Study Hall


Roundtable: Unconventional Convention — Upsides Of Not Always Following The Norm

What elements of your approach or workflow might be considered unconventional? What benefits are afforded by those decisions?

“What elements of your approach or workflow might be considered unconventional? What benefits are afforded by those decisions?” Let’s see what our panel has to say.

Christopher Grimshaw: I have a couple of unconventional approaches that I like and stick to. First, drum kit sound check. Once all of the mics are in place and line-checked, I ask the drummer to play the full kit, including plenty of fills around the toms and cymbals. That’s instead of 10 minutes of kick drum, followed by 10 minutes of snare, etc. I find this beneficial in a couple of ways:

— The drummer is happy. This is the big one. Drummers hitting the snare drum for 10 minutes are not happy drummers. They lose interest, play softer, and all of the preamp/compressor/gate levels and thresholds end up wrong.

— It’s fast. Once you’ve pushed the faders up and have a mix going, it’s easy to fix the obvious problems (Rack Tom 2 ringing at 170 Hz, for example), while also assessing if further processing is necessary. The speed is a great benefit to the rest of the band – it means you can get everyone checked and happy, and then they can go and relax before doors.

Next up is my channel layout. During the first few years of my audio engineering career, I worked with a lot of folk bands, often with four or more singers harmonizing. As a result, I tended to put vocals on the first channels on a desk. I still follow that pattern these days.

Vocals are, in my opinion, probably the most important instrument on stage and I tend to order things and mix accordingly.

One other this is that I try to avoid pre-EQ’d mics, such as the usual kick drum models. It’s like trying to paint when you’ve only got one color. Sometimes it can work, but I’d rather the mic was flat so I’ve got the full spectrum to paint with.

Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato: As a front of house engineer, I’m pretty old school when it comes to EQing the PA. I still use my ears. When I started mixing, tools like (Rational Acoustics) Smaart didn’t exist and the bands I was working for couldn’t afford a real-time analyzer (RTA) so I just had to learn how to use my ears to get what I wanted from the PA.

I also don’t like a “flat” PA where the system engineer has worked hard to remove of every last little bit of personality from the system. I tend to choose a PA for its specific characteristics and EQ it for my personal preference, not what the computer thinks I should do.

When it comes to mixing, I’m a big fan of the less is more approach. I like as few things in the signal chain as possible so I don’t really use any plugins or a lot of extraneous outboard gear. It allows me to know exactly what is happening to the signal at every point in the desk. If I start adding multiband compression here and a side-chain there and parallel compression somewhere else and so on, suddenly there are too many things happening to the signal and it all gets a bit convoluted. It also takes the fun out of mixing for me.

That said, I find that starting with good sounds at the source as well as choosing the right mics and a great sounding desk, you’ve got most of the work done. Inputs shouldn’t need much more than a bit of EQ and maybe a little dynamics processing. If I’m having to go to great lengths to get something to sound good, then I take a look at the source or maybe I need to change the mic.

So I guess you could say I’m not really much of a gear head, but by relying on my ears and nothing more than what’s available on the desk itself, I can be sure I always have what I need.

Jim Yakabuski: I had to really think about this one. After mentally going through my workflow and approach I came to the realization that I don’t do much at all that might be considered unconventional.

But it’s a crazy audio world out there. There are digital consoles capable of routing and busing signal in myriad ways, and plugins that recreate vintage gear we’ve all dreamed of getting our hands on. We can “fix” an out-of-tune singer and replace an out-of-time drummer with tracks, all things we only dreamed of 20 years ago.

So maybe it’s a bit old school, but I tend to rely on starting with a well-tuned PA, and from there I like to begin building a mix with very little in the way of channel EQ, processing and plugins.

If I have fewer stages of processing going on with my inputs and outputs, it helps me stay focused on the simpler pieces of mixing. Things like balancing the level of each input, where they sit in the stereo field, and how they all fit together tonally. Hearing the artist’s musical expression in the mix is a bit of a dying art, and some might say downright unconventional these days.

Ales Stefancic: Since just about every engineer I’ve worked with each has their own style, there aren’t a lot of things that I would consider out of the ordinary. But there is maybe one aspect of my own preparation routine that might seem a bit unusual, and it has nothing to do with the technical aspect.

Before the show starts, I do a light stretch of my neck, arms, shoulders and wrists, and maybe even do a few jumps. I’ve found that this routine enables me to focus and really get my head in the game. It also prevents muscle tension from riding faders throughout the show and brings more oxygen to my brain for faster decision making. It’s probably the only time I get some strange looks directed my way, but it’s something I practice regularly, especially before big shows.

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