Production 512: PRO-Bussing (not that kind)

Prod512 Logo 400pxSo in a couple of weeks, I’ll be teaching in an actual academic setting for (almost) the very first time. Along with several other notable people in the biz, I’ll be teaching the fine art of radio production remotely to a Master’s Class of young radio wizard wannabes. While what remains of the pandemic is a minor concern for me, the location makes the “remote” part essential. The school is in Bologna, Italy. Forget the virus, the commute from Austin would kill me.

Naturally while discussing topics with the Grand Master - Lello Orso, things that are very familiar to long-time readers of this space all came bubbling up, creativity being chief among them. Other prime suspects came up as well, like compression, equalization, beat-matching and mixing and reverberation. Another topic I am strongly considering is bussing. “An entire hour on bussing?” you might wonder. You betcha! One of the biggest advantages digital recording offers over the old analog ways is speed, and as I’ve watched people produce in demos at conventions and confabs, even online, I’ve been struck by how so many miss this really cool time-saver.

I remember trying to explain the concept of bussing to an intern of mine at Z100 one day, early on in his internship, and he gave me a great metaphor once he had it figured out: PLUMBING. He was really good that way…making connections that might not be so obvious. I’ll explain.

I had an advantage coming into the production side of radio from the analog world. I started in the Dark Ages, before digital editing had even been conceived by New England Digital, much less expanded and made widely available in the early ‘80s by people like Peter Gotcher and Evan Brooks (the founders of digidesign, now widely known as ProTools, which today is owned by AVID.) One of the important tools we had back then was called a patch bay, which allowed the producer to basically ‘re-wire’ the studio to bring any audio component up on the console on any given fader. IT people know the term patch panel a little better as they are still in use in computer installations all over the world.

Get your engineer to take you into the rack room at your station and point out the patch panel. It has rows and rows of female CAT5 connectors, each connected to the various servers, workstations and computers in the room and around the station. By using a male to male CAT5 cable, the engineer can connect any computing device to any other computing device quickly. Because most engineers are reluctant to depend on Wi-Fi and much prefer a hard connection, chances are it’s how your computer is connected to the internet. A patch bay in the studio does exactly the same thing for audio devices, only instead of CAT5 connectors, they use special audio connectors with a single tip and ring (kinda like the full-sized phono plug on your headphones).

Having a patch bay allowed the mix to be a simpler process by making active faders close together so they could all be manipulated easily by the producer. Depending on how sophisticated the console was, you could then send and return the signal of a given source to another device like a reverb, compressor or other external electronic device. A seasoned producer would often use a few sub-masters – again set up through the patch bay – to control gain on several faders at once.

Are you feeling a little lost right now? I’ll cut to the chase. You have a patch bay in your workstation. You’re already using it, though it’s been streamlined a bit. Instead of using cables to change inputs and outputs on each fader, sub or master, you simply click on a pop-up menu and select where the signal should come from, and another to select where the signal goes next. Those selections can either be directly to or from a device OR you can choose a BUS! The fun part is, you can name your busses. Depending on how big/robust your system is, you can have 16, 32, 64 or even 128 busses, and if you dig deep into your menus, you can actually name them whatever you want.

Presently, I have busses named Reverb, Compression, Flange, Music, VO and Music. I have been known to use other names like FUBAR, Mod-Mod and Echo. They can literally be whatever you want. Once named, the busses will retain that name across all sessions, until they are changed again.

Here is where bussing can speed up your process and actually make things sound better: Let’s say you have 4 different voice tracks from 4 different talents, all recorded in your studio. You want to use compression on all of them. Instinctively, you know that they should all be using the same settings or it’ll sound weird. You throw the output of all four tracks to the Compression bus, create a sub-master with its input set to the Compression bus, drop your workhorse compressor on the sub and set the output to your main mixing bus. Now you can set your compressor plug-in once, and it’s done for all 4 VOs at once.

Compound it now with needing reverb on all 4 voices because they’re all supposed to be in a tunnel. Click on the ‘send’ menu for each track and select the Reverb bus. Again, create another sub and instantiate your reverb plug-in set to 100% WET, then set the output to your mixing bus. You now control the amount of reverb on all 4 tracks with one fader.

Let’s make it even trickier! Reset all 4 track outputs to the Equalization bus. Create a sub for EQ, open your fave EQ plug-in on the sub and set the output to the compression bus. As you adjust the EQ to brighten everyone’s sound a touch, it falls right into the chain you’ve already set up for compression. Technically, you could do it the other way around, putting the EQ AFTER the compression, but I prefer doing the EQ first because it changes the attributes of the voices, sometimes making high end sounds a bit spikier.

It makes life EVER so much easier this way. Three instantiations instead of twelve which saves your DSP real estate and making later adjustments a simple click or two. The four tracks all flow to the same end, just as before when you were sending them all on the mixing bus, but now you have complete control of the major sound parameters. Obviously, if one of the tracks or another has an issue like noise or a buzz, you can still deal with that on the track level, or even make a fix on the parent track of that file.

When you move into a new home or apartment, your plumbing is set to work a certain way. The toilet flows directly to the waste water pipe, the kitchen sink faucet gets water from both the hot water hear an the main water line, while the toilet only gets water from the main. You get the idea, I’m sure. Using bussing allows you to be your own DIY plumber so you can change the plumbing in your session at will, without calling in a pro or having to interrupt the flow of signal in or out of the session.

The intern who made the plumbing metaphor, way back when, ALSO happens to be one of my teaching co-conspirators in the Masters Program in Bologna. His name is Rob Basile. Since his time under my tutelage at Z100/New York he has launched new stations like 101.3 The BOUNCE, went on to help build the legend that Virgin Radio 99.9/Toronto has become and today is elbows deep at Canada’s Premiere Networks, owned by Bell Media (iHeartRadio Canada). He is also a licensed Secondary School teacher in Ontario, which probably makes him a lot more qualified to teach this class than me.

As I’ve settled into figuring out a lesson plan, it has occurred to me that I should reach out to you, dear reader, and find out what you would consider of vital importance to a young producer, anxious to prove him or herself to the broadcast industry.

Is there one topic that you really wish you had understood better when you were first beginning your journey? I would welcome an email from any and all who have thought about how much further along they would be, had they only known about “X.” Please, drop me a line at <dave@davefoxx.com> and let me know what X would be for you. Not only would it be helpful to my newfound teaching career, but might even make a good list for future topics here.

Just for the record, I WILL be auditing Rob Basile’s sessions…just in case he comes up with another fun metaphor.

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