In last month’s article on Live Audio Production (CPM October, 2007) I provided some suggestions for prepping many of the elements outside the mixing console in order to ensure an efficient and confident atmosphere during your setup and rehearsals. This month I’m going to tunnel down a bit further and deal specifically with configuring your mixing console to put you in the best position possible to mix the event and generally make it easier to be a little “quicker on your feet.”
There are few tried and true methods for really helping yourself out in a live setting where things can change at the drop of a hat and leave you scrambling to recover. One of the stresses that comes with any suddenly changing situation is the ability to think clearly and logically while you’re scrambling to recover. Certainly one of the most basic methods for combating the confusion factor is to layout your inputs and outputs on your console in a logical and effective manner.
The first thing I’m going to suggest is, on the surface, very simple, but may require a little thought and creative patching on your part to implement. In my opinion, this is a very important method to grasp-especially if you’re contemplating moving to a digital console where an input can be plugged in, and then show up, on any fader you desire by using the digital patch bay. In fact, in some cases with digital, the fader’s name, source, or even position on the console can change during a scene recall.
So with that in mind, I make every attempt to layout my console inputs just as I see them on the stage. Here are some examples: When I layout my drum kit it will usually go something like this-kick, snare, floor 2, floor 1, rack 1, ride cymbal, overhead left, overhead right, hi hat. This makes tracking down things like a given tom or an overhead channel easy because you can correlate them to what you actually see when you look up at the stage. It also makes any panning very intuitive. For example, the left-most tom fader would be panned the most left, the right-most tom panned the most right. All cymbal inputs reside next to each other, and you can easily see the relative panning and fader levels of the cymbal mix.
This concept is especially helpful with a lot of players and a lot of instruments on stage, such as a number of vocalists. Let’s say I have a main vocalist stage center, but I also have four vocalists to either side of the singer It’s well worth the trouble to lay out these inputs to reflect their placement on stage. So, from my perspective, the inputs would layout BV 1, BV 2, lead vocal, BV 3, BV 4. Also, in this case, I might even try to give myself some hints at what kind of parts the vocalist are responsible for-bass, bass, lead, tenor, soprano. The idea is to allow you to attack these inputs quickly when needed, without having to search for them, especially for console setups with a large number of inputs. The same principle applies for keyboards, horns, and guitars, especially when there is more than one player involved. Lay them out on your console in a way that is coherent to what you see when you look at the stage, and your ability to anticipate, react, and even create relative blends will improve dramatically.
Once you have your inputs laid out the way you want them, you can move to the next stage of your setup, which is employing grouping. For my money, grouping is one of the key areas of a console setup that often pays huge dividends while mixing an event. Good grouping practices are key to getting a mix together quickly and, at the same time, allowing you to make refined and controlled movements during mixing.
Two Key Grouping Styles
While there are many new and exciting styles of groups coming online with the outbreak of digital live sound consoles, for the purposes of this article, I’m only going to concentrate on two styles: “audio sub groups” and “VCA groups.” Given that the vast majority of consoles, analog or digital, offer these two styles of groups, I strongly encourage you to thoroughly understand the differences between them and work toward using them. While many mix engineers tend to use one or the other, they are certainly not mutually exclusive of one another, and when used correctly and together, are a very powerful tool.
Let’s start with audio sub groups. Audio sub groups are generally either mono or stereo and, by definition, provide a summing point for a given number of inputs before they then head off to the left/right master output. This means that any number of audio inputs can be directed through the audio sub group and the group as a whole can then be moved up or down in volume. By soloing an audio sub group, and listening in headphones, you can then monitor the fader balances of all inputs that are feeding the group, including their pan position. For example, with the push of the group solo button on a drums group you could listen to the relative blend of all the drum mics and, in turn, affect the overall level of the drum kit in the PA system by moving the group fader without having to change the input fader positions. The input faders would still be feeding any post-fader aux busses even though the audio sub group fader would be at zero. Additionally, because audio is actually passing through the group, it will usually offer an insert point where you can patch in equalizers or compressors and limiters which, of course, would affect the drum mix as a whole in the PA system.
This is where the difference between audio sub groups and VCA groups comes to light. A Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA) does not offer an actual audio path for the inputs assigned to it. Instead, once a number of inputs are assigned to the VCA fader, it essentially works as remote control of the assigned faders. For example, if you had a blend of eight input faders and you assigned them all to a VCA group, once you move the VCA group fader down, it is exactly as if you simply reached over and pulled the actual input faders down. The relative levels between the faders would remain the same, but the levels to any post-fader aux busses would now change by how far down in level you moved the VCA master. VCAs, generally speaking, do not allow you to solo the group unless it is a destructive style “solo in place” because of the lack of audio passing through the group. Likewise, it does not offer you the ability to insert external processing on the group as a whole.
So, with these concepts now in mind-I’m recommending the following to those of you who have both audio sub groups and VCA groups on your console. Use them both. But use them for different tasks.
Start by using your audio sub groups to assemble the components of your event mix into groups. For example, 1-drums-loops & per-cussion, 2-bass, 3-keys, 4-guitars, 5-backing vocals, 6-lead vocals, 7-pastor, 8-media Once done, then assign these groups to the left/right master output. Try to stay disciplined and keep like inputs in their respective groups. For example if you have a reverb unit dedicated to the drums, assign the reverb return faders to the drums group. This allows you to listen to the actual blend of the drum inputs against the reverb return while soloing the drums audio group. Likewise, if you mute the drums audio group, you’ll no longer hear the reverb return, even though the drum inputs are still feeding it.
Now all of your VCAs are available for doing what I like to think of as “focused” mixing. Now you can assign VCAs to inputs that you need access to for any given segment of your event. They’re located in one position and available for immediate level manipulation. Maybe you have a VCA that is simply assigned to only the kick and snare or just the cymbals, maybe even just the toms. Any of these allows you to accentuate a given fill or breakdown in a song with the movement of one single fader. Maybe you have the percussion assigned to its own VCA, with those inputs living as a part of the drums audio sub group. It all just depends on what you need to get to at any given time. This is a wonderful workflow for digital consoles and even some analog consoles, in that you can program the VCA assignments dependent upon what you need to get to at any given time. It’s all up to your imagination and, if done properly, there is rarely an excuse for missing cues because you were late finding the fader.
One of the bonus benefits of VCA grouping is that it can be used to control either input or output faders. A use that I love to employ with VCAs is to assign a “band” VCA and a “vocals” VCA-but assign them from the group path, not the input path. This means you would as-sign all of the audio groups that carry music components to one VCA fader and assign all audio groups that carry vocal components to a different VCA fader. Now, with the adjustment of two VCA faders, you can balance the band mix relative to the vocal mix. This is wonderful for quickly placing your vocals at any level in relation to the band mix.
Try using these techniques and you’ll soon be presenting very reliable, controlled mixes to your listeners.
Robert Scovill is a veteran live sound mixer who currently serves as market manager for Live Sound Products for Digidesign. He leads a regular training seminar entitled “The Complete Front of House Engineer.” For details visit www.audioseminars.com.