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Audience mics in LARGE Spaces – VIDEO CONFERENCES

Picking up a large area with distant microphones naturally adds in the room sound (resonance) as well. Those who are in the room most likely think it sounds fine. Our brains process sound in a very sophisticated manner using both ears.  But that is not how microphones work.

The way a mic works compared to how our ears work can make a video conference sound like a subway tunnel when the sound in the entire room is picked up. Solutions to the problem are abundant. Sorry to say, though, that none of them are inexpensive. The better solutions involve audio intelligence in the mics.

Good – Better – BEST!

So, you have a couple of choices when you get down to the idea of “good, better and best” in a room. If you want good audience participation without spending a lot of money, the users must be involved. If you want your video conferencing setup to be “plug and play,” then it isn’t going to be cheap.

Any mic used close– headset or handheld – primarily picks up the voice of the person speaking with little of the room sound added in. When distant mikes designed for conference rooms are used, they do not do well in larger spaces..  If the space has sound reinforcement, it is an even bigger problem. Unless you get a mike with AI (artificial intelligence) and DSP (Digital Signal Processing.)

LOW END SOLUTION

AUDIENCE Mics On Stands

  • Place handheld wireless microphones on mic stands in a few locations out in the room, gain structured to match what the presenter’s mic is doing. The audience mic is then automated so that it only activates when some gets close to it and is talking. Anyone with a question must walk up to a microphone. This system works reliably and is relatively simple.

PROS and CONS

  • Sounds Good.  Doesn’t t pick up random noises like coughing, etc.
    • Works with sound reinforcement used in the room.
    • On the negative side, people must get up to talk.

HIGH END SOLUTION

NARROW BEAM, AUTO Steered array Mics – WITH Built-in Intelligence

All beam-formed microphones use an AI algorithm to decide who is talking. If everyone in the room is polite, this works well — kind of like a zoom call where everyone has learned to wait their turn. If too many people talk at once, even this AI solution will have some issues as the mics track to whatever sound is loudest at the moment.

Many beam-formed mics pick up too large a section of the room at once, making the room sound hollow. Some use narrow tracking beams that move, so that only a small amount of room energy is picked up and a maximum amount of the person they are supposed to pick up.

This type of solution can have  limitations when you want to use loudspeakers within the room to amplify the presenter. You may run into problems in some spaces that are too large for the presenter to be heard without sound reinforcement. This is where a DSP and a presenter mike must also be included.

PROS and CONS

  • Pros
    • The entire room can be  picked up
    • Can be used with sound reinforcement with the additions of DSP.
    • Can sound pretty good and pick up an entire room
  • Cons
  • Cost – Mic plus DSP (digital sound processor) can be $$$ (Solutions that work well cost in the range of $ 15.00/sq ft covered or higher. (About $18 K for a 40 X 30 ft room).
    • If a room is small enough that it does not need sound reinforcement, the DSP could  be dropped.
    • The entire room is picked up – no control over who can or cannot talk.
    • Cost – Note* some mike solutions do not work with sound reinforcement for the presenter being used.
    • Mics automatically catch sounds. So, someone coughing etc…. becomes an active sound source.

Other alternatives that can be utilized involve operator interfaces. Say, for instance, you have a control touch screen in the room and a presenter is speaking on their microphone. When they want the audience to say something, they would have to press a button for audience response. Pressing that button turns off the presenter’s mic and turns on the audience mic.

The audience mic would have a series of DSP tuning filters, which is another piece of hardware added to the system which will help with the reverberation and the sound quality of a more general pickup microphone. This would have to be selected by the person using the room. And if they forget to de-select it, then the microphone they are wearing will no longer be active. That is where you end up with a hollow sound in the background, picking up the whole room the whole time while the presenter’s mic is off. 

Properly tuned a high-end system sounds like there is a sound man mixing the audio in the room, to the far side of the conference.

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Copyright AVLDESIGNSInc 2021+

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Mixing It All From Front of House (FOH)

This first segment is “how to mix front of house” when you also have control live stage monitors, are feeding IEMS (in-ear monitors) and maybe a sub feed out to a streaming mix. When  mixing all of these different things from the same console, it  forces you into a mode where your gain structure and certain other parameters have to be driven by the other feeds you are mixing, not just the PA. Truly, it isn’t perfect, but it can work.

*In an ideal world you have a monitor engineer, streaming engineer and two more consoles. Lots of $$$$$$$ Good Luck!

So, the first thing you have to look at is how much gain is required to feed the IEM direct outs to get good signal-to-noise. Inadequate levels with whatever types of headphones/in-ears the individual musicians are using leads to excessive IEM Noise.

Tip=> everyone’s IEM’s needs to have high sensitivity at least 107 dB. If that’s not the case, you may have to have enough gain to handle the lower output devices that people might be using.. 

So your Gain structure is initially driven by what needs to go to the IEM and direct outs. Busses will also be used for IEM feeds so  you’ve also got to look at things that need to be grouped into the IEM.  Also determine which feeds are pre EQ, compressor etc.…. and which aren’t. People always say give me a pre everything feed, but that is not always the best choice for live or IEM. (Ear Damage i.e. accidents)

You may not want to have EQ applied  to certain aspects. The last thing you want to do is have any EQ you’re doing at front of house affect, let’s say a bass player and what they’re hearing in their in hears. On most consoles  there’s a variety of feed options with direct outs, buss outs, other ways of getting signal to an IEM with or  without mute with or without EQ with or without gain adjustment.

Vocals vs. Godzilla

When you deal with a group of vocals however, it’s very important that what you’re doing at front of house does translate into the in IEM ears and floor wedges. For example, you have six vocalists and one of them goes “Godzilla” on you and is much louder than the other five.   

Godzilla on a rampage.
So, what if you have six vocalists and one of them goes Godzilla on you?

At front of house you have to pull that one singer down to save the mix. (It’s a rescue operation!) You want that change to translate to the IEM mix (and floor wedges). So they get  fed off of a post fader group buss. (On most  consoles it’s not called a “group.”  It’s called a “buss.”)  On a buss, send every EQ change and every gain change that you make on the vocals does translate to the in-ears and it also translates to the floor monitors.

Similar issues anyone else using live wedges.

Note – do not let these people have stage IEM control boxes to mix their own mix. This basically becomes a second sound system, being run by a musician. You need control of all wedges or your mix will be destroyed by your other “sound people” on stage.

Floor Wedges  

You’ve got another anomaly you have to look at when you have floor wedges that are primarily giving keyboard and in some cases click cues to the musicians that aren’t using any ears, which most often  are the vocalists.

The question is do you make these pre fader or do you make these post fader? Now the prevailing wisdom would be make that pre fader because you wouldn’t want front of house changes to make it disappear. 

The reality, however, is that when you do that, the tonality in the front of house is constantly changing due to the unchanging monitor mix. If you pull a fader down on the keyboard FOH, the monitor bleed, which is a completely different frequency set and is out of phase and creating comb filtering is at a higher level than what’s coming out of the PA. Can sound pretty bad.

So the best solution is to actually keep a set of in-ears handy at front of house or a really good set of headphones, mix everything post fader – keyboards, guitars, everything else that’s going into the monitors.

You have to check the monitor mix  levels by soloing up that bus to see what the blend is and make sure that with vocals there’s enough keyboards and other instruments  there that they can get all of their frequency cues and all of their timing cues from the click track.  So you want that to be there but not overbearing. 

Streaming

The feed to streaming is a similar scenario. Drums in the live mix do not need to be that loud in the house. Kick drum does, but unless they are in a separate room, most everything else does not. However, what needs to go to the streaming mix is all of it.

So you need to create  a buss mix  that allows you to get a better mix to streaming than you would get if you just left it alone.  This has to be post EQ fader etc….. so your FOH changes affect that feed. And, you have to listen to it once in a while. Okay, so that kind of ends the basic session there about big gain structure, etc…

Also assign a good gain limiting device to that bus overall, and set it so on quiet songs it is barely set on working, on RMS. Use one that simulates a vintage comp/limiter.

It’s still not a good choice compared to mixing on a separate console, but if you pay attention it can work.

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Selecting a Digital Audio Mixing Console

Selecting a Digital Audio Mixing Console for Musical Theater Production – Low and Mid-Priced Consoles

audio console

Digital – Why?

The primary advantages of a digital audio console is the ability to save scene and library memory. Either of these memory types can be scenes for show for templates for specific uses. Each memory stores volume levels, equalization and other factors that are set by the operator at the time it is saved.

If you have a skilled sound engineer, have them create and save a memory for you that can then be accessed by a less-skilled operator in the future. As long as the same type of microphones are plugged into the same channels and set up in a similar fashion, when that saved memory is recalled later on the sound quality will be pretty close to the same as when it was stored.

● This requires some hard copy data such as to what microphones were plugged in where, etc at the time that the memories we created. This is especially important for choral ensembles and various types of hand-held, headset and lavalier microphones.

It is also critical that the transmitters for wireless systems are set at appropriate levels when the system is first set up and are never changed. If a memory is save based on the particular gain structure of a wireless microphone, it only works if that microphone transmitter gain has not been changed.

Libraries

This is where library functions come in. A library is a template for a specific channel. You can save, for example, the same microphone being used in different ways.

Sometimes a handheld microphone will be used by a singer touching their lips. The equalization and gain structure of this is dramatically different than the same microphone that is set up on a podium with someone talking a foot away.

In a library you can save solo vocal SM 58 and make another library for podium SM 58. When you create a particular show, you then can paste a library with those settings on any channel where those microphones are being used in those ways. The same goes for headset microphones for male and female voices, loud singers versus talking, etc.

Recalling a memory from a library to a channel is typically two button presses on the console. That button press gets you all the work that was put into creating a good sound initially.

There are some consoles that do not store libraries. We do not recommend any such consoles for theater or music use.

MEMORY RECALL – SNAPSHOT VERSUS FADE

Another issue with digital consoles is how they perform memory recall. Most reasonably priced digital consoles have snapshot recall. A snapshot is instantaneous.

If you create a series of memories for theater production, it is similar to the way scenes are done on the lighting console. Setting up the memories will help with consistency in each scene on stage. The problem, however, is that lighting consoles fade lights up and down. Most digital audio consoles do not. So, if you create a snapshot for a scene, you still must manually fade down channels before you call up the next scene. Then you must either manually unmute or manually fade up the channels for the next scene. Any signals that continue to run between those scenes must be set exactly the same in each memory. (Library functions are useful for this)

There is one reasonably priced console we are recommending that has fade capability. (Yamaha Q series) It is more expensive than the others but not dramatically. Fade alone, however, is not the reason to pick a console.  Creating a Scene by Scene show for a complex production is time consuming and is only a priority if this is needed.

iPAD REMOTE

Another nice feature of digital consoles is remote control capability. All have iPad Remote apps.

These apps allow you to operate the console from anywhere in the room in a variety of fashions. If you’re equalizing a stage monitor for a singer, you can stand next to them on stage while you make adjustments. During rehearsals you can sit anywhere in the room and store, in some cases, memories to libraries etc.

The function of the apps differs significantly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some do not allow storage libraries and memory.  Some do not allow access to all features. It’s just like any other software – your preference is part of the decision as to what console to get.

Most consoles allow multiple iPads and/or laptops to be connected to them via wireless when in use. This allows certain features to be accessible on the fly without having to change anything on the physical console where you’re mixing your faders during the show. You can have a third octave equalizer readily accessible. You can have compressor limiters readily accessible on a different device. In essence you can add multiple touchscreens to most of these consoles using multiple iPads.

Physical layout is another factor you may want to consider, as well as the overall operating system of the console.

People who learned on analog console may have a specific preference to the layout of some digital consoles. Left-handed or right-handed people may also have preferences.

Specific manufacturers’ placement of controls, the display screens, the use of touchscreens, etc. are all Part of the decision-making process when you pick a console.

Some consoles have more channel faders available at one time. Some use DCA’s (digitally controlled amplifiers) remote control faders that can control channels in groups, channels on other pages etc…) People like to work in different ways, and this is a factor.

INPUTS AND PATCHING

Another difference between consoles is that of their digital protocol.

● Most digital consoles can have inputs plugged in directly via XLR Standard wiring. You can also have inputs remotely plugged into a digital stage box that communicate to the console via cat five cable. What travels down the cat five cable however differs from manufacturer to manufacturer.

● The Cat 5 cable could have a number of different types of signals. AES 50, MADI, Dante, Cobranet, ethercon, are just a few of the signal types that different manufacturers use. They do not communicate with each other directly. You can’t just plug-in a console to a Cat 5 cable without knowing what the other end is and expect it to work.

● The positive aspect of all is the ability to have more inputs plugged into the console than actual channels that are available. On a 32 channel for example you can have 32 hardwired microphones plugged into the console and 32 more on digital connections.

● When you decide you want the 16 wireless from a digital stage box to be operable on the 32 channels this is done via digital patching within the console as opposed to having to physically disconnect and move cables.

● Each protocol has pluses and minuses to its operation. Some introduce time delay to signals some less than others. Some can patch one channel at a time. In the example above, you can have your 32 hardwired microphones plugged in and decide you want to just add to wireless on two active channels. You now have 30 hardwired + 2 digital inputs. Some digital protocols can patch one channel at a time in any manner which is preferred for flexibility. Some patch in groups of eight.

● Some protocols require the use of a laptop or another device to assign channels; some auto-assign.

● On most digital consoles these patch assignments can be changed with scenes, so you can have different inputs on the console for any scene within the show.

We picked three common consoles, that are relatively easy to learn.

The three consoles we selected are based on:

● Having the features that are necessary for theatrical musical production.

● Being in a price range that allows them to be used in most schools.

Midas M32

Easy to use well laid out and in many rental houses around the country. Same operating system as the Behringer X 32. The X 32 is a staple in many schools and churches but has a less robust physical construction and not as good microphone preamps as the M 32. If you end up having demo on the compact version of the M32 it is not as good an experience as the full-size unit.

32 inputs XLR on console. Eight additional line inputs. Can have an additional 32 inputs via digital.

24 faders – 16 Faders at a time on pages. DCA faders can be used as channels to allow 24 at a time.

The iPad Interface is exceptional and allows access to all functions on the Console in the connection of multiple iPads at any time.

The biggest negative of this console is the same for all Midas products which is AES 50 protocol. AES 50 patches in a manner that can accomplish most anything you want but is cumbersome. You have to create a custom patch menu.

● The LED screen is not a touch screen which some people like some people do not like.

◦ Multiple iPads can access the console at the same time which allows touch screens for multiple functions.

Scenes are snapshot only.

Allen and Heath SQ 7

Well laid-out and easy to operate. The iPad interface is very good and excesses virtually all features on the console. Patching can be done one channel at the time.

Multiple iPads can connect to console simultaneously.

Large LED display is a touchscreen

32 Faders can be channels, dcas etc….

The only negative I have with this console personally is the physical layout of the knobs in radius patterns around the screen. This can obviously be learned but coming from a linear console channel layouts it takes a little getting used to.

Scenes are snapshot only.

Yamaha QL

● Easy to operate and well laid out, but with fewer direct access knobs.

● 32 faders – can be channels, DCA’s etc.….

● Many faders and all can be channels.

● The only console in this group that has fade capability for scenes.

● Large LED display is a touchscreen.

● Ipad interface allows access to primary functions but not all functions.

● Negatives – higher cost, a bit higher learning curve.

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Do You Hear What I Hear?

When doing live sound one of the biggest issues is in determining what you are hearing from the spot where you are mixing and how that compares to the sound in the rest of the room. This may be a shock for some people, but they are not the same.

Is it possible to mix for it to sound great in every seat? In most instances the answer would be "no!"

We get asked all the time to provide sound system designs where “every seat sounds the same.” Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but in a physical environment where there are walls and ceilings and seats and people and air that is never going to happen. The behavior of sound waves in a room dictates that there will be cancellations and additions to various frequencies at various locations within the room. So, knowing that, how do you work out what you’re hearing, where you mix from compared to everybody else?

Find the Middle Ground

If you are a good engineer, the reality is that you have to find the middle ground and mix from that knowledge. So how do you do that? First question that always comes up when designing a space is “where does the sound booth go?” That really depends on how the sound will be generated in the room. Let’s just say you have a left-right semi-stereo PA* but let’s just say you have that left-right PA and you’re really mixing dual mono, and we have a video on our YouTube channel you can look at to understand that.

*Stereo is a separate issue. We can talk extensively about why that doesn’t work very well in many venues, at another time.

Windows filter frequencies. Remember that!

And my answer is always the same. You want to be on-axis with one of the loudspeaker arrays, ideally not under a balcony, not in a balcony, and definitely not in a control booth with a window. Windows filter frequencies. (Another discussion on that, at some point.)  But the reason you want to NOT be on the center line of the room is that the center line of the room never sounds like most of the seats in the room.

Now, there are the typical architectural issues where some architects really do not want things, like booths, off to one side or the other. You do not have to be far off the center line, but you do not want to be exactly on the center line.

*If you want to have an idea of how you are mixing if you happen to be fortunate enough to have a true left center, right fully stereo PA, (which is relatively expensive and hardly ever happens in most venues,) then you can be on the center line of the room and it starts to have meaning.

What are you hearing right now, where you are?

To help alleviate those variations we always recommend a centrally located subwoofer system. And that tends to even out the bass response in the room to a degree because you don’t get the cancellations between two widely separated low frequency sources, but you do still get cancellations from reflections in the room, cancelling (or boosting) the bass response from the center location.

Now, that center location can be on the floor if you have a place to put it like under the stage. But that tends to be kind of offensive to the people in the front seats, even though it tends to have more impact for people who like thumpy bass like that.

We tend to put the subs in the air because it evens out the response to the majority of the room and it is not as loud to the front rows.

Most often we use cardioid subwoofers to prevent sound from being generated back onto the stage. But when they are flown the way you arrange a cardioid subwoofer will be a little different than it is when it’s sitting on the ground. That is a subject for another discussion.

So, now you have a center subwoofer and a left-right system, and you are sitting off to one side in the room, not severely, but kind of off to the side. Next, put on some program material and walk the room, paying attention to how it sounds around the room.

Maybe take some frequency response measurements with an FFT. If you happen to have one, then you walk halfway down the room, staying on axis with the PA. Then you go down further to the front and you kind of take note of what am I hearing in these different locations? What’s different? What’s the same? And then, once again, it would be kind of nice to take frequency measurements in those locations. Now go to the center line of the room (If there happened to be seats there, as opposed to an aisle, which there always should be an aisle).

You never really should have seats in the middle of the room. I say that a lot is because so many things are done badly in rooms, once they are done, you cannot change them.  But anyway, go to the center line of the room and listen, and take your measurements.

Next Step?

Next step? Then you go to playing games with turn off the other side of the PA. So now you’re listening to it with all of the out of phase information from the other side of the system off. So, once you get all this information and let’s say you’ve taken frequency response measurements and you notice that you’ve got a roll off in the back of the room because they didn’t put any delay speakers in to fill out frequencies for you.

What does that mean to how you mix? You realize there’s a bass boost in some locations there’s bass lacking in other locations will, first thing you have to do is think, where am I mixing from? What am I hearing? Is it an average seat? I’ve been in rooms where the mix position has a bass null to the point where you think there’s no bass and people in a lot of other parts of the room are being thumped into the ground.

So, first you take a whole bunch of notes. Then you have to put that intelligence to use. You process it by saying “Okay, I’ve got a high-frequency, roll-off starting at two kHz at my location. That is, you know, two dB per octave. Well do I want to hear a lot of high frequencies in my booth? Probably not. So how do we get an idea of what the rest of the room is hearing?”

So, if you’ve taken other measurements and you do some tricky stuff, you can throw some in-ear monitors and time-delay them on your console. Assuming you have that option to synchronize with the PA, find a level that is reasonable to the middle of the room and start listening to your mix that way during the show on and off to check your frequency balance and remembering that, “Oh, I’m in the back.” 

Setting up EQ for a PA System

Note – First you have to EQ (normalize) your PA. Let’s talk about setting up EQ for a PA system in a typical room. There are a lot of methods people use. Some people use analyzers. Some people use various types of listening.

So let’s talk about listening first. If you are going to use program material to listen to a PA, (which I think is a really good idea,) you need to have a selection of program material that you know very well. It should be music that you have listened to on reference headphones and/or reference monitors.

Studio Reference Headphones Are Essential!

The type of headphones that many people own will not work for this task. You really need to have studio reference headphones, and there are quite a few of them out there. Make sure that you have a really good pair. They will cost upwards of $300.

Next, buy good program material and learn it.  It needs to cover a range of frequencies and genres to ferret out PA problems. What you want to do is get to a location in the room which is within the direct field of the loudspeakers. In most venues, that means you are probably going to be on axis within no more than 30 feet from the PA system. Now, put on some reference material that you know and listen. Fix the anomalies in the PA based on what you are hearing in the location in comparison to how these songs sound on the reference phones.

Now, one of the problems is if it is stereo reference material and you’re in front of one of the arrays, you’re going to have to mix it to mono and certain stereo sources get a little weird when that happens. If it is a true stereo mix, you probably are going to have to stand in the center of the room within the direct field and do your EQ of the entire system from there.

Get the PA EQ’d to the point where the various program material sources you are using sound normal on the PA. There are no excessive frequency problems anywhere. It sounds as good as you think you are going to get.

Now you start walking back in the room and see how different it sounds in other locations. And, at that point, you put on some headphones in the back of the room and make sure that the direct field of the PA sounds as much like the same songs in the headphones.

Congratulations! Your PA is normalized.

Congratulations, now your PA is normalized. You can take an analyzer and you can play with all sorts of frequencies, but the general musicality of a PA is best determined with program material, as long as you use selections of high quality.

Those selections should be well-recorded, preferably not highly reverberant, recordings that you can listen to in the room to get a real sense of what the PA sounds like to the point where it references to your headphones at the console. That way, when you put on headphones during the show to check the mics further up in the room, you will get an idea of what those people may be hearing because it actually is a reference. Taking the time to be that precise means something.

Next apply what you learned about your mix position compared to the average seat in the direct field in the room. “It should sound kind of dull and not very sibilant because that’s where I’m sitting. Same thing with the bass response. If I know I’m sitting in a phase null, I walk out of the booth once in a while, or just train my ears and say, “Hey, I’m not going to hear bass, but everybody else is.”

It is also super helpful, if you have the option, to put a measurement mic somewhere in the room where you can actually check the frequency response in an average seat during the show — but that isn’t always possible. The real issue is deciding how you listen from the location you are in.

What about extreme conditions?

Now, if you are in a really extreme situation, and I’ve been in these, let’s say you’re mixing an event where the audience is participating. Like let’s say it is a church kind of event and you have people all around you clapping and clapping creates massive amounts of 500Hz – 4kHz noise…

…if you are in that environment and you have people all around you making noise, or if you are in a rock and roll show where the whole crowd is yelling and clapping and you are in the middle of that, well, you really should not be mixing with your ears. It will not work because the people closer to the PA are going to be hearing a lot more of the PA than you are.

people in a concert audience, clapping.

You should also use a sound pressure meter and preferably an FFT capability at the console to keep track of how loud the mix is and what the frequency balance looks like.

It’s also really helpful, if you have the option of putting a measurement mic somewhere in the room where you can actually check the frequency response in an average seat during the show, but that isn’t always possible. 

The real issue is deciding how you listen from the location you are in. Now, if you’re in a really severe situation,  let’s say you’re mixing an event where the audience is participating. Let’s say it is a church kind of event and you have people all around you clapping.  Clapping creates massive amounts of 500Hz – 4Khz noise. 

If you are in that environment and you have people all around you making noise, you really shouldn’t be mixing only with your ears. The mix  won’t work for areas closer to the PA. Those  people closer to the PA are going to be hearing a lot more of the PA than you are.

So how do you hear what they hear?

You use in-ears, delay synced to the PA. You need to rehearse this  configuration prior to the event, and know what the PA sounds like in an “average seat” and on your in ears.

You should also use a sound pressure meter and preferably an FFT capability at the console to keep track of how loud the mix is and what the frequency balance looks like.  The FFT will  be picking up all of the clapping as well, but you have to have know the overall level if you are on in ears. 

If you mix loud enough to hear detail with clapping around you, you’ve probably vaporized the first half of the crowd. 

If you happen to have the great fortune of mixing on a really well-designed sound system that includes main loud speakers, front fills, delay  fills,  and in the case of line arrays ones that are properly tuned for distance, enjoy.  A well-designed room and PA can help make the mix position more trustworthy but, to be honest, in the majority of rooms that doesn’t happen. You will be forced to mix in an environment where you really aren’t hearing what everybody else is hearing, and you will have to find that reference point so that your mix is safe and secure.

If you mix monitors from FOH, how do you hear feedback? That’s another case where throwing on some in-ear monitors once in a while to check for the hint of feedback is an important thing to do.

So, if you successfully do all of these things, you will still be sitting in a bad place, probably fighting with a less-than-ideal mix, but you are not mixing for your seat. You are mixing for the average of the room and you must keep that in mind. Above all, do not try to create a CD quality mix from the location where you are situated because it’s probably not what everybody else is hearing. 

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Copyright 2021+ AVL DESIGNS INC.

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What is The Difference Between a Consultant, a Contractor and a Tech?

The best way to define what a consultant is is to begin with defining what it is NOT.

Over the years, I have functioned in all three positions – consultant, contractor and tech – so, from experience, I am able to describe the differences for you.  (Currently, by the way, I am a consultant.) First, let’s look at what a theater technician does …

Theater technician

THE THEATER TECHNICIAN

A theater tech is skilled in operating a particular aspect of a production. The areas of specialization include: sound engineer, sound designer, lighting tech, lighting designer, scene designer, software programmer, etc.

Typically, as a theater technician, you are in control of your environment.  That means that you take care of emergencies yourself. You can plan the show the way you or your theatrical director want it to be and you get blamed for anything that goes wrong. You are usually using equipment that you have asked for or, in some instances, what the venue supplies. In the latter case, the theater tech assesses and determines whether that existing setup is adequate to do the job.

If the system is a permanently installed system, as the theater technician you will customize it for yourself. You are responsible for labeling, groupings, storage, and locations for gear. You determine stock levels for spare cables, parts, and accessories. It all falls on you.

CONTRACTOR 

A contractor is someone who either designs and builds their own work or they submit a bid to complete work that has been designed by others.

When you are a contractor, you are limited to the product lines that your firm is authorized to purchase.  In some cases, there are manufacturers that give you special deals, such as extra discounts, or where they give you incentives such as “free stuff for buying other stuff.” There are also minimum purchases you are expected to make each year from each manufacturer to keep your franchise. Being eligible to receive perks can influence what the contractor offers on a project.

On “design-and-build” work, the contractor has to decide how much time to spend on the “design” aspect. Will they spend time building CAD models, testing products they have not used, arranging demos, learning software and so forth?  The best contractors are thorough, and they charge for it in their price.  Some, on the other hand, let the manufacturers do the design work for them. Hmmm, I wonder what products that manufacturer will use ……?

Most contractors have product lines that will fill many needs, but they may not have the best solution for a specific project or task. On each job, they must decide whether to shoehorn in what they have on hand (or need to use to meet quota) or get what they need from a secondary source.

Many contracting firms have personnel who are installers, not technicians. They are good at running wires. They are good at hanging things. They are good at connecting things, but they are not skilled theater technicians. They are not the people you want doing final setup or training on systems, which takes specialized know-how.

The better contractors have system finishers and trainers on staff but, first and foremost, know that contractors are about getting work done.

It is hard for them to justify freeing their people up to learn new skills or learn a specific console or device, etc. The best contractors realize that, to assure excellent results, training is a must. Many contracting firms do not take the time to do it.

CONSULTANT

Consulting is a hard concept for some people to understand.

The end user says to himself: “I want new gear, right ?  I saw this list on the internet. I just need to buy the stuff. Why should I pay someone for help when they don’t sell anything?” 

The architect or engineer may say – “Why should I pay a consultant when a vendor* will write me a free spec and one of our drafters can do rough drawings? Free is good, right?”

*The vendor (who is not being paid) creates a bill of materials, possibly a sketch, and hands it over to the engineering firm. They do not spend much time on it because it is FREE. The engineering firm does not necessarily understand what they are looking at and cannot tell if they are the correct selections for this specific job. With no real way to evaluate them, they still go ahead and transfer it to drawings. Oddly enough, the engineers get paid for the work even though they did not do it.  FYI same thing happened with lighting, kitchen equipment and other aspects of projects …….

When I worked in contracting, we provided free specs for engineering firms but when the project bid,  (we were not always low-bid) we lost about 75% of the jobs that we specified.  When other contractors won the work that we designed, we were never asked by the architect or engineer about the qualifications of the low bidder, or substitutes they offered. They typically just accepted substitutes. At that time we stopped doing vendor specs which, from a business point of view, made no sense as it was unpaid work. To this day I do not understand why some contractors continue this practice.

In public bids, whoever wins the bid gets the job based on price alone. If there is any other arrangement between the vendor and the design firm to get a vendor the job, it is known as “collusion” which is illegal in most states.

There are a couple of problems we have found with vendor-based specifications. In most states, if the vendor who wrote the specs also bids the job they cannot have been paid for their input. Knowing that, the vendor’s input is minimal.

When the job goes to bid and someone other than the vendor is the low bidder, the engineering firm that had the vendor’s work on their drawings must determine whether to accept substitutes. The vendor, having lost the job, now has extraordinarily little interest in spending time reviewing substitutes.  They will usually just say, “oh no, that’s not equal”. Or they may just say nothing at all. It is a flawed process.

And who decides if the final install is done properly? The unpaid vendor reviewing the work of the people to whom he lost the job? Certainly, that will go well.

WHY A CONSULTANT?

Most consultants have knowledge that goes way beyond the list on the internet.

Things like:

  • How it all works as a system
  • Whose equipment is reliable
  • Which manufacturers have good tech support and backup  
  • And the integration required to get the tech into an actual facility

The consultant takes a wish list from an owner and turns it into design criteria. They plan a budget early on to see if the budget assigned supports the vision.  If it does not, the consultant helps to adjust the vision, balancing the needs and wants to the money available. If you don’t follow this process and find out after bid that the money wasn’t there, the bid will get tossed.

During the bid phase, contractors may make site visits and questions arise. The consultant is involved in the entire project and can resolve issues that come up during bid and during construction.

And if the  consultants do not know something, they are paid to find out. Research is part of the work.

WHOLE BALL OF WAX

The consultant should be multi-discipline and therefore  able to take on all of the conflicting requirements for each system and come up with resolutions during design. Many things like to occupy the same spaces : Lights, Speakers, Stage Rigging, HVAC, AV, Screens, etc…… The consultant ensures that placement of specific items is coordinated to accommodate the technical systems and their requirements. 

Consultants also provide electrical, thermal, EMF, structural loading, and other information to the other designers on the team. The consultant must flesh out the systems and coordinate with all other design team members – architect, engineers, etc. The consultant makes assessments about ergonomic issues, operational issues, and discusses the owner’s specific requirements in light of their experience.

Professional consultants must take all that knowledge and put it in a form that can be bid by a contractor.

In public bids, the contractors that bid may or may not have all the skill sets required to fully implement the designed work. In these cases, it is important that consultants create specs and drawings that spell out the work in a way that requires the bidder to procure outside people with those qualifications.

This necessitates that the consultant set the parameters for what is to be used, where it goes, how it is to be installed, how it is to be set up, how it will be programmed, and how the owner will be trained on the equipment. The consultant also must review any substitutes a contractor may offer up, to determine if the change will compromise the design.

It’s kind of like teaching someone how to play an instrument by remote control. To do that, you have to know how to play the instrument in the first place. Some consultants allow manufacturers to do the design work for them. In other words, they are allowing salespeople to determine outcome, which seldom leads to a win for the owner.  

The best consultants take the time to research and even try out all of the technology they are going to use for their design. They do not leave the decisions to others who may have bottom-line as the defining factor.

Consultants take responsibility for the entire design and outcome. They are worth the investment if you get a good one.

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Copyright 2021+ AVL DESIGNS INC.

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A Story of Audio … and Taxes

So, let’s talk about audio and taxes. It doesn’t seem like they go together, does it?  Hang in there with us and you will soon see what me mean.

We specify a variety of audio consoles for  theaters in, high schools, and colleges.  Without dispute, the single biggest mistakes we come across after these consoles have been in place for months is that there still is no content.  

No Content. That Is A Problem.

There are no templates. There are no libraries saved . (If you are drawing a blank on what those are we will explain.)  This scenario is all too familiar. Your typical digital console has an input channel and there are all sorts of  things you can do to it. You can turn gates on and off. You can turn compressors on and off. You can play with EQ’s. Yes, there is all kinds of nice stuff you can do with it. And that is the rub. What should you be DOING with it?

Taxes

So, let’s get back to this “taxes” thing.   When you think about your console, you have a lot of different things you do with it in a year. 

You do theatrical productions.

You do lectures.

You do concerts.

You host lectures.

And every time you do one, you have two choices. You can have settings saved to start your event out with, or you can start from scratch again and again.

Save The File. Do It Now.

Now, here is the income tax analogy. Every year you have to calculate and pay your taxes, or the government will come after you. There are a number of online services you can use that will do the work for you. You just go to their app, type in all your  stuff, it then tells you that you owe a million dollars so that you can simply write a check and all is well. Or go to jail.

Or, there is another choice. If you know how to use Excel, you can build a complete tax calculating program yourself on an Excel spreadsheet.  

That probably would take a painfully long time but you could do it. You would just have to take all the formulas and all the required information and build your own tax filing program. Then every year you could do it again from scratch! Is that the best use of your time?  

Well, just like it is smarter to let an expert create a tax filing program for you to use, the console designers have built in ways to create and save settings  so that the technician does not have to construct it over and over again. 

You can save a show to the hard drive of the console and bring it up to be tweaked and reused again and again.  A template can be made to use for the next show, with custom adjustments made for that particular event, and saved for use again and again. 

With little effort, a new version of the event can be fashioned instead of starting from “square one.” When it comes to consoles in high school and college auditoriums, this is virtually what we see happening. The audio engineer creates a show that works well and never saves that content to the library or scene libraries. He doesn’t make a template to start with when it is time to design the next show, either.  Nothing is saved.  Absolutely, nothing!

It’s what I see people doing in all sorts of venues.  

What They Should Do.

Every venue  has various microphones all of which need specific  EQ and settings to use on a the sound  system in that particular  room.  For this  discussion let’s  talk headsets for theater.

Pick a channel, get the gain set, and Eq the mike to taste and to avoid feedback. Add compressors, gates etc….. to get the sound and dynamics you want on that mike.

Once you get  channel set up and sounding  good save it in a library file.

Set the file save so you are saving the gate, EQ, the compressor and all of these features to that particular channel library.  Now, if you had a dozen of these headsets and were going to be doing a theater production with them, you could go back and populate a bunch of channels by just pasting the library channel in. Every channel  would start out sounding exactly like the one you saved.

Now that may not seem like a big deal, but when you think about bringing a channel up from scratch, it’s  not as huge a deal in a studio environment, but in a live environment where you’ve got gain before feedback and room acoustics to deal with it is. You want to be sure any channel you make live is safe and sounding  at least Ok i.e. neutral.

Then you ( or someone less skilled than you) want to create a show and be sure that when you start out with each actor in your tech rehearsal, you’re not creating feedback and having problems start out with  by using a  preset for the headset.

There are some other things you have to think about. Make sure your belt pack gain structure is the same. It’s the same type of headset, all of that stuff, but you then can take a dozen people, throw them on stage at a tech rehearsal, and you will be able to turn all of their mikes on and off without any potential for sudden feedback or gross errors.

And then you  can work on tweaking their individual voice sounds.

So that’s the real purpose of a digital console is to take the skill set of somebody else and use it to bring up what you want to work on.

So let’s talk about some of the options you have for these kinds of things.

So what we’re going to do is switch from a headset to an SM 58, which is set up with no EQ it’s just flat at a 6” working distance. You can also save one with EQ for a 12” working distance.  You can also save it for “lips on mike” with appropriate  EQ and gain changes for each.

Then set up a chorus with AKG C414’s or whatever mike  you like, and do the same. 

These become starting points for various mike types and uses.

So as you create libraries, when you get ready to do an event, you can say, okay, I need these mikes for choir. So I’m going to bring up the,  AKG C414, put those into some channels.

And they’ve all been preset to be safe for what you’re trying to do.

So  the thing I would recommend, and this is for  anybody who has a digital console, is you need to find a way to rehearse scenarios with live sources, create presets for channel libraries, whole console templates, etc…..  

Define whatever types of events you may do repeatedly and create these preset scenes and  libraries and get them set up so that when you’re getting ready to put an event together, it’s not starting from scratch.

Kind of like doing your taxes. The easy way with a template someone  else made.

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Copyright AVL Designs Inc. 2021+

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