Kim Watson on Mixing and Teching Monitors

image1What goes into being a great tech that engineers request or want to work with? The fourth in a series of articles on system teching and what it takes to be a great tech.

UK based sound engineer Kim Watson has been a freelance audio engineer since 1999.  She is currently touring with The Subways as a monitor engineer. 

Questions From SG Members:
As a girl who has completed her formal education in audio and is still working on the networking part. When people ask what I do, I never know what to say because there are so many terms that can describe what abilities and knowledge I have. I didn’t even realize there were “system techs” for Monitors and FOH until I read the SoundGirls blog. I know that everything I’ve learned about sound and signal processing/electronics, etc . would easily make me by definition a “system tech. But does that mean I should consider myself a sound engineer and technician?

I used to see sound engineer is an all-encompassing term, an ability to do everything. On smaller shows, the sound engineer is also expected to be the system tech. As productions get bigger, the individual jobs begin to separate. With people maybe training as stage tech first and moving up as they learn each job skill set. However, we all have worked with “engineers” who know how to mix but couldn’t tech a show. I think with formal education people can side step into the mix engineers roll and bypass the hard work of learning to tech systems, and it is becoming a very separate line of work. I’d say if you know the ins and outs of the system and can repair any issues you are a tech, if you are mixing, you are a sound engineer.

What type of equipment do you use for room measurement?

I am running Rational Acoustics Smaart V7, Using an Edirol USB 101 interface. I carry two microphones, Behringer $30 measurement mic and an Earthworks M30. I use the Behringer mic in situations where people are likely to knock over my mic in say a muddy field. I tend to use Smaart mainly back in the warehouse for programming processors to systems and as a fault finding tool. In the field, I tend only to use it if things like subs need realigning if the PA isn’t set up correctly. System measurement is also very handy for going through mic stock and getting rid of ones that are now aged and not sounding right. Sometimes its as simple as a new grill as the old one is gunked up. For some reason, people spend thousands on a fantastic state of the art sound system but are using mics that are well past their sell-by date. Just upgrading old microphones can have a significant impact to the sound even on cheaper systems.

What have you worked with in the past and how does it compare to what you use and how you can do your job now?

For me, the biggest change in systems from past to now is the use of digital and the prominence of line arrays. I started out on an old Turbosound TSE system with a Sound Trax Megas Analogue desk. For me, the explosion of digital was a huge advantage. I got in early and attended seminars by all the manufacturers. Digico, Midas, Yamaha & Digidesign. Digital consoles have made my life easier. As a venue tech when you have 20 mins to soundcheck two bands and can recall a pre-made festival scene, patch it and have most of the monitors already dialed in is a game changer.
However despite the ease of digital desks they do have issues. System techs don’t know all consoles and companies don’t always consider this. You may find you know more about the desk you have today than the tech that is meant to be looking after you. Also digital was meant to end the culture of needing six desks on deck at a festival or show. It hasn’t. Just yesterday I was on stage with only the first band on an eight-band bill using the house monitor board (Pro2). I am guilty of taking my board in (ls9) rather than using the house. Why? Consistency for the band. My pro2 file isn’t anywhere near as good as my ls9 file because of a lot fewer hours spent on the Pro2. My looms etc. are all wired into my board ready to go. Would have had to tip it to remove the looms so I used our desk.
Line arrays have reduced the manpower required to stack the PA system. Two people with a motor control can easily fly a line array, in the past huge amounts of crew were needed to stack point source systems in the same size venues. I find as a female who freely admits I can’t lift as much as the guys the line array really increases what I can do. I toured with a Turbosound Aspect point source system on the Brit Floyd Tour (ESS supplied), and it was very hard physical work. Switching to a tour with a line array took away the exhaustion I felt on the tour with the point source.

What sort of ear training should be done to help in tuning monitors?

The best way to learn tuning monitors is to set up a pair of wedges and go for it. When I learned the PA boss would “drive” the eq while I was on the mic. Progressed from making noises at him and shouting “that frequency” that he would then name for me. To making a connection between the noise my voice made and the frequency. Having a Real time Analyser is great but isn’t as quick at making those connections. Another good way is to have a mic and talk and ask them to lift a frequency a little. “Show me 200hz” see what it does tonally to your voice.
Ear training apps are good but don’t relate the sound to your voice. They are good for quick feedback squeaks, though.

Have there been any helpful books or training courses that you would recommend?

I have a quite extensive library of sound books. My favorite at the moment is Bob McCarthy’s “sound system design and optimisation” awesome book. It will fry your brain.
Course wise, get out there and do as many digital console training courses you can. For system alignment, go with Meyer Sound. Their courses are pricey but are worth every penny. I have done the five-day comprehensive system design and the five day Sim3 (their version of measurement software) courses.

What are the job duties of a stage tech vs. a monitor tech?

Stage tech usually deals with everything on the stage, mics, stands, xlr, stage boxes and backline power. Usually, one of the stage techs or the monitor tech takes responsibility for patch. Monitor tech usually deals with wedges, speaker cables, amps, monitor desk, and any radio gear (mics or IEM) that are on the show. But most times on smaller shows and tours to save money the monitor tech does both jobs.

Questions from SoundGirls.Org

You currently tour with The Subways as their ME, do you carry production? If so what company are you using? Do you have a dedicated tech?

With The Subways, I carry a monitor package. Desk LS9, split, IEMs, stage boxes, mics and riser looms. I started carrying microphones because we would arrive in some venues, and the mics were 100 years old and sounded terrible. The band is all on IEMs, Ultimate Ears UE18s, so carrying the whole package gives them a very consistent stage sound. It doesn’t matter what size venue we do I still plug up our whole channel list for the ears and only give FOH the channels he needs. The band owns all the gear apart from the microphones and LP claws that are mine. For the band, this was a strategic purchase early on. The cost of hiring for this amount of time would have more than doubled over the cost of buying. So they went for a small format desk, some consider low-end desk, but it more than does the job. Plus the band then have access to the gear for rehearsals. I don’t have a tech, and I handle those responsibilities myself.

How do you prioritize your job duties and tech duties?

With The Subways, I am doing both jobs I have to prioritize the soundcheck times over fixing things. So sometimes if a cable is down say, I will put another on in or borrow one from the venue to make sound check happen. Then I will repair and re-line check with our techs after the band has gone. I have in the past taken the split home in between shows to repair at home rather than on a gig.

Teching for a FOH or Monitor Engineer requires a certain set of skills. What do you feel are the important skills your monitor tech should possess?

Monitor techs need to know the desk they are teching, know how to tune RF, and to fault find as they will be the ones running around fixing stuff if it goes down.

FOH and Monitor Techs are often required to help the engineer achieve their vision and goals. How can a tech help the engineer see his/her vision come to fruition?
Being consistent day-to-day with the setup, helping research any technical questions if they/you don’t know answers.

Engineers and Techs that have worked together for several tours or years often compliment each other have complete trust in each other and work together as a team. What do you feel is needed to gain confidence and trust in your tech?

There gets a point when you are working with someone over a long period where you begin to know what makes each other tick, and you know what they are thinking. To get to that point is a two-way street. You both need to be working on the same page. Both know if there is a problem what channel it will be patched too without even communicating. It is pure magic. I had this with my FOH Engineer Barry, I was on monitors. We did a festival together and barely spoke a word of tech all weekend because it was all just done. Even now I come across people who for some reason or another we click in the same way.

Some engineers rely solely on their techs to set up and tune the rig each day; others are very hands-on and involved in every stage of set up. What do you expect from your tech?

I tend to be very hands on and slip on to the team. I’m not the kind of engineer who walks up to the desk and expects it all done for me. History has meant that I fought all the way pushing so hard to step up the ladder that I am used to working hard and wouldn’t expect everything done for me.

Sometimes your tech might have less experience than you – the engineer How do you navigate around this – as let’s face it training someone on the job is not always optimum?

I have had from time to time techs that are young and eager to learn. I usually walk through something new with them and get them to do it the next day on their own. Normally in the time spent waiting for bands to show up. If someone is interested, I will always find time to help them out or explain something. That is how I learned. If people have not got the knowledge to do the job I to tend to take over and get them organised. I need my show to happen smoothly!

What can a tech do to become irreplaceable?

Both for tech and engineer it is being the best you can be, and be someone the rest of the team want to be around on the bus.

How important is it for FOH and Stage to be working together?

It is so important FOH, and Stage work together. How many shows have you been on where FOH has started to linecheck, and the monitor person is still helping to patch the stage or still doing the patch. “They’ll catch up” is usually what FOH says but we shouldn’t have to. I got in the habit of keeping Talk to stage muted until we were ready to go. A company I work for has come up with a traffic light system to indicate if you are at the board or not. Red – there is a problem, I’ve stepped away. Yellow – dealing with someone/ something. Green – at the board ready to line check. Quite clever.

As systems become more technically advanced, how necessary is it to have to learn or to be certified on the different systems?

It is certainly becoming more important to be certified/ do the setup training for different systems. Even if it is just to understand how the flyware works. Every system is different, and there are many places say an inexperienced person could trap a finger. These days each system has aiming software and communication to boxes or amps. These can be a minefield if you have never used it before.

If so what training would you recommend?
I think for all size productions any form of training from the manufacturing companies is important. As desks become more network based even formal qualifications in computing come in handy. I also think formal electrical training can become a life saver, I want to do that myself but haven’t yet found the downtime to do it.

What is important in a festival situation?

Festivals are a different beast to indoor shows. You have water from rain to contend with as well as exceptional heat in some places. Just knowing self-survival helps a lot.

What equipment and tools do you feel that every monitor tech needs to know how to use?

I carry a Pelican with the world of tools.
Soldering iron
Multi-head screwdriver
Terminal Driver
A bag of bodgers (f-f m-m y split)
RF analyser
Tape, sharpies, Anti bacterial wipes
Electric drill
Rat Sniffer and a cable tester.

Out of all my tools, the soldering iron, Leatherman and screwdriver can fix just about everything. If you can’t solder, get one and a mic cable and practice. Someday you will walk into a venue, and they will only have four working mic leads, and you need 16. Get the broken ones and fix them, and at a good guess if their mic cables are that bad I’d test the house multi core too. May save you a lot of headaches later!


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