Maximize Your Audio Quality Part 2: Journey to the Board


Audio Mixer

Last post we talked about getting your set together and patches balanced so they are ready to go out to FOH (front of house – where the mixer is). This post will go over the right equipment and wiring to get your signal to the mixer in good shape.

Don’t Do More Than You Have To

Our guiding principle will be KISS – Keep It Simple Saint (see what I did there!). Why is that important? Well, the more equipment we add to the chain the more chances there are for things to go wrong. When considering a new piece of equipment the first question should be “Do I really need this?” and “What problem does this fix?”

I could write novels about gear malfunctions that hinged on that last new cool bit of kit that was added or the converter-box thingy that was somewhere in the middle of a chain of stuff that failed. Please, think twice before adding something because it’s cool or because Jimbo has one.

Outputs for Hardware Players

TS or Tip-Sleeve 1/4 inch connector. A Balanced connector has an additional ring in the middle of the connector.

TS or Tip-Sleeve 1/4 inch connector. A Balanced connector has an additional ring in the middle of the connector.

If you are using a hardware synth the big question is whether or not you have balanced outputs. You’re going to have to check the manual on that one. Why do we care? Balancing is a technique that gives powerful noise rejection to the signal as it travels a ways along the cable.. If your cable run is short (less than 20 feet) and your environment is not electrically noisy you may get away with unbalanced outputs. You will find unbalanced outputs on all consumer and most low to mid-level pro synths (lets say less than $1500 US).

Balanced outputs require a three conductor cable (in phase signal, out of phase signal, and ground). If you use a 2 conductor cable you will have the output but lose the advantages of a balanced signal. The common interface on synths are 1/4 inch outputs that accept the large headphone-type plug. If your plug has a tip and then sleeve your cable is two conductor. If your plug has a tip, another ring of metal, and then the sleeve you have a three conductor cable. Cables that go from tip-ring-sleeve (TRS) to XLR (normal mic cable connector – three pins on a round connector) can be used to connect your balanced output to the board.

XLR Connector

XLR Connector

If you lack balanced outputs a DI (direct inject) box can convert your unbalanced signal to balanced. You will need one for each output you would like to balance (for a stereo signal you will need two or a box that is designed for stereo).

Software Players – Love Your Headphone Out

Remember our rule – KISS. Many times your headphone output will serve you very well. What are the big drawbacks? Well, the headphone output is unbalanced for one, it sticks off the side of your laptop on a fragile 1/8 inch connection that is begging to be broken, and it will require some cable gymnastics to connect to FOH. That said, I use my headphone out on a regular basis and I recommend everyone running a laptop rig have the equipment and know how to set it up on their system – it just might get you out of a jam.

What do you need to connect your headphone out to the system? The easiest thing is a stereo DI box and a 1/8 inch stereo cable to dual 1/4 inch plugs. There are stereo DI boxes now that also have RCA or 1/8″ inputs to make things even easier (those cables are easier to get).

Do You Need an External Interface?

Maybe. Maybe not. I suspect though that most players who get into the soft-synth thing will eventually want to move beyond the stereo out built into their machines. Consider a few things when you are shopping…

Reliability Rules

Make sure that the unit you are interested is reliable on your system and with your software/OS. It pays to join some online communities that use the same stuff you do and ask around for advice. Something that works great on Mac OSX may not be as reliable on Windows 7.

Get More Ins and Outs Than You Need (and make sure they’re balanced)

However many outputs you are looking to get into, buy more. It is a bummer to have to update your hardware soon after buying because now you want 8 outs and only bought 4. Try to make sure the outputs are balanced. This tends to be a feature again on higher end interfaces but it can make it easier to connect to the board (see the hardware output section).

Internal Mixing Is Handy

Many current interfaces allow for internal mixing between inputs and outputs. This makes it easy to interface hardware gear with your soft synths or provide you with in an in ear monitoring solution of your own.

Sound Quality Matters – But Lands Way Down Here In The List

In my experience the problems with interfaces have a lot more to do with reliability (both hardware and software) than sound quality. Remember, this is live sound, not Sony Studios Australia. Should you be called in on a gig with a famous Christian worship band (and choose not to play ping-pong) your interface needs may differ.

Where’s the DI?

So I haven’t talked about DIs yet. I have a whole article on that and the bottom line is that DI use is more dogma than practical but they can be useful as noted above. I simply want you to realize that you don’t need to have one in many instances. If you need one don’t feel you need to buy a fancy expensive one – in my experience synth/keyboard signals tend to tolerate DIs of all types without much complaint. Since we are talking about the best signal channel to board I guess I will go out there and say that a generally good DI is typically $50 to $100 US per channel.

Don’t Go Crazy On Cables

So remember, we want to be using balanced 3 conductor cables for noise rejection. There is no need to spend a fortune on cables. The most important things are to look for solid connectors that are unlikely to break as this is where most cables fail. Please, no Monster cables, and remember to coil them up nicely when you are done!

Last But Not Least – Set Your Levels

There are lots of questions about how “loud” to set your interface or synth. Remember that every piece of hardware has a noise floor — the hiss and blips that the hardware is making all by itself. Modern hardware tends to be very quiet but we can improve the noise rejection by making sure our signal is strong. I recommend placing your volume at 75% or so. You may have to back off a bit if the mixer input cannot handle it but most modern mixers won’t have a problem. If you are too hot then this is a case where a DI can help – it will decrease your signal and noise to a level that the mixer can handle.

Wrapping Up

Well, now our signal is out and connected to the mixer. These steps should get a nice clean, strong signal to the board. Next time we will discuss the relationship with the Sound person and how that really makes or breaks your sound. Stay tuned!

Want more? Part 1 is here, and Part 3 is here!

Mixer image courtesy comedy_nose and creative commons.

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