Beware Autopilot and Flying Wrenches: Why I Am Uncomfortable with Getting Too Comfortable

Beware Autopilot and Flying Wrenches: Why I Am Uncomfortable with Getting Too Comfortable

“It’s an easy gig. Just three microphones.”

Sounds good, right? But as the day went on, things began to change. The event was a “roundtable” discussion between a moderator and two CEOs who each had a net worth in excess of a billion dollars. They have “people.” There was a fair amount of “hovering” going on, and I felt like I was under a microscope all day. Apparently, this was an annual event and last year’s audio engineer had done a “disastrously” poor job. Of course, it’s nice to have a reputation for being able to handle tough gigs, but I felt like I was reaping the skepticism earned by someone else, which is never fun.

 Three omnidirectional wireless lapel mics in close proximity create a minor nightmare in a room with an RT60 approaching 3 seconds. Due to last year’s mishap, the TD requested backup handhelds as well as a backup lav pack. Add the two RF handhelds for audience questions, and we’re up to 8 channels of RF. The additional RF from the venue’s comms and nearby DTV meant coordination was in order. 

I was initially told I’d have to mix from the lighting booth, but I requested approval to mix from a small recessed cutout in the back of the house. I never bought into the “we don’t want you to be noticed so we’ll hide you in a closet” logic. The audio engineer is far more likely to be noticed if the event sounds terrible or is plagued by feedback – two things that are far more likely to happen when being forced to mix from a booth. I got word that I was allowed a 32″ x 61″ space in the back to run audio.

But wait, there’s more: the event would be a featured livestreamed on a web platform that is within the top ten most trafficked websites in the world. And of course we needed front fills and a foldback onstage for the question and answer session. Oh, and the president of the host organization would be speaking as well, so we set up the podium with a mic (and a backup).

I mixed to L/R, and routed that to Matrix 1/2 for the PA, Mtx3 for the front fills, and Mtx4 for the stream feed. The two “wild” handhelds for the Q&A I routed to Mix 1 and then to Mtx5. 

I always start with outputs first: after verifying the mains, I set up front fills. Since the venue has no permanent fills, I had to set EQ, level and delay via the console’s matrix DSP, consisting of an HF rolloff at 12 dB / oct to match the mains and a few filters above 1k. I use a gentle HPF around 150 and am not really concerned about low mids because it’s a front fill and will be steamrolled by the energy from the mains in that frequency range anyway.

 

Since the onstage foldback loudspeaker was the same model, I copied the EQ and then set the level with the help of the TD. 

Three crew members sitting in allowed me to ring out the lavs and backup RF, then new batteries and power locks for all.

Oh, by the way, the president of the host organization wants to speak. Let’s set up the podium with a mic (and a backup). 

Since I knew the organizers would be particularly sensitive to ringing mics, I ran a direct out from the console’s solo bus into Smaart’s spectrum analyzer and spectrograph, along with a room mic. This was a helpful confirmation of what I was trying to hear from my less-than-optimal mix position, in a professional environment where if ringing is audible, it’s already too late.

The event went about as well as could be expected – not as much GBF as I’d like, but no feedback or ringing problems, and when I got home and checked the livestream recording, it sounded better than I had expected. Don’t get me wrong – day-of-show changes are part of life in production, especially for corporate-type events. I’m not whining about that, and if last-minute changes bothered me, I’d work in a different field.

My point is that if I had let my guard down, or told myself “Eh, it’s just three inputs, I’ll be fine. I don’t need to label the cables. I don’t need to ring them out. I don’t need to coordinate the RF,” I would have had a nightmare of a show, and likely burned a few bridges. Never let your guard down, never get too comfortable, never go on autopilot. Complexities have a way of creeping in one at a time until you look down and realize you’ve quadrupled your input count. 

So I check the entire installed PA, even though I mix on it every week.

I know left and right match, because I checked.

I know the front fills match the mains in level and tone, because I checked.

I know the RF frequencies are clean, because I checked.

I know the batteries are good, because I checked.

Get that all out of the way early, and you have time to focus on the inevitable wrenches that will be thrown at you. We can never guarantee success, but we can increase our chances by taking variables off the table. You go on autopilot just one time, and don’t check something, that’s the night the wrench is going to hit you right in the forehead.

 

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