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Tom Petty and The HBs Rehearsals and Virtual Soundcheck with VENUE

Only published comments... May 06 2010, 11:31 AM by Robert Scovill



As I sat at my DShow console recently while in rehearsals with Tom in Los Angeles, Pro Tools in looped playback, reviewing inputs, working up mixes through the PA system, I starred at the cardboard cutouts of the band in various positions on stage, and began to take stock of how far the live sound process had actually come. I caught myself thinking back to my first attempts at doing anything like Virtual Soundcheck in the early 90s with Tom while using a Gamble EX56 with an ADAT track inserted on every channel,  patched on through to any subsequent insert processing. 56 track ADAT recording … mmm … good times!


(btw, for the record, the cardboard cutouts I mentioned above are life sized replicas of the band members so the lighting guys can pre-set focus and camera blocking etc … I’m heading off to trademark the name Virtual Lightingfocus right after I get done with this entry)


Fast forward a little more than a decade from my Gamble and ADAT days and through our work with VENUE and Pro Tools, a really solid version of Virtual Soundcheck is now a reality. Virtual Soundcheck has not only completely changed the way I work as a live sound mixer and systems engineer during rehearsals or on a day to day basis, but it’s also impacted the touring life of the band and even more importantly the concert sound experience for the fan’s. Now, as if that weren’t enough, I’m also of the opinion that Virtual Soundcheck stands to positively impact the concert sound industry as a whole.


Wow! Tee it up Robert tell us more!

Okay I will …


Just for some context, in the not too distant past, preparing for a tour at the console level involved setting the band up in a warehouse or some large space rented out by the band. Once there, you would essentially line check with the crew guys, recall your best tried and true effects processor presets and wait for the band to show up so you could actually start mixing. Heck, many bands might even skip the warehouse and just head on to the first gig and do it all on sight the day of the first show! Either way, this approach would allow for very limited time for you to work on tone, blends and rehearsal of moves within the show unless the band was actually playing. I used to lightheartedly give the band’s producer a hard time when we would be discussing the mix for a given song etc. and I would say something like “how many passes did you and the recording mixer make on this song when you were automating mixes for it? … okay, well this is my 3rd pass … can you give me just a couple more passes before you take out the note pad?” … “uh, no” … mmm … good times …


Working in this way, it’s clear that any opportunity to put any level of detail into what you are doing is going to evolve over the course of many more sound checks and shows. Essentially it is a macrocosm of mixing a festival or a one-off event, meaning; as soon as you get it sounding really good and repeatable, it’s likely that the show (or in this case the tour) will be over. But, ya know what they say about mixing “you never finish mixes, you just stop working on them”


Virtual Soundcheck leaves those challenges in the dust because it offers a studio-style workflow allowing me to simply play back recordings of the mic pres into the console exactly as they appeared when the band was playing live and work as long as time allows. This coupled up with how input and track rich we are these days – and it offers me a ton of opportunity to really refine what I am doing out here. For instance for this tour with Tom, I’ve been auditioning a bunch of different microphones by recording multiple mics on instruments like guitars, piano and drums, and then auditioning them after the fact and really evaluating placements and what is working well together and what is not … yeah … just like we do in the studio.


Additionally, because VENUE offers us an enormous array of 3rd party processing on par with today’s best studios via TDM plug-ins, I can audition dynamics and effects processors till I’m blue in the face, again without the need for the band or road crew guys up there playing endlessly … yep, you guessed it … just like we do in the studio. The juiciest part of the plug-in thing for us live sound guys is, it cost NOTHING, ZERO, ZILCH to audition all the different processors. You simply download them in demo form from the manufacturer, audition them, and then buy the authorization for the ones you want without ever nagging the sound company or needing Fed Ex once! It’s like having a huge equipment rental department right down the hall. Nice …


Finally, Virtual Soundcheck audio allows me to really refine how the inputs and the mixes are going to react through the PA system and in the room. I can really refine my system equalization and balances by using … wait for it … not an overly bright, overly compressed piece of recorded studio material, that bares little to no resemblance to what the band or the PA will be delivering a few hours from now … but the actual recorded inputs, … yep, the ones that are dynamically accurate to what will be happening a few hours from now because they were recorded while the band was playing an actual show. For my money, this alone would make Virtual Soundcheck the killer app for live sound.


Okay, I know, I got all lathered up talking about the other stuff and didn’t mention how Virtual Soundcheck helped improve the band’s touring psyche or how it will make the world safe for concert sound as we know it. Well; let me step firmly up on my soapbox, so you can hear me loud and clear here.


In the context of a touring band it goes like this and it’s quite simple really – if they don’t have to come over to the gig every day at 3:00 in the afternoon, limp through a generally meaningless soundcheck, eat some extremely average food and then hang out for hours until the actual show, guess what? … they’re generally in a much better mood! A mood much more conducive to playing music – and that is GOOD for the show AND the sound of the show. Also, this saved up energy adds up over the course of a long tour. Trust me; there’s job security in that little notion because the tour might just last a bit longer. Ya know, it’s a lot like the Phoenix Suns this year when you think about it … they’ve had GREAT play from their bench this year which has allowed Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire to sit out a lot more minutes, keeping their legs very fresh for the post season … okay … okay … I digress. Sorry, I lost my head … the playoffs against our nemesis the Spurs starts in few hours.


As for making the world safe for audio at concerts, I submit to you this; given that all disciplines of live sound mixing; FOH, Monitor, HOW, ProAV, Broadcast, Theater, you name it, can now work in a studio style workflow, meaning; for the first time in live events, maybe ever, the artist or the creative interest can be sitting at your side and evaluating and possibly contributing to how you the mixer are going to present their art to the world. By doing so, it is going to actually start a process of weeding out some of the mediocrity in our business. A thinning of the heard if you will. Harsh you say? Maybe … But mixers and sound companies alike will no longer be able to hide behind 300 feet of snake. This can be a scary proposition for live sound guys, because there are a lot of variables in play on any given day that can make you look pretty bad, but if you can embrace the concept, the criticism and critiques, it is very likely you’ll develop into a more competent mixer. And that my friends, in the long run, has to be good for an entire industry that is under some serious scrutiny in terms of it’s ability to present live audio.


So, this summer if we’re playing an indoor/outdoor venue near your location … and it’s about 3:00 in the afternoon and you start hearing Tom Petty and the HBs blaring from the big French PA in the distance, don’t worry, you haven’t missed the start of the show. It’s just little ole me, the live sound geek, employing last nights recording to help ensure your listening experience at the concert will meet your expectations (hopefully) … but keep in mind, there’ll be no looped playback of your favorite songs during the show.


Later everybody!

Robert Scovill out ...

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About Robert Scovill

I am a 30 year veteran of live sound and 6 time TEC Award winner for Sound Reinforcement Engineer. I serve as Senior Market Specialist for live sound for Avid and am currently mixing front of house sound for the 2010 Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers North American Tour.

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