Even if you’ve polished your tunes, rehearsed your set, double-confirmed your tour dates, and tested out all of your gear, there can still be some big unknowns when it comes to sharing your music with a live crowd. Take, for instance, the sound system.
For many acts who are not yet playing stadiums (and even some who do), dealing with sound at a music gig can often range anywhere from a minor annoyance to a major catastrophe. Broken PA components, weird-sounding rooms, difficult on-site staff, or the lack of someone present who can actually mix live music can be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unexpected sonic problems at the venue.
On the bright side, there are any number of tried and true ways to minimize your on-the-gig headaches when it comes to dialing in your live band sound. Here are just a few live sound tips to keep you sane — and sounding great.
“As an indie artist with a very diverse fan base, I wind up playing in a lot of different environments, and getting good sound was the biggest challenge on my latest tour,” says electronic music pioneer Moldover. “Some of my gigs were at venues with big sound systems, experienced sound engineers, and a proper sound check. Some were at dive bars set up for DJs, so I ended up plugging into a DJ mixer and doing my own soundcheck. Then there were also house concerts, where somebody’s friend was bringing and setting up a PA, and other artists were performing as well, doing more acoustic things.”
In practical terms for Moldover, this meant having to be able to quickly adjust his own rig and needs to fit the sound gear available — for example, being able to have his sound go directly into the PA’s mixer simply through a standard pair of stereo outs, or taking more of a multi-channel approach that included separate channels for his vocals, computer, monitors, and so on.
“Showing up with a rig that scales or telescopes to fit your venue and sound system is really helpful,” he says — and a trip to Radio Shack or your local music store to load up on an assortment of cables and plug converters can be a great start.
Be ready for the worst
“When you’re dealing with a house sound system, a good assumption is that nothing works,” says Mike Seddon, owner of Live Sound Inc. in Troy, New York. “Thinking in terms of what could go wrong will get you everywhere. Try to think three steps ahead.”
If you’re tech-ing your own sound, the first step that Seddon recommends is, as soon as you arrive at your venue, turn on the system to see what works and what doesn’t. “If you do that first thing, you have maximum time to troubleshoot, develop a workaround, or take other actions — like getting another PA in there if you need it,” he says.
Seddon recalls learning a valuable lesson while working as tour support for a band on a festival circuit, where each act typically had fifteen minutes to set up and get ready to go. “I assumed, incorrectly, that all of the gear provided would be working correctly, but it turns out that the signal indicator lights on a bus compressor were working, but the compressor circuitry wasn’t actually processing the signal,” he says. “Then another piece of equipment in the same rack, a gate, had its indicator lights burned out, but was processing signal. I became so distracted with this that I wasted our precious soundcheck time.”
If he had approached the gear provided with greater skepticism from the get go, Seddon says, the show would have gone more smoothly. “I learned to use only the minimum amount of gear I needed to get a good basic mix going, and then see if I could add other pieces to make it sound even better,” he says.
Part of preparing for the worst, Moldover adds, is bringing as much of your own sound gear as is reasonable. “If you have space in your vehicle and the money to do so, just bring your own sound system,” he says. “Or at least bring your own stands and microphone.”
If you don’t have access to a vehicle or are flying from gig to gig, you may not be able to bring the ten mic stands your horn section needs, for example, but even providing your own microphones in such a situation can put more sonic control in your hands at the end of the day. “The less you have to depend on venue’s backline, the better,” he says.
Ear-crunching feedback can be a curse for any soundperson, whether professional or self-appointed on the spot — so it’s a good to know how to minimize the chances of deafening yourself and your audience.
“First and foremost, keep your mics away from the speakers, and if you hear feedback, turn the volume down,” says Seddon. “It may seem obvious, but it’s worth restating that feedback happens because your volume is too high. More specifically, the volume is too high at the specific frequency that’s feeding back and you can correct that with the equalization on the PA. But before you do that, and to avoid the situation in the first place, turn your volume down until you can isolate and fix that offending frequency.”
“With experience, you can figure out by ear which frequency is feeding back,” he continues. “You can usually hear when a system is going to feed back before it actually does.”
If you don’t have the years of experience to figure out the offending frequencies on the fly, technology can help. “I use the EQ in Abelton Live, which can display a spectrum analyzer,” says Moldover. “If you get feedback, you can see on there which frequency you need to notch out. Any EQ with some kind of visual feedback is really useful. It could be hardware or software.”
Moldover offers a final tip: “It’s really helpful to be able to split your vocals, or other sounds that depend on microphones, out and control them separately from the rest of your mix,” he says. “Especially when you’re setting up your monitor mixes, it can help you avoid feedback.”
Focus on levels
“When you’re setting up your own sound, simpler is better,” says Seddon. “The most important thing to focus on is gain structure.”
In other words, he advises, pay close attention to the levels that you’re getting from your inputs, whether they are mics or direct input boxes. Always strive for a reasonable level that registers strongly on your mixing board, but avoid anything that’s so hot that it distorts or maxes out the channel. “You want your signals to hit that sweet spot where the electronics are designed to perform their best,” says Seddon. “With signals that are too low or too high, you can get more noise in the system or not have enough room on the faders to make real adjustments.”
“Gain structure is a really important thing,” he adds. “Right off the bat, that can make whatever sound system you’re using perform at its best.”
Know how to soundcheck yourself
Every band longs for a great venue with up-to-date equipment, a knowledgeable and patient sound engineer, and plenty of time to tweak your live vibe to perfection — but reality rarely lives up to such lofty dreams. Knowing how to perform your own soundcheck can be a huge blessing.
“This is one area where it’s fortunate that I make electronic music,” says Moldover. “I play guitar and create vocals live, but have set up a very simple way that I can record my guitar and vocals into Abelton Live and have that loop over backing tracks. Then I walk to the back of the venue, hear what the live mix sounds like, and adjust from there.”
Even if you’re more of a guitar finger-picking wizard than a live mashup guru, using a similar strategy can help. “Having some sort of looping device, or any other playback device that represents exactly what the sound will be like when you’re playing live can help,” says Moldover. “That way you can jump back and forth and dial in the sound that you need.”
Seddon agrees, adding that any calibrated sound source that you’re intimately familiar with — whether it be a CD or demo program on your keyboard — can help you figure out what aspects of your sound system need to be tweaked.
Seddon adds that, like much in the music world, practice makes perfect. “For me, my calibrated sound source is my voice, and I do the same thing every time — ‘Check, one two, hey hey.’ It’s pretty standard, but I’ve done it a gazillion times. I can tell right away what the sound system is doing or not doing and what needs to be adjusted. It’s always important to just listen.”
Use signal processing, carefully
Once you have your volume levels set, equalization can play a big role in getting your sound as clear, warm, and powerful as you need it to be. “The shape and size of the room you’re playing in can give lots of color to your live mix, either drowning out or exposing different things,” says Moldover. “The only big changes I make in contexts like those would be adjusting bass, either to turn it down in a bass-heavy room or to amp it up a bit in a room that swallows bass frequencies. I also sometimes notch out a frequency that’s really harsh if the sound system is really cheap.”
There are many different schools of thought when it comes to equalization, says Seddon, but he advises to keep everything simple. “Don’t make huge adjustments unless you have to,” he says. “Your three priorities should be, in order, setting the EQ to avoid feedback, then tuning the PA to fit the room, and then tweaking the sound to improve musicality.”
When it comes to effects like echo or reverb, Moldover simply advises that you use them sparingly, and turn them down if vocals, or other key elements, get drowned out. “If you start getting heavily into effects like dramatic EQ or compression, it’s likely to cause feedback,” he says. “Really, you should stay focused on correcting the big problems, like if the left channel is out of phase with the right channel, which makes everything sound completely messed up. You’d be surprised how many systems have a problem like that.”
Moldover advises that one of the most important keys to a great-sounding show has little to do with wires and circuits and everything to do with attitude. “Regardless of who you’re working with — sound engineer, house concert organizer, promoter, bartender — having a good personal rapport is probably going to influence the sound and quality of your show more than you might realize,” he says. “Be nice to whoever has control.”
“Musicians in particular tend to be perfectionists about sound,” continues Seddon. “It’s something you work hard on and it’s easy to get emotional about it. Given that, it’s always key to remember that things never sound better when people get upset.” Regardless of how many obstacles or technical difficulties you encounter, Seddon advises, keep your cool. “Staying level headed and treating others with respect, no matter what the circumstances, always helps,” he says.
When not working with Live Sound Inc., Seddon also serves as Technical Director for the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York, a 1,200-seat venue built in 1875 and renowned for its acoustics. His work there has taught him a thing or two about managing live sound for any type of music.
“Long before amplifiers were invented, musicians would listen to the sound of a room, and not just the sound of themselves,” he says. “At Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, we support both orchestral performances and contemporary acts. An important part of my job is to help the contemporary acts adapt to the more lively acoustic space.”
It’s extremely valuable, Seddon continues, for musicians to train themselves to pay attention to more than what’s coming out of their monitors when they’re on stage. “If you can live with less monitor volume, you can hear what’s going on out in the room and sometimes you can adjust your performance to the benefit of everyone,” he says. “If you’re a hardcore metal act, it’s harder, obviously — though there are some even in that genre who do listen to the house. You just get used to it.”
Michael Gallant is a musician, composer, and journalist living in New York City. His debut trio album Completely was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and received a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download now through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby.
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