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Tag: live sound

Reducing live sound presence

It’s a decision I should’ve made long time ago, but last year’s chaos which still has its impact on my schedule even now at the end of April made me realise that this situation is not sustainable.

I still love live sound, but apparently it eats up my valuable post production time, so much that I cannot really think about work-life balance, I can only talk about live work-post work balance and huge, huge backlog. I started to build a great, reliable system in Omnifocus which clearly showed me that I want to do more than it’s possible. It doesn’t mean that I completely abandon live sound, but I won’t do any more festival jobs that usually require to be available through whole summer. I’ll still take some selected gigs with few bands, but that’s manageable.

Of course it’s not a one-minute decision, and it requires some transition time, but hopefully after this summer I’m not going to have this huge backlog I have now.

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The rest of the summer

Not much left, but still have many things to do. First, Sziget is approaching. This is one of the biggest festivals in Europe. This year, again, I’m going to be the chief FOH engineer at the main stage. As you might know, this is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I have the chance to meet very talented mixers and see/hear many great shows. On the other hand a festival this big requires a lot of preparation and tedious paperwork, huge amount of Excel sheets, emails, meetings, etc. I’m a more simple guy who truly enjoy mixing and helping fellow engineers, but I’m not the big organiser guy who just effortlessly ploughing through hundreds of emails while conducting prep meetings.

This year we’re going to have a few big acts, you might recognise a few:

  • Queens of the Stone Age
  • Blink 182
  • The Prodigy
  • Placebo
  • Outkast
  • Calvin Harris
  • Korn
  • Skrillex
  • Lily Allen
  • Manic Street Preachers
  • Madness
  • The Kooks
  • and a few more…

szigetendshow13

After the usual rider checking, we ended up with almost the same console setup as before: Yamaha PM5D in monitors and Avid Profile in FOH. These are the most requested consoles in riders. Even if someone would prefer something other, these are accepted as well.

My biggest headache is still compatibility, or to be more precise, the lack of it. In my experience the Avid live system is still the only one which is able to effortlessly convert and use session files made on different surface with some other software version.

To be fair, they probably borrowed this knowledge from their Pro Tools experience. We had serious problems with DiGiCos and Midas digital consoles. Many times the FOH guy had to rebuild the show from scratch because his/her file was incompatible with the consoles firmware or software version. While digital offers so much flexibility on paper, it seems to me that in a live environment this is still in its infancy.

A usual day at a festival

Few of you asked about an average day at a festival like this. Well, it can be very gruelling to be honest. Obviously the more problem you have at a given day, the more worn out you’re going to be at the end of the day.

8:00am Load-ins starting
Usually the headliner or the co-headliner start first. All their equipment need to be set up, preferably at the proper place (should be left there all day). The most important needs at this time:

  • power (how much, 32,64, 3phase, etc.)
  • place of their consoles and misc. equipment
  • forklifts (to bring the heavy cases and consoles)
  • set up (check everything working fine, compatibility checks, feeds to system, multicores)

A simple console check procedure:

Check if the incoming power is fine. You don’t want to blow any power supplies! If it’s good, then you need to connect the console to the power source. Our tested and proved preference is to have to lines from the source power. One goes through a UPS so in the case of a power failure we still have time to save and shut down the consoles properly to avoid any data or equipment damage. The other is the direct, without any further protection. These days, every console has redundant power supplies so you can always use this safety system.

After you connected all the necessary cables, switch on the console. At this point I like to do a quick fader/button/led test if possible to make sure that everything is fine. These live consoles are being used in very demanding circumstances, therefore they need to be checked regularly. It’s much better to identify a problem now instead of trying to find it later, during the soundcheck. If the test is ok, then load the session.

Check if the session is fine. Most of the times they are fine, however a quick check wouldn’t hurt, you might spot some errors, and again, if there is some, this is the right time to solve it. If the session is ok, we’re almost ready.

Check and if necessary modify the output patch. Everyone has his own preference, the usual options are:

  • L and R only
  • L-R plus Sub (mono or stereo)
  • L-R plus Sub and separate fills
  • L-R plus Sub and separate fills, separate delays

If possible, we always prefer to have AES, but we’re prepared for analogue feeds as well.

At this point the system tech would ask the guest engineer to send noise (pink noise) to him in order to check the patch. When everything seems fine, the guest console is ready for the sound check.

Before and during the sound check

During the soundcheck you want to solve any upcoming problems. At this point you still have a little time to investigate things. It is mandatory to understand and able to operate, know the whole system to the tiniest bits. Anything, really, anything happens you’ll be the one who has to correct it, within a very short time frame. Even if it’s not your job at the first place, as the FOH guy, you’ll be alone with the guest engineers at the time of the sound checks, and remember, they are guests, you are the guy who must provide the solution to their problems.

Between the sound checks we can have lunch, preferably at table, but as schedules are very tight, usually we just have lunch in the FOH position during a soundcheck. After all the line and sound checks, little time left for a coffee before the first band start its show.

During the shows it’s mandatory to have at least one person at the FOH position. One who can solve problems, can alert the rest of the team, so who can really help the guests. Never, never ever leave the guest alone! This is very important. Anything can happen and you’re the one who should provide help.

End of the day

After all the shows are over, there’s some tasks left before we can go to bed. Main stage usually stops at 11p.m. or 1a.m. here. After the last show we need to cover everything in order to protect the equipment against the weather. One friendly advice: never trust the weather forecast. They might say that there’s absolutely zero chance for rain, but it is your responsibility to protect the equipment. Obviously consoles don’t like water, so don’t forget to securely cover them, unplug the power, switch off the breakers, and re-check everything. One sudden storm can ruin any very expensive equipment.

And that’s it, depending on the running order (whether you finished at 11 or 1) you can go to bed around 1–3 a.m. Have a good night sleep because the next day starts just in a few hours, around 8 a.m. with the load-ins again. Good night.

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Preparing for the festivals

It happens again. Summer is here, as well as the big festival season with lot’s of concerts. For the causal listener it means: fun! For us though it means: work, lot’s of work. But before the Mega Cube trucks arrive with the equipment, there’s plenty to do.

Besides the obvious personal stuff, there’s a long list of to do’s before the journey begin.

Data, data, data

The first and probably one of the most important thing is to read and re-read all the riders so we know everything, every possible need or possible variation. That compiled list gives the basis of the final equipment list. So if you ever wondered how on earth these things get organised, this is how. At least two or three of us plough through all riders, notoriously making note of everything which can be of any importance. This includes microphones, digital snakes, consoles, plugins, custom configs, etc.

When everyone is ready, we have a big meeting and go through the riders once again together, only to see if we know everything. If we’re absolutely sure about that, the next step is to compile an equipment list which must comprise everything from incoming power boxes through microphones to FOH and monitor consoles.

This year the festival consoles going to be a Yamaha PM5D for monitors and a Avid Venue for FOH. Why? Because it turns out that the vast majority of the riders still require the good old PM5D for monitors and at least 96% of the riders require or accept the Venue as the FOH console.

For the last few years we had an analogue multicore next to the digital ones, but as no one used it for years now, this year we’ll only have a small analogue return cable from the FOH to stage. The multicores are all digital now. Double redundant Coax for the Venue (can be used for other Madi based consoles) and double redundant armoured Cat5 cables for Midas consoles and for direct ethernet communication. This is an area where digital is really a win win. Analogue multicores are heavy, pricey and more prone to gather noise, and to be honest, fails more. On the other side, digital snakes are cheap, rarely fail, and even if you have a bad connection many times it can be solved with a BNC or an Ethernet crimper.

Hearing protection

I know it’s all so obvious, but still, this is vital for many reasons. You MUST USE ear protection if you happen to work in a festival environment. If we really add up the time of sound checks and the shows you’ll spend way too much time in very high SPL. Your hearing can be damaged by this, and as it turned out a few years ago, it scientifically proven that your nervous system also have a very hard time if you don’t mitigate the continuous SPL. So basically, you’ll get extremely exhausted from the continuous high SPL music.

earprotection

These can be simple earplugs, musicians earplugs (with more smooth frequency resp.) and earmuffs. I use a combination of these, and to be honest in extreme cases I use earplugs plus earmuffs if it’s getting so unbearably loud (happens often with DJ acts).

earplugs

Hydration

Dehydration can be a very serious problem. You’ll spend 10–16 hours working in very hot environment (sometimes as high as 36–40 degrees Celsius/104 Farenheit) so you must drink plenty. For your own sake forget anything alcoholic drink. Also don’t forget that your body need salt and sugar too. It is a very good idea to keep track of your drinking habits during these working days.

So in short this is it. I know most of this is obvious, yet still, so many forget these basic things. Other than this, enjoy the festivals.

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RTFM means…

I think we all know this. Whether from personal experience (someone told to do this) or we just read at some online forums, or, we told this to someone.

No matter which version is true from the above ones, the real meaning is still a useful advice. With a probably overly positive attitude I would say it means: Read The Fantastic Manual (as it is definitely answers your question).

I’m in the process of preparing to the summer festivals, where I’ll be the executive FOH engineer (at the 3 biggest festivals in Hungary). This means I have to have a very deep knowledge just about any console that might show up. So basically I have to be able to operate any:

  • Avid
  • Midas
  • Digico
  • Yamaha
  • Soundcraft

regardless of the version and/or configuration. At first, of course, this is somewhat daunting, but it is a great opportunity to learn the different concepts and approaches that the various manufacturers have. Neither is right or wrong, but they are very different at certain things. Why must I know it all?

Well, because in general, every guy/girl who come with a production has some knowledge about these consoles. Some of them are real experts of a certain console, the other may have a shallow acquaintance with it. So my job is to help them do their job, remove the technical obstacle if you like. Or mix the show if no engineer present.

How is it possible to know everything? Well, it is impossible, but there are some tricks (albeit well known ones) that can help. First is, experience. If you do something for a long time, you’ve already met a number of scenarios/consoles, so you probably have a very good idea how things work. The second, which is not a trick, but wise planning, is to read manuals. I know it’s sounds boring. Actually it is not that boring.

At first it may seem like this is one of the most tedious things, but in my experience it is very interesting and even rewarding. Read every manual from cover to cover. You’ll forget many things, this is inevitable, but what you gain is an overall knowledge. What that mean is you’ll understand the building blocks, the workflows, the concept better, so even if you don’t know a specific function, you’ll have a pretty good idea where to look, what to search. So instead of standing there saying “I don’t know”, you’ll find the right thing in a minute.

This is why I really love to read manuals. Even before I meet a certain console (or any other equipment) I ferociously read every possible material about it. With this, even the first “date” goes much smoother. The same apply with any other thing, your DAW, plugins, etc.

The other thing is, often you’ll find hidden gems in some manuals. Some manufacturer goes way beyond basic functions and very eloquently describes even quite complicated audio related things, so you’ll end up with even more knowledge.

My advice is to read the manuals! Many spend countless hours to write it, and for a good reason: to help you! To teach you and guide you so after examining the manual you’ll be more prepared. So, RTFM!

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The small details makes the difference

Or at least that’s what we all hope. But at the end of the day, it really seem to count, a lot actually. I’ve been harvesting the very broad experiences as I actively doing both live sound and post production. In post, we seem to be obsessed with tiny details, correcting, editing, noise reducing and tweaking audio until it is really a shining diamond. In live sound however, very often you have to be extremely fast and efficient under impossible technical circumstances, which obviously leads to more and more compromise.

Suddenly it seems that those tiny details are not that important, they don’t make such a difference at the end. Well, the bad news is that those seemingly unimportant things really can change the outcome, although I can totally agree with that many times there’s just not enough time, nor sufficient technology available to solve them.

Being fussy vs. being thorough

Being fussy. Although live sound has come a long way, there’s still many who think that it’s a job where you have to paint with broad strokes and shouldn’t mess with those very small things. In my experience though, those minute details are what really separates the usual OK sounding concert from a truly brilliant sounding show.

Obviously you need to prioritise things, it’s absolutely not ok to tweak your bass compressor when you can’t even hear the singer, etc. But when you have a pretty good balance, everything is fine, sounding great and punchy, you might want to investigate those microscopic details that can really elevate the sonic experience.

These are the things we are obsessed with in post production. And these are the things that’s worth your attention. I’m often accused of being fussy on smaller live gigs, but then for example almost always asked how I did some cool sounding stereo or special effect.
Those special things come from my post production life, where dealing with these attributes is a daily habit, not a waste of time.
In post, our sonic microscopes (the calibrated studio monitors in a good room) are generally much more revealing and honest than any PA system in the world. Therefore most of the times we must work harder to create a believable or amazing sonic experience. When you daily “fussing” with these nanoscale elements, you just kind of develop a habit of being very alert to these things, even when you’re out of the comfort zone of the studio.

Please help me, I need a good psychiatrist

I’ve met many incredibly talented engineers over the years who regularly work both in live and post production. It seems that each and every one of us has his/her own obsession when it comes to live sound. Some have a serious eq fetish, filtering out unnecessary things, making everything sound clean or characterful, some has strong effect addiction, tweaking the delays and reverbs until they can create different layers, some have compressor craze, spending time to create and shape transients and gain control over overly dynamic things.

This serious addiction come from the endless hours in the studio testing, adjusting, tweaking every nuance until it satisfy both us and the client. During this long process, our brain learn to detect so tiny details in the compression characteristics that after a while we are able to hear almost the smallest parameter change, we get so intimately familiar with different types of reverbs that each hidden parameter become so obvious, every masking frequency become painfully evident. This doesn’t mean that we’re superheroes. It only means that we would like to mix the best possible show under the circumstances.
To be honest, almost everyone of us have these addiction to a degree, and to be fair, even many live sound only guy have these. In the midst of chaos, tension and other distracting things it is very easy to think that these detail oriented engineers are only try to make themselves seem important. But believe me, it cannot be further from the truth. We just try to do everything in our power to make the sound as good as possible. That’s it. We don’t want to freak out anyone, nor want to embarrass the crew.

Final thought

Developing this kind of analytical habit can only help. If you appreciate the smallest details, you’ll always try to improve, which, obviously very beneficial to sound. These minute things just add up at the end, so they’re worth your attention.
If you’re a bit confused about the vagueness and the lack of clear direction of the whole article, you might be not alone. It is merely a passing thought based on my past and very recent experiences in live sound. I guess the whole thing can be summarised by this very short sentence: details definitely matter.

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