Don't Forget the Basics

Image courtesy of The United States Army Band

Image courtesy of The United States Army Band

One of the cool things I get to do is travel around to a lot of churches and conferences each year. Most of the time, I’m just hanging out and talking to people, which I really enjoy. But when the session or service starts, I typically migrate towards FOH to see what’s going on. What I have observed is a somewhat disturbing trend. Now, this may make me sound like an old guy and a Luddite, but I’m really not. OK, I am old, but I’m not a Luddite. But here’s what I’m seeing; with the advent of digital consoles at FOH everywhere, I see a lot of engineers spending a lot of time tweaking plugins, turning on all the compressors or playing with SMAART, but not a lot of time on getting a good mix put together. 

Now, to be fair, sometimes this happens at conferences where there is not a ton of time to do a full soundcheck, or at least not as thorough as one would like. That’s a different problem, and a different post. But, what I see is people focusing on the wrong things. So here are some suggestions based on lessons I’ve learned over the last 25 years of mixing.

Start with Good Gain Structure

If you know you are going to be short on time for your soundcheck, get your gain structure right first. Before you start loading up the plugin rack or setting up all your cool parallel compression, get the gain structure right. Nail this, and you are 80% of the way there to a good mix. As I’ve said before, there is no plugin that will fix an overloaded and distorting input. And if you don’t have enough gain, you’ll be fighting noise the whole gig. 

It’s important to remember that for many, many years, engineers mixed with only a simple 3 or 4 band EQ on the channels, and maybe a few channels of compression. While I don’t advocate going back to those days, the point is they made it sound great by focusing on the basics. Start there, then dress it up.

Build the Mix First

Again, I see a lot of younger guys spending time trying out different plugins on the bass, when what they should be doing is bringing the mix together. Once the mix is sounding good, then go after the cool stuff. I remember hearing a story of a guy who spent all of soundcheck at a festival getting the rack toms sounding amazing! Problem was, he ran out of time and never got to the rest of the band. As a result, the show pretty much sounded terrible, except for those few seconds each song when the drummer hit the toms. 

Don’t get so enamored with all this cool new digital technology that you forget what you are really there to do—mix. When I am training volunteer engineers, I teach them to mix on a simple analog console first before letting them step up to the Digico. If they can demonstrate putting together a great mix on a GB16, I’m pretty confident they can do so on an SD8. 

When Time is Really Tight, Skip the Fancy Stuff

Sometimes we have to do events where we get a couple songs as a “soundcheck,” before the doors open. That is not the time layer effects, parallel compress or insert seven plugins on your lead vocal. Get your gain right, build the mix and go after big problems. Then when the lights come up, mix the show, tweaking as you go. Ideal? No, but it will sound good. 

Do we wish we all had time to record the rehearsal, then spend a full day tweaking every setting on the board and making it perfect? Sure, maybe. But we don’t all have that all the time, so we need to make sure we’re focusing on the right things when time is tight. Give it a go and I can promise you your mixes will sound better in less time.

Roland

Same Gear, Different Results

A few months back, my daughter asked me to mix for her worship leading final. Of course, I said yes immediately. Then I discovered the venue. It was not ideal. That’s being polite. It was a big, hard box with lots of parallel walls, a poorly implemented PA and a mix position outside the coverage are of the speakers. Oh, and FOH was only accessed by a tight spiral staircase. Cool. 

The mixer was a little A&H analog deal, the speakers were forgettable and someone decided to mount the projector in a rack right next to the mixing position so the hot air exhaust blew on the engineer the entire time. I fixed that by flipping the door on the rack around to direct the air away from me. But that’s not the point. 

I ended up mixing not only my daughter’s set, but three others as well. When the class was over, four or five people came up and thanked me for being there and every one of them said they had never heard that room sound so good. 

Now, I say that not to blow my own horn, but to make the point that the gear is not necessarily what makes something sound good or not. I have heard terrible mixes on great PA’s and great mixes on less than ideal ones. 

You Have to Get Better at Mixing

I talk to some guys, especially at small churches with small or no budgets and they continually tell me that they could do a better job if they just had better gear. Now, that may be true to some extent. But the reality is, you can get better at mixing no matter what you have to work on. Every time I mix a gig on some really crappy gear, people come up and tell me how much better it sounded than they expected. Again, not to tell you how great I am, but to say that I have spent the last 20 years learning how to wring the most performance out of whatever gear I’m given. 

Sure, I’d rather mix on an SD5 with an L’Acoustics PA, but if what I have to work with is some old JBL cabs and an MG32, I’m going to do my best to make it amazing. It’s what we do.

Complaining and Blaming Equipment Won’t Get You New Gear

If I were writing a book, this would be a chapter. It’s easy to constantly complain that you don’t have the right mixer, the right mic’s, the right speakers, the right lights, the right whatever. But no one likes a complainer. You know what church leaders do like? Someone who knocks it out of the park every week despite the crappy equipment their given. Learn to do that, and you will eventually get what you want.

New Equipment Won’t Magically Make You Better

You have to get better. I’ve walked into churches with fancy new digital boards and listened the result and cringed. When I look at how they have it set up, it’s often a mess. If you don’t understand the fundamentals of gain structure, EQ and basic mixing, it doesn’t really matter how many on-board compressors you have or how many plugins you can rack up. In fact, those usually do more harm than good in inexperienced hands. Learn to mix on crappy gear, then move up the food chain. 

Remember, these are all just tools. It’s up to us to learn how to use them to their fullest capacity. Learn to do that and it won’t matter what you find yourself mixing on.

Roland

Today’s post is brought to you by Digital Audio Labs, The Livemix monitor system is simple for volunteer performers to use while providing professional tools for great mixes. Featuring outstanding sound quality, color touchscreen with custom naming, 24 channels with effects, remote mixing, intercom, ambient mics, and dedicated ME knob, Livemix provides more and costs much less than competing systems.

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…

Roland

Today's post is brought to you by DPA Microphones. DPA's range of microphones have earned their reputation  for exceptional clarity,  high resolution, above all, pure, uncolored accurate sound. Whether recording or sound reinforcement, theatrical or broadcast, DPA's miking solutions have become the choice of professionals with uncompromising demands for sonic excellence.

DMX Over Cat5, Pt. 1

 

DMX. That now ubiquitous way of controlling our lighting fixtures. While the standard of DMX is pretty well established—at least in terms of the speeds, number of channels and controls—there are still plenty of variables. Fixtures can have 3-pin XLRs on them, or 5-pin. Or both. Sometimes, the in and out jacks on a fixture are simply wired together and it doesn't matter which is which. Other times, they are active and you can't plug in to the out jack and visa versa. And while you can get away with running DMX over mic cords for shorter distances, it's not recommended for longer runs. 

Over the next two posts, we're going to talk about a few ways to run DMX from FOH to fixtures. In this post, we'll look at using Cat5 cable instead of DMX cable. Next time, we'll consider using a DMX networking system, which also used Cat5, though in a very different manner. 

Now, I should point out that when we're talking about using Cat5 for DMX cable, I am referring to the longer, backbone type runs in a system, not fixture-to-fixture jumpers. In most DMX systems, you will have a run or two (depending on universe count) from FOH to the stage, then the signal hits an Opto-splitter and is distributed throughout the stage and house lighting. At least that is what should happen; I have seen systems where there is one run from the console to the first fixture, and the DMX is daisy chained throughout every single system in the room. 

While that can work, it's not ideal. Once you get past about 18 fixtures in a DMX chain, things can get weird. Not always, but sometimes. For this reason, it's better to keep the fixture count lower and use a proper splitter to give you multiple branches of the DMX universe in your room. 

I should also point out that a terminal block or wire nuts do not a proper DMX splitter make. You really want an active signal splitter that not only sends out an exact copy of your DMX signal to each port, but also isolates the ports from each other. That way if you have a problem on one branch, the whole system doesn't go down. 

With those disclaimers and background, let's consider the first way we can use Cat5 cable in our DMX system. 

Cable Substitution

The most straight-forward use of Cat5 in a DMX system is just a simple cable replacement. Instead of pulling standard DMX cable through the conduit, pull Cat5. There are several advantages to this. First, Cat5 is a lot cheaper than DMX cable. Second, it's a lot easier to pull than most DMX cable due to it's slippery outer jacket (one that's designed to be pulled through conduit). Cat5 is also readily available in long lengths just about anywhere. 

Pinouts

When using Cat5 cable in a DMX system—really any cable—it's important to follow proper termination procedures. You can solder Cat5 cable to XLR plugs, but it's important to pay close attention to the cable pairs and pinning. The folks at Pathway Connectivity provided this chart, which I've used for all my jobs with great success.

image.jpg

Example System

So let's look at a simple system as an example. We would come from our lighting console to an opto-splitter, then out to each branch of fixtures over the stage or house. This is a simple, single universe system, so we'll pull one run of Cat5 from FOH to the stage where the opto-splitter lives, then run standard DMX cables to the fixtures. 

image.jpg

As you can see, it's pretty simple. Next time around, we'll use Cat5 to it's full advantage, and I'll show you how you can get 64 universes on a single Cat5.

By the way, I built this whole post on my iPad while stuck in an ice storm in Nashville.  

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.