We have talked a lot about the new Presonus mix system that I have now been using for about six months. To review, the RM32AI is a badass mix system that combines 32 inputs and 16 aux mixes in a 4U rack box and marries it to a software package called UC Surface that allows me to mix FOH and monitors for my 8-piece band using my Mac and an iPad for wireless control. You can check out the review of that system HERE.
What we have not touched on yet is the “extras.” The software that comes with the system. In addition to UC Surface, you get Capture for recording tracks and Studio One for mixing them. And we did just that.
For this outing we headed back out to the Casablanca Resort in bustling Mesquite, NV. This was all done on a five-night run in July.
The SkyDome Lounge in the Casablanca is a tough room. As the name suggests, the room is a dome with the stage on one “side.” The lounge seating and dancing area takes up most of the rest of the lounge but not all of it. Mixing in a room with a domed ceiling about 40 feet tall is hard enough. But it is made harder by the fact that the “end” of the dome opposite the stage actually dumps right over the gaming tables and a bar OUTSIDE of the lounge. Any of you who have worked casino gigs know that volume is a big deal. And with an 8-piece with a horn section, we are constantly fighting to keep it loud enough to keep the dancers happy and soft enough to keep the pit bosses happy. It is a delicate balance.
It is made even tougher by the fact that the stage is large and the monitoring is no where close to sufficient for an 8-piece band. You get four mixes and four good-sounding DAS powered wedges. It is not enough for us. We have played that stage 30 times in the past 12 months and have another run scheduled for September. And until the runs after I got the RM32AI, keeping stage volume down and making sure everyone could hear a decent mix was really impossible with just those wedges and four mixes.
So for the last two runs, I have taken the RM32AI and ran a split from the house inputs and did the monitors my own bad self. It has been a huge improvement. We have a few people on in-ears including me and drummer Kevin Brennan (who plays to a click) which frees up the wedges for where they are needed. Taking us out of the wedge picture allows us to have dedicated wedge mixes for the singer, bass player, keyboard player (both of whom sing) and the horn section. It is still a compromise with the horns but it is a better situation than we used to have.
After one run doing our own monitors, I upped the game and decided to record. And the beauty of it was how easy it was.
I ran Capture on the same MacBook Pro that runs the UC Surface software and was able to “capture” a full multi-track recording of three nights of five sets each.
Once we got things into place, it was pretty simple. But getting it there took a bit of doing. If I have one bit of bitching to do about this system it is in the documentation. There are some things that are just not as intuitive as i would like. Of course, i hardly ever RTFM so that undoubtably made it worse for me. On the first night we tried this, we would have had a train wreck if the band were not extremely well-rehearsed and made up of pro players who know how to deal with a challenging situation.
First, just getting audio to Capture meant i was backstage culling through posts on the Presonus forums trying to figure out why Capture would only see a stereo output and not all of the individual channels of the mix. It turns out that you need to reboot the Mac (I assume it is the same for a PC) after first launching the program in order to access the driver that allows Capture to talk to the RM32AI. Once I figured that out, it looked like we were ready to rock.
And this is where i ran into snag #2. There is a virtual button that was inadvertently engaged in the master section. It is not labeled and the look of the button does not really tell you what it does. And what it does… It was capturing audio but not passing it through to the box for our mix outs. We ended up playing an entire set with ZERO monitors until I—quite honestly—accidentally found the button in question and disengaged it. from that point forward all was good.
The split can only do 16 channels. So with a few XLR Y cables, we were able to bring that up to 18. Kick. Snare, hat, and overheads for the drums. Bass and keys direct. A mic on the Leslie. Another mic on my Mesa-Boogie Mark III guitar amp. Clip-on Pro35 Audio-Technica condensers on each of the horns and five vocal mics, Everything was recorded to a portable USB drive attached to the Mac.
When I got back home, I took my first real look and test drive with Studio One. In a word where there are more DAWs than there are musicians and engineers in the world, I will admit that i thought Presonus was nuts when they announced their own. But i was wrong. Studio One is a very workable and robust mixing system and i barely scratched the surface of what it can do. (UPDATE: I am still on the first release of Studio One 3. I found out only while fact checking this that the current version is 3.0.2 and it includes some new features and bug fixes.)
Because the software to record and the software to mix is made by the same company, they talked to each other with relative ease. I literally took the Capture metadata file and did the old drag and drop onto the Studio One icon and out popped a session ready to go with all of the recorded tracks ready to mix. I’m still not sure what i did wrong, but the first time I tried it, all of the channel names came into Studio One and the second time they did not. It turns out that it was a simple step that I missed. (Again on that ease of use thing and a better quickstart…) It is possible to save the RM mixer scene in Capture and when you open the file in Studio One you will have all of the routing an Fat Channel EQs comps etc. Not reverb or delays.
Because I missed that part of the memo, I got to do it by hand. Once I go the raw tracks into Studio One, I was able to apply the Fat Channel for EQ, comps and gates to each channel individually.
When you are saving the session/set/gig in Capture be sure to keep this in mind. Not everyone is going to want to use the Fat Channel. I have been mixing on the Presonus StudioLive stuff for long enough that I am totally familiar and comfortable with the layout on operation. SO for me it works.
I did not have to use a lot more than the Fat Channel for the mixes and used only the effects that come as part of the package. A vocal doubler on the backing vocal tracks, a bit of reverb and a tiny touch of delay to fatten it up.
I was pretty happy with the pure audio mix. In fact, We shot a ton of video and I muted the camera audio in iMovie and replaced it with the mixed down tracks for Capture and Studio One. I ended up unmuting the camera mic and adding maybe 10% of it back to the mix for the videos. That gave it a bit more of a live vibe. My keyboard player, Bill McClirk, owns a pro studio and mixes me under the table when it comes to studio stuff and he described the tracks as sounding like “a really good bootleg.” For our purposes, that is what we wanted. The videos needed to sound live and not like they were the product of lip-synching to a pre-recorded track. Which is the way most of the bands in Vegas do their promo videos.
I ended up posting a whopping 21 full songs to our YouTube channel. You can check out those results HERE.
It has worked out really well for us. As a direct result of those videos, we have been booked for a total of 26 dates at two more casino venues—one in Vegas and one in Laughlin. The gigs are shorter than one we play out in Mesquite and pay about 50% more per person per night. So the effort put into this experiment which I originally did just for the purposes of this review, was more than worth what i put into it.
So, to sum up…
Great software. OK documentation. It is not that the manuals are not complete, it is more that—let’s be real here—most of us do not have time to wade through a huge manual. And this goes for companies across the board and not just Presonus. Like so may other things with the digital age, we expect to be able to find the info we need with very little searching to get to it. And as the weapons we use to search get more advanced—be they Google or Duck Duck Go (my search engine of choice) or the new Spotlight features for the Mac OS that allow for natural language searches—our tolerance for not being able to put our hands on the info we need almost instantaneously goes down by the day. I am hoping that the ability to search within PDF documents that will be a big part of the next Mac OS release (I am running a beta version of El Capitan on my Mac now) will make this all easier. Until that is really working and rocking like it needs to, it would behoove software companies to put some more time and effort into expanded Quick Start instructions with direct answers to the most commonly asked questions faster and easier to get to.
But at the end of the run and about a week spent mixing and editing video, we got results that worked for us and brought us more and better gigs. And that “week” was really a total of maybe 25 hours total. And at least 2/3 of that time was spent on the videos. I got a good, solid audio mix of about 10 hours of performances with maybe seven hours of work at home after the gig. And now that i am more familiar and comfortable with Studio One, I am betting that i can mix the next batch in half that much time. We are not going for a commercial CD mix here, just a good, solid representation of what the band sounds like live.
Prior to this setup, I had tried recording at least a dozen gigs with combinations of camera mics and a Blue Yeti Pro USB mic feeding a stereo input direct to the Mac. Some of them sounded… OK. Not great. Nothing that was gonna bring in more work. As far as i am concerned, those additional more than 25 gigs say everything that needs to be said about this system. Once you get the hang of it, the combination of a StudioLive mixer, Capture and Studio One is really all any band at this level needs for good live recordings. And for software that comes free with the mixer, that, IMHO is saying a lot.