ON THE STAGE OFF THE STAGE

Aug 1, 2001 12:00 PM, By Mark Frink

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SHARING THE BACKLINE

The difference between “real” festivals and “generic” festivals is that for the latter, backline equipment is shared by a number of acts. When the drums, guitar amps and keyboards are all provided by a rental company, the stage can be prewired to accommodate the widest number of bands on the bill. Each band's equipment needs are coordinated by the stage manager or a backline tech from the rental company, so a handful of stagehands can make changeovers quickly.

When the vocals, drum and backline mics remain in place from one act to the next, stage changes are simple. Apart from pushing amps from one side to the other, sound techs need only confirm levels on direct boxes and check the monitors. Unused mics can be simply set aside and muted without being unplugged.

More common are the kinds of festivals where many of the bands and not just the headliners bring everything except the main speakers. During the summer months, many bands tour without a P.A. and simply drop their production into a variety of “festival” venues everything from county fairs and casinos to sheds. By carrying their own consoles, bands can ensure a stable foundation for their show, and the sound crew can often get by with only a minimal line-check and may even blow off the soundcheck, a time-saver that is always popular with festival stage managers. For those bands who rely on in-ear monitoring, the only variable will be the sound of the main speakers, which is unlikely to affect what the musicians hear.

Another scenario is the situation in which a band brings their own mics, stands and DIs, along with mic cable looms and, perhaps, sub-snakes. Even the band's regular onstage AC power needs can be provided for by taping stage equipment AC lines together with the sub-snakes. By bringing familiar input sources, such bands significantly reduce the number of variables facing their FOH and monitor engineers. By carrying a chart of console input settings gain, nominal EQ and aux bus assignments, etc. the engineers can preset a new desk relatively easily. With sufficient preparation, the engineers can go “faders up” with confidence, even without a soundcheck.

ROLLING THROUGH THE ALLEY

Short of sharing backline, the only way to make quick changes on a festival stage is by using rolling risers. Top-name national acts usually require their own backline, so it is essential that a multi-act festival provide enough rolling risers or stage space to accommodate every group who use their own set of band-gear. Also essential is enough offstage space to assemble and strike each setup before and after the performance.

The ideal stage layout incorporates a backstage crossover alley that allows the stage crew to move risers from one side of the stage to the other while a group is performing and out of sight of the audience. If properly planned, such a route can allow band gear to go from being built upstage, rolled out onto the stage and finally pushed to the far side to be struck, all in a circular, unimpeded flow. Risers can then be recycled, and three complete sets of risers should allow for one band performing onstage, a second being set up and a third being struck. Ideally, each band that soundchecks should be allowed to keep its risers assembled between check and performance, which means that, in addition to the upstage crossover alley, there also must be “parking” space. It's worth noting that not all risers need to be eight feet square. Small 2×6-foot rolling risers, dubbed “skateboards,” were used extensively for guitar amps on the Lilith Fair tour; in a pinch, three skateboards could be C-clamped or strapped together to make a small drum riser.

In order to make the best use of rolling risers, there should be enough mics, cables and stands to cover the backline requirements for a minimum of three bands. One way to reduce the number of stands onstage is by using clip-on mics or claws for the drums, and Z-bars for the guitar amps. Leslie cabinet mics can similarly be mounted to the cabinet with claws or inside it on flanges with Velcro. With some planning, the total number of mic stands needed can be reduced to vocal booms (which remain in place on the front-line), overheads, hi-hat, and perhaps the kick and snare mic stands. With enough claws and Z-bars, a couple dozen stands can cover four bands without doubling up.

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE WIRES

Not all sound companies can afford the luxury of sub-snake input boxes that disconnect from their cables; this feature just about doubles the cost of a sub-snake. Without multipin disconnects, which would allow sub-snake input boxes to remain prewired on their respective rolling risers, inputs must be individually re-patched during a changeover. One approach is to leave sub-snakes patched at the main stage box, label the sub-boxes with the generic list of festival input names and repatch at the sub-boxes. Some main stage boxes incorporate multi-pin disconnects as well as individual XLR inputs, a scheme that allows one band (usually the headliner) to be checked and struck with their sub-boxes intact on the risers.

Sub-box assignments are easily defined for each area of the stage. Locating the backline instruments sub-box at the front of the drum riser allows for backline mics and DIs to be moved to either side of the stage as needed. Similarly, leaving the sub-boxes plugged into the main stage box and making mic changes by moving or extending cables reduces the chance of a mispatch. A basic rule for a festival patch is never unplug anything that's not labeled.

ESSENTIAL FESTIVAL TOOLS

Two sets of switched mics feeding small powered speakers at each end of the snake makes an efficient way for FOH and monitor engineers to talk to each other throughout the day. The monitor engineer will usually also have a second switched mic feeding the monitors so that he can talk to the musicians from the monitor mix position. But what about the stage itself?

On all but the smallest festivals, a third person onstage, dubbed the “patch-master” or “mic wrangler,” makes sure that the inputs are correctly plugged in for each act. Providing the patch-master with a wireless mic that is routed to the monitor engineer's powered squawk-box will allow the patch-master to roam the stage and coordinate monitor levels without having to resort to hand signals.

A more sophisticated approach provides the patch-master with a wireless in-ear monitor system. Feeding the patch-master's in-ear system with a summed mono signal of both the cue output of the monitor desk and the intercom allows him to roam the stage hands-free. (With a Clear-Com system, it's not even necessary to use an adapter.) The monitor desk's cue bus signal allows the patch-master to hear whatever the monitor engineer is listening to, which is useful for identifying problems. Trouble-shooting with a suspect input cued up is quicker, because the trouble-shooter can follow the signal back to the stage-box and get immediate feedback on the signal at each point in the chain. With the third guy tapping out mics, line checks can be directed by both engineers over intercom, and because it's not heard through the monitors, these conversations are completely private, providing the illusion that the stage is quietly sorting itself out.

Another useful tool for the patch-master to carry around is a condenser and a dynamic mic. If they are taped together, facing in opposite directions, then it's a simple matter to speak into one mic or the other. I recommend having the mics cabled with a Y-cord and a short mic cable. Whether an input relies on phantom power or not, this combination will always provide the means to check it out, without having to make a trip to the workbox. One more item that speeds line checks is a female XLR to ¼-inch adapter; simply connect this to a dynamic mic, plug the jack into a direct box and recite the “one, two” mantra quicker than finding a bass guitar and an instrument cable.

Mark Frink is Mix's sound reinforcement editor.

EXCEL AND PRINTER

Perhaps the most necessary ingredient for a smooth-running festival is the paperwork that lists each band's inputs and shows how each band's lineup fits into the overall festival input list. My favorite tool for visualizing each band's assignments is an Excel spreadsheet. Here is a simple example from a 10-band showcase at South By Southwest. (Because the FOH mixer was a Yamaha 02R, the input list was limited to 24 channels.)

The form has columns with the input assignments for each band, in order of appearance, left to right. Preceding each band's inputs is a thin column to indicate channels that are repatched (X) or simply moved (M). This allows the patch-master to focus on the changes for each group and tells the console engineers what gets moved and should be checked, plus what gets repatched and therefore must be checked to see if it is working. Note that each input's name includes its stage position (e.g., DSR for downstage right), which helps locate them quickly in the heat of a stage change.

At the top of the form, along with the bands' names, are their engineers' names, their set times, plus their sequence order and soundcheck time. Another row is used for assigning colors used for spike tape. Without unique colors for marking the positions of each band's equipment, it can be difficult to find the correct marks during a set change. In addition to spiking the stage, it's a good idea to use the same color to label the gear with its location onstage for that act. Rented backline equipment may get used for several bands, so these equipment labels remind the stagehands where they go for each act.

As shown on the chart, each channel has a generic festival name, which allows engineers to describe it accurately without having to look up the channel number. Keeping similar inputs in the same channels throughout the day minimizes the need for gain and EQ adjustments. Thus, the first guitar channel, generically called “GTR1” or even “G1,” is always an electric guitar amp. Acoustic guitar direct boxes (ACO) are cabled from downstage center with mic cables long enough to reach either side of the stage. Similarly, the mics for the backline inputs, though they cable from upstage center, also have enough cable to get them to either side up-stage. Inputs are dedicated for electric guitar amps (GTR) and direct boxes (DI), usually keyboards. Three more are simply called instrument inputs (INST), because they change from DIs to mics over the course of the day, and these wild-card inputs, sometimes call P-channels (for generic Production) are the go-tos for odd inputs.

No matter how well the show is advanced, there are always a few changes to each band's stage plot and input list. That's okay, as long as these changes are communicated to the engineers manning the consoles. It is the patch-master's responsibility to meet with each band's engineer and confirm their inputs and stage plan. The generic names on the festival input list lead to logical places to put last-minute additions. Though it takes some time to create a festival spreadsheet from scratch, they can be recycled easily for future festivals. Now go roll your own.
Mark Frink

MIC AND MONITOR ASSIGNMENT CHART FOR SXSW

Check:
Spike Color:
Reset/Show Times:
Engineer:
(10) - 5 PM
Preset
NA/6:50
Jeff
(9) - 4 PM
Preset
NA/7:10
Lonnie
(8) - 3 PM
ORANGE
10/7:35
Mark
(7) - 2 PM
GRAY
10/8:05
Darren S.
(6) - 1 PM
YELLOW
10/8:30
Dingo
(2) - 6 PM TUE
BLUE
15/9:05
Eric
(1) - 5 PM TUE
RED
10 /9:35
Damien
(5) - 11:15
BLACK
15 /10:10
Dave Allen
(4) - 10:15
WHITE
10 /10:40
Pam
(3) - 9 AM
PINK
10 /11:10
Barre
CH MIC Band: 1: CURFMAN 2: APARO 3: DIDO 4: GRAY 5: SEARCY 6: BRADLEY 7: MEAD 8: REV. HEAT 9: BRAMHALL 10: SMITH CH
1 KMS 105 STAR VOC SHANNON DIDO RF VOC M DAVID PETER M ROBERT M DAVID M HORTON M DOYLE B. PATTI 1
2 KMS 105 VOC USR M ACO DSC X KEY USR V KEY USR V X OLIVER OSR 2
3 KMS 105 VOC SR BG VOC M TIM SR V M ACO DSL M GTR SR V M SUS. SR V TONY SR V 3
4 KMS 105 VOC SL ANGIE M GREG SL VOC BASS SL V BASS SL V M JIM SL V M M LENNY SL V 4
5 Beta 58 VOC DRUM CLUNE DR V DR V SCOTT DR V J.J. DR V 5
6 DI ACO 1 ACO DSL ACO 1 M ACO 1 DSC M ACO DSR M K ACO USR M ACO 1 DSC PS ACO DSC 6
7 DI ACO 2 BULLET MIC ACO 2 M CELLO USC M ACO 2 DSC M LEN ACO USL 7
8 Beta 56 GTR 1 GTR 1 M GTR 1 USC M K GTR USR M GTR 1 USC M GTR ON USR GTR DB USR GTR OLI USR 8
9 Beta 56 GTR 2 GTR 2 X CDL XLR @K X X GTR 2 SR M GTR OFF USR M GTR BILL USL GTR LEN USL 9
10 DI DI 1 KEY USR DJ L X CDR XLR @K X X DR DI M WURL DI L X GTR PS USC 10
11 DI DI 2 DJ R X K XLR USR X X KORG USR M WURL DI R X OL. ACO USR 11
12 DI/Beta 52 INST 1 DRUM DI X K XLR USR X X LES LO USR LES LO 12
13 DI/Beta 56 INST 2 DRUM FX X PNO L USR X X LES HI L USR LES HI L M D'JEMBE USC 13
14 DI/Beta 56 INST 3 X PNO R USR X X LES HI R USR LES HI R M BONGO USC 14
15 DI BASS B DI B USL B USL B USL B USL BASS X BASS SR 15
16 RF B 58 Mathew N. HOST HOST HOST HOST HOST HOST HOST HOST HOST HOST 16
17 Beta 52 KICK TOY KICK OSL X K K K K K K 17
18 Beta 56 SNARE S S S S S S 18
19 AKG 460 HAT H H H H H H 19
20 SM 98 RACK 1 TOY OH OSL PERC 20
21 SM 98 RACK 2 R R R R R R 21
22 SM 98 FLOOR F F F F F F 22
23 AKG 414 OH SR OH SR OH SR OH SR OH SR OH SR OH SR 23
24 AKG 414 OH SL OH SL OH SL OH SL OH SL OH SL OH SL 24
Mon MIX Band: 1: CURFMAN 2: APARO 3: DIDO 4: GRAY 5: SEARCY 6: BRADLEY 7: MEAD 8: REV. HEAT 9: BRAMHALL 10: SMITH Mon
1 USR Key DJ Tim Tim Key OLIVER 1
2 DSR Far Vinnie Michael Horton Susannah TONY 2
3 DSC Star Shannon Dido David Peter Robert David Doyle B. PATTI 3
4 DSL Next Angie Alex Andrew Jimbo Chris LENNY 4
5 OSL Near Keith Rob Bass Billy 5
6 USC Drum Clune Jeff Drum Scott J. J. DRUM 6






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