind JT, the Jensen JT-DB transformer inside produces the same signal, allowing identical gain (and tone) settings on your console. Most agree that DIs with less expensive transformers also sound similar, but a $10 transformer won’t sound as good as one costing 10 times as much: you get what you pay for.
Knowing where to best use active and passive DIs is important and for FBT engineers, they’re not interchangeable. The direct box “rule of thumb” is to deploy a passive DI with an active sound source—whether it’s an electronic keyboard, iPod or a guitar with a battery inside—and an active DI with instruments that have passive pickups. Replacing a passive DI with an active DI usually requires a significant change in input channel gain.
Passive DIs for active sources can reduce the number of inputs where changing direct boxes affects tone and gain setting to just those with passive pickups, such as upright basses, mandolins and acoustic guitars that don’t have batteries inside. This is one reason Countryman DIs earned their place on riders for three decades: specifying them guaranteed consistency, even on analog consoles, and active DIs also produce better low end, especially passive electric basses with single-coil pickups.
The Countryman Type 85 active direct box exhibits a polarity that’s opposite of modern DIs.
Countryman’s iconic Type 85 active DI, named for the year it was designed, exhibits a polarity that’s opposite from modern DIs, because Carl Countryman designed it to the AES standard of that time, pin 3 hot. Substituting a modern active DI for a Type 85 results a signal of the opposite polarity, so FBT engineers shouldn’t substitute a different active DI (including Countryman’s newer Type 10) for a Type 85 without flipping its polarity.
Whether it’s inventory from a club, casino, theater or church, several mic models have become standards over the years, promoting their continued use, despite the appearance of newer, better sounding products. The litany of standard house models is well known and led by Shure. The company’s SM58, SM57 and SM81 have been on the list for decades, joined by the next generation BETA 52, BETA 91 and BETA 98. The BETA 58 and BETA 57 are nearly as ubiquitous, but face stiff competition from other modern mics with tight patterns.
Other microphone brands have succeeded in widespread house inventory with specific, classic models. The Sennheiser MD 421, beyerdynamic M-88 and AKG C451 and C414 have been tech rider standards for decades, as has the Countryman’s Type 85 direct box, with Radial’s J48 and JDI entering with the next generation. These are so popular that it’s unusual to find house inventory that doesn’t include all of them.
Every engineer hopes to consistently use the same sound system, but the rigors of modern touring require that an artist’s success will send them long distances where bringing more than a few instruments is just not practical. FBT engineers take this into account when they decide what they fit into their carry-on or in the back of the van.
Monitor engineer Mark Frink is on the road with Dr. John, FOH FBT engineer Andy Loy, and TM Blake Nichols.
Tuesday, August 04, 2015
DI Boxes For Guitars: Different Approaches For Acoustic And Electric
When amplifying an acoustic guitar, the use of a microphone can lead to concerns about feedback as well as being able to adequately amplify the instrument.
With electric guitars, there are also concerns about the microphone adequately and accurately picking up the sound from the guitar amp, and in many cases, there’s also a desire for a quieter stage.
Both scenarios lead to the use of direct (or DI) boxes as an alternative.
But note that when selecting a direct box, the choice is very different when dealing with acoustic versus electric guitars.
The Acoustic Take
Most acoustic guitars are either equipped with a built-in piezo pickup with an on-board active preamp, or they can be outfitted with an after-market magnetic pickup that fits inside the sound hole.
The high-impedance output from the instrument is then sent to a direct box where the signal is balanced and the impedance is lowered to enable it to be sent a long distance without noise.
A typical direct box is equipped with a “thru” connector that is used to feed the artist’s stage amp, while the balance low-impedance XLR output feeds the sound system.
The traditional approach to using a direct box is to capture the signal right from the instrument before it is processed on stage by the musician. The thru output going to the stage amp allows the artist to adjust the EQ or add echo to suit his personal needs on stage.
At the same time, this setup enables the front of house engineer to add reverb or coloration to suit the room without having to try to compensate for the effects added by the musician.
As noted, eliminating feedback on stage is a primary concern. Some DI boxes are equipped with a built-in high-pass filter that can reduce unwanted low-frequency resonance that often leads to feedback. This also reduces the energy content, resulting in greater headroom. More headroom means less distortion – another common cause of feedback.
Reversing the polarity at the DI output can also be very helpful as this changes the phase relationship between the sound coming from the system and the sound coming from monitoring system on stage. By electronically “moving” the acoustic peak so that it becomes a valley, hotspots that can cause resonant feedback can be eliminated.
Best of all, because these fixes do not involve using EQ to fight feedback, the instrument’s tone is not negatively impacted.
The Electric Take
Particularly since the advent of in-ear monitors, guitarists have become much more aware of the sound from their amps.
Before IEM, when they played guitar on stage, they were listing to their amps.
Today, they hear what the mic is picking up, and more often than not, they’re realizing that the sound doesn’t match up real well when compared with what they hear coming from their amp.
This makes sense. When a mic is placed right in front of a loudspeaker, a tremendous amount of effort is required by the sound engineer to make it sound “good/right.” Move the mic just a centimeter and the sound can change.
Further, as you go to different venues, the sound once again is subject to change do to a variety of variables. This includes different room acoustics, proximity and bleed from other instruments, the effect of stage resonance, and of course, mic placement.
However, using a traditional direct box in front of the amp does not work. The guitar sound needs to be captured after it has been processed by the amp.
And as any sound engineer can attest, simply placing a regular direct box with a pad at the output tends to sound like a swarm of bees. The requirement is to replicate the sound of both the amp and the cabinet.
Recent advances have allowed engineers to develop new direct boxes that employ advanced filtering to better replicate the sound. And by employing the loudspeaker as a reactive load, the sound coming from the direct box tends to be much more realistic.
The benefits to using a guitar amp direct box – correctly - can be significant. For the artist that is using in-ear monitors, the audio engineer can program the mixer and effects for tremendous consistency night after night. This means sound checks can be done quicker.
And when the artist is comfortable and happy, it generally results a better performance. For the sound engineer, the starting point is immediately familiar, which eliminates “fighting” the mix for the first several songs.
The quality of a mix starts with the sources, and delivering a better mix improves the show for the audience.
Peter Janis is the president of Radial Engineering (www.radialeng.com) and has worked in professional audio for more than 30 years.
Posted by Keith Clark on 08/04 at 10:54 AM
Line Array Checkout
Your multi-box line array looks great. You’ve seen them on TV, but now you’re standing in front of a real one, expecting the best sonic experience of your life.
You play a favorite music track, but something doesn’t sound right. You check the DSP settings, and then the aiming. All looks good, but it still doesn’t sound right. Now what?
The multi-box line array is a system of full-range loudspeakers, arranged to allow variable vertical coverage control via the shape of the array. The boxes are usually identical and fed the same signal, often by paralleling several boxes onto a single amplifier channel. The horizontal coverage of the array is that of a single box, since there is no multi-box interference in the horizontal plane.
These popular line arrays tend to be expensive since each box is a full-range loudspeaker. Some models use loudspeakers that are internally powered and processed.
Alternately, the power amps and processing may be external to the loudspeaker itself, housed in an equipment rack. Yet others use boxes with internal passive crossovers, so that the amplifier channels operate full range.
Figure 1: EASE Focus II direct field modeling program.
Modeling The Coverage
The multi-box array is acoustically complex and requires software for modeling the coverage. Some manufacturers provided proprietary software. Others use third-party, specialized programs, such as EASE Focus. These programs model only the direct field, and are designed to quickly provide the answers to:
How many boxes?
What array curvature?
What trim height?
On a tour, the answers to these questions may change from night to night.
Figure 2: An overlay of 16 line array boxes. Note that the measurement name (shown at bottom) is the box’s serial number (www.wavecapture.com
Full acoustic modeling must be done in room modeling programs, such as CATT-Acoustic, EASE, Bose Modeler, Odeon, and others. These require more knowledge on the part of the person doing modeling, and can allow deeper investigations into the array’s performance.
All of these programs require at least one box of the array to be measured. The boxes are stacked up in the model and the complex interference between the boxes is calculated.
Figure 3: At left, the GP workstation for a recent project. A piece of masonite was taped to the carpet to provide a reflective surface for the microphone. At right, the line-up of array boxes waiting to be tested.
The results are projected onto one or more audience planes. The programs assume that the line array elements are identical. In other words, Array XYZ is made up of multiples of Loudspeaker ABC, but only one Loudspeaker ABC is actually measured.
This gives a good approximation of the coverage, but it is an approximation. There are several variables that the modeling cannot account for, and these nibble at the accuracy of the predicted response.
Check The Boxes
No matter which line array type, it’s important to test each box before arraying it, and then periodically afterwards. The large number of transducers and connections increase the likelihood of errors.
Figure 4: The overlaid responses of one of the remaining three arrays, this one with three mid-range driver failures.
Consider a 16-box array of 3-way, triamped full-range loudspeakers. That’s 48 transducers, and 48 potential failure points. Since a line array is a system, a single component failure or mis-wiring changes the response of the entire array, and often dramatically so.
Passive line array elements should be checked for proper polarity, impedance, and axial transfer function. Active, multi-amped line array elements need the same checks, but for each component in the box. A powered, internally-processed line array element requires an axial transfer function at a minimum. All measurements should ideally be performed in the far-field of the device, and the data should be anechoic.
Figure 5: The overlaid responses of a six-box array that I recently tested as a demonstration at AES Brazil. One of the six boxes had a HF transducer issue.
Speeding The Process
While this sounds time consuming, it needn’t be. Since site time is a precious commodity, there are ways to speed the testing process.
My preferred method is to check one box of the array in detail, and then use it as a reference to check the other boxes against. This requires only an axial frequency response magnitude of the remaining boxes, since any polarity (relative), wiring, or component issues will be evident in the response. If the comparison shows an irregularity, the complete check can be performed to troubleshoot it.
Figure 6: The empty stage provided a good ground plane environment for the AES Brazil demo.
Figure 2 shows the overlaid frequency response magnitudes of a 16-box line array (one array of four total). The first box was tested in detail. The others were overlaid for comparison. These were the final results, after several polarity corrections and driver replacements.
Establishing A Workstation
Because a lot of heavy lifting and a large time window are required, a ground plane measurement is the most practical approach. Set up a workstation on a large, flat floor plane.
Mark the microphone and loudspeaker positions with gaff tape, and set the box angle with an appropriate prop, securing it so that it doesn’t change positions as the boxes are handled. The amplifier and DSP need to be appropriate for the box, with the same units used to test each box. Only the loudspeaker is changed.
Figure 7: Once the array was flown, axial measurements were made at several listener distances. An iPad cover provides a smooth surface for the microphone.
Once the workstation is set up, it should take no more than a minute or so to check each box. Once each box is tested, it can be added to the array (Figure 8). Once the array is assembled it becomes very difficult to test the boxes individually, since there are often several paralleled on a single amplifier. The only chance that you will ever get for an anechoic axial transfer function is prior to the assembly of the array.
It’s important to note that the axial frequency response magnitude will only show polarity issues between components within the box (relative polarity). It’s blind to the absolute polarity of the box as a system. The impulse response (time domain) or phase response (frequency domain) can be used to reveal absolute polarity issues.
Figure 8: The install crew builds the array from the boxes.
Array Build & Final EQ
Once a box is tested, it can be added to the array. The box angles and trim height values are taken from the modeling software. Since the entire audience may be in the nearfield of the array, multiple measurement positions must be averaged when performing the final equalization.
Also, since nearly all line array boxes have components that are offset in the horizontal plane, interference lobing will be present. This should not be allowed to influence the equalization. I suggest three to four on-axis measurements at several distances as a good place to start.
What is the likelihood of finding problems? I have never tested a multi-box line array where everything checked out perfectly. If errors are ignored, the array will never function at its potential. The system installer or operator may try to paint over the issues with equalization, making matters even worse.
Verification of each box provides the assurance that the array is operating at its full potential. If something doesn’t sound right, only after testing the individual boxes can you can be confident that it is not a system issue.
Pat & Brenda Brown lead SynAudCon, conducting audio seminars and workshops online and around the world. For more information go to www.prosoundtraining.com.
Monday, August 03, 2015
Here’s What’s Wrong With Your Music
Readers often send me their music to comment on, and while I’d love to get to everything, sometimes that’s just not possible.
That said, there are a number of traits that I notice among these songs that I thought was worth a mention, since they encapsulate many of the problems that I hear.
Before you send me a link to something to listen to, make sure that your song doesn’t have any of these common problems first and save us both some time.
1. No groove.
Every song has to have a pulse and it has to be made obvious so the listener can feel it.
Every kind and genre of music has it. If it’s not there, nothing else counts.
Sometimes I hear songs where the groove just isn’t there because of poor playing, or it’s not made obvious in the mix.
2. Bad drum tracks.
I don’t mean the sound, but the actual playing. A number of times this year so far people have sent me their “masters” or CDs that have such horrible playing that the only person that’s ever going to like it is their mothers.
What do I mean by bad playing? Rushed or slow drum fills, uneven tempo that’s way too noticeable, floppy uneven kick and/or snare hits won’t cut it.
The problem is that most musicians who’ve never worked on a real record project before are just not critical enough and let too much go that should have been re-recorded, fixed or edited. Your basic track is the most important thing you’ll record next to the vocal. Make it as perfect as you can before you move on.
3. Tracks out of the pocket.
This means that a part doesn’t groove against the rest of the track. The number of songs I get with vocals that rush, or the bass being out of the pocket against the drums, or another instrument that way too early or too late is really a shame. Usually the songs I get have their owners more worried about the sound than the playing, but great playing beats great sound any day.
4. Out of tune.
Tuners are cheap. Use one. There’s no excuse in this day and age.
5. Bad recording.
The real key to a great sound is a great player first, then a great instrument, although a great sounding instrument can make a mediocre player sound a lot better. Get those two first and everything else will take care of itself.
6. Bad mixing.
Mixing is so much more than balancing instruments and adding effects. It’s finding the groove and building around it, then finding the most interesting element and emphasizing it.
Here’s the bottom line. There’s a reason why pros exist. Spend the extra money to work with one, at least for one project. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn.
Oh and by the way. If you’re going to ask that I critique your song, send me a link that I can stream (even YouTube is OK). DO NOT send me a file. There’s a legal issue involved and it fills up my hard drive and takes time to download. I can’t promise that I’ll listen, but I will try.
Also understand that sometimes there’s just not much to say about a mix. You made some decisions that reflected your creative taste. They’re not right or wrong, but they’re probably different from the way others might’ve made them. They’re not right or wrong either. Some questions just don’t have an answer.
Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. For more information be sure to check out his website. You can read and comment on the original article here.
Posted by House Editor on 08/03 at 11:13 AM
The Old Soundman: Club Restrictions
Here’s one of those situations that make you wonder about your career choice or where you are in your life path.
Pay close attention, our buddy Brian is showing us how to keep the disgustedness in check and not resort to a brick through the front window of this fine establishment…
O.K., try this one out…
Hit me with it, Bri! Let me have it!
You just found out the band you regularly mix for has a gig at a “new” or “never played there before” club…
Surely this is not an unknown experience for you.
So you lock out the night for the gig, then the band calls back and says “uh, the club guy says ‘no outside soundman touches the board’ but you can stand next to him and assist.”
Ah, that’s brutal, Brian! I can see why you’re ticked off. But don’t freak out if I tell you that this is exactly what happens if you and your band go on Conan or Letterman or “The Tonight Show” or any of the 99,000 awards shows.
So in a weird way, what you’re faced with is good training for the big time! Although those broadcast mixers usually have a conscience and spend a little time studying the record.
I’m actually going to have my own awards show next year! It’s going to be called “The People’s Radio Scene Superstar Vibe-A-Thon For Players and Soundpeople.”
All of the servile tools-of-the-manufacturers audio mags are going to cover it, and my co-hosts will be Ann Wilson of Heart, Martha Davis of the Motels and the chick from Evanescence.
I’m pretty sure she has a “thing” for me! (But don’t tell the Old Soundwoman.)
And I reply, “Did you mention to the club I’m a ‘professional’ and do this for a living, know the band’s material backward and forward, and have special cues for each song?”
Of course your pals did! Didn’t they?
They reply, “Sorry, we get too many boneheads running the board and screwing things up.” (Gee thanks, boneheads.)
Yeah, thanks a lot, boneheads!
So at the gig, I’m supposed to tell the house guy, “O.K., on this next chorus, hit the lead vocal with a 360 ms delay to trail off on his last note, then a big snare hit, followed by a guitar solo… ?”
May I make a suggestion, Brian? Go to this club as a customer one night, and strike up a conversation with the soundman.
Tell him exactly who you are. Have a couple beers with the guy, and tell each other some tales of the soundman life.
Of course, if the club is far from your home, this may not be practical. But if it’s nearby, go ahead and do your best to make friends with this individual who you’re busy demonizing, just as he is demonizing you.
Because, really, we all know he has a point – there are so many boneheads out there running around ruining sonic life for everyone within earshot of their ham-handed hijinks.
But – he is taking it pretty far. After all, he’s not controlling a major network program going out to millions of people every night.
Ahh, forget it – I’d rather stay home and watch reruns of “The Twilight Zone.”
Can I come over and watch with you? How about the one with William Shatner as the nut who sees the ape out on the wing of the old airliner?
Yeah, you know exactly what I’m talkin’ about! You’ve now established yourself as a soundman of great taste and discernment.
I’m sure this is only a tiny, momentary stumbling block in your rampage to greatness!
The Old Soundman
There’s simply no denying the love. Read more from the Old Soundman here.
Friday, July 31, 2015
Church Sound: Critique Your Mix By Asking These 11 Questions
Critiquing your mix is one of the best ways improving your mix.
You’ll improve the mix for the next week but you can also immediately improve your mix for the song you are critiquing.
Today, I’m kicking out the questions you must ask, concerning your mix, as well as a new method I’ve been using.
Top 11 Questions to Ask of Your Mix
1) Can I hear all the musicians and singers? Close your eyes and try identifying each musical instrument and each vocal. If you can’t hear something in the mix, ask yourself why.
Can you not hear the instrument because the volume is too low or because another instrument is so sonically similar that you can’t distinguish the instruments? A good example would be drums and bass. Also, electric guitar and keyboards can sometimes do that to each other.
2) Can I hear the lead vocalist and understand what they are singing? The congregation is listening for the lead vocals above everything else so those have to be clear and present.
3) Is it clear which instrument is leading the song? It can be said for most any song that one instrument is clearly the lead instrument. It’s the instrument in which all other instruments are layered under.
This isn’t to say the lead instrument needs to be twice as loud. Listen to professional recordings of each song and note the lead instrument and how the EQ and effects of the other instruments are set to make room for this instrument.
4) Does the mix fit the genre of music? You don’t want to make a pop band sound like a country band. Worship bands tend to have their own particular sound but at the same time, you do have to permit them the ability to change up the song styles from time to time. Don’t make the band sound like something it’s not.
5) Does the mix fit the music the congregation likes? This isn’t so much a mix critique as much as it is a reminder that your music mix has to sound like what the congregation expects to hear.
They can’t fully engage in worship if they expect a well-balanced contemporary style and you’ve got the drums so far out in the mix that you’ve got them running for the hills.
6) Do the instruments have distinct sounds? Each instrument and vocal should have a distinct sound.
It’s OK if frequencies overlap, but if you have seven instruments that sound like three, then you need to give some clarity to your instruments. Tighten up the frequency characteristics of each instrument.
For example, if you have a drum kit, a bass, and two electric guitars, you’ve got a lot of low-end frequencies. Cut quite a bit of the lows of the guitars until you gain the clarity you desire.
7) Does the mix vary within the song? This is a tough one because some worship song arrangements are great and therefore the song naturally has movement. ongs, however, can grow stale between the first verse and the final chorus when there is no movement or arrangement / mix changes throughout the song.
Think of this as a song with all the instruments and all the singers playing together at the same tempo for the whole song. When this is the case, look for mix changes you can make in the chorus of the song or the bridge.
What if you held the drums back a bit during the verses but then boosted their energy during the chorus? While most arrangement should be done by the band, there are mix arrangements you can make so the song has movement. This is especially helpful when you have a 3-song set and all songs are relatively the same tempo.
8) Does the effect benefit the sound? Effects should be added last to your mix. If you’re not sure if an effect is helping the mix, turn it off and listen to the difference. If it’s better without it, leave it out. Don’t use effects just because you have them.
9) Does the vocal sound squashed? I had this very thing happen this weekend. The problem was there was a bit too much compression on the vocal. I cut back the compression and the vocal came to life.
10) Does the mix fill the whole sonic space? A lot of instruments and vocals have their primary frequencies in the mid-range area. You have the whole frequency range to work, from the low end all the way to the high end.
Listen to how the mix is appearing in those extremes. Sometimes the mix improvement doesn’t come from a huge boost in the high end. You might need only a little more sizzle in the cymbals or the acoustic guitar.
11) Do the backing vocals sit in the best place in the mix? A lot can be done with the backing vocals so they benefit the lead vocalist.
They might sit under the lead and provide energy or they might come in at the same volume level during the chorus. Check out this article on backing vocals.
I could easily list out several more questions but I think it’s better if you consider the above list and then consider this statement; a mix needs to have emotion, energy, and clarity. Consider those three areas when critiquing your mix.
But Wait, There’s More!
If you followed my writing last year, you know I’m now attending a new church. After a few months, I’ve begun the transition to their audio team. It’s a slow transition as there is a lot to learn, but I’m having the best times ever behind the mixer. That being said…
This week, I was in the church sound booth on Wednesday, for practice, and then on Saturday and Sunday for the sound check and church services. All this time, I was with the lead front of house guy, Steve. While he did a lot of the work, there were times he’d kindly step aside and let me mix. And the beauty of it all is that the two of us are comfortable sharing the mixer and asking each other “how does that sound?”
Sometimes, our mixing differences were because of personal preference. I’d boost a little here but he’d boost a little there. Sometimes, I’d boost a little too much of the high-end and was reminded of the difference between what it sounds like in the booth and what it sounds like to the congregation.
Honestly, you can take a step out of the sound booth and instantly here the difference. And sometimes, we learned from each other. It could be an EQ setting or a concept for consideration.
All that to say working side-by-side with another tech will open your eyes (and ears) to new ideas, new considerations, and constructive criticism.
The Take Away
Live audio production isn’t the same as studio engineering. In the studio, there is a lot of time spent on the above questions as well as a host of others.
Additionally, the engineer has a lot more time to consider the questions. Mixing live, you’ve got a lot less time and fortunately, a lot less questions.
But the concept is the same: create the best music possible. The next time you’re mixing, be it during the sound check, a practice, or during the church service, critique your own mix with the above 11 questions.
Pull in another tech to work alongside you so you can learn from each other. And keep in mind those three words; emotion, energy, and clarity.
Ready to learn and laugh? Chris Huff writes about the world of church audio at Behind The Mixer. He covers everything from audio fundamentals to dealing with musicians, and can even tell you the signs the sound guy is having a mental breakdown. To view the original article and to make comments, go here.
Code Of Practice
Sidney Wilson’s worldview takes in the concept that one man’s music is another’s noise, and then transcends any conventional meanings the phrase may imply.
For him and the Erevu Group, a San Francisco, CA-based firm he founded that’s dedicated to the task of offering creative solutions to noise problems arising at outdoor music venues, harmony is a matter of striking a delicate balance between the needs of fans, artists, promoters, and communities at large.
In practical terms, there are three primary areas Erevu focuses upon as part of its problem solving core services: Real-time noise monitoring, sound system specification, and compliance reporting.
Relying upon an increasingly proprietary analysis platform utilizing hardware and software culled from the pro audio and sound and vibration industries, the company provides guidelines for optimizing venue coverage while simultaneously minimizing the impact on local residents.
Among these guidelines – which are commonly presented to clients in a formal “Code of Practice” document – are detailed recommendations for deploying sound systems, recommended maximum audio levels, loudspeaker types, trim heights, system focus points, and subwoofer configurations.
The Erevu Group came together in a collision of destiny and providence. Wilson, who also serves as operations manager for Hi-Tech Audio in Hayward, CA, was called in to help Jason Alt and George Edwards of nearby Delicate Productions with troublesome noise issues they faced with a Northern California client that owned a winery and hosted outdoor musical events. With an undercurrent of complaining neighbors and litigation swirling around him, Wilson dove into the project without really knowing how deep the water was, and with no real map of how to proceed.
“I only had logic to guide me,” Wilson says of the experience, “so we began by looking at the existing ordinances and made our first measurements based on those ordinances. What we found was that the client was in compliance. As a result the litigation went in an entirely different direction, and we wound up measuring for every event, and helping them design an acoustical shell. Overall it turned into about four and a half years of work, and we created our first Code of Practice document. Over that time we got better and better at doing these measurements, and realized the market potential for our specialized services.”
Sebastien Poux and Sidney Wilson going over data at the Delicate Productions Bay Area facility.
Ultimately, the winery’s noise-related problems were solved thanks to Wilson’s work and Delicate Productions’ willingness to let him experiment with the process until the desired results were achieved and all parties involved were satisfied. Future revenues generated by the events were saved, and Erevu’s techniques were greatly refined.
As the company continued to evolve, a new generation of clients enlisted its skills. Among this group were the California Roots Music & Art Festival and last year’s First City Festival, both of which were held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. A site that can easily be classified as one where if anything can go wrong it probably will in terms of acoustical issues, the fairgrounds are bordered by residential areas, the Monterey Pines Golf Course, Monterey Regional Airport, and a mix of commercial strips, churches, and schools.
Add to this the vagaries of being next the ocean and the related microclimate changes it spawns, and one can better appreciate the hotbed of conflicting community issues that Wilson regularly faces underscoring the importance of having a predictable source.
“One of the things we discovered over the years was that despite whatever noise ordinance is in place in a city or county, a venue can be in total compliance and still be considered a nuisance,” he explains. “One neighbor will say the level is fine and then another will be spitting mad and saying they can’t take it. Against this backdrop, it didn’t take us long to determine that a big part of what should determine our best practices is discovering exactly what is disturbing people. Are they complaining about high frequencies, or the low-end? These are major questions you need to answer in order to solve the problem.”
According to Wilson, to a large degree the process of determining exactly what the neighbors are complaining about revolves around whether measurements are being made using A- or C-weighting. Unlike when using A-weighting, audio data measured and viewed with C-weighting allows engineers to see precisely what their relative levels are across the entire frequency spectrum, thereby making individually offending or excessive levels readily apparent.
This, in turn, makes self-correction quick and accurate: Rather than taking the whole bottom-end down if low frequencies are a problem, engineers can simply see that the kick drum is really the issue and fix it. The end result is mixes get significantly better.
This year’s BottleRock Festival in Napa, CA (Summer’s Leading Edge, July 2015 LSI) represented the third time out for an Erevu system at the popular Wine Country event. Front of house engineer Sebastien Poux, who oversaw activities for Delicate Productions at the Miner Family Winery Stage, concurs with Wilson’s preference for C-weighting.
“Over the years, we’ve always been walking on eggshells around the low frequencies at these shows,” Poux says. “They would be the ones that always put us ultimately into the red. What was great about the Erevu system this year was that I could see everything.
“If I heard too much bass, I didn’t have to mute all of the bass frequencies,” he continues. “I simply modified those where the problems showed themselves. This really helped me when I was dealing with guest engineers too. I didn’t have to tell them to change their mix in order to be compliant with the local noise regulations. I could just show them where things were a little hot and needed to come down a notch.
“With C-weighting you get all the frequency content for the signals you’re measuring. When you have those kinds of numbers in front of you, it unleashes your creativity to a much larger extent. What you hear and what you see on your monitor screen correlate completely.”
No engineer likes to be tapped on the shoulder while mixing and be told to turn it down. Taking that into consideration, one of the real strengths of an Erevu system is the ability it provides for engineers to self-regulate themselves. At BottleRock, if there was a problem, they could assess the situation in real-time and correct it almost immediately.
At the hub of the BottleRock noise monitoring system was Erevu’s command center/production office, manned this time out by Louis Adamo of Hi-Tech Audio. Seated before multiple monitors, Adamo had a bird’s-eye view of measured data streamed in real-time from all remote locations both internal and external to the festival.
Screenshots of the Leq and other information measured over time at multiple stages at BottleRock 2015. While the Miner Family Winery Stage faced south toward the Napa River, two of the other main stages faced residential and commercial areas. Both showed significant improvement with regard to noise mitigation, despite Erevu moving its measurement locations outside the grounds 1,000 feet closer to both stages.
Inside, monitoring stations were setup at each stage. Outside, monitoring stations were placed in strategic areas within the community. From his post, Adamo could view everything happening from at that moment to over the course of a day or the entire weekend at any station. Beyond the Leq and other acoustical information, weather data was available as well for air temperature, barometric pressure, wind speeds, humidity, precipitation, and all other relevant factors.
Complementing this already broad picture was an overlay of Google maps revealing the locations of the stages and monitoring stations.
With all data stored to the cloud, Erevu had no problem providing its client with a legally-defensible document at the end of the event that would stand up in court should a question of compliance come up.
Lab-style measurement mics were chosen for the remote measuring stations, all of which were equipped with a LAN connection to facilitate the transmission of information via TCP/IP to the production office, as well as to the cloud-based data archive.
Twenty-one-inch monitors were placed at each of the festival’s house mix positions. Erevu’s recommended trim heights and loudspeaker/sub placement strategy, combined with the Miner Family Winery Stage’s VUE Audiotechnik line arrays, allowed Poux to drive the sound cohesively across his intended area of coverage and keep it there.
“The VUE rig was a very clean sounding PA,” Poux reports. “We had a nice, well-rounded sound. Adding the Erevu monitor to my mix position out front let me keep constant tabs on my levels, and provided a constant visual confirmation of what I heard in front of me and all around at every level. I was also constantly monitoring every other stage location, looking at the Leq in other spots, the weather…it’s all useful and brings a whole new dimension to how I think about my job.
Another screenshot showing measurement and weather data at BottleRock 2015, joined by a Google map showing the site’s boundaries.
“Hearing what’s going on around you – especially in a festival situation with multiple stages all going at once – is one thing, being able to see it too, that’s another. With sound bombarding you from 360 degrees around, sometimes it’s hard to tell just by listening what’s going on. Now all I have to do is look at my screen and I can see that the guy over there is hitting 105 and that’s what I’m hearing. If something has to be done or said to someone, this system gives me a straight-up answer.”
A New Norm
In the not-so-distant past (and even within the present for some), Wilson notes, the idea of noise monitoring and compliance to community standards was something many engineers didn’t know anything about, or simply didn’t care to know about.
“That’s rapidly changing in this country,” he says with the same passion that has fueled Erevu’s conviction to mediating the situation. “In Europe there’s a well-entrenched concern for monitoring our industry’s performance, and going beyond simple compliance with local sound level ordinances to insure that everyone in the community can coexist in harmony.
“It will soon be the norm here, and we’re happy to supply the tools that will make it all happen.”
Gregory A. DeTogne is a writer and editor who has served the pro audio industry for more than 30 years.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Many Paths Taken: Learning The Ways And Lessons Of Pro Audio
Being on the team that makes a professional audio system work optimally in a public venue is a rich and rewarding experience – especially so if you enjoy working with the artist, as well as the music that the artist creates.
In fact, many audio professionals enter the craft because they’re attuned to music; I know that I did.
While we can’t help but prefer one stylistic genre over another, as professionals, we must nonetheless always do our best.
We’re not all lucky enough to tour with our favorite band, but there’s ample opportunity to take pride in producing the best possible results for lecturers, political speakers, religious leaders, orators, and musical performers of all sorts.
When we’re at the top of our game, we behave just as the Secret Service does: serve, protect, and help each client to achieve whatever they want to achieve. This is how we should “cut our teeth” when we first get into the business, and how we should remain throughout our career.
Easy to say…harder to do. We’re only human, after all, so of course we have preferences as to what we’d like to be doing on any given gig day. So we learn the way the world of pro audio works, be it clubs, theatre, sports, corporate, houses of worship, and so on, then we next figure out how to dovetail our personal interests and aspirations into the work we perform.
That said, there is an enormous benefit in learning alternate aspects of audio work that we might never have dreamed we’d be involved with. This happened to me. I wanted to work exclusively with the type of rock music I prefer, but instead found myself installing temporary and permanent sound systems in stadiums, arenas, houses of worship, political conventions, theatrical presentations and television award shows.
Then I toured with jazz and funk artists that I would never listen to away from work, and spent time with rock bands that left me cold. It flat-out was not what I thought I had signed up for.
But when I now look back on the considerable body of knowledge gained by doing all of that work, I really wouldn’t have it any other way.
The fundamental building blocks that make up my knowledge base would not be there if I’d toured only with a given style of band.
What was frustrating at first eventually became a source of pride and accomplishment. I didn’t always agree with the corporate messages, and I certainly didn’t like sports.
Conversely, I deeply enjoyed the intense pressure of live TV, became a quick fan of musical theatre, and grew to like opera (which I never thought I’d do).
But mostly, I learned to separate my beliefs from the various doctrines that I spent hundreds of hours amplifying and listening to. Precisely because I wasn’t personally invested in the program content, I formulated a mindset of making the event or installation the best it could be.
For example, after working my first Super Bowl, I was having a late night dinner with my audio crew in a Hollywood restaurant. I honestly couldn’t say at that moment who the football teams were that took the field (I’d have to look it up).
But throughout the two-week installation and rehearsal, I knew where every patch-point was, every piece of backup gear, every quick changeover switch that we installed to insure the system would never go off the air, and so forth. And the skills I learned from that experience made it far easier for me to be prepared for the live TV gigs that came after, including the Grammys, Academy Awards and many others.
The point of all this is to keep an open mind, and even more so, an open heart. You may not know where your career will take you at each turn, but if you always give each event, each client, each new situation your full attention and respect – you’ll shine as a star performer, and our industry by reflection of your skills, will shine too.
Over the course of more than four decades, Ken DeLoria has provided sound design and tech support at hundreds live concerts and events, and as the founder of Apogee Sound, developed the TEC Award-winning AE-9 loudspeaker.