Steve Mansour
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Behind The Scenes #6
The First Song Is The Scariest

 Listen To Her Heart (link to video)

I don't know how it is for others, but whenever I play at a live show the very first song is always scary. In the case of Solstice 19, Listen To Her Heart was first, and it was quite a bit more scary than most. Let me try to explain.

We made a lot of changes that really helped us to improve our overall sound and how we practiced. And we planned to try them all out at the 2019 Summer Solstice Jam. The biggest change was our move to In Ear Monitors (IEMs). PA speakers are typically in front of the band. So audience hears the PA, but the band does not. The band needs something different to monitor the sound, especially the singers. IEMs provide (typically) wireless connections to a special mix of what goes to the PA system. The band wears earbud headphones to hear the mix. There are lots reasons why IEMs are so desireable. The two biggest reasons for me are (1) I can really hear myself clearly and (2) I can control the volume and keep it at a comfortable level --so my ears don't ring after we finish. For the person running sound, the great thing about IEM systems is that they virtually eliminate feedback -- that ear-piercing high pitched squeal that happens when mics are too loud or singers stay too close to their mics.

With the IEM system we created, we were able to set up 4 custom stereo mixes. What I like to hear in my monitor is mostly my voice and the instrument I'm playing, then quite a bit lower than that I want to hear the drums so I can stay in sync with everybody, and finally, very little of anything else. It's not a balanced mix, but it's what I need in order to sound my best. We spent a lot of time at rehearsals getting all the monitoring mixes dialed in just right. After 3 or 4 rehearsals everything was sounding really good, which made rehearsals so much more enjoyable. We just turned our system on, loaded our settings into the mixer and everything sounded great. We didn't use amplifiers -- we ran everything through the mixer -- our guitars, the bass, even the drums because we used an electronic drum kit. The sound was consistent at every rehearsal and we all heard what we needed to hear for our best performance. We recorded all of our rehearsals and we could listen to the stereo mix that got sent (or rather, would be sent) to the PA system when we played live. It was sounding really good. I was really looking forward to pushing our "in the box" mix to the PA system at Solstice 19.

But when the time came, we got smacked with the reality of trying to take our setup live. First, all bands playing that day had to use the same drum kit, an acoustic drum kit, not like the electronic drums we had reheased with. There was no room for an additional electronic drum kit. And it was logistically not feasible to remove the acoustic drums and bring out the electronic drums just for our set. There goes the beat from the IEM mix. (Uh-oh.) But acoustic drums are loud so they'll cut through our earbuds and we'll still hear them, right? (um... yea, should work...). Oh yea, and there goes the balance between the drums and everything else that we had spent so much time dialing in. (No, no, no! Not good!) Plus, we had heavy compression on the vocal mics. This was fine at our rehearsals because the only sounds the mics picked up were our voices. There were no amps and the drums were electronic. But at Solstice, the acoustic drums were set up right behind the vocalists mics. (Aw, crap! Sound the alarm!) I won't go into why, but in the case of our setup that was a really, really bad thing. Then, the bass guitar had to be plugged into an amp because the PA speakers were not really designed for a live bass guitar. (Our bass balance... gone??? Are you kidding me?! Wait, our bass AND drum balance is gone! Noooo!) On top of that, in order to drive our IEMs we needed to use different microphones and cables than what the other bands used. (Jeez! We haven't started playing and this is already a disaster.) And we needed to run our mixer into the the venue's mixer in order to get our voices and guitars to the PA system. But there were no spare channels on the venue mixer. (No, no, no, no! How can this be?) So, Ari did a bit of research and found that with updated software in our mixer and the venue's mixer, we could connect them using a brand new special master / slave configuration so our mixer could be accommodated. (OK, heading into fantasy-land now.) We tried this and verified that it worked before the event. But the person running sound knew nothing about any of this or how our sound was coming into the venue's mixer. (WE. ARE. TOTALLY. F****D.)

All of this was running through my head as we counted off and started our first number. The sound, the mix, and the blend is all very important to me -- so, I was really distracted from the music and worried about all those changes we made. Thankfully, I was able to hear my voice when I sang, which calmed me down a bit and I went into a more focused execution mode. The drums more than bled through. In fact, they were downright overpowering. But as long as I could hear my voice and a bit of my guitar, I can pretty much stumble through things. I don't remember much about the rest of our performance. We finished our set and, as far as we knew, there were no major issues. Afterwards, a few people told us that nothing came out of the left side of the PA system during our set. Arrrggghhh! We had set up nice sounding stereo separation between the guitars and between the voices. But half of it was not heard -- like playing an album on your stereo system with one speaker unplugged. Had I known about the PA when we started to play my head probably would have exploded.

But there was also something in the back of my mind that helped me keep it together. I knew I would be creating audio mixes and videos from this set. I could deal with almost any technical issue that may have affected the live sound. All of our voices and guitars (even the bass - via a "line out" connection from the amp) were being recorded in our mixer just like at rehearsals. The drum recordings would need to come from venue's mixer, but that would be the only unknown. Based on all my experience from the recordings of our rehearsals, I was pretty sure I could create reasonable sounding audio tracks. As it turned out, the drums did require a ton of work to sound right, but I won't bore you with those details. We also had a 2 video recordings of the entire set. We had set up 3 cameras, two on the right, one on the left, but one of them was not working by the time our set arrived. And yes, of course, it was the left camera that failed. But, we got some video clips from people who were there to watch, which helped make up for the loss of the left camera video.

In the end, in spite of all the issues, it was still a lot of fun, and people enjoyed it. The videos of our set are now complete in this YouTube playlist. I think they provide a pretty good view into how this group consisting of Mark Anenberg on drums, Suzie Clark on vocals, Ari Flink on guitar, Mikael Vidstedt on bass and vocals, and I all looked and sounded on that warm summer day in 2019. Hey! Since these recordings have both stereo channels it might even sound a little better :-)

-Steve

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