A to D CONVERTER

/October 11, 2016

I could count on one hand the number of recording musicians I know that don’t perform live. Virtually everyone takes to the stage at some point, and the vast majority are technically savvy.

So why then do so many switch back to horse-and-buggy analogue technology when they hit the stage? Worse than that, why do so many musicians think they can mix everything themselves from this impossible vantage point?

I know I normally talk about studio techniques and experiences here, but to break the monotony this time around I thought I’d talk about live gigs and the equipment still being lugged into pubs by musicians of all persuasions.

Specifically, I want to address two issues: mixing without an engineer and the lingering resistance to digital consoles at the ‘performing musician’ end of the market.

As a gigging musician myself I’m well aware of what’s involved in playing live in small to medium-sized venues. One of the bands I play in has up to 14 members on stage sometimes – try dividing that payment up at the end of the night!

But despite the technological advances in live equipment over the last two decades, several issues still persist that make performing live on a budget difficult for solo acts and bands. One of these stands head and shoulders over all the others: the set-and-forget mix.

 

WHERE’S THE ENGINEER?

With no front-of-house engineer anywhere in sight at many of these pub gigs, it comes as no surprise that most sound ordinary at best. Countless bands try their best during sound-check to make an educated guess about what might work out front. But frankly, once a gig starts they have no real idea what things sound like.

And who can blame them? It’s hard enough playing the gig let alone trying to be the front-of-house engineer from on stage!

In many cases the mix at these sorts of gigs can be so bad some people are forced from the room, while others stick it out only to be frustrated by the mangled sound presented to them: instruments too loud, others impossibly low, vocals muffled and dry (or too wet), inaudible dialogue between songs, no real compression, wild esses, feedback from a poorly tuned PA (if it’s tuned at all), brutal spikes from musicians plugging and unplugging their instruments… the list goes on.

What can be done?

The obvious solution is to get an engineer to mix the gig for you so you can devote your finite energy and brain-space to the most important task at hand – playing a good gig. When you mix from stage, what you’re essentially trying to do is the live equivalent of mixing an album in the studio with the speakers facing away from you, only worse. You have to play the music as well!

I’m as guilty as the next person of performing under these ridiculous conditions most of the time. Sometimes I convince myself I can pull it off. But in truth it’s a crapshoot. No-one can have any real idea what’s going on out front from a punter’s perspective when they’re playing a gig. It’s basically impossible, even if you’re running a foldback send directly from front-of-house. And if you’re using dedicated foldback you’ve got no hope.

I would urge anyone who’s serious about playing live in a small venue, who’s concerned about sounding good, to wherever possible get an engineer to help with the mix at the very least. If you can consistently work with someone who’s experienced, pulls good FOH and foldback mixes, and is polite to you and your fellow band members, they’ll be worth their weight in gold. Sure you’ll have to pay them, but presumably if you sound much better as a result, you can charge more. Failing that, take a pay-cut and stop putting innocent bystanders through the torture of your crap mixes.

And invest in a multicore. It’s the one ancillary connector most bands don’t possess. Anyone who’s playing live gigs with an analogue console that ever hopes to employ an engineer should have one.

Without a loom, putting the console very far from the stage is basically impossible.

 

GO DIGITAL… FINALLY!

Or you can go digital!

There are still thousands of gigging musicians out there for whom the digital console revolution never took place.

For these musicians, any idea of parting with their beloved analogue console strikes fear into their hearts. To them, the whole idea of ‘switching to digital’ constitutes far too much risk, and given how much is involved in setting up and playing without an engineer, I can see why they might think this way. Their techniques might be simple, their setups messy, but at least they’re known to work. Digital consoles are seen as mysterious objects – ‘far too complicated’ for small gigs.

But that’s crap. Ignorance of the facts is all that is.

There are so many digital consoles out there these days that utterly wipe the floor with their analogue predecessors, you’d be mad not to adopt the technology available in 2016 if you’re performing live.

It’s time to ditch the basic analogue 12-channel mixer folks and take the plunge. Once you do you’ll realise how foolish you were not to make the switch years ago.

Digital consoles, especially the new-generation models sweeping through the market today, are dead simple to use. They also provide more facilities than a truckload of analogue gear. In short, they offer solutions, and that’s what you need live. Excuses don’t help.

It’s no good thinking that simplicity somehow protects you from things going wrong. On the contrary: without facilities that can help you solve problems like feedback, you leave yourself wide open to utter disaster when problems arise. And eventually they always do.

A good example of this type of next-gen utterly simple-to-use yet comprehensive digital console is one I’ve been using live all year – the small-footprint, super light QSC TouchMix-16.

This digital console is aimed squarely at gigging musicians so it’s intuitive as well as comprehensive, meaning that anything you instinctively expect it to do, it does. It provides all the effects, EQ, compression and limiting, de-essing, routing, saving and recording options I require (and then some) inside a console that’s as light as a feather and not much bigger than a laptop.

Suddenly my old analogue console looks positively Jurassic. I could never use it again now that I’ve experienced what the TouchMix-16 can do. What’s more, it syncs to my iPad via Bluetooth so there’s no need for a loom – you can employ an engineer to mix your gig and they can literally wander all around the venue with it, tweaking to their heart’s content.

 

GETTING FROM ‘A’ TO ‘D’

The point here is that digital consoles aren’t something to fear; they’re certain to make you sound twice as good almost overnight.

If you’re still in analogue-land but occasionally contemplate the digital ‘revolution’, do yourself – and your audience – a huge favour and make the switch. There’s nothing to fear, tons of options out there, and choosing what’s right for your particular circumstances is no harder than choosing a new car.

Don’t over-think it. Just pick the one you like and start driving it. You’ll quickly discover that it steers the same, brakes the same and gets you from A to D without incident.

Make the switch. I promise you, you won’t regret it.