“Why not put the mics where the people are going to end up?” Detailing a straightforward approach…

When I was coming up through the ranks at a sound company in the early 1980s, I did a lot of folk festivals. Within a few years I went from mixing a small satellite stage (with monitors from front of house) to main stage monitor mixer and then to main stage FOH mixer.

During this process I transitioned from running my own show on the small stage to being an active participant in every changeover as the monitor engineer to watching helplessly from FOH while changeovers took way longer than I felt they needed to.

I was also exposed to various festival management’s attempts to organize the changeovers, which ran the gamut from having a really good stage manager to trying way too hard to “simplify” everything by using color codes exclusively. (Seriously, even to the exclusion of numbers, as in, “What channel is that mic in?” “It’s in red.” “Really? So what input is that on the snake?” “Red.”)

Through all of this, I noticed an important truth: No matter who was on the stage, and no matter what instruments they were playing, they all had to stand (or sit) somewhere on the stage. So I thought, “Why not put the mics where the people are going to end up?” And we all lived happily ever after. I’ll explain how that works shortly, but first a few guiding principles and features.

1) All inputs always appear in the same order at each mixing console.

A sample festival patch input list. (click to enlarge)

2) That order is always from left to right as viewed from FOH (i.e., stage right to stage left when you’re on stage).

3) This puts all faders under your fingertips, and in line-of-sight with the stage.

4) All inputs are clearly labeled for their position on the stage, using existing and well-known terminology like “1, 2, 3, 4 and “Left” and “Right.”

5) This system is scalable to any size stage.

Making It Happen
Here’s how to set this up for a 24-input festival stage. Remember, it’s a scalable method, so for most typical club stages, you can go smaller, and for concert stages, you can go larger. First, the requirements:

1) At minimum there needs to be four identical sub-snakes (in a pinch you can use the main snake head as one of the four, or on a smaller stage, two 12-pairs instead of four 6-pairs). In this case it’s six to eight channels each.

2) Drum kit microphones, to taste. I usually favor kick and two overheads with “whatever works” for snare, toms, hi-hat, etc. As long as it fits in the first five channels, with a bass direct box (DI) in channel six. (That is, if the stage is supplied with a drum kit and bass rig. If, not, the bass can be one of the instrument DIs noted below).

3) Six DIs, preferably active ones and preferably identical.

4) Six identical instrument mics on identical stands.

5) Six identical vocal mics on identical stands.

6) Some quality cloth tape and a Sharpie to label the DIs and the mic stand bases in this sequence:

DI-1, Off Stage Right (OSR)
DI-2, Stage Right (SR)
DI-3, Center Stage Right (CSR)

A sample stage plot that depicts a clear, logical approach. (click to enlarge)

DI-4, Center Stage Left (CSL)
DI-5, Stage Left (SL)
DI-6, Off Stage Left (OSL)

Inst-1, Off Stage Right (OSR)
Inst-2, Stage Right (SR)
Inst-3, Center Stage Right (CSR)
Inst-4, Center Stage Left (CSL)
Inst-5, Stage Left (SL)
Inst-6, Off Stage Left (OSL)

Vox-1, Off Stage Right (OSR)
Vox-2, Stage Right (SR)
Vox-3, Center Stage Right (CSR)
Vox-4, Center Stage Left (CSL)
Vox-5, Stage Left (SL)
Vox-6, Off Stage Left (OSL)

Now drop a stage box in each corner of the stage. Each box is going to have three of each kind of input in it, so:

Box-A, Upstage Right, Drums 1-3, DIs 1-3
Box-B, Upstage Left, Drums 4-6, DIs 4-6
Box-C, Downstage Right, Inst 1-3, Vox 1-3
Box-D, Downstage Left, Inst 4-6, Vox 4-6

As you can see from the stage plot graphic that accompanies this article, as soon as you place a musician anywhere on the stage, they’ll be very close to a vocal mic, an instrument mic and a DI.

Using It And FAQ
Like anything that really works in this business, this is a system, in this case a system for setting up, sound checking and presenting multiple, diverse and probably unknown acts in a minimum amount of time – and in front of an audience.

How it works:

When allocating inputs, work outwards from center stage. So for a solo performer with a guitar and backing tracks for example, use Vox-3 (or 4, doesn’t matter), Inst-3 and/or DI-3 for the guitar, and DIs 1 and 2 or 4 and 5 for the tracks. If time allows, the unused vocal and instrument mics can be struck off to stage right and stage left.

Based on this example, it’s easy to see that with a duo, you would just use the two center vocal mics (3 and 4) and instrument channels – and so on – as the acts get larger. It’s also really easy to allocate channels in advance if you’re ever lucky enough to get stage plots from the acts ahead of time.

Q&A #1: Why are the stage boxes side stage instead of down the center? So that the unused mics and stands can be easily struck off to the wings if they’re not needed, without leaving their cables all over the deck.

Q&A #2: Why only label the mic stand bases and not the cables? The intention is that the mics never come off the stands, and their cables never get un-plugged, so usually labeling the stand and the stage box is sufficient. In practice, the mics might get un-plugged one at a time if you’re cleaning up the wiring on a break. And feel free to label everything if that makes it work for you.

Q&A #3: What happens if a band has, say, seven singers and there’s only six vocal channels? Simply use the last instrument mic on a taller stand if needed. If you’ve got, say, Shure SM58s for vocals, it’s not going to hurt to have someone singing on an SM57 for one set. Conversely, you might occasionally need to use a vocal mic for an instrument for the same reasons.

Q&A #4: Why did you specify active DIs? My rule-of-thumb is active instrument = passive DI and passive instrument = active DI. But if you have to choose only one, active DIs are better because they’re usually fine with active instruments (i.e., synthesizers, drum machines etc) and they’re better for truly passive instruments (i.e., ones with no electronic amplification such as a stock P-bass, and even some keyboards like a Rhodes 73, Clavinet, etc). Why are they better? Because active DIs have the really high input impedances that these instruments need to see as a load to sound their best.

Q&A #5: What happens if artists bring their own mics? Plug them in to the allocated vocal channels. We’re here to serve. This system helps narrow down a bunch of variables, like input gain and high-pass filter settings on most of the inputs, most of the time – which makes it a whole lot easier to accommodate special requests when they come up.

Q&A #6: What happens if a channel is not being used? Mute it and pull the fader down. I know some engineers don’t like gaps in their channels; this used to bother me too. But the advantages of each channel keeping the same basic setup (gain, HPF, 48-volt on/off, assignment, etc.) far outweigh those of having all the channels in a pretty little row.

This article first appeared on www.prosoundweb.com