- by David Morgan
in On the Digital Edge
Working as a front of house engineer for high profile performers, large-scale loudspeaker arrays are my stock-in-trade. So, why do I have those small speakers sitting on my meter bridge? Good question. Let’s start at the beginning — back in pre-production, when I am attending band rehearsals and creating the product that will eventually emerge from the components in those large arrays. » In the Barn
Band rehearsals are usually held in a small room with little or no PA. For example, when commencing a new tour project with James Taylor, we usually start out in the barn he built in the woods of western Massachusetts. The musicians array themselves in a circle around James within the walls of this beautiful space. James always sits in the middle next to a long, low table on top of which are 40 or more cards with song titles written on them.
James is very meticulous about choosing the content for each of the two sets that are customarily performed in the show. He is dedicated to creating and maintaining the musical flow from song to song within the set. The band will often prepare ten more songs than will be actually performed so there is an ample choice of material from which to select. James is, of course, free to call an “audible” at any time.
If I have the luxury of time, I usually spend the first rehearsal day just listening and taking mental or written notes about the arrangements. It’s important to get inside of each song and determine what’s driving the arrangement and how each musician’s part relates to the presentation of the piece as a whole.
» The Tools
When I do get behind the console, I prefer listening to a pair of near-field monitors set up on top of — or just behind — the doghouse for my console. During these intimate rehearsals, I don’t really want to compete with the ambient sound in the room. It is more my intention to become a part of it. For this purpose, my choice of near-field speaker systems is either a pair of Tannoy T12s or Genelec 1031s with a 7000 series subwoofer.
The self-powered Tannoys each contain a 12-inch Dual Concentric driver system. The injection-molded LF driver and the HF compression driver create a sound that is similar in nature to the modern line arrays that currently dominate the live sound market. These workhorse monitors have power and headroom to spare, and I’ve had extremely good experiences with translating mixes created on the Tannoys to the systems we encounter most often on tour.
The self-powered Genelec 1031s each contain an 8-inch woofer and a 1-inch metal dome tweeter. The subwoofer is a self-powered 10-inch woofer in a ported enclosure that also houses the networking unit that processes and assigns the signal to the three speaker elements. The specs say these compact beauties can produce 101 dB-SPL continuous music output at one meter, making them ideal for my applications. I have less experience with the Genelecs but recently have found using them to be similarly successful as the Tannoys.
» Near-Field Tuning
Before embarking on the creation of any mix, one must first tune the speaker system so that a predictable and repeatable audio result is derived. To that end, I use the same music source material played in the same sequence that I employ for setting up and equalizing a concert system. My goal is to have the sound originating from the console possess the same sonic characteristics everywhere in the audio chain. I want what I hear in the headphones to match what I also hear in the speakers as I mix. When I play back the multitrack recordings made from those live mixes, I also want the output of the speakers to match what I remember hearing in real-time. If I am successful in these tuning operations, the transition to the live performance system should then be seamless.
There is a bit of trial and error involved in this process when my mix position is not isolated from the band. Some of the band members are using in-ear monitors exclusively. Some are only using wedges. James uses an in-ear in his left ear and a wedge for his right ear. The output of the monitor speakers and the sound output the band produces on its own will often cause me to make some instruments too quiet and others too loud when I first get started. It definitely does take a couple of days and several playbacks to properly compensate for the ambient conditions and get everything lined up correctly. If it’s included in my FOH rack, I will use a Lake processor for EQ. If not, I use the VENUE’s onboard graphic EQs and plug-in parametrics instead.
We do have the capability to build a temporary isolated control room inside the barn, and I have gone that route when we are creating specific recordings for show use, publicity purposes or to be included as bonus tracks on CDs. However, I am far happier being in the room, included in the evolutionary process and participating in the conversations as each song is explored or re-explored. I find one misses a lot of the band dynamic, subtlety and content when working in a separate environment.
Once the correct tuning and balances have been achieved, the near-field speakers become invaluable tools in setting up the mixes and snapshots for the various songs. I run the Pro Tools rig attached to my Avid VENUE console throughout the rehearsal day. When the band leaves the room in the evening (or before they arrive in the morning) I start running playbacks and build the show from there. With the James Taylor show, I usually snapshot only the beginning of each song. Most often I am simply saving Mute on/off or fader positions, but there are always a few occasions in which I save mic pre settings, EQ changes or Aux Bus on/off. Using the near-fields instead of a PA in the room lets me work at a moderate SPL level without completely dominating the audio environment in the space and driving my co-workers out of the room.
In recent years, our touring model with James Taylor has resulted in us transitioning from the barn straight into the first performance venue. We then spend the next three or four days putting sound, lights and staging together. There will often be a production/load-in day, followed by two production rehearsal days and ending with the first show. Each year we play a wide variety of venues with Mr. Taylor — from theaters to arenas. There are special circumstances in any size venue that may require the use of near-fields speakers during the performances.
Next month, in Part 2, we’ll continue this discussion, but move from using near-fields in the rehearsal phase to live performance and look at a few of the near-field monitor applications I have found useful during sound checks and shows in various venues and mixing conditions.
Until then, safe travels!