Study Hall

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Festival Fun: Staying Cool, Calm & Collected While Getting The Job Done

True success in this arena always revolves around preparation, fundamentals, and a tried-and-true workflow.

The live music festival – a battleground of wet socks, sunburn, dehydration, challenging personalities, and the biggie: limited time.

Let’s dive right into techniques at (and away from) the console that can help insure a great mix, dry clothes, a killer tan, sufficient hydration, and time to use the bathroom, along with the opportunity to be personable and professional.

As someone who’s worked dozens of festivals over the years, I’ve found that true success in this arena always revolves around preparation, fundamentals, and a tried-and-true workflow.

I’m going to look at this from two perspectives: that of the front of house engineer who’s mixing most/all of the programming, as well as that of the hybrid role of FOH engineer and A1 tech. Both share skill sets yet are distinct; it’s also vital to understand your specific role well in advance of the event.

Before jumping into the technical side of things, the single factor that seems to most impact success in this environment most is the “advance.” This is the work done before the gig either by yourself, the production manager, or both. Load-in details, day-of-show contact details, stage plots and input lists, gear list, personnel, and so much more need to be sussed out.

Paperwork (in analog and/or digital form) and being very organized with what to expect is crucial. Day-of-show surprises are inevitable and for the most part, should be expected. With the right advance work ahead of the gig, many surprises don’t have to be surprises, which lead to added stress.

I also work up a separate spreadsheet that calculates how many microphones, cables, DI boxes, and mic stands will be needed. The point is to be proactive – pick up the phone, make gear lists, spreadsheets and whatever else will be helpful in the organizational sense, and send some emails.

How To Not Collapse

Step back a bit and look at the typical festival day from the health perspective. Early mornings after late nights, hot and/or maybe wet days, packed schedules with no real clear view on when, if at all, there will be time to eat. Packing sunscreen, snacks like nutrition bars, bottles of water, band-aids, aspirin/pain relievers, a spare shirt, hat and socks, and extra earplugs is a great start.

Tick-Tock

Although not your sole job, being aware of what time it is as well as what’s happening now and next is crucial to each day moving along smooth and on-time. I wear a wristwatch, which helps keep me on track even though my phone also provides the time. Having a large clock for the stage helps both with the crew and the performers. Keep in mind that the crucial info entertainers most need is how much time is left until they’re off.

Making The Connection

Quite often I’ve not heard the acts I’m about to mix. Taking a few minutes to introduce myself to the band on a change-over helps put everyone on a good footing and the same page.

I also ask how the band wants the mix to sound and if I need to know anything out of the ordinary (like ambitious lead signers climbing the truss), along with simple mix suggestions like additional reverb of vocals, mixing a track on top (or below) everything else, and so on.

This quick effort to connect can do wonders for everyone involved.

Stop Yelling At Me!

“Squawk boxes” can help with communications between the mix positions and the stage.

Communication between FOH and the deck is crucial. Wired “com” via the usual players is a huge help, and to ensure/enhance wireless communication to/from the deck regardless of what the event or client is able to provide, I deploy my own 2-way radios.

I also dig using a “squawk box,” which for me, most days, is a small loudspeaker with a switched mic hard-lined to FOH and another for the monitor position.

“Squawk boxes” can help with communications between the mix positions and the stage.

These lines come down the snake line via copper as a few XLR drive lines or analog snake line return. The key here is to try and maintain communication (without yelling) in the event of a console or stage box failure.

The Value Of Labeling

Working off my festival patch and corresponding input list, I’ll often label the bottom of channel strips with the solid – not to be changed – festival patch/input list. The top of the strip is reserved for the ever-changing current acts input names.

I still use tape because in the heat of the battle there never seems to be enough time to pull out the keyboard or tap the screen – I can write faster. A black Sharpie on white tape has quite an edge over most digital “scribble strips,” especially in the blaring sun.

Sometimes old-fashioned tape and marker channel labeling is in order, depending on light conditions.

I Can See Clearly Now

Screens these days, regardless of the anti-glare solutions, can still be quite reflective. This leads to some troublesome reflections, particularly when there’s the all-too-common white pop-up tent above our head. Sometimes a slight adjustment of the console can alleviate the issue.

The blazing summer sun can also cause visibility issues as well as a sun-burned neck. I string up a mesh-like material using a temporary and easily changed bungee or zip tie solution to allow air to flow through while reducing direct sunlight on the console (and me).

Subs “A La Carte”

Although most systems these days have some sort of method for driving subwoofers independently from the L-R/stereo bus (a.k.a., “aux-fed subs”), sometimes visiting engineers would rather not have that feature or retain control of the independent left and right low-end information.

One punt I’ve worked out is feeding the subs from a few matrixes off the L-R bus.

Some simple yet effective work can clean up things on the low end.

If the console du jour doesn’t allow a matrix send from a channel, I may create a few stereo groups fed from channels that contain the low-end information and spin up a matrix send from that group.

Another tip when using “stereo subs from an aux/matrix” is a possible reduction in “power alley” by sending inputs like the inside kick mic and the outside kick mic to one or the other sides of the subs. Think the same for bass mic and DI. (Big nod to Dave Rat for that tip).

So Many Faders!

Digital consoles bring some wonderful tools for channel management. For example, Yamaha QL and CL Series consoles offer a feature called “custom fader layer,” which provides four “layers” of faders that can be assigned to any input, output, group, or DCA. DiGiCo also offers a powerful tool with the “assign faders” function.

Taking advantage of these features allows me to streamline the current act I’m mixing by eliminating faders I don’t need. If the band has its own engineer, I set up a custom fader layer in accordance to the given engineer’s input list, resulting in his inputs coming up where he/she wants them regardless of where my inputs come to the desk. Use a simple strip of tape to mark the console with the input names, and it’s good to go.

Inserts & FX

Just typing the word “inserts” probably dates me. In my live sound workshops, I tend to garner a few blank stares when I talk about inserts and how they’re intended to function and patch. The way “external” or additional tools are added to the signal chain has changed quite a bit.

In the analog console days, I’d be asking visiting engineers what gates and comps were needed and where, as well as the patching of external FX units. These days, a few screen taps or button pushes and that’s that. In the festival environment, regardless if I’m the only engineer or not, I set up a short and long reverb, as well as a delay that the can be “tapped” from a button on the console.

Another thing I set up is user defined keys, shortcuts or preferences to get to the parameters of each unit quickly. The same holds true for graphic EQs – I don’t want to (or make anyone else) have to search through the console to get to an often-used function or tool.

Vocal FX Pedals

Some singers have a vocal FX “pedal” that’s part of their sound.

More often than not, clipping and noise issues pop up with such devices. In the heat of the moment, troubleshooting this is paramount, yet can eat up valuable line-check time.

I prepare for such moments by hard splitting (with a Y-cable) that vocal line from the mic – one line has the vocal FX pedal and the other a “clean” signal (no pedal). Working with both leaves me with an “out” if issues arise.

And if a little more clarity is needed, I can sneak in the clean line. Just be careful of phase issues if the pedal uses significant DSP, which can result in noticeable latency.

Console Show Files

Some acts, of course, tour with their own consoles, while others will work off your desk using their own show files. This is a big one – be very careful of how show files are loaded into your console. Occasionally you’ll have a blurry-eyed engineer load a file into without giving you a heads-up. Consoles from various manufacturers handle file loading differently.

As a result, I always have a recent backup of the festival show file on the desk, and of course, on a USB flash drive as well (if not two drives). Making a habit of saving the show in full mute state is a must.

You don’t want to load a show file on change-over while the stage is being patched with all the inputs on your desk open and on! The key takeaway: the mute state and output patching/configuring are the “gotchas.” Using a console’s “safes” for patching is a good strategy.

Silent Line Check

A lot of line check monitoring can be handled via headphones, with veteran FOH engineer Paul Dieter doing the honors here.

We all know what a kick drum sounds like, and the audience doesn’t need to also need to hear it repeatedly over the rig before an act takes the stage.

Communicate with your tech on the stage and monitor it with your headphones. With the essential “throw and go” festival situation and the limited time it offers, focusing on correctly patched and normal sounding inputs (no buzzes, all-legged, etc.) is the name of the game.

Monitors

Two scenarios – monitors from FOH and monitors from the deck. Both require communication and a workflow that offers the best chance at success while the clock ticks away.

In the digital world, I build a simple reset scene which simply resets monitor send levels. I find keeping channel EQ and output EQ from the previous act is a safe starting point. (You can also simply “save” those functions.)

Does That Sound Good?

I’ve learned that I can’t maintain a level of objectivity when mixing for several hours without taking “hearing breaks.” After getting the mix up and feeling good, I pop in my -15 dB ear buds for a bit, occasionally taking them out to make sure all is still sounding O.K. This can also reveal quite a bit within your mix – my assumption is that it may be related to the Fletcher–Munson curve.

Trust Your Gut

Once line check is complete and it’s show time (on schedule, of course), this is where the excitement at the heart live sound lives for me. Reacting and making choices based on your personal instinct and what the band wants is quite a rush! Enjoy the festival season and strive for that “killer summer FOH tan.”

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