Jonah Altrove 2017-07-28 03:44:24
ON THE FLY Approaches for tuning a monitor rig quickly and efficiently. It’s my favorite time of the year to be an audio engineer. The middle of the summer and festival season is in full swing. Although the term “festival” conjures up images of the giants — Coachella, Bonnaroo — most of us find ourselves working the smaller events that pop up all over the place — farmers markets, jazz on the square, local arts festivals, and so on. Many of these events aren’t large enough to enjoy the luxury of a dedicated monitor engineer, and too often, this means the monitoring system is a bit of an afterthought. Don’t neglect your foldback! Even 10 or 15 minutes of TLC can go a long way towards a smoothly running monitor rig. The artists will be happier, and less bleed and feedback means a cleaner house mix as well, which makes for an easier day all around. Let’s look at some tips for quickly tuning up a monitor rig. The emphasis here is on prep and set-up rather than the mixing itself, and we’re focusing on festivals and other multi-act events. Why draw this distinction? Single acts have established and specified monitoring requirements, but with multiple acts sharing the stage, we need a flexible rig capable of accommodating an entire event’s worth of artists. LAYING IT OUT A small event might have two downstage mixes and one upstage mix for the drummer, while a larger gig might have four mixes downstage, four upstage, and side fills. Often, the reality is that the mix allocation can be governed as much by the resources available as the artists’ requirements. We may simply be stuck with what’s on the truck but I’d rather err on the side of having an unused mix or two than be scrambling to patch in an additional one at the last minute. It’s helpful to have two extra wedges (with long cables) “on deck” in the upstage corners to be deployed as needed. (I refer to these as “wild wedges.”) Regardless of the number and placement, it’s critical to label and patch the wedges in a logical fashion. I’m going to be viewing the stage from front of house, so I number my mixes in ascending order, starting with downstage right to downstage left (left to right as viewed from FOH) followed by upstage mixes, stage right to stage left. Do what works for you but stick to it – there’s not much as humbling as adjusting the wrong mix, though we’ve all done it. Sketch the wedge locations on a dry erase board at FOH to keep them straight. It’s also smart to clearly label each wedge so the artists and stage crew can identify which mix is being referred to. Some companies have custom printed magnetic labels or plastic colored refrigerator magnets. Gaff tape and Sharpie can work too — just take care not to block the HF driver. It’s absolutely critical to observe the polar patterns of the microphones when placing wedges. Wedges go exactly behind cardioid mics, and 120 to 150 degrees off-axis for supers and hypers. Take the time to get this right, don’t just eyeball it — I have a protractor in my work box — because proper placement can improve gain before feedback by 10 dB or more. Also, note the coverage patterns of the monitors themselves. On-axis should be the artist’s head, not elbows or knees (or the acoustic guitar’s sound hole). Lastly, labeling both ends of the cables driving the monitors can save your tail once chaos descends. OUTSIDE THE BOX I usually request that all the wedges be the same make/model. I need them to sound the same so I know that the artist is hearing the same mix as the one coming out of my cue wedge (hold that thought...). The first thing I do is spray pink noise through each wedge, one at a time, to verify that patching and placement are correct. Gain structure problems and blown tweeters are easily revealed at this point. If one mix is significantly louder or quieter than the others, find out why. On at least one common digital desk, zeroing out the console does not reset any output patch delays or attenuation settings, so don’t take this for granted. I’ve been burned before. I then check the wedges with familiar reference material, which readily reveals tonal/tuning issues and distortion. Again, if one wedge sounds different, find out why. In practice, this whole process — basically an “output line check” — is very quick, and reveals problems often enough that I wouldn’t dare skip it KICK ME The one exception to my “identical wedge” policy is the drum fill. This is commonly an oversized loudspeaker, often with a subwoofer as well. Play with the sub’s polarity to damp the kick drum head’s resonance, rather than reinforce it. This buys a few extra dB of gain. I prefer to run the sub on a separate mix, for the same reason I run my main system subs on an aux. The drummer will not appreciate wind noise from the cymbal mics rumbling through his sub, and neither do I. Cleaner-sounding mix, better control of LF energy on stage, a no-brainer. LISTEN UP OK, so about that cue wedge. FOH is located in the audience because we make mixing decisions on the audience’s behalf, so we need to hear what they hear. See where I’m going with this? I need to hear what the artists have coming out of their wedges in order to make helpful adjustments to their mixes. I use a cue wedge tied into the desk’s solo bus, placed off to my right on the ground at FOH. Nearfields or headphones just don’t sound the same. I delay the wedge to sync to the PA’s arrival — otherwise it’s just plain annoying. And yes, I use in-ear monitors to cue IEM mixes. If you use headphones, use closed-back cans and be aware that they are likely not representative of IEMs below 100 Hz. MON FROM FOH GAIN STRUCTURE Raise a hand if you’ve had this problem: you’re mixing monitors from FOH but the old, beat-up monitor rig can’t keep up with the shiny new modern line array mains. If you employ the standard FOH gain structure (channel fader at 0 dB, add gain at preamp until it’s loud enough), you have headroom for days out front but your bus sends are all maxed out and the artists still want more. So you have to go back and crank up the preamp on a few channels, which forces you to pull back your channel faders to a new, lower nominal level. Now your channel faders are normalized to (“living at”) different spots, so good luck putting it back after the big guitar solo. You can end up with a mix that is shifting all over, or one that gets louder and louder. I handle these situations by normalizing my channel faders to -10 dB or -12 dB (whichever is clearly marked on the surface) rather than 0 dB. This gives the monitor rig a 10 dB head start on gain while still providing an established (and visual) norm. You can also solve this problem by pulling down the main fader, but be wary of overdriving any post-fader sends, such as aux-fed subs. HYBRID CONFIGURATION Smaller to mid-sized events can fall in a weird overlap where we mix monitors from FOH all day but the headliner has a dedicated monitor engineer. Sure, you could re-patch the entire monitor rig during the changeover, but is there a better way? Maybe. If the FOH and monitor consoles can communicate digitally (MADI, Dante, AES50, etc.), I suggest the following: use the physical outputs on the monitor desk to drive the wedges all day, eliminating the need to hard-patch later. We can shoot the mixes from FOH over the digital link to the monitor desk, and configure the monitor desk to simply route the incoming mixes straight to the analog outputs. This “point-to-point” routing is supported by most digital desks and bypasses the monitor desk’s DSP entirely. It’s super convenient because the console can then be configured ahead of time by the monitor engineer without disrupting the show in progress — similar to putting a lighting console in BLIND mode. (Hmm, DEAF mode?) When it’s go-time, simply swap the analog output source to the local mixes and you’re good to go. CAUTIONARY TALE I’ll close with an example of my own stupidity (of which there are numerous instances). A keyboard player kept requesting ridiculous increases in monitor level. I was thinking “Is he deaf?” No, he just couldn’t hear anything — the power cable had vibrated loose from his powered monitor. Those “IEC” connectors are pesky, you’ve got to tape them. Turns out they put power indicator LEDs on the front grille for a reason. Oh, and make sure to return the mix to a reasonable level before reconnecting the power... (File under “Mistake you only make once.”) Jonah Altrove is a veteran live audio professional on a constant quest to discover more about the craft.
Published by Electronic House. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.livesoundint.com/article/Backstage+Class/2844191/427006/article.html.