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#7: Playing The Hand You’re Dealt: Part 1 Of An Engineer’s Work On Her First Major Tour

Lessons learned in the first few weeks of a tour appearing at venues ranging from 800-capacity clubs to 90,000-person festivals while working with a wide variety of systems. (An audio version of this article is also available for download.)
The scene at the tour’s date at the Hannover Expo Plaza in Germany. System mains and side hangs are L-Acoustics K1 over K2 enclosures, the center cluster and front fills are Kara II, there are more K2s for delay, and KS28 subwoofers to bolster the low end.

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 in a 3-part series — access the additional installments here.

In mid-February of this year, I received a text from a friend, “Are you looking for a gig?” One word turned into more experience than I expected when I replied, “Yes.”

A few months previous, I’d made a new friend and mentor, Michael Lawrence, who so kindly spent a lot of time teaching me about systems engineering, his methodology and design approaches. From there, a front-of-house engineer I was introduced to through my mentor invited me to shadow a couple of shows before I was eventually asked to do my first tour – seven weeks across Europe (specifically the UK and EU) for a very popular artist.

I flew to the UK in the second week of May to prep the control package for the tour, serving in the role of front of house tech/systems engineer. Thankfully I’d been provided the spec a couple of weeks in advance and had some prior experience working for companies building racks and assembling gear.

However, I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to prepare oneself for the unfamiliarity of a new shop, new environment, and/or new power infrastructure. (If you’re based in the U.S. and prepping for touring overseas, you must become familiar with international power standards. For example, knowing that the UK and most of Europe runs on 230 volts nominal – and not 120 volts nominal – will help you avoid accidentally frying anything.)

One of the things that helped me to be as prepared as possible was the time spent familiarizing myself with the control rig spec and making no assumptions. Day one was a pop quiz. I spent the morning of my first day answering questions from the shop techs about our control package. Fortunately, the crew chief from the previous leg of the tour was also flown over to help prep our rig.

I learned from him that it’s OK to be specific. You’re the one who’s going to have to make this gear work. It’s different because when you’re used to doing one-offs, the rig is rented and gets rebuilt after every show. While touring, the rig stays with you and the changes you make are still there when you come back the next day. This is also why I cleared out all my EQ and timing settings in our Meyer Sound Galaxy processor every day.

Working Through It

Of course, there are always limitations. As much as I enjoy having clean, well-run cables in my racks, we were limited by the supplies available (like everyone else in the industry). Between back-ordered parts, limited cable lengths, an unusually high number of tours going out, and festival season fast approaching, you do the best with what you have to work with. Or, as my mentor says, “Play the hand you’re dealt.”

For this tour we had two control packages that were almost identical to one another. One was the primary package that we referred to as the “A rig” and the other was a secondary package we called the “B rig.” The tour required two rigs due to our schedule.

There were a few shows where we used the A rig and then it was sent to leapfrog us while we used the B rig for the next show. The gear and labor shortage resulted in the B rig being built later, with a handful of minor differences from our A rig. Keeping notes of these small differences and changes made to the A rig for things like patching proved invaluable.

Since we weren’t carrying PA, there was a Galaxy 816AES in the FOH rack that drove the system and allowed me to do a lot of our necessary processing. I carried two Mac Pros, one for Meyer Sound Compass (the software that controls the Galaxy processor) and one as a measurement machine. We also added a Ubiquiti Unifi U6-LR as an access point to allow for remote control of Compass. For measurement, I ran Rational Acoustics Smaart v8 software on a MacBook Pro and four iSEMcon EMX-7150 microphones.

Learning & Growing

Once we made it through prep and tech rehearsals (which consisted of spending about a week in a rehearsal space cleaning up the FOH rack, testing AVB fallback, and generally helping with whatever was needed), we began the tour.

The importance of details became very apparent to me. For example, analog versus AVB fallback input/output sensitivities can affect the output/overall system level when fallback is triggered. At our first show on this run (in Belfast, Ireland), we tested the fallback from AVB to analog and found a 2 dB difference in overall gain through the system. I learned that the Milan network largely depends on boot order for clocking purposes, and that weatherproof windscreens can impact your data if they’re not fully seated behind the capsule of the measurement microphone, causing a reflection to show up in your measurement.

We began by playing clubs and smaller venues ranging from 800 to 1500 capacity on average. Since we weren’t carrying PA, we either used the house rig or rented one in. For these shows, when possible, I would run left, right, sub, and fill due to the limited processing often available and the often very different tonalities of system elements.

Due to the differences in PAs every day, I would often walk into the venue in the mornings, make sure FOH was set up and powered up, and then ask the house engineer to walk me around the venue and point out all of the loudspeakers and fill systems. Then we would look at the routing together.

For this tour in particular, it was important to our FOH engineer that left and right never summed into front fills, so I would often end up asking the house or festival engineer to change that routing for our set. From there, I preferred to take the trust but verify approach to tuning. I like seeing what an engineer has done to a system and looking at their data. If the data I’m shown doesn’t match my expectations for how I generally expect a system to behave (or if there is no data at all), then I measure the system and repeat the full tuning process.

From the first few weeks of the tour, here’s some general advice I was given and what I learned in a non-technical sense:

• It doesn’t matter if you’re the most qualified person for your gig. You’re the one doing it.
• Everyone is always learning. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just give it a go first because someone will ask you what you have already tried.
• Get good luggage! No one wants to drag around a suitcase missing a wheel.
• Set your alarms as soon as you get to your bunk or hotel.
• Mental health is important. Do something to put your mind at ease when you can. Whether it’s meditating or running, do something that keeps you going.
• If you have dietary restrictions, bring or buy snacks and let your tour manager and coordinators know. If there’s a repeated issue regarding your food, don’t be afraid to say something. The days get longer, and you must fuel your body to do your job.
• Carry cash for production laundry or be prepared to do your laundry on off days.
• Bring power adapters and spares. I carried three phone chargers (one for the FOH workbox, one for the bunk, and one for my backpack). I also brought a tri tap and was very glad that I did.
• Always do your homework, whether mixing a show, flying PA, or even reading a day sheet to the end.
• Know that if you’re on tour with numerous fly dates, sometimes you can ride your larger checked luggage in the truck if you don’t need it. Sometimes you’ll be personally responsible for gear. Just pay attention to it.

The theme of the tour is summed up well by my mentor’s advice, again, “Play the hand you’re dealt.” While there are always technical issues, there are things to be learned from every show. Since, on this tour, we played venues ranging from 800-capacity clubs to 90,000-person festivals, I found myself walking into a wide variety of systems. One thing I know for sure is that now, all the same principles apply.

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A Year-End Countdown Of The Top 20 In New Content On PSW In 2022
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