Friday, December 22, 2006

Rupert Neve Interview Link and Volume War Link

These both came to me from the mastering mailing list recently:

Interesting interview with Rupert Neve, who is considered the "father" of modern mixing consoles. He talks about mikes, mike pres, mastering, analog vs. digital, and digital use and misuse, his new designs, 5.1 surround sound and some other stuff. He's also got a great voice.

Here's an interesting graphic on the volume wars.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Event Power

This year's Fall Fest very nearly didn't happen because of power (at least there was very nearly no music). I've worked on a lot of events since college and I've seen a lot of inexperienced people forget to make arrangements for power altogether. Fall Fest was a little different because power was discussed a number of times, several months in advance, and things still almost didn't work out.

Here are some basic facts about event power that will help you avoid these pitfalls.

Plan in Advance

lots o' powa'Power should not be an afterthought. Whether you are getting power from an existing power distribution point, from a generator, or from temporary power outlets (which can be setup by the utility company), you absolutely must consider a few things well in advance of the event: 1. where you need power, 2. how much power you need, and 3. what quality of power do you need. Lets talk about each of these....

Where Do You Need Power?

The first thing to consider is where you need power. You'll want to consider this early on, especially for a large event, because you don't want to have to redo your site plan, and you definitely don't want to be running to home depot the day of the event to buy orange extension cables, and, if you need more than 20 Amps of power somewhere where you hadn't counted on it, you may be out of luck. If you need a large amount of power, you'll need big extension cables. These cost real money to rent and can take time to track down. If you are planning a large event, you'll probably want to create the site plan to minimize the number of locations you'll need power. If you are planning a small event, such as a small wedding, you may still want to make special considerations for power -- you don't want guests tripping over an ugly extension cord because the band setup on the other side of the room from the only pair of dedicated outlets (more on dedicated power in the quality section).

How Much Power?

Most sound companies and other vendors pad the amount of current they will draw (measured in amperes, or just amps). For example, they may request 30 Amps, when their equipment only requires 15. However, they are not just doing this "to be on the safe side": many pieces of equipment draw much more power when they are first switched on, and often this is not reflected in the equipment's ratings. If you are dealing with separate vendors, make sure they each get a circuit of at least the size they requested. If you need to use extension cords, keep in mind that the ratings of the extensions should exceed the requirements -- especially if the cables are long, because long cables themselves can cause a significant drain on the power system.

What Quality of Power Do You Need?

Here's the biggy: not all power is equal. Audio and video equipment in particular is very susceptible to fluctuations in power, "noise" on the line from other equipment (especially anything with motors or dimmers), and many other things that most equipment won't even notice. Audio/Video people will typically refuse to share a circuit with anyone and many won't share a generator. Considering the cost and sensitivity of the equipment to poor quality power, this is not unreasonable and should be expected.

Other issues

There are other issues. Vendors requiring large amounts of power typically need something other than your run of the mill 120 volt / 20 Amp power. Connection types, current requirements, phase and power factor are just some of the issues you may have to wrestle with. Make sure to get it right or there may be no event.


Power safety is obviously very important. I can't begin to cover this topic in a little post here, but for starters, make sure to keep it away from water, children and anyone else who doesn't need to get to it. Rented generators should always be properly grounded as required by local code. If cables runs have to me made across an area where you expect pedestrian traffic, be sure to mark it carefully so that no one trips. If you are unsure about any safety issue, contact a licensed electrician.

Other Considerations

lots o' powa'Of course, power is complex, and there's more to it than that. Generators make fumes and need to be refueled. Temporary power tends to be ugly, expensive and may require additional permits and inspections, and, since many people don't understand power well enough to tell you their requirements, you might end up unable to connect some equipment as expected. Be sure to exchange information carefully, and, just in case there's a problem day-of, make sure you have an electrician available.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Synth Geeks

As a child, I could never decide between my dream of being a rock star and being a space-ship captain. I think these folks were probably in the same boat growing up.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Jackson Pollock I like Jackson Pollock, and my dad just sent me a link to the site by Miltos Manetas, which gives you the chance to create a little Jackson Pollock style art yourself -- only without the mess. It's quite satisfying, and, if you like Pollock's style, it can also be quite beautiful. It's possible to change colors by clicking on the mouse, but, personally, I like the black.

Monday, October 9, 2006

What you need to know about playing a festival

I love stage managing festivals. But a lot of bands, even ones who have been playing in clubs for years, don't know how to prepare for festival shows, which are very different from regular nightclub gigs. With the Candler Park Fall Fest coming up, I thought it would be good to write an article on the subject of preparing to play for a festival.

Got stage plot?

I've already talked about the importance of stage plots, especially at festivals in a previous posting. The gist is this: stage plots help a lot so you should have one. Note: If your looking for some software to make a stageplot, I've added an entry about using something called omnigraffle to make stageplots on your mac.

The Schedule

Staying on schedule is the job of the stage manager, but it's your job to work with them to do so. If you are late, or take time getting setup on stage, or the stage manager expects trouble getting you off stage, or there was a problem earlier and the stage manager needs to makeup time, your set may be cut short. It may or may not be fair, but it's always important to get off the stage when asked. I have never had to force a band offstage, but I'm sorry to admit that I have had to ask them to cut their sets a bit short on a few occasions. This was usually because they arrived late, or without a stage plot (or both!), but it does happen that I accidentally gave one band too much time, and had to cut a little time from another band. If this happens to you, it sucks. It really sucks. But it happens, and it's good to be prepared. For example, if you've got a song or two you want to finnish with, it's a good idea to keep track of time yourself (or ask for updates while on stage) so that you can skip a less important song.

If you feel that you behaved professionally and the stage manager cut your set short unfairly, especially by more than five or ten minutes, bring it up with them another time after the show or tell the booking agent or event director. You might not get preferential treatment next time, or extra money, or even an apology, if the stage manager/event planner thinks they made the right decision, but at least they'll know how you feel and it will help them to do a better job next time.

Forget the sound check

Most festivals try to cram as much music in as possible. This, combined with other considerations (like neighborhood noise laws), typically means there's no time for sound checks, so it's important to do what you can to help your sound crew prepare. Most sound crews can do a fine job even without a sound check, and, as you play, they'll tweak things very quickly so that you'll be sounding great long before your first song is over. However, it's always good to check in with them before you go on so they know what to expect and can set things up for you from the get-go. The most important thing you can do is provide a stage plot, but talking to them and describing your sound and what's most important to you about your sound helps a great deal.

Meet your monitor mixer

The sound on stage can be quite good at a festival, especially outdoors, where the lack of walls and ceiling may help reduce feedback. But remember how you didn't get to do a sound check? That means it may not sound perfect on stage from the first song. At a well run festival with a large stage, you'll typically have separate engineers for FoH (Front of House, which is what the audience hears) and monitors (which is what you hear). Make sure to introduce yourself to your monitor engineer before the show, and tell them what each musician needs to hear onstage. Typically, they can guess some things, like that the vocalists need to hear themselves, but it's good to check in with them either way. If you get onstage and you're not hearing what you need to hear, alert the monitor mixer or stage manager. Most systems allow the monitor mixer to listen to what is going through each monitor speaker without having to go onstage to listen, but they might not know a problem exists on a certain monitor speaker without you telling them. Alerting them to the trouble really can make a difference (just be sure to tell them nicely, since the monitor mixer is your bands best friend while you're on stage).

As with performing in a venue, the sound onstage can vary drastically from the house sound. That's nothing to worry about but it may be disorienting. Many singers have a hard time hearing their vocals with little to no reverb, for example, but reverb can cause feedback problems, and the monitor mixer usually has fewer effects at his or her disposal, so it's best to do without if at all possible.

Share equipment

Many bands, especially those with younger members, are adamant about using their own equipment, even if the festival provides equipment for them. This is understandable, especially if the band has a very particular sound that requires special equipment. However consider this:

  • It is usually harder to get equipment in and out of a festival setting. Festivals often take place in settings that were not designed with large equipment in mind.

  • Any time you spend getting your equipment on or off stage is time taken away from your set. (especially if I'm stage managing the event)

Finally, I'll let you in a on a little secret: outdoor sound reenforcement sucks. Yes, you heard it here first: doing outdoor sound is hard. Doing a good job without a soud-check or an engineer who has heard your band before is hard. Setting up your equipment correctly while the previous band is striking and doing it all in 15 or 20 minutes (10 minutes on my stage) is hard. Even with the right equipment, the end result can be mediocre compared to virtually any indoor setting, and very often the right equipment is not available. So be sure to ask yourself this simple question: do you really want to spend all that time getting the "perfect sound" that no one's going to hear anyway, or do you want to have time to play an extra song or two?

I don't mean to say that there's never a good reason to use your own equipment, just that you may have to make a choice between hauling gear, and playing more songs. The choice is yours and for many bands getting the right sound is both legitimate and necessary. Just be sure not to make a decision that cuts into your set time unless you have to.

Expect the Unexpected

Things usually go well if everyone is prepared. Sometimes things go well even if someone is not prepared. But in a festival, it's not uncommon for things to go wrong. With much of the work being done by volunteers, and without the common luxuries of sound-checks and familiar stages and equipment, someone is bound to be caught off-guard at some point. With all the adrenalin and exhaustion of everyone there, it's easy to get in a tizzy about this and make more mistakes (maybe I could write another entry just about that), so it's especially important to remember that everyone is there to have fun, and most people, especially the audience, are quite forgiving.

With the right preparation, though, serious problems are almost always avoidable, so do your homework (make a stageplot!) and then relax and break a leg!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Stage plots and Input Lists (Updated 9/21/06!): what they are, why you need one, and how to make one

Note: If your looking for some software to make a stageplot, I've added an entry about using something called omnigraffle to make stageplots on your mac.

Occasionally, I get have the time to work on a music event. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, I have the pleasure of working with bands and helping them do a great show. For the past three years, now, I've been stage manager for the Candler Park Fall Fest, and it's a great experience. A lot of other festivals are not well run -- bands just show up at the specified time and try to make due with what's there. They're often lucky if there's more than one sound engineer. This can be a frustrating experience for everyone but especially for the bands, so when I work on an event I try to do everything I can to run the stage as professionally as possible, but it also takes a little cooperation from bands.

In order to make a festival run well, a lot of things need to come together, and one of the most important parts of that is getting accurate stage plots and input lists for all the bands. Most professional bands have a stage plot as part of their contract rider. Even if they do their own stage setup and have lots of time to sound-check, a stage plot helps ensure in advance that the necessary equipment will be provided. When it comes to doing festivals, though, many luxuries, such as sound-checks, and a nice long break between acts, simply aren't there, and the stage plot helps ensure that things go smoothly, because, with a stage plot, everybody knows exactly what needs to be done.

I do all my advance planning around the stage plots, making sure that the required equipment is available and that any tricky band transitions are worked out in advance. When the festival starts, I plan the whole day around my stage-plots, and I use them to coordinate with the bands, the stage crew, and both the monitor and FoH (Front of House) positions to ensure that everything is setup, miked and amplified properly and that every band is ready to go on as quickly as possible. Towards the end of each set, I go over the next act's stage plot again, so I can give instructions to the stage crew and prepare for the transitions. If there is anything tricky or unusual, I usually oversee it myself during the transition. With a good stage plot, I can give instructions and help the bands and crew setup.

Without a stage plot we have to figure it out as we go along. With a stage plot, I can accurately assess how long each transition will be, and time the sets so that each band can play as long as possible without getting off schedule. Without a stage plot, I have to assume that it's going to take a long time, so everyone gets shorter sets. (I am a real stickler for the schedule because if you go off schedule, someone ends up at the short end of the stick.)

You don't get more time in your set because it took you a long time to setup, so providing a stage plot and input list means you get a longer set. Last year's Fall Fest had bands that were prepared play for about 50 minutes, while unprepared bands were forced to cut their sets down to as short as a half hour. It makes that much difference.

How to Make a Stage Plot

One thing I've learned, is that many bands don't have a stage-plot or input list, an many don't even know what they are. That's fine if you're just playing the local pub. It's even fine if your playing big venues an have lots of prep time. It's not fine if your playing a festival.

Fortunately, making a stage plot is easy. All you need to do is draw a birds-eye view of the stage with everything important, such as musician locations, mikes and DI boxes. Mike stands should be labeled boom or straight. Mike types should be specified if they are non-standard. Monitor locations and any other on-stage requirements should be specified. Top it off with your band name, date and contact info and you're done. Don't try and get too fancy or show off your art skills, that only makes it harder to read. Remember this is not promotional material -- it's technical information.

Put your band name and contact info at the top. It's also good to date the plots so that you can ensure that everyone has the current one. Below that is the actual diagram. Most stage plots have the band facing down so the audience is at the bottom of the page. I prefer this view as it puts down-stage down and up-stage up and house left on the left and house-right on the right, but the upside-down version of this is acceptable, too. Here are some examples of good stage plots, some of which include input lists, which we'll get to in a minute:

  • Johnny Knox and Hi-Test have an almost perfect stage plot. I've blacked out the contact info, but otherwise, this is their plot. Everything that's important to them is here -- locations of equipment, types of stands, even info such as reverb settings are here. Unusual things, such as no DI on the Bass, are clearly marked. There are 2 minor problems: 1. it should have a date, so everyone knows this is the current stage plot, and 2. the stage plot is upside-down from my preferred orientation. Still, this is a great stage plot, and can easily be used to get them on stage and sounding great fast and with minimal hassle.
  • Papa Grows Funk have a great stage plot. It clearly shows everything a stage manager and stage crew need to know, including power and specific mike requirements. It's probably overkill for a festival, where 9 mikes probably can't be provided for the drums, but that doesn't matter because the critical info is there.

  • Rhythm City's Stage plot is decent, though it could stand to have a key to assure the person looking at it that the box with a circle in it is a monitor amp. It would also be nice if the stage plot indicated clearly weather each stand was straight or boom -- as is the stage crew would probably assume straight unless it says otherwise, or they might assume a boom stand is okay, which it might not be. It would also be great to have musician's names and numbers corresponding to numbers in the key, below, so there was no confusion. Finally, a band can request as many 57s and 58s as they like, but they should not expect to get 4 beta 58s, as this band does.

If you don't have software or software skills to make a stage plot on the computer, there is nothing wrong with doing it by hand and scanning or photocopying it. Just make sure to write clearly and legibly. Remember this is not promotional material, so just stick to the facts, and keep it simple and clear.

Stage Plot File Formats

Whatever program you use to make your stage plots, from photoshop, to Microsoft Word or power point, or even boutique software such as Omnigraffle, it's important to send it in a format that can be read by the stage manager. I have Office for Mac, but it doesn't always read e-mailed PC word files correctly. In fact, you shouldn't count on your end user having Office or any other program. Instead, send it in a format specifically designed to be portable and easy to read. You can send a PDF, JPEG, GIF, PNG or anything else commonly used on the web. If all else fails, print it out and mail it.

Input Lists

An input list simply lists every mike, DI Box, synth rack or other sound source on your stage, whether you are providing it or the sound company is providing it. You want to say what the instrument is, and how sound is to get from the instrument to the mixers. For example, a solo guitarist/singer might provide an input list like this:

ChannelInstrumentInput MethodNotes
1Male VocalsMike (SM 58 or equiv.)Very dynamic, but good mike technique. Please use just a touch of reverb. Stereo small hall preferred.
2-3GuitarDII have two effects pedals. Stereo out. Please add no additional effects except compression and EQ as needed. Should be bright but not overpower the vocals.

If it's a long list, it's good to group them in the way that a mix engineer is most likely to group them. For example, you might start with drums, percussion and bass, and move up to rhythm guitar, keys, lead guitar, and then vocals. Better yet, do it in the reverse order so drums and rhythm are at the bottom and lead instruments like the voice are at the top. It's a good idea to highlight or mark the important things: the notes sections in the table above is probably overkill in this department, but it doesn't hurt.

If your band has a great lead guitarist or the vocals really are your band's "money channel", say so on the input list. That way, the mix engineer knows to pay special attention to those instruments. Most professional mix engineers do read this stuff, so if something is important, write it down!

Other stuff

Finally, if your really want to sound your best, there are a few other things you can provide your stage manager with:

  • A Set List: I may not know the songs, but if you make notes about solos, false endings, and song dynamics, the mix engineer will be prepared and be able to make you sound that much better. I rarely receive these, but when I do, I tend to get more compliments on the sound, so I know it makes a real difference.

  • Description of Monitor Mixes: We know the lead vocalist needs to hear themselves as loud as possible, so we don't need to know that, but if you need something unusual, like extra keyboards in the drum monitor, it's a good idea to have that written down somewhere.

  • Photos: It's great to have pictures of all your band members so no one asks them to leave if they are found hanging out backstage. You should ask your band members to introduce themselves to the stage managers and monitor mixer as soon as they arrive. That's also a good time to discuss any last minute changes or go over your requirements.

Break a Leg!

That's it. With this information you are now armed and ready to play at my festivals and probably anybody else's. If you are not asked well in advance for this information, or your get a blank stare when you provide it, it probably means you can expect trouble when it comes time to perform, so be prepared. Now, go break a leg!

Johnny Knox and High Test Stage Plot