I didn’t manage to get my video setup working this week. Problems. Which sucks, but problems are a part of, I guess... virtually everything. About the only problem I don’t run into is having problems having problems. Having problems seems to work fine constantly.
I curse a lot even on good days. It sorta goes through the roof when I run into problems in the studio.
And I started thinking of how I solve problems (and how much cursing is involved). I recall using the first version of Pro Tools that was released. This is back in, like, 1991? It was brand new, and it sucked. It crashed constantly, like an overzealous Kamikaze pilot, and had so many totally counterintuitive bullshit functions... there was an overall level control in the EQ section, and its default position was all the way down. So you’d switch in the EQ and it would cut the channel out completely. And the knob was tiny, so looking at the EQ, you thought it was a filter or some such. And who in their right mind adds a level control IN THE FRICKIN’ EQ????
After god knows how many crashes, I took the manual - it was in a ring binder - and threw it out the studio window. The rings opened up and the pages blew in the night air and rained down over the parking lot like Nazi propaganda dropped from a plane. The assistant was a lovely girl named Yoshimi. She started crying. It was because I was cursing so much, I think, but on the bright side she learned a lot of new English vocabulary that session. I still am not fond of Pro Tools.
Problems happen. You must get through them. It does suck. Especially with clients there and the clock running. You will not be feeling good about yourself, so you need to find the problem fast and fix it fast. Here are some ideas and thoughts on the matter.
Gear Doesn’t Usually Break
I’ll tell ya right now, broken gear is almost NEVER the problem, because gear seldom blows up. Now, if you’re working with old tube stuff or vintage equipment, yes, this stuff does break, but generally analog stuff gets noisy or crackles, or the switches and pots are intermittent, and it’s really clear that something is wrong with the piece of gear.
I have thousands of hours in the studio. Blown gear has been the issue like five times. Every other time is was me or someone else (usually me) being a fucking moron and setting something wrong or patching something wrong. If your gear is modern stuff, it doesn't blow up. The smart money is on you making a mistake.
Check that stuff is plugged in and switched on. I cannot begin to tell you how often this is the problem.
Mics Don’t Usually Break
Rarely do mics just stop working. They’re very reliable. Even my vintage 1961 C-24 condenser NEVER stopped a session because it had a problem.
If a mic is going to break, or is going to get broken, it will probably be a condenser or a high end, vintage ribbon, but again, this almost never happens in a good studio. Yes, I have been in shitty studios that have broken mics in the mic cabinet. Which is utter bullshit, and if you’re putting stuff out in the studio that you know is broken or intermittent, broken mics and cables, then you deserve to go out of business.
Dynamic mics are practically bombproof, the exception being AKG 225E’s, which will break if you look at them funny. Chances are you’ll never run into one of them in the studio, though, because they’ve not been made in years and they’re all broken.
Yes, mics can break, but it is very uncommon. Again, usually the issue is dumb stuff by the engineering staff.
What About Cables?
Cables are definitely a point of failure. But at a well-run studio, there shouldn’t be ANY broken or intermittent mic cables, patch cords, guitar cables, speaker cables, etc. Because a well-run studio staff pulls broken cables out of use IMMEDIATELY and either fixes them or tosses them.
Seriously, there is no excuse for a session to grind to a halt because the absolute cheapest thing is broken. What the fuck is that about? Fix it or chuck it.
If, during a session, a cable seems dicy, pull it out of use and tie a knot in it, and either throw it into the shop area or into a box or in the corner where no one will use it. After the session, test it thoroughly. Wiggle the wire near the connectors, etc. If it makes noise or cuts out, fix it or toss it. But do NOT put it back on the cable rack or in the cable closet. I was at a shitty studio for a few days that kept returning broken cables to the rack after we packed up. So, I when I found a bad one I’d cut a connector off with a pair of wire cutters I had with me. Fuck ‘em.
I was never a house engineer; I was a freelancer. And I would work in studios ranging from the best in the world to the worst in the neighborhood. I had a cable tester in my “producers toolbox,” and one of the first things I would do at session in a strange studio was test a bunch of cables. If I found a bad one, then I learned something about the way the studio was run. But more importantly, I now had a pool of cables that I knew worked, so that would be the cables I would use for the duration of the session.
I integrated this testing into my workflow. Generally, I started projects tracking the basic tracks live in the studio. So, that initial session might have 20 or more microphones and cables in use. The perfect time to test everything was during that initial set-up.
Cables do break, but yet again, usually it is dumb stuff by a person that is causing the problem. Get a cable tester. Use it a lot.
This is an acronym: KISS means “Keep it Simple, Stupid,” and ASS means “Always Something Stupid” or “Always Something Simple."
KISS is naturally how you want to proceed in general in the studio, because if you’re keeping things simple, you can typically work faster. One mic is a lot faster to set up than eight, one mic will have no phase problems compared to having eight, etc. And eight mics plugged in means eight mics to break, eight cables to break, eight mic preamps to be set wrong, eight phantom power switches you forgot to press down. Tons of points for failure.
But you can’t always keep it simple, things get complex. Complex is fun, but it does have higher screw-up potential.
ASS.... always something stupid/simple. 90% of the time when I think something is broken in the studio, it’s that I patched it wrong. Or it's set to Line when it should be set to Mic. Or it's bypassed. Or it’s plugged into input #10 and I’m bringing up the fader on input #11. Or someone is singing into the wrong side of the microphone (unbelievably, this has happened. More than once!). Or it's turned off.
Start by looking for something simple and stupid: a human mistake.
But First - TURN THE VOLUME DOWN
Before you try to fix anything, drop the monitor volume way way down, so you don’t damage speakers or ears throwing switches and pulling patches. There’s nothing that says idiot more than breaking more things while troubleshooting.
It’s nice if you can mute things entirely and go by the meters, but if I have my head behind a rack and I can’t see the meters, then I don’t know what the hell is working or not. So, at least make sure you lower the speakers way down, but leave them up enough that you can hear something.
Of course, if what is going through all your gear sounds like a square wave then keep everything down. Loud, continuous, distorted digital noise is to be avoided. Use. Your. Peanut.
Look at the Lights and Meters
Make a noise at the source and look at the meters. Does the preamp light up? Does the compressor meter kick to the left? Wherever the lights and meters stop working first in the signal chain is where your problem lies.
Check the Buttons, Switches, Knobs
Check all these on all the gear in the signal chain. Chances are the problem is a Mic/Line switch, or something is bypassed, or the volume is down, etc. Is there a trim turned down? Is there a knob that has a switch in it, and you have to lift the knob or press it down - this was a common SSL problem. Phantom power on? Hidden level control in the goddamn plug-in panel?
Check Your Patching
It’s so easy to fuck up a patch. On a dense patchbay, where you can barely read anything and there are cables going everywhere and the whole thing looks like worms at a swinger party, patching really requires paying attention. Don’t be embarrassed if you screw up a patch.
Double check your patching. Make sure output goes to input. Make sure you’re not off by one row or point in the patchbay. Make sure you pushed the cable down all the way. Make sure some damn assistant didn’t slip in a phased reversed cable because he wants to “test you” (true story.... bastard).
Be ANal about Patching
If you want to be anal, which is not a bad thing in the studio, patch things one at a time. This is a really good idea if you’re working with unfamiliar gear or in a new studio or setup.
Start with the source, get it to the output, and confirm that you’ve got sound. Then add the compressor, and confirm you have sound. Then add the EQ or whatever, and confirm you’ve got sound. This is a slow way to go, but this is an excellent way to avoid problems and learn. I find I do this a lot especially when I’m interfacing my DAW with analog outboard. It helps me to find and fix latency issues, which, coming from my analog background, is sort of an “unnatural" thing for me.
Another trick: say what you’re doing out loud. I still do this: Preamp out to compressor in.... compressor out to EQ in... It keeps mistakes from happening, especially when the patchbay gets crowded. Saying it out loud also slows you down a bit. Yes, engineering should happen quickly, but taking a slow moment while setting up allows for faster overall speed later. And NOTHING in the world feels worse than trying to find a problem while the clients are watching you, waiting for you to figure it out.
Confirm What Is Working
Well, now you’re sweating, because you’ve checked all the obvious stuff and it still ain't working. So, you might have a genuine gear issue on your hands... I still would bet you patched shit wrong and just missed seeing it, but I digress...
Take a deep breath or two and start swapping out one element of the signal chain at a time.
So, if you’re using a microphone, a cable, and a preamp, after checking all the switches and the patching, because ASS, swap the cable and see if you get sound. If swapping the cable doesn’t change anything, then swap the mic. Still no change? Swap the preamp. Don’t swap more than one thing at a time, because then you don’t know what is causing the problem.
What is very handy is having two fairly identical signal chains to test against each other. If you’re in a drum session and you can’t hear the kick mic but you can hear the snare, unplug the cable from the kick mic and plug it into the snare mic. If you can’t hear the snare, then the problem is on the kick’s signal chain. If you can hear the snare, then the issue is with the kick mic.
Simplify the Signal Chain
If you have a mic plugged into a preamp plugged into a gate plugged into a compressor plugged into an EQ plugged into an interface, that’s a lot of points of failure.
Find the problem by simplifying the signal chain. Speak into the mic. Is the preamp lighting up? If it is, patch the output of the preamp right into the interface and see if you get sound. If you do, you now know the problem is between the gate and the EQ. So, patch into the preamp output into the gate, and patch the gate output into the interface. Can you hear it? Repeat this process, cursing liberally, until the problem is solved.
If you’re in a digital situation, do the same thing. Figure out a way to get the source directly to the output, confirm the source is working, and go from there.
Avoid Problems in the First Place
The easiest way to solve problems is to not have them. Keep your gear in good shape. Fix or toss bad cables immediately.
Dust everything and vacuum often. Dust screws up everything. Be careful that your control room chair isn’t running over cables.
If a channel or a preamp or piece of outboard dies, either pull it from the rack or put a piece of artists tape on it. Now, use your peanut here. I was in a session and we found a blown channel on the console, so I told the assistant, who was a dumbass, to mark it, so he put a HUGE piece of tape over the channel and wrote BLOWN!!! and drew flames and fire all over it. Yeah, that’s EXACTLY what we want the client to think, that the studio is shitty and on fire. What a fucking idiot. I put a piece of tape on the fader and another over the mute button.
I’ll have to compile my best moron assistant stories one of these days.
Have great sessions and make great music.