New directions in mixing control
Could technology that's mixing Shakira today be running your PA tomorrow?
Published in PM October 2007
Technique : Mixing
Live sound mixers on major tours are utilising a range of new technologies that are transforming the whole nature of FOH control, but could tablet PCs and software plug-ins soon be the future of self-op PA too?
Live performance has become the new currency of the music business. At a time when pre-recorded music sales continue a six-year decline, live concert ticket sales and revenues have set records two years running. Large corporations that once used to frequent only the largest venues now strut their stuff in even the grungiest of caverns. Even the USA concert business, once the purview of mavericks like Bill Graham and Ron Delsner, is now dominated by its own corporate shadows in the form of Live Nation and AEG Live.
A similar transformation of the technology of live sound is already under way. New technologies have been a regular phenomenon for live sound: the introduction of line arrays in the 1990s provided better coverage and improved sound while improving the load-in, rigging and load-out processes; digital live-sound desks now offer automation and recall features that once were found only on studio consoles. These new efficiencies were collateral to a changing pro audio industry overall. Now that the business of music is placing such an emphasis on live sound as a revenue generator and as a lifestyle component, the rate of technological progression could significantly increase.
"The future is all about integration," says Scott Harmala, Executive Vice President of Engineering for ATK Audiotek, one of the world's leading sound and media systems providers. "This is an industry for which digital technology is still relatively new, but the business is increasingly the domain of the iPod generation, so I expect things are going to start moving forward very rapidly, very soon."
The kind of integration that Harmala refers to can be seen in the trend among manufacturers to create networked systems whose components are already fluent with each other — though not those of other manufacturers. The Harman Pro Group's HiQNet protocol integrates systems from Soundcraft, BSS and JBL, minimising the need to program an interface between them. That's a big help for workflow, though it does try to lock the user into a proprietary family of products to the exclusion of others. "But when you're dealing with a highly integrated and networked system, it opens the doors for the FOH mixer creatively and technically. You're not constantly monitoring components and putting out fires. You're mixing."
That's what FOH mixer Brad Madix liked about the approach taken with Shakira's world tour in 2006-07. During rehearsals in Barcelona prior to the tour, each song was recorded to hard disk. After rehearsals, Madix could play the recordings back to the band via the fader recall from the Digidesign D-Show Venue desk and get instant feedback from Shakira and the band members about the mix. "That is light years beyond where we were even five years ago, where I was recording rehearsals to CD, making copies and handing them to the band members, who would get back to me with comments," says Madix. "It accelerated the process by an order of magnitude. It was incredible to be able to review the performance immediately, with the artist right there, in the immediacy of the rehearsal studio."
This requires the Digidesign HDX card option. Each card spits out 48 channels of input straight to a set of Pro Tools HD cards. "With a Core card and three accelerator cards, you could conceivably record 96 inputs, plus another 32 of what they call 'assignable' channels -- effect returns, and so on," Madix explains. "The beauty of the Digidesign setup is that playback is just exactly like the band playing -- same levels and all. You can even adjust gains and transfer the gain adjustments to the preamps when you switch back to stage inputs. But the really nice thing was being able to respond to Shakira's requests immediately and have her listen to the results."
But it gets even better. Madix built a data track of each song on the tour from the rehearsal recordings as he rehearsed his moves to the playback. In concert, a click track is heard in the performers' in-ear monitors; a matched SMPTE track, which is converted to MIDI time code by Digidesign's Sync I/O (the Venue series does not accept SMPTE TC), fires several dozen preprogrammed moves automatically throughout the song from the Venue desk, most of which are the more repetitive events of a live show: channel mutes and unmutes, riding a fader for a guitar solo, raising the reverb on the kick and snare for a breakdown section, and so on.
"This is a great way to do this," says Madix. "You use it for the major moves in a song, the stuff that's going to up 10dB in a spot. The audio is still all controlled by the automation on the desk, so you still have control of the fader even as the control track is firing the automated move. But you can keep the most critical channels right in front of you — you're not searching around for them across the entire board. This also gives you the capability to present a much cleaner sound from the stage. For instance, Shakira had about 20 percussion microphones on stage. Muting and unmuting them as needed would be a nightmare that really distracts from other things. The automation is able to do that."
When touring with Shania Twain last year, Madix used a scaled-down version of the concept, using MIDI automation to change sound patches on the guitar rigs. Thus, various effects and delay time values kicked in spot-on to the beat. "Aside from one less thing to think about, it also greatly reduced clutter on the stage from all the pedals they'd otherwise need," he says.
Take a tablet and call me in the morning
Diana Krall's world tour has been diverse in terms of venues, which have ranged from intimate 200-seat clubs to 18,000-seat outdoor arenas. Monitor mixer Eric Laliberte wanted to be able to know what the monitors sounded like from his mix position and from on stage. It is possible of course, to accomplish this by walking back and forth between the two locations. However, this is very time consuming, and it's easy to forget the onstage perspective once you arrive back at the monitor console; therefore, the 'adjustment' is an educated guess, at best, which can often end in compromises.
Laliberte wanted a better solution and found it with a combination of three BSS Soundweb London system management units, creating a virtual 36 x 12 console running Soundweb's software on a laptop computer. This setup mimics faders and other input controls such as EQ and aux sends. Then, via WiFi, that information is transmitted to a Motion Computing wireless tablet that Laliberte takes with him on stage and makes adjustments at each musician's position. He has configured the windows on the Soundweb software to make it easier for each mixes to be adjusted. "I made custom pages for all the mixes, like what everyone gets in their own monitor," he says. "The main pages just look like the regular mixer so it's very easy and very familiar to look at. Now, I can mix monitors from the musicians' perspective. I can hear what they're hearing and I can instantly make changes based on that."
Laliberte has used this system in an FOH application as well, taking the tablet anywhere in the venue that the WiFi's signal (which is not as strong as the signal used with wireless microphones) will permit. He says it's changed his point of view on mixing. "This is like a surgical tool," he says. "There's a new level of precision in mixing this way. I find I usually make smaller changes now that I can actually hear the effect they make. The result is much more refined."
Stewart Bennett's remote mixing experiences started with conversations with Robert Scovill, a noted FOH mixer and now a technical guru at Digidesign, and Doug Hall, a former touring engineer with ShowCo and now at AMX, which manufactures control and automation technology for high-end homes and commercial buildings. It's an interesting synergy of perspectives, all rooted in live music mixing and all with an eye on the future. The result is the mating of an AMX Modero Touch Panel and AMX NI 3100 NetLinx Integrated Controller, which offers infrared switching, a serial interface, RS 232/422/485 and digital I/O ports and relays, with a Digidesign Venue. This control technology can also work well with other manufacturers equipment like the new Yamaha DME mixing system, which also offers the kind of open architecture interface that allows hybrids like these to be seamlessly integrated together, Bennett says.
"The tablet, which you can input to via touch or a stylus, has [virtual] toggles that can be assigned to change values on various encoders on the console," Bennett explains. "You can set the AMX software up so that it will execute macros or turn on a recorder, for instance. The whole point of it was to be able to do what I do better, faster and more efficiently than I could if I was stuck at the control location."
Bennett started using the remote mixing approach when he was out with Seal this summer, but it really proved its worth when he mixed a private event featuring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at which the console was actually enclosed in a spot tower, a terrible location from which to have to mix. "The tablet let me get away from that position and get a much better sense of what it was really sounding like out there," he says.
The rest of the system
The ability to remotely control the mix is extending to remote control over the entire system operation. The Dolby Lake Controller is the GUI for the Dolby Lake Processor (DLP), a speaker management system that includes EQ, delays and crossovers. With this system, the user can roam the venue using a WiFi-enabled tablet that feeds back to the processor via a standard Ethernet interface.
Chris Carlton, owner of Carlton Audio Services in South Florida, has used the DLP and its remote operation capabilities on a number of projects, including FOH mixing of Barbra Streisand's world tour earlier this year. A complex system of four Digidesign Venue consoles and eleven DLPs were provided by Clair-Showco for the FOH control for the tour. While the Streisand shows were mixed from the consoles, the capability of tuning a system remotely increased the precision that proper sound can be delivered to every seat in the house. Twelve more DLPs were used for stage monitor management, again allowing for remote tuning on a real-time basis.
This type of set up has been used in conjunction with the Digidesign Venue, Yamaha PM-series, and DM-series digital consoles. By using a tablet PC wireless networked to a laptop PC loaded with Virtual Network Computing (VNC) software, a graphical desktop sharing system that uses the RFB protocol (Remote Frame Buffer — a simple protocol for remote access to graphical user interfaces) to remotely control other computers functions and the equipment control software, the user can transmit the input events from one computer to another, relaying the graphical updates back in the other direction over a network. "This lets you tune the room and system to a high degree," says Carlton. "For instance, during soundcheck I can listen to the under-balcony fills and dial in the exact delay times and level they need or add more vocal to the front fill. You don't have to guess."
The same type of network can be set up for digital amplifier management. "d&b audiotechnik D12 amplifiers were networked to a laptop using their proprietary ROPE C software and a USB-CAN bus adapter," Carlton explains. "This laptop can be controlled by the remote tablet to allow the systems engineer to walk the room and make changes to various parts of a system and aid in troubleshooting any irregularities in the coverage. It's all about bringing precision and detail to touring systems that were once only thought of as possible in permanent installations."
Brad Divens is mixing FOH for Him on the Projekt Revolution tour, which features six bands and about 10 minutes of reset between each one. It's an environment in which the notion of working with plug-in processing for live sound gets a true test. "I'm using the Didgidesign Profile for the first time on this tour," he says. "I love having the plug-in processing since you can pretty much have just about any vintage tube comp, channel strip or effects unit imaginable."
The trick to maximising the benefit with live plug-ins is getting used to the fact that not all the parameters will be readily available at any given moment. "You've got to know what encoders to select to get through the layers and pages to reach the parameters you need," Divens says. "It's not like just reaching over to the compressor and grabbing a knob." With so little time to fine-tune before the downbeat each night on the tightly packed tour, Divens purposely chose the most user-friendly GUIs he could find, including Bomb Factory's BF76 plug-in (which emulates the vintage 1176 compressor), Digidesign's Smack! Compressor for bass, and Universal Audio's Fairchild 670 emulator, which he's using on snare, toms and drum overheads. "I was looking for the simplest controls — input, threshold and release, in the case of the Fairchild — so there were fewer layers to think about," he says.
And mistakes will happen. Divens recalls a moment where he was reaching for what he thought was the gain control knob but instead the encoder was selected to pan. "And better that then the other way around," he adds. (In another example of how much the nature of live sound has changed, Divens notes that the band made out its set list with exactly this in mind. "They picked the song with the simplest changes so I could get settled quickly," he says. "They picked their opening song based on the FOH mixer. When have you seen that happen?")
The key to making the transition to a virtual FOH position is forethought, says Divens. "With analogue, it's all laid out in front of you, and that's what I'm used to," he says. "You get used to making changes on the fly. You can't do that with virtual processing — you have to think ahead. If you decide all of a sudden you want to change a delay setting on a guitar solo, you have to scroll through to it with the soft key and by the time you get there, the part is over." The trade-off, though, he says, is worth it. "You can have literally any processor you want, and you can have more of it in a much smaller footprint, and you don't spend forever speccing out a rack."
The great transition
Mark Dittmar, vice president of Firehouse Productions, was standing on the floor of Madison Square Garden in Manhattan preparing for the Muse show there in August. He's used tablet-based remote mixing and plug-ins in place of multiple racks and believes that technologies like those, as well as the integration of recording systems into FOH platforms, will help transform what live sound can be. "Having Pro Tools built into the Venue console is a leap forward," he says. "The idea has been around for a while, but years ago we were using a DA-88 to record performances, which was time-consuming, cumbersome and expensive. With hard drive recording linked directly to the desk, you have instant access to the material and can use it in ways we never could before, such as using it to run cues not only for sound but also for lighting. This really maximises the time the mixers get at a soundcheck — you only get an hour, but you're getting seven hours' worth of [input] from the band."
The good news is that the trend is moving down market; the way in which the music recording universe was revolutionised by digital will similarly impact live sound. Dittmar points to Yamaha's LS9 portable mixer, which for about £4,000 features a built-in 2-track USB memory recorder and player that's compatible with MP3, AAC, and WMA file formats at 96, 128, or 196 kbps.
"It's not remixable like a multitrack recorder is, but it's the bridge to the next step in which desks will all have some sort of multitrack capability," Dittmar says of the LS9.
But it's been a quiet revolution so far. Stewart Bennett says that his work using a combination of AMX wireless products — which are normally found in home theater and home automation applications rather than pro audio — with a Digidesign digital console has thus far constituted a kind of unofficial alpha test: the principals know these capabilities are there but have not yet moved forcefully to promote them. "It's like the kiosk mode on an Apple computer — the engineers program that capability in but most people don't know it's there and Apple doesn't advertise it," says Bennett. "Manufacturers implement ways for people to try new ways of working, but they don't necessarily commit to them because they know people are often reluctant to change the way they have been working."
Chris Carlton says there are some real issues that wireless sound system operation has to face, including system latency. The imminent reconfiguration of the wireless frequency spectrum in the U.S. — the so-called "white spaces" that will result when those frequencies are sold by the government in the wake of the switch to all-digital television broadcast in February, 2009 — also gives him pause about how consistently wireless control can be effectively used. And finally, there is the analogy between the fighter pilot in the cockpit of the Tornado and the one flying the unmanned Predator drone from a bunker a continent away. "Many of us grew up banging on drums and playing the piano," he says. "We need lots of tactile, hands-on feedback."
This suggests that the transformation of live sound will be, ultimately, a generational phenomenon. "When the [Yamaha] PDM series first came out, they had to make it look like an analogue desk in order to win over the older guys," says Dittmar. "You can see that the Venue and other next-generation digital desks are targeted at younger mixers, for whom computer-based mixing comes naturally. They look at an analogue desk and go, 'Why would you want that when you can have digital?' It's going to get interesting." 0
When digital fails...
Tom Abraham, currently doing FOH with Alice In Chains on the Velvet Revolver tour, took over from Brad Madix for the tail end of the Shakira tour in Europe and Africa. He was using the Digidesign D-Show Profile mixer, the slightly scaled-down cousin of the Venue. At a show in the south of France, the Profile's GUI control surface failed, though the processing core of the system continued to work just fine. He found himself mixing the next show, in Istanbul, literally with a mouse and mousepad going directly into the system. "It was like mixing in the box on Pro Tools," he recalls. "But for live it was tricky — not all the faders show up on the screen at once, they're not labeled and the faders are like 100 pixels of resolution, like an old video game — you move the mouse a millimetre and it's like seven dB on screen. I had to memorise where everything was patched and it took a lot of focusing."
This underscores a significant maxim applicable across the board in pro audio: when analogue fails, it usually doesn't fail completely, but rather in sections or increments; when digital fails, it fails utterly. But like a video game, the trial-by-fire proved exhilarating and addictive. Even after Digidesign in Switzerland sent a replacement unit in time for the show in Lagos, Nigeria, a few days later, Abraham found he rather liked the challenge. "I had gotten used to doing it with the cursor by then and it was fun, so I stayed with it."
Can I hear the kick now?
Brad Madix, currently out with Rush, using a Digidesign Profile desk with a Mac Pro and a Magma expansion chassis to facilitate using integrated multitrack recording of rehearsals and shows, points out another positive twist of the new FOH workflow. "I don't use tuning music to tune the system before a show anymore," he states. "Instead, now I tune the PA to multitrack playback of Rush playing 'Subdivisions,' usually a recording of the show the night before. There's nothing like tuning to your own mix, being able to solo the kick, vocal, and so on, playing back from a Pro Tools session straight into the desk. It's just as though the band were playing, except I can get them to play the same song four times in a row without complaining!"
Published in PM October 2007
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