The following is the third in a five part series from guest contributor Steve Lagudi. Steve has been a touring live sound and studio recording engineer for over 15 years. He has worked with Testament, Exodus, Ill Nino, God Forbid, Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse, Sepultura, Shadows Fall, and many many more.
Welcome back for the third installment. I am mixing Machine Head on the 2013 Rockstar Mayhem Festival tour across the United States and Canada using an Avid Profile Mix Rack system complete with an HDx option card for recording to Pro Tools HD 10 using a Thunderbolt interface with a laptop computer. In this week’s blog I will be discussing one of my favorite topics—recording with Pro Tools.
So far I have explained how I use many of the powerful features of the VENUE series consoles. Now I will discuss how I use the Avid Mix Rack system to simply and easily record straight to Pro Tools. Avid gives you two options to record with. The first, using the FWx Option Card, which is a simple Firewire-400 connection that you can connect right into a computer, providing you with 32 channels of recording capabilities. The second method, which I am using, is using a VENUE HDx Option Card. This single card allows you to record a total of 64 channels. For larger systems, you can add a second HDx card to double the amount of channels.
Using the VENUE HDx option, you will need to have a computer equipped with a Pro Tools HD—either HDX, HD Native (PCI or Thunderbolt), or the older HD Accel cards. I am using HD Native Thunderbolt, which makes it easy for me to simply have a laptop and small interface that I can essentially take anywhere I want, instead of having a big ‘ol computer in a flight case. Along with that, I have an external hard drive, including a backup drive.
Let’s discuss how I have everything connected. The HDx options card is installed into a card slot on the back of the Mix Rack. From there, I have two DigiLink Male to DigiLink Mini Female adapters that are connected to two DigiLink Mini cables that plug into Ports 1 and 2 on the back of the HD Native Thunderbolt interface. This interface connects to my Apple MacBook Pro via a single Thunderbolt cable. My MacBook Pro is a 15 inch Mid 2012 model with a 2.7 GHz Intel Core I7, 16 GB of memory, and a solid state hard drive running Mac OS X 10.8.4. Installed is Pro Tools HD 10.3.5.
Working with the VENUE FWx option card is just as easy. Before the current Machine Head tour, I was on tour with Napalm Death and Cannibal Corpse and recorded a half a dozen shows using the FWx card when I was supplied a Profile or SC48 console. Almost everything I am discussing with the HDx will also apply for the FWx.
Once everything is connected and the console and computer are booted up, it is very easy to get up and running. The first 48 channels are easily assignable to Pro Tools. Just select any channel and select the “Direct Out” button—this automatically assigns the output to the corresponding channel in Pro Tools. For the 16 user assignable channels, I am using 2 channels to record the Left and Right outputs of the console. To do this, go to the Patchbay, then the Outputs tab, select the Pro Tools tab and you will see the 16 assignable channels available. Simply click on the channels you wish to record and you’re done.
All the direct outputs are isolated channels from the stage. I have them all picked off to Pro Tools right at the top of the channel strip. This is post gain but all pre-processing, which is what you want, especially for Virtual Soundcheck. Doing it that way allows you to have the raw, unaffected audio that can be used later in the studio to mix a live album. For the Left and Right tracks, this is a simple and effective method to have a copy of the main mix. I can turn that over to media, press, labels, management, or more importantly, to the band. In a few moments I will explain how this came in handy one night on the tour.
Setting up Pro Tools is also very quick and easy. Create the session as BWF (.WAV), 24-bit and 48 kHz. I suggest saving the session on an external hard drive, as it’s most effective to have your host computer to run the software, and let the external hard drive worry about storing all the data. Once the session is loaded up, under the Pro Tools Setup tab, select Playback Engine and choose HD Native Thunderbolt as the I/O. Pro Tools will need to restart. Once it does, your Pro Tools session will now be connected to the console. Create the number of tracks needed for your session. Then select the Input and Outputs in Pro Tools. I would suggest that you assign both the Inputs and Outputs to correspond to the same channels, making it easier to not only record, but also to playback tracks for Virtual Soundcheck. Just like that, you are all set up and ready to record. Place every track into record and once you’re ready to go, just press record.
Now I will discuss something very, very important—gain structure and setting levels. I would suggest that if you do not have a strong knowledge of decibels (dB), especially dBFS, go read up on it to further understand what I am about to discuss. With Pro Tools and the VENUE being digital, our metering is in dBFS (full scale). However on the console, we are seeing levels in the analog world of dBVU. So when you set your levels on the console, and you look at Pro Tools, you will notice the levels will be different. That is what you want. Do not make the mistake of trying to get super hot levels in Pro Tools. Even in the studio world, I see a lot of people making the mistake of recording very high levels in Pro Tools, eating up all the headroom. As a mix engineer when I get tracks sent to me like that, I have to trim down all those tracks before I can begin treating them. Remember, hotter levels are not better, and digital distortion, unlike analog distortion, does not sound good—at least to me it doesn’t!
Setting your gain on the console is also setting your gain levels for Pro Tools. You want to set them to be around 0 dB on the console. I do have certain channels that hit slightly above 0 dB that help give me a little more mic pre saturation, but for the most part, all my levels are at or below 0dB. By doing this, your levels in Pro Tools on the dBFS side of things will be metering and recording properly.
Once the performance is finished you can choose to stop recording, I would suggest letting the recording go a little bit longer, especially if you are using “audience” mics to capture crowd ambience, it’s nice to have that extra bit of crowd noise in there, so if the tracks get used for a live DVD or CD, a nice fade out can be used. The same also goes for starting the recording. I like to record about 5 minutes prior to the show start for the same reason. After Pro Tools recording is finished, save and close out Pro Tools and you’re done—your show is now recorded. Now go and back up your session on at least one separate drive.
With the show recorded, you can now use that show to do a Virtual Soundcheck for your next show, which will be next week’s topic of discussion.
Now I will discuss the benefits of recording the Left and Right main mix and how it came in handy on the current tour. The main reason I decided to do this was to have a quick accessible rough mix of the show to present to the band. As I mentioned in my first blog, Machine Head took on a new bass player, Jared MacEachern, who is also playing a very key role in doing the harmonies and back up vocals. Having this file I can instantly play back the show with the band for review. Not just to ensure Jared is doing everything correctly, but each each band member’s performance, as well as all the creative elements I add to the mix, including levels, balance, effects, cue’s etc. This main mix could also be handed over to media and radio stations, and that is exactly how it came in handy on this tour.
Sirius/XM radio was on location for one of the shows. They were patched into the console for the opening acts on my stage with a simple 2-track recorder getting a simple matrix feed. When I discussed this with the band, I had suggested that instead of the matrix feed, I could give them a mix of the Left and Right mains fader, but also blend in the audience mics, and treat the mix with EQ, compression as well as master the track for radio broadcast. The guys were stoked that I had the capability to do that, once again, making my stock go up in the eyes of the band.
Within a couple hours of walking off stage, I turned over a copy of the mix. We played it on the stereo inside the tour bus and the band was floored by how awesome it sounded, with so much more detail giving it a real “live feel”. The band was amazed at the sound quality, saying how much “it sounds better than other bands full on live productions”. I told them, that from now on, I will use the set up from the mix and master as a template for when we sit together to review each show.
Not everyone will take advantage of all the amazing benefits of this console, , but it’s a great feeling to know that they’re available if the situation arises. The consoles are such a great and powerful tools to have, and it’s a pleasure to work on them every day.