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Living in the Near Field

FOH Staff • October 2020On the Digital Edge • October 11, 2020

Backstreet Boys FOH engineer James McCullagh used VUE Audiotechnik i-8 near-fields on the band’s 2019 DNA tour.

A few weeks ago, I worked a show — which is a small miracle in 2020. When I advanced it, the systems tech offered to bring a set of near-field monitors for use at front-of-house. He explained that it might be easier to use near-fields for cueing instead of tangling up headphones with the masks that everyone would be wearing due to Covid-19 protocol. I thought it was a great idea, because I wouldn’t have to worry about disinfecting my cans every time I picked them up from the console, and it would prevent the need for me to hand off my ‘phones to another engineer in the “heat of battle” if I wanted them to hear a problem with a line coming from the stage. I’m not crazy about using other people’s headphones (and vice versa) to start, and with the pandemic still raging, there’s no way I’m sharing them with anyone. Using near-fields solved that problem nicely.

‡‡         Hello, Sweden!

I think the first time I used near-field monitors in a live setting was at the 1998 Sweden Rock festival. If you’ve never been, Sweden Rock is a huge, multi-day outdoor festival held annually outside the town of Sölvesborg. I was supposed to be there with Blue Öyster Cult this past June, but like almost all of the shows on our 2020 schedule, Sweden Rock was cancelled due to the pandemic. As of late, the festival runs five stages, and the main stages alternate: while an act performs on one stage, the next act sets up and line checks on the other. Break times between acts are minimal — just enough to allow patrons to walk from one stage to another — so there’s no time for sound checks. You do what you can while your crew has the stage before your set is scheduled to start. Given the fact that festivals like this can be a nightmare, the production is impressive: the stage crew are on the ball, audio and lighting folks are top-notch, and in my experience the whole thing runs like a well-oiled machine.

When I stepped up to the FOH platform, I was astonished at the physical size of the area. At the time, there were no digital consoles being used in live sound (the Yamaha PM1D wouldn’t arrive until 2001), so there were multiple analog desks and tons of effects racks at FOH. Some of them were on tour with the artists, and some of them were provided by the festival, enabling engineers to start patching and dialing up their channels while a different act was performing. No joke, I had to stroll 10 or 12 feet from behind my desk to reach some of the outboard gear. And of course, the length of my headphone cable meant that the cans weren’t coming with me.

You can’t have your P.A. live until it’s time for your set, and although checking channels in headphones is a start, it doesn’t give you any sort of opportunity to dial in a mix. That’s where the near-fields helped. The systems tech fed the near-fields from the console’s cue output. When I cued or soloed a channel, it was routed to the near-fields as well as the headphones. Yay! I could stroll over to a rack and adjust the gate on the kick drum while listening to the channel on the speakers. Since the P.A. was muted and the active band was performing on another stage (using a different FOH platform), I could make some noise and not bother anyone. By cueing the L/R bus, I was even able to dial in a bit of a drum mix, and while that’s no substitute for a proper sound check. it tends to lower my blood pressure a little bit.

‡‡         Go Hide Under the Balcony

A common setting where near-fields come in really handy is in a theater where the mix position is underneath a balcony or at the back of the orchestra section, making it difficult to hear the house P.A. This arrangement often requires a lot of walking around to get a handle on what the audience is hearing out in the room. You may find that if the mix sounds balanced and has an articulate top-end when heard from behind the desk, that same top-end will rip your head off when you listen from a seat in the orchestra section. That’s because high-frequency coverage from the house P.A. is often attenuated under the balcony due either to the dispersion pattern of the P.A. or reduced throw of the boxes to the rear of the venue. Near-fields can help fill this in. Set the volume level for the near-fields to a point where you feel like you moved closer to the P.A. system, and stop there. During the show, you can turn them on and off to sort of calibrate your ears. This can also be helpful for gigs where the mix position is too far from the P.A. for you to really hear any detail, or when you have a severe SPL restriction and can’t turn up the P.A. loud enough to get a feel for the mix at FOH.

If you have visions of placing a pair of JBL VT4886s at the FOH position, think again, more along the lines of a traditional box with an 8- or 10-inch woofer. The speakers shouldn’t obstruct sightlines or be loud enough for the audience to hear. Some engineers like to use studio monitors, but the sound of a small front-fill box might be more in the ballpark of the P.A.

‡‡         Expect Some Delays

Two things to beware of when using near-fields at FOH are arrival time and phase. You’ll be closer to the near-fields than you are to the house P.A. so — unless the near-fields are delayed — sound from the near-fields will arrive at your ears sooner than sound from the house P.A. A laser tape measure can help you get a handle on the distance between the house P.A. and your FOH near-fields. Once you know that distance, you can dial in a delay for the near-fields. Start with roughly 1 millisecond of delay per foot of distance, then fine-tune it using a click played simultaneously through the P.A. and the near-fields. Next, reverse the phase (polarity) of the near-fields and listen to what happens to the bottom-end. The output setup page on most digital consoles offer access to delay time and phase for each output. In some cases, the bottom-end will get weaker and in other rooms it will get stronger. Walk the room and listen to see which phase setting corresponds more closely to what the audience hears. Under-balcony mix positions can often be bass traps, so in some rooms, you may want to roll off the LF on the near-fields.

If you’re running tracks or sound effects from a playback device, near-fields provide an easy way to cue those sounds without taking your ears off the house mix. It’s probably not a great idea to rely upon only the near-fields for your mix, because they’ll have a very different sonic personality from that of the main P.A. But they can definitely be helpful in a variety of applications.

Steve “Woody” La Cerra is the tour manager and FOH engineer for Blue Öyster Cult.

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