Music clubs often feature numerous performers at each night’s show, making it necessary for multiple audio engineers to share a PA system. Ideally, the transitions are seamless, and artists make their way through the schedule in an orderly fashion. But, at times, poorly orchestrated changeovers can slow the show and derail schedules. Just like at music festivals, careful planning can greatly simplify the switching process between sets at a club venue.
While decades ago each artist may have had a fully customized patching and console setup, they often kept audiences waiting for extended periods of time. In recent years, with the advent of digital consoles, customers have come to expect a tighter flow. Most venues establish standard setups and house patches to help expedite the process.
In today’s Tech Talk, we’re speaking with Ken Freeman, Manager of Engineering Services at HARMAN Professional Solutions, about ways that audio engineers can efficiently share a PA system. With more than 35 years of profession audio experience, including 10 years as ESPN’s technical director for the X Games, Ken has shared PA systems hundreds of times and offered some great tips and tricks.
[MM] How does a club prepare for a program of different artists, each with specific requirements?
[KF] Depending on the venue and the prominence of the act, there may be technical riders with mandatory equipment that must be integrated into a house system. If not, hopefully each act will deliver a stage plot and input list. As a house engineer, I first look at the entire day’s work—the schedule, riders, stage plots and input lists—and try to come up with a house patch that accommodates everything, as much as possible.
I know I can get just about any drum kit, including a couple direct boxes for a machine, in 12 channels. I’ll typically put in a bass microphone and a bass DI on a 35-foot microphone cable, so it can reach either side of the stage, and patch it so it can move. When the bass shows up, it gets plugged into the designated input with the designated microphone in front of the cabinet. Typically, I also come up with four channels for guitars, giving acts a left, a right and a stereo. This accommodates a rhythm guitar player on one side, a lead guitar on the other and the artist on stereo in the center. With four inputs, bands can configure the setup in a variety of ways without changing the patching.
Then, it’s each act’s responsibility to make sure they patch it to what they’re looking to see out at the front of house. Once that patch is confirmed, if they have one, I’ll often turn the console over to the band’s engineer. If it’s slightly out of order from what they want, they’re free to digitally re-patch their layer, their preset, but usually, they only have a short time to soundcheck, set up and configure their show.
[MM] So, are you saying that the console can be reconfigured while the patching stays consistent?
[KF] Yes. Reconfiguring the console is kind of unique to the digital realm we’re now living in. Obviously, rearranging those things when we were working with big analog mixing consoles in days gone by was somewhat limiting. Where digital comes in particularly handy is at multi-day events, when the same acts play more than once, either on the same stage or maybe on different stages. Once there’s a working show file, you can use it again in the future. Similarly, it really speeds things up when you have a band that performs regularly at a particular venue.
Some acts carry their show files and possibly even a couple versions, depending on their instrumentation. In that case, you can load it and selectively apply their inputs to your situation. Or, you can patch to their situation, depending on how you want it and how much time you have. These days, a lot of the work happens offline on a computer and can be later loaded into the mixing console as a jumping off point.
[MM] How much of it falls on how artists plan their set?
[KF] A lot. Acts should make sure they are using an engineer who is very familiar with the venue they’re working at. If they don’t have the budget to bring someone in and need to lean on the house staff, the better prepared and more adaptable they are, the better they’ll do.
It’s really important for acts to be able to simplify their setup because, during the brief time they have on stage, they want to do good work, sound good and not have a lot of feedback. Every venue has its own peculiarities, and they need to be flexible in their plotting and patching, yet have a consistent and repeatable performance game plan. Maybe they want an 8-by-8 drum riser that is a foot off the ground, but instead, there’s a piece of carpet in front of a higher billed band’s drum riser, because that’s what the venue had. The act has to adapt, especially if they want to get more bookings.
In situations where there are a lot of acts, or when an artist is an opening act, they need to be prepared to play a lighter weight version of their show. Maybe it’s a 45-minute set instead of a full hour, and often, they’ll have to come up with a simpler setup to what they normally want. Instead of the 30 or 36 inputs, they would like to have, they have to reduce it to the barebones, where they’re using seven or eight channels for a drum kit, where they have a basic rhythm section as a part of it and, by adding the lead instruments and vocals, end up with 16 or 19 inputs. Interestingly enough, that turns out to be about a layer on a mixing console, which means their audio engineer won’t need to dig around through layers and pages of stuff to find the show; they’re all patched to one layer.
What’s really important for engineers is to do their thing without making a mess out of the PA for the other supporting acts or a headliner. They have to be careful about not rearranging the pieces or re-patching things on the fly that they don’t know about. They should try to be considerate and not use pieces the venue doesn’t want them to. Personally, I much prefer asking for permission than begging for forgiveness afterwards for using something and not telling them. That’s the kind of thing that keeps an opening act from being invited back—not playing well with the other kids.
[MM] What about soundchecks?
[KF] When you have lots of acts, one right after another, the soundcheck might only be a line check. The crew or artist may barely get their microphones plugged in and have just enough time at the console to go in and label it. In that case, you move into a different mode of operation, in which they use their first couple songs to make sure the rest of the set sounds amazing. A lot of bands have soundcheck songs they work through when they first get on stage. Maybe they’ll play something familiar, like a cover everybody knows, to give the sound technicians an opportunity to get up to speed and know the pieces are in place before the artist brings out more complex material.
These days, with four or five bands often sharing a bill, preparation and cooperation are key to keeping the show running smoothly so audiences come back again and again.
Many thanks to Ken for sharing his tips on helping engineers to keep the show moving! Are you a performer or live sound engineer who has found ways to ensure your best performance in a crowded lineup? Share your insights in the comments.