Staff sound engineers at venues often have to accommodate wildly different types of acts each night, each with their own technical requirements and logistical challenges. From solo performers and jazz trios to larger chamber ensembles and theater troupes, the wide variety of possible formats and genres demands a flexible and efficient workflow to make each show a success with minimal prep time.
This blog will provide strategies for successfully navigating any kind of production, from the earliest stages of planning and paperwork all the way to soundcheck and showtime. Assuming several known factors, such as the venue itself and a house PA system, these strategies provide a framework for approaching unfamiliar situations with confidence and achieving great sound—every time.
Philosophy of Getting Good Sound
When working with unfamiliar acts multiple times a week, it’s not usually possible to develop a specific approach for each performance—especially with limited time to prepare. The three pillars outlined below represent the fundamental elements of a good mix, and will inform every decision from here on.
- Get to “good” first. Before anything can sound amazing, everything has to sound good. At the most basic level, this means making sure every input is receiving a clear signal with no hum, noise or feedback. You can always improve the sound, but you need to start somewhere.
- Let everything be heard. In an effective mix, every instrument, vocal and sound must have its own space. When everything fits neatly into the frequency spectrum and time domain without interfering with the other elements, your mix will sound richer and clearer.
- Make the sound match the stage. When the sound coming from the PA doesn’t match what the audience sees, this cognitive dissonance can detract from the experience. Ensuring that the stereo image matches the stage layout is critical to creating a cohesive show.
Before the Talent Arrives
Every production consists of two distinct time frames. The period before the talent arrives at the venue is your chance to get everything set up and prepared at your own pace. Once the performers show up for soundcheck, the pace and the stakes increase dramatically, so preparation is key to a successful show. Any work you can do beforehand will pay off when the pressure is on, and it all starts in the days leading up to the show.
Although it’s usually not possible to do much physical setup before the day of the show, any advance planning you can do now will make your job easier later on. The checklist below outlines key steps you can take right away to ensure that everything goes smoothly.
- Review any stage plots, riders or other documentation sent by the talent
- Reach out to managers, technicians and other personnel for additional information
- Assess the talent’s experience, expectations and technical knowledge to communicate effectively
- Figure out who will be providing any backline equipment, such as amplifiers and drum kits
- Identify any equipment that could present complications, such as digital controllers or vintage organs
- Do your homework by researching the act, watching performance videos or reaching out to colleagues
Creating an Input List
Once you’ve gathered all the information above, you can start laying out the foundational document that will dictate much of the setup from here on: the input list. The main purpose of an input list is to keep track of all the microphones, line inputs and other sources necessary to capture a performance, as well as which console channels they’ll be assigned to. A thorough input list should also include which mic stand to use for each mic.
After creating the input list, create a monitor list detailing any stage monitors or in-ear monitors required. For each entry, include the type of monitor needed, who it’s for, its position on stage and its corresponding send on the console. This is also the time to decide whether the monitors will be mixed from the front of house console or a dedicated monitor console.
Stage Setup and Labeling
With your input and monitor lists created ahead of time, you’ll be able to concentrate on setting up the stage on the day of the show. Start with the best-case scenario: the ideal mic placement for the best sound with the least possibility for mic bleed and feeback. If something changes, you can always adapt, but remember—it’s always easier to take away a mic than to add one.
At this stage, order and organization are critical. After placing the mics on stage, try to physically label as many things as you can, such as microphones, stands, cables, breakout boxes and outboard gear. It may seem tedious, but this time investment will pay off when you inevitably need to move a mic or change something around later. You’ll never be disappointed that you labelled too much!
Even if you have a photographic memory and know exactly where every mic and cable go, clear labeling will make it easier for others to help you. For example, if you’re tied up with tweaking a monitor mix for the vocalist and the drummer decides to rearrange their kit, someone else can easily see which mic and stand are intended for each drum.
Console Setup: Input Routing and Processing
Once the stage is set up, you can begin setting up your console for the show. The examples provided here assume a Soundcraft Vi Series console, but much of the workflow outlined below can be applied universally. First, we’ll talk about everything that happens on the input side: how each channel gets to the console, as well as any processing applied on the front end.
To maintain order and consistency, always keep your patching one-to-one. This means that the first item on your input list should be assigned to input #1 on the console, controlled by fader #1, and so on. By keeping channels consistent, you’ll never have to search around for a particular instrument—just refer to your input list and you’ll know exactly which fader to grab.
Now is also the time to set up any processing you might need later, including EQ, dynamics, panning and effects. While you won’t be able to make specific decisions on processing before soundcheck, you can still use broad strokes to get close and make your job easier later.
- EQ is your first opportunity to carve out a space in the frequency range for every instrument. Start by using high-pass filters to eliminate unnecessary bass frequencies from most inputs. This will free up those frequencies for the instruments that need them, resulting in a clearer, less muddy mix.
- Compression and dynamics processing can be incredibly useful for controlling volume levels and envelopes. For example, a compressor can help ensure the vocals are never too quiet, while a gate can cut off a ringing drum to prevent the sound overlapping with other instruments.
- Panning lets you precisely place each sound in the stereo field to match the source’s location on stage. For mono sources, simply place the sound to the left or right based on its location. For stereo sources, pair the left and right channels so you can control them with one fader, then pan the stereo track or reduce its width as needed.
- Reverb and effects give you even more control over how each instrument fits into the mix. At the very least, always have two reverb sends ready to go: one to give the instrumental mix a sense of space, and one for enhancing vocals. The Lexicon effects built into Soundcraft Vi consoles provide a wide range of reverbs, delays and more.
Console Setup: Output Routing and Processing
After setting up everything on the input side, you’ll need to route your mix to the PA system and often several other destinations. Depending on your setup, this might include a main left and right array, subwoofers, front fill speakers, delay speakers, monitors, backstage feeds or discrete multitrack outputs for recording.
The simplest method for output routing on Soundcraft Vi Series consoles is to set up an Output Matrix for each destination. Start by creating separate Matrices for the main arrays, subwoofers and any other outputs outlined above. Then, send the entire stereo mix to each of these Matrices independently, using the send level to create a rough balance. You’ll be able to fine-tune this later by adjusting the Output Matrix levels.
A more complex but flexible method involves separating the music and vocal submixes for discrete control of the vocal balance in each zone. Start by assigning each individual input to one of two Groups—one for music and one for vocals. By sending music and vocals independently to the Output Matrices identified above, you can easily adjust the vocal blend for each zone. You can also create additional sub-Groups for more granular control.
Console Setup: Fader Organization and Management
As mentioned above, it’s best to keep channels organized and patched according to your input list for consistency (channel one is input one). However, on a digital console that doesn’t mean your faders have to follow that order. The Soundcraft Vi Series consoles offer helpful User Pages, which allow you to assign channels across multiple banks of faders and toggle between them while mixing. Here are some situations where User Pages can help streamline your workflow:
- When working with large channel counts, User Pages allow you to keep the most important channels (such as lead vocals and drum groups) at hand, while still allowing access to less-used channels when needed.
- When juggling multiple acts with different setups, User Pages allow you to focus on just the channels you need for each act. Setting up for the next act is as simple as switching to the next Page.
- When mixing monitors from front of house, User Pages allow you to assign your main mix faders to a primary bank for easy access, and put the monitor faders in a secondary bank to access as needed.
In these complex mixing scenarios, organization becomes even more critical. In keeping with the practice of one-to-one channel organization, try to keep fader positions consistent across Pages. For example, if you mix with the lead vocal on fader #1, it should be #1 in the monitor Page as well.
To aid organization, SoundCraft Vi Series consoles feature FaderGlow technology for color-coding faders according to their function. For example, having monitor faders glow orange lets you know at a glance which mode you’re in, helping you avoid mistakes.
Three Options for Recording
Live recording is an increasingly common expectation for front of house engineers. After all, with so much effort put into every production, why not record it? Luckily, it’s usually fairly simple to provide discrete multitrack outputs for recording. Here are three methods for providing multitrack outputs for recording:
- Create a pre- or post-fader auxiliary send for each channel. Pre-fader sends preserve your effects chain but ignore any volume changes, while post-fader sends preserve your mixing moves as well.
- Use MADI or other digital audio outputs to send digital multitrack signals directly to a compatible audio interface or recorder. This method eliminates potential dropouts from analog cables.
- Use a splitter before the console to capture each track directly from the stage without any processing. This method provides the most flexibility, but increases post-production work for the mixing engineer.
Just before the talent arrives, when everything’s set up and ready to go, perform a line check to verify that every input is receiving signal and being routed to the right place(s). If any instruments or backline equipment are present, you may even be able to start setting approximate levels. Now is also a great time to “ring out” the system using an equalizer to minimize problematic frequencies and achieve maximum gain before feedback.
Anything else you can test at this point will help you avoid troubleshooting in front of the performers, increasing their confidence in your abilities. And if a problem does crop up, requiring you to swap out a microphone or re-route something, this preparation will make your job that much easier.
After the Talent Arrives
Once the performers show up at the venue, it’s the engineer’s job to do everything in their power to help them put on an amazing show. From this point on, the pace becomes faster and the stakes increase. Think of your attention as a limited resource—the less technical things you have to worry about, the more you can focus on the talent.
If you addressed all of the previous steps of planning, setup and organization, you should be in great shape for soundcheck. However, chaos is a fact of life in live performance, so it pays to be prepared that something will change. A good mantra to have at this point is, “It’s all going to change, and that’s okay.”
Starting off on the right foot with the performers is key to the rest of the night going smoothly. Before starting soundcheck, step out from behind the board and greet the performers. Unlike communicating exclusively through the monitors, this personal connection will do wonders for establishing trust.
Another way to establish a good relationship with the talent and their crew is to ask for their opinion. If they’ve been touring for months, they probably know how they want to sound, and may have some tips on how to achieve it. Maintaining a humble attitude and keeping the ego out of the equation will go a long way toward building a good working relationship—even if it’s just for a night.
One of the best ways to make performers comfortable quickly is to get everyone’s monitor mixes set up before even thinking about the house mix. Start by asking each person what they want to hear in their monitors, and make sure they’re satisfied before moving on.
If possible, use a mobile device with the Soundcraft ViSi Remote app to control your console from the stage so you can hear what the performers hear while dialing in the monitors. If that’s not an option, get a crew member with a headset to talk to the performer and relay their requests to you.
Many engineers’ method for soundchecking is to go instrument by instrument, asking each person to play while they adjust levels, EQ and effects. While this approach makes sense from a technical standpoint, most performers despise being made to wait while the engineer meticulously tweaks knobs and bosses them around.
To minimize the time spent soundchecking, take advantage of the time that the performers spend warming up, tuning or idly playing. This is a great time to do some critical listening and make small adjustments without them even knowing.
The best approach to a successful soundcheck is to get everyone playing together as soon as possible. This not only makes the performers more comfortable, it also lets you hear each instrument in context, which will help you craft a good mix. Once the mix starts to take shape, the performers will be more comfortable letting you spend a little time working on each instrument individually.
Back to the Fundamentals
Soundcheck is also a good time to revisit the trifold philosophy outlined at the beginning of this article.
- Is every input coming through clearly, without noise, distortion or feedback?
- Can you hear every element, and does it all fit together nicely?
- Does the sound match what you see on stage?
If you can check all three of these boxes, you’re well on your way to a great show.
To view Dustin Dunsmore’s full recorded Learning Session webinar on a “From Stage Plot to Doors in Five Hours or Less”, please visit: Dustin Dunsmore’s Video