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Tamas Dragon Posts

First live gig of the year

As some of you know, I still do some live gigs beside the studio work. Although it is less and less year by year because I feel I need less night work and long travelling and night driving. And frankly many times I’m fed up with the constant high SPL too. Call this the natural process of getting older, I’d like to call it getting more focused on tasks that really matters to me on the long term.

Facts of life… live sound

We’re still in the club season here which means most gigs happen in smaller, and technically challenged clubs. Which mean one thing: compromise! Nothing new here, we all know that the whole live sound scene is saturated with compromise, in fact, most of the time it’s built upon it.

I think I’m quite well prepared for anything, but still, after many months in the studio with almost limitless possibilities it’s hard to accept the fact that suddenly many things are just as they are no matter what I do, I can’t control very important things even though these things seriously affect the outcome of the gig. Still, I have to be the one who convince the musicians that this is going to be great. In live sound you must be in a “I solve it all” superhero state in order to really tackle all the issues.

Sometimes even organising the stage so every instrument and musician have enough space to function is a challenge. And at this point I don’t even start to talk about monitoring. In the club season generally I insist on mixing the monitors myself as well as the FOH. I know the musicians pretty well, know their needs, what they like and how they like it. It’s easier. A bit more work but the comfort of knowing that it’s done properly is well worth the extra effort. You know, it’s like the headphone mix in the studio, if it’s bad, the performance will suffer. The same goes here, they must feel comfortable on stage or else the whole show is going to be a fight for their life, which inevitably degrades the performance.

The best would be to go on tour with our own console. That would make sound checks easy, monitor mix a breeze and generally it is the only way to remain sane during a long tour. But with these small club gigs it’s nearly impossible to do this. So, the wisest thing is to get all the information prior to the show and start ferociously read some manuals if you don’t already know the console. The console is going to be a small one, so be prepared to know some tricky workaround to achieve what you want. Never assume that everything will work just fine for the first time.

One advice to keep you calm and sane. It might sound ridiculous, but you have to take care of yourself. Eat and drink! Stay hydrated and grab a coffee if you feel you’re getting dull. It sounds as the most obvious things in life, but if you don’t eat and drink, you’re going to loose focus, might lost your temper and you’re going to make more mistakes. This is natural though, your body just sending you signals that you haven’t had a sip of water for hours for example. That’s not normal, it’s a live concert, nobody’s going to die, relax. And the band needs you in top form prior and during the show so the best thing you can do is to keep yourself sane.

What happened that night

Brought 3 in-ears with me so that who really can’t perform without proper monitoring will have my mixes. The club has a small analogue Midas console with 6 auxes (that’s all for monitors and send effects), two channels of gate and two channels of compression, two effects, one hall and one delay.

I used most auxes for monitors so I decided to have a hall effect that night. One gate was inserted on the kick channel while the other worked on the floor tom. Even before the full soundcheck I realised that gain before feedback was going to be a serious issue here so I patched the compressor into a subgroup. The plan was to use it as an emergency bus for vocals if things gets too loud and I can’t push them through the band. Suffice to say this kind of a parallel compressed emergency bus saved the show.

The channel list:

  1. kick
  2. sn top
  3. sn bottom
  4. hihat
  5. floor tom
  6. oh l
  7. oh r
  8. spds di
  9. bass di
  10. sub phatty
  11. dave smith samp
  12. nord left
  13. nord right
  14. moogV l
  15. moofV r
  16. gtr 1
  17. gtr2
  18. ac gtr
  19. mpc
  20. bvoc
  21. mainvoc

During the setup it came to light that they don’t have enough Direct Boxes so I had to cut some channels. Being a club I decided to get the Moog and the Nord in mono, keep only the snare top mic and loose one overhead. With these I managed to fit on the console.

The other nasty surprise for me was the quasi parametric EQ. Not that I’m a snob who only works with thousand bands in Fabfilter’s ProQ2, but really, on a small stage, in a small club where not only the PA system but the room also has serious issues a full parametric would’ve been a more appropriate tool.

Having so few dynamic processors, no full blown EQ, less channels and a bit shoddy PA the night turned out to be a success and honestly I didn’t felt myself bad during the show. I kept a positive attitude to really make the most out of this situation and I think with the help and attitude of the musicians we managed to do a really great show.

Few tips

At the end of this I’d like to offer a few tips. These are not dogmas, rather small tried and tested things and ideas which might help you one day to overcome some obstacles at a gig.

First: maintain a positive attitude, always search for the solution, everybody knows what is the problem, no one need another smart guy who emphasise that

Second: sacrifice anything for the performance. For example I had some instruments sound as they love it. I didn’t really like it that way and it didn’t sound great on the PA, but they were happy with their monitors and believe me, the audience couldn’t care less about your perfect guitar EQ shape.

Third: communicate. Even if some musician insist on having things in a certain way, if you’re honest and frank, and most importantly involve them in the decision making, they tend to agree with the compromised version. Don’t act like the holy grail of knowledge, ask their opinion and really consider it, they might surprise you with a very good solution.

Fourth: do everything in your power to make their monitor mixes perfect. Obviously as perfect as it is possible under the given circumstances. That really helps the show, your endless PA tweaking might not so much (although that could be important too)

Fifth: Try to enjoy and have perspective. Accept that this time you are not at the Royal Albert Hall. Do whatever you can to make the best out of the situation and enjoy.

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From fragile ideas to a film score

I’m a huge fan of Jóhann Jóhannsson. I think he is one the true composers who not only understand what a score should do, but able to capture the essence of the film so deeply that the music really convey emotional content. Without his music those films would loose their magic. It’s great to see how a fragile idea become the part of the score, how he still curiously experiment with different thoughts and ideas. A sneak peak into the process:

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Is this good or bad?

I received a video from my good friend and extraordinary composer who found it and thought it’s really food for thought. And I think that too. You don’t have to agree or disagree with it, yet nobody can deny the fact that generally blockbuster makers like to play on the safe side, which in long term, make the whole art of filmmaking a grey, uninteresting, uninspiring exercise.

Of course bold choices are more dangerous as they can fail. They might be the wrong choices. But remember, the only choices that can lead to new discoveries and inspiring content. Enough of me, watch it:

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Why do we need so many reverbs?

Without any introduction, here’s my current list of reverbs:

And this is a curated list as some others has been moved to unused for some time, but not necessarily permanently.

The question is simple, why do I or anyone else need this amount or even more? The answer is not so simple though. Yes, I know many times we can tweak a certain reverb to sound like some other, we can insert EQ, Dynamics and-or Saturation before or after the verb changing its sound. Automation is another thing that can make real difference as we can automate certain parameters to change the type of reverb or the tail multiple times in a song. Combining different reverbs can take you into even more interesting territories, honestly the possibilities are almost endless even if you only have a few different reverb plugins.

It’s a curse

If you don’t have a vision, multiple choices can easily derail the mix process and you find yourself endlessly searching for the best while loosing perspective. The other possibility is what you liked the first day may hate the next and change again on the third. Of course you might just find the best possible reverb for the material but more often than not it’s just brings you further away from the real solution.

Many times I see some purchase all the famous ones thinking that if all the big names use some of these than they must be good enough for the rest. But this kind of thinking is bad. The biggest names in the industry turns out to be very picky when it comes to reverbs. And for a good reason. They use what really works for them. It doesn’t matter if it cost 50 dollars or 300. If it not suit your taste, you can’t achieve what you want, it doesn’t worth your money. Note that it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It only means that it’s not for you.

Don’t be a mindless collector. I mean it is so tempting to pull the trigger when you see the deals on forums and other places. It is easier to read some user reviews and believe it’s going to be just fine for you. And as I mentioned, it’s even more tempting to buy instantly when you see someone famous in the advertisement. But the point is until you tried it, until you’ve thoroughly tested and become familiar with its idiosyncrasies, there’s no way it’s going to be a good purchase.

One strange phenomenon can happen if you have too many choices. Many people think that having endless choices makes you creative as you don’t have any boundaries. But in reality it does the opposite. Ever been in a restaurant where the menu is way too long? Your brain suddenly can’t decide as it has too many choices and frankly many seems like a great choice. It’s the same with this. You won’t be more creative, actually you derail you vision while trying to pick the best from an enormous list. At the end you might have the best that really fits the project but you might as well lost the creative spark, the vision not to mention you wasted too much time and don’t have enough left to polish the rest of the mix.

It’s the best thing

On the other hand, owning many different reverb can be the best thing. For example if you know them well, know your favourites for certain things and have at least an idea where to start, then it’s great to have multiple choices. Some think that owning for example multiple plate reverbs is not necessary as they do the very same thing. But make no mistake, even rooms or plates can have quite different qualities. And most of the time it’s not that one is better than the other, it can be substantially different and that can be the recipe for success. Not all plates created equal or the same.

It’s very easy to test this yourself. Just make a test session with a snare and some other instrument samples. They can be short, mono or stereo. The main thing is that you need some reference samples and they need to be dry preferably. Make an aux where you instantiate the first plate you find in the list. Make it sound great on the snare for example. Then bypass that first insert, and do the same with the second one in the list, and do this until you tried all of your different plates. If you happy with all the settings, simply bypass and reactivate the different plates will deliver you amazingly different results. And this is still true even if you try to match them as close as possible. So having multiple choices even from the same type is not necessarily a bad thing.

And don’t deny, there are happy accidents. When you just insert one from the arsenal accidentally and it turns out to be the best choice. The funny thing is, this can happen with the default preset many times. Just throw it in and hear what it does. If the style is great, you might only want to tweak a few settings to get the desired result. Or just quickly change it to another one. While I love to have my own preferences sometimes it’s fun to really just experiment with different choices and surprise yourself.

If you are like me who love to save your own presets and many times have an idea what might work with the particular material you’re working on, then it’s absolutely the best thing to have a bigger arsenal so you have options. The key is to keep balance, it’s great to have preferences and presets, but it’s also vital to sometimes break free of the good old things and go wild without any preconceptions. By the way the wild experiments can lead you to your best ever presets later on.

So how many do we really need? The only thing I can say is: it depends on the person and the job. Probably if you tend to work on mainly similar material, you don’t need more than let’s say 3-5 different ones. But if you work in many different genres or in the film scoring world, you might need more than that. The solution is to forget the marketing materials from companies, forget the once-in-a-lifetime offers, forget what others use. Think about your own work and needs, make thorough tests and choose what really works for you.

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