Part 1: Consoles and Connections

Part 1: Consoles and Connections
Part 1: Consoles and Connections
Ladies and gentlemen: By now most of you know Alex Case’s writing very well (for instance,
he wrote that famous ‘The Snare—mastering the art of noise’ article in the January’issue).
What you may not know is that Alex is a busy engineer in the Boston area, that he teaches
music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music, and that he’s just the right
person to be starting our new beginner’s series.
Before turning the mighty pen over to Alex for this extended-mix opening column, let me just
reassure fellow fans of Mike Rivers’ ‘Oops Wrong Button’ that the series will continue in its
more advanced state. It’s simply time to start over from Square 1 so recording novices can
be brought up to speed.
And now without further ado I give you…Alex.—NB
The roads of Boston are famous for their random wandering. Few streets intersect at right angles. Individual
streets change names, become one way, or dead end without warning. The natives, not just the rent-a-car equipped
tourists, admit that it’s easy to get lost. A running joke
says that somewhere in this city you’ll reach an intersection while driving down a one way street and innocently
encounter all three signs of doom at once: no left turn,
no right turn, and do not enter.
Maybe there is a flashing red light to warn you are
approaching this dreaded intersection. And there is probably also a sign admonishing you to yield to pedestrians,
as if your ability to make progress weren’t already limited enough. Naturally there are no signs telling you what
street you are on or what street you have reached.
The cars, most of them taxis, just line up. Your blood
pressure rises. Your appointments expire. You scream to
yourself, “Why am I driving in this town anyway?”
Without some fundamental understanding of how a
studio is connected, you’ll eventually find yourself at the
audio equivalent of this intersection: feedback loops
scream through the monitors, no fader seems capable of
turning down the vocal, drums rattle away in the headphones but aren’t getting to tape... I could go on. Believe
me. I could go on.
At the center of this mess is the mixing console (a.k.a.
mixer, board, or desk). In the hands of a qualified engineer, it manages the flow of all audio signals, getting
them to their appropriate destination safely and smoothly. The untrained user can expect to get lost, encounter
fender benders, and eventually be paralyzed by gridlock.
carefully recorded on a multitrack into two tracks of
music that our friends, the radio stations, and the record
buying public can enjoy. They all have stereos, so we
‘convert’ the multitrack recording into stereo: 24 tracks
in, two tracks out. The mixer is the device that does this.
Naturally, there’s a lot more to mixing than just combining the 24 tracks into a nice sounding 2-track mix. For
example, we might also add reverb. And equalization.
And compression. And a little turbo-auto-panning-flangewah-distortion™ (patent pending. It’s just a little patch
I’m working on in the ol’ digital multi-effects box).
It is the mixing console’s job to provide the signal flow
structure that enables all these devices to be hooked up
correctly. It ensures that all the appropriate signals get
to their destinations without running into anything. A
primary function of the console is revealed: the mixer
must be able to hook up any audio output to any audio
input. See Figure 1 for an example of the many possible
hookups you might expect your mixer to provide.
In connecting any of these outputs to any of these inputs,
the console is asked to make a nearly infinite number of
options possible. We mentioned mixdown as an example
above, but we do more than mix. Our signal routing device
has to be able to configure the gear for recording a bunch
of signals to the multitrack recorder simultaneously, like
when we record a big band. It should also be able to make
the necessary signal flow adjustments required to permit
an overdub on the multitrack.Additionally, we might need
to record or broadcast live in stereo.
Fortunately, all sessions fall into one of the following
categories.
The role of the mixer
The ultimate function of the console is to control,
manipulate, and route all the various audio signals racing in and out of the different pieces of equipment in the
studio or synth rack—it provides the appropriate signal
path for the recording task at hand.
Consider mixdown. The signal flow goal of mixing is to
combine several tracks of music that have been oh-so-
1. Basics
A multitrack recording project begins with the basics
session. When doing the basics session, nothing is on
tape yet, lots of musicians are in the room playing, and
the engineer is charged with the task of getting the first
tracks onto tape.
You know how it goes. The band all plays together, and
you record them onto separate tracks. Of course the
RECORDING JULY 1999
singer will want to redo her part as an overdub later.
Ditto for the guitarist. You still record everything, as
sometimes the keeper take is the one that happens during basics. No pressure, just sing/play along so the band
can keep track of which verse they are on, and we’ll
record a more careful track in a few weeks.
Such freedom often leads to creativity and chance-taking, key components of a great take. So you may one day
be glad you recorded the singer that day. Ditto for the
guitarist.
With the intent to do so many tracks as overdubs later
anyway, the audio mission of the basics session is
reduced to getting the killer drum and bass performance
onto the multitrack. And sometimes even the bass part
gets deferred into an overdub.
So for basics we record the entire band playing all at
once to get the drummer’s part on tape. Check out the
set-up sheet for a very simple basics session. It’s just a
trio—drums, bass, guitar, and vocals—and yet we’ve got
at least 15 microphones going to at least ten tracks.
I say “at least” because it is easy to throw more mics on
these same instruments (e.g. create a more interesting
guitar tone through the combination of several different
kinds of mics in different locations around the guitar
amp). And if you have enough tracks, it is tempting to use
even more tracks (e.g. record the bass DI direct to the
mixer as a separate track from the miked bass cabinet).
The console is in the center of all this, as shown in
Figure 3. It routes all those mic signals to the multitrack
so you can record them. It routes them to the monitors so
you can hear them. It routes those same signals to the
headphones so the band members can hear each other,
the producer, and the engineer. And it sends and receives
audio to and from any number of signal processors (more
is better): compressors, equalizers, reverbs, etc.
2. Overdubbing
For the overdubs there are often fewer musicians playing, fewer microphones in action, and possibly fewer band
members around. It is often a much calmer experience.
During basics there is the unspoken but strongly
implied pressure that no one can mess up or the whole
take will have to be stopped. The crowd in the studio is
overwhelming. The crowd in the control room is watching. The lights, meters, mics and cables all over the place
complete that “in the lab, under a microscope” feeling.
Performance anxiety fills the studio of a basics session.
Overdubs, on the other hand, are as uncomplicated as
a singer, a microphone, a producer, and an engineer. Dim
the lights. Relax. Do a few practice runs. Any musical
mistakes tonight are just between us. No one else will
hear them. We’ll erase them. If you don’t like it, just stop
and we’ll try again.
Meantime, the console routes the mics to the multitrack tape. The console creates the rough mix of the mics
and the tracks already on tape and sends them to the
monitors. Simultaneously, it creates a separate mix for
the headphones. And we never miss an opportunity to
patch in a compressor and some effects. Figure 4 lays out
the console in overdub mode.
3. Mixdown
For mixdown, the engineer and producer use their
musical and technical abilities to the max, coaxing the
most satisfying loudspeaker performance out of everything the band recorded. There is no limit to what might
be attempted. There is no limit to the amount of gear
that might be needed.
In case you’ve never seen what goes on in a big budget
pop mix, let me reveal an important fact: nearly every
track (and there are at least 24, probably many more)
gets equalized and compressed and probably gets a dose
of reverb and/or some additional effects as well. A few
hundred patch cables are used. Perhaps several tens,
probably hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of outboard signal processing is used.
Automation is required. And an enormous console is
desired. During earlier recording and overdubbing sessions you might have thought, “This is sounding like a
hit.” It’s not until mixdown when you’ll really feel it. It’s
not until the gear-intense, track by track assembly of the
tune that you’ll think, “This sounds like a record!”
As Figure 5 illustrates, the signal flow associated with
mixdown is actually quite straightforward. Gone is the
need to handle microphone signals. Gone is the need to
create a headphone mix. Nothing needs to be sent to the
multitrack. The mission is to route multitrack music plus
effects to the monitors. The only addition is the master 2track machine. The point, after all, is to create a DAT,
cassette, or CD master of the mix.
4. Live to 2
For many gigs we bypass the multitrack entirely,
recording a live performance of any number of musicians
straight to the 2-track master machine or sending it live
to a stereo broadcast or the house monitors.
A Live to 2 session is the rather intimidating combination of all elements of a Basics and a Mixdown session.
Performance anxiety fills the performers, the producer,
and the engineer.
RECORDING JULY 1999
inevitable headache because the console is capable of routing so many
different kinds of outputs to so many
different kinds of inputs. 24 tracks is
the norm for multitrack projects.
Most of us exceed this. Number of
microphones and signal processors?
Well, let’s just say that more is better.
The result is consoles that fill the
room—or a pair of 17" computer
monitors—with knobs, faders, and
switches. The control room starts to
look like the cockpit of the space
shuttle, with a mind-numbing collection of controls, lights, and meters.
These two factors, complexity and
quantity, conspire to make the console a confusing and intimidating
device to use. It needn’t be.
But for the console itself, the gig is
actually quite straightforward: microphones in, stereo mix out. Of course
we want to patch in any number of
signal processors. Then the resulting
stereo feed goes to the studio monitors, the house monitors, the headphones, the 2-track master recorder,
and/or the transmitter.
Board of confusion
These four types of sessions define
the full range of signal flow requirements of the most capable mixer. Yet
despite having distilled the possibilities into these key categories, the
console demands to be approached
with some organization. Broadly, we
can expect to be frustrated by two
inherent features of the device: comRECORDING JULY 1999
plexity of flow (where is the signal
supposed to be going?) and quantity
of controls (look at all these pots!).
Complexity is built into the console
because it can provide the signal
flow structure for any kind of recording session one might encounter. The
push of any button on the console
might radically change the signal
flow configuration of the device.
In this studio full of equipment,
that little button changes what’s
hooked up to what. A fader that used
to control the snare microphone
going to track 16 might instantly be
switched into controlling the baritone sax level in the mix. It gets
messy fast.
The sheer quantity of controls on
the work surface of the mixer is an
Flexibility: friend or foe?
In the end, a mixer is not doing
anything especially tricky. The mixer
just creates the signal flow necessary
to get the outputs associated with
today’s session to the appropriate
inputs.
The console becomes confusing
and intimidating when the signal
routing flexibility of the console
takes over and the engineer loses
control over what the console is
doing. It’s frustrating to do an overdub when the console is in a Live to
2 configuration. The thing won’t permit you to monitor what’s on the
multitrack tape.
Or if the console is expecting a
mixdown, but the session wants to
record basic tracks, you experience
that helpless feeling of not being
able to hear a single microphone
that’s been set up. The band keeps
playing, but the control room
remains silent.
It doesn’t take too many of these
experiences before console-phobia
sets in. A loss of confidence maturing into an outright fear of using certain consoles is a natural reaction.
Through total knowledge of signal
flow, this can be overcome.
The key to understanding the signal flow of all consoles is to break
the multitrack recording process—
whether mixing, overdubbing, or anything else—into two distinct signal
flow stages.
First is the Channel path. Also
called the Record path, it is the
part of the console used to get a
microphone signal (or synth output)
to the multitrack tape machine and,
you know, record it.It usually has a
microphone preamp at its input,
and some numbered tape busses at
its output. In between you find a
fader and maybe some equalization,
compression, effects sends, cue
sends, and other handy features
associated with getting a great
sound to tape.
The second distinct audio path is
the Monitor path. It is the part of the
console you use to actually hear the
sounds you are recording. It typically
begins with the multitrack tape
returns and ends at the mix bus.
Along the way, the Monitor Path has
a fader and possibly another collection of signal processing circuitry like
equalization, compression, and more.
Keeping these two signal flow
paths separate in your mind will
enable you to make sense of the
plethora of controls sitting in front
of you on the console. Try to hang on
to these two distinct signal paths
conceptually, as this will help you
understand how the signal flow
structure changes when going from
basics to mixdown. Try to break up
the console real estate into channel
sections and monitor sections so that
you know which fader is a channel
fader and which is a monitor fader.
Split consoles
Console manufacturers offer us
two channel/monitor layouts. One
way to arrange the Channel paths
and Monitor paths is to separate
them physically from each other. Put
all the Channel paths on, say, the left
side of the mixer and the Monitor
paths on the right as in Figure 8A.
This is a split configuration.
Working on this type of console is
fairly straightforward. See the snare
overload on the multitrack? This is a
recording problem. Head to the left
side of the board and grab the
Channel fader governing the snare
mic. Levels to tape look good, but
the guitar is drowning out the vocal?
This is a monitoring problem. Reach
over to the right side of the console
and fix it with the Monitor faders.
Sitting in front of 48 faders is less
confusing if you know the 24 on the
left are controlling microphone levels to tape (channel faders) and the
24 on the right are controlling mix
levels to the loudspeakers (monitor
faders). So it’s not too confusing that
there are two faders labeled,“Lead
vocal.” The one on the left is the mic
you’re recording; the one on the
right is the track you’re listening to.
In-line consoles
A clever but often confusing
enhancement to the console is the
in-line configuration. Here the channel and monitor paths are no longer
separated into separate modules on
separate sides of the mixer. In fact,
they are combinedinto a single module set; see Figure 8B.
Experience tells us that our focus,
and therefore our signal processing,
tends to be oriented toward either
the channel path or the monitor
path, but not both. During tracking
the engineer is dedicating ears,
brains, heart, and equipment to the
record path, trying to get the best
sounds on tape as possible.
Sure the monitoring part of the
console is being used. The music
being recorded couldn’t be heard
otherwise. But the monitor section is
just creating a ‘rough mix,’ giving the
engineer, producer and musicians an
honest aural image of what is being
recorded.
The real work is happening on the
channel side of things, and the monitor path should only report the
results of that work accurately.
Adding elaborate signal processing
on the monitor path only adds confusion at best, and misleading lies at
worst. For example adding a “smiley
face” equalization curve—boosting
the lows and the highs so that a
graphic eq would seem to smile—on
the monitor path of the vocal could
RECORDING JULY 1999
hide the fact that a boxy, t h i n ,a n d
muffled signal is what’s actually
being recorded onto the multitrack.
It turns out that for tracking, overdubbing, mixing, and live to 2 sessions, we only really need signal processing once, in the channel or the
monitor path. We’ve just seen the
channel path focus of tracking.
Mixing and Live to 2 sessions are
almost entirely focused on the final
stereo mix that we hear, so the engi-
neer and the equipment become
more monitor path oriented.
Herein lies an opportunity to
improve the console. If the normal
course of a session rarely requires
signal processing on both the monitor path and the channel path, then
why not cut out half the signal
processors? If half the equalizers,
filters, compressors, aux sends, etc.
are removed, the manufacturer can
offer the console at a lower price,
or spend the freed resources on a
higher quality version of the signal
processors that remain, or little bit
of both.
And as an added bonus the console
gets a little smaller and a lot of
those knobs and switches disappear,
reducing costs and confusion further
still. This motivates the creation of
the in-line console.
On an in-line console, the channel
path and the monitor path are combined into a single module so they
can share some equipment. Switches
lie next to most pieces of the console, letting the engineer decide,
piece by piece, whether a
given feature is needed in the
channel path or the monitor
path. The equalizer, for example, can be switched into the
record path during an overdub
and then into the monitor
path during mixdown. Ditto
for any other signal processing.
Of course, some equipment
is required for both the channel path and the monitor
path—like faders. So there is
always a channel fader and a
separate monitor fader (less
expensive mixers often use
monitor pots). The in-line
console is a clever collection
of only the equipment needed, when it’s needed, where
it’s needed.
RECORDING JULY 1999
Channel surfing
An unavoidable result of streamlining the console into an in-line configuration is the following kind of
confusion. A single module, which
now consists of two distinct signal
paths, might have two very different
audio sounds within it.
Consider a simple vocal overdub. A
given module might easily have a
vocal microphone on its channel
fader but some other signal, like a
previously recorded guitar track, on
its monitor fader. The live vocal track
is actually being monitored on some
other module and there is no chan-
nel for the guitar, as it was
overdubbed yesterday.
Levels to tape look good,
but the guitar is drowning out
the vocal? This is a monitoring
problem. The solution is to
turn down the monitor fader
for the guitar. But where is it?
Unlike the split design, an
in-line console presents us
with the ability to both record
and monitor signals on every
module across the entire console. Each module has a monitor path. Therefore each module might have a previously
recorded track under the control of one of its faders. Each
module also has a channel
path. Therefore, each module
might have a live microphone
signal running through it.
To use an in-line console,
you must be able to answer
the following question in a split second: “Which of the perhaps 100
faders in front of me controls the
guitar track?” Know where the guitar’s monitor path is at all times, and
don’t be bothered if the channel
fader sharing that module has nothing to do with the guitar track. The
monitor strip may say, “Guitar.”
But you know that the channel
contains the vocal being recorded. It
is essential to know how to turn
down the guitar’s monitor fader without fear of accidentally pulling down
the level of the vocal going to the
multitrack tape.
One must maintain track sheets,
set-up sheets, and other session documentation. These pieces of paper
can be as important as the tape/hard
disk that stores the music. However,
rather than just relying on these
notes, it helps to maintain a mental
inventory of where every microphone, track, and effects unit is
patched into the mixer.
Much to the frustration of the
assistant engineer who needs to
watch and document what’s going
on and the producer who would like
to figure out what’s going on, many
engineers don’t even bother labeling the strip or any equipment for
an overdub session or even a mix
session. The entire session set-up
and track sheet is in their
heads.
If you have enough mental RAM for this, try to do
it. It helps you get into the
project. You are forced to
be as focused on the song
as the musicians are.
They’ve got lines and
changes and solos and
lyrics to keep track of.
The engineer can be
expected to keep up with
the microphones and
reverbs and tracks on tape.
This comes with practice.
And when you know the
layout of the console this
intimately, the overlapping
of microphones and tracks
that appears on an in-line
console is not so confusing.
RECORDING JULY 1999
Sure the split console offers some
geographic separation of mic signals from tape signals, which makes
it a little easier to remember what’s
where. But through practice you are
going to keep up with all the
details in a session anyway. The inline console becomes a perfectly
comfortable place to work.
Getting your ducks in a row
If you’ve dialed in the perfect
equalization and compression for the
snare drum during a basics session,
but fail to notice that you are processing its monitor path instead of
its channel path, you are in for a surprise. When you play back the track
next week for overdubs, you’ll find
that that powerful snare
was a monitoring creation
only and didn’t go to tape.
It evaporated on the last
playback last week.
Hopefully you remember
and/or document the settings of all signal processing equipment anyway, but
more helpful would be to
have had the signal processing chain in front of
the multitrack tape
machine, not after. No worries.
Through experience,
you’ll learn the best place
for signal processing for
any given session.
Equalization, compression,
reverb, the headphones—
each has a logical choice for its
source: the channel path or monitor
path. And it varies by type of session. Once you’ve lived through a
variety of sessions it becomes
instinctive.
Your mission is to know how to
piece together channel paths, monitor paths, and any desired signal processing for any type of session. Then
the signal flow flexibility of any
mixer, split or in-line, is no longer
intimidating.
By staying oriented to the channel
portion of the signal and the monitor
portion of the signal, you can use
either console to accomplish the
work of any session. You can focus
instead on music making.
What’s that switch do?
I will admit that there is such a
thing as too much. You may be an
excellent engineer capable of recording sweet tracks, but when Peter
Gabriel invites you to his studio and
you sit in front of his 72 channel GSeries SSL, you will have trouble
doing what you know how to do
(recording the sweet tracks) while
dealing with what you don’t know
how to do (use this enormous mixer
with, gulp, more than 8,000 knobs
and switches).
Good news: that vast control surface is primarily just one smaller
control group (the module) repeated
over, and over, and over again. Know
how to use a single module and you
know how to use the whole collection
of 72 modules.
Impress your clients. Impress your
friends. Heck, impress yourself.
Master the many subtle aspects of
juggling monitor and channel paths
through different types of sessions,
and learn to sit calmly in front of
consoles that have grown well
beyond 100 modules, and you’ll have
developed 90% of the ability to use
any console anywhere.
Glossary
We’ll include a list of terms introduced
in each installment of the column, and
collect them on our Web site as an
ongoing reference. Here’s a starting
list of terms mentioned in this article.
basics (or tracking): The early
stages of a recording project—
recording the individual tracks on
the multitrack recorder. This is done
before adding overdubs, mixing to
stereo, or mastering for final duplication/distribution.
bus (sometimes spelled buss): A
signal path that can accept and mix
signals from various sources.
channel, channel path (or input
path or record path): The signal
coming from your source (mic,
instrument, or returning from an
already-recorded track on your multitracker) into one of the mixer’s
channels, passing through that channel’s electronics, then usually getting split to go to several destinaAlex Case always has a con
vincingly
tions (monitor section for listening,
innocent look on his face when he sees multitracker to be recorded, effect
a traffic cop or a console. You can write sends for delay/reverb etc, master
to Alex with questions or suggestions section for stereo mix).
on what you’d like to see in ‘Nuts &
compression: Dynamic treatment
Bolts’ at [email protected]
of a signal so that the difference
RECORDING JULY 1999
between the loudest and softest
moments is reduced.
Delay: Electronically created repetitions of a sound (echoes). Shorter
delays are perceived as flanging, chorusing or doubling.We’ll study these
effects another time.
DI: Direct Inject or Direct Input—
bypassing an instrument amp by taking the signal (usually from guitars
and bass guitars) straight to a channel input of the board. Usually this is
done via a small device called a
direct box, which matches levels so
the instrument’s weak signal is
matched to the board’s input.
equalization or eq: Tonal treatment of a signal by attenuating
(reducing) or boosting selected
ranges of the total spectrum (bass
and treble controls are the simplest
examples). There are many types of
eq, which we’ll learn about later.
filter: An electronic device that
reduces certain ranges of the total
spectrum. For example, a low-pass
filter attenuates (reduces) high frequencies, passes (leaves alone) low
frequencies. Equalization is generally done with arrays of filters.
live to 2: Bypassing a multitrack
recorder, mixing any number of
input sources all at once into stereo.
microphone preamp: An electronic
device that increases the typically
very weak signals produced by
microphones so that these signals
can join others at “line” level in a
mixer.
mix bus: See bus.
mixdown: Usually stage three in a
recording project after basics and
overdubs, this is when all previously
recorded tracks on the multitracker
are routed through (returned to) the
board, their levels and panning and
effects adjusted, resulting in a final
stereo mix.
mixer (or console, board, desk):
An apparatus with many electronic
circuits, all designed to accept
audio signals, split (duplicate)
them, re-route them, combine them,
adjust their levels, tonal characteristics, and placement in the final
stereo mix.
module: A group of electronic circuits that combine to achieve a specific task, as in a mixer’s channel
module
monitor path: A mixer signal path
that accepts and mixes signals to be
monitored (listened to).
outboard signal processing:
Treatment (reverb, delays, others) of
signals outside of the board (reached
via effects or auxiliary send busses
and send outputs, returned to the
board via return inputs and return
busses)
overdub: Adding one track or several tracks to previously recorded
tracks (e.g. a singer adds vocals after
the instrumental tracks have been
recorded).
patch cable: A cord connecting two
points to carry a signal from A to B.
pot: Short for potentiomente,ra
device that increases or decreases
the signal strength (a kind of volume
control) or tweaks eq settings, etc.
Basically a techie term for a knob.
return (tape or aux or effects): A
type of input into the board bringing
back signals other than the original
sources (mics or instruments), either
previously recorded multitracks, or
signals returning from outboard
processors. See send.
reverb: An electronically created
illusion of room acoustics.
send (aux or cue): Circuits (busses)
that lead to an output connector
from where signals can be sent to
outboard processors or to monitoring
(listening) setups. See return.
stereo bus: The final two circuits
in a board that accept and mix signals to become the Left and Right
channels of a stereo mix.
tape bus: A circuit that accepts
and mixes signals to or from tape
recorders.
two mix: See stereo bus.
Excerpted from the July edition of RECORDING magazine.
©1999 Music Maker Publications, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
5412 Idylwild Trail, Suite 100, Boulder, CO 80301
Tel: (303) 516-9118 Fax: (303) 516-9119
For Subsciption Information, call: 1-800-582-8326
RECORDING JULY 1999
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