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Roundtable: New Changes To Workflows & Approaches As The Industry Gets Back To Work

A range of veteran audio professionals weigh in on a wide swath of various things they’ll be doing (and thinking about) as they get back in the saddle…
Photo by John Benitez on Unsplash

Our question for the panel this time out: As you head back to work in the field, what new changes to your workflow or approach are you planning to implement, or at least try out?

Andy Coules: Being an optimist, I’ve tried to see the pandemic career pause as an opportunity to examine those aspects of live sound that we don’t typically have the time to address in any detail, and one thing that’s always bugged me is the issue of transferring show files between different digital consoles. The majority of touring sound engineers use house gear, which means a different console every night, and if you don’t have a show file for every make and model then you’ll quickly find yourself using a mature show file one day and then having to start from scratch the next.

Those who remember the analog workflow will think this is no big deal as that’s how things were done in the “good old days,” but it’s important to note that digital consoles have changed the way we mix. Prodigious amounts of DSP have enabled us to build more complex mixes that approach the kind of thing you would normally get in the recording studio – which makes it all the more galling to have to start from scratch.

Unfortunately, because all the leading manufacturers are in competition, it’s unlikely there will be any kind of universal file format or cross-platform conversion tool any time soon, so what can we do to make it easier to ensure we’re able to replicate increasingly complex mixes on any console?

My solution to this issue was to build a spreadsheet of my mix (Figure 1). I arranged the channels horizontally and the individual parameters vertically creating a grid into which I can enter the values of each control. If the parameter has an absolute value (as most do), simply write the number down, and if not, just use clock face numbers to identify the position of the dial or yes/no for switches.

I also find it helps to list the individual control range in the far-right column (be it -18 to 18 dB for EQ gain or 20 to 500 Hz for a high-pass filter) to provide context should there be the need to translate the value to a different value system/range. I use color coding for each section of the channel strip (i.e., preamp, EQ, sends, etc.) to make it easier to differentiate values in the sea of numbers, as well as cell shading to differentiate each channel using the same colors I typically use for the channels on the console.

This may seem quite laborious, but it really doesn’t take that long – you just copy the settings directly from the console or via the offline editing software and the result is a “show file” that will work on any console, even analog ones! Obviously, it’s best to try to use the same microphones and direct boxes every night to ensure consistency from show to show, and gains will fluctuate and affect the gates and compressors, the this can easily be adjusted during the line check.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s certainly superior to starting from scratch each night.

Samantha Potter: While I never officially stopped working (for which I’m very thankful), my live mixing gigs are actually coming back around and are giving me the opportunity to play with some techniques I’ve tried out during quarantine. Particularly, the use of multiband compression and dynamic EQ. I’ve had access to more of these tools, and what I’ve been able to pull out of them has been quite exciting. I’ll be leaning even more heavily into group processing in an attempt to combat some of the segmented bands and groups I sometimes work with; I want it to sound like a full band playing and not instruments all playing simultaneously. There are also several “weird” effects (FX) I’ve been meaning to play with but haven’t explored yet – they’re next!

I’m trying to make very intentional steps as we move back into full swing. I recently spent some time meeting with local integrators, and it was quite exhausting just being around people. Don’t get me wrong, it was so much fun and so good to “be back.” Regardless, at the end of the day, I was dog tired, my feet hurt, I was drained. As work picks up more, I’m going to have to take plenty of breaks, stretch, and zone out periodically as well as keep healthy boundaries. I think we all will. I came too close to burnout, pre-quarantine. I don’t want any repeats.

Scott Mullane: Maybe the lockdown has imbued me with a new sense of appreciation for how lucky I am to do what I do. A “stop and smell the roses” mentality, if you will.

With this in mind, and as I contemplate a return to touring, eventually I think that I’m approaching my pre-tour mental game with the same ethos – unburdening the audio signal and path as I reprioritize the important stuff: the source. I think I’ll be stopping to appreciate the source, and with that, preserving it throughout the pathway with as little interference from myself as possible, allowing me time to enjoy the soundscape that I’ve championed through the meandering audio path to its final destination.

I guess this is an overly colorful way of saying “make the priorities important and enjoy the outcome.” I’m not saying that I’ll be throwing out my plethora of tools and options to deliver audio at the highest level possible, but I am choosing not to labor over the small things as much. The source, gain structure, short signal paths, etc. – these are the foundations that are truly important and I have a renewed enthusiasm to preserve these pillars; albeit, with a little color and fun along the way. I mean, as with anything creative, contrast is the small touch that stands out.

Anyway, this is all rather poetic and could likely fall to the wayside within the heat of audio battle. So, I guess I’ll let you know once I’m touring again. Until then, I will happily dream of this audio utopia. Good luck to you all.

Ed Hatfield: As a monitor engineer, one tends to spend quality – and sometimes intimate – time with artists. That is, to make adjustments to equipment, often you have to place your hands on the artist. Sometimes you may be required to go as far as to touch their face and near their mouths.

The coronavirus has made me consider where my hands have been lately. What have I been touching? Who else may have also touched that item? I’ll take this with me as I go back to work. I’ll be even more aware of the health of my artists and how it can be affected by me. This is something I’ve always done, but it will be that much more in the forefront of my thinking. You’ll see me cleaning equipment more often.

Technically speaking, I’m really looking forward to playing with wireless/RF and more specifically, antenna positions. To me, antennas are such a magical, mysterious piece of equipment. Metal windings at a specific length or metal “tape” laid out in a specific pattern that will capture and naturally amplify a signal that has been put into the air. It’s mind-blowing.

Over the past year, I’ve had the time to really study antennas and radio waves, and how the waves propagate through air and travel through copper. I plan to try some “brave” new antenna placements. I’ll take advantage of the fact that RF travels easier through copper than it does through air. I feel confident that I can really step up my “RF game.”

Michael Lawrence: I’ve used this time to focus on upping my mixing game. For most of my career I’ve (half-jokingly) said I “mix like a system tech” and I figured this was a good opportunity to make some improvements and hopefully not have to say that to people anymore.

Working off existing multitracks from acts I work with, and a weekly rehearsal with a friend’s local band, I started by completely rebuilding my showfile from scratch, working through multiple iterations after getting feedback from some good friends and expert mixers – a sincere and heartfelt thank you to Jim Yakabuski, Pooch (Ken Van Druten), Ryan John, and Chris Rabold for listening to multiple revisions and patiently providing feedback and direction.

After months of plugging away, I’m finally turning out mixes that I’m much happier with – and the process of refining the approach and technique of the mix was tremendously helpful as well. I can’t thank those fine gentlemen enough for their help – and what I’m most looking forward to getting back is – simply put – better sound!

Paul Klimson: The new area of live sound that interests me is hearing how the immersive approach is being developed for binaural listening. I’ve been diving into the L-ISA system from L-Acoustics, which is set up very interestingly – not only for multi-loudspeaker hangs but also hearing how it works with just a left and right hang. Having crossed over from monitors to front of house with a couple of long-time clients, I want to see if I can preserve some of the intimacy to the FOH experience that I enjoyed while mixing on stage.

Aleš Štefančič: During the relatively quiet time of not working, I was able to establish a routine that allows me to take better care of my physical and mental condition. My plan and hope for my upcoming workdays is to implement some of these routines in my work environment as well, allowing me to be more present, better prepared and in better condition than before.

I think that even though I was exposed to some great lessons and techniques that further my technical skills, a more holistic approach to my life and work in general could have the most impact on my work routine. For example, introducing micro workouts to long sessions of mixing that prevent my body from being too static for longer periods of time, or small pockets of time reserved for mindfulness practices has worked really well for me during this period, and I’m looking forward to seeing their impact in my work environment as well.

Ike Zimbel: As things start to pick up for me, I don’t see a lot of major changes to workflow, but there are a few things. First, all of this downtime has given me a chance to get to know my gear a bit better and discover some features/functions that I didn’t know were a “thing.”

For example, I’d been using a USB stick to transfer scans from my TTi spectrum analyzer to my laptop – since I got it in 2016! Last week, I found the USB cable that came with it, still factory sealed for my protection, and figured out that I can transfer the scans directly via the cable. This will save a few minutes on any given day.

On another front, some of the first work that’s come in for me has been consulting jobs, and consulting means… reports! So, the challenge there is to take the information that I’ve gathered (typically spectrum scans) and find a presentable way to output it. This is different than just using the information in real time (like on a gig) and then probably never looking at it again. To that end, I’ve discovered a feature in my Kaltman RF Command Center that I’d never taken advantage of since I began using it in 2012: A command that prints out a very respectable looking graph (Figure 2).

Figure 2

As far as gigging goes, the main thing I plan to bring with me is a heightened sense of situational awareness. I’m already very careful on calls (climbing helmet, steel toes, work gloves and other PPE – personal protective equipment – as required) but I think, coming back, we’re going to see a lot of people who are rusty, out-of-shape, etc., as well as a lot of new people. So, keeping our heads up checking in with others on the job site is going to be more important than ever. “Are you OK lifting that?” “Do you need an extra pair of hands?” “Have you ever pushed a stack of line array cabinets before? Do you know to push them end-on and not sideways?” and of course, the time honored “How’s it going? You OK?”

To that end, I feel like we experienced people will need to broaden our field of view and develop a deep sense of patience and understanding with others. Sure, we’re on audio, but is what that new kid in lighting (or pyro, automation, staging, and even catering) doing safe? Do they know any better? Is what they’re doing safe, but maybe going to impact five other departments on load-out because they haven’t planned out their cable run?

The same applies to personal/mental health issues. Is there someone on your bus who may be really suffering from being away from their family after 15 months at home? Every parent that I know in this business has told me how amazing it’s been for them to be home with their kids for an extended period, often remarking on seeing things with, say, their second child (crawling, walking, talking, etc.) that they’d totally missed with their first. So, be kind, take care of each other, and enjoy getting back to it!

Craig Leerman: One of the things we’re doing because of the virus is using foam windscreens on our handheld vocal microphones that get tossed after each use. A few minutes digging around eBay resulted in finding a lot of inexpensive generic windscreens.

We also clean the mics after each use with isopropyl alcohol mixed with about 20 percent water to disinfect the grilles and body. We replace the internal foam filters with clean ones that we wash with soapy water and let dry back at the shop. eBay also provided a source of internal foam screens for many of our mics so we have a lot of these spare screens to swap out at a gig, or we just separate the used mics for cleaning when we get back to the shop.

We also use the isopropyl alcohol mixture to clean headset, earset and lavalier mics, and swap in different mics for each presenter at events, or at least, thoroughly clean the mics between users. Again, we replace the windscreens after each use.

In addition, we now set up a “sanitizing station” (table or draped road case) backstage at events where presenters, performers and crew can use our provided hand sanitizer wipes. We offer Purell and fragrance-free Wet Ones wipes. In addition to the wipes, the station also has paper towels, tissues, and a makeup mirror with lights in addition to a wastebasket. A small Hot Spot monitor allows the people at the station to hear what’s happening on stage.

Brian Maddox: I think no matter how much some of us may wish this were not true, virtual and virtual/live hybrid events are going to continue to be a large part of the “new normal” live event space. Since I work almost exclusively in corporate live event audio, I’m going to continue to learn as much as I possibly can about the different virtual platforms that are available as well as continue to learn all I can about virtual private networks (VPNs) as well as Audio over IP (AoIP) solutions.

I’m also spending a lot of my time learning – and in some cases helping to develop – communication methodologies that enable remote live event mixing, which I think is going to be a big part of my business for a long time to come. It’s a different world. It’s a different normal. But I’m looking forward to the challenge.

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