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Mix Blog Live: Sonic Limitations

I don’t like surprises, at least not while I’m working. I think a lot of engineers feel that way, and that’s part of the reason we do soundchecks (though a friend of mine feels that soundchecks are for the faint of heart). That’s why I was a little aggravated a few weeks ago while doing a particular show.

The venue was a small theater with a capacity of about 600. The P.A. system looked a little anemic given the size of the room, but at soundcheck it performed pretty well. I thought I fired it up sufficiently loud to check the horsepower—apparently not. Maybe the reflective nature of the empty room fooled me into thinking that the P.A. had more poop under the hood than it really did. When I walked out to front-of-house prior to the start of the show, I could feel how the room had changed with the addition of 500 organic acoustic absorbers (aka, people). A lot of the reflections and boominess had tightened up; anticipating the change, I prepared to push up the DCA groups on my console.

The mix position was underneath the balcony (ugh), way at the end of the room and house right—almost outside of the field of the P.A., so it took a song or two for me to realize that the system was pushing back against my fader moves. I knew I wasn’t intentionally compressing the stereo bus, so I took a gander at the system compressor. It was indeed pushing back a bit, gently squeezing the mix. I dialed the ratio down to under 2:1 and raised the threshold so that I was barely touching it. But sonofabitch if it still didn’t sound like the comp was pushing back. I looked at the system processor and it was not limiting.

The whole thing was very frustrating, compounded by the fact that if the band stopped and the main guitarist continued to play, I could hear the compression pump, allowing the guitar to get louder.

When I’m mixing—whether it be live or in the studio—one of the things I expect is that if the band plays louder (or if I push up some of the faders), then they actually sound louder through the speakers. This was not the case. What I later learned was that the installed amplifiers were limiting the system even though the front end wasn’t. Apparently, in a self-preservation effort, someone decided to limit the P.A. The systems engineer who brought in the consoles and mic package didn’t have access to changing those settings. Bummer.

No one in the audience seemed to notice, but it drove me nuts. I guess next time I encounter a suspicious P.A., I’ll need to really hit the gas pedal during soundcheck to see what happens. Who’s got the keys to that limiter?

On a lighter note… I just finished a four-show run in California where we had the same backline, sound and production crew for all of the shows. This is rare in my world. In all of the years that I’ve worked for Blue Öyster Cult, we’ve never carried production, so having the same P.A. and consoles for several days in a row was a treat. What was even better was the crew: thanks to Production Manager Luis Del Arroz, Vern at D&V Sound and the folks at Backline Source! Those were some of the easiest days I’ve ever spent on the road. Thanks, guys!