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Tag: live sound

Planning is important

I’ve been snowed under, still trying to find my way out of the turmoil. During these periods, planning is even more important, it can be the ticket for success or the lack of it can be the recipe for disaster.

Symphonic live

Recently I was asked to mix a huge live show which had a pop band, a symphonic orchestra, a huge choir and 22 lead singers. I was responsible for the symphonic orchestra and the choir. With a show like this, it is mandatory to plan everything ahead, improvisation here can easily be disastrous.

The whole things starts with rehearsals and a pen and a clean sheet of paper. Yes, even in this modern computerised age, the early stage of planning is still easier and faster on paper. Sketching up the proper sitting positions in the orchestra, the number of players, the different instruments and their corresponding microphones, preliminary channel lists all done on paper. Later on obviously this whole thing will end up in Excel, but for the start when you sit there at the rehearsal, good old paper is much more convenient.

This is also the best time to make some notes on the different arrangements. Later on I’ll have the score, but it is a good idea to make general notes on the different songs. It can personalise the information and in my experience these early notes can trigger your memory later on so you’ll remember much more minute detail while you’ll mix the show. These notes don’t have to be really detailed professional remarks about the song or the arrangement but they must have meaning to the note taker. Write down anything comes to mind, even different moods or feelings. Later it can really help you to remember.

After numerous rehearsals I could make a final channel list:
(V=violin, VA=viola)

  1. V1
  2. V2
  3. V3
  4. V4
  5. V5
  6. V6
  7. V7
  8. V8
  9. V9
  10. V10
  11. V11
  12. V12
  13. V13
  14. V14
  15. V2/1
  16. V2/2
  17. V2/3
  18. V2/4
  19. V2/5
  20. V2/6
  21. V2/7
  22. V2/8
  23. V2/9
  24. V2/10
  25. V2/11
  26. V2/12
  27. V2/13
  28. V2/14
  29. VA1
  30. VA2
  31. VA3
  32. VA4
  33. VA5
  34. VA6
  35. VA7
  36. VA8
  37. VA9
  38. VA10
  39. CELLO1
  40. CELLO2
  41. CELLO3
  42. CELLO4
  43. DBASS1
  44. DBASS2
  45. FLUTE1
  46. FLUTE2
  47. OBOE1
  48. OBOE2
  49. CLARINET1
  50. CLARINET2
  51. BASSOON1
  52. BASSOON2
  53. TRUMPET1
  54. TRUMPET2
  55. TROMBONE1
  56. TROMBONE2
  57. HORN1
  58. HORN2
  59. TUBA
  60. TIMPANI1
  61. TIMPANI2
  62. MARIMBA L
  63. MARIMBA R
  64. XYLOPHONE L
  65. XYLOPHONE R
  66. VIBRAPHONE L
  67. VIBRAPHONE R
  68. PERCUSSION 1
  69. PERCUSSION 2
  70. PERCUSSION 3

Microphones

In a live situation like this, gain before feedback is the priority. Of course we want good sound quality too, but as we need to produce concert volume with a pop band and singers in front of the orchestra, somehow we must have pop SPL from a symphonic orchestra. I know it may sound strange but believe me that without this “rock volume” type preparation the live sound would fail miserably.

So, all strings miced with DPA4099, woodwinds were Rode NT5s, brass had Sennheiser md421s, and all the timpanis and other percussions had Rode NT5s. That’s it. No big secrets, no special magic. We had very short time to do everything and in a situation like this, in my experience, the simpler is the better. I agree that with more time maybe I could select different mics for certain positions, but as with any live production I had to make some compromises as not all kind and type of microphone is available everytime.

We had two consoles at FOH, an analogue Soundcraft and a digital DiGiCo. The DiGiCo handled the symphonic orchestra and the choir, the analogue side had the pop part and the lead singers. Although I generally don’t have any problem with digital consoles, frankly I hate the built-in effects in DiGiCo. Because of this I used external reverbs on the orchestra, two R2 (Exponential audio) provided the beautiful, lush effect connected through Pro Tools.

The outcome

Considering that we didn’t have enough rehearsal, the show was very successful both technically and artistically. The short time frame urged everyone in the production to really pay attention, focus and do as good job as he/she can.

On the monitoring side we had an interesting solution which worked remarkably well. We didn’t have enough budget and engineer for a completely separate monitor mix, so the whole symphonic orchestra received the monitor mix from my FOH console through matrix. At first I thought it is more than optimistic to think that it will work, but it was perfect. The musicians heard themselves well, and they loved the full mix with reverbs on it. Because I was skeptical at first, I sent a few submixes to the monitor mixer in case he need to add more from a certain group, but this time he only used the main mix.

The experience

The process was a brilliant learning experience too. I constantly compared the methods, sounds and necessary mix tricks needed to make full but loud mix, which is not the original nature of a symphonic orchestra. The final mix was an interesting blend of some well known pop/rock method with a good amount of classical treatment. It is a real challenge to make everything sound like a big classical orchestra while still providing enough volume and power. Compensate the extremely close micing but only for a degree because in the next minute I needed a more modern sound. All in all it was great fun.

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Compatibility is mandatory

Before I start, let me make one thing clear. Compatibility may not be the first thing for someone, but it is definitely a must in the professional world no matter what side of the industry you are operating in.

In the studio you may need to open even 2 or 3 years old sessions and if your software cannot cope with this task then you cannot do your job. In the post production world we need session compatibility because during the collaboration process you exchange huge number of sessions not to mention the need to open up old sessions. In live sound you need file compatibility, or else you can easily loose your show files with a console upgrade.

Historically Pro Tools is the king when you need to be compatible with many fellow engineers and studios, or if you often need to access older sessions. I should’ve said Avid is pretty good at this, because their live consoles just leave the competition in the dust when it comes to show file exchange and compatibility. During for example a festival season I receive many show files for different consoles. I have to check them and if for some reason the file contain any error I have two options: correct the error or inform the sender that his/her show file is not usable with the latest software updates.

Reminder!

Before getting into it, one thing to note: I only share my experiences about different consoles/softwares and manufacturers. This is not to bash any of them, but to inform you about these issues. I really don’t want a flame war, but in my opinion it is good if we all know about the possible issues that we may encounter.

Recently I had to go through some quite old Pro Tools and Nuendo sessions and to be honest I was surprised that I had so few problems. Out of 40 Pro Tools session only one had some minor problem but it was easy to sort it out making all 40 old sessions absolutely usable. With Steinberg it was only a bit different. From 28 sessions twenty was absolutely perfect, 6 had some minor issues and sadly two turned out to be corrupted for some reason rendered them unusable. The minor issues could be solved with a few minutes of work so at the end of the day I had 26 perfect sessions. As you can see the ratio is very very good in the post production side of the industry.

Let’s take a look at the live sound side. Well, frankly it is just infuriating. Most manufacturer just don’t pay enough attention to the software side of their products. Here’s a little list of my recent experiences all based on the last few months of work on the biggest Hungarian festivals’ main stages.

Yamaha

Very little compatibility between different consoles, their offline session converter is rather a hit and miss than a professional solution. On the other hand, console software upgrades rarely screw with your show files, which is good. File management is still very rudimentary which is quite surprising if you know the history of the company.

Midas

It seems that the company is working hard to maintain compatibility between various consoles, but sadly these efforts mostly seems to fail miserably. Lots of issues with show file compatibility. Actually at this point I would say that exchanging show files is very dangerous with these consoles. We had some minor issues with software upgrades but mostly we could handle these small hiccups.

Soundcraft

Almost all session exchange went smoothly, the only issue I’ve found is that if you make a session on a smaller console (vi4 for example) and then open that session on the bigger brother (vi6) you might end up with swapped channels as the bigger one misdetects the positions of the fader banks. This is pretty easily solvable though so it not caused real trouble for us. Have no direct experience with console software upgrade here.

Avid

Frankly, almost complete full compatibility everywhere. Between consoles their software effortlessly convert any hardware or software specific difference. Console software upgrades never interfered with the show files. After more than a hundred show files I can really tell you that we haven’t experienced a single issue here. I guess Avid just very cleverly used their post production knowledge.

DigiCo

Sadly there is virtually no compatibility here. I’ve heard they now have sort of session convert, but in real life, if you have a sd10 file for example, don’t even try to open it on any other DigiCo console and frankly you have a good chance that it won’t even work on another sd10 unless that console have the very same firmware installed on it. In our experience each and every console software update completely breaks compatibility with previously made show files.

Why do we need compatibility?

For a couple of reasons. With most of the manufacturers being so lousy in this department I’ve spent many days sleepless sorting out less and more serious issues. Remade countless show files from scratch thanks to their incompatibility. Just imagine this in the post world, actually even a tv show’s post would fail if we had these serious issues what live sound has. The whole big issue is really a pain causing lots of trouble, even that big some show can only go on with serious compromises which is unacceptable in my book.

This might seem like a rant and actually it is for a degree, because the improvement through the years is not enough. Compatibility still seems like luxury for live sound, though it should be default. I know that there is room for improvement in the post world too, but still, it is light years ahead and for me it is very embarrassing. Although year by year I do less and less live work, I still do selected jobs there and I hate the fact that I encounter the very same problems year by year. Now digital live sound consoles are quite ubiquitous so manufacturers should do something to maintain compatibility. As you can see it, what is a very basic requirement in the post production world is almost ignored in the live sound world although the need for it is obvious.

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Why we need broadcast consoles

Or even a more broad question, why do we need different consoles for any kind of post production? I received a very interesting email, where the writer suggested that the current live sound digital consoles should eliminate the need for the broadcast and post production consoles.

As this topic comes up from time to time I decided to answer it here, so anyone can read about the real reasons why we in the post industry need so different consoles.

Digital live consoles

As I’m in the live industry also, I have a quite good, up-to-date experience about the current state of the top of the line live sound consoles, including Avid, Yamaha, DigiCo and Soundcraft consoles. These are very fine equipments with tons of clever and useful features, well thought out architecture and most of the time they are very reliable even under tough circumstances like excess heat, dirt, etc.

But still, they are lacking in many areas. I won’t say that it is a fault, because live sound and post sound most of the time need different things. This is why these consoles cannot be really used in a serious post production situation.

In live sound and specifically in these top consoles there are many restrictions. Channel count, DSP power, number of busses and auxes or VCAs and the lack of ample amount of outputs and flexibility. I know now it may sound strange as really top notch guys touring with these boards, but believe me, these live oriented boards will fail miserably in the post world.

Post production needs

To make a clear and understandable point, here I mean post production as a big container which comprise everything from broadcast to film sound. I know it’s quite broad, but in this way it is more easy to understand the main differences and needs.

In a typical post situation we need insane amount of outputs compared to live sound. For example let’s see a live concert show with guests and different performers.
The input count can easily reach 96 inputs if not more. But, here comes the grip. We need to record this, so we have to route the 96 inputs to different locations as we usually record at multiple sources either because of simple safety backup purposes or because you have to give streams to different TV stations and one or two local recorders and also have to feed some line to the Radio. If we add all this up:

  • we need minimally 4 Madi outs (more would be more convenient)
  • high bus count as we provide feeds for everyone, including the director, the TV, the Radio

The other important point is buses and their capability. In the live consoles there are simply not enough bus and the other restriction usually is that you cannot route a bus into another bus. For various mix reasons this is essential in post production. Without this, we couldn’t conveniently do a live mix while we feed different mixes to different places and recording pre-specified stems.

If we delve even deeper into the film world then automation will be the second huge deal breaker where live sound seriously lacks. This is not a real fault though. Think about it, in a live situation you might need some automation on a few occasions, but still it is nothing compared what we need in post. Just take a look at Pro Tools as that is the “industry standard” DAW in post. What we daily use is write, read, touch, latch, touch/latch, preview, write to current, write to end, punch, etc. and these are only the main properties of the automation, we haven’t even seen the myriad of parameters that needs to be reliably automated.

Even a simple TV show, or a short film’s mix can get so complicated that the biggest live console could not handle it. It wouldn’t have the channel count, the bus count, the DSP power, the routing flexibility, and the automation power to do these mixes.

Right now I’m working on a huge live show where we have 17 bands, each play one or two songs many times each song goes with different members and instruments, and the whole show comprise of 42 songs. As I’m responsible for the FOH consoles, the snapshots I have first hand experience what each live console is capable of when it comes to automation and snapshots. And I can see that how a big (and sadly very expensive) “post console” could help me out easily, where right now we meticulously work our way through the insane amount of changes.

Which is better?

There is no such thing as better. While live and post are adjacent industries, have very different needs. So this question is simply invalid. It’s like comparing huge trucks to sport cars. Both have engine, wheels, etc. but serve very different purposes. So it’s not about simple tech specs. Every job has its own perils and we have to choose the right tool for the job. I hope this makes a bit clearer.

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Find me at the festivals

It’s definitely summer time. No holiday yet, instead, the festival season started. I’m really honored to be hired for the 3 biggest major Hungarian festivals as chief FOH engineer, which unfortunately means that I have very little, if any spare time.

I won’t make big promises, but will try to write at least one post a week. If I’ll have my Pro Tools rig with me, than the post will be PT related, otherwise it’ll be about live sound or pro-audio in general.

Been testing Pro Tools 11 for a while and I decided I really like it, so I’m going to upgrade my rig as soon as I’ll have time for it. At least on a positive note, by the time I’ll jump into it, probably most of my plugins will be PT11 ready (I hope).

Stay tuned, I’ll do my best to write something interesting.

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You gotta love live sound

You have to love it for various reasons. Although many have a love-hate relationship with it, there are many things we can learn from it, and it’s even more true if we are partly working in it. Of course I’m somewhat biased because although in full time I’m a post-production engineer I continue to work in live sound in a freelance basis. I gathered some of my experiences that may help post guys in achieving better results, because like it or not, although it is vastly different from post work it is still an adjacent industry working with sound.

You won’t find many similarities in these jobs but I’m certain that each can learn a few things from the other, even if someone really hate live sound. Probably these profoundly different workflows and situations give the real means that can help us to develop very useful skills in the other part of the industry.

Make decisions and stick to them

Probably the biggest advantage one can learn from some live sound work is how to make decisions in tough environments. Amidst the often frantic tempo of live sound gigs you simply won’t have time to contemplate on things. Your aim is to rapidly find the best solution even if you don’t have all the necessary information, even if the information you have is not accurate or not detailed enough. No one will wait for your well thought-out plans, and if you don’t want to make many people furious, you should really try hard to put things into the proper order.
But wait, how can I make such good decisions if the information I get is inaccurate?
Well, that’s the hard part which gets better if you gain more and more experience but only if you really pour yourself into the process. The plan don’t have to be dead accurate, but must be plausible.

The point is to learn to make serious decisions based on very incomplete information. How is it helping you in the post world?

It helps you to be very focused yet still very open minded about the upcoming problems you might encounter for example during a mix session. Obviously you won’t always have the right answer for the given problem, but as you gradually getting better in this decision making process, your success rate will go up.

Adopt, adapt and improve

Just as the famous scene from Monthy Python. I know it may sound confusing, but you have to be able to drop your plan at the right moment. I know that a few lines above I just suggested to make a decision and stick with it, and it’s true. But it’s equally important to develop your 6th sense and realise if something is not working or won’t work, so you need another solution. In this scenario if you cling to the wrong plan, you can ruin your chances very quickly. It’s really a double-edged sword. On one hand you need to make decisions and try to stick to them, on the other hand you should never forget the possibility that you might have chosen the wrong path. In this case the best solution is to throw out your bad plan, and as quickly as possible, choose another solution which would seem to work in the given situation.

I know it’s a bit vague, maybe even daunting, but in reality it’s not rocket science. If I want to really simplify this I would say: learn to be sober in frantic situations and learn to recognise and correct your own mistakes. That’s it. In my experience live sound is a very good learning field for this.

However quick shouldn’t mean rushed. When you’re in a tough situation which need to be solved immediately and you surrounded by sleep deprived, testy, nervous people, try to stay calm and focused. It’s easier to say than to do it, but again, with some practice you’ll become better at this. How can this really be any help in the post world?

In my experience every director, sound supervisor, etc. become more confident in your work if you remain calm and constructive even amongst the biggest challenges. Obviously this does not mean that you don’t care, quite the opposite: you must care enough to develop this skill so you can solve, or at least suggest possible solutions for the given problems.

Don’t afraid to fail

Again, live sound is probably the perfect training ground for this. Anyone who did many shows know that sometimes we fail. Maybe we have a very bad day, or the PA is horrible, or the venue is a nightmare and you don’t have enough time for soundcheck. At some point in your path, you’ll fail. The show will go on, you’ll feel very bad about it, but I suggest you to get used to it, or at least don’t be afraid of failing. This is very important. It’s never about your own ego. It’s about the gig, show, film, fx, production, etc. If you’re not willing to leave your ego at the door, than you’ve chosen the wrong industry doesn’t matter if it’s live or post sound.

No matter how big cliche: learn from your mistakes or fails. The question is not that how can you eschew any mistake, but how you treat them or what you learn from them. Honesty is the best here. Even if someone ridicules you for it. The worst possible strategy is try to hide, deny your fault or try to lay the blame on somebody else.

“My ego comes pre-shrunk”
Randy Thom

Be fast

Learn to be a fast pace operator. In order to efficiently solve problems or able to do a full sound check rapidly, you need to be technically prepared. If you struggle with the console, constantly adjust the wrong channel because you forgot to select the right one, you’ll be in a very bad position. This is very, very important in post production too. Learn the tools. If the equipment you try to use is an obstacle, then you need more practice. I realise that no one can know everything, but as in every job, there are basics, special workflows, shortcuts, general system knowledge. If you lack at some areas here, try to improve them “offline”. Even if it seems bitterly boring, practice even basic things until you feel that you would execute the task no matter what may happen around you.

It’s like language. If anyone try to learn a foreign language, there is a point where the person’s active vocabulary is smaller than the passive one. So while I understand an article for example, cannot eloquently tell the story to others, because my active vocabulary lacks. What should I do then? Practice, practice and practice. It’s the same in the audio world. Simply put, it’s not enough if you heard about Pro Tools, you must be able to operate it. And you won’t be able to operate it properly if you only tried it once or twice.

Remember it’s fun

Never ever forget that this job is tremendous fun. Really! Despite all the hard things, all the sleep deprivation and long hours. Consider these things:

  • you always learn new things
  • meet new people (clients, colleagues)
  • work on funny, serious, evocative, good, etc. material
  • you can be creative (actually you must be!)
  • always challenged so you won’t be ever bored

These are just a few highlights because there are so many it would fill multiple long blog posts. Grit is what makes you better day by day. Stick with the upcoming problems, put effort into the solutions and it will be good fun and a real good learning experience too. At least in my opinion of course.

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