Study Hall

Hey! That’s Jim Yak (Yakabuski) mixing Peter Frampton and band. (Photo credit: Michael Lawrence)

Roundtable: Efficiently Dealing With Large Channel Counts

Our panel of pro audio veterans provides a wide range of approaches for both monitors and front of house.

The question this time out: How do you handle large channel counts (i.e., DCA/groups/channel banks)?

Karrie Keyes (monitors): We just finished rehearsals for a tour (before it was postponed) and we were well over 100 channels for a six-member band. I stopped counting at some point. Several of my channels are duplicates to suit the needs of different band members, i.e., one wants the kick drum “clicky,” another doesn’t want any high end, etc. Also, some are for cues, so I can ride solos or they’re needed for intros, etc.

Anyone who follows Pearl Jam knows that the setlist is dynamic and is never the same from night to night, and there are well over 100 songs to choose from; in addition, the setlist can and does change during the show, so I do use snapshots. I could dig myself into a hole fairly fast if I was using them, so I rely on my fader banks. I work on a DiGiCo SD5 so I can get around my channels pretty easily, setting them up to have everything I need at all times on the surface. My left fader banks are most of my cues and my right banks are my singer and his inputs.

Then I start to group the rest of the channels by band member, so all of Stone’s inputs get a bank, and so on. No one really has a whole band mix so this works well. I’m also fortunate that mixes (around 40) are consistent, rarely changing drastically during the show. The main thing for me is to be able to watch the band and be able to mix without my head in a screen, be able to access my inputs quickly and getting things committed to muscle memory.

Christopher Grimshaw (FOH): It’s rare that I have to deal with really large channel counts – I try to keep my setups as sane as possible in order to avoid these headaches! That said, if I’m in a situation where I’ll be dealing with lots of channels, I do the following: Make the channel list as logical as possible. For me at FOH, the order will be similar to how I see things on-stage: vocals 1-5 will be from my left to right, for example. That means it’s quick and easy to dive into the channel banks and grab something. I don’t mind skipping channels to keep things grouped nicely, either. If the desk I’m working on gives me 16x faders at a time and 1-13 are taken up with vocals and some instruments, I’ll start the drums on Ch17 so they’re all on one set of faders when I come to work on the drum mix.

Assign DCAs and etc. ahead of time, including FX! If I have to condense it down to 8x faders to mix on, it’ll be something like Lead Vocal, Background Vocals, Guitars, Keys, Bass, Drums, Vocal Reverb, and Drum Reverb. Of course, that depends on the act. I spend most of the gig mixing from the DCAs, but if there’s something particular that needs work, I’ve still got my sensibly arranged channel faders to fall back on. I spent a lot of my formative sound-engineering years mixing traditional folk bands, where vocals always came first, and that’s something I’ve stuck with: My first DCA is always Lead Vox, and the second is always Backing Vox. They’re the faders that I want to be able to grab first.

I occasionally use subgroups to process a few similar inputs. For example, a bit of fast compression on the overall drum mix can help reign in a drummer that’s suddenly hitting 10 dB harder. With the amount of processing available on modern digital mixers, though, there’s enough processing at the channel level that I rarely need the extra processing at the group stage. On a similar note, though, putting all the backing vocals through a compressed subgroup can keep them from overwhelming the lead singer, while if only one or two of the backing singers have a part, the compressor will allow a bit more level through. It’s not quite auto-mixing, but it’s just a way of getting the desk to keep an eye on things for me.
In conclusion, keep it logical, and plan ahead. Figure out the sort of adjustments you’re likely to want to make to your mix and set your groups and DCAs accordingly.

Michelle Pettinato (FOH): When mixing an act with a large channel count on a digital console where there are a limited number of faders available on the surface, I put a lot of thought into my workflow and how I want my inputs to populate the surface. It’s all about control and efficiency. I group things together in ways that I have as much control over things with the fewest number of faders and banks/layer moves.

I always make use of DCAs and sometimes groups no matter what the channel count. Typical breakdown is DCA for Drums, Bass, Guitars, Keys, Band, FX, Vocal FX, Background Vocals, and Lead Vocal. I like to mix from DCAs and build them so that each musician has their own dedicated DCA with all of their instruments. This way I have control over each musician’s inputs with one fader. I like to assign all of the instruments and tracks, to one additional Band DCA; reason being, if I find the vocal is getting lost under the music I can bring the entire band down easily with one fader while preserving the balance between the individual instruments.

On my most recent tour with Elvis Costello the channel count was close to 100 with 70-plus inputs from stage, plus effects returns, announce mics, talkback mics, etc. I was using a Midas ProX. Elvis rarely follows a set list and switches between playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, and several different vocal microphones (without warning) throughout the show. It’s not conducive for using snapshots or scenes because you never knew what’s coming at you and have to be prepared for anything at any time.

I don’t have time to be searching for inputs I need, so I mix it very analog style and have to get creative with using POP Groups, DCAs and Mute groups. We also have 22 keyboard inputs and a very active keyboard player who never plays the same thing on the same keyboard twice. This makes it necessary to keep the keyboard inputs on the surface as much as possible because I’m mixing those inputs all night long.

Since the ProX has 16 input faders on the surface and uses the DCAs and POP Groups rather than layers, I built my DCAs as usual and used my Pop and Mute Groups to create “pseudo snapshots.” For example, one POP Group was for songs where Elvis was at the piano, two of the Background Vocals switch mics, and the keyboard player moves to the B3 and other keyboards. The POP Group brings everything I need to access to the surface quickly for those songs.

I also had a few specific FX cues for two or three songs, and since I never knew where those songs would show up in the set, I built my Midas FX rack with all effects loaded and would control them quickly via the Mute Groups rather than having to change effects settings or go to the actual channels to mute and unmute as needed. Again, snapshots/scenes don’t work well for this type of show. I used the B section of the ProX for the vocal effects channels because I didn’t have enough DCAs for a dedicated Vocal FX DCA. I tend to mix those and mute them between songs which I typically do from the DCA. Keeping them on the surface in the B section gives me easy access whenever needed.

I also use POP Groups for things like talkback, playback, etc. I have one POP Group that contains the walk-in music, intro/outro song, my talkback to stage, the monitor talkack to me, audio from video, announce mic, and other ancillary stuff like that.

For another example, I recently mixed an artist with roughly 80 inputs that combined a live band, tracks, DJ, background vocals, and lead vocals on a DiGiCo SD7 where I had the luxury of 48-plus faders on the surface. I built my fader banks as such: Drums 1, Drums 2, Guitars/Bass/Keys, Instruments, Tracks, Vocals, Effects, ancillary stuff (pink noise, talkbacks, walk-in music, etc.).

I mixed on DCAs (Control Groups) as usual, with them populating the lower center section. The three remaining fader sections allowed me to keep a large amount of inputs on the surface, which proved incredibly helpful. I kept the vocal channels (lead with multiple mics, backgrounds, DJ, and guests) on one section at all times – I like to have the lead vocal always available. Tracks were on another section where I always had a visual on what was coming at me and from where (this would change daily), and the final section was four layers of live band. I could flip between whatever was needed for solos, etc.

I find generally once drums are dialed in I rarely need to change things so I will group drums together in one (or two if needed) banks and set it and forget it. Instruments like guitars, keys, etc. tend to need more managing so I try to keep them all on one bank for easy access.

Becky Pell (monitors): My first port of call for managing large channel counts is setting up my fader banks in the way that makes most sense for my workflow – in these days of digital desks it’s so easy to break free of the channel list and do what works for me. Typically, I have all drums and click track in one bank (or two, if we have a gear-heavy drummer or additional percussion), then keys, guitars and bass in another, and tracks in another. They’re all on the left side of my desk, and then I always have the vocal bank on the right, as well as a bank of other musical inputs (say, strings, brass, etc.) if they’re part of the show. My “utility” inputs are always to my right as well, low down in the banks – things like talk mics, pink noise, all the stuff that’s less frequently accessed.

I don’t use groups at all, but I use DCAs a lot. I have one for all hard drive track content, so I can pull it down if some editing is happening when musicians want to keep rehearsing (and I’ll make the mix to the person doing the editing pre-fade). I use them to safeguard what’s coming out of wedges and side fills too. For example, with my current band there are four singers who are all either on or off stage at the same time. I don’t want a performer’s mic live anywhere on stage – including to other musicians – when they’re offstage, but they still want it in their own in-ear monitors for peace of mind. So, I split the mic down two channels, one of which goes to themselves and one to everywhere else (which allows me to EQ them differently too). The “self” one stays live at all times, the other is controlled by a DCA that I can pull down when they’re offstage.

Finally, I’m a big fan of macros. With everyone on IEMs, I’m often as much a switchboard operator as a monitor engineer, so to ensure I can easily have control over, say, whether the band’s talk mics are going to FOH’s shout speaker (which might be desirable at sound check but not during the show), I’ll set up a variety of macros to give me fast access to whatever functions I need.

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