Too Many Plugins

How many plugins do I own?

Too many.

How many plugins do I use?

Just a few.

But lately it has gone way out of control. Like a guitar player buying yet another overdrive pedal, I have fallen into the shiney new toy syndrome. SSL had been running an essentials bundle sale: a channel strip and a bus compressor. Only $49! Sold.

So I went to find the channel strip plugin to give it a spin.

What? How many EQ plugins do I own? Too many to list. I eventually did find it of course. But then I went looking for the bus compressor.

My, my. This has gone way out of control. When I need an EQ, most of the time I reach for my FabFilter Pro Q3. This one:

It has everything I need. And yet, every once in a while, I reach for a different plugin. Why? I don’t really know. Maybe it is a plugin that adds some colour, or is voiced a certain way. Whatever. Too many choices means I go for the tried and true.

Compression? Well, that is a bit of a different story. There I could justify having a few different types of compressors: VCA, FET, optical, tube and pulse width modulation. Or maybe just use this one:

At this point in my life it is not worth the effort to comb through all of the plugins and toss the ones I never use. Avid does not make plugin management easy. Aside from some basic classification settings (flat, category, manufacturer) it takes work to dive into some arcane folders hidden deep within the machine and to pull out the plugins you don’t want and throw them into an unused folder just in case.

A bit like the 30 plus terabytes of data I have stored on my NAS. Easier to leave it there than to go and organize it.

Now, where was that SSL bus compressor?

Blame the Sound Person

Pity the poor sound volunteer. Often pressed into service to do the seemingly impossible: make everything sound good.

If it sounds bad? It’s their fault.

If it sounds too loud? It’s their fault.

If it sounds too soft? It’s their fault.

The switch to livestream made an already challenging role even more challenging. Many churches do not have the resources to hire experienced audio people. And fewer still can run two mixes, one for in-person and one for the livestream.

Even if they do, the basics around acoustic treatments and proper monitoring systems for the livestream mix can be left out due to cost or space constraints.

And when it is apparent that the livestream doesn’t sound very good, who gets the blame?

You guessed it.

The poor sound volunteer.

I’ve done numerous seminars over the years. And I’ve trained hundreds of sound volunteers. For the most part, they are all good servants wanting to do nothing more than to help. The same basic elements that can help improve sound still apply: decent equipment, workable listening environment, appropriate skills and training.

Larger churches will usually invest in good equipment. And many of them will treat the listening space — whether in-person or the mix room for the livestream. Those churches that can will have a staff role for audio production and that person will develop the volunteers.

For small to mid-size churches it can be hit and miss. Budgets for audio systems may be limited. Listening spaces may be less than optimal. And the lead audio person might be the individual who raised their hand to help without the benefit of a lot of audio experience or training.

Is it worth the effort to improve the quality of sound for a livestream? Does it really matter?

In our technological age, production has become a thing for churches. This is a relatively new development and it is unclear to me whether worship is more or less geniune because of the level of production. My take is that we should always do our best whenever we gather — in-person or online.

One thing is very clear though. Bad sound gets noticed. As does good sound. Just not in the same way. Bad sound is distracting.

Here are some examples from a training seminar I did a few years back. It takes you from highly polished livestreams to, well, let’s just say, less polished livestreams.

These examples attempt to show the variance in audio quality in church livestreams. My voiceover shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Each clip shows people expressing their worship. Regardless of the quality, ultimately it is the heart that matters most.

Why Is Church Sound So Bad?

It was the worst mix that I have heard in a church in a long time. And I have heard some bad mixes. But this one was loud and not in a good way. The harsh, distorted mid-range penetrated the ear drums like a sharp knife. So, so unpleasant.

I’m on a bit of a hiatus from church production and worship. The pace of the past two years took a toll and with no shortage of other audio work coming up in the next few months, I needed to take my foot off the gas and take a break.

Quality of sound has always been a thing for me. What I have noticed in those churches that are following the current trend of full bands on stage — drums, bass, electric guitars, keys — is that they seem to place more emphasis on the visuals and lighting and not always on the quality of the sound.

Livestreams have made it pretty easy to hear whether there is an emphasis on good quality audio. In the city where I live, most of the large churches provide very poor audio quality. In-person venues are often hit and miss.

Yesterday we were at a church where the house level was very much on the high side for a church. Peaks approached rock concert levels. Except that the mix was all over the place in terms of balance. It was harsh. Very harsh.

The human ear is particularly sensitive to audio in the 2 – 5 kHz region. Strident levels in that range hurt. When a mix is not balanced properly, loud sound is not a proxy for good sound.

This was a church that had clearly invested in its audio, lighting and visual system. The room was well treated and acoustically tight. More like a movie theatre than the all too typical highly reverberant church auditorium.

Why did it sound so bad?

There are three core elements to getting good sound in a live situation: the equipment, the room, the sound person. For most churches it can be a combination of the three that causes the sound to be off.

Often it is in the hands of an inexperienced volunteer to do the best they can under very challenging circumstances. At that point, even good equipment and a treated space may not help produce a good sound.

Side Effects

Took the COVID shot on Thursday and definitely feeling the side effects from the injection. Headaches, fatigue, lightheaded. Should pass in a day or two.

On my job jar is to integrate my new monitoring system into my production workflow but I’m not feeling well enough to go at it full throttle.

The Audeze LCD-X phones arrived on Thursday.

I use Canopener and SoundID and I was able to get SoundID calibrated for the new phones — very quick and easy. Although the LCD-X phones seem very flat and revealing out of the box, SoundID pushed them just a bit further along.

Canopener is a crossfeed plugin which I have used before when mixing through headphones. It is a neutral plugin and the combination of the two plugins seems to be the way to go. I haven’t had a chance to work up some sessions yet using that combination.

Once I get back to feeling normal I will give it a try.

New Monitors

How to mix loud and proud in a condo suite? That is a bit of an issue.

I sold off most of my studio gear when I retired a few years back. We now live in a condo. It is a very nice space but certainly not the ideal location for building out a critical listening room.

I have a 10×14 room with some panels on the wall and a pair of Focal Solo6 Be monitors.

The rig looks like this:

I have zero issues with most of the usual mix activities: prepping and organizing session files, editing tracks and cutting rough mixes. I make pretty heavy use of reference tracks for testing portability and for that I have to jump into headphones for balance especially in the low end. The Focals claim to get down as far as 40Hz but in the listening space I don’t get much below 70Hz. And when I say I don’t get much, I am down somewhere around 10-15 dB by the time 60Hz rolls around.

Likely the room. I’m probably in some kind of null. It’s like someone turned off the bass.

Headphones are the only way for me to check the low end.

But now I am getting asked to deliver Atmos mixes.

What to do?

I can’t readily fit a 7.1.4 system in this space and I certainly don’t want to invest the capital needed to treat the room to an acceptable level. I’m not even sure that I could.

More and more mixers are using headphones not only for the Quality Control but to do most of their mix activities particularly for Atmos.

I have been using a pair of AKG K702 Reference Headphones and they have been okay. With new projects on the go I decided not to spend the money to update the room and add a bunch of speakers.

Rather I will update the headphone monitoring system.

After a lot of research I decided to go with the Audeze LCD-X phones along with the software to provide cross feed for the stereo mixes. For Atmos I am using the Dolby Renderer which doesn’t require the cross feed processing.

I’ll still be checking the mixes on a variety of playback devices but looking forward to mixing with the Audeze phones.

Allen and Heath GLD-80

Haven’t ever used one. I’ve worked on all sorts of consoles over the years, from the big SSL and Neve desks all the way down to the small Soundcraft and Mackie mixers.

On the digital side, many churches install the Behringer X32 console. Decent board, easy to navigate.

I have only just started seeing the GLD-80 in churches. It is being used in the church I attend down in Florida and at the church I attend in Canada. I don’t have any data points to determine the relative popularity of the GLD over the X32 consoles in churches so it could well be that I haven’t been attending the right churches!

I’ll get to work with it in early July for a week.

To get familiar with the console, I downloaded the GLD editor, a software app that mimics the functionality of the board very closely.

Aside from the routing, which would vary considerably from site to site, the basics are conceptually similar to most any digital console. The workflow looks pretty straightforward as well. The installation uses an L-C-R system design, not all that common in live sound, and that will be a fun environment in which to mix.

Mixing the Low End

Getting the low end right in a mix is challenging especially if you are listening in a compromised sound field. There are tactics that you can use to get the low end of a mix to fit well into the bigger picture. iZotope posted seven tips for the mixing the low end.

At some point, every engineer has had difficulty taming the beast that is low end. Why? Multiple factors are involved. For one, imperfect rooms treat low-end information imperfectly””and many rooms are imperfect. Another factor compounding the issue is monitoring, especially in project studios; nearfield monitors, often utilized in home-based mixing rooms, tend to taper off below a bass-hound”™s favorite frequencies; subwoofers are untenable in certain situations (ones involving neighbors, often); and cans tend to over-exaggerate the lows, leading to a cure that might be worse than the disease.

The third factor is experience, or a lack thereof. Yes, it takes time to learn how to identify low-end issues, to tell them apart from your room and monitoring issues, and to find practical, actionable solutions.

If you are running into some issues with the low end, give these tips a try especially tips 1, 5 and 7. I use those all the time.

iZotope makes the following observation in their post:

Stephen King once gave some particularly apt advice on receiving writerly feedback. To summarize, he said that if you hand out a story to a bunch of readers, and they all give back different, conflicting critiques, discard it all. However, if they all gave back the same critique, you need to address that one issue.

The post goes on to suggest that you listen back to your mixes on a variety of monitors. Good advice but they did not emphasize the importance of getting others to listen to your mixes. I always get the artist and a few trusted ears to give me feedback on mixes. If there are problems with the low end, they will no doubt come up in their review.

From Demo to Master

I know, I know. The folks at Waves provide these courses as a way to sell you their plugins. And that is fine with me. I’ve found that even if I don’t buy the plugins, and right now I have way too many of them on my Pro Tools rig, there are always some good ideas to be found in most of their courses.

I particularly enjoyed Dave’s course From Demo To Master. He is a very practical and down-to-earth teacher. His mix template is very straightforward and, if you are just getting into mixing, an excellent template to use.

The course is lengthy. Eight sessions weighing in at over eight hours in total so you will want to break the course down over a few weeks.

I found the course to be very interesting and I learned some new techniques from a proven master in the field.

You can find the course on the Waves site right here.