The following is the fourth 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 one and all for week 4. So far I have discussed my initial set up, snapshots, plug-ins and recording with Pro Tools. This week I will cover how I use my recorded files to do Virtual Soundcheck and why it is such a valuable tool to have. If you are reading for the first time, I am using an Avid Mix Rack System complete with an HDx Option Card for recording to Pro Tools HD10 using an HD Native Thunderbolt interface with a laptop computer. This is the system that I am currently using to mix the Oakland, California-based metal band Machine Head, who are performing on this years 2013 Rockstar Mayhem Festival tour across the United States and Canada.
Now that I have our first show recorded, it’s time to put it to good use. The next morning came, and I headed right to front of house, set up Pro Tools, loaded my show file on the console, and with the press of one button, switched the console from stage inputs to the HDx inputs, pressed play in Pro Tools and all the tracks came right back to the console. I then unmuted the mains fader and slowly pushed it to unity, and sure enough, the mix was rocking out of the PA system. Before I could call the tour manager on the radio to have the band come out to front of house, Machine Head drummer Dave McClain came running up saying “who is playing my drums?” Dave then looked up at the stage, which was completely empty, and then looked back at me saying, “Oh awesome, this is us right?” I smiled and said “yep!” The rest of the band quickly followed with nothing but smiles and head nods—an instant sign of approval.
For the next thirty minutes, we kept bouncing around to various areas of the set, muting out elements to just hear the drums, the bass, the guitars, the vocals—every little detail of the mix. Aside from a few small tweaks, the band was beyond satisfied with the mix. Not only was the band impressed that I was able to deliver a great mix, but also that I provided the tools to be able to record everything, and for the first time ever, let the band experience their performance from the audience perspective. They all said how weird it was to be hearing the show while looking at the stage with no one on it.
Several shows later, Virtual Soundcheck came in handy yet again. For the show in Denver, Colorado, there was a dB (decibel) restriction of 100dB A-weighted. Having the ability to play back the performance, I was able to rebalance the mix and get the levels right where they needed to be. All before the “noise police” arrived at front of house. When the band kicked in at show time, my dB level was right where it needed to be, and not once was I told to turn it down—yay! Even for today’s show in Tampa, Florida, there is a restriction of 98dB. Just like the Denver show, I went out and rebalanced my mix to adhere to the restriction. I’m not going to lie, 98dB for a metal show is NOT EASY to do. Although I am not one to mix loud to the point where it is not enjoyable, I still like to have punch in my mix, especially with an aggressive band like Machine Head. But laws are laws and we have to follow the rules. Sighhhhhh.
Ok, now let’s jump into the details a little more to see how Virtual Soundcheck works. To set the console to receive the Pro Tools inputs, the VENUE console (in “Config” mode) needs to be switched over from the “Stage Inputs” to “HDx1”. At this point, the console will reload the show file. I like to save show files with the date, as well as with: SH (for show), SC (for sound check) and VC (virtual check). This just makes it easier for me to switch between the actual stage inputs or the HDx inputs. Once the console loads up, which only takes a few moments, the console is now ready for Pro Tool’s play back.
As I discussed in the recording segment, I suggest setting both your inputs and outputs in Pro Tools to match what is on the console. This way, you can enter Virtual Soundcheck and not need to worry about doing the assignments each and every time. I also suggest bringing the Master fader all the way down before starting play back. Now I press play in Pro Tools and I can instantly see everything coming back on the console. I bring up the Master fader and it sounds exactly the same as it does during the show. Amazing.
From this point, you can go wherever you need to go. First thing I like to do is head to my graphic EQ on the Master fader, where I will make adjustments to the acoustic environment. Since I am outside in weird locations, from blacktop, dirt fields, in between buildings, FOH located down on hills, etc., I really like to focus most of my attention on getting the PA sounding right. Next, I will adjust my Matrix outputs for the subs and front fills. While this is going on, my system tech, Anthoney, walks around the rig to make sure everything is working properly.
Once the system is set how I want it, I go through various songs, making slight adjustments to EQ. Mostly on my guitars, I will make slight corrections of a dB or two here and there. One thing I love having the virtual sound check for on this tour, is that Machine Head makes a setlist change each and every day, so there are a lot of new songs being added. So once I have them recorded, I can now create a snapshot for that song and really tighten the mix up for it.
Along with Machine Head changing the set list each day, these guys love making improvements to their guitar rigs. Having the ability to play the tracks back, we can be sure that all the changes being made are for the better. Per my request, I decided to get our clean tones separate from the main heavy sounds. So now I have even more channels in my input list. I really love being able to process my clean sounds different than my heavy guitar sounds, saving me a step of having to make a separate snapshot for when those changes happen. Now I can just leave my clean sound dedicated. So if the band decides to change the set list during the show, I know that the clean sound will always be on and ready to go.
Once I am happy with everything and want to switch back to actual stage inputs, I simply do the opposite: enter config mode, press “Stage Inputs” (and once again the console reloads), and now the desk is ready for the show. One thing to note here is that if you make any adjustments to the gain on any of the channels during the Virtual Soundcheck, the console will give you a pop up window asking if you wish to save the changes that were made to the gain adjustments. I select “yes”, because everything on my stage is so consistent, and I will want those adjustments to be reflected for the actual show.
You can see how I put Virtual Soundcheck to use, and I will hate having to go back to the old days when I may not have it available. It really gives me peace of mind knowing how the show is going to sound later on. The transition between Virtual Soundcheck and actual show is exactly the same. There is no better feeling than when the band kicks in and everything is sounding right on the money from the first note. Unlike the normal soundcheck when the band is on stage, usually they just woke up, and I have never ever found a band that plays with the same intensity during soundcheck as they do in show mode. Virtual Soundcheck is a no brainer!
This pretty much covers it all. Next week I will be wrapping this tour up and will bring you my final closing tour blog. Until then, happy mixing everyone.