Mixing Main Stage-Contemporary Arts CenterSept. 27, 2009. Repost from my old blog
I got a call to do be the live sound mixer at one of the feature stages for the Midpoint Music Festival. My particular stage was in the ‘black box’ theater in the basement of the Contemporary Arts Center. There were 4 bands on the bill that night, I was to mix the first three bands, the headliner band “The Dø” had their own sound mixer. In fact they had their own special mixing console which arrived late and due to the complexity of their stage setup ended up eating into the first act’s setup time to the point that the whole show started 30 min late.

The first act “Geographer” was a trio from my hometown of San Francisco. One of the interesting things about this band was that there was no bass player! Low-end duties were handled by a guy with a 6-string cello (extra low and high strings) who could really generate some powerful lows by digging into some 5ths with the bow, yet could really sing a melody when called for; he also had a laptop for playback.

The other guys in the trio were all really good as well. As a matter of fact I was really  impressed with all the groups’ songwriting and compositional abilities. As a producer in the studio, one of the things you look for in a solid music arrangement is that at each moment  in a song there is a clear thread of “this is the thing to listen to at this moment” and all of these groups did a great job of this.

This was a good thing because there was no seating for the audience and I was standing in the back, no riser for the sound gear so since I’m short, and everyone in the audience was at least 6’ 5” (or seemed that way) I couldn’t see the bands at all. If I hadn’t seen them all onstage during setup I would have run into them in the green room and thought “who are you?” So I was happy that the music had clear cut arrangements so I could follow the music using only my ears as my mixing guide since I couldn’t actually see anybody playing.

Occasionally I’d have to hunt around the console on the channel ‘solo’ buttons to see where that new bass or synth sound was coming from but these guys were all professionals and had worked out all the mixing issues from their playback systems. The guitarist also had a laptop for playback, I think all told there were six computers on stage throughout the evening. These guys were really nice and easy to work with and since they were first, I had the most coherent, easy to find on the console, setup for them.

The Console

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One of the challenges of being a hired gun soundman is that you have to be able to walk in and mix on whatever they have for you there. The live sound industry is an industry in transition right now, making the move from analog consoles to digital. There are lots of reasons to use digital consoles these days but consistency of the user interface from manufacturer to manufacturer and immediacy of use is not one of them. On an analog console there is a physical control for each function (mic preamp, EQ, sends, panning) on each channel; this leads to lots of knobs on the control surface. The upside is you can just reach over there and turn a knob. The downside is that with so many controls, there is much more to go wrong so reliability can be an issue if the console is not meticulously maintained.
A digital console has all the same functions as an analog console but there are no knobs, just buttons. There is an LCD screen with an overview of all the functions for an input channel and a field of “soft knobs” to control that channel’s EQ, sends etc. So when you want to adjust something on a channel, you have to go to that channel, hit a “Select” button which puts all that channel’s functions into the display, available for adjustment. The upshot of it all is that if you really need to get to something fast, you have to remember to hit that select button first before you can adjust an effect send or something. You have to retrain yourself so your impulse responses are different.

The huge advantage of a digital console is that a ton of stuff you would normally have to bring outboard gear for is built into the console. There is a compressor and gate built into each channel. The console has four (or more!) multi-function effects processors built-in; all this keeping from you having to tote around a rack of compressors and effects.

Another huge thing is that you can store your setup for instant recall so if you’re working a tour situation you can configure the console in seconds instead of an hour. The console has a USB port so you can save entire setups to your flash drive to move setups from console to console as you move from region to region.

Overall, the user interface software on the Yamaha LS-9 is pretty good which is unusual for Japanese software; I think they have really done a good job at listening to the concerns of people who have to use these things. There are all kinds of good shortcuts (a double button push here, a dedicated soft knob there) to speed things up but you have to know them all to achieve the same kind of immediacy that you have with an analog mixer. But I digress…

The Subjects
The second band I mixed was The Subjects, from New York, a fairly large band with two guitars, multiple keyboards, bass, drums vocals, but only four guys. Today’s music seems to make variety of sounds a priority (a welcome change from the ‘anti-keyboard’ mentality of the 90s guitar bands) but from my perspective it’s a challenge because the bass part could be coming from any one of three different places, the bass player, a keyboard, or some mystery computer somewhere. 

This was the third setup of the night and things were getting a little scrambled on the stage with mic lines getting crossed and moved to accommodate each new instrumentation. We needed and additional direct box on a synth, couldn’t find one…  Decided to just go ahead and mic the amp, the amp didn’t work… Try another amp and we’re good but a precious 5 minutes was wasted; so much fun flailing on a setup in front of an audience.

I liked these guys a lot; the drummer had a really good voice (in spite of the ‘setup turmoil’ caused by him being a left-handed drummer) and they went through a fast-paced well thought out set. Good compositions with lots of sonic variety and a really solid performance. I would love to work with these guys often enough that I really knew the tunes and could really focus the music instead of doing damage control and chasing the bass part around the console.

You, You’re Awesome

Next up was You, You’re Awesome, a ‘group’ (a duo) with what I think is a stupid name but what do I really know? Anyway this group was a guy with the weirdest collection of old keyboard crap I’ve ever seen and a drummer. He actually had an Atari cartridge game system with cartridge in it labeled “Sound Synthesizer” or something like that; a couple of those cheap 4 octave synths with the miniature keys and some old stuff that was so obscure I didn’t even recognize any of it, all setup on little portable tables and one keyboard stand. Oh, and there was a MacBook as well.

From a setup perspective I loved these guys. The synth player had all his crazy setup run into his own onstage mixer and he says to me, “I run everything (even the vocals) through my mixer so all I need is two lines out from the mixer”. This is the dream setup situation for a tense festival changeover, and then for some reason he only had signal on one side of his mixer so now we only needed one line! Just to make sure, I asked him , “so if the vocals are too soft you don’t want any kind of independent control?” and he says “No, it won’t be an issue”. 

Well I quickly found out why, it was a band that played all instrumentals! The vocals all got run through a vocorder, distortion box or whatever and really functioned musically like another instrument, and not really the purveyor of lyrics in the standard sense.

These two guys slammed through 40 min of unbelievably energetic electronic rock and I wish I could have seen this guy make all that junk make all those sounds! It was completely ridiculous in a totally cool way. So I mixed his one input against the drums, got a good tonal balance, made sure he wasn’t hitting the compressor in the channel too hard and just let them flow. 

After the set was over as they were tearing down I said to the keyboard guy “You’re a genius to get all that music out of all that crap!”, gesturing to his setup. I said it with a smile and he took it the right way and thanked me for the ‘compliment’. This group was hands-down the most creative act of the night for me.

The Dø

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So now it was time for the headliner, The Dø, a very technically complex group from outside the US, some from France, some from Mexico. Since they were using their own mixing console we had to completely shut down the system during changeover so that we could move all the lines from the microphone snake from our console to theirs. This had the really pleasant byproduct of shutting up the really annoying blonde white girl in rap garb who was “entertaining” the crowd during our previous changeovers by singing along (badly) with that Pokerface tune that’s on the radio and generally acting idiotic. She was devastated that she couldn’t ‘perform’ during this break because of the system being down, but I was inwardly smiling that I wouldn’t have to respond to her imbecilic “Hey soundman, turn this shit UP!” remarks when I was obviously on the stage right in front of her. What a zero…

Anyway, it took a long time to get the system back to the condition it was when this all began but at last it was go time. The crowd had thinned out a bit and The Dø launched into their set. I wanted to like this group; they were very tech heavy with full in-ear monitoring for all performers, all kinds of effects on the voice, drum triggering, electric instruments, computers onstage and I just had to admire their chutzpah to try and make all this work in the hectic environment of a multi-band festival situation. When you’ve got this much stuff onstage and your act depends so heavily on it, it requires a massive amount of planning to reliably set it up and have it function consistently night after night, in another country, with a different electric standard!  So I just had to respect them for even trying to pull this off.

The bizarre part is that once this was all up and running and they launched into their set I realized that have completely had enough of that female whiny, nasal, high pitched, vibrato-less vocal style, even when it’s all distorted through a guitar pedal!

Their high-tech soundguy who did an amazing job of getting this insane rig up and running hardly touched the console during the show and I thought the vocal was buried for the first couple of tunes. It appeared that once the show was up and running he wasn’t overly concerned about the balance, maybe on instructions from the band or something. Curious…

I didn’t have anything to do during this act except listen so after taking a couple pictures I found myself involved in a riveting game of solitaire on my phone. I’m sure they’re a much better band than I make them sound like here (there were some very interesting musical change-ups in some of the later tunes), and they were all civil enough although their stage manager came up to me during the show just as I was moving the red 10 to the black jack yelling “Where are the stage lights? Turn on the lights!!!” I don’t like to be that “pass the buck guy” but I had to tell him I wasn’t in control of the lights and I didn’t even know where the light console was! Well he was ticked, but it brought to light a last little observation about this night: They had a 15ft high projection video screen behind the band showing avant garde videos while the bands would play in darkness on the stage

Maybe I’m just freaking old, but I thought this was really disrespectful to the musicians. I still play in bands and it seems like audiences are so used to DJs and playback based entertainment they don’t know how to act in front of a live band anymore. It’s like audiences just completely ignore the fact that we’re live human beings up there; how many times has my salsa band Tropicoso finished off a hot tune like La India’s Soy Mujer (which has a dynamite strong ending) to be greeted by virtual silence even thought the club is nearly full? Perhaps we need table tents with audience etiquette tips on them now, but I digress… again…

At Midpoint they kept the stage lights almost completely off and there was only ambient light for the performers because of their stupid videos. Which would you rather see, a live band that’s come all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from France to play their first international tour, or black and white video of a guy doing stop frame animation of pieces of moss crawling around on his face or applying live snails to his skin? Hmmmm

Overall, this was a fun, challenging gig in many ways and I thank Doug Staub from Yamaha for hiring me and getting to work on a  cool new console. One of these things is definitely in my future!

If you were there and see things differently leave a comment!