AF’s Weblog

April 11, 2012

Capturing The Energy Of Live Shows

To read the full detailed article see:  Audience Mic Techniques to Enhance Recordings

What makes a live recording sound live? The audience, of course. A live recording is all about the energy of the event, and that energy comes from the crowd, so some real thought has to be given as to how it’s captured.

Just setting up some microphones haphazardly usually produces less-than-desired results.  To avoid that scenario, let’s have a look at some proven mic techniques for live recording.

First, it can be tempting to use approaches that engineers recording classical music deploy, such as spaced pairs, X/Y, ORTF and Blumlien.  What they’re trying to do is capture the ambience of the environment and a “perfect” stereo image, but our primary concern is capturing the audience.  Note that these are two different beasts and have to be handled that way.


Figure 1: Center hall position.

Sure, capturing some of the ambience is essential to a great sounding live recording, but it will come as a byproduct of a well-mic’ed audience, so it’s not important to worry about it until the primary mission is accomplished.

Audience mic’ing is a situation for omnidirectional mics if you have any, but never underestimate the value of a couple of short-scale shotgun mics.


Figure 2: Mono center hall position.

These are especially useful because they help to attenuate the intimate conversations from the crowd that happen around where the mic is placed.

In you don’t have the option of either an omni or short shotgun, make sure that the mics that you do utilize are identical models. Also, don’t forget to engage the low-frequency rolloff switch if the mic has one.

Let’s take a look at some other mic positions…

The Great Outdoors


Figure 8: Mics at multiple positions.

Mic’ing a crowd outdoors poses a different set of circumstances in comparison to the indoor experience. For one thing, placement is usually a lot more difficult, with fewer options for hanging mics.  In addition, the ambience of the venue is lessened, so you usually need to resort to using more mics as a result. And don’t forget the windscreens, because nothing makes a track unusable like wind blasting across the mic capsules.

To read the full detailed article see:  Audience Mic Techniques to Enhance Recordings

July 30, 2010

On Tour: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Modern technology reveals traditional sounds for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 2010 tour.

Technical Evolution


“We’re working with a very organic set of sounds here,” says Robert Scovill, ruminating on the current Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 2010 concert tour. “Piano, organ, old amps… a traditional drum kit. We don’t want to make things sound real modern. What we want is a transparent presentation of the way things are. That’s where digital comes in.  Using modern technology to reveal traditional and established sounds – I think that’s a great way to go.”

Scovill knows well of what he speaks, and of the technical evolution that has helped bring him to where he is today with the band.  Having pushed faders out front for Tom and the boys since right about the same time e-mail was sounding like a pretty darn good idea, for this tour the Front of House engineer gains the backing of a D-Show VENUE console from Avid and an L-Acoustics K1/KUDO rig supplied by Escondido, California-based Sound Image.

“I don’t want to ever lead people to believe we’re attempting to simply recreate the record live,” Scovill explains, commenting on the audio underpinnings that guide this series of dates running through October supporting Mojo, the band’s first studio offering in eight years.  “That will never be the spirit of what Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are about at their live performances. They have been together a very long time and have gotten to know each others’ moves implicitly not just onstage, but musically too.  You never get into a routine with them where Tuesday night is the same as Thursday and that’s the same as Saturday. Even with the big production elements surrounding this show, there is still a looseness to it,” he continues.  “Any given song can take a left turn at any moment and go in a completely different direction. This is definitely an ensemble with a collective will, not a group of musicians spoon-fed with material by a frontman.”

tom pettyA DSP advantage was gained, however, in being able to port effects settings built by engineer Ryan Ulyate during the mixing of Mojo directly into the plug-in processing of the VENUE system.  That process was facilitated by the fact that Mojo was mixed entirely “in the box” using a single ICON and Pro Tools system, with plug-ins brought over directly from the recording sessions including Sound Toys, Acousticas EMT impulses and Digidesign Delays.

Many of the vocal treatments for Petty himself – especially on newer songs – were pulled directly from the record for the live stage based upon their ability to manage what Scovill refers to as “extreme aspects” such as exceptionally narrow, cone-shaped vocals and slap delays he wound up using to underscore the “vintage-y” vibe.  Scovill is quick to add that he doesn’t routinely lean on plug-in compression unless the situation warrants it, opting in many cases for the channel strip processing already onboard the console.  For the times he does step out from his own internal circuitry for applications like system EQ or group processing, he gains the benefit of a Serato Rane Series of dynamic EQ plug-ins or their parametric offering.

“If I want to get into multi-band compression, I typically use an MC2000 on Tom’s vocal and bass guitar,” he notes.  “Our vocal chain is essentially the multiband compression along with some dynamic equalization to take care of things down in the low-mids and some of the ‘esses’.  That’s really about it. After that it’s just onboard compression and EQ as needed.”  Crane Song Phoenix tape head emulation plug-ins are applied on specific inputs as well as right across the mix bus.  Eventide reverb is a primary player on the drum kit, which also benefits from Waves API 2500 compression.  As further complement, a Brainworx BX Boom plug-in sees use on the drum kit in a fashion similar to a low frequency harmonics box.

Now let’s take a closer look behind the scenes…

Analogous Experience

Monitor engineer Greg Looper (left) and assistant monitor

engineer Mike Bangs at the other D-Show VENUE on the tour.

A pioneering force in the cause of integrating digital into the world of live sound, Scovill offers some pointed comments on the idea of “choice fatigue”- a possible downside to the digital world that’s offering a myriad of sonic options.  “It’s something live sound engineers have never been faced with before,” he says, scratching his head and trying to recall a time in his 30 years of professional life when such a thing could even be considered a problem.

“In the past, what dictated our choices was whatever the sound company had sitting on the shelf. If you went outside of that, then you were confined by space, budget, and rental agreements.  There were a lot of constraining factors. Now our work flow is very analogous to that experienced in the studio. You can say this is what we need and just load it on your system and get to work.”

As for the logic and creativity used to build his mix out front, Scovill relates on a final note that in many respects, all he has to do is get out of the way.

“The sources are just so good,” he says with reverence for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, masters of their craft.  “These guys are so good at voicing their instruments and orchestrating their parts, that you just have to let them do their work. In terms of mixing the show, I like to say I overemphasize the obvious. If there is a solo, I bring it up. If there is a critical rhythm part under that solo, you have to hear that too.  “Tom and the band have taught me over time that there is just as much skill in revealing something as there is in bringing something up. It’s not always about louder, it might be a matter of pulling something back so something else shines through.”

To read the full Article see: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Tour

December 21, 2009

The Thermodynamics of a Rock Show

Optimizing Live Sound

No matter what you test or measure, a considerable part of the sound of the show is controlled by environmental factors that are constantly changing. Knowing what they are is the first step toward being able to deal with them effectively.

Those of us who indulge in live sound spend countless hours paying attention to every detail in the audio signal chain – comparing, pondering opinionating and deciding every issue that crosses our path.  Does this mixing console sound better? Do I need to spend an extra $2,000 on a vocal compressor? Can you please move the guitar mic two millimeters to the left? Does phantom power really ruin ribbon mics?

One question persists, however: to what end is all this toiling done?


Blasting Perfection Into Chaos

Does it seem that a flown PA system sounds better than the exact same system ground stacked? How come it always sounds brighter when you stand on the mix riser?

Have you ever noticed that the same venue sounds different one night to the next, even when you do not change a thing? All of these things can be partially or completely explained by understanding the thermodynamics of a rock show.  Further, armed with this knowledge, you can make setup and mixing decisions that result in improvements that the people attending the show will actually notice – as opposed to things like fiddling with an expensive tube comp that the audience could not care less about.

This is not a scientific article peppered with equations; there are plenty of those out there already. My goal here is to present these complex factors as understandable concepts that will assist you as an engineer/system tech to optimize the sound in a venue.

In my mind, to keep things clear, I divide the relevant venue thermodynamics into three categories:

● Sonic absorption related issues

● Sonic direction related issues

● Sonic velocity related issues

So now let’s take a closer look…

The Bigger Picture

All in all, warmer and neutrally humid environments tend to be the way to go for a memorable adventure. Cold is drafty, sterile and often crisp and edgy sounding.  In my opinion, the hotter liquid atmosphere of a muggy rock show not only speeds up and tames the sound; it also seems to enhance that connection between the performers and those immersed in the performance.

Looking back at the three thermodynamic issues of absorption, direction and velocity, and combining those factors with practical experience, there are several useful concepts that can be distilled:

1) Humidity variations are sonically more tolerable in higher humidity environments.

2) Consistent temperature throughout the venue is sonically beneficial. Since the temperature of humans is fairly warm, and assuming humans will be attending the concert, having a reasonably warm venue temperature will assist in achieving that consistency.

3) A warmer indoor venue will tend raise in humidity levels more drastically than cooler venues due to human factors.

4) Sonic advantages are achieved by flying the loudspeakers.

5) Mixing a show while standing on a mix riser above the thermal/humidity provides the sound engineer an inaccurate representation of the sound the audience is hearing.

6) Venues with drastic variations in temperature and humidity tend to have complex and unpredictable responses.

7) No matter what you test or measure, a considerable part of the sound of the show is controlled by environmental factors that are constantly changing. Knowing what they are is the first step toward being able to deal with them effectively.

8) A thermometer and hygrometer can be useful tools for tracking and understanding more about how thermodynamics are affecting the sound of the show.

One of my favorite moments of mixing a show is the prediction and anticipation of that first note, the tones, the volume and the intensity of the unknown. The moment when the band first walks on stage is one of the biggest challenges any sound engineer faces.

Balancing all that knowledge with the tools at hand and formulating a mix to come up with a clear and accurate result is no easy task.  Each show presents a unique sonic landscape, and it is that uniqueness, that interaction between so many variables that we can and cannot control, that makes every live rock show a one-of-a-kind, potentially magical memorable experience.

To read the full detailed article see:  The Thermodynamics of a Rock Show

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