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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DMX Over Cat5, Pt. 2

Last time around, we talked about using Cat5 cable to distribute DMX signals. In that implementation, it is really cable replacement. Instead of pulling DMX cable (not mic cable—there is a difference), we pull Cat5 for our backbone distribution runs. Fixture to fixture cables are normal DMX cables. Today, I want to talk a little bit about using Ethernet to distribute DMX. This will be an overview article as there is way too much information to contain in a single post. Also, some of the standards are still evolving, and it’s not always simple, especially when mixing multiple manufacturers. Come to think of it, we need to do a podcast on this…

Here is a basic DMX network diagram. This is courtesy of Pathway Connectivity. 

Here is a basic DMX network diagram. This is courtesy of Pathway Connectivity

The Original Ethernet—DMX Protocols

In the beginning, we had things like: 

  • Strand Shownet
  • ETC Net1
  • ETC Net2
  • ArtNet
  • Pathport

Each of those protocols use Ethernet wiring and switchgear to distribute multiple universes of DMX throughout a facility. All of them require some time of break in and break out adapter, as well as at least one Ethernet switch to get all the nodes talking to each other. In and of themselves, they were fine. The problem was, none of them talked to each other. Some devices could speak multiple languages, but the languages themselves were not compatible. If having an all ETC Net2 system was what you needed for example, it worked well. But introducing another standard into the mix was problematic. 

Still, those protocols worked well. They offered up to 128 universes, unlimited outputs, signal management (splitting, routing, prioritizing), and because it was all based on Ethernet standards, it was inexpensive to install and manage. So far so good. But you were using Ethernet, and RJ45 connectors aren’t the most robust. And Category cable is fragile compared to a regular DMX cable. 

The New Hotness—ACN

As often happens, when engineers see protocol soup like we have above, they look for a way to create a new one that will do everything the old ones would do, and more, and do it easier. That’s the promise of ACN. ACN stands for Architecture for Control Networks and defines a series of nested Protocol Data Units—a whole series of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) defining how data gets moved around.

What’s cool about ACN is that it is media agnostic; you can use whatever cable you want. It’s designed to be interoperable, so multiple manufacturers equipment can be used together. It’s supposed to be plug and play, which simplifies setup. It’s also two-way, meaning the end devices can report their capabilities to the controller, and the controller will know what to do with it. In theory, this means we can get rid of fixture libraries someday. 

ACN uses an Ethernet backbone, so configuration and system architecture is familiar. I’ve been telling you that as a technical leader, you’re going to need to know more about networking. We know that’s true of audio, and it’s becoming more and more true of lighting and media servers. 

What’s Available Now?

Like many new standards, it will take time to implement. While there are some media servers and the like on the market that use ACN, there are few fixtures that do. Hopefully that changes in the next few years. Right now, we have ETC’s variant of ACN known as Net3. Pathway Connectivity uses sACN (Streaming ACN) in their Pathport products. And believe it or not, these two can talk to each other!

The good news is that we can install ACN backbone systems now, and simply break in and out to DMX as needed. Someday when ACN becomes commonplace on fixtures as well as controllers, we remove the adapters and everything talks ACN. And this is happening; many of the Jands consoles for example, already speak sACN and will simply output their DMX universes straight to the network. 

This is an exciting time to be in this industry. I was with a friend the other day and he showed me an installation that required hundreds of universes of DMX to manage. There’s no way anything like that would even be conceivable using regular old DMX. But with ACN, it’s easily possible. 

If you want to learn more about this, check out Pathway Connectivities Resource page. They have some articles and a Power Point presentation with good info (it’s where I got some of this content—thanks for that, guys!). Now is a great time to begin learning more about ACN, as it will be the standard going forward. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait 10 years before we start seeing native ACN fixtures…


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