ASTON FEARON: Patch, precision and the ideal line check

API's new columnist explains why strict preparation for a show is just as crucial as optimum sound quality.
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It's very rare for us to talk about how we patch and how it can drastically affect the sound check and the subsequent show, both positively or negatively.

This is probably because patching is always supposed to go unnoticed. Despite this need for transparency, It also needs to be capable of handling a lot of complexity, but equally capable of delivering simplicity at both ends of the multicore. As a FOH engineer there's often nothing worse that not seeing clearly organised inputs at the desk. For patch engineers there's nothing worse than struggling to make ends meet with an overcomplicated sub box patch.

The larger system that we work on is built up of smaller sub-systems – the FOH system, monitor system, line system, mic package etc – but what we don't often appreciate is that the processes by which we patch also constitute a sort of system. This 'system' needs to be robust enough to achieve complex logistics during tight deadlines, but fluid enough to adapt to last minute changes and additions to our channel count. This system consists of everything from how we label our line systems and how we manage our cable runs to how we choose to communicate as a team. When we apply this system we have built the foundation for a well executed show. Such a system forms a large part of my ideal line check, which I'm going to briefly document here:

No rushing – With a heightened sense of urgency our focus narrows dramatically and we are able focus on the task directly in front of us. What we cannot allow, though, is this urgency to make us rush. In a pressure-intense changeover, working quickly is good but rushing is not because it can lead to carelessness and/or error. This methodical and deliberate approach is usually faster because it solves problems efficiently and incisively. We generally have enough allotted time to complete our sound check, and then some more. If for whatever reason we have limited time then a sense of urgency is never an excuse for us to change effective ways of working.

As few words said as possible – This is a principle I picked up working for ESS. Less is usually more when it comes to on-stage communication. This may seem unusual but in the heat of a tight changeover the more words there are in a given sentence, the higher the chance any one of them can be misheard. I'd also expect the same to be true for any band member needing something adjusting in their mixes – I completely expect them to be brief. "Keys up?" is a thousand times quicker, clearer and more effective than a much longer sentence. This two-way brevity of speech is the best way to communicate during a soundcheck.

Smooth rhythmic momentum – If the way we do things is systematic, it is possible to create a certain rhythm to our sound check. The benefit this creates is that it enables everyone to be in sync with what we're doing. By taking minimal time and powering through a line check in a clockwork-like manner, we allow others (including our monitor engineer and band members) to accurately predict our next actions.

No errors or mismatches – Every source shows up exactly where it's expected to be. It's sometimes easy to forget that errors are not the product of chance and can therefore be eradicated with good organisation. Each mispatch that needs rectifying reduces our time, increases the sense of urgency, breaks the rhythm we have established and distracts us from our soundcheck.

You may notice that some of these items are simple, while others are slightly conceptual. You may also notice that one or two may be on the surface expecting too much. I believe our expectations often greatly affect the results we create. It's pretty common acceptance that a few mispatches occur during a festival and when they do engineers are not very surprised, despite the slight annoyance of having to correct them and the subsequent loss of momentum that occurs as a result.

If we instead focus on the ideal scenario and challenge ourselves to execute every line check seamlessly, then the standard of technical production we achieve will be increased dramatically. That's not to say that we will get it right all of the time, but with an expectation that we will be surprised when mismatches do occur.

This uncompromising standard of precision is about far more than perfection, and with the right processes in place it is consistently attainable. I believe the mastery by which we execute a show is just as important as the sound quality. When we aim for rigs, patches and line checks that are carried out seamlessly we are working to the highest standard possible. Indiviudally and as an industry, I believe this is a standard worth striving for.

Website: www.astonfearon.co.uk

Do you think you have what it takes to be an Audio Pro International contributor/columnist? If so, send some information on your background in the pro audio industry, as well as some article ideas to API editor Adam Savage via adam.savage@intentmedia.co.uk.

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