Intro: How to Run an Analog Soundboard
In this instructable, I am going to go over the basics of running an analog soundboard. Many people can get overwhelmed with all of the knobs and buttons and such on a soundboard, but it's nothing to be afraid of. Once you learn one channel, then the rest are exactly the same. (In most cases.) For this instructable, I will be showing how to run a small Berhinger board because I am not allowed to take pictures of the boards I use for other companies, so I have to use my personal equipment. Running a small board is the same as a large board, the only difference is that there are less channels, so there is less that you can do with it.
Also, keep in mind that a Berhinger board is one of the cheapest you can possibly buy, and you get what you pay for. So if you are buying a board and there is the slightest chance that you can afford a better brand, you should defiantly get a better brand than Berhinger.
I will not cover how to run a digital board, since all digital boards are completely different from each other. Even if I showed you how to run one digital board, there wouldn't be much you could glean from that if you were using another board.
I am starting with the assumption that you know how to make the connections to the board, which is pretty self-explanatory. If you are not familiar with making these connections, then there is a very nice instructable here that covers that. You may also contact me if you have any questions regarding this or any other sound issue, and I will either help you over the internet, or I can refer you to an AV consultant in your area.
Step 1: Adjusting Loudness
There are two main adjustments on a sound board for the loudness. The gain is the pot (aka knob) at the top of the channel, and the volume is the fader at the bottom of the channel. The "textbook" way to mix sound would be to bring your volume to unity (Unity is 0db on the volume, which is aprox. 3/4 of the way between the bottom and the top) and make all of your adjustments at the gain. However, this is not normally practical, unless you are only mixing one mic. I normally make my more permanent adjustments at the gain, and my more temporary adjustments at the volume. Please note that if you have having issues with feedback or clipping (see my instructable "Audio Problems" for more information), you should make your adjustments at the gain. Also note that as you adjust your EQ (see step 3), you will be adjusting the loudness of specific frequencies, which may make it seem like your volume is louder.
You can also adjust your overall volume with your main faders. There are three basic configurations of main faders (aka mains): Mono, Combined stereo (Where the left and right are controlled by one fader), and split stereo (where there is a left and a right fader). There are some boards which will have both a mono main and a combined stereo main.
Step 2: Assigning the Audio
Now that you know how to adjust the volume of the mics, you need to know how to route the signal to the speakers. This is called assigning. For now we will only deal with the main outputs, and not the aux sends or matrix.
The audio can be assigned directly to the main outputs, or to a sub fader. More than one channel of audio can be assigned to sub faders and the main outputs, and each channel of audio can belong to more than one sub fader and to the mains. (Although, if you are using sub faders, then I wouldn't suggest assigning the channel to the mains as well.)
Sub faders are used when you have a group of channels that you want to adjust together. (They can be grouped in types of channels, a bunch of mics that need to be turned on together, etc... the options are endless.) I will usually use the following groups for bands: Vocals, drums, keys, guitars, etc. This allows you to adjust the group of musicians as a whole (using the sub fader) or individually (using the individual channel).
Sub faders are usually in stereo, which means that you will be sending the audio to two sub faders. If your output is mono, then you can pan one of these sub faders to the left and one to the right, then pan one of your groups to the left another to the right. This will allow you to use each sub fader individually. If you keep everything paned to the center, it will cut the available sub faders in half. The pan adjustment is usually a pot (or knob) above the sub fader. In some cheaper boards (such as mine), there will only be a switch for left and right assignment. This is really all that you need, and I actually prefer the left and right assignment switches. (Of course, for live events I mix in mono 99% of the time.) Make sure that you have your sub faders assigned to the mains if there is a assignment option. This is normally used if you have more than one main output (such as mono and stereo).
The assignment switches will usually be either above the volume fader, or next to it. On my board, they are next to it.
Step 3: Equalizing the Audio
The EQ or equalizer adjusts how the audio sounds. You can amplify or turn down different frequencies by using the eq pots.
The "correct" reference to different frequecies would be "Highs" (Commonly called "Treble"), "High Mids", "Mids", "Low Mids", and "Lows" (Commonly called "Bass"). If you ever use the terms treble or bass in the pro-audio world, you will be laughed right out of the sound booth. Just a warning. ;)
There is no way to explain how to mix eqs in this short instructable, it changes based on every little thing. This is where the art of mixing comes in. Some general rules:
1. Don't use too much low end. I can always tell when an amateur is mixing by the fact that they will always use too much low end. You can use some, but don't be the 13 year old kid who walks into a booth and turns it up all the way.
2. Don't use too much of any frequency. I can't tell you how often I am EQing (I generally close my eyes when EQing... just one of my quirks), and once I get it sounding good, I look down and all the frequencies are very close to one another.
3. Don't use the same EQ settings for each channel. One of the reasons I close my eyes when I am EQing is that if I am looking at what I am doing, I end up trusting my eyes more than my ears.
Some boards will have what's called a "sweepable" frequency. This means that you can select exactly what frequency you are adjusting in the range of your "highs" "mids" and "lows". This is a great feature once you have practice EQing, but when you are just learning, it's better to just use a few adjustments at a time.
Another notable feature on most boards is the low cut. This will take out frequencies that are not needed for vocals. This can help cut back on feedback, so I strongly recommend using it on vocal mics.
Step 4: Aux Sends
Aux sends are extra outputs. You set which channels go to which aux send and what their volumes are with the pot for the respective aux send. Some expensive boards have lots of aux sends, some cheaper boards don't have many aux sends at all.
Generally aux sends are used for monitors, video feed, etc. They can either be pre-fader (unaffected by whatever you do with the volume fader) or post-fader (They will automatically be adjusted by whatever you do with the volume fader). The "textbook" way to mix would be to use pre-fader, however, this is generally not practical. If you use pre-fader, when you turn the channel off, the aux send will not turn off. Pre-fader is selected on each channel, so you choose based on your needs how you run your aux sends.
Another type of output is a matrix, however, I don't have matrix outputs on this board, so I will not attempt to show how to set matrix. Some boards differ as to how to set matrix anyways, so consult your board's manual as to how to set them if you have them. They are generally used if you have different speaker zones. (Such as if you are mixing in an auditorium, and you have speakers in lobbies, basements, bathrooms, etc.)
Step 5: Different Techniques for Turning Channels on and Off
There are a few different techniques for turning channels on and off.
1. Using mute buttons. Using this technique, you will bring all of the volume faders up to unity (see step 1 for definition), and press the mute buttons when you want to turn a channel on. This is a very easy technique to master, however it has some dis-advantages over other techniques.
2. Using volume faders. (My personal preference) Using this technique, you will leave all of the channels un-muted. You will then bring all of the volume faders down when you want the channels off, and bring them up to unity (see step 1 for definition) when you want to turn them on. This is harder to master than using mute buttons, but it has a few advantages. One of the advantages of bringing faders up and down is that it makes it easier to glance down at your board and see what channels are on as opposed to looking at tiny LED mute lights. Another is that it is less harsh if there is sound already coming through the channel than when you turn it on using mute buttons.
3. Using sub groups. Using this technique, you will leave all of the channels in a group at unity (see step 1 for definition), and un-muted. When you want to turn a group of channels on, you will bring their sub fader up to aprox. unity. This technique only works for groups of channels, and can either be a help or a hindrance depending on your situation.
4. Programming. Using digital boards and some analog boards with mute programing, you can program scenes where channels will turn on and off automatically. I personally do not like this for live sound, because sound changes with every little thing. (Such as number of people in a room, temperature, humidity, etc.) Once you know a board like the back of your hand, you can get away with this for live sound, and it can be useful for recording.
Step 6: Soloing a Channel
Soloing a channel is very useful for initial setup and for troubleshooting. When you solo channels, only the channels you have soloed will show up in the audio level meter, and be heard through the headphones. There are two different types of soloing: PFL (Pre-Fader-Listen) and AFL (After-Fader-Listen). PFL will allow you to hear the channels without having to bring up the faders, whereas AFL will require you to bring up the faders. (Although you can still leave the channel muted, or un-assigned with AFL.)
This can help you identify a problematic channel, adjust levels before turning channels on over the speakers, and depending on your character, you could listen in on conversations without broadcasting them over the speakers. ;)
To solo a channel, simply press the button that says "solo", "PFL", "AFL" or in some rare situations "cue". You generally also have a master volume adjustment for your headphones.
Step 7: Conclusion
So I hope that you now have a little bit of understanding of how to run a sound board. If you would like me to cover something specific, or if you think I missed something, please let me know. I am also glad to help with specific problems you may be having with your sound system.
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