Holding Out For A Zero: The Incremental Quest Towards A Perfect Zero Scene

Holding Out For A Zero: The Incremental Quest Towards A Perfect Zero Scene

I don’t need to list the benefits afforded by working with a digital mixing console, but I will anyway – flexible parametric EQs, high channel counts in a small footprint, the night-after-night precision of recall and automation features, the convenience of traveling with nothing but a showfile, the list goes on.

However, for me, the selling point that far outshines the others is the flexibility to configure the desk as I personally see fit. This flexibility comes at a price – the more customizable the desk is, the more setup work needs to be done to get it to a show-ready state, and anyone who has tried to configure a modern digital console from its “out of the box” default knows that this can be a bit of a chore. An additional consideration of the digital workflow is that the time-honored practice of labeling the console with good old-fashioned board tape can’t keep up with fader banks, layers, and spill sets.

Like many engineers, I’ve developed customized labeling conventions and default “zero” scene configurations for the consoles I use regularly. These scenes gradually become more evolved and refined over time, and each incremental change shaves a few seconds off a programming session or soundcheck.

In the interests of creating a dialog, what follows is a brief tour of my labeling conventions, configuration habits and custom zero scenes for my Behringer X32/Midas M32 and my Midas Pro1. Because so many aspects are console- and operator-specific, I’ve asked my dear friend Samantha Potter to share her DiGiCo SD9 configuration as well.

Visual Formatting

Let’s face it – digital consoles offer a lot to look at. I use few methods to help me keep my visual signal to noise ratio as high as possible. Foremost is the use of color. Regardless of console platform, I strictly adhere to the same coloring and labeling scheme, leveraging years of mental associations for reflex-paced navigation. Extenuating circumstances aside, my inputs always come in the same order and color groups (Table 1).

Table 1: Input assignments by inputs listed by order and color groups.

Additionally, input channels are labeled in title case with no spaces – technically PascalCase (BobGtr, SnTop, BassDI) – while output buses are labeled in all caps (MTXL, FF, SUB). Every aspect of the labeling – text, case, and color – is giving me information. The color associations started years ago, with yellow for vocals because the brighter color meant better visibility with the console outdoors, and it all evolved from there. Now, they run so deep for me that my VCAs are often only colored, with no need for text labels.

Default Configurations

Regardless of console, I assign pre-fader buses in ascending order starting with bus 1, and post-fader buses descending from the highest available. The last three buses are routed to my three default effects, which are a Vintage Room, a Hall reverb, and a single tap delay.

Each input channel has the high-pass filter (HPF) disabled but preset to 100 Hz, and similarly, the compressor and EQ sections are enabled but zeroed, so everything is one keystroke or knob twist away when needed. Since I prefer to mix aux-fed subs for most events, each input channel is routed to the main mono bus at unity, but with the send disabled, so one button press will bring that input up in the subs. (On desks without a functional mono bus, a post-fader bus is pressganged into service for the subwoofer drive.)

I generally set house music playback channels to recall-safe to prevent awkward moments when jumping between scenes for different artists. Finally, my main system drive (usually L/R/S) is routed through the matrices for an additional layer of flexibility and DSP should the need arise.

Console Specific

Behringer X32/Midas M32 desks are common enough these days that my zero scene has saved me a lot of time. I find the X/M32’s assignable control section effective for controlling effects returns without having to bank away from my input layers. The effects returns are assigned to Set C, with fader level on the encoders and mute switches below, plus a flashing tap tempo for the delay.

The fourth encoder and switch are reserved for riding and muting ambient mics when there are artists on in-ear monitors, and these are labeled with spike tape in addition to the scribble strips (Figure 1). Set B of the assignable controls has shortcuts to start and stop the onboard USB recorder (along with level controls for fading down house music at the start of the show), and Set A has compressor ratio and attack controls.

Figure 1: The fourth encoder and switch, clearly labeled, in the Behringer X32’s assignable control section are reserved for riding and muting ambient mics.

The biggest quirk with my X32 “zero” scene is that it loads up with all 32 of the input scribble strips blacked out. Since it’s so easy to access the scribble strip config (channel select + Utility), a flick of the wrist lets me set the strip to my desired color, so I just bring the backlights on as I go through, adding only a second or two per channel. This keeps the visual focus only on the inputs in use and is part of my approach to maximizing visual SNR.

Moving on to the Midas Pro Series, one thing I really like about the (admittedly unique) workflow is how the console can be set up to quickly display the channels and parameters that are relevant to whatever I’m working on. The VCA and POP group unfolding means that I’m never hunting around the desk for the channel I need, while the touch-sensitive controls display the detail views and numerical values for the parameter being adjusted. Less banking and selecting on my part means more time focused on the artist on stage.

The VCA/POP concept really shines during on-the-fly moments like an acoustic set or a special guest, allowing me to effectively create and deploy a “custom fader layer” in a matter of seconds that lets me focus on only the active inputs. I have one default POP group named UTIL, which brings my 2TR house music channels (inputs 39/40) to the surface, and I’ll add talkbacks, comms, and oscillators to this group as necessary.

I also have VCA 8 (red, FX) configured by default to spill my three FX returns, my usual Vintage Room, Hall, and single tap delay. FX slot 4 is dynamic EQ, configured as 2 bands per channel, with the filters preset to 300 Hz and 1 kHz, close to where they often end up on unruly vocals.

Below that is the Midas spectrum analyzer, because when the FFT engine is running in the rack, the console overlays the FFT in the EQ detail area of the channel strip, which is a nice added convenience. All input channels are switched into the three effects buses and set to -inf so reverb sends can quickly be established.

All the other buses on the desk, however, have all channels switched off to start because of Midas’s “collapsed flip” mode, which greatly simplifies monitor mixing by only showing the assigned channels while in ‘sends on fader’ mode. For me, the convenience of this feature is worth the extra second or two it takes to enable a channel’s send as needed. Most recently, I increased the default width on all the channel inputs’ parametric bands, because I noticed that I was consistently setting the filters wider as I was mixing.

Shifting Gears

Samantha Potter: It’s not often I start a DiGiCo SD scene from zero, but there will come a day when this will give me a huge head start. I work heavily in church sound and do varied events with the SD9, from large services to lecture series and movie nights, so I set the board up to handle bands, discussion panels, and forums. All the events I support fall into one of those categories.

I start with 1:1 patching, beginning with the console’s local I/O and then continuing to the stage racks. Next up are the inputs with EQ placed before dynamics, which I tend to prefer, and a HPF enabled at 100 Hz, since any channels that may go below it will have my attention at the beginning of the mix build.

The Pro1’s dynamic EQ screen.

Moving down the channel strip to dynamics, I default to the standard compressor on all channels, bypassed and set to a 3:1 ratio and a soft knee, with a ducker or multi-band compressor a button push away if I need it.

Continuing to the buses, I keep all my auxes pre-fade because I use them as monitor sends simultaneously with FOH more than anything else, and I don’t want my FOH mix to change the monitor levels. Further down the line, I use matrices to feed the FOH mix to a recording/media unit and a cry room.

My workflow is set up with the inputs on the left side and the outputs on the right. The left fader bay has drums and bass on the top layer, with the rest of the instruments below that. On the right, the four layers are for Control Groups (DiGiCo’s version of a VCA), Aux masters, FX and Matrices. This gives each arm independent control of what I’m trying to adjust. It can be a bit like playing the piano.

For musical events, I prefer to keep the rhythm section on top, with another layer dedicated to the vocal and speech inputs regardless of the type of event. I only use a few user-assignable keys – “Save File” and a tap delay for the FX rack. Finally, I like to keep the console lighting dim. This configuration serves as a solid base, easy to customize for a specific event.

Gradual Process

The important part, for both of us, is that these customizations and workflows are descriptive, not prescriptive. There’s no rule or policy set down someplace that we’re urging people to follow – rather, these are ideas that gradually came into being on their own over the course of hundreds of gigs.

Any time you find yourself repeating the same tasks while working with the console, it’s worth asking whether it’s worth saving the time and addressing those changes in your initial showfile. The variety of workflow preferences in audio mixing is endlessly interesting, and you are encouraged to get in touch if you’d like a copy of my showfile or to share your own customization preferences.

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