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On Three, You Lift: Methods Behind The Madness

Sometimes there actually is a little something beyond rote recitation of "check one, two"...

By Paul LaPlaca November 29, 2017

Image courtesy of StockSnap / Pixabay.com

“Check one, two… one, two…” As a sound person, I’ve had to repeat this phrase ad nauseam—at times I even hear it in my dreams.

Everyone wants to know: “Why can’t you count to three?” To which the punch line follows: “Because on three, you have to lift.” Ugh, like I haven’t heard that a thousand times before. (In addition to “when will this be over” and “is that really necessary?”)

Years of enduring these tired refrains finally prompted me to give the matter some serious thought. What is it about those little words – “check one, two”—that help in quickly setting up and tuning a system and room? I soon re-discovered a few things that had become instinctive and subconscious over the years.

After getting a system up and running, I make sure to flatten the channel and house equalizers, but this then begs the question: What’s the point of having a 1/3-octave EQ for some of these smaller shows anyway?

It’s a question I’ve actually had to answer a few times, and sometimes is followed by quite a fight to get even one EQ unit actually included for some of my systems. It’s amazing how many folks ignore the importance of EQ.

Yet two of the biggest factors in my area of specialty, which is corporate sound reproduction, are feedback reduction and tonal balance, both of which can be optimized with a decent graphic EQ. Therefore, it’s invaluable.

Anyway, continuing the process. After returning the EQ and console to “normal” positions, I’ll grab a microphone to begin testing. For this portion, I employ the same mic model in use on the lectern, and stand-mount it to keep my hands free for adjustments.

Then, “check.” The first thing I look for are any frequency imbalances in the system. “Check” can cover anything from 2 kHz down to 630 Hz, depending on the voice. The “ch” sound can be hit harder for the upper mids, and separating the “eh” sound can help in identifying problems in the mids. Try dipping each one of these bands while saying the word in order to filter out any harshness without sacrificing clarity.

LIKE A WAH-WAH

Once this range is addressed I move on to “one,” altering pronunciation – “wahn, wawn, won” – slowly opening my mouth to shape these sounds. Just like a wah-wah pedal for a guitar, or a filter sweep on a synth, the idea is to slowly sweep through a range of frequencies to explore the vowel shapes.

These sounds usually cover anywhere from about 1 kHz down to 250 Hz, again depending on the voice. Look for a boxy, wonky sound with the “wah,” pushing the mic more toward the nose for the 800 Hz range, and then more toward the mouth for the 400 Hz to 500Hz range.

Finally, the word “two” goes through a few variations – “tieuh, tyou, too.” Hitting the “t” extra hard can give a feel for the highs around 4 kHz, while dropping the “ooh” sound smoothly through the vocal range can provide a look at the lows. Everything from 4 kHz and up can be explored with a sharp hissing “s” sound, made by tighten up facial muscles and raising eyebrows to get into the upper high ranges.

In working this process, your own voice is going to be the sound measuring tool that you should be most familiar with. Upon learning where the tones of these three little words fall in your own vocal range (everyone is going to be a little different), tuning can be fairly quick and easy. As long as “the peanut gallery” stays quiet!

After getting a decent tonal balance, it’s time to start searching for feedback. Many use the technique of turning up the level until the point of first feedback, finding that frequency, and then dipping the graphic slider. Generally, this is repeated about three times.

However, my own preference is to go “fishing for feedback.”  I’ll bring the system up to the first ringing tone and back it off slightly, then go through the entire 1/3 octave, tiny fader by tiny fader, looking for feedback on each band.

Some won’t ring at all so I’ll leave them flat. The others will range from immediate ringing to nothing at all until full boost. The amount of cut I use is inversely proportional to the amount of boost needed to achieve feedback.

There’s no exact formula to it – if 2 kHz starts ringing with only a nudge of boost, I’ll take a pretty good chunk out of that range. If nothing happens until the fader is nearly completely boosted, I’ll only dip it a slight amount. Remember to continue checking “one, two, one, two” throughout this process because feedback normally needs some initial sound to occur.

The bottom line is how the system sounds with a human voice. If the feedback is obliterated but the system sounds like a telephone line, it’s probably time to sacrifice some volume to get a good tonal balance. And once you find a tone that’s ringing, don’t be embarrassed to hum or sing that note until you really lock in on it. Don’t turn this into karaoke or “Showtime At The Apollo,” but singing the pitch of a ringing tone can make it a lot easier to find when fishing.

BRING IT TOGETHER

After I’m satisfied with the overall sound of the rig, I bring in sources that will be used onstage and slowly add them in together. Again, in my world, this can mean a lectern mic, a series of table mics for a panel discussion, wireless lavaliers as well as wireless handheld mics for “Q & A” from the house.

I adjust each individual channel for feedback and tone using the same fishing techniques used on the 1/3-octave EQ. Bring the fader up to the “0” position, and slowly bring up the input or trim pot at the top of the fader until there’s a good level.

For a simple panel discussion, in general I’ve been able to set the mics at 75 percent open and then ride them up and down as the individuals make comments on mic. Having every mic 100 percent open can add noise to a system and create additional feedback problems.

If faced with wireless lavalier mics, there may be need for some pretty severe adjustments to the 1/3 octave curve. Make notes of these adjustments and compensate for them on each of the other non-lavalier sources, with individual channel EQ to make up the difference.

For example, if you’ve just rung out the room and start working with a series of lavs that need a huge dip in the 400 Hz range, compensate on the other channels by bringing that range up a bit. If there are wireless handheld mics in the house, have someone stand out front and “bless” the main loudspeakers by making a papal, sweeping motion in front of them with the mic. The last thing anyone wants is for someone to walk in front of those loudspeakers with a hot mic that hasn’t been tested.

See, sometimes there actually is a little method beyond the madness we all endure. After a little thought and experimentation, it can be as easy as one, two…

You didn’t think I’d actually say three?

Paul LaPlaca has been working with sound for more than 25 years and heads up Stentor Productions in New York, specializing in the corporate audio market.

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