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6

Be Professional: Setting the Stage

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So I’m going to start something new that might be an ongoing series. This was inspired by some of the recent stuff we were talking about on Church Tech Weekly about creating a professional environment. These are just going to be simple, little posts hopefully of simple, little things that can instantly help you come across as more professional. Let’s start off by talking about setting up your stage.

Personally, I’m not the greatest person in the world at keeping a stage neat and tidy because I’m not the greatest person at keeping anything neat and tidy. I work with a lot of guys who are way better at this than me, however, I do know a few little things that can go a long way.

Step 1: Stage Plots

The first thing you need to do is know or figure out where everything is going to go. Professionals use something called Stage Plots for this. A Stage Plot is a simple diagram that shows where everything will go on stage. Consider it a map of the stage. Stage plots can be elaborate diagrams or even simple sketches on a napkin, although, napkins would be frowned upon in most professional situations. If you use Planning Center for your services, they even have a built in stage layout feature you can use for this. Regardless of what you use, you should have some kind of a document showing where everyone/everything will go.

Personally, I don’t typically put together stage plots. In my world, there are a lot of video and lighting considerations in regards to where things go on stage so I simply weigh in on them a bit if someone is going to be in a difficult place for me. For example, I strategically try and get all of the softer singers as far away from the drums as possible. However, there is a document of some sort that is created every week.

Once you know where everything is going to go you can start getting things wired up which leads to the next step.

Step 2: Consolidate

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Minimize all cable runs to as few as possible. There’s nothing worse than having a ton of individual cables running all over the stage. One of my favorite ways to do this is to build my own snakes. This can easily be accomplished using something like Techflex. Techflex is a braided sleeve that can be used to encase and conceal cables. There are a lot of varieties out there, and I typically go with F6 because it’s split so you can easily add and remove things as necessary. The only downside is that Techflex can sometimes slide around on some stages if you step on it wrong, but I think it’s still better than having multiple cables to slide and trip on.

If you don’t want to or can’t use Techflex, Gaffers Tape (Gaff Tape or just Gaff) can be used to temporarily secure cables together. Gaff is no good long term, though, because over time it will leave a nasty, sticky residue on your cables. If you’re going to purchase gaff tape, do yourself a favor and get the good stuff. Whatever you do, don’t use Duct Tape. Duct Tape will leave nasty, sticky residue on your cables if it just sits in the same room with them.

Some guys like to skip Gaff and use zip-ties. Zip-ties work better over the long term, but I’m personally not a big fan because I’ve had my hands sliced up way too many times from sharp corners and edges on the connectors.

The photos on the right display some of the snakes I’ve built using Techflex. The bottom photo displays the snake we use for our bass players in our West Auditorium. There’s a line for the bass player’s signal, stereo hardwired IEM’s, and power. We can easily move this to one of two positions where our bass player might be positioned on stage, and everything stays connected and neat. This leads to the next thing.

Step 3: Use Drop Snakes

Drop snakes–sometimes also called sub-snakes–are wonderful because they can be placed or “dropped” wherever you need them and provide centralized points for connecting inputs. Drum kits and keyboard risers look especially tacky with a half dozen or more cables running off to a floor box somewhere. Using a drop snake near the drums gives you a single cable run back to your main snake or splitter and keeps the individual lines for the drums contained to the riser.

I know some people like floor boxes, but I have a pure and passionate hatred for them. They are typically only in the right place for the first couple weeks venue opens, and that’s if you’re lucky. Shortly after opening or even upon opening they are always at least one input short of what you really need. My friends Andrew Stone(Church on the Move) and Joel Yates(Newspring) have some floor boxes that are downstage and serve mostly as access points to run things under the stage, and these don’t bother me quite as much because there is some flexibility in them compared to floor boxes with permanent IO connections.

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Now, I know in one of the photos above you can see one of our snakes running out of a floor box. Let me assure you, this is no longer the case because I hate floor boxes. That photo was taken before we added a couple drop snakes in our downstage trough that runs across the front of the stage–you can see those here on the left.

Personally, I prefer a trough/trench to floor boxes because there is a lot more flexibility for getting signals wherever they’re needed. They also offer a great place to mount footlights.

Step 4: Run cables from Upstage to Downstage

Whenever possible, cables should run from Upstage (the back of the stage) to Downstage (the front of the stage). Ultimately, you want to minimize the amount of cables you have downstage because that’s what ends up making your stage look messy.

When you do use cables downstage, it is best to consolidate them into a single run across the front of the stage as far downstage as possible. Sometimes this is the best bet for hardwired vocal mics and wedges. You should also try and get the main run for these downstage cables as far to the side of the stage as possible and consolidated(see Step 2).

Step 5: As Neat As Possible

In complex stage setups, it can be difficult to keep things looking neat no matter how much consolidation you do so you just have try and keep things as neat as possible. For starters, when you have excess cable, coil the excess neatly at the SOURCE and NOT at the snake. Having the excess at the source offers flexibility in case you have to move that source somewhere else on stage. It also keeps your stage boxes/floor pockets clean so when you have to troubleshoot something you don’t have a bird’s nest of cables at the inputs to sort through.

When you wrap or coil a cable, always make sure and do it “over/under”. If you don’t know how to do this, stop handling cables until you do. Seriously. Go learn this right now. Right now. Seriously. Stop everything and go learn it.

There are videos on YouTube, but there’s a great one HERE. Mastering this is an absolute must. You have have have have have to learn how to properly wrap a cable if you’re going to do anything in production.

These are just some small strategies for keeping your stage looking professional.

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The panorama here and at the top of this article is a recent photo of one of our stages completely wired and ready for the band to arrive. Notice how clean the stage looks?

Our other auditorium looks very similar, although, we have a few extra snakes running from our upstage risers for guitar pedalboards since we clear that stage after the music. In both cases, the goal is to keep things as clean and open looking as possible.

If you’ve got some more strategies for keeping your stage looking professional, please add them in the comments.

2

I’m Not An Idiot

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OK, I feel like I can finally get into this now so let’s talk about that distortion I was having on my RF mics. When I left off on the issue last month, we didn’t have a clue what was going on. We had borrowed some ULX-D mics from our Students, and they seemed to be getting us by while we tried to track down the problem. However, a couple Sundays later the distortion re-emerged in the afternoon while using the borrowed ULX-D rig. The distortion also reemerged on our keyboard lines.

Yeah, I didn’t mention the keyboards in the first post about this because when the distortion appeared on the keys on that Monday night, I initially thought they were two isolated incidents. Apparently they were not.

So while I was on my way back to our campus on that Sunday afternoon after getting the call the problem was back, I started thinking through what changed recently. Every time we would think the problem was fixed, it would suddenly pop back up so I started to think we were looking in the wrong places. Running through possibilities, the thing that stood out in my mind was our new studio console.

The studio console creating the problem didn’t make sense to me. The studio gets its power from our super-duper UPS that will keep our entire video world running in the event of a blackout. The console connects via fiber to its SD racks in our equipment room, and they are connected to one of the isolated splits off our 3-way analog split. So, basically, everything should be isolated from everything…right?

It was a far-out idea, but after two weeks without a clue what was causing the problem, far-out wouldn’t surprise me.

When I arrived back at North Point, I asked our team if they had checked to see if the issue was happening in the studio. They said they hadn’t had time, yet, so I headed into the studio to check the issue only to find everything powered down. I started powering everything up and got it all working just in time for the start of our 4:30pm service.

Everything sounded clean and clear when I solo’ed inputs in the studio. I then walked out to FOH where everything also sounded great. So I started looking for my Production Director to chat about my latest harebrained theory: when we power off the studio, everything falls apart.

It was the one changing common denominator I could think of. When we hosted Catalyst, the studio was running all day while they recorded the music in the studio. Then the studio powered off at the end of the day around 5pm when the issue appeared. Just when I thought the issue had disappeared, we had distortion on a Wednesday night rehearsal while the studio wasn’t in use because we had rehearsed that auditorium earlier in the week. The weekend before, everything had been fine all day, but the studio was also powered all day and didn’t get powered down until after the last PM service. Then on that Sunday afternoon when I arrived, I found the studio powered down.

In between services, I powered the studio all the way down. We checked the mics and keyboard lines, and they were all distorting. Next I started powering up the studio gear. I started with the SD racks which didn’t completely fix the issue. When I powered up the actual console in the studio, and it took control of the SD Racks, I immediately got a call on the radio that the distortion had stopped.

So what’s going on exactly?

I’ve traded a lot of emails with Digico who were very helpful in figuring out what’s going on, and this is not a bug. This is actually a feature. As I understand it, the preamps in the Digico use a bit of active circuitry to protect the preamps from excessive voltage. When the SD rack is powered down, it essentially goes into protection mode which changes the impedance on our entire system resulting in audible distortion on our other consoles.

Now, I’m still not exactly clear on why this happens because the electrical side of audio isn’t my strong suit. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to understand this better, so maybe someone smarter than me can shed some light on this in the comments.

At the same time, in some ways it doesn’t really matter, though, because the good news is we found the source of the problem. The solution is also pretty simple because we just keep the SD Racks powered. As long as they don’t go down, everything is happy.

I’ve had some weird issues pop up in my career, but I feel like this has been the most perplexing and definitely the least fun issue I’ve ever had to troubleshoot. So I just want to give a big shout out to my friends at Shure, Avid, Digico, Clark, and Moyers along with many of my other engineer friends for all their help and support in trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s comforting to know that when something mysterious like this happens, there are a lot of folks interested in helping. I was going out of my mind on this, and I don’t think I ever would have figured it out without all the help and support we received.

0

Aiming for a Target

So, as some of you know I made a conscious decision to stop handing out SPL numbers a couple of years ago. You can go back and read the original post if you missed it, but the gist of it is that loudness is a perception and a lot more complicated than a single number. SPL measurements don’t offer any information on frequency balance which is a critical component of our perceived loudness. It’s not bad to keep an eye on SPL, but I think if there’s something you should really be monitoring, it’s frequency balance and level.

A couple years ago I took a mix that I considered to have a frequency balance that could serve as a benchmark for me to do this. I typically run Smaart’s RTA Averaging at either 5 or 10 seconds. I played back the mix at show level until I had a decent averaged measurement displayed and stored a trace. The beauty of this kind of measurement is not only does it show frequency balance, it shows the preferred level of that balance because I have the RTA set to plot a calibrated level.

I’ve used that trace on a regular basis since then to check my mixes for weekly consistency. The only challenge with this, though, is that since it’s a measurement trace it’s not the prettiest thing to look at. You can see the measurement below displayed at 1/24th octave banding.

TargetHouse trace
Reference Mix Measurement

Over the years I’ve gotten more accustomed to looking at measurements in Smaart with less and less averaging across the frequency spectrum. These days I typically opt for 1/24th or even 1/48th of an octave banding. It makes for a messier display, but I’ve kind of gotten used to averaging out what I’m looking at in my head so that I can see trends in the measurement. The advantage to less averaging is that when there are narrow errant frequency peaks or dips, you can actually see them in the measurement. With a lot of averaging, those peaks and dips simply get averaged across the banding of the octave.

While I prefer less averaging across the spectrum on live measurements, when I’m using something as a target, I have always wanted to have something that was a little cleaner to look at because once you start overlaying a lot of messy measurements and traces, it gets harder for me to see what I’m really measuring against each other.

I guess I’m not the only one who desired a way to have cleaner targets to look at because Rational Acoustics released an update to Smaart this week that makes this a whole lot easier. RA calls them Target Curves. Now we can overlay a Target Curve in the foreground on Smaart’s RTA. I’ve always wanted to draw a straight line through my target measurement from 2 years ago, and with Target Curves now I can do just that.

Here’s my new Target Curve(purple) displayed against my original measurement(red). Note how it pretty much cuts right through the middle of my original measurement.

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Target Curve with Reference Mix

So how’d I do this?

First, I took my original measurement and set Smaart’s banding to 1/3 octave so I could get a baseline decibel level and figure out the trend for my mix. What I found is that my personal preference is for a frequency balance that drops about 4 dB per octave across the listening spectrum. I originally thought 3 dB per octave was the magic number, but that ended up too shallow. Go figure.

The next step was to place the data into a curve file Smaart can read. You can find out more info on Smaart’s curve files and how to format them in Smaart’s Help section within the software. They’re basically text files with tab deliminated data, but I just downloaded some curves from the RA site and modified one with my data. I picked a frequency like 500 Hz, looked at the dB level in my original measurement, and then just added or subtracted 4 dB from that level for the other octaves. The photo below shows my original measurement with 1/3 octave banding along with my new target curve overlaid to display the result. Based on this averaging I might end up tweaking my target so that it’s up a dB or so, but in the meantime I’m going to go with what I’ve got.

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Mix Reference @ 1/3 Octave Banding

If you’re using Smaart’s RTA on a regular basis, I’d recommend you check out this new feature. I’ll even make it easy for you to try this out. You can download my personal target mix curve right here. For the best results, make sure you set your RTA averaging for 5 or 10 seconds if you’re going to try and use it.

NOTE: that this is NOT for use in tuning the PA.

FOHDave Target Mix Curve

As you can see from the screen shots above, this target was based on an actual mix and is basically where I put the louder music portions on a Sunday morning these days. In other words, this target is how loud I currently mix on a Sunday. Of course, your mileage with this particular target curve may vary depending on your own tastes and the tastes of the people you mix for, music style, etc. For example, I would guess that in a smaller room, this might be perceptually much louder than in our spaces.

If you’re going to use a target, though, you should probably make your own target curve based on your own personal needs for where you’re mixing. However, after years of looking at measurements of both live and studio mixes, the one thing I can say that you’ll probably want with this is some sort of straight or straight-ish line because a great mix typically features a great balance across the entire frequency spectrum. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when you stray from that, but this is just what I’ve found seems to make most people happy.

Now, let me leave you with a tip to consider when using targets while mixing.

Targets are great, in my opinion, and far better than a simple SPL reading, but they’re just targets. You shouldn’t be nickel and dime’ing a mix with these. Targets are simply a visual reference you can check when you are hearing something that seems off.

Did you get that?

You LISTEN first, and then you can look if you need/want to. Ears always come first. If you do end up looking, you should be looking for a trend. Here’s my measurement photo along with the target one last time:

TargetHouse curve

Note how the squiggly measurements go above and below the target. That is completely natural. You’re not going to get a perfect line like the target, and you should’t be trying for one. It’s just a target and not the real world. However, if sections of the measurement skewed way above or below, that could be confirmation to me that what I’m hearing is truly off; remember, listen first.

One last thing to keep in mind when using these is that hitting your target still doesn’t mean your mix is any good. All a target show us is the overall relative frequency balance. A target says nothing about the musicality of the actual mix. Only an ear is going to tell you if it sounds like music. You still have to put all the instruments in the right place within that spectrum.

If you’re a Smaart user and interested in this sort of thing, be sure and check out the new Target Curve feature in v7.5. If you’re using a different RTA I’d highly suggest checking to see if there’s a similar feature available to you. References can be a powerful tool for mixing.

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