Drive 2013: Managing Bottlenecks

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I’m in the middle of my pre-production work for our Drive Conference. This primarily consists of organizing all the input lists for the main sessions. This year we have four main sessions with a variety of programming you’ll have to either attend the conference or watch online to find out about.

One of my primary goals in organizing everything is to try and make transitions between sessions as simple as possible. Once we get into rehearsals and the conference itself, time often becomes a commodity in short supply so getting everything as organized as possible gives us a greater margin of time in between sessions. Conferences are a lot of work, and one thing I’ve learned with these things is you can’t create enough downtime. Downtime equals time to rest and relax to stay fresh for the next session. Plus it’s not fun when you find yourself having to solve a problem during a conference that you could have taken care of in the preceding weeks. Things will come up, but it’s always best to be as prepared as possible.

Putting all the materials together probably adds up to a couple days of work, but I tend to spread that time out over two or three weeks doing things here and there. The time it takes to get everything figured out is often dependent on the complexity of the programming couples with the limitations of our equipment.

For example, let’s say we have 25 different vocalists spread across 3 main sessions. It’s a lot faster to figure out who gets what mic if there are 25 mics and inputs available because then everyone just gets their own. But in my case vocalists need to be on RF handhelds, and I only have 10 of them. It takes time to figure out when and where to share mics. Maybe Joe is singing in session 1 and 3, and there are other vocalists in Session 2.

– So do I have someone use Joe’s mic during Session 2?
– Am I comfortable managing any console gain structure and signal flow adjustments that result?
– Will there be time before Session 3 to reset and test everything?
– Should I let someone else use Joe’s mic but just re-patch it to a different input?
– Do I even have another input available? How is the rest of the crew going to feel about the decision?

Hopefully you get the idea. It’s a fun puzzle to plot out, but it does take time to think through different scenarios.

Last fall was a first for us in audio when we hosted our ReGroup Conference because it was the first time we had a full complement of 96 inputs available at FOH and Monitors for a big event. The extra resources gave us an incredible amount of flexibility and made the planning stages a lot simpler because as elements were added, we had the margin to fulfill requests. I think ReGroup ended up using about 74 inputs, and we had enough mics that nobody needed to share. Drive, however, is a bit bigger. Right now I think I’m at about 90 inputs, and with a couple weeks left it is more than likely that those last inputs will fill up as we get into rehearsals in a couple weeks.

One of the bigger challenges in audio world for Drive this time out is our online component. While we have 96 inputs available at FOH and MON, the NP Online studio is an input bottleneck max’ed out at 56 analog inputs. It is also limited from a mixing standpoint because there are no snapshots available and doing any recall work is a mixed bag. Then there are also stability issues in there on our current platform. We knew going into Drive this year that our existing setup would be inadequate from both the technical side as well as the experiential side we wanted to present.

While we hope to upgrade the studio capabilities as soon as we can, I knew those wouldn’t be in place in time for Drive. I initially looked at a console rental, but quickly began exploring some other options to get us the solution we needed while keeping some flexibility in the studio and the budget down. Rehearsal weeks for conferences can be quite busy in our studio where we also handle audio post for videos, and I knew tying the room up with mixing rehearsals would potentially create some scheduling conflicts.

The first thing that came to mind was repurposing our West Auditorium’s monitor console. I knew the console would most likely be available during the conference since the West typically only hosts breakout sessions. I figured it would be relatively simple to disconnect the snake feeding its stage racks from our West Auditorium split and reconnect it to the East Auditorium split. I had essentially done the same thing a couple years back when we hosted an event for the First Lady in order to mix in the West auditorium. The only major hurdle in the idea would be getting a FOH Rack connected in our studio to the stage racks since the pipe containing our analog snakes feeding the studio is full, and there weren’t any lines available for use.

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After a few conversations, it seemed feasible to pull new lines from the auditorium equipment room to the studio using an alternate path. I ordered a couple of reels of cable, and I am so thankful Andrew and Josh were able to forge a path and pull that cable into the studio a couple weeks ago. The other win is that these cables will be available for a future console upgrade when the time comes. And the whole thing was a substantial savings over a two week console rental.

The current plan is to mix rehearsals at FOH in our West Auditorium using a set of nearfields. On the Sunday afternoon before the conference, we’ll move the monitor world FOH rack into the studio along with the FOH Profile. The D-Show at west monitor world will then return to its former home at FOH in the West for the duration of the conference. With a little bit of help, we can probably do the whole swap in a couple hours, and then I can spend the rest of the afternoon getting the studio setup and relearning the monitors in there.

That’s the plan anyway. Of course, rehearsals are still a couple weeks out so anything could happen between now and then.