In this post, I’m going to discuss using Pro Tools playback with VENUE to audition plug-ins, presets, and mics you might want to use in your live mix. Preproduction before the tour is the perfect time for this. You’ve got multitracks of the band playing through several songs, with solid head amp level and faders up, so there’s already a rudimentary mix developing.
First, boot up your VENUE system in Virtual Soundcheck mode and you’re ready to do some manipulation of dynamics and equalization. VENUE has some first-class processing built right into it. I use plenty of the onboard expansion, compression and equalization, and it sounds great. And that’s just the beginning of the power of VENUE. With plug-ins, you can turn the console into almost anything you want.
At this point, I suggest loading the desk up with every plug-in you might find interesting. If you’ve downloaded a demo of something, put it in there. This is your chance to try everything available, and the fastest way to switch between and rearrange plugs is to have them already instantiated. Organize them in a scheme that will help you find things quickly. I’ve got three guys to deal with, so I give them each a rack column on the VENUE software Plug-ins page and take one for myself for mastering. Whatever makes sense to you. Instantiate plug-ins until the desk won’t take anymore.
Begin with an instrument that’s critical to the mix (aren’t they all?) such as the vocal. My approach is to start with dynamics, work through EQ, and add effects last. Hence, the first thing I would do is start auditioning compressors on the vocal. Often the simplest plug-ins are the best. Heck, some of my favorites have one knob! Sometimes it takes something more powerful with more options. Occasionally, you need something “vintage.” Try them all until you land on something you like and then start auditioning EQs.
After dropping a plug on a channel, click on the folder in the upper right-hand corner of the Plug-ins page. This will open the plug-in’s preset window. Start clicking on presets and assess what you hear. You’ll likely hit on something that works quite well, and you can tweak it from there. Many plug-ins have a number of usable sounds built in.
You can also save your favorite presets in your own folder. Go to Filing > Transfer and highlight “Preset Folders.” To the left is a list of available folders likely consisting of just “Factory Presets” and “User Presets.” Go to the bottom, click “New,” and make yourself a preset folder. From now on, whenever you land on an EQ or dynamics setting you really like, add it to your folder and keep it synced with a USB key. I have separate folders dedicated to each band I’ve worked with and find that re-auditioning my own presets can be expeditious.
Pro Tools is also a powerful way to audition mics. It allows you to switch between transducers and manipulate blends in a way that is more flexible than doing it while the band plays, looping sections, for example. More intriguing to me is that it allows for truly blind comparisons between mics using playback.
Occasionally, we set up shootouts to confirm (or repudiate, or just experiment with) mic selections. It amazes me how prejudiced I can be when performing these listening tests, even with the most honorable intentions. Say someone told me “Mic X” is a great vocal mic, so I favor it. I know “Mic Y” is very expensive, therefore, it sounds best. “Mic Z” sounded great in the kick drum on the last tour, so I’m determined to make it work on this one. We listen with our minds, so it’s easy for our minds to trick us. To do an honest comparison you must listen to Mic X, Mic Y, and Mic Z side-by-side, and you cannot know which is which. Experience has taught me this can produce jaw-dropping outcomes.
On guitar, recording for this is straightforward; you place the mics in question on separate speakers, create channels and tracks, get levels, and record. Ditto for drums—where there’s room. It gets tricky on small toms or the snare, and it’s downright impossible on a vocal. In those instances you’ll need to do multiple takes.
Before listening back, take your audition tracks, copy the audio files to new tracks, and normalize them. Assign these tracks to separate channels in the desk through Assignables and have someone shuffle the channels around! It’s critical that you not know which is which. The audio files in Pro Tools will be labeled, but the channels on the desk mustn’t indicate which track you’re listening to. Listen back with no EQ or dynamics, and make written notes while soloing through these channels before you stop and ask “this one sounds great… which is it?” Maybe it’s the same mic you’ve been using all along. Maybe.