Analog Training in a Digital World

Last week, I wrote about the concern I have with new sound techs learning how to mix on a digital console. Don’t get me wrong, I love my SD8, I’m not a Luddite, and am all for the digital revolution. However, learning to mix on a digital desk is sort of like learning to drive a “manual” transmission car equipped with what Jeremy Clarkson calls a “flappy paddle gearbox.” Yes, you’re changing gears, but you have no idea how to properly manipulate the brake-clutch-gas relationship.

A digital console, especially one like the SD8 or a Venue has so much power with so much going on that teaching the basics on them is really tough. I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with a way to teach my audio team the basics of gain structure and properly putting together a basic mix on an analog console. We have a small portable system here at Coast, but for a long time I couldn’t come up with a way to get sound into it. Until last week.

We multi-track our services in Reaper, and I’ve even recorded a few sound checks to have those on hand for training. But how to get those 20-30 tracks into a 16 channel analog desk? With no budget? Here’s how: We have an 8-channel analog output card in our DigiRack, and I figured 8 channels at a time was a good starting point. 

So, I built a show in the SD8 that had 8 mono groups patched to analog outputs 1-8 in the rack. By choosing what went to those groups (and I can snapshot group membership!), I was able to quickly switch back and forth between one set up with our 8 drum mics and another with 4 drum channels, bass, guitar, bass and vocals. And if I wanted to put the entire band on the little mixer, I could do so by simply assigning various channels to the groups.

The other key was remote control. Since our virtual soundcheck Mac is in the tech booth and I needed to run this whole operation from the stage, I set my MacBook Pro on a keyboard stand and used Remote Desktop to control the VS Mac. I put markers in the Reaper timeline that corresponded to various points in the sound check process (kick, snare, hat, etc.). Reaper makes it easy to use markers; simply hit a number key to jump to that marker. 

I also used the iPad to remote into the SD8 and control my snapshots. By switching from one snapshot to the next, I could quickly give my students different configurations of instruments to mix. In one case we had all 8 drum mics on the mixer, in another, they got to work with a mini-band. The next time we do this, I’ll create more variations so they can experiment a bit more. 

In practice, it worked brilliantly. After spending some time talking the theory of gain structure and the basics of what mixers do, we moved to the console. Being a little MixWizzard, it wasn’t all that intimidating. I showed them how to set gains using PFL and discussed the various options for how to set up your gain/fader relationship. Then they stepped up and gave it a go. I stood behind the mixer with my Mac, controlling the pace of the “soundcheck.” Generally, they were able to get the gain dialed in by the time I had moved on to the next one, but if they didn’t, I just hit a number key to jump back. 

Once we got to working with the “mini band” configuration, it was really cool to see their faces when the mix fell into place. Suddenly, what had seemed intimidating now made sense. Since we also set up a monitor, they were able to see the effects of gain changes on the monitor mix, which will hopefully keep them from making that mistake down the road. 

I’ve been teaching mixing basics for a long time, and this was by far the most successful outing for a group of first-timers. I will definitely be using this technique again. And if you don’t have access to an SD8 outfitted with virtual soundcheck, don’t fret. I’ve written a post on some options for building a VS rig that won’t break the bank. 

What has been your experience using Virtual Soundcheck for training?

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