Toby Alington: ‘Flying and Mixing’

When I first started my pilot training in 2004, I found there were many common skills between the complexity of live recording and piloting an aircraft. Or in other words, the flying training taught me a lot of good practice, which I could use when in front of the mixing desk.

Checklists, resource management, cross-checking – many of the skills which are mandatory for flying a plane – are great logical skills to employ in the broadcast and studio environments. I thought it might be interesting to put some of these analogies down in writing, and if see if you can interpret them in your own way to make for an easier, more controlled workflow when you’re next under pressure in the recording world, or simply want to make life a little easier for you and those around you. There are also some common pitfalls.

Firstly, the checklist. By the time you’re sitting on the runway in an aircraft, you’ve completed around 150 checklist items ranging from your own well-being to a complete analysis of the aircraft’s systems. These start with the acronym “I’M SAFE”, which runs as follows:

Illness – am I fit to fly?
Medication – have I taken any medication which could affect my mental agility?
Sleep – have I had enough?
Alcohol – do I conform to my own and legal bottle-to-throttle limits?
Food – have I eaten enough to keep my blood sugar stable?
Emotion – am I in a fit emotional state to manage these responsibilities?

All the way through to final power-down of the aircraft, everything is done with reference to checklists. Now it’s unlikely anyone’s going to die as a result of a bad mix (although I can think of a few close calls) but the discipline of checklists works wonders for confidently completing everything required of you as the mix or assistant engineer.

Checklists are a great tool during multi-artist live shows, and I have the scene-change checklist written on tape on the desk to ensure a smooth transition to the next artist, for example: Snapshot, Effects, Lyrics, Console check, Monitoring, Tallies, Line check, Audience level, Recording, Ready. This allows me to go live to air knowing that I’ve covered and prevented the schoolboy errors of having the wrong lyrics on the desk, wrong compressor levels and so on. In the heat of the moment, it’s so easy to miss one item out.

Fixation is a term relating to instrument flying (where you are operating the aircraft without reference to external visual aids). It refers to when you become fixated on one instrument, without cross-checking against others, or indeed not regularly checking all the instruments and inputs. This is also quite an easy trap to fall into when mixing, live or in the studio, losing sight of the over-all picture. The “scan” employed during instrument flight is a regular pattern of monitoring all the feedback you have available; in mixing terms, it can be as simple as getting fixated on the snare sound to the expense of the mix, or fixating so hard on your output meters that you lose sight of your loudness level, and so on.

CRM(Cockpit Resource Management) refers to using every resource that is available to you to ensure your workload is manageable and thus prevent any build-up of individual human-error. In the control room environment, there are many alternative inputs from equipment and people, and you should never be too proud or too confident to ask for help or opinions on anything which could help you create a better outcome. In the live environment, if things are getting a little fraught, try and work out delegation of some processes which will allow you to concentrate on more important issues.

DECIDE is a great one when things aren’t going quite as planned. The first thing to do is to Detect the problem – fully analyse it before leaping in with the wrong solution. Yes, time is of the essence, but it’s worth making sure you know what the problem really is before fixing it. Estimate the practical solutions and then Choose the best one available. Next, Identify which actions will achieve your chosen outcome, and then Do these actions.

Finally, Evaluate the outcome of your actions and confirm that the problem is now gone or at least manageable.

Another good one to employ when something unexpected happens is an interpretation of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. This basically means the first thing you should do is fly the plane, rather than anything else; next you continue your navigation to ensure you know where you are, and thirdly you talk. It might sound obvious, but there are countless examples of the pilot being distracted from simply flying the plane as a priority. In the mixing world, when something is going wrong around you, your first responsibility is to carry on mixing.

Someone walking into the studio or mobile doesn’t know you’re in the middle of a complex mix or frantic broadcast moment, so don’t let them distract you until you’re in a safe moment where the thing can mix itself while you have a conversation. They’ll soon get the message if you politely raise your hand, just the same as you would if a passenger started chatting to you on final approach in an aircraft. And they will certainly forgive you for blanking them (or they should!)

We employ checklists in the RSP studio for final masters, laybacks and so on. On the administrative side of things, Purchase Orders and other financial controls are all types of checklists – putting items in place that must be checked off before moving forward.

So I would really encourage you to write up checklists for any activity in the studio or live environment; you’ll find that you have a lot less exceptions to worry about and more time to concentrate on making it all sound lovely. They prevent over-checking, doing things twice, missing things out, and above all allow you to confidently use your creative skills within a controlled framework of checks.

I’d like to finish the flying analogies with two quotes from Amelia Earhart: “Never interrupt someone doing something you said couldn’t be done”, and my favourite of all, “The best way to do something, is to do it.”

Happy mixing, flying and Halloween to API readers.

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