Virtual Soundcheck

I’ve been tweeting a lot about our virtual soundcheck system the past few weeks, and it’s generated more than a few questions and responses. I figured it was high time to talk about what virtual soundcheck is, how we use it and what the benefits are. First off, let’s define the term “virtual soundcheck.” What we’re doing is replacing the live band on stage with a virtual copy, typically recorded digitally to a hard drive (though it’s also quite possible to use other multi-track recorders). They key for virtual soundcheck, and what distinguishes it from simply recording a board mix is that every channel in use is discretely recorded as close to the mic pre as possible. In other words, we want our record pick off point to be right after the mic pre; before the high pass, before the EQ and before any dynamics.

Most of the time, virtual soundcheck is accomplished with a digital board. It can be done in the analog world, but it’s much more work. Different manufacturers have different processes for setting up virtual soundcheck, and I’ll not attempt to detail them all here. The best processes make it easy to record pretty much right after the mic pre A/D conversion, then re-insert the signal at that point with a touch of a button. And remember, we’re doing this with 20-30 channels, so it needs to be an easy process.

I’ll use our system as an example. At FOH, we have a DIGiCo SD8. Since it’s based on MADI, we use that to our full advantage. The SD8 has two MADI interfaces cleverly named MADI:1 and MADI:2. In the software, it’s possible (through a simple drop-down) to copy MADI:1 (our stage rack) to MADI:2. That takes the digital signal from the stage rack (right after the mic pre and before any processing) and puts it on the MADI:2 interface. Using an RME MADIFace, I take the signal out of MADI:2 into a MacBook Pro 17” (with Express34 card slot) and record the individual tracks in Reaper. I spent some time building track templates in Reaper so getting ready to record the 24 or so tracks we need each week takes about 3 mouse clicks. Once the tracks are recorded (and patched to play back through the MADIFace on the right channels), bringing them back into the SD8 is a simple matter of clicking on “Listen to Copied Audio.” So that’s what it is, now what can we do with it? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Setting Up Channel Parameters

No one likes to sit through a sound check with a drumming hitting tom one for 5 minutes while the FOH engineer gets the gate set up right. With virtual soundcheck, they don’t have to. A few weeks ago, I had a big worship night to get prepared for and I knew soundcheck time was going to be at a premium. I scrolled through past services I had on the drive and found one with the drummer who would be playing that night. I called it up, found a section where he was playing the toms, looped it and got my drums set up. I do the same thing with speakers, vocalists and anything else that needs some time to get dialed in. Lately I’ve been playing more with the multi-band comps on bass, and now that I have all our bassists on disk, I can tweak the settings until I’m happy without tying up the whole band.

System Tuning

Playing a CD through a system as you’re making adjustments is great. But it always sounds different with a live band. I’ve found making adjustments with my virtual band gets me a lot closer to what I want when the real band is there. It’s especially nice when you combine virtual soundcheck with snapshots. For example, if I notice that during the worship set, I have some low-mid stuff in the PA that I don’t like, I can go back during the week, call up the set, recall the snapshot of the mix and play with it. Was it a mixing thing or is it a system tuning thing? Either way, we can address it at a more comfortable pace and get it dialed in the way we like without tying up a dozen people on stage.

Testing New Gear

Right now, I am testing a new wireless IEM that I’ve not worked with before. I don’t really have time on the weekend to play with it and see what it sounds like. And sure, I can play a CD through it, but that doesn’t really give me a true indication of what it’s going to sound like with my band. When the band is on the hard drive it’s an easy test.

Training

This is the one I’m most excited about. Now that we’re making the transition from paid engineers to volunteers, having the ability to spend an evening with a new volunteer going over the board, tweaking parameters, and putting a mix together all without the stress of 800 people watching (and listening!) is going to be a huge benefit for us. It’s one thing to be able to say, “This how a multi-band comp sounds on a bass,” but it’s whole other thing to actually demonstrate it, play with all the parameters and mix it up.

Depending on your system, implementing a virtual soundcheck can cost a few thousand dollars. In our case, we have about $3500 into our Mac, MADIFace and hard drive. For me, it was totally worth it as part of an entire FOH upgrade. If I had to justify it as a standalone purchase, it might be tougher. Still, the benefits of having it are so great, I think I would find a way.