Don't Forget to Check the Cable

We’ve been talking about the transition to IP-based networked AVL systems for quite some time. I just finished up a big install for a church in which every system is IP-based. Audio is Dante, lighting is Streaming ACN and while video was SDI, the router and switcher lived on the network and were remotely controllable. All these systems are extremely flexible, powerful and offer the church great capabilities. They also come with some setup and configuration challenges. I spent as at least 2-3 times the as long getting everything playing nicely as I did actually tuning the PA and building show files.

These system can also be challenging to troubleshoot. And with everything now in IT switches, it’s easy to assume that any problem you have is IP related. However, sometimes, it’s something far more simple—and frustrating. Here are few examples of things I ran into that turned out to be a lot simpler than we originally thought. 

Is It Getting Power?

We installed an RGBW house light that was driven by DMX. The fixtures have their own control box that sends out a proprietary control signal that we initially had some challenges with. Once we worked that out, it all seemed to be working, until we lost half the lights in the youth room. The lights were split into two circuits and two runs of control. Those runs coincided. I spent a few hours trying to troubleshoot the control signal, wondering why it wouldn’t turn on. 

Finally, I grabbed by non-contact voltage tester and found out they weren’t getting AC. I went back to the relay rack and found a fuse blown on the relay tray. Curious as to how the fuse was blown, I shut power off to the relay panel and tested all the hot busses for shorts. Sure enough, we had a short in a different circuit. The electrician accidentally landed a neutral on a hot lug and when we put the relay tray in, it blew the fuse. We didn’t know that, as we hadn’t used that circuit yet. And when we pulled the trays out to connect DMX, we mixed up the order and ended up with the blown fuse in the house light slot. Before you go spending a ton of time trying to sort out IP/IT/DMX/SCAN issues, make sure the fixtures are actually getting power. Lesson learned. 

Is the Pinout Right?

In this same system (it was a frustrating day), we came out of a SCAN gateway to DMX to drive the control box. The gateway used a terminal strip, and the control box used a 5-pin connector. So, we cut the end off a 5-pin cable and landed the wires. My installer had done the exact same thing in another room in this install, so it seemed logical to land the wires the same way.

Three hours of troubleshooting streaming ACN, DMX, gateways and all that nonsense and one of my guys suggested opening up the 5-pin to verify the pinouts. Sure enough, the manufacturer of this 5-pin cable (who will go unnamed, but will not see a ton more business from me) decided that sticking to a single color scheme for all DMX cables is simply too much work. In one cable, shield, data + and data - were bare wire, black and red, respectively. In the other room where I had so much trouble, it was bare wire, red and green. Once I swapped wires, all worked fine. 

Lesson learned; never trust a cable manufacturer to do a good job managing colors in 5-pin (or even 3-pin for that matter) cables. 

In each of these cases, a simple analog cable caused me a ton of headaches. I should have checked them first, but I was sure it was a network issue. When troubleshooting newer systems, don’t forget the basics. Is it hooked up properly? Is it getting power? Is the In cable going to the In port? Often, we spend a lot of time trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.


Taming Female Vocal Ensembles

Lately, I’ve had time to be more intentional about listening to great music. I bought a phenomenal set of speakers for my listening room, and have enjoyed throwing the best recordings I can find at them. One of my experiments was Mark Knopfler’s latest album, Tracker, which I bought as 192Khz/24 bit AIFF files. To say it sounds amazing is an understatement. One of the songs, Wherever I Go, features a female vocal I wasn’t familiar with. I looked up Ruth Moody and discovered The Waillin’ Jennys. As I sit here listening to their live album—which is most excellent—I got to thinking about mixing multiple female vocals live. 

The Dreaded Mid-High Build Up

The Jennys sound amazing because they have an actual alto, mezzo and soprano. When they sing together, they are singing different parts in different parts of the frequency spectrum. Plus they’re really good. 

In many churches, you’ll have 3-5 (or more) female vocals on the worship team. But because we’re not dealing with professionals, and we work with what we have, they’re not usually all different parts. What you’ll have is 3, 4, 5 or more women singing the same part. And when that happens, things can get a bit shrill. 

This is Not Criticism

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not making a statement on women in general, women on the worship team or women’s voices. I’m simply pointing out that when several of them sing the same part, amplified through a big PA (which itself may be a bit on the bright side), it can get a bit edgy as the volume increases. It’s usually not a problem at moderate levels, but when the energy and volume go up, harshness is likely.

But we’re problem-solvers, it’s what we do. And we have amazing technology at our disposal, so I’m going to share a quick tip on how to fix this. 

Enter Dynamic EQ

The dynamic EQ and its cousin, the multi-band compressor are your best friends in many female vocal scenarios. They both have the ability to reduce the level of a frequency band based on incoming level, though they do it differently. Which one you use will largely depend on what you have available. Some consoles have both, like my favorite DiGiCo’s, while others will only have a multi-band comp. Don’t fret over it, use what you have. 

All you’re going to do is bus all your female vocals to a group, and put a dynamic EQ or multi-band compressor on that group. If you have a dynamic EQ, pick the mid-high band, and widen it out so it covers roughly 1-4 Khz. Set it for about 3-6 dB of cut, then set the threshold so it only starts kicking in when you start hearing that shrill, painful mid-high build up. Those are starting settings, of course, your mileage may vary. Just don’t take too much out or it will sound unnatural.

With a multi-band comp, use the mid band, and set it so it encompasses the same 1-4 Khz range. Go for a slow-ish attack and release of 150-200 msec, and a ratio of 2:1 to start. Then set the threshold so it kicks in when things get shrill. You may have to increase the ratio. Or not. Again, adjust to taste.

The Goal

All we’re trying to do here is take the edge off the frequency build up. You want this to be subtle, and not at all obvious. The end result should be that the women can sing their hearts out without it feeling harsh. Get that right, and the worship music will be more engaging and less distracting.

CTA Classroom: Sound Checkin' Pt. 2

Last time, we began talking about how to optimize sound check. Normally, it’s a simple matter of getting organized, staying organized and working through a set process quickly and efficiently. Before you start, make sure you are ready. As I mentioned last time, your board should be labeled and everything should be working. Now let’s get to it.

The Drum Set

I changed the way I do drums a few years back, and I’ve been pretty happy with this new method. I start with the kick, get that dialed in, then add snare. Once the snare is sounding good with the kick, I’ll add hat. Same deal. I like to get those three locked up and feeling right before moving on. I’ll then do the toms, usually asking for a hit on hi, mid, low, hi, mid, low until I have the levels balanced and feeling right. Then it’s a quick hit on cymbals before asking the drummer to play a groove on the whole kit. When the drummer is playing the whole thing, I can make some final balance adjustments and get the drums sounding like a single instrument. 

Work Quickly, With the Big Picture in Mind

What you want to do during soundcheck is get the levels dialed in to roughly where everything should sit in the mix. You might do some quick EQ and on drums perhaps tweak the gate or comp. But do it quickly. No one wants to hear the drummer hitting quarter notes on the snare for 15 minutes. Ideally, you’ve paid attention to where your gate and comp settings should be and have already preset them so you’re only tweaking. Same goes for gains, if you can manage it (digital consoles are great in this regard). If you have 30 minutes for soundcheck and you spend 25 getting the drums dialed in, it will be tough to take care of the rest of the band in the remaining five minutes. Get things close and move on. You can always come back and tweak settings after rehearsal gets underway.

Pre-Build Monitor Mixes

If you’re mixing monitors from FOH (and even if you aren’t), it’s not a bad idea to pre-build some rough monitor mixes before you start. I knew most of my vocalists well enough to know roughly what they liked in their monitors from week to week, so I normally started a mix before they got there. Then it’s a simple matter of tweaking. It also really helps musicians through the soundcheck process if they can hear themselves right away. Start with the gains and monitors a little lower than you think you’ll need, and work up.

Get the Vocals to Sing

There are few things as unhelpful during soundcheck than having vocalists speaking, “Check 1,2...” Guitar players constantly noodling is a close second, followed by drummers who are still trying work out the drum solo from YYZ.. I like to have all the vocals sing a chorus of a song while I dial in gains. We’ve told our vocal team, don’t worry about your monitor mix just yet, simply sing. Usually we’ll have the piano or guitar play along for pitch, but that should be the only other sound besides vocals. Have them keep looping until you have their levels dialed in. Of course, starting with rough gains and monitors makes this go faster.

You’ll notice a consistent theme running through this post; get things ready beforehand. The start of soundcheck is not the time to be peeling out the board tape and labeling the desk. By the time the band is set up, you should have completely line-checked, roughed in your gains and pre-built rough monitor mixes. Starting from scratch can be a good thing once in a while, but if you know roughly where things end up each week, starting a little below that makes things go a lot faster.

We had our soundcheck down to about 20-25 minutes, and that’s a full band with 2-3 vocal monitor mixes. Soundcheck doesn’t have to be a painful process. Take some time to develop a system that works well for you, pre-build as much as possible, then communicate clearly to the band. Soon you’ll find it going more smoothly and both you and the band will have more time for rehearsal.

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CTA Classroom: Sound Checkin' Pt. 1

Soundcheck time can be one of the most productive times of the weekend from an audio standpoint. It can also be one of the most frustrating. I have seen soundcheck turn normally mild-mannered and reserved musicians and engineers into angry combatants. My brothers, this should not be. As I’ve been traveling around helping more churches with their weekend sound issues, I’m amazed at the lack of organization prior to a rehearsal start. Many teams just jump right in and ask for monitor changes pretty much constantly for the next 3 hours. I suggest this is not optimal.

Soundcheck can be very efficient, productive and dare I say fun; but we have to do a little work first. Because there are so many different ways to do a soundcheck (because there are so many different church situations), I’m not going to prescribe one. What I want to do instead is offer a series of suggestions that hopefully apply to all situations, and you can create your own plan. Sound good? Here we go...

Line Check First

Few things will frustrate your musicians more than having to stop soundcheck to troubleshoot a bad cable, DI or patch. Before the band even arrives, go through and line check every single line that you’re using that weekend. Even if it’s the same cable you used last week, in the same channel with the same processing. We typically don’t check the actual DIs themselves, but we do pull the mic cable out, attach a 57 to it and make sure we have signal. If it’s an active DI, make sure phantom power is on. And don’t forget the wireless mics. Make sure those are on and working.

Declare Your Intentions

A few minutes before soundcheck is slated to start, I will get on the stage announce and say something like, “Hey everyone, good afternoon. We’re going to start soundcheck in 2 minutes, so if you could get plugged in, get in place with your ears in and ready to go, it would be great!” Once we actually start, I’ll say something like this, “Hey guys, we’re going to go through each channel one at a time so I can get levels. Once you hear the level stop changing, you can set it in your ears (if using personal mixers). If we could have only the instrument I ask for, it will make it go really quickly. Let’s start off with the kick.” Making sure everyone knows what is coming up will help them stay focused. This is important because as we all know, most musicians are very ADD. 

Stay Organized

Some like to start from the bottom (drums and bass) and work their way up to the top (vocals). Others work in reverse order. Personally I prefer and normally do the former, but which way you go is up to you, and depends on your situation. Whatever you do, stay organized. Don’t start with the kick, then do piano, then guitar, then snare, then vocals, then cymbals. Develop a logical order that works through each instrument and stick with it. Use the same order every week. I suggest you talk through this order with your worship leader in advance as well, just to make sure what you’re doing works for the musicians as well.

OK, that gets you started. Next time, we’ll be back with some specifics on cruising through soundcheck so fast your musicians will actually get an extra half hour of rehearsal time


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