Live Music Festivals

Why You Should Use An Analog F.O.H. Desk For All-Day Live Music Festivals

Article by Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

Wilco at the Newport Folk Festival, July 2012

I’m sure most of my readers have been to a music festival of some sort.  But if you haven’t had the pleasure of working a multi-day music festival, you are really missing out on some fun times.  I haven’t worked live shows in years, and every time I attend a big festival, I kinda wish I was on the clock.  The best word to describe working summer festivals is “epic”. It’s not uncommon for sound engineers and technicians to work three or four 20+ hour days in pounding heat and/or rain; wiring up ten or more bands on each stage, each day. Then pack up the trucks and do it again, that’s rock n’ roll, baby.

Back when I worked these larger outdoor live music festivals, I was often the guy who made sure the microphones and DI boxes were placed and wired correctly for each band.  “Check one, two” <- that was me. The festivals often had  “big stages” and “small stages”, each with its own unique stage name coined by some underpaid marketing intern, and I would work all of them. (The stages, not the interns.)  The big stages had bigger PA systems and bands, but the same festival “rules” applied no matter which stage you were working.

If there were more than two or three bands on a given stage, only one band got to do any sort of sound check before performing.  The rest of the acts just had to play their first song, while the Front of House (FOH) engineer scrambled to dial in the mix that the audience is hearing, and the monitor engineer tried to please the musicians on the stage, who often got their own mix.

When I worked these festivals, both the FOH mixing console and the monitor consoles were analog, often matching Yamaha 4K’s, Crests, Soundcrafts, or Midas Heritages, each with the appropriate number of outboard reverbs, compressors, limiters, and gates, often used on drums and vocals, not to mention the racks of third octave equalizers.  You literally had a knob, button or fader for everything, and the only things digital were the loudspeaker crossovers and maybe a new stereo reverb/delay unit.

The lead FOH engineer and local sound crew on the stage would agree in advance to a festival input list that would cover 99% of all the bands microphones and instrument channels.  Snare Top was always Snare Top and Snare Bottom was always Snare Bottom, all day, every band, all weekend.  Spare inputs were always left open on the input list for curve balls thrown by the bands: visiting guest musicians, vocoders, or personal wireless headsets.

The drums would sound great all day, because the same microphones, inputs, compressors, and gates would be used all day.  Even if the bands were not sharing the backline drum kit (which saves a lot of time), the various drum kits would still sound good, with some sound engineers tweeking the settings slightly as the weekend went on.  Each engineer could see the outboard gates and compressors working as the lights blinked on and off, and the previous engineer would tell the next engineer what was patched in where.  Snare Top was Snare Top, and Snare Bottom was Snare Bottom. If you were unfamiliar with a FOH mixing console, or just rusty, it was easy enough to figure it out in a few seconds or a few questions.  It was fun to mix on a different desk, you just had to find the knob, button or fader.  It was all there, no surprises.

Nowadays, with the advent of digital mixing consoles, the learning curve of each desk is a lot longer for an engineer.  There is a much bigger fear factor when mixing on a new digital board, especially in a festival environment.  The outboard pieces of gear have been replaced by digital compressors, limiters, and reverb that are built into the FOH console.  The knobs and faders are shared between channels, which can can be easy rearranged so they show up in whatever order the engineer wants.  The settings for each channel are often hidden behind other layers, so it is not obviously where the compressors, gates, and reverbs are set at.  Some digital consoles offer automatic gain control and preset EQ’s for various instruments.  Where is the fun in that?

Most digital consoles now have the ability to save all the settings of your “mix” onto a USB memory stick (aka thumb drive) or SD card. Its not uncommon for a given band’s FOH engineer to start their day’s mix using a mix from an earlier performance, from the previous night, or a year earlier in the same venue.  How lame!  The biggest problem with this digital attitude is that you really don’t know where exactly you are starting your mix from.  Its like making your own pizza, but starting with a mystery frozen pizza from a previous night, that already has sauce and cheese and toppings on it.

There are basically two ways a digital FOH consoles can completely ruin the sound at an all-day music festival:

1. The FOH engineer for a particular band is familiar with the festival’s digital mixing console, so he or she pulls out a thumb drive with the mix settings from an earlier show, which was from an indoor venue, with a completely different FOH sound system and channel lineup.  The gain and equalizer settings are way off, and oftentimes the inputs don’t match the stage wiring.

2. The band’s FOH engineer has never used the festival’s digital console before, or has very little mixing experience on it or any digital mixing boards.  Working with the local system tech, the FOH engineer finds an old set of presets from a similar band, or just keeps the setting in the console from the last band.  The FOH engineer has no idea where each channel’s limiter, compressor, etc. are set at, because the settings are buried on a different page or layer in the consoles Graphic User Interface (GUI) screen.

The result is Snare Top is no longer Snare Top, and Snare Bottom is not Snare Bottom.  One of them is now Trigger 1 and the other has been inadvertently phase shifted by 180 degrees.  The snare drum sounds like crap for the first song, the second song, the third… In fact, it takes half of a show before the FOH engineer can find the bad setting in the digital console, which could have been located in seconds using an old analog desk and outboard reverbs and compressors.

Am I referring to a particular live music festival?  Yes.  Did the problems continue to happen all weekend on the bigger stage with the fancy new digital console, adversely affecting the sound of each band?  Yes.  Did the smaller stages at that same festival with the analog consoles have these same issues?  No.  Did the smaller stages with the analog desks sound awesome all weekend.  Yes.

What is your experience using digital mixing consoles for all-day live music events?  Please comment below, or email pkav.info@gmail.com.

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