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The Physics of Concrete

That’s what I’m blaming. The concrete. So here’s what happened.

This week we did a little experiment with our subs. Our subs are good, but in truth I have never been as satisfied with them as I feel like I should be. Playing with the d&b B2′s at last year’s almost-Concert on the Lawn and then the L-Acoustic SB28′s this year hasn’t helped my satisfaction, either. Oh, and then there were the J-Infra’s my buddy Zito had out with OneRepublic this summer. Those were quite nice. Quite. Nice.

Now, I know our Meyer M3D-Subs aren’t any of those, and that’s OK. Our subs are good, and most people would probably question why I’d even consider changing anything. However, it would make me happy if our subs performed a little closer to what I’ve been experiencing with some other boxes. Plus, a couple months ago when we were working on the outfills for the West PA, my friend Ed Crippen made a couple of tweaks to the West sub array that got them much closer to what I’ve been wanting so I’ve been even more motivated as of late to try and move our East subs up a notch. This week we took a shot at it.

I had three primary goals in reconfiguring the subs:

1. Tighten up their performance and punch.

The current horizontal arc of the array works great for even coverage without the fingers of destructive interference from stacks spaced on either side of the stage. However, arc’ing and/or using incremental delay on a horizontal sub array has a tendency to induce time smear in the listening area resulting in decreased punch and impact. Things can be punchy in the near- and mid-field of our sub coverage, but as you transition into the far-field, that punch goes away. And wouldn’t you know it, mix position is right on the edge of that. Moving the mix position 3-4′ forward would be all it would take to get that punch at FOH, but then FOH would be too close. So my hope was to tighten up the overall sub response throughout the coverage area so everybody wins.

2. Increase headroom.

We have 10 M3D-subs in the room, but because they’re cardioid they don’t seem to sum quite the same as traditional subs, and on a typical week I mix them right at the edge of excursion. You don’t hear it at mix position, but if you get right down in front they don’t sound so good in excursion. Plus it’s probably not so good for the longevity of the speakers, either. I typically have Meyer’s RMS up on my machine so I can keep an eye on what’s going on with the subs, and I’ll back down my feed to them as necessary. So my next hope was to get the subs to sum a little better giving me a little more headroom in the overall sub performance.

3. Widen the coverage.

Horizontal arrays are great, but with an array length as long as we’ve got we end up with pattern control as wide as the actual array. It extends out beyond the array simply because of the arc, but that still leaves sections of the room on the far outsides with lesser coverage. In my opinion, they are not good seats, however, the people sitting in them are still important so I would have loved to increase the coverage.

The challenge in reconfiguring the subs is there’s not a lot of real estate to do it. They have to live under the stage, and that area was really designed for the subs to be in bays. So the structure doesn’t offer much flexibility for alternate configurations. There is a narrow path running behind each bay, though, so I measured the space under the stage several months ago when I was originally thinking about this. I plugged those measurements into MAPP so I could play around with some different designs knowing roughly where the speakers could fit.

So let’s look at the models.

Subs current

The photo above is our current configuration. Every color change represents 3dB so you can see how the coverage cools off on the outsides. You can also see how the level drops right at mix position just right of the center of the room.

Now here’s what I was envisioning. My idea came from conversations with Steve Bush from Meyer Sound when he was onsite last year helping with the install of the West PA. Since the subs are cardioid, my idea was to tight-pack them and position them so each side of the room would get its own stack of subs. I then aimed each stack so there would be minimal coverage overlap between the two. My thinking was the close proximity of boxes would tighten things up and aiming them this way would keep the coverage smooth on each side of the room. Here’s the model:

Subs new

You can see in the proposed idea that the coverage in the room gets wider and more consistent in level. Now let’s check out some Virtual SIM measurements.

03 Current  FOH
Current Configuration @ FOH

04 Stagl  FOH
New Configuration @ FOH

Virtual SIM measurements showed an increase in level relative to our current configuration of about 4dB at FOH, 2.5dB in the front row, the back of the room stayed virtually the same in level, and the front sections on the far sides would get around 6dB more level. I figured this was just the extra little bit of headroom I wanted without blowing away the front of the room to get it.

The model looked interesting to me, so I bounced it off some friends who were also intrigued, but there was still some skepticism. You see, the thing that MAPP isn’t accounting for is that the subs are under a concrete stage. And one thing we know is that when you put cardioid subs under a stage, they don’t quite work the same as if they’re in open air. So I knew the only way we would know for sure was we would need to actually move the subs.

We spent most of the afternoon on Monday moving the wiring and subs around under the stage. Fortunately, most of the area under the stage is carpeted so with the help of a crowbar we were able to get furniture movers under each 400lb. sub. With the furniture movers in place, the subs move relatively easy especially when two people were pushing and pulling them.

Of course, things didn’t go entirely to plan. The first issue that bit us was somewhere my measurements of the space went off a bit so things didn’t quite fit the way I had hoped they would. We ended up a few degrees off on the aiming of each side, and the back row of subs weren’t able to land exactly where I wanted them. Incidentally, the back row wasn’t an attempt at an end-fired array; that just seemed like the best place I could put the subs. Ideally, I probably would have had those two subs stacked on top of two of the front row boxes, but there’s not enough room under the stage, AND there’s no way any of us would have tried lifting them under there even if there was room.

I came really close to scrapping the whole plan when we couldn’t get the first side in position exactly the way the model was, but I figured I would always be wondering if it worked so we went ahead and moved them all into place. Of course, all hope drained away after I re-timed them to the tops and finally got some music going.

Everything measured quite nicely, but the subs felt worse than before. I tried turning the back row off and flipping polarity but nothing worked. My measurements showed me the same, if not more low frequency level at FOH, but I didn’t hear it. There was no punch and the deep lows I was used to were missing. Some of the guys who helped move the subs were wondering if I was wrong in my initial assessment on the new position. After mixing on this system for 4 years, I knew what it could do, and the new configuration was far from that. I really wanted this to work, but it didn’t.

So on Tuesday we took a couple hours in the afternoon to move things back into the original positions. I was very thankful I had spiked the original locations of the subs because as soon as we got things back up and running it was quite clear that our original setup is the optimal one for now. I’ve still got some other ideas I might explore, but the subs are staying put for the foreseeable future.

Now some might look at this whole escapade as a waste of time, but I don’t see it that way. This was a priceless learning opportunity. I’m still a very strong proponent of computer modeling and using measurements for loudspeaker optimization. However, even if things look good in computer models and measure nice, you still have to put your ears on things. In this case, I liked the model and measurements, but I didn’t like the way it sounded. If we hadn’t actually moved things around and given it a listen, I never would have known how the setup actually worked. Personally, I think the cavity underneath the stage thwarted things because it was a missing variable in the models, so I’d still be curious to hear a setup like this in an open air environment to see if it’s something I should rule out for all-time or not.

There was one other great thing that came out of this, though. Through the course of rewiring our RMS lines to our subs, some of the RMS issues I’d been having from time to time cleared up and some missing boxes that were up in our tops finally showed up in RMS. If you’ve played with RMS at all, you can probably guess how happy that alone made me.


No Big Secret

Earlier this year I was talking with an engineer friend of mine who got to spend a week learning from one of today’s A-Level studio mixers. It was cool to hear a little about some of the techniques he learned firsthand from an A-Level mixer, but the course of the conversation really just kept coming back around and around and around to a simple thing: There’s no big secret to mixing.

There isn’t some big thing the A-list mixers know and do that you can learn and all of a sudden your mix becomes magically transformed. Ultimately these guys do one thing: make the music do what the music is trying to do.

You can read and watch all the interviews and even try and stalk some of these guys to ask some questions, but I can save you some time and energy. If there’s any one, universal thing I’ve picked up from all of my research, one-on-one question time, and over-analyzing of the A-list guys, it’s that they are crazy in-tune with music.

Lord-Alge, Clearmountain, Brauer, Wallace, Marroquin, Pensado, Shipley, Lillywhite, Puig, etc., etc., etc.

These guys GET music.

That’s it.

When you GET music and are presented with a load of channels/inputs/tracks, what you need to do is intuitive.

Sure there are fundamental techniques you need to master like gain staging, processing, balancing, etc. But once you’ve figured that stuff out–and it’s not so hard if you have the aptitude and practice practice practice–and you GET music, when you push up the faders you know where to put ‘em and what they need to do for the music.

There’s no 12 step process to a great mix contrary to what some guys might say. In fact, there’s a reason why when you really start looking at those A-list guys, a lot of them just kind of throw all the faders up in the mix and get to work.

Robert Scovill was on Deane Ogden‘s podcast earlier this year, and I think this quote from him really sums this up:

I’m always telling guys, quit studying the technology. Study the music. I can teach a monkey to operate the technology. I can’t teach a monkey to evaluate a piece of music and have sensibility with how to construct it.

Andy Wallace is one of my favorite mixers, and he recently did an interview in Sound on Sound which was pretty cool in itself because I think this marks the 3rd interview with him I’ve ever been able to find.

Andy Wallace has a very simple technical approach to mixing compared to many of the other guys these days who seem to get a lot of press. The bulk of any processing he does happens right on his console which is typically an SSL of some fashion. His outboard gear is generally quite small and limited to maybe a couple reverbs and delays and one or two outboard compressors. The bulk of what Andy Wallace does when he’s mixing is riding faders making what needs to be heard heard.

For me, a mix is about trying to find something that works and that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and believing in that.

Andy Wallace

I’m not saying gear doesn’t matter because it does, and good gear in good hands can definitely make a difference. However, at the end of the day what we do has to be about music and its emotion and power. There is no magical, mystical trick or set of tricks or magic boxes that will suddenly put your mixes in the same league as the A-List guys. You need great musicians and to bring the same musical sensibility to your engineering the band is bringing on stage. Going after anything else is like chasing ghosts.


Recalling Some Monitor Mixes


A question came up recently on Twitter on whether there is a way to store preset monitor mixes on VENUE. This is actually something I’ve been experimenting with this year so I guess the answer is this can “sort-of” be done, but there’s not an easy solution. Some of the newer digital consoles I’m seeing on the market are offering some easier ways to do this, but even with the ability I don’t think it will work for everybody. So let’s explore this a bit, and then I’ll get into the nitty-gritty on what I’m doing with the Avid VENUE.

If your situation is like mine, you have a pickup band. For those unfamiliar with the term, a pickup band is basically a group of musicians who get put together for a limited time. In our case, that limited time is our Sunday service so every week we have a different group of musicians. Most of the musicians are familiar to us and have played on our stages before, but the specific players change every week. If you are working with the same lineup of musicians every week, none of this is going to apply.

I started experimenting with storing mixes as best as I could in order to save time and help with soundchecks, and the results have been mixed. Regardless of what kind of console you’re using, let’s talk about why this might and might not work.

For starters, a mix is heavily reliant on gain staging. When our monitor engineers start their mix to each musician, they set that musician’s input fader at unity and the send to their mix at unity. Then gain is turned up until the musician is happy. Some folks may cringe at this method, but this is actually a tried-and-true method those of us who grew up in the analog world learned. Plus, in most cases, this gets a nice healthy signal level on that input.

However, I have seen issues in this approach at monitors due to varying impedance levels on different models of custom in-ears. Not all in-ears have the same impedance, and that can have an effect on gain staging. Most musicians like to keep their packs at a healthy, yet modest level so they can maintain overall level control of their mixes; this is the same idea as us keeping our faders near unity. But when a musician’s in-ears are more sensitive, they may require less gain to drive them to a comfortable level when their pack’s level is set where it’s comfortable to adjust.

There are different and arguably better ways this kind of gain staging issue should be dealt with in order to keep a healthy input level. However, in my world I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to just deal with it on the input because changing up gain staging in other areas such as the console’s mix output or transmitter sensitivity tends to cause problems in the following weeks because those settings tend to be deeper in equipment and often get overlooked by the next monitor crew until it’s too late.

Anyway, the point I want to make is when you’re trying to make mix presets you need to have consistent gain staging on all your inputs so that the gain of each instrument is consistent week-to-week. If one guitar player’s signal level is usually around unity and another’s is 10 dB down from that, a preset mix will not compensate for that difference. I hope that makes sense.

Another issue comes up because mixes are not just based on signal levels. Tonality is a very big part of the mix as well. The tonality differences between two different lead guitar players or keyboard patches or bass guitars can be enough to change someone’s mix.

Whether it’s monitors, FOH, or the studio, one way to think of a mix is as a jigsaw puzzle with the different instruments being the pieces. I use things like level, dynamics processing, and EQ to shape each of those pieces so that they all fit together into a final picture. However, no two pieces are ever exactly alike so when you swap out one piece for another, the new piece won’t exactly fit the same way as the old one. Guitar players all have their own tones and sounds. Keyboard players all have their own tones and sounds. Even drummers on the same drum kit tuned the same way will sound different. In my early days of digital console use I used to try and store presets for each musician at FOH, but they never worked because a musician’s sound is as much a part of their own creation as the sounds that are around it in the mix.

The point I want to make is, your mileage may be limited if you try and do entire presets of mixes. That said, I have found some benefits for trying to store mixes.

The biggest win is we can get each musician’s gain staging and/or EQ pre-dialed to themselves. This is proving especially helpful with more complicated instruments such as drums. We always start our soundchecks with the drums, but I have seen drummers walk in and be ready to go after doing a very quick soundcheck since implementing this. Any tweaks to the drum kit mix are also pretty minor and quick as a result.

Minor wins include instrument panning. Every musician wants stuff in their mixes panned differently. By getting that stored ahead of time, it cuts out a step during soundcheck. Programming the console each week might also be a little faster since my recall workflow automatically labels a lot of things for me.

There might be some other little benefits, but as you can see this isn’t necessarily earth-shattering or game changing. I have seen it speed up soundchecks at times, but I’ve also see it slow things down so I’m still a little bit on the fence if this is actually a better method of working than our traditional way of pre-dialing mixes. At a minimum, I would keep the drum mixes, though, because they typically seem to take the most time to dial in.

So let’s get into VENUE specifics. I’ve been looking at this as a way to store custom pre-dialed mixes for musicians so I think of these are starting points, but not final mixes. I’m accomplishing this using snapshots.

Each musician that plays on our East Auditorium stage gets his/her own snapshot. On Monday or Tuesday I’ll take the previous Sunday’s show file and create a new snapshot for anyone new to the stage that week while also updating existing snapshots for musicians who had a really good day. Each snapshot is named first with that player’s role followed by their name so I can keep them all sorted to which mix they were on. With that housekeeping done, I have a snapshot saved that basically wipes the desk back to our default monitor mix start position with mixes pre-dialed based on our traditional method. Then I overwrite our template so that I have the new library of mixes stored in the template. This way we can start a rehearsal either from our traditional position or with the custom pre-dials recalled.

Simple so far. Recall is where it gets complicated.

Each VENUE snapshot stores a snapshot of the entire console’s settings with the exception of plugins. This is great for most applications, but when it comes to only recalling a specific aux-send or variable group mix it isn’t an ideal solution. So, for example, if I were to just recall each musician snapshot, I would not only recall that musician’s mix but every other mix and parameter on the console. So each time I recalled a mix snapshot, it would wipe the desk. There is a way around this using VENUE’s snapshot Scope and Recall Safe’s.

To start with, each musician’s snapshot has the following parameters in Scope: EQ, DYN, PRE, NAME, AUX MON, and PLUG-INs. These are used to recall specific settings for that musician such as their pre-amp settings, naming, and specific plugin settings. For example, some of our drummers have specific reverb and compression tastes so those settings are stored in the snapshot. Input and Output naming also gets stored here. Inputs for music specific inputs are also Scoped on the fader Inputs along with their specific mix Aux masters on the Outputs tab.

To prevent recalling things for every instrument and mix on the console, I make use of the console’s Recall Safes. I typically have everything safe’d on the entire console except for FADER, MUTE, and AUX MON on the Input safes. I started doing this when we installed the console so that in the event that we want/need snapshots for something, our engineers can be very specific in which mixes have snapshots recalling.

Next I created custom Recall Safe Scope Sets for each monitor mix. These custom sets turn off the recall safe settings for Mic Pre’s, HPF, EQ and Dynamics settings, and the input name on the Inputs side for that musician’s specific instrument(s). On the outputs side, the Scope Set turns the safe’s off for CH SENDS, OUT, and NAME. So these safe sets basically recall the input settings for a musician, label their input(s), recall the relative aux-send levels and panning for their entire mix, and then label their output on the console with their name.

Now, while it was a little complicated to setup, it’s actually not so bad in practice. If I want to load someone’s pre-dial settings, I select the Scope Set for their position(ex. drums), select their personal snapshot, and hit recall. I wish it was as simple as just recalling the snapshot, but it’s still not that many steps.

If you’ve got any questions about any of this, though, please feel free to add them in the comments below.

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