Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Virtual Soundcheck on the Cheap

As promised, today we’ll follow up Monday’s post, Training Audio Volunteers, with some thoughts on doing Virtual Soundcheck if you don’t have a DiGiCo or Avid console at your disposal. Disclaimer: This is not going to be exhaustive. There are hundreds of hardware/software combinations that will get you the same result. These are some ideas only. Also, it should be noted that “cheap” is a relative term. All of these solutions are going to cost money, real money. However, if you church is serious about raising the level of audio technician performance, it’s money well spent. On we go…

First, let’s define “Virtual Soundcheck.” Virtual Soundcheck is simply being able to record the band with each channel on it’s own track and then being able to play that recording back, in place through the same channels on your console. To illustrate with a very primitive example, let’s say your “band” is a worship leader with an acoustic guitar. To facilitate virtual soundcheck, you would need a way to record the vocals and guitar on separate tracks, and you want those sources to come off the board before any EQ or dynamics. Typically, you’re using Direct Outputs or the Insert Outputs. When you get ready to practice, you do a little patching (in software or hardware) and play back that recording through the same channels you use if the worship leader and his guitar were live in the room.

One thing should be immediately apparent here; the bigger your band (and the more sources you have), the more elaborate the system you’re going to need for virtual soundcheck. If you are running 30-40 inputs every weekend, this post is really not for you as that system is not going to be cheap. Rather, I’m focusing on those who run fewer than 24 channels per weekend (a number that is not arbitrary, as you’ll see in a minute) and using an analog board. Here are a few ways to get it done.

M-Audio ProFire 2626 M-Audio ProFire 2626
Audio Interface(s)
The simplest way of doing this job is with a USB or more likely a FireWire interface such as the M-Audio ProFire 2626, a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 or similar interface with 8 analog inputs and 8 analog outputs. The first thing you’ll notice when shopping for an interface is that manufacturers get very creative in the way they count I/O. For example, the ProFire 2626 is listed as having 26 inputs and 26 outputs, which it does. But only 8 of them are analog. And if you’re using an analog console, that’s all you care about. If you have a digital console with ADAT I/O, you gain you an additional set of 8 useable channels.

Focusrite Saffire Pro40 Focusrite Saffire Pro40Now, the catch here is that there aren’t any interfaces with more than 8 channels of analog I/O (at least I can’t find any). So that means if you’re running 12 channels of audio, 4 get left behind. Unless you get creative. You might ask why you can’t just connect two 8-channel interfaces to your computer and send those inputs to your recording software. The issue is that most DAW software won’t support multiple I/O devices simultaneously (if I’m wrong on that point, someone please correct me—my knowledge of the intimate details of all DAWs on the market is not exhaustive). If your DAW of choice doesn’t support multiple I/O devices, there is a workaround, at least on the Mac.

In Audio/MIDI settings, you can create what’s called an Aggregate Device, which allows you to create a virtual device that is made up of two or more actual devices. You then chose the Aggregate Device as your I/O source in your DAW, and all the inputs and outputs on all devices that make up the Aggregate Device are available to the DAW.

So an example system might be made up of two Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 interfaces combined into an aggregate device and recorded using Reaper on a Mac Mini. That would give you 16 channels of recording and playback for around $1500, give or take. That seems pretty reasonable; at least until you consider the next option.

Hard Disk-based Recorders

There exist on the market a couple of hard drive-based recorders, most notably the Alesis HD24. This little 3 rack space wonder is capable of recording or playing back 24 tracks of 48KHz 24 bit audio. It has 24 channels of analog I/O (plus 24 channels of ADAT I/O) and costs about $1600. Really, this is the way to go. It requires no computer, is simple to set up and operate and is rock-solid reliable. Add 24 channels of TRS patch cables and you’re done.

Alesis HD24 Alesis HD24Other options include the Tascam X-48, which is a full-blown 24 channel workstation (and almost $5,000) and the excellent, but somewhat pricey JoeCo BlackBox, which will set you back almost $3,000 by the time you add a drive.

JoeCo BlackBox JoeCo BlackBox
Caveats

There are a few caveats with any of these solutions. First, if your board has direct outputs, it’s a fairly simple matter to patch those direct outs to the inputs of whatever recording solution you use. Getting back in, however, will require some re-patching. You’ll want to pull your mic inputs, and patch the outputs from the recorder or interface(s) into the Line Inputs on your console.

If you don’t have direct outs, you’ll need to use the inserts. One cool thing about the JoeCo BlackBox is that the inputs are normalled back out to the outputs during every operation except playback. That means that for recording (or just sitting there), the insert signal is returned and you can continue to use the board normally. When you hit “Play,” it opens the normal and sends the recorded signal back to the return on the board. From a user interface standpoint, that’s really nice. However, it will cost you twice what an HD24 costs…

When using the inserts, you will likely need to push the cables into the console until the first click. An insert jack is a TRS (tip, ring, sleeve) connector, so it has 3 contact points. Most consoles use the ring as the send, so if you push a TS cable in to the first click, you get the equivalent of a direct out (albeit an unbalanced one). Pushing it in all the way will interrupt the signal, so you’ll only do that on playback.

Using inserts is going to mean a fair amount of patching and some experimenting, so don’t decide to try this out at 8:50 on Sunday morning.

Once you get the system up and running like you want, start recording your services in all their multi-track glory. Then during the week, you can practice and experiment just like the band is there, only they aren’t. Keep in mind, you won’t have any acoustic energy coming from the stage, so things like drums and vocals will be a little different. But this is still a great tool for training and experimenting with various processor settings.

Like I said, this isn’t exhaustive; I only intended to give a few examples. Hopefully though, it will get you thinking about how you can implement a virtual soundcheck system in your church.

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20 Comments

  1. fohdave@goingto11.com

    If you are using a computer audio interface with 8 analog inputs and 8 digital ins, there are converters to convert another 8 channels of analog to digital to make use of your digital inputs. You might have to dig a bit to find them because they seem to be disappearing. The SMPro Audio 08 looks like it might still be floating around in the $100-200 range, and there are others out there, too. If you talk to your favorite Pro Audio dealer, they should be able to help you track down something.

  2. fohdave@goingto11.com

    If you are using a computer audio interface with 8 analog inputs and 8 digital ins, there are converters to convert another 8 channels of analog to digital to make use of your digital inputs. You might have to dig a bit to find them because they seem to be disappearing. The SMPro Audio 08 looks like it might still be floating around in the $100-200 range, and there are others out there, too. If you talk to your favorite Pro Audio dealer, they should be able to help you track down something.

  3. tylermckellar@gmail.com

    Motu (Mark of the Unicorn) makes a pci based system with 24 analog ins and outs. Aptly named the 24I/O, it can be expanded with another 24I/O expansion unit to bring channel counts up to 48.

  4. tylermckellar@gmail.com

    Motu (Mark of the Unicorn) makes a pci based system with 24 analog ins and outs. Aptly named the 24I/O, it can be expanded with another 24I/O expansion unit to bring channel counts up to 48.

  5. bettafish@gmail.com

    Check out the Echo Audiofire 12, 12 inputs and no preamps so it’s great for recording off of direct outputs or inserts: http://www.echoaudio.com/Products/FireWire/AudioFire12/index.php

  6. bettafish@gmail.com

    Check out the Echo Audiofire 12, 12 inputs and no preamps so it’s great for recording off of direct outputs or inserts: http://www.echoaudio.com/Products/FireWire/AudioFire12/index.php

  7. davewe85@gmail.com

    PreSonus’s FireStudio Project (with 8 analog inputs) can be daisy chained. (PreSonus says it will work with 3+ units depending on cpu)

  8. davewe85@gmail.com

    PreSonus’s FireStudio Project (with 8 analog inputs) can be daisy chained. (PreSonus says it will work with 3+ units depending on cpu)

  9. andy@vineyardny.org

    We used the “one-click in the insert” method out the back of our Mackie digital board into my personal Mackie Onyx 1620 w/Firewire card to record a full band “dry”.

    It worked super well. We were recording for a Video Production, and so I mixed and mastered the instrument & voice 16 tracks we captured to get 15 or so excellent tunes.

    I had only recently begun to imagine how I could use the recordings to train FOH volunteers, and your post confirmed my thoughts on how it might work out! Thanks!

    I’ll use the dry captured audio from the computer back to the fully inserted stereo snake via Firewire through my Onyx 1620.

    Should be just about perfect. I might even give them some canned “problems” to solve like low audio or something of that nature. Any ideas?

  10. andy@vineyardny.org

    We used the “one-click in the insert” method out the back of our Mackie digital board into my personal Mackie Onyx 1620 w/Firewire card to record a full band “dry”.

    It worked super well. We were recording for a Video Production, and so I mixed and mastered the instrument & voice 16 tracks we captured to get 15 or so excellent tunes.

    I had only recently begun to imagine how I could use the recordings to train FOH volunteers, and your post confirmed my thoughts on how it might work out! Thanks!

    I’ll use the dry captured audio from the computer back to the fully inserted stereo snake via Firewire through my Onyx 1620.

    Should be just about perfect. I might even give them some canned “problems” to solve like low audio or something of that nature. Any ideas?

  11. phil.mawson@gmail.com

    If you are using a Yamaha digital desk, have a look at getting Dante cards. I’ve heard good things about them (although, havn’t tried myself but am looking at getting them). Each card is 16 channels of 48KHz audio in and out. Connects straight to your LAN switch (GIGe preferred) and into your computer running your DAW. This will be a great solution with ProTools 9 that doesn’t require their own hardware, the Dante will be seen as a CoreAudio device.

    If anyone has used this before let me know, otherwise I’m going to organise to buy it. Unfortunately being in a relatively small country (well, demand for pro audio – Australia) it’s hard to get a demo of this (even direct from Yamaha). But the cards are around $500 each, so fairly cheap 🙂

  12. phil.mawson@gmail.com

    If you are using a Yamaha digital desk, have a look at getting Dante cards. I’ve heard good things about them (although, havn’t tried myself but am looking at getting them). Each card is 16 channels of 48KHz audio in and out. Connects straight to your LAN switch (GIGe preferred) and into your computer running your DAW. This will be a great solution with ProTools 9 that doesn’t require their own hardware, the Dante will be seen as a CoreAudio device.

    If anyone has used this before let me know, otherwise I’m going to organise to buy it. Unfortunately being in a relatively small country (well, demand for pro audio – Australia) it’s hard to get a demo of this (even direct from Yamaha). But the cards are around $500 each, so fairly cheap 🙂

  13. travis@travispaulding.com

    Phil I was going to mention Dante even before I read your comment. I am using two Dante cards in our M7CL. Your explanation of it is accurate. We track into Logic Pro with a Mac Mini and use it for soundcheck regularly. The console options for installing Dante cards is limited but growing, I recommend it to anyone in the market for it. One feature that you mentioned but didn’t expound on is it’s networking. With each card you get two computer licenses (for us, 2 cards, 4 computer installs). The audio is passed over a standard cat5 network and can go anywhere. We are currently setting up a studio in our church, primarily for writing & recording, but we will also now track our services for remixing as well. The computer will be in a studio, disconnected from the sanctuary, however, thanks to our LAN we can record the tracks at that computer at the same time as FOH. The audio passes through switches & routers fine (not WiFi though).

    Another idea would be to use this to get audio to a monitor desk as a virtual snake. Latency could be a factor but in my limited testing, just to see how it worked, latency was negligible , less than 5ms in the settings.

    Dante opens up a lot of possibilities and at a great price. We got our two cards for $1100 total about a year ago. If you have a computer available already that is all you have to invest besides the software of your choice. Reaper is a great option at around $50 and you can go up from there. I don’t THINK that you can GarageBand it though.

  14. travis@travispaulding.com

    Phil I was going to mention Dante even before I read your comment. I am using two Dante cards in our M7CL. Your explanation of it is accurate. We track into Logic Pro with a Mac Mini and use it for soundcheck regularly. The console options for installing Dante cards is limited but growing, I recommend it to anyone in the market for it. One feature that you mentioned but didn’t expound on is it’s networking. With each card you get two computer licenses (for us, 2 cards, 4 computer installs). The audio is passed over a standard cat5 network and can go anywhere. We are currently setting up a studio in our church, primarily for writing & recording, but we will also now track our services for remixing as well. The computer will be in a studio, disconnected from the sanctuary, however, thanks to our LAN we can record the tracks at that computer at the same time as FOH. The audio passes through switches & routers fine (not WiFi though).

    Another idea would be to use this to get audio to a monitor desk as a virtual snake. Latency could be a factor but in my limited testing, just to see how it worked, latency was negligible , less than 5ms in the settings.

    Dante opens up a lot of possibilities and at a great price. We got our two cards for $1100 total about a year ago. If you have a computer available already that is all you have to invest besides the software of your choice. Reaper is a great option at around $50 and you can go up from there. I don’t THINK that you can GarageBand it though.

  15. kellygubser@gmail.com

    I have used two Alesis HD24s with a Crest Audio X-Eight analog board with great success. We had a bantam patch bay and wired the inserts to send to the HD24s then loop out to the patchbay. The returns were normaled in the patchbay back to the board. Easy to record and playback through any outboard gear with ease. Made three albums recording this way, too!

  16. kellygubser@gmail.com

    I have used two Alesis HD24s with a Crest Audio X-Eight analog board with great success. We had a bantam patch bay and wired the inserts to send to the HD24s then loop out to the patchbay. The returns were normaled in the patchbay back to the board. Easy to record and playback through any outboard gear with ease. Made three albums recording this way, too!

  17. mike@churchtecharts.org

    Andy,
    I like to mess with the EQ, change gain, turn off aux sends, stuff like that. Think of anything that’s ever gone wrong and see if you can re-create it.
    mike

  18. mike@churchtecharts.org

    Andy,
    I like to mess with the EQ, change gain, turn off aux sends, stuff like that. Think of anything that’s ever gone wrong and see if you can re-create it.
    mike

  19. mike@churchtecharts.org

    Dave,
    Good point. Though by the time you start adding it all up, the cost begins to approach an HD24.

    Tyler,
    I wasn’t aware of that one—thanks for brining it up!

    Matias,
    See above—thanks!

    David,
    I didn’t know that either. We’re all learning a lot here!

    Thanks, guys!
    mike

  20. mike@churchtecharts.org

    Dave,
    Good point. Though by the time you start adding it all up, the cost begins to approach an HD24.

    Tyler,
    I wasn’t aware of that one—thanks for brining it up!

    Matias,
    See above—thanks!

    David,
    I didn’t know that either. We’re all learning a lot here!

    Thanks, guys!
    mike

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