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Q. Should I buy my own digital mixer for a band tour?

Published January 2015

I’m the sound engineer with a group called Flyte, who are heading out on a mini headline tour of 150-500 capacity venues next month. I have the chance to acquire a little digital mixer such as a Behringer X32 rack, but I’m not sure if it would be worthwhile. Obviously I’m trying to weigh all the factors, like having a lovingly pre-sculpted FOH and in-ears mix to start every day with, versus the ball-ache of crow-barring the mixer into tiny booths in the face of reluctant in-house guys. Any advice on this would be gratefully received.

Hugh Fielding via email

SOS contributor & the Prodigy’s live-sound engineer Jon Burton replies: In an ideal touring situation you’d carry the same equipment to every venue to ensure familiarity — and thus speedy operation. If you have a mixer you know well, and which is already configured with the basic settings you need to start the day, you’ll save a lot of the time you’d otherwise take setting up a house desk, configuring the monitors and generally wiring it all up. That frees up more time to consider the ‘variables’ in each venue — the house sound system, the amps and speakers, the unique acoustics. Don’t underestimate that, as getting the house system sounding good, and everything working correctly, can often take up a lot time.

However just turning up with your desk is only a small part of the answer — you must also consider the infrastructure that supports that desk. Having your own gains set in the mixer is only any use if you are using the same sources, for example, and this means not only the instruments, but also the various microphones and DI boxes that feed their sound into your desk. You can buy a reasonable 32-channel desk for very little,With sophisticated digital desks becoming ever more affordable, it seems tempting for the small touring band to invest. It may be the right solution, but there’s an awful lot more you need to think about than acquiring the desk!With sophisticated digital desks becoming ever more affordable, it seems tempting for the small touring band to invest. It may be the right solution, but there’s an awful lot more you need to think about than acquiring the desk! but buying all the microphones to go with it may cost you the same figure again and more.

The next stumbling block is carting all those mics around with you on tour, and then, of course, you have to have a means connecting them (placed somewhere on the stage) to your desk, which might be quite some distance away. There will be an in-house multicore which will go from the stage to the house desk, but using this is fraught with difficulties. Will there be enough channels in each and every venue? If so, do they all work? How is the cable terminated at the desk end? Will the leads be long enough to go to your desk? Is it a digital or analogue cable run? And so on...

As you point out, you might also run into space issues. With smaller venues, the mixer tends to be shoe-horned into a very small area, probably leaving very little space for your desk. Will you be able (or indeed allowed) to move the house desk? If you do move the house desk, who will mix the support band, and on what? If you move the multicore to your desk will it have to be patched back for the support act — and if so, who will do the re-patching of the 20-plus channels you’re using in the 15 minutes between bands when you are needed on stage to reposition microphones? It’s a lot to ask of anyone, and introduces unnecessary risks.

For all these reasons, if using your own desk, it’s usually best to also take your own multicore and stage box, so that you can be completely independent of the house system. This way you can just give the house engineer a left/right mix that he can run into his desk and into the house system. Great! Except now you need to spend money on a multicore and stage box. An analogue one will be big and heavy, but relatively inexpensive, whereas a digital one will be small and lightweight, but expensive. You’ll probably need some sub boxes or looms for the drums as well, to save you time and effort.

By now you have easily spent triple the cost of your desk alone, and have gone from a little mixer to a small touring package. You’ve also started taking up a lot more room in the backline van. By bringing in your own desk and cables you’ve also reduced the job of the house engineer to lending you a few mic stands and giving you two channels of the house desk for your mix. My experience of touring at this level (more times than I care to mention) tells me that the house engineer will be delighted; rather than jump in to help set up an unfamiliar system, he’ll probably slink off to his warm cubby-hole for a refreshing cup of tea while he imagines how you’ll end up ‘hoist with your own petard’!

Having said all this, if you can live with the budget, the risks and the inconveniences described above, a package like this can be fantastic for this sort of tour — but only if you prepare properly. Don’t turn up to the first show at three in the afternoon thinking you can just throw it all together! You need to be there in rehearsals with the band, doing a dry run. You need to label cables and boxes, check that the leads reach right across larger stages, and that everything works as it should. This is the role of the production rehearsal, and it’s best done with the band set up just as they intend to play live. You can then make up time-saving looms and label them clearly so everything can be interconnected easily and quickly.

If you’re creating in-ear monitor mixes, this level of system really comes into its own, as it virtually eliminates the variables from the stage point of view, and you’ll be ready with a basic mix straight away. One option you may want to look at is a monitor-only set up, whereby you carry a desk to use just for the monitors but use the house desk for the FOH mix. This would still involve carrying a microphone set and stage cables, and you’d need a simple microphone split system to go into the house multicore, but it can work really well, and save you a lot of time. A few times recently, I’ve seen this sort of setup but with the band themselves controlling their own monitors using iPads. Only certain desks will support this, but there are actually quite a few now, so perhaps that’s something to consider.

I know this hasn’t really answered the question — I’m afraid that you really do need to weigh up all of the pros and cons for yourself — but hopefully I’ve been able to give you a clearer picture of what you can expect when embarking on this road, and prompted you into a practical course of action!

Published January 2015