Today we will wrap up our 3 part series on getting a quality signal from your synth or synth rig to the FOH and the audience. In post 1 of this series we discussed the preparation we need to do in the box before hooking up to the mixer. In the second post we reviewed cable hook-ups, gain staging, and the need (or lack there-of) for direct boxes. In this post we will talk about what happens at the mixer and beyond, and how you can work with the sound engineer to get the most out of your synth rig.
The Sound Engineer is Your Friend
I cannot count the number of conversations I have had with musicians that go something like “I really love my tone but the Sound Dude is destroying it!” or “I keep turning myself up because the Sound Dude keeps turning me down!” The most important step here is to develop a relationship with the person who is running sound for you at Front of House (FOH). I made that red so that you won’t miss it – you have to talk to that person. Now remember, a relationship is a two-way street. It is important to ask them for what you need but also ask them for what they need from you. Compromise is the name of the game. If they ask you to pull some low end out of your PAD OF AWESOMENESS or rebalance your piano/Hammond combo then please, give that a shot.
Remember that what you are hearing on stage is not the same as what the audience hears from FOH. That bears repeating – your stage sound and FOH are totally different. What sounds great to you may make the mix solid mud. By the same token the FOH engineer should be willing to work with you if you feel like there is something that would help your tone. If you feel like something is lost in translation between your rig and the house speakers then talk to them about it – they can help you work it out.
Get Some Information
Now that you know the name of the man or woman running FOH, and they know you aren’t trying to get their attention to yell at them it is time to find out some things about your system.
The first question should be “Is our system stereo?” Now I’m sure you are all thinking “Of course it’s stereo, how could anything in the modern age not be stereo?” Well… I hate to be the bearer of bad news but many installed PA systems are mono (single channel audio). There are good reasons for this – it is hard to cover an audience with stereo audio evenly, and stereo systems cause lots of phase cancellation and comb filtering for program material that is not stereo. Like your pastor speaking. I think most of us would consider that important.
That said, there are a fair number of systems out there that are stereo so ask your FOH engineer if they are running stereo. It is also a good idea to ask if there is a stereo program feed anywhere in the system – like a broadcast mix or recording. If the FOH is stereo then make sure the engineer know that you are sending a signal that is really really better in stereo. They may generally not run anything in stereo unless it is an effect or recorded playback so you may have to convince them to give your stuff a try in wide stereo. It may also involve begging for another input on the board so that you can send a stereo signal (stereo = two audio signals = two cables = two inputs). It is worth it to run stereo if there is any stereo program at any point – even if the FOH is mono but the service recording is stereo.
We do have some stuff that may not be great in stereo because the audience won’t get an even signal. If you are playing some sort of lead part you may want to narrow the stereo width down a bit in your DAW.
Frowny Face – Mono Only
So now you are sad, because your engineer has told you that the system is mono. You should know that you are in good company – again installed sound is very often (even mostly) mono. Now you have some more work to do. If you are running hardware you should audition your patches at home through the mono output of your synth. If you are running software then you should pan everything to one side or use a plug-in to collapse it to mono.
You are now hearing what I call “mono suck.” What you are really hearing is the midrange that was spread out to both your ears in stereo combined and played back twice as loud to each ear. Often some midrange EQ cut from 200-500 will clean it up. You may also hear less air or other weirdness as phase cancellation happens between the right and left channels. If EQ doesn’t help another solution is to send just one side of the stereo signal to FOH – I prefer the right side with the additional high end. If you have to cover a lot of low end in service you may prefer to send the left. It is also possible on most mixers to send both channels and keep one out of the FOH mix while still sending both channels to a recording mix or other feed.
Campaign for More Channels
Ideally we would send each instrument to the FOH on a different set of stereo channels but most of the time we are limited to one stereo pair. Modern digital desks are making it easier to accommodate additional stereo channels as long as the inputs are available. In my opinion, in a typical full band setting, two sets of stereo channels for keys is not unreasonable BUT if your sound guy says that the channels aren’t available then talk about how to best use the channels you have.
If you can get more than one stereo feed then talk with them about how best to use them. Maybe they would like one set dedicated to piano or similar stuff, and pads and synth leads on the other channel – you never know so it’s best to ask. You should also expect to give those channels up on weeks with two keys players or special program needs as they are often going to be channels that need to be reclaimed when things are tight.
Go Easy On Your Engineer
The last thing I would like to ask is that you remember that your FOH engineer is not a wizard and can’t fix everything or give equal attention to each channel in front of them. Make it easy on them – don’t run 10 pads and 2 leads and piano and Rhodes for a single song – or if you do don’t be surprised when it gets butchered at FOH. Try to keep things straightforward, and if there is special stuff going on with a patch explain it to the FOH engineer so that they will know what they are hearing when it comes up. You may find that you have to explain some synth basics to them, like pointing out the pad sound or synth lead.
There is a lot that happens between your fingers on the keys and the sound waves coming out of the FOH setup. If you want to have the best possible sound to the audience you will need to do your homework and be willing to work with others. Compromise is the name of the game but great sound doesn’t have to be expensive or overly complicated – knowing your equipment, getting your material prepared, and talking to the FOH engineer will go a long ways. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series and please, let me know if you have other questions or corrections for me. Thanks!