Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mixing a Spelling Bee

I happened to be watching the Scripps Spelling Bee on ESPN tonight and it reminded me of my recent experiences providing sound reinforcement for a small spelling bee. You might think mixing a spelling bee would be a rather dull task. I'll admit it can get monotonous. However, like most things in sound reinforcement it can be as involved a task as you make it.

Spelling bees are a lot like weddings in the sense that you will have a very small channel count, but the material coming over those channels is very important stuff. I've heard some engineers say these tasks are "simple" thinking only of the channel count. I wonder if these folks are actually thinking about the importance of the job they are doing. Those kids put in a lot of work to get on that platform. To them, the ability to hear the words and the ability to be heard means everything. The pressure is on because you typically have people who do not have good mic technique and you typically are dealing with multiple output feeds. The contestants need to hear the judges and announcements. The judges need to hear the contestants, and the audience needs to hear everything. The choice of music (whether or what) to play before/after the event can be an important one. A serious sound engineer would shudder to think that a speller missed a word partly because he or she didn't hear something properly or was distracted by feedback.

I used to supply two microphones for the contestants: one for the taller contestants, and one for the short ones. But I've learned that many contestants were "in the middle" and confused about which mic to use. In more recent runs we've simply adjusted the mic between the two age groups and set it up in such a way that it works for most users. I end up riding the faders a lot. I'll typically provide a monitor speaker for the contestant, one for the judge, and one for the contestants' sitting area because these people will be out of the coverage of the main house system. So that's as many as four outputs, each with it's own mix for only about two inputs. The placement of the monitors for the contestant and judge is critical. The purpose of these devices is to make sure they can hear each other. But you can actually reduce intelligibility if the distances are right because one party will hear the other both in direct sound of the voice and sound from the monitor, but these sounds won't arrive at the listener's ear at the same time. So speaker placement and delay considerations are a must. It just goes to show you that nothing in audio is as simple as it looks. Even the simplest events like a small town spelling bee require competent, knowledgable, and interested and alert operators.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thoughts for the New Year

As I sit here in January and contemplate the new year I must admit that I am in an odd place of transition and my contemplations are not without a bit of uncertainty. 

2010 was an awesome year for my audio interests. I managed to pull in about a 40% increase in revenue by doing about half the number of jobs as 2009. That's mostly a reflection of what can happen when you get rid of debt. I was able to be picky about the gigs I accepted because I didn't feel a pressing need to pay for equipment. 2010 also saw me improving my equipment capabilities as I was able to score some old QSC amps in a road case for a real bargain. These replace an old Audio-Centron amp that supplied all my power up to this point. 

My road map for the future is clear. What is unclear is which section of it I will tackle first and when it will take off. There are three areas I want to explore to improve my skills. They are, in no particular order: recording, system optimization, and larger shows. 

I've had a long-standing desire to hone my recording skills. I've started several projects that I've been unable to finish, sometimes because of my own shortcomings, and sometimes because the band I was working with fell apart. I plan to work through some of my issues and get more experience with my equipment and methods by doing some of my own music. If this pans out it will give me some better reference material while fulfilling a long-time dream. When I feel certain that it won't be a waste of a client's time or money I plan to market my skills and rent out a local studio space. I'd like to someday have a mixing room at home, but I don't have any desire to run a studio.

To improve my tech skills. It's time for the SynAudCon Sound Systems for Technicians class. This class will solidify my knowledge about system optimization and troubleshooting and help me to understand what tools I need to be a successful technician. I don't know how many times I've been asked by a church or other organization to fix their sound system. I'd prefer to gain the skills I need to do that job correctly than to turn them down. 

Finally, there's nothing like the thrill of mixing a show successfully. Most of the shows I've mixed to date have been low-key, low-risk gigs. I'd like to move up a rung on the ladder and do some stuff that will stretch my skills. I'm thinking of seeking out a small festival or another church concert. I don't have the equipment for this, but my strategy is to rent what I need and use my gear as spares and backups.

So I have a clear path forward in several areas. What's not clear is which one will take off and when. I started 2010 with nothing scheduled and this year is no different. Most of my work has happened in the latter half of the year. I've never been one to push hard to get new business. Rather, I prefer to see what will come my way. It will be interesting to see what God has in store in 2011.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

More StudioLive Observations

Since my 3-part StudioLive review I've made some further observations I'd like to note here:

  • I'm using the 1st edition 16-channel version. Keep that in mind as you read my thoughts. The 24 channel version has fully-parametric channel EQs and more graphic EQ options.
  • I'm getting more accustomed to the navigation. It's becoming more second-nature as time goes on. That is to be expected. Even bad usability improves with repetitive use and I wouldn't classify the StudioLive as "bad usability."
  • The "target gain" method has improved my experience with preamp headroom. I still feel like it could use some more headroom, but it gets the job done. Plus I still need to work on the target gain method. I'm not sure whether I like it yet or not.
  • The other week I used the graphic EQ. I preferred editing it from the control panel software, but the software crashed every time I tried to edit the EQ. It crashed gracefully in that it did not mess up or lose the settings on the board, but it did crash. I ended up using the Fat Channel knobs to edit the EQ and I'm not particularly fond of the way that works.
  • I'm a Mac guy and I'm not having any firewire issues. I just plug it in and it works. I've heard from several Windows users who have had firewire issues. I'm a bit worried about the future of the firewire interface on the Mac. For that matter, I'm a bit worried about the future of a lot of stuff on the Mac. But that's a post for another day :-)
  • The firewire connectivity issues I had early on have disappeared. The firmware upgrade must've fixed them.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Presonus StudioLive Review - Part 3: Negatives & Conclusion

Everything in audio is a tradeoff. Every design decision is a compromise between cost, quality, size, efficiency, user preferences... and countless other priorities. So there are a lot of things I could complain about with StudioLive. In many ways I think my concerns belie my desire for a higher end console. However, my business just wouldn't support the cost of such a device. Let me reiterate that the StudioLive is not one of those higher end boards. It was not intended to be and we should not expect it to be. My purpose here is to try and understand what the tradeoffs are. 

The biggest issue I have with the console while using it is general navigation of features. I've found that I can fumble around for quite a while trying to figure out how to route signals to the headphone output. Also, depending on what mixing mode I'm in I can have a difficult time figuring out how to make quick EQ changes. More concerning is the fact that I've often found myself editing EQ or dynamics on the wrong channel, or editing settings which are turned off. I think channel EQs should be ON by default, but they are not. To address this I've set up scenes where everything is routed and activated the way I want it. As part of my system test process before a gig I call up the right "startup" scene and make sure everything is working right.

Another navigational issue I have is how the Fat Channel controls are laid out. I would like to see some separation between the dynamics and EQ sections. I would also like to see the EQ laid out more vertically. I am visually impaired and I cannot always rely on being able to read the silkscreen labels to see what settings I'm changing. I think this is one of the tradeoffs. I suspect it's cheaper to manufacture the board with the Fat Channel knobs lined up above the faders. This allows those knobs to be used for multiple purposes and streamlines production. But, in my opinion, it makes the user interface a bit clunky at times. I may start using the control software to make more of these changes. Speaking of the Universal Control software, I've found it to be overall a useful tool for working with the console. But it forces some unnecessary clicking around and scrolling to get where you want to go. This is something that has not been available for very long and I expect improvements to be made to it. 

It's worth noting that many of the user interface issues I have with the console are likely due to the fact that it only gets occasional use. If I was using it daily or weekly I'd probably get more accustomed to it. Compared to some of the early digital console models usability is a big step up on this board. But it's not something I feel like I could just rent out and feel like an uninitiated sound engineer could use without issue.

I've had a few odd firewire connectivity issues with the console. I had originally written that the console needed to be powered down when connecting firewire, but it turns out that is not always the case. I did a couple of "on the fly" connections and reconnections in testing last night and it worked flawlessly. But when the pressure is on it hasn't always worked so flawlessly. I've never had issues once connectivity was established, but I've occasionally had issues establishing connectivity. It's almost always been right before a show and the fix has been to power down the console and reboot it, or, in a couple of cases, to yank the firewire cable and run the show without the computer. I'm now in the habit of carefully establishing connectivity first thing when the mixer is powered up. I did have a power failure once mid show and had to do a portion of it without the computer. But the console restarted quickly and continued to run without issue.

There are some other limitations of the StudioLive. One is the lack of an external or redundant power supply. Another is the limited digital connectivity options. I would like to be able to use digital snakes or audio distribution networks, but that option is not available without going through the firewire interface somehow. The delay and reverb effects require some TLC to sound good, but they are usable I also wish there were more options than simply reverb and delay.

Lastly, I am beginning to question the notion of doing simultaneous live mixing and recording with the same equipment. I've done it and proven that it can be done, but I usually find I want different input levels for recording and for live mixing. If I switch to using the target gain method for mixing then the input levels will probably be too low for recording purposes. It would be nice to send the recording feeds post-fader, but on a separate board so they can be managed appropriately.

Perhaps you can see again that many of my concerns about the StudioLive are simply pointing me to higher end gear. In the end it has found a comfortable home in my rig and has been used for everything from a small club music festival to a homeschool convention and graduation to an intimate acoustic show with a national touring act. I expect it to be part of my work for some time to come. For me it has provided greatly increased functionality for the price when compared to most analog options available and increased usability for the price when compared to many digital options available. As long as one understands its limitations I don't have any problem recommending it for professional use.

Presonus StudioLive Review - Part 2: Positives

A console that's touted as a roadworthy product should be reliable. It should sound good and have good noise rejection. Unfortunately, in today's world, the difference between toys and professional equipment is not always obvious - even by looking at brand names. So it's worth mentioning that the StudioLive has done well so far in all these respects. I'm not what you'd call a "road warrior", gigging every weekend. I keep my console in a road case. It has traveled with me in my car or trailer six or seven times in the last year. I've had the lid off of the case several more times for various uses and I have not had any reliability issues. I've used it in challenging electrical environments where other equipment hums and buzzes and it has rejected noise faithfully. I've not done any serious testing with regards to sound quality, but I've been satisfied with the way it sounds in every situation I've used it, from folk and bluegrass to punk and metal. I should note that I've used it much more as a live console than a recording board. I can't say I've ever used the StudioLive in an environment where studio-quality preamps were needed.

As I mentioned the best feature of the StudioLive is its channel processing capabilities. It provides an unheard of set of features for a board at this price point. Each channel includes an adjustable high-pass filter, full dynamics processing (compressor, expander/limiter, gate), and 4-band parametric EQ. The EQ is "almost" fully parametric, meaning the low and high bands are switchable between shelf and notch filters and the two mid bands are switchable between low and high Q. I'm not particularly fond of the use of the channel meters as knob level indicators for these features, but it works. You get used to seeing it that way and the Universal Control software provides an alternative means of viewing and editing these parameters. 

The "other best feature" of the board is the ability to flexibly route almost anything to  and from the computer for recording. I've found the firewire interface to be clean and reliable. There are some issues with connectivity that I'll expand on later, but once everything is hooked up and running I am able to record all 16 channels to my Macbook Pro faithfully without dropouts. This works while running Logic Pro 8 and the Presonus Universal Control software simultaneously. 

There are a lot of other positive notes about this console. One thing I'm particularly fond of is the flexible and accessible metering options (though see my earlier caveat about input levels and metering),  I like the fact that you can easily switch between input, output, and gain reduction meters with the touch of a button. I also like the feel of the faders. They sit on a slightly flatter plane than the Fat Channel controls and that layout seems more ergonomic to me. The channels have plenty of space between them with nice long-throw faders. The faders have a very smooth travel and are not sticky at all. I like the fact that the headphone jack is located in front of the fader board so the cable stays out of the way. The Universal Control software was updated after I bought my console and I've found it to be a good experience to work with. Another nice touch is the adjustable sensitivity for the stereo and mono main outputs. This makes it easier to match up the StudioLive to various kinds of processing equipment. All of these little things add up to a console that is very usable and has gotten me through some tough mixing assignments.

Presonus StudioLive Review - Part 1: Overview

I've been using my Presonus StudioLive 16:4:2 for about a year now, so I decided it's time for a thorough review. I did an early "first impressions" review when I first bought it, which I will publicly say was not worth publishing. It was by no means a real-world audio situation. At any rate, I will now attempt to post a fair review of the product.

I bought the StudioLive because I was in need of a professional quality portable sound rig with some recording capabilities. The StudioLive seemed to be a sweet spot for my needs on the price/features/quality curve and I have not been disappointed with it in that regard. I also considered analog options like the Allen & Heath MixWizard coupled with outboard gear and higher end digital options like the Yamaha LS9. At the end of the day the LS9 was out of my reach and the StudioLive provided the features I needed in one unit for less than the price of an analog board with all the outboard gear required. 

The console has been used for both live sound and recording purposes on several occasions and my overall experience with it has been very good. It was not designed to compete with more expensive digital consoles and users should not expect it to be one of those consoles. But I think it has its place in a professional rig as it provides good quality sound, good analog I/O, and excellent noise rejection. Its best features are the channel processing capabilities (i.e. dynamics, EQ, etc.) and its recording interface. Its biggest limitation, in my opinion, is the sometimes clunky navigation and the lack of some professional features like external/redundant power supplies and limited digital connectivity. For now, I will not give a detailed review of the recording software as I have not explored it very much. I use Logic Audio for my recording purposes and I've not had any issues with it.

There is one question mark I have about the StudioLive as compared to other quality consoles I've used and that relates to input headroom. It seems to me that there is either not a great deal of headroom or the input meters seem to be overly aggressive at indicating clipping. To be sure, I have never heard audible artifacts when the input meters indicated clipping, but the meters just seem to get to clipping a lot easier than others I'm used to. My friends on the SynAudCon listserv are helping me to understand this better. One of the suggestions I've received is to use the target gain method. I will try that at my next show and see how it goes. I will also continue my research into this topic and try to report back on it later. 

With that, let's dive into the review:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Beating Back Futility

I've been listening to the audio version of John Piper's book Don't Waste Your Life. Speaking of secular work he says something to the effect of "Work is not part of the curse; the futility that comes with work is part of the curse." This got my mind to churning. We were created in God's image. We have tainted that image by sin. But through Christ, the image of God in us is being redeemed.

I see this process being played out all the time. I believe part of the "image" relates to our creative ability to envision something in our mind, then bring it into reality by working with our hands. In our minds we often envision ideas and things without flaws. As a software developer I envision a "perfect" user interface that will allow users to seamlessly interact with an application. I envision a "perfect" recording of a band, a "perfect" concert experience, or a "perfect" set of custom acoustic panels. However, the warts and futility always appear in the implementation of these ideas. The software contains bugs - either in the framework or the development or even the design. The recording takes forever to accomplish and most of that time is spent doing stupid tasks like setting things up or smoothing out errors. The panels seemed perfect, but the backing boards are warped, or the building is not square, or the fabric is slightly discolored. This is the perfect image that is tainted due to sin. This is the futility.

The ongoing redemption of the perfect image comes as we work to beat back the futility. The work of the believer is to bring some redemption into everything we touch. We must keep hacking away at the software until the bugs are squashed. We must keep at the recording project until some semblance of the vision has become reality. We must keep honing the panels until they fit like the were meant to. It would be easy to throw up our hands, to embrace futility. But that is not what we're called to. We're called to bring redemption to what we do. When I'm mixing a show the day typically starts out as chaos. There's never enough time to get everything set up and running correctly. It almost never sounds right when the band starts playing. That's the futility. But there's usually a place somewhere during the show when everything falls into place. It's when I can sit back and say "That's good." That's the redemption, and that's what I will keep striving for.