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Roundtable: Myriad Methods Of Effectively Utilizing VCAs, Subgroups & More

In your mixing workflow do you tend to use subgroups, VCAs, or both? How do you tend to organize them, and what advantages are afforded by that workflow?

“In your mixing workflow do you tend to use subgroups, VCAs, or both? How do you tend to organize them, and what advantages are afforded by that workflow?” Our panel has a lot of ideas on this and related subjects. Enjoy.

Front Of House

Nicholas Radina: VCA/DCA and groups = robot hands! One common method I use when mixing musical theater is to create a “actor” group and also a “music/band” group with inputs assigned accordingly. I place a compressor on the music/band group that’s keyed/triggered from the actor group. This helps keep the dialog and singing on top of the music/band. (Tip: take this a bit further by using a dynamic EQ with a wide Q around the critical intelligible range – 2 to 5 kHz – keyed the same way.)

I also create a “principal” and also a “ensemble” VCA/DCA. This allows me to quickly keep the principal dialog on top of the ensemble by using small fader movements.

When mixing bands, I’ll set up a kick/snare group and a lead vocal group, putting a high-ratio compressor on each of these groups and cranking down the threshold, which results in a heavy gain reduction. Keep in mind, the channels I’ve assigned to these groups are still routed to the stereo bus groups kick/snare group. I’ll sneak in these “crushed” groups to the original signal when a bit more definition or weight is needed without adding significant volume. Pay attention to any processing delay/latency that may be present with some plugins when combining these signals.

Robot hands – I’m a fan!

Ken “Pooch” Van Druten: I split everything out into groups (or stems). This gives me flexibility to make custom mixes for record or broadcast. Most groups are assigned to the mix bus, but if I make parallel compression groups I assign them to a single stereo bus, that then gets assigned to the master. For example: drum bus and parallel drum bus get assigned to a single stereo bus labeled drum record, so I’m able to send a stem that includes both drum bus and parallel drum bus. Drum record is what is assigned to the mix bus. I also do a bit of bus compression on other instruments and having everything broken out allows for this.
It’s a lot of busing but ultimately gives you fast options when asked. I never want to tell a client that I can’t do something, or sorry that is going to take a while to set up. I’m ready for anything when asked.

I use control groups or VCAs to handle most of my mixing. I usually set up a band control group and playback control group, so I have fast access to instrument versus vocal relationship. I also break out instruments, where the drum control group controls the drum group and the drum reverbs – control over the entire instrument plus any FX linked to it. I usually have a vocal control group and a separate FX control group related to the vocal. I want quick access to vocal versus vocal FX relationship.

Ales Stefancic: Working with a large number of channels can be quite daunting. But using smart grouping and DCA controls is a part of my regular workflow, where I try bringing the entire count of relevant faders to no more than eight. I tend to group channels for processing in subgroups (drums clean, drums compressed, bass, keys, guitars, backing vocals, lead vocals) which allows me to build a mix quite quickly and provide additional processing. If I see I have too many groups to control in terms of faders (stereo groups can be especially fader hungry), then I assign the groups to DCA controls and have less faders controlling the mix.

There are two things I always think about. The first is the pre/post fader relationship when using DCAs, because they can influence the sends of your channels to FX buses and tilt the mix out of whack. The second is the difference in path length when using groups or additional routing, because that introduces more latency in the digital domain and you can end up with serious phasing issues between various channel paths.
That said, when working in really restricted time scopes, I use DCAs only, just to avoid any possibility of messing up channel routing and causing a mess for myself down the line.

Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato: I’m all about VCAs and subgroups, and use both.

For me, it’s about control and efficiency. How can I best control the various elements of the mix and where and how can I group them for easiest access to the moves I need to make during the show? When I’m mixing, the majority of what I’m doing is minor fader moves, bringing up instruments when they’re featured, adjusting the mix of the instruments per the requirements of the song, etc. It’s all hands on faders so I want to be able to keep things close together.

I send everything to VCAs for easier control. This way everything is right there in front of me. I don’t need to be flipping through layers or pages on a digital console or skating from one end to the other on a big ol’ (Midas) XL4.

How I organize them depends on my particular needs for the show and how many VCAs are available. I like to dedicate one VCA to each musician on stage. I’ll break things down even further when I can to separate electric and acoustic guitars, percussion, horns, etc.

My typical breakdown for VCAs:
1) Drums
2) Bass
3) Guitars
4) Keys
5) Band
6) FX (band)
7) Verb (vocal)
8) Vocal Delay
9) Background Vocals
10) Lead Vocal

I also send the drums to a stereo group so I can add some compression to the drum mix as a whole. It helps to pull it all together and give it some extra punch. I do this with the background vocals as well if I’m mixing an artist with a lot of vocal harmonies. When I’m mixing a tour with a B Stage or where the singer/s leave the stage and are running around the audience in front of the PA, I assign the vocals to a group (along with the VCA), and insert a parametric EQ set up specifically for when they are in front of the PA.

A big thing for me is having all of the instruments assigned to one VCA (Band). That way if I’m starting to lose the vocal under the band, I can just pull my Band VCA back a touch without messing up the blend of the individual instruments, again it’s a control thing. I also use it as a master mute for all the band inputs. I tend to rely more on VCAs than groups, especially for any inputs that are sending to effects. I’ll use groups when I want to add processing to a group of multiple inputs or if I want the extra gain stage.

Chris Mitchell: I don’t mix with scenes, so I must be prepared for whatever the band plays. Umphrey’s McGee is known for their use of improvisation. My VCAs are populated mainly per musician – drums, percussion, stage left guitar, etc. I utilize the VCA spill on my Midas ProX to bring the members of each VCA group to the left faders. Most commonly I find that I’m mixing the band on the VCAs with the vocals populating my left faders. I don’t have a need to assign channels to multiple VCAs. I use subgroups for parallel compression and stem separation for when we need a surround mix or other special routing.

Jim Yakabuski: It seems I only mix front of house these days when it comes to concert touring, and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a very straightforward and “analog-workflow” kind of guy, so my approach to using subgroups and VCAs comes with these things in mind. In the (mostly) good old days of behemoth (“land yacht”) analog consoles, it seemed pretty necessary to assign similar inputs (drums, guitars, etc.) to a VCA so you could remain relatively centralized in the middle of the console, except for those times you’d have to slide all the way left to the kick drum and all the way right to the reverb return, resembling an Olympic speed skater in full stride!

I’ve retained the VCA/DCA workflow as I transitioned to the digital console world and it’s still the layout I feel most at home with. I’ve used VCAs in the standard practice of simply assigning all like inputs to one VCA fader, but I’ve also used them to bring alternately tuned and processed channels like mono panned guitar versus stereo/effected/processed guitar to a location right in front of me (See “Dueling Guitars,” LSI August 2018 for more on these techniques).

I’ve used subgroups sparingly throughout the years. I assign all guitar channels to one subgroup if they would benefit from an overall tonal EQ, such as a small boost in low-mid with a slight cut in the high-mid area. Instead of having to EQ each channel, it can all be done as a group and adjusted quickly if it’s not working on a particular night.

I’ve played around some with parallel group compression, but often find myself chasing my tail and being pulled away from focusing on ensuring the entire mix is gelling. It’s on my “to do” list to give it another try in the near future as it’s a very popular technique, and maybe I’m just missing something.

I spend almost half my year mixing corporate events, so I think it’s worth mentioning that I use subgroups almost exclusively in this world and almost never use VCAs. I assign mic channels to a lavalier, handheld or lectern group, while video playback devices along with my computers running Ableton for voiceovers and play-ons also get assigned to their own group. Aside from group EQ, the advantage of this is send control to matrices and auxes. I can send more or less to various loudspeaker clusters as well as the video record decks quickly and with more separation and control.

Erik Matlock: Since I’m not mixing the big shows these days, I’ll offer my simple analog group setup that worked well with most small to medium churches or shows.

Most rooms with less than 300 seats will likely be equipped with a 16- or 24-channel analog mixer. Rarely do you see more than four subgroups on small systems, so you have to be flexible and creative.

For the sake of mixing simple services and music, I generally place all vocals in subgroup 1 except the primary podium and/or pastor’s mic. These usually go straight to the stereo bus. Once sound check is finished, the volunteers are basically babysitting one or two channel faders and the groups.

Subgroup 2 usually has choir mics, group 3 is for guitars and keyboards, with drums in group four. This really helps with the transition between spoken word and performance. All subgroups go up for music and down for the message. The primary speaking mics and playback tracks normally stay independent of the groups.

Gerard McCorry: Understanding and implementing subgroups and VCAs/DCAs in my workflow has made an immeasurable difference to my mixing and has gotten me closer to the Holy Grail: consistency. I generally use subgroups for processing and VCAs/DCAs for level control.

So why use groups? Well, to group things! Depending on the hardware available, you’ll be able to get more done with less. Take a drum kit with eight inputs as an example – if you have the capability on your console, you can put a compressor on all eight channels, but what if you only have access to four compressors? How about just two? This is when a group will make a big difference, because you can send the drum inputs to one group and use one compressor to affect them all.

Following this line of thinking allows you to start getting creative; how exactly should you group inputs for processing? Experiment with grouping all the drums (so kick, snare, toms) as one group and then the cymbals (hi-hat, ride, crash) as another group and processing them differently. The hardware is your limit and I encourage experimentation with different configurations of grouping inputs to find your best workflow.

A great mixing technique is the use of dual compression and we’ll continue with drums as the example. The idea is that you have an uncompressed group with all your drums, a normal drum sound with all its transients joined by a second heavily compressed group that removes the transients but allows the drums to have more sustain. Then blend the two groups together to taste. You have to be careful with phase issues with this technique, so put the “dry” drums subgroup through the same processing as the compressed drums subgroup but set it so it doesn’t affect the signal.

Another trick that uses VCAs/DCAs is to put the inputs and the groups on different VCAs/DCAs so as you push/pull the input VCA/DCA, everything is run in/out of compression, and as you push/pull the group VCA/DCA, their level post compression is being adjusted.

In the theatrical world, subgroups and VCAs/DCAs are integral to achieving consistency and for dealing with a large number of inputs. It would be very difficult to mix several principles, a chorus of a dozen plus singers and a full orchestra pit without them. At a minimum, I put the male ensemble, female ensemble and band on three separate VCAs/DCAs so I can quickly control the levels for everything.

When working within the corporate sphere, subgroups and VCAs/DCAs come in to their own whenever there’s need to start routing to multiple outputs including record, broadcast and PA zones. When working with softly spoken presenters and lapel microphones, drastic EQ cuts are often needed on the lapel group to reach the appropriate volume; however, you don’t want to send this same group to the press, so what I do is create a separate group with different processing for them to pick up.

Monitors

Becky Pell: I use VCAs/DCAs regularly in my current work, but hardly ever groups. My most frequent VCA use is for between songs – I have one for the vocal reverbs (which I duck when the performers speak to the crowd) and one for the audience mics (which I push, so the performer can hear applause if they’re using in-ear monitors). I’ll often ride the audience VCA during “audience participation” parts of the set as well, so there’s a sense of connection with fans in sing-along bits, but I can maintain clarity during the rest of the song.

In the days when I mixed front of house, I used groups in order to treat, say, a section of an orchestra in a particular way (group EQ on some violins for example), but that’s something that crops up less in rock/pop music and with mixing monitors.

House Of Worship

Chris Huff: I use mute groups, matrix groups, and DCA groups for controlling related channels. For example, DCA groups are for drums, bass, guitars, keyboard and piano, percussion, and vocals. Any time there is more than one channel that’s related, they get grouped together.

These groups make for easy volume manipulation. Pull back the vocals, boost the drum kit, do whatever is called for in the mix. It’s a lot easier than trying to boost or cut eight individual drum channels.

Here’s where things get fun. My mute groups are the same but they aren’t what they appear. The vocal mute group doesn’t include the spoken mics. When the band walks off the stage, for the sermon, I can immediately mute all the vocal microphones but I don’t want to mute the pastor’s mic.

Therefore, I have a handful of mics that are not in the mute group because I never want to accidentally mute an important channel. I also might omit a keyboard from a mute group if I know it’s going to be used during other parts of the service, such as during communion or to underscore the sermon.

We also run our mixer’s combined channels through a few different matrix outputs. These matrices allow us to mix what’s going to the subwoofers versus to the flown main loudspeakers. This way, we can boost the sub volume or EQ it if we want, in addition to being able to control what’s going to the subs, such as bass, kick drum, organ, etc., and to what level.

When it comes to using any type of group, ask yourself where you’d like faster control, easier control, or need more control across related channels.

Corporate

Craig Leerman: I tend to use subgroups and VCAs as much as I can, and utilize them as individual volume masters for groups of similar instruments like drums or vocals. On VCA consoles I generally just use the VCAs as the group masters so I am not adding an additional layer of gain in the signal chain. I mostly organize my VCAs in the following order from left to right: Drums, Percussion, Bass Guitar/Bass Synth, Guitars, Keyboards, Horns, Backing Vocals, Lead Vocals.

I like having groups of instruments under a single fader because once I set the balance of a group of instruments like a drum set or backing vocalists, I rarely have to adjust individual instrument or voice levels in that group, but usually have to adjust the entire group to blend it into the mix as the band performs.

Using the subgroups and VCAs on older big frame analog consoles meant you could stay in the center of the big console (my last Soundcraft Series 5 was more than 7 feet wide) and not have to keep moving right and left looking for the channels to adjust. Utilizing VCAs on digital consoles may keep me from having to switch layers a bunch of times a gig because I can place the money channels like lead Vox, lead guitar or podium mic on the same layer as VCAs and have basically all I need at my fingertips.

On corporate events I’ll use both subgroups and VCAs if available, utilizing the subgroups and matrix for sends to Loudspeakers, Backstage Monitors and Recording Feeds, and the VCAs for Front Of House Podium Mics, Main Presenter, Other Presenters, Audience Question & Answer Mics, and Graphics (video) Playback. Also sometimes with corporate events, especially in breakout rooms, I’ll only have smaller four subgroup consoles, with these all used to sending feed to the front fill loudspeakers, delay loudspeakers, recording, etc.

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