I was the provider of equipment and sound engineering services to the Drogheda Christmas Festival from the 6th to the 8th of December this year. It was an absolutely crazy weekend for many reasons, but I want to focus on the sound engineering parts mainly. I’ll work from the beginning to the end with a few conclusions to finish up. What I want to describe to you is the potential hurdles of sound engineering when you can’t see. Can you take this up as an occupation? You can make your mind up at the end.
First, let’s go over some of the equipment that I used during the weekend:
- 2 15.5-inch RCF tops
I love these speakers. I have had them for about 6 years now. Other speakers have come and gone but these are powerful, the sound is really clean, and they are built like tanks.
- 2 18-inch bass bins with RCF drivers
The shell of these bass bins are generic but I’ve recently had the drivers replaced. They now sound great. But plastic bins would save me some headaches as the wooden shells have more throwback.
- A 14-inch stage monitor. Again, RCF. I sometimes also used a Bose S1 up beside the keyboard player
I love the Bose S1. It is an incredibly versatile speaker.
- A 22 channel Allen & Heath analogue mixing desk
This desk is great for big gigs. It has so many great options and fantastic versatility, but it can be a little complicated.
- 2 two channel compressor units
I wouldn’t be without these for large gigs. Great for drum kits and for evening out main / solo vocalists.
- One graphic equalizer
I never get enough use out of this. I have an idea to balance out the bass bins and the tops someday, but I need some time to properly figure out the controls so that I can use them in a hurry.
- An effects unit
- Thomann wireless microphones. 4 handheld and 8 headsets
Perfect to throw around the stage. I don’t know why but these things hardly ever give out feedback.
- 4 Audex Condenser microphones
Feedback central but they are great for amplifying the uilleann pipes. I used them this weekend for choirs.
- 12 Dynamic microphones. Mostly OM2 and OM3
I never needed all 12 at the same time but it was handy to never need to look for a microphone when I needed one in a hurry.
- 2 passive DI boxes
Necessary for the keyboard and guitars.
- A keyboard
Rented from the Sound shop in Drogheda for this weekend.
- A 30-metre stage box / snake. This has 32 cores
I wouldn’t be without the stage box. Especially when amplifying a choir. IT’s really important to be able to stand back from the stage and blend the sound properly for the front speakers.
- A rack on wheels
Wheels are the single most important thing. Make sure that if something is heavy that it can be moved by wheels. I know far too many sound engineers with bad backs. Also, racks of equipment are easier to set up and use. I just plug my rack in, and everything is powered from one plug board.
- Sure wireless in ear monitors
Not needed this time but they are in the rack permanently so that if a singer needs them, they are there.
Now: a few accessibility related considerations.
- Know your stage box. Understand / learn exactly what each port is for and know the sequence of the channel numbers.
- Know your mixer. Know what every button and nob does. Make sure you are really gentle. Use your fingertips and try to keep one finger on the board at all times for orientation. You can not ever tip off a fader or mistakenly turn the gain. That would be rather unfortunate.
- Don’t let people move things or do anything without fully describing it to you first. Your equipment is your responsibility. The sound of the group on stage is also your responsibility. They have practised and prepared for a long time before getting up there, so you need to do your very best. You can’t afford to led feedback destroy their performance. But accept that some feedback at the start is inevitable.
- Accept that you will need someone with you that can see. But sound engineers who are managing the stage from a mixer at the front will generally need a stagehand so it’s not like you need additional people compared to anyone else. Make sure your stagehand communicates clearly, promptly and efficiently when something changes on stage. I can’t say this enough. You need to know when people move, when microphones have been changed around or if someone looks like they are about to knock over a microphone stand. Then your reactions on the desk need to be as fast as lightening to make sure your audience don’t hear loud pops or feedback.
- Have an effective and clearly heard communication system. I used cheap two-way radios for this. Your stagehand should be aware that she / he needs to communicate with you using this method when on stage.
- Set up a microphone so that you can talk to the stage through the monitor only. Performers regularly expect sound engineers to give them hand signals or eye contact when they need something. But you won’t be able to do that, so you need a way of getting their attention and effectively explaining what you need them to do. For example, drummer, play your snare. Guitar play for a moment. Okay, main vocalist, let me hear you. You also need to get a good monitor value so accept that the musicians on stage will communicate this to your stagehand and your stagehand needs to relay this to you.
- Use your stage box / snake in combination with cable ramps as a guide between the stage and the mixer. Use cable ramps so that you’re not walking on the snake cable. Cable ramps are a perfect way of orientating yourself. They will bring you in a straight line between the stage and where you have set up your mixer so you can really comfortably make your way to and from the stage when you need. IF you can, use Harris fencing to make a path for yourself as you don’t’ want to need to barge through the crowd every time you need to get to the stage. Please consider this to be my number one tip.
During the weekend I amplified 8 choirs. The smallest was 16 people and the largest was 70. I also amplified quite a few soloists and smaller groups but by far, the choirs were the most difficult. Here’s why:
- They kept moving the microphones
- Some of the less experienced moved around the stage a lot
- It was hard for me to know what soloist in the choir was at what microphone. I needed the stagehand to be really fast when telling me what microphone was active. This was necessary as in the case of the very large choirs, there were way too many microphones floating around. I had over 20 microphones connected. Solo microphones were only live when necessary. A sighted sound engineer would have been able to see when each soloist was stepping forward. Fortunately, I have colour coded each wireless microphone, so my stagehand was able to very definitively tell me what mics to enable.
The setup is always time consuming but it’s important that you do this yourself. You need to know where every extension cable is, where every socket is and where every component of sound equipment is sitting on stage so that you can clearly give instructions to your sound hand. It is very likely you will have much more experience than your stagehand, so you need to be very clear when giving instructions.
Either be prepared for a few bruised shins or get some kind of protection for your knees and shins. That might sound strange but from personal experience of jumping on and off stage, sometimes you’re going to misjudge and your going to slam into the front of the stage. Get used to it and just accept that it’s going to happen. Leave yourself plenty of time for set up and pack down because while you have that time to yourself on stage, you are going to learn every inch of the layout. You’re going to learn exactly where you can step down so that you line yourself up with the cable ramp and you are going to learn where you shouldn’t step down off the stage or you could step on a speaker stand or a bass bin. Trust me, that can be rather uncomfortable. By the time the gig starts, you should be jumping on and off that stage as if you lived there all your life. Because you will have done it about 50 times in the past few hours. Oh, one more thing. Use something on the stage to indicate to you when the stage is about to abruptly end. I prefer to put my cables to the front of the stage, and I use Velcro to gather them together. That way, when I come to the cables, I know that I’m at the right spot. Also, I tend to put a DI or another small box near where I’m going to get on and off so that I can verify really quickly with my foot that I’m in the right spot. But of course, don’t walk around like a bull in a China shop. You need to be careful that you don’t dislodge connections.
Managing the sound for a group that you know well is easy. You know that the guitar might be a bit tiny on the top end and might need a bit of extra low end. You know that you will need to EQ the keyboard and you might give your vocalist some compression and some effects. You know that the condenser microphones are a bit bright especially when used with the pipes, so you get a very clear expectation of what you need to modify. But when you are amplifying groups that you don’t know; all of the unknowns make for a much more challenging job. So, can you do this when you can’t see the group on stage? Here’s what I found.
- So many sound engineers fly by numbers. They know that they will take 3khz out for voice. They might take 4khz out for the keyboard and guitars or they might take a bit of high end out for the backing track. They watch the lights on the mixer to see if anything goes into the read before they even put it through the front of house speakers. This lets them know if anything is giving too much signal and might over drive / cause feedback. When you can’t see, you need to do all of this by listening. You might not know that you’ve taken 3khz out, but you do know that you are happy with the sound. For all you know, you might have taken 5khz out. You also may get a little more feedback at the beginning while you find out what’s giving signal and what’s not. But this is manageable with experience. You start with the main fader down about halfway and the gain down as low as it can go then you nudge everything up slowly. But it’s not as fast as when you can look at the lights on the desk. However, I typically found that my reactions when scanning for feedback were faster than someone who can see. Because I always have one finger minimum on the desk, I always have a point of reference. However, sometimes, it’s possible for the sighted engineer to see the channel that is giving trouble. Not always but sometimes.
- I mentioned earlier about people moving and equipment moving on stage. That’s a huge problem. If someone moves a microphone and you’re not aware of it, it can put your entire mix out of balance. For example, on Saturday night, channel 2 wouldn’t give me any volume. I just couldn’t get it to do anything without feeding back. It was always giving me way too much low end. I asked the stagehand and I was told that the mic was facing the right way. But after the gig, I had found that someone put a really large case over the bottom of the bass bin. When I got closer to the stage and everyone had gone, I realized that that case was causing the bass bin to practically rattle. The change was subtle but because of the position of the microphone on channel 2, it was picking up that extra low end. Because I had configured sound prior to that choir and prior to this case being left on the bass bin, I had given that microphone a really nice mix so that it was balanced with everything else. This unknown element on stage and the fact that the stagehand didn’t realize it was very important put me at a disadvantage. I was able to supplement that mic by telling the stagehand to move other microphones around after the first song to capture that spot, but it bothered me that I had lost some volume.
In conclusion, I’m sorry to say that I won’t ever try this again for a very long time. Sound engineering for someone who can’t see just isn’t practical. There are too many things happening on and off stage. Trying to handle so much equipment while communicating with a stagehand and also dealing with people on stage who may or may not move things around is way too much stress and pressure in my opinion. Perhaps if you built up a really solid communication strategy with your stagehand you could make this work but that would be putting a massive amount of responsibility on your stagehand so I wouldn’t recommend it. But trying this out was a really interesting experience and when the weekend was over, I felt a great sense of achievement at having done it. But as they say, I’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. I have no great desire to do it again.