Clean the Drill and Dial In the Mix: Five Tips for Optimizing your Field Audio

Mike Lawson • Uncategorized • August 14, 2015

Audio has quickly become a necessity in marching band, and I feel that we all have a love/hate relationship with our field systems. With band camp in full swing and school starting, it is easy to neglect the audio needs of the ensemble, but a little planning now will save a lot of potential headaches in the future. While every audio system is different, here are a few tips for optimizing your field audio for this season.


Equipment and Training
Start with a full inspection of all audio gear and include as many staff as you can convince to help. Many times schools designate one person to be the audio expert, and if that person cannot make a rehearsal or performance then panic ensues. 
Walk through how the system is connected and the signal path order; meaning everyone should understand where sound enters the system (through a mic or instrument), where it travels (cables, snakes, mixer), and how it gets to the audience (output cables, amps, speakers). I always recommend finding as many colors of electrical tape as humanly possible and color-coding all inputs. Tape every mic and cable that is on the same channel in the same color, even down to the input on the snake and the mixer. This will help anyone visually identify the channel connections and quickly diagnose problems.
Inspect every cable carefully, looking for tears or kinks, and replace or tape up cables as needed. Check the microphones and cable connections for dust or dirt build up, and carefully clean these. If your mixer is fan-cooled, inspect the fan for dirt or dust and use some compressed air to clean it out. Also, take a good ol’ leaf blower to your speaker cones and blow out all that accumulated dirt from last season!
Set Up Procedures
It’s never too early to start thinking about the load in and load out procedures for your front ensemble. Have clearly defined audio set up duties for ensemble members, including a pre show sound check. Also include a plan for diagnosing a problem. If something is not sounding, who will diagnose the issue and who will continue with the other needed set up? Too many times I see everyone jump in to help solve an audio problem, which is less efficient, and the rest of the set up duties are neglected.
Samples and Sound Effects
The sound design aspect of the show is crucial, and the number one mistake I hear in most shows is inconsistent sound effect volumes. When setting up samples and sound effects, I prefer to adjust the volume and balance of these sounds throughout band camp and I wait until the last minute to load these on a sample player. Use a free audio editor such as Studio One Prime, Garage Band, or Audacity to trigger the sounds from a computer in rehearsal, allowing you to instantly adjust the volume of individual samples to match the dynamics of the ensemble.  Field audio should be as consistent as possible, so you do not want your sound engineer having to move faders for every sound effect.
Check and Adjust
Just like in the ensemble, you should plan on tweaking the audio throughout the season. I understand that audio is out of most of our comfort zones, and the general consensus is to “set it and forget it”. However, with show design relying more and more on audio effects and front ensemble amplification, it is important to revisit the mixer as the show evolves. The most common need is adjusting volume as the band becomes more confident and plays louder. As you become more adventurous, you may want to start adjusting EQ and balance based on mallet changes, and EQing your system for various stadiums.
Have a Backup Plan
Using electronics outside, with a marching band, in the heat and sometimes rain, rolling the equipment over fields, and constantly connecting and reconnecting the system is just a recipe for disaster. However, I do believe the elements audio brings to a show are worth it. Since most shows are dependent on audio in some ways, I strongly encourage schools to have a backup plan and rehearse it. For example, if the mixer fails, do you have your audio effects backed up on device that you can plug directly into your speakers? Can you quickly plug the solo mic directly into a powered speaker? (This is why I prefer powered speakers on the field.) Be sure to have at least one of each type of cable as a backup, as they do fail. If a part of the show relies entirely on an audio cue for the ensemble, do you have vocal or drum line backup cue in case your audio goes out? If nothing else, do a run through of the show with no audio so if the worst happens, the students will be prepared.
My best advice is to think of audio as early and as often as possible, both conceptually and technically. Do not just add the audio into a conceived show, but integrate the system into the show design just as you would with visual, musical arrangements, percussion arrangements, and drill. For more information on field audio, there are many tutorials and videos at 

By John Mlynczak

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