Monday, March 17, 2008

Input Lists (The Other Part of Your Stage Plot) Part II

In part I of this post, I covered the basics of input lists. I noted in that article that most people don't need to worry too much about the actual numbers they assign to their inputs in their input lists (aka the channel numbers), because most engineers won't pay them much attention. I recently got an email from David Freeland of the Kansas City Funk Syndicate who had a question about the channel numbers on his input lists, and I'll address that in this posting, but many readers may simply want to read part I, since channel numbers are not relevant to most bands.

NOTE: while this post still stands on it's own, it turns out I got some facts wrong about KC Funk Syndicate. For corrections, see Input Lists (Corrections)

Why your channel numbers generally don't matter

In general, you might think it would be easy for a mix engineer to adhere to your request for channel numbers. In reality, different mixer configurations and the desire to have continuity between sets (especially at festivals) makes this difficult. For example, a typical small format mixer looks like this:

16 channel mixer

but most large format live consoles don't look like that, because there are too many channels and you want the important stuff (the mains and the busses) in the middle where you have the best access to them. So, large format live consoles look like this:

Large format live console

The upshot is that building from left to right (which is how you setup your input list) is not the only, obvious way to go. On the big mixer pictured above, for example, I might put my lead instruments and auxes on the first 24 channels (which are to the left of the main section), and the drums, bass, and other rhythm instruments on the next 24 channels, which are on channels 25-48, which wouldn't make any sense at all except to someone who was looking at the same mixer. Another way to go might be to alternate bands on the left and right sides of the mixer, which might seem strange, but I heard of one festival which had a rotating stage, and they might want to do that to swap out bands faster -- especially if they had two engineers sharing the same console!

Don't even think about trying to organize your input list in anticipation of this, though, because you won't know where the split on the mixer occurs, how your engineer likes to split things up, or what the other acts will be. Even if you did, your input list would cease to be a logically grouped, organized reminder of the important sound sources of your band, which is the whole point of the input list.

KC Funk Syndicate's Stage Plot

Let's, take a look at KC Funk Syndicate's Stage Plot (Contact Info is Blacked out):

KCFunkStagePlotOpen in this window
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The first thing you'll notice, aside from the fact that they've got a very large band, with a very well organized stage plot is that their input list is out of order. Their vocalists are at the top (good!), except for one, Karl, who is close to the bottom (bad!). There's also some channels that are not strictly inputs, but rather talkback channels and so on (confusing!).

I asked David about this and he explained that they really wanted the channel numbers assigned to the numbers he gave them because they were supplying their own monitor system and engineer, and the venue (a large casino) was supplying FoH system and engineer. Now, I'm sure the FoH engineer asked, as I did, why the channel order had to be that way. Couldn't the monitor engineer use a more sensible channel order? Apparently, the answer is no, because the monitor engineer was using a pre-programmed digital mixer who's tracks could not be reordered. That stray vocalist had been added to their act recently, and so had to be added to the end because the digital mixer was incapable of reordering their the tracks into a more sane order!

I don't know how much of the venue's irritation stemmed from not being able to call the shots (FoH engineers usually call the shots on things like channel numbers), and how much stemmed from actual confusion about having the vocals being separate, but David told me the venue was definitely upset.

Given this limitation, David did the right thing presenting an input list with the channel numbers assigned in order, and he was able to communicate the situation very clearly to me, so I presume he did so with the venue as well. That said, I agree with the venue, that David should consider other options in the future.

What's the Solution?

Since David upset the venue, he did some research, came across some of my previous posts on stage plots and asked for my advice. Before I get to that, I should say that if Funk Syndicate were the only band on the bill, and the FoH engineer was advised of the situation in advance and they had plenty of setup time, the FoH engineer should have been able to deal with the unusual setup. It's not ideal, but it's hardly an impossible situation and it's all clearly documented. Oddities like this are life sometimes, and David is clearly open to suggestions. I don't know if the FoH engineer was being a jerk or simply making a recommendation that they change their setup -- all David said was that the venue, "gave him some grief." I hope it was the latter.

Clearly, the ideal situation for Funk Syndicate would be to ditch the mixer that can't cope with changing channels. Seriously, I love digital gear, but it has to suit your purpose, and in this case, the centerpiece of a live setup is so inflexible that it can't be made to play well with other gear, so it should be dumped. I realize it was a big investment, and Funk Syndicate may not need to go to this extreme for what is, in fact, little more than a nuisance, but it is the right solution. E-bay will help recoup the loss. Although this is the best solution, keep in mind that even with a mixer that can swap channels you might still run into trouble -- what if FoH (for whatever reason) needs to rout you into channels 48-56 and your mixer only has 36 channels. In this (admittedly very unusual) case, you will not get your channels to line up.

Short of that, I do recommend reprogramming the mixer so that the input list is more in keeping with what FoH engineers are used to. Since Funk Syndicate are probably usually the only act on the bill, probably have plenty of prep time, and do a long set (I am guessing here) many of the usual "don't tie yourself down to one set of channels" argument won't apply, but I think they will continue to rub FoH engineers the wrong way if they continue with their current setup. I would definitely recommend, at the very least, reprogramming their board so that they could use the following input list (or something like it). Notice that I've left 2 channels open so they've got some room to grow. Maybe they should leave even more channels open depending on their mixer and snake configuration, but this way they are not expecting their venue to have more than 24 channels.

24Frank Vox
23Neil Vox
22Kim VoxWireless
21Kevin Vox
20David Vox
19Bob Vox
18Karl VoxWireless
10-11KeysStereo DI
3Hi Hat
(3)(Stage Talkback)Return

Note that I've left returns on there, so that the venues know they are needed, but I've separated them from the rest of the mix. If they wanted to use them as inputs to to monitors I would recommend patching them in as auxes, or as much higher channels (not otherwise assigned), rather than assigned channels, because the FoH guy won't want to see his own outputs coming in as input channels.

Again, if Funk Syndicate is in a situation where FoH can't conform, then this won't solve their problems, but it should do in well over 90% of cases and it should keep most FoH engineers pretty happy.

A final solution is to do nothing and simply be extremely humble when facing FoH engineers. This will leave David facing some irritation, frequent, though slight delays in setup (since things are not where people are used to seeing them) and maybe occasional minor mistakes, but probably never anything worse than that.

So, while there's no perfect solution, there are plenty of workable options. David will have to be aware of the compromises -- irritating FoH mixers a bit vs reprogramming his mixer vs suffering with mismatched channels in his monitor and FoH mixes vs dropping a lot of cash on a new mixer. Even with a new mixer, there may be a rare case of channel mismatch, so nothing is perfect in this world.

1 comment:

  1. [...] In Part II of my series on Stage Plot input lists I got a few of my facts wrong. Not about input lists, but about the band I picked on, Kansas City Funk Syndicate. It wasn’t because David Freeland, who had originally contacted me with some excellent questions about his band’s input, was unclear, it was just that so much time had passed between asking his questions and me actually blogging about them. I forgot some important facts and got confused, so here are some clarifications. [...]


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