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

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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