Bryony October's Five Tips for Mixing at Festivals
We caught up with FOH engineer, Bryony October who shared her experience of life on the road, including some unmissable advice for any new engineers getting started with live sound.
Bryony also expressed her passion for mixing at festivals and the adrenaline rush that comes with unfamiliar venues and gear. For some, the adrenaline rush is part of the enjoyment when running FOH, for others, it's more like stress. However you feel, it's clear that festivals offer up a unique set of challenges for engineers, and to help alleviate the potential for festival sound as dismal as the average weather at Glasto, Bryony is back with her five top tips for running FOH at festivals.
Tip No: 1. Always Stay Organized and Be Thorough When Managing Your Desk File
If you're running a digital desk that you have a file for, make sure you stay vigilant when loading the memory file. You should always send the file in advance where possible as this will save valuable time if any issues with your file have been resolved in advance of your changeover. It's also most important that you check the output routing as this is specific to each system and will almost always need to be changed to suit the festival system. Send pink-noise to the system processing, and confirm with the systems tech they can see left/right and that it's the right way around.
Always ensure you systematically check each input channel for any routing anomalies, as well as gain, phase, phantom power, high-pass filters (HPF), FX sends, comps, gates, plug-ins, and inserts. Check for places you could be tripped up by a different software version of the console.
When you haven't got a file ready before the show, or if the console is analogue, ensure you are conservative with everything (except high-pass filters, which I always play it super safe with, especially for acoustic instruments). When starting from scratch it's important to keep it simple! Don't be worrying about a multitude of plugins; get your basic EQ and gain structure in place with gentle gates and compressors only where you really need them. Stick to tried and tested FX settings that you can polish up once the mix is there. I also pull everything except the vocals back by 5db; vocals are the first thing a crowd listens for, and this way you know for sure they'll not be drowned in the mix when you start. Of course, if there is a particular riff or melody that starts the first song from a different source, you should prioritise this too.
Tip No: 2. Prioritise Your Time
In most cases, you'll only have a maximum of 30 minutes to complete the changeover. As soon as you arrive on site, find out how soon you can access the console, and be ready to jump on it the second the person before you finishes. You will need to allow at least half your setup time for the line check in case of patching issues, so be really cautious about how much time you spend setting up each channel — just ensure you spend a moment with each element to get the basics right before it comes to line check.
Tip No: 3. Communicate with Stage
Get your monitor engineer's talkback into a channel and routed into your headphones. I wouldn't settle for a shout system as you might mishear something once your headphones are on and you're head down immersed in the console. Keeping them on pre-fade usually means you can hear a lot of what's happening at the stage end. You will usually be a long way away, and it's often something verging on chaos up there. Clear communication is imperative, and you shouting your head off down the stage wedges because you've missed the fact they are re-patching something or fixing a problem you don't yet know about only serves to increase stress levels and hold things up.
Tip No: 4. Get Familiar with Your Headphones
Only use headphones you are familiar with. Knowing your reference headphones will help you identify any problems and allow you to EQ very quickly when you can't open the PA up during line-check.
Tip No: 5. Be Careful with Level Restrictions
9/10 times there will be a strict dB limit at your festival. Make sure you know the limit you're working with and over what time period. To keep a check on dB output, always maintain clear line-of-sight with your metering.
It's really important to introduce yourself to the person responsible for sound level limits. Be friendly and remind them that you'll need the duration of a song to smooth out levels. It's also worth taking the opportunity to inform them if the band's music is especially dynamic. In my experience, simply demonstrating you're not ignorant to noise level restriction and that you have respect for their duties goes a long way towards buying their leniency.
The Bottom Line
To summarise, my advice is to be thorough and organised with your time and make sure you can communicate with the stage throughout the changeover. Festivals are exciting, and a lot can go wrong, but they've always been my favourite environment to mix.
About the Author: This article is a guest post by FOH Sound Engineer and Tour Manager, Bryony October. Well known for her earlier work with the Noisettes, Bryony October's story is one of classic hard work and determination to make it in an industry where it's notoriously difficult to get your first break. To learn more about Bryony, check out her interview with Shure Sound Hub.